The Tragedy of “Guenevere”

cradle to stage advert

A number of months ago I had another of my surprising little career changes.  On a whim, I had submitted an old manuscript I had kicking around to the Walterdale Theatre’s Cradle to Stage Festival. To my surprise, my play, Guenevere, was selected for development alongside Tessa Simpson’s Portrait of a Family Dinner.  It seems I’d become a playwright.

My Guenevere is a play of an old-fashioned sort. Its structure is that of a Greek Tragedy.  It’s story is the story of the last moments of Camelot seen through the eyes of its Queen, Guenevere. This is her tragedy. Not Arthur’s. Not Camelot’s. This is not a manly, gritty, bloody King Arthur. This play is at the hearth, where the warming fire of home is about to flicker out once more.

Guenevere’s tragedy arises from the inevitably accumulated baggage of social responsibility that in the end prevents us from following our heart’s desire.  And Guenevere’s redemption comes in her willing embrace of her transformation into myth. Guenevere’s story is the story of every human who ages as a social animal. Only the solitary hermit or anchoress can escape the ever increasing calls for us to discharge our social duties at the expense of our dreams of simply following our bliss.

But the hermit and anchoress long ago gave up on worldly bliss.

As Guenevere has progressed through the Walterdale’s Cradle to Stage process, I have often referred to the play as an “artifact”.  I wrote this play three decades ago with little expectation of ever seeing it performed.  I thought that maybe, long after my death, if might be discovered in a drawer or old box and staged as a curiosity.  For me, as I wrote it, it was an exercise in poetic structure, an attempt to squeeze the English language and a traditional British theme into the form and structure of an Aeschylean drama.

Guenevere developed at a time I was steeped in Arthurian stories, in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and in the Classics.  Ovid’s Metamorphoses were much on my mind.  Guenevere also grew out of my reading of Robert Graves’ odd book of poetic theory, The White Goddess.  And my study of the theories of Milman Parry and his students had at some point instilled in me a desire to develop a personal technique of extemporaneous verse composition. That desire resulted in a form based in part on the traditional ballad stanza of four lines alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter but with some deeper roots in the rhythm of the Old Germanic hemistiched alliterative line. The verse of Guenevere is one result of this practice. There’s even a bit of Old English toward the end.

The play was written quickly – days and weeks rather than months and years – and the words you hear on stage are almost entirely as they were first written down.  Guenevere emerged fully formed, the perhaps inevitable product of a long conscious and unconscious gestation.

At the suggestion of Brian Dooley, Guenevere’s Cradle to Stage dramaturge, I made a few hesitant cuts to a few passages for the Walterdale production, but far fewer than he had suggested. When the Citadel Theatre’s Young Acting Company put Guenevere on its feet in a dramaturgical workshop, it was clear to me, and I think to Brian, that while cuts may make the action move along a little more quickly, there might still be some reasons to linger in Camelot.

I wrote Guenevere without stage directions.  I left no indication of how many made up the Chorus. Throughout the Cradle to Stage process, I have tried – and it took very little effort — to step aside and leave this artifact of my youth in the capable hands of Director Eric Smith and the dedicated group of actors assembled around him.  They have found so much in my text that I never knew was there and they have my great gratitude.
When I see Guenevere on the stage today, half a lifetime removed from its composition, I am startled by the ideas and emotions my younger self’s pen captured, and flabbergasted by the way art and life mirror – not imitate – each other. The youngster, twenty-something in the 80s, reading Aeschylus and Ovid, digging Roman dirt and waiting on Italian train platforms, planning future paintings and composing Guenevere — that youngster has been, to crib Wordsworth, a remarkable, wise, and sensitive father to the aging man I have become, a man able now to just manage that accumulated baggage of responsibility, and maybe, just maybe, allowed to spend a moment in Camelot with his heart’s desire, before taking ship to Avalon.

Guenevere and Portrait of a Family Dinner will be on the stage at the Walterdale playhouse May 15th to 20th, 2017. After the performance on the 17th there will be a talkback session in which I will be included.

The Freewill Players’ Summer of Love

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.

 

“Huff” by Cliff Cardinal at Edmonton’s Rubaboo Festival

What a theatre experience!

