I make no bones about it: I love seeing Shakespeare outside. For me, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival is the peak of Edmonton’s rich and varied Festival Season (which season really lasts year round). Always interesting, always fresh, always squirrel-challenged, the Freewill Players have, in my experience, always made the plays accessible and challenging to modern audiences without compromising the poetry and drama of Old Bill’s work. A group of actors simply sitting in the Heritage Amphitheatre competently reading the plays aloud would be joy enough. But the Freewill Players consistently dig deep, reach high, and always pull out a sack of gems and a constellation of stars to toss to their happy audiences.
This year the Freewill Players have gone retro, which may seem an odd thing to say about the production of a couple of four-hundred year-old plays. Billing it a “Summer of Love”, the promotional materials and merchandise for Freewill’s productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Romeo and Juliet are all a clear reference to the 1960s graphic design style of Peter Max and Heinz Edelmann’s work on The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film. The set for Love’s Labour’s Lost is marked by a London-style street sign reading “Academe Road”, a riff on Abbey Road. While the production of Romeo and Juliet is a little more traditional, apparently set pretty much in a timelessly Elizabethan Verona, Love’s Labour Lost‘ design and attitude is all the 60s of the Beatles, a bit of the Monkees, and a dash of Laugh-in.
And it works.
Romeo and Juliet has been shortened (as has Love’s Labour’s Lost) with careful judgement to fit the time constraints of Hawrelak Park’s 11 pm closing, but the result is not bad. The action moves quickly and falls nicely into two contrasting acts. The first half is all bawdy and joyous boyish and girlish exploration and risk taking while in the second half “All,” as Capulet says, “is Death’s”.
Hunter Cardinal and (overachieving) Cayley Thomas make a charming and anxiously hormonal Romeo and Juliet. Jesse Gervais is finely eccentric and fascinatingly varied in the challenging roll of Mercutio, flitting between manly-man and mincingly gay three times per line. Louise Lambert nicely reprises her Nurse roll from Tom Wood’s Citadel production a few years ago, and Sheldon Elter as Benvolio turns in his usual sterling performance. Belinda Cornish does a nice job of demonstrating that the conjugal love she promises Juliet will see blossom with Paris hasn’t quite fallen on rich soil in her own case.
A theme emphasized in both plays this year — and it is a theme well worth emphasizing — is the strength of the women, most concretely illustrated by casting Mary Hulbert as Escalus, the Prince of Verona, politically the most powerful character in Romeo and Juliet. But also in Love’s Labour’s Lost, which flirts at the beginning with being a new Beatles film with the four mop-top lads from Navarre, it is the women who dominate. In this case the eight principals, the King of Navarre (Nathan Cuckow) and his three lords (Gervais, Cardinal, and Neil Kuefler) and the Princess of France (Kristi Hansen) and her three ladies (Thomas, Cornish, and Lambert), are of roughly equal socio-political station, but it is the women who steer the men, it is the women who control the men, and, in the end, it is the women who impose the final resolution on the men.
As Romeo and Juliet do in their play, the men of Love’s Labour’s Lost move with haste and foolishness. Fortunately the result for them is not lethal: the women of France impose just a third of the original vow of celibacy while Romeo and Juliet’s crossed-stars (and parental feud) imposes death.
Freewill’s Summer of Love may seem to promise a whole lot of joy, and it delivers, but, walking out of the big tent into the wonderful park in the heart of Edmonton, it’s clear that the Players have seen themselves – and shown to us – the bitter with the sweet. Navarre and Verona are in a world with consequences. Yes, we laugh, we party, we huff some helium, and we love in Navarre and Verona, but we also fight, and wait, and hunger, and die. For all their Yellow Submarines and Queen Mabs, for all their inaccessible references and high poetry, for all their Worthies (with feet of clay), Romeo, Juliet, the King, the Princess and all the lords, ladies, merchants, and commoners are here.
They are us.
In a Summer of Love.
The Freewill Shakespeare Festival‘s Summer of Love continues in the Heritage Amphitheatre in Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park until July 17, 2016.