“The Two Gentlemen of Verona”: wherein the Freewill Players demonstrate how to properly “tweak” a problematic Shakespearean play.

No spoilers here.

Like the texts of a number of Shakespeare’s plays (The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew, Othello), The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a little uncomfortable for audiences today.  How can one respond to a happy ending that sees the victim of attempted rape reconciled to her attempted rapist just a few moments after the crime? How can we accept the whole cast going off to celebrate a wedding just after the Bride was almost raped by the Best Man?  Well, as the Freewill Players warn us in the playbill for this year’s production, “we have tweaked Shakespeare’s ending”, and the tweak is, I feel, a profound success.  By means of a final repetition (with slight modification) of a line spoken earlier in the play, the women of the play find freedom in the only way possible: as outsiders, exiles, outlaws from the male social structure of the play.

Much is often made of images of transformation in The Two Gentleman of Verona, of references to Ovid’s Metamorphoses — this thread is made obvious in the name of one of the two Gentlemen, Proteus.  But in this Freewill production, the transformation is wonderfully turned away from the men who are textually the centre of the play, in the final moment — which I hope I haven’t spoiled — in which the ever-present Shakespearean crossdressing female character embraces her femaleness and offers escape to the trapped-in-their-gender-roles women of the play.

The “tweaking” of the ending is textually subtle (unlike the bitter, savage mess the Citadel recently made of The Tempest), just a repetition of a few words from earlier in the play which reveal a wonderful new depth of meaning perhaps inherent in the text.  Certainly, the repeated line serves only to emphasize meanings already conveyed by the body language of the actors.

If I go on, there will be spoilers, so I will end by saying, the performers were uniformly delightful, the sound system had it’s usual glitches, and,

go see Freewill’s Two Gentlemen of Verona!

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Witches. In a Church. On a Winter Evening.

                               Wyrd oft nereð
unfaégne eorl      þonne his ellen déah.
Beowulf

There’s something magical about walking through an Edmonton winter evening snowfall to live theatre.  Strathcona theatre-goers are blessed to have available to them the walking part.  But all of Edmonton is blessed by The Malachites (and their friends at The Grindstone) and their hosts, Father Chris Pappas and the Holy Trinity Anglican community who bring us the now-annual winter tradition of Shakespeare in a most beautiful space.  This year it’s a riveting, tempestuous, three-hours-in-a-hard-church-pew-that-feels-like-an-exhilarating-forty-five-minutes-in-a-comfy-chair psychological thriller called Macbeth.

Director Benjamin Blyth has his Anglo-Albertan Malachites fill the space of Holy Trinity’s sanctuary with both external and internal struggles with swords and ambition, drawing the audience in (“come, come, come, give me your hand” says Danielle LaRose’s sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, and she crouches to take an audience member’s hand).  Swords clash, blood flows (a little), and we all, characters in terror and audience in fascination, seem inexorably pulled along by the spun, spinning, and yet to be spun life-fate-threads of the Wyrd Sisters (Monica Maddaford, Jaimi Reese, and Kaleigh Richards).  Sarah Karpyshin’s set design has T-shaped risers thrust the action into the audience down the nave of the church while also dividing this “public” space from the characters’ “private” space in the choir.  And the Witches are ever enveloping all with eerie sound from the aisles.  And so, I must mention the remarkable musical selections and sound design by Danielle LaRose wearing her non-Lady Macbeth hat.

The battle and murder scenes show off Janine Waddell’s wonderful fight choreography without unnecessarily bathing the stage in blood.  (Full disclosure: Ms. Waddell very generously provided fight training for the cast of Guenevere at the Fringe last year, so I’m biased. And some of the sword’s in Macbeth look comfortably familiar.)  Dana Luebke’s costumes are exquisitely Medieval and provide effective shorthand for identifying more minor characters played by doubling-up supporting actors.

Yes, some of the supporting actors are a touch too quiet at times, but there ends my negative criticism. Colin Matty’s Banquo is a twin-like complement to Byron Martin’s Macbeth, Bob Greenwood turns in stalwart and varied performances as Duncan, the Porter and a few other character parts. Young Anna MacAuley is charming in the dual child rolls of Macduff’s daughter and Banquo’s son Fleance (watch for her magical apparition in the “Double, double, toil and trouble” scene).  And all the rest do some enchanting things with very original tableaux and expressive backchat.  No matter where you glance, there always seems to be something fascinating happening.