If you missed Cliff Cardinal’s painful, disturbing, challenging, difficult, funny tour de force performance in his self-written Huff during it’s Edmonton run at Rubaboo, you might want to catch up with Cardinal in Vancouver next week, or Toronto, Quebec City, Montreal, Manitowaning, Kelowna or Victoria in the coming weeks and months. As brutal as Cardinal’s exploration of substance abuse and inter- and intra-generational violence is, Huff is a piece of theatre worth seeking out.

I might have missed Huff if, when I bumped into her at the opening of Tomas Illes’ A Delicate Side of Edmonton, artist Dawn Marie Marchand had not mentioned the play to me. Her reminder to me a few days ago got me planning ahead to make sure I didn’t miss the play. I made sure to mention it to #yegtheatre blogger extraordinaire Jenna Marynowski and was pleased when she told me she’d already planned to be at the same matinee performance I would be going to.

Something over fifty people made a good audience in the Milner Library’s cozy theatre. The set was a beautifully economical infinite black space with very effective use of lighting, still projection and simple hanging cloth banners, three of which are tied to the lives of the three brothers, the main characters of Huff. A wooden chair and crate, a beer bottle, a rag, a bowl, a brown paper huffing sack, and a large jar of stewed tomatoes completed the set and props.

And then Cardinal goes to work. If I count correctly, in seventy fast paced minutes, Cardinal plays all three brothers, their father, their mother, their father’s new partner, their kookum, their dog (who speaks), and an aggressive and accidentally suicidal skunk. I believe up to six of these characters, all portrayed by Cardinal, are on stage at any one time, all interacting with each other, all absolutely clearly discriminated in Cardinal’s wholly remarkable performance. As well, Cardinal ingeniously incorporated — no — he forced audience participation.

The standing ovation for Cliff Cardinal, playwright and actor, was absolutely well deserved.

I will give little more away than to say Huff is an extremely challenging, difficult, and timely piece of theatre.  At one point one of the brothers says (of his brothers? of his family? of the audience as well?) “we are products of the Res (Rez?) schools!”

Repeatedly the youngest brother speaks of his gift from the Creator, the ability to breath gently and put a feeling of joy into the heart of others. Each time he demonstrates this gift, his arms are extended, as though crucified.

Here, I think is the quintessence of Huff: the three brothers, the four (and so many more) in La Loche, the now largely forgotten lost of Natuashish, and the countless “products of the res schools” . . . they all had that gift from the Creator, to breathe — to huff joy into our hearts or anyone’s. But everyone of the dead died for our sins and the sins of our fathers to the seventh generation and to the Eighth Fire.  And all the survivors have died a little or a lot.

Huff is a painful, painful piece of theatre, a wonderful drama, and Cardinal’s is a stunning, human and humane performance. If Huff comes your way, see it.

“Mote”: a New Play by José Teodoro

Spoiler alert:

Marion dies in the shower.

José Teodoro’s new play Mote, now playing at La Cité Francophone, is in the workshop stage, so I’m willing to give it a little rope.  The first unusual  item to notice is the sign reading “Balcony seating only”.  The seats have been removed and the floor has become the stage.   La Cité’s theatre is an unusually narrow, high space, so this change makes an interesting space even more interesting, but it limits the audience to little more than thirty seated in a single row on three sides of the action — unless the second balcony, partly used for technical tasks, were also opened to audience members willing to risk vertigo.  If one is sitting on the side, much of the action will be missed unless one leans far forward over the railing, which is not a terribly severe criticism as the play is mostly words rather than actions.

The set is a minimalist black box with projections and a few pieces of furniture – chairs and tables.  The projected material designed by Max Amerongen was something less varied than I had expected coming in – the white centre line flashing past representing driving, a sort of paisley shadow on the floor representing a seaside, the moon representing moonshine.  But the projections were quite effective in setting scene, and, particularly in the case of the opening green squigglies, in setting the mood.

I have a suspicion that the make up design is the work of costume designer Megan Koshka, fresh off a stint as assistant costume designer on Catalyst’s Vigilante.  Between Nevermore, Vigilante, and now Mote, this make up design is becoming a bit of an Edmonton signature. We need to be careful but the dark shadowed eyes and black lipstick are very effective here, making the characters seem like stark marionettes rather than agents of their own destiny.  On Luc Telier, who plays Norman, the make up accentuates his more than passing resemblence to a young Klaus Kinski, notorious for playing Nosferatu. This accentuated resemblance makes Norman just a little more disturbing for audience members with a longer cinematic memory.

