A Merry Romp with the Freewill Players

I’m a sucker for Shakespeare done in the out-of-doors.  When old Will’s words are performed in the Heritage Amphitheatre beside the lake in the heart of Edmonton’s central River Valley Parks, it’s hard for a company to do wrong by me.  I admit, however, that, even after the Freewill Players‘s salvation (in the face of a last minute catastrophic loss-of-venue) of Willy’s irredeemably misogynistic Taming of the Shrew a few seasons ago, I wondered if Artistic Director Marianne Copithorne and the cast and crew could make the fat-shaming Merry Wives of Windsor palatable to a contemporary audience.  After seeing the riotous yet gentle performance this evening, I’m joyously gobsmacked and now excited to see in a few days the Freewill redemption of the extremely problematic The Merchant of Venice.

The weather was beautiful as the happy audience of all ages, from newborn to a few even older than me strolled across the lawns to the gate.  The Moon was rising, the Sun very slowly setting (we’re closer to the Pole than the Equator, after all). As always there were 50-50 tickets to be purchased (again I didn’t win) and nifty Freewill t-shirts and undershorts with Shakespeare’s face printed on them available to take home for a reasonable price. And local beer (and wine) and lots of snacks and popcorn (for the perennial squirrels, I think). As I sat in one of the eleven hundred or so best seats in the house, I snapped a picture of the set and sent it out over twitter saying that I felt that summer had now truly arrived for me because I was at Freewill.  Perhaps it is a sign of thespian focus and professionalism that one of the cast “favourited” my tweet from the green room during intermission.  Truly, that moment of electronic connection is a hint of the deep connection the Freewill Players and their audience feel with each other. Every member of the cast, from the semi-retired John Wright to the newest members of the company seems like a friend or a buddy.

I can’t help but imagine that something similar must have been the relationship between Shakespeare’s company, the Kings Men, and his audience around the turn of the 17th Century.  London in 1600 had about a fifth the population of Edmonton today.  I suspect Edmonton has at least five times as many theatre companies and theatre-goers as London had in Shakespeare’s day.

But that’s a discussion for another day . . .

I’m not going to give anything away about Freewill’s wonderful production of The Merry Wives of Windsor except to say it is a truly wonderful production, full of joy and laughter and teasing and surprises and a very satisfying reconciliation for all at the end.  The performances are uniformly outstanding, from the smallest bit to Robert Benz’s absolutely brilliant turn as Sir John Falstaff. Everyone shines, the costumes are stunning, the multi-level, angular set is marvelously utilized . . . you get the picture.  And the show was an over-the-top merry romp that left everyone as jolly and carefree as Jesse Gervais’ pharmaceutically enhanced Host of the Garter Inn.

The only shortcoming of the production — and I mean that: the only shortcoming of the production as witnessed by me tonight was technical trouble with the actors’ headset microphones/sound system. I understand this has been an intermittent problem throughout the run so far. I hope, of course, that the problem is rectified soon, but I must compliment the cast: every word carried throughout the amphitheatre, whether the mics were working or not.

Thank you, Freewill Players. You have become a joyous and joy-giving part of the fabric of Edmonton’s civic life.

The Merry Wives of Windsor plays, alternating with The Merchant of Venice, until July 16, 2017. If you like being happy, go clap and laugh along with The Merry Wives and their friends, please.


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.


“As You Like It” at the Freewill Shakespeare Festival

I keep trying to find bad things to say about the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, but . . .

I went to As You Like It Tuesday night (July 7), a week after seeing Freewill’s Coriolanus.  The austere Roman arcade of that story is transformed into a vine-covered bower.  Again the cast uses every bit of the multi-level set and also the aisles and hillsides and the flat spaces to the left and right back stage.  The entire space under the tent has been transformed into the Forest of Arden and the very full house seems completely welcome and at home in this Arcadia.  All positive.

The quasi-Edwardian costumes by Hannah Matiachuk are lovely. I got a golden Enchanted April feeling.

When the music began for Amiens’ (Nicolas Donald Rose) opening song, it struck me as a little Alan Parson’s Project, and I thought, “Finally!  I can criticise!” But the prog-rock vibe disappeared sooner than I’d thought it.  Nice job, Sound Designer Matthew Skopyk!  I later had a similar pause over the whistling tune in the second half, but immediately was caught up in the joyful celebration — on stage and in the audience — that culminated in the glorious curtain call/dance party that closed the show.  This burst of joy perhaps surpassed last year’s rousing rendition of “It’s Now or Never” by Sheldon Elter and the cast at the end of The Taming of the Shrew.