Of course, the centre of the play is the descending spiral of LaRose’ Lady Macbeth and Martin’s Fate-marked Thane of Glamis.  They are wonderful, and — those eyes! On both of them.  Through all their terror, rage, determination, indecision, ambition, laughter, madness, and, yes, moments of tender love, LaRose’s bright and Martin’s melancholy, the eyes of these two brave, tragic souls so marked by the Wyrd spinners of Fate will haunt you as you walk home through the snow.

 

Go see Macbeth.

Wednesday to Sunday at 7:30 until January 19th at Holy Trinity Anglican Church.

 

Guenevere: A Tragedy

A long time ago, before Netflix or Google, almost before the Internet, when I was a young man, and people read books and used typewriters, I set myself an exercise. I was on the cusp between university and the real world, steeped in Classical and Medieval Literature, wanting to write something that might last. I set myself the task of writing an Aeschylean Drama. And I chose as my subject the last days of Camelot. Yes, a Medieval Classic Greek Tragedy. Sort of like attempting to write an Elizabethan Tragedy featuring Vladimir Putin (my current work-in-progress).

So, I sat down and wrote a thing called Guenevere. Some bits had been around for a while — a nostalgic bit of a lament addressed by Lancelot to Guenevere is the earliest kernel. All of it came out in verse, some of it, the odes of the Chorus, with an elaborate rhyme scheme emphasizing the strophic structure. It all came out quickly, a function of a few intense years of learning ancient languages by studying ancient poetry. Punctuation was inconsistent, like old manuscripts. Speeches were not always attributed to specific characters, again like old manuscripts. Stage directions were entirely absent, like — you see the pattern. I figured Guenevere would never see a stage, certainly not in my lifetime, and if it did, it would be interpreted as whatever group of thespians might perform it might wish.

Well, this August, at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival, my little exercise will be performed and interpreted. I would be very pleased if you went to see Guenevere. My play is deeply rooted in some very old traditions, is deeply conventional, is at once both very unfamiliar and extremely accessible, and is, I think, not quite like anything you have likely seen before.

Camelot is an empty shell. King Arthur and his knights have long been at war in a grey and fading landscape. Arthur’s greatest knight, Lancelot, is a monk. Guenevere, with all the ladies of Camelot, has gone to a nunnery. The Holy Grail has been found, but, is it too late? Golden memories of youth and dreams of happiness stand against a reality of war, decay, incestuous betrayal, and inevitable death. Guenevere, the woman, and Guenevere, the play, resolve to Myth, to human meaning in the face of universal meaninglessness, to the Life that lives in memory in the face of the endless Death of forgetting.

Just a little something I tossed off as a young man back in those mythic times of typewriters, fountain pens, and real books. I’d love it if you would give it an hour of your Fringe time. I guess I’m blowing my own horn, but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Times and tickets will be available at the Edmonton Fringe webpage.

For those who remember real books, a limited number of printed copies of the play will be available for purchase.

Onegin

Look around
Look around
Look around
Do you see someone worth dying for?

Onegin

I just got home from a wonderful evening in downtown Edmonton.

No, not at that hockey game.

I just got home from an evening of wonder at Catalyst Theatre‘s presentation of The Vancouver Arts Club production of Onegin, an unqualified marvel of theatre.

But . . .

How was it not a full house?!

From the moment the cast walked out from the voms and mingled with the first few rows of the audience (Nadeem Phillip sat with us for a brief discussion of the Edmonton theatre scene which ended with a hasty “до свидания!”) it was clear this was going to be a warm, inviting, fourth-wall-breaking, audience participation piece.

With vodka.

But the mingling and conversation (and vodka) were just the warm up. The fortunate people who chose theatre over hockey this evening witnessed a tour-de-force of acting, singing, dancing, musicianship, lighting and costume design, and just pure theatre.

I’m embarrassed to admit I’m not up on Pushkin — or Tchaikovsky — so I really didn’t have much of an idea of what the story was going to be except Russian and so probably dark and probably not a happy ending.  But I didn’t need to know anything in advance. I just needed to sit back and enjoy the ride.

The cast is outstanding, many of them in many roles, but I found Alessandro Juliani most remarkable as the title character, the nihilistic, dark, Russian young man with more wealth than empathy who probably won’t have a happy ending.  But everyone in the cast truly shone and endlessly surprised as they each in turn stepped into the background and joined the orchestra (The Ungrateful Dead), picking up instruments and joining right in. The cast doesn’t just break the fourth wall, they break the side walls and the back wall, too.

Special mention must be made of Chris Tsujiuchi, piano and keyboard player and clearly the leader of the band, who completed his one hundredth performance of Onegin this evening.