The performances were uniformly solid, with the melancholy singing duets of Telier and Twila MacLeod (Marion) a bit of stand-outs.  Brian Dooley as Arbogast the flatfoot pursuing Marion had me spellbound during his brief, gentle telephone exchange with his young daughter from whom he’s separated by his work.  The rest of the cast provide rock solid support to these leads.

A criticism I will offer is that the pacing is thrown off by Marion’s outfit changing.  I realize that Hitchcock took some time with similar scenes in Psycho, but on film he was able to direct our gaze, to the suitcase, to the envelope of money. As we look down on the stage, we’re just looking at a woman changing her clothes. I’m not sure that any symbolism of changing clothes/changing character outweighs the loss in pacing.

The first part of Mote largely follows the course of the opening of Psycho, with one particular film studies student exception. As Marion and her co-worker Caroline (Andrea Rankin) kibbutz about the office, Caroline suddenly notices  a fat man on the sidewalk outside the window and goes out to shoo him away.  This is, of course, Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appearance in Mote. In Psycho, Hitchcock is outside the window, but not noticed by the characters.   I have a suspicion there’s another Hitchcock cameo in the later scene in the bar between Norman and Sam (Chris Schulz), but I’ve not nailed down what film is referenced.

The second part of the play, after the lady vanishes with Norman’s help, strikes me as also a bit of a film studies student piece, with a frenzy of Hitchcock, film and Hollywood references. For example, Arbogast’s voice over mentions that Norman goes to Hollywood and hangs around on a set with Ava Gardner. Is this a reference to Hitchcock’s Norman, Anthony Perkins’ roll in On the Beach opposite Gardner and Gregory Peck? Norman’s repressed homosexuality is presented without a shadow of a doubt but perhaps with less exploration than would be ideal. I worry that reference may be overshadowing exploration.

In the end, Mote is most interesting and very enthralling and original, but I can’t help thinking it needs tightening.  That, of course, is the point of workshopping.

Mote, by José Teodoro, directed by Wayne Paquette, is playing at La Cité Francophone in Edmonton until May 17.

As a sidenote, it was so nice to finally meet (my #yeggie nominee) Jenna Marynowski in real life last night at Mote.  I’m looking forward to reading her take after seeing the play – which I’m sure will show up soon at After the House Lights.

“The Mothers”, by Nicole Moeller, at SkirtsAfire Festival

Be warned: The Mothers is pretty intense.

Sort of like motherhood.

Nicole Moeller’s new play premiering as part of the SkirtsAfire Festival is a gruelling experience, an inducement to  κάθαρσις (catharsis) by which Aristotle would be startled.  Annette Loiselle’s performance as Grace, the only character on stage (although she has a few smile and tear inducing moments as Grace-imitating-son-Ben and Grace-imitating-husband-Chris, and Grace-having-conversation-with-Grace-imitating-woman-sharing-a-smoke), is rivetting and wrenching.  Loiselle metamorphosizes instantly between beyond-exhausted ex-alcoholic mother-and-wife, emotionally-repressed-manly-husband, slouching-black-hoodied-outcast-teenage-boy, and a thousand other moments of shatter and agony and despair.

About my only criticism of the play and production is a small and doubtful one: it might have ended better, with more punch, without the final sentence.

The new Black Box Theatre in the Alberta Avenue Community Hall is a wonderful addition to Edmonton’s Arts infrastructure, particularly in this still young annus horribilis of Roxy fire and ARTery eviction.  Every Community League in the city would be well advised to take a look and consider the possibilities of a small, flexible, versatile arts space right in their neighbourhood.