I wondered whether Charles’ (Jesse Gervais) Cockney accent might slide into Dick van Dyke’s mid-Atlantic Burt from Mary Poppins.  Nope.  It held steady and together with Kemble and Phebe’s (Nancy McAlear in a double role) brogue from somewhere in the northern half of the Irish sea, helped to draw the lines between the classes.  This distinction is too often made in productions of Shakespeare by making the lower classes little more than cartoon Disney bumpkins, like the button people after the horse race in Mary Poppins.  Freewill pulled it out of the hat again.

Gervais and Farren Timoteo are hilariously physical, slapstick, and rude as the wrestler Charles and his coach Hugh (a part not in Shakespeare’s text).  And John Ullyat steals his few scenes as a Clouseau-like only slightly repressed gay Frenchman.  Ullyat is somehow at once over-the-top and magically restrained as Le Beau.  It is perhaps a disappointment that Ullyat was not a part of the finale, as far as I could tell.

Mary Hulbert’s Rosalind is tremendous and Belinda Cornish’s Celia is the perfect foil/companion/friendly gadfly.  Ashley Wright made Jaques, a difficult role, into something thought provoking, quietly joyful, as well as the melancholy that is his nature.  And Ryan Parker as Touchstone made something reachable out of a character potentially very alien to a modern audience.

I did find one truly negative criticism of Freewill’s As You Like It, but I had to dig deep.  It is not that Touchstone sometimes drops his cane while juggling it — the recovery is always smooth — or that Cornish and Hulbert had an hilarious Harvey Corman-Tim Conway moment of mutual corpsing — it just felt like it needed to be there.  Such fumbles happen in live theatre — I seem to remember the wonderfully steady Wally McSween saving the plot by fudging a misthrown curling rock with his foot in the Citadel’s production of The Black Bonspiel of Wullie MacCrimmon back in 1980.

No. The problem I have I’ll leave at the door of Director Marianne Copithorne.  In this production, with such nice use of accents, Jaques’ “Thereby hangs a tale” speech is unfortunately delivered with North American Theatrical English pronunciation and virtually all of the dense, ribald, earthy humour is lost.

. . . And then he drew a dial from his poke,
And, looking on it with lack-lustre eye,
Says very wisely, ‘It is ten o’clock:
Thus we may see,’ quoth he, ‘how the world wags:
‘Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more ’twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.’

In Shakespeare’s day, and in available English dialects today, every “hour” of this passage is an “whore”, each “rot” is a “rut” and the “ripes” are “rapes”.  And thereby hangs at least a piece of a tale.

But Hulbert’s delivery of Rosalind’s “I set him every day to woo me” speech revealed a gender reversed parallel between Rosalind/Orlando and Hamlet/Ophelia I’d never imagined before, Orlando sent to a monastery down the road from Ophelia’s nunnery.  That discovery probably more than makes up for the loss of a little ribald humour.

No matter how desperately I try to find fault, the Freewill Players continue to present joyous, moving, and truly impressive Shakespeare the way it should be performed:  in the open air, with grass, and trees, and squirrels, in the Forest of Arden where fantasy and reality meet.

Freewill’s As You Like It continues in repertory with Coriolanus until July 19, 2015, in the Forest of Arden (the Heritage Amphitheatre in Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park).

Go and feel the joy!

“Coriolanus” by the Freewill Players

Take him up.
Help, three o’th’chiefest soldiers. I’ll be one.
Beat thou the drum that it speak mournfully;
Trail you steel pikes. Though in this city he
Hath widow’d and unchilded many a one,
Which to this hour bewail the injury,
Yet he shall have a noble memory.

This won’t be a typical review. Mark Morris in the Edmonton Journal has already done a fine and balanced review of Freewill Players’ Coriolanus.

For the past few years, even with Shakespeare’s irredeemable script of Taming of the Shrew, I have been consistently impressed by the Freewill productions when I’ve not been simply blown away. Despite that record, I had low expectations of their Coriolanus. Ralph Feines’ film remains burned into my memory as a tough act to follow. I knew Freewill would need to cut for time and personnel. And Coriolanus is a plot that can be hard to follow, even for those familar with Roman Republican history. Coriolanus, the character, is alternately praised and vilified by his own people, the Romans, and by his enemies, the Volsci. Banished by Rome he joins the Volsci to have revenge on Rome, only to betray Volscian ambition to clutch at an impossible peace.

I expected a game try and limited success from Freewill’s roughly two hour time limit and a little more than dozen actors doing repertory with As You Like It.