The voices of Meg Roe (Tatyana), Lauren Jackson (Olga and others), and Caitriona Murphy (Madam Larin and others) were simply angelic while Jackson’s flamencoesque pas de deux with Juliani was more than a little devilish in a very pleasing way. Josh Epstein as Lensky was lyrically charming until he became tragically pigheaded at the end of the first act. All the darkness of Russian literature suddenly possessed this sunny young poet, and the audience just had to head to the lobby for another Black Russian.

Andrew Wheeler and Nadeem Phillip round out the cast performing a multitude of powerful and memorable “minor” characters with major impact.

I found the choreography of lighting and “theatrical fog” particularly noteworthy. Here the fog is not simply an atmospheric device unto itself, rather, it is also a canvas on which the light is projected, made solid by colour and shadow. So effective.

As I mentioned, I’m embarrassingly not up on Pushkin, but I know poetry when I hear it, and there is poetry — not just verse — in Veda Hille and Amiel Gladsone’s lyrics, poetry which, if not directly channelling Puskin, certainly does the Russian poet credit.

Edmonton’s theatre world is an embarrassment of riches; Edmonton theatre goers are amazing, generous audiences; we are very blessed on both sides of the many, many curtains we have in our city. We all benefited from this remarkable community recently when the very remarkable Hadestown had it’s run on the Shocter stage. And our community was noticed.

Tonight that remarkable theatre community was evident again: as Catalyst Theatre’s catchphrase has it, “Edmonton is our home. The world is our stage.” Tonight Vancouver Arts Club Theatre and we, the audience, were at home on our stage. Our theatrical riches keep increasing, and we don’t need to be embarrassed. We should embrace our riches proudly.

Onegin is playing on the Maclab stage at the Citadel until January 28, 2018. Fill the seats, Edmonton! You’ll be moved. You’ll marvel. You’ll maybe be a little heartbroken.

 

But you won’t be sorry.

 

Malachite Theatre’s Epiphany at Holy Trinity Anglican Church

It was a bitterly cold night outside Old Strathcona’s Holy Trinity Anglican Church, but so wonderfully warm and cozy in the Christmas tree (and empty wine bottle)-filled Sanctuary in which the Malachites gave us a laugh-filled and tender gift of a remarkably fresh yet faithful treatment of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Years ago at the Citadel (during the second season of the Shoctor Stage) I saw Twelfth Night with Brent Carver playing Feste and the great John Neville turned out in fairly conventional yellow stockings cross-gartered. As fine as those two long-ago performances were, Colin Matty’s remarkable Feste and Brann Munro’s hilariously unexpected, outside-the-box, and, in the end, heart-rendingly sympathetic Malvolio set a new, very high bar for Twelfth Night.

Merran Carr-Wiggin’s Viola is charming to the point of jerking more than a few tears, Byron Martin’s Orsino is romantically melancholy but not at all lacking in strength, and Danielle LaRose’s Olivia glitters from the eyes to the toes as she transforms from melancholy to love-struck to pragmatically and gently happy. Perry Gratton and William Mitchell are everything Sir Andrew and Sir Toby should be, and Monica Maddaford’s prank-pulling Maria is a perfect, earthy, brainy, trickster string-puller . . . .

Oh, come on: they’re all so good and individual and memorable! Andrew Cormier’s Sebastian, Evan Hall in the dual roles of the Sea Captain and Antonio, Samantha Jeffery in her two roles of Fabian and Valentine, and Phillip Hackborn in his of Curio and the rifle-toting Officer.

And the music! Every single cast member is a singer, many take a turn at Holy Trinity’s grand piano, and Feste even pulls out a harp for one scene. The denizens of the courts of Duke Orsino and Olivia clearly throw themselves into this mid-winter holiday period and, indeed, into life itself. What a raucous romp!

Over a fairly short number of years, Holy Trinity has made itself into a vital part of Edmonton’s arts scene. The wonderful building is host to three venues for the annual Fringe Festival, and it hosts constant literary, dance, visual art, and theatre events.*

Holy Trinity is a phenomenon to be treasured and supported by the whole city.

Just before the play started this evening, Holy Trinity’s Rector (and cast member — he plays the Priest), Father Chris Pappas, started the festivities off with a first small wonderful gift: his hope that Shakespeare by the Malachites in mid-winter will become an annual event at Holy Trinity.

The addition of an annual mid-winter celebration of Shakespeare would be tremendous, but, please, don’t wait: — Twelfth Night continues until January 20th, 2018. Twenty bucks a ticket. Endless fun and tenderness. You won’t find a better entertainment value on any winter evening, cold or otherwise!

_______________________

I’m deeply honoured to have been a part of Holy Trinity’s first ArtSpirit festival in 2013.