Danielle Masellis’ set design I realize in hindsight is in a way reflective of the Black Box itself.  As the audience enters the simple space of the auditorium, they see the simple space of the stage.  It is clearly a pretty dingy basement room. Square grey short-pile carpet. Square, low ceiling with one dim light fixture that was already old in everyone’s childhood.  The room is about to be moved out of or about to be moved into. Empty furniture, full boxes. A guitar case. A floor lamp. One door, closed. A dusty heat vent high in the back wall.  A teenage boys room, or an exiled woman’s flop-house, or a 21st century Gregor Samsa’s final dwelling.  The transformation of the set at Loiselle’s hands, from empty, blank slate to the cluttered shambles of a teen boy’s bedroom is a sort of organic magic, the magic that live theatre can bring to the simplest of Black Box spaces.

I’m not sure if Sound Designer Paul Morgan Donald is responsible for the choice of Kate Bush’s Ariel as the music playing before the play begins, but the fact that “Bertie”, Bush’s song for her own son, was the song playing as the house lights dim seems a stroke of either intentional or serendipitous genius.  The tolling bell of the grandfather clock which appears a few times is nicely Donne, as well.

As I often do at the theatre, I made fairly extensive notes about details of the play.  I know that director Glenda Stirling and the Company don’t want details of the fundamental  situation of the play leaked: I certainly won’t be doing that.  I will, however, remark on a few specifics while avoiding spoilers.  The family trauma is gradually and organically revealed through Grace’s extended apostrophe to her son, Ben.  The recurrent references to “Forgiveness” and some other verbal threads masterfully further the progress of understanding for both Grace and the audience. The literary references, particularly to Kafka, are startlingly spot on. And Grace’s description of a mother looking at her adult child and feeling the body-memory of the pre-birth Kick Inside is a simply exquisite moment, one of many in The Mothers.
As in real life, everyone has clay feet – there are no heroes in The Mothers, only Survivors.

And maybe surviving is the most heroic thing.

The Mothers, by Nicole Moeller and starring Annette Loiselle will be playing through March 8th, 2015, at the Black Box Theatre in the Alberta Avenue Community Hall, 9210 118th Avenue, as part of the SkirtsAfire Festival

Let’s close with “Bertie”, by his mother, Kate Bush:

On “Age of Minority” by Jordan Tannahill

I was an appropriate coincidence that I read Jordan Tannahill’s 2014 Governor General’s Award-winning trilogy of one act plays just as Alberta’s absurd Gay Straight Alliance “debate” reached it’s status quo hiatus.  Tannahill’s Age of Minority, consisting of Get Yourself Home, Skyler James, rihannaboi95, and Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes, present, as Tannahil writes in his Preface,

Three young people backed up against walls, metaphorically and literally, who risk everything for a chance to love and be loved. And all three, to some extent, are queer.  Beyond a merely sexual understanding of the word, they refuse the norms they are confronted with.  They are sublime outcasts.

The timing of my reading could not have been better.

I’ll confess a personal prejudice to begin.  This prejudice was unfortunately triggered when I flipped to the biography of Tannahill a the back of the book and read:

Jordan creates performances exploring the lives of diverse Torontonians.

And I thought “Oh, Lord! Not Toronto!”

I was unjust.  Tannahill is, as I so recommend to Edmonton’s arts community, making his own home the universal.  These plays are not about Toronto, they are about human experience.  I apologized for my anti-Toronto bigotry.

Now, to the brilliant plays.

As Tannahill says, these three plays are about young people who “to some extent, are queer.”

Skylar James is clearly — well, as clearly as anything in life is clear — lesbian. Get Yourself Home, Skyler James was developed for performance in school classrooms, for small audiences of students.  The cast of one would move from class to class over the course of a week or so, performing and reperforming the play.  I expect the heroine, lesbian army deserter Skyler James, became a sort of friend to many students and the seed of an informal school-wide Gay Straight Alliance.

rihannaboi95 is — well, what is he?  Is he gay?  He is certainly attracted to one man. Is he trans? Truth is ambiguity.  The play rihannaboi95 is a ground-breaking production.  The play was produced live on YouTube, not on stage.  The result is something more real-life than any theatre we normally experience.  rhiannaboi95 is a young man from an immigrant family who has a talent for dance and an obsession with pop star Rhianna.  But, because of his family and their culture, he can only be himself in secret YouTube videos.  But, of course, nothing on YouTube is secret, and an old-fashioned family isn’t the only danger for a “different” young man.

