A play about SNL’s first female star

Rosaruby Kagan stars in Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner — A Sort of Love Story, portraying the comedian and her sort-of boyfriend/SNL writer Alan Zweibel.

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Rosaruby Kagan in Bunny Bunny
Gilda Radner first came up to Alan Zweibel while he was cowering behind a plastic plant 40 years ago. They were in the writer’s room of Saturday Night Live, on its maiden season. Zweibel was a young and nervous comedy writer from Long Island. Radner, already a Second City alum, was considerably more comfortable. As Zweibel tells it, her chatterbox persona and sweet disposition put him at ease. The two were kindred spirits: neurotic, silly, Jewish and eager to joke. They would first be near-lovers, then fast friends, for 14 more years until Radner passed away in 1989 from ovarian cancer.

Bunny Bunny Standing HorizontalBunny Bunny: Gilda Radner — A Sort of Love Story is Zweibel’s memories-turned-novel-turned-play about their friendship.

The script was originally meant for two players, but when director Tanner Harvey came on board for this production, he persuaded actress Rosaruby Kagan to morph it into a one-woman show. She incarnates both Zweibel and Radner for the fourth time, as Bunny Bunny comes to the Segal Centre Studio.

Kagan, a drama therapist by day, first performed the show at the Freestanding Room in summer 2013. She has also toured the show in her New Mexico hometown, and the Uno Festival in British Columbia. At the Segal studio, the challenge is to recreate the warm, close feeling of the Freestanding Room in a bigger space with a much larger audience.

“I can’t be too intimate, I have to be big enough so that everyone enjoys the story,” Kagan explained last week during a break in rehearsal.

The show inevitably loses a shred of that closeness, but Kagan now has the space to let her myriad movements and character changes breathe. She and Harvey have exactingly recreated the set, which is bookended by the audience, deliberately halved in two and seated directly opposite each other. The show is tighter, script-wise, and the lighting is more evocative (design by Jody Burkholder).

Kagan’s performance is rich and detailed. To prepare, she combed through a hardcover copy of There’s Always Something, Radner’s autobiography, plus VHS tapes and YouTube clips of Radner’s skits.

Gilda Radner
Gilda Radner

As a comedian, Radner is not necessarily forgotten today, but had she survived her bout with cancer, she likely would still be mentioned in the same breath as her contemporaries like Steve Martin, Billy Crystal and Martin Short. She was like Kristen Wiig or Tina Fey today: funny and weird in her performances without being overtly sexual, nagging or ditzy.

“She had a goofy, charismatic soul,” said Kagan. “Gilda played a broad spectrum, and I think she really opened the door for women to explore comedy in a different way. She was humble about it, too.”

A cautionary note for fans: if you’re coming to the show to see her iconic personas like Roseanne Roseannadanna or Emily Litella (which Zweibel co-created with Radner), you’re better off wading through YouTube as you won’t see them in the show. During a stage rehearsal for Bunny Bunny in 1997, author Zweibel explained why to the New York Times: “I wanted the play to be about two people who just happen to be called Gilda and Alan, and the kind of couple they become. That’s why I didn’t put any of Gilda’s special roles in.”

Still, Bunny Bunny (the title is a classic Gilda-ism) is a lasting tribute to her memory — not just of the public face audiences loved, but of the fragile and whimsical woman, friend and lover Radner was.
Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner — A Sort of Love Story runs at the Segal Centre Studio (5170 Côte-Ste-Catherine) on Nov. 27 and Nov. 29 (8 p.m.), as well as Nov. 30 (3 p.m.), $25/$18 students/$20 seniors


Steve Martin pays homage to Radner during his opening monologue on Saturday Night Live, the very day she died.

Steve Martin’s SNL tribute to Gilda Radner from Karen on Vimeo.
Gilda Radner on how she developed Baba Wawa, her impression of Barbara Walters. Bonus: Walters reacts.

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