Pawâkan Macbeth

Pawâkan Macbeth is not 1870s Rupert’s Land period-dress Shakespeare, not a Red-Face Scottish Play. Rather, Pawâkan Macbeth is a breathtaking, entertaining, and timely (re)conciliation of Cree traditional narrative and an iconic piece of the European narrative tradition.

As I scrambled on a wet and icy Edmonton November evening to get to the Westbury Theatre in time for Opening Night I wasn’t sure what to expect of this co-production of Edmonton’s Theatre Prospero and Yellowknife’s Akpik Theatre. I knew through my own odd grapevine that this thing had been worked on very hard by a dedicated team and that it was intended as a touring production targetting smaller and/or indigenous communities. Beyond that I knew the buzz that was in the #yegtheatre air: Fusion of Cree tradition and cosmology with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, set in Treaty 6 and 7 territories in the 1870s, and all that implies. 

And a lot is implied!

I rushed to catch up with a gentleman and his young daughter in the crosswalk on 104th Street, hoping to minimize pedestrian delays for motorists on a slippery night. Clearly the father amd daughter were also heading to the Westbury, which I could now see through the lobby windows was very crowded. Clearly the #yegtheatre/Treaty Six buzz had gotten word out that something interesting was happening in the Arts Barns.

I remembered something I’d read somewhere about how the production team had been very careful to consult with Elders about the protocols for presenting ceremony on stage and about how to deal with mention of the Wihtiko, which is at the vital centre of Pawâkan Macbeth. I couldn’t help thinking of the theatrical taboo on uttering the name of the Scottish Play in a theatre. And the friendly “break a leg” of Western Theatre. 

“If you tickle us do we not laugh?”

Pawâkan Macbeth is a (wonderfully sucessful) exercise in coherently fusing 1870s Plains Cree and Elizabethan English, but more importantly the play is about the reconciliation of contemporary peoples. That reconciliation will never be achieved through paternalism or patronizing, through the celebration of the “Indigenous” as something “interesting” to some flake of the upper crust of colonial society, through a continuation of Colonialism. 

You want reconciliation of peoples? Then send out the best of those cultures and let them go toe-to-toe and hand-in-hand in a friendly, honest fusion. Not looking for winners or losers. Just let’s see how things go.

The Westbury lobby was packed. I figured I’d make my way to the box office and probably try to buy a ticket for Friday night. “Oh, we’ve got a few donated comps!” the lady said. “I’m happy to pay for one, if I can,” I said. “Oh. Sure. I guess you can pay.”

!!

And I was in!

What a pleasant, friendly evening so far.

I picked out a seat, third row on the right, aisle seat and was about to sit down when the gentleman and his daughter from the crosswalk came right upnto me. “Would you like to sit in this row?” I asked, stepping aside to let them by.

“Actually, could we have these two seats at the end? I have to give a sort of speech at the beginning and then I need to kinda run back to my seat.”

“Okay,” I said.

Mark Henderson, the gentleman in the crosswalk and co-director of Pawâkan Macbeth and Barry Billinsky, the other co-director didn’t so much give a speech so much as a friendly welcome and reminders about cell phones and Treaty Six Territory. I’m glad I listened to the gentleman and his daughter and gave up my seat. This was all a moment of family time, sort of.

And then the drum started. 

Stuff just got serious.

A stylized opening battle-scene that was all Plains total warfare and far more effective than old Polanski’s gory 1971 opening. This material can go toe-to-toe!

So, it’s late now. Let’s get all reviewy.

Curtis Peeteetuce as Macikosisân is brilliant as is Allyson Pratt as Kâwanihot Iskwew (Macbeth and Lady Macbeth). In fact, all the cast ranges from very good to brilliant. There were a few technical glitches and a few line stumbles, but the thing was smooth and powerful. 

It was both Cree and Shakespeare.

Go see it.

I stayed for a moment at the reception after the play and then wandered off through Edmonton, to my home on Pappaschase and Treaty Six territory and I thought of the words of Big Bear, and of the Playwright, Reneltta Arluk, echoed by Klhcîkosisân (Malcolm) at the end of her play:

Now, in the time of reconciliation, we need to make good on the unity our ancestors agreed to. It is time to step out of comfort zones. To go beyond the blackbox of theatre. To Listen. Pawâkan Macbeth asked Shakespeare to do just that, listen. If Shakespeare can create space for Indigenouse voice, then I am hopeful we are in better days. Plains Cree leader Big Bear asked us to “Remember your ancestors. They had many hardships too. They prayed for better days.” Those days are now.

If we can kill our own individual Wihtikos.

Together.
Pawâkan Macbeth plays at the Westbury Theatre until November 27.