And Peter Fechter, the tragically failed escapee from East Berlin, the boy most literally Against The Wall, violently never allowed to become himself, whatever self that might have been.  We’ll never know what his relationship to Helmut would have been.  And that perpetual ignorance is the entire point.  This is a life snuffed out before its blossoming by the violence of dominant, unprotecting society.  Peter Fechter died, in actual historical fact, for the sins we continue to commit each day against the most vulnerable in our societies.

While Get Yourself Home Skyler James and rhiannaboi95 are true monodramas, with only a single character, a single voice on “stage”, Peter Fechter 59 Minutes has a few extra disembodied voices. But these voices are counterpoints and grace notes to Peter Fechter’s fifty-nine minute threnody to himself as he lies against the Berlin Wall, bleeding to death from a pelvic gunshot wound.  With this study of a young victim of Cold War stupid evil, Tannahill cries out for understanding and tolerance of difference.

The message of Age of Minority is not just about the LBGTQ “community”.  None of Tannahill’s three characters are part of such a community.  They are solitary, without support.  The emphasis is not on sexuality.  These plays are not about LBGTQ life in Toronto, Canada. They are about individuality, about types of individuality which are not accepted by society, which society tries to wipe out, whether that society is the military, school, family, Communist East Berlin, or YouTube.  We, the audience, come to not simply accept Tannahill’s characters, but to be charmed by them.  We like — perhaps love — them, not in spite of who they are, but because of who they are.  Such is the power of the one act monodrama in Jordan Tannahill’s startlingly creative hands.

Age of Minority is drama of great importance and Jordan Tannahill, still in his twenties, will certainly continue to be a leading voice in theatre for years to come.

Age of Minority is published by Playwrights Canada Press.

It’s Now or Never: The Freewill Players Hold a Mirror to Modern Society With “The Taming of the Shrew”

Some hastily scrawled thoughts after a Sunday Matinee performance of Shakespeare’s  The Taming of the Shrew by Edmonton’s  Freewill Players.

I must start here:

The Taming of the Shrew is a fundamentally misogynistic piece of art.  Even more than the anti-Semitism of The Merchant of Venice, the misogyny of The Taming of the Shrew is woven throughout.  In fact, brutal misogyny is the point of the play – without it, the three female characters and dozen or so male would stand silently on the stage for a few hours.  The Taming of the Shrew is the explicitly approving story of the breaking of a strong woman through violence, starvation and sleep deprivation until she, like a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, in the finale of the play, at the command of her abuser, turns on the two other women and lectures them about how their natural role is to abase themselves to their husbands.  Kate is so destroyed that she happily denies the evidence of her own eyes at the maliciously arbitrary command of her abuser.
Needless to say, The Taming of the Shrew is an uncomfortable and painful comedy for any modern audience member who has ever had a mother.
Now with that – not out of the way – it should never by out of the way – but having been said I am going to argue that the Freewill Players have turned the seriously daunting challenges of a contemporary production of The Taming of the Shrew into powerfully explored opportunities.  And they’ve  done a remarkable job of bringing  Shrew to the emergency indoor stage at the University of Alberta’s Myer Horowitz Theatre.  After a freak windstorm destroyed the canopy of the Heritage Amphitheatre, Freewill had to find a new venue on extremely short notice, at unforeseen cost, and with the forced reduction of the Festival to a single play.

The Players have cut from Shrew the frame story involving Christopher Sly and replaced it with an hilariously scripted and choreographed  opening of the actors – as themselves  but somehow still in character – preparing the stage and explaining why the’re inside instead of out amongst the squirrels and mosquitos.    This opening was made even more real and surreal for me by the fact that thirty minutes before curtain I stood beside Julien Arnold, the ostensibly always-snacking actor, at the bagel place outside the theatre.  He still had his bike helmet on.  I think he was snacking.

The simple set design by Narda McCarroll of a few movable crates stencilled with the Freewill logo, four aluminium step ladders, a big red door, and a few wall sections,  is marvellously versatile.  The ladders added a reminder that the production had something of the emergency makeshift about it.  But when Arnold as the Merchant of Mantua, is atop one of the ladders in his crazy Garibaldi wig and fake beard, we believe he’s shouting from an upper story window.  And we also believe he’s craving a snack.

The entire cast joins in with the set changes, also providing a bright and cheery “Bumby bum bum” musical accompaniment (Sound Designer Dave Clarke’s work is brilliant) as chairs, ladders, tables and trays of liquor swirl about the stage in a way both magical and do-it-yourself.  The production is full of quiet reminders that this company, cast and crew, has pulled together and risen to the emergency, that they’re all in it together.

James Macdonald gives a relaxed, strong, nuanced performance as Petruchio, the Shrew Tamer.  His Petruchio clearly truly comes to love Kate (Mary Hulbert) even while he continues to “tame” her with what we would call “torture”.  Hulbert is gloriously physical and cerebral as Kate, pummelling all who cross her with fists and wit. Bobbi Goddard as Kate’s sister, Bianca, makes clear that the younger is cut from the same cloth as the older sister, but Bianca is all dishonest sunshine and politeness if a man’s eye is upon her, whereas Kate is always brutally honest.  The various servants and suitors and travellers and fathers, two of whom have almost identical names, two of whom exchange identities (sort of) and two of whom take on false identities are all carefully distinguished and what can be a mess of confusion for the audience is kept crystal clear by the Players.

And the music!  Stand out musical performances come from Mary Hulbert in her opening solo of “O mio babbino caro” and Sheldon Elter’s (Tranio) performance on voice and ukulele leading the entire cast on “It’s Now or Never”.  The music which struck me initially as least successful was Nathan Cuckow (Hortensio) and Bobbi Goddard’s  Hip-Hop rendition of  “Hortensio’s Gamut” (Shakespearean rap?),  but then . . .

(Maybe it’s getting a bad rap, but) Hip-Hop is often seen as a misogynistic sector of pop culture.  Perhaps this moment of Shakespeare’s words set to a rap beat is a bit of a mirror held up to the audience, a little reminder that we aren’t the utopia of sexual equality we might like to think we are.  “Oh, my dear father,” Kate sings before that father sells her sister to the highest bidder and her to the only man who’ll have her.  At one point during the final wedding feast, there are twelve men on stage and no women.  And then, Elter is joined by everyone in what must be seen as a powerful statement to our still unequal society, reflected in the casual misogyny of Shakespeare’s time, that indeed, It’s Now or Never.  The entire play is a mirror!

The Freewill Players, with Artistic Director Marianne Copithorne directing, have achieved something remarkable.  They have taken what seems to be an irredeemably misogynistic early play of Shakespeare and presented it to a modern audience as a gentle or not so gentle challenge, as an urge to conversation, and as a powerful demonstration of the joyful power of cooperative effort.  And, we laugh. And, we are moved by Kate’s closing speech in defence of a social order that today seems odious.  Kate and Bianca and the disturbingly nameless Widow who marries Hortensio are strong women in a society which reviles strong women.  In the performances of Hulbert and Goddard and Annette Loiselle they are admirable in their strength.  And Hulbert makes us believe, not that Kate has made the morally correct decision, but that her submission is the only course open to her and that by submitting she may retain some small amount of control.    An uncomfortable conclusion for a contemporary audience, but a reminder that most women in the world today, heroic, strong women, including in Western countries, remain in Petruchio’s Taming School.

If there is to be change, truly,  It’s Now or Never.

Freewill Players production of The Taming of the Shrew continues at the Myer Horowitz Theatre until July 27, 2014.

And a reminder:

The sudden loss of the Heritage Amphitheatre canopy, while repairable, has had a catastrophic impact on the Freewill Players’ financial situation.  The fact that Shakespeare is performed outdoors in the middle of our city with trees and grass and water and squirrels and the occasional thunder storm makes  Edmonton a better place to live.  Shakespeare’s plays, even the most problematic of them, are always worth experiencing.  When performed by a company as willing to engage deeply with the text, to take risks, and with the skill, talent and courage to rise to face whatever slings and arrows outrageous fortune sends their way, the Stage – whatever stage – truly becomes All the World.  The Freewill Players have done exactly this for twenty-six summers now.  But the twenty-sixth has been a huge financial challenge.  If a twenty-seventh Freewill Festival somehow didn’t happen, Edmonton would be a horribly poorer place.

Please consider seeing The Taming of the Shrew.  Please consider donating, even just once or with monthly donations through the Goodwill for Freewill Campaign.