You blew me away again, Freewill!

And the standing ovation last night, despite a few fumbled lines, was more than deserved.

A Word About the Setting

For those who don’t know Edmonton and the setting of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, a description:

The centre of Edmonton, a metropolis of over a million people, is a park. Don’t imagine New York’s Central Park. Edmonton’s central park is over twenty times the size of New York’s. Imagine wilderness for kilometres. Imagine deer, moose, or even a bear calmly wandering past Downtown. Imagine walking out of wilderness onto a golf course. Then an Arcadian landscape of ponds, fountains, cropped meadows, more wilderness, bike paths, foot paths, Chinese gardens, food forests, amphitheatres, Fur Trade Era palisaded forts, playgrounds, a small Gnome in his home, swimming pools, baseball fields . . . all with a river running through it, all a short walk from the homes and workplaces of a bustling metropolis.

Now imagine sitting in a comfy chair under a giant white circus tent with no walls. Squirrels dart past your feet. Birds are singing. People are smiling and laughing. You look past the stage and see trees, meadows, ponds and fountains. In the distance the wooded river bank rises to meet the sunset sky. This evening smoke from distant northern forest fires enhances the atmospheric perspective, transforming the view into the distant background vista of a painting by Poussin. A few days ago that bear I mentioned ambled nearby, stirring curiosity rather than worry.

This Arcadian landscape is what you pass through on the way to see Shakespeare. The experience is more akin to approaching a provincial performance of the Kings Men in 1598 than it is to a potentially stuffy night at the Theatre in the 21st Century.

And precisely this feeling of being at a provincial performance is one thing that blew me away about Freewill’s Coriolanus: it felt like a carefully abbreviated staging, a site-specific version, such as many of Shakespeare’s plays went through in the provinces and the Plague Years. There was an authenticity to the cutting, and in one particular case, a brilliant artistry in the drastic shortening of a speech.

The Review-like bits

The Plebs are suitably loud and chaotic, Belinda Cornish’s Volumnia is deliciously Patrician and incestuous, John Ullyat’s Coriolanus is stoic in battle and painfully and creepily devoted to his mother, and Robert Benz is steady as Menenius. The conniving Tribunes played by Farren Timoteo and Ryan Parker are like despicable peas in a pod, as they should be. Performances are across the board good or great. Sound design is brilliant, costumes are comfortably mid-century fascist with a touch of street gang, and the set is a marvellously minimalist two-story arcade that is more than fully utilized by the cast..

And Ullyat absolutely nailed Coriolanus’ banishment speech “There is a world elsewhere!” at the end of Act III where Freewill nicely places the intermission.

What shone for me as much as anything, but in a subtle way, was the cutting of the text. Much of the cutting was from speeches, not of speeches or scenes. Speeches are tightened for time, certainly with a sacrifice of beauty and perhaps of sense at times, but in at least one case, that of the final speech of Aufidius, the final words of the play, the cut gives a profound and startlingly modern twist to the meaning of the play.

Spoiler Alert!

The epigraph above is Aufidius’ last speech as Shakespeare had the play end. With the death of Coriolanus, Aufidius seems to indicate, the war is ended, as though it all was driven by Coriolanus and his narcissistic treason.

Here’s how Freewill ends the play (stage directions as I imagine them):

Take him up.
[The Volscian Soldiers don’t move.]
[Exeunt Volscian Soldiers]
[Aufidius slumps, aware that treason is now his twice over, as it was for Coriolanus, but Coriolanus has saved both cities, while Aufidius has betrayed them both for nothing]

Coriolanus is playing at the Heritage Amphitheatre in Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park until July 18, 2015.

Go see it.


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.

A Lear and a Half

The First Half

One of the dangers of Shakespeare outdoors on a summer evening in Edmonton is weather rapidly turning foul.  A joy of such a change is when a storm blows up as The Tempest starts or Lear and companions seek shelter on the Heath.  Macrocosm mirroring microcosm is a dramatic thing to be inside.  Sometimes, however, Macrocosm overwhelms microcosm and the play is called on account of rain. And wind. And loonie-sized hailstones. During Freewill Shakespeare Company’s July 10th performance of King Lear, the heavens opened and a short time before Intermission, the action on stage was suspended for the action on high.  Several hundred rain-checks were distributed to the audience, who all seemed to be smiling and laughing at their adventure on the Heath. Clearly, everyone intended to return another day.

The Other Two Halves

King Lear is a flexible text.  The play exists in three source versions, two published during Shakespeare’s life, and the posthumous version in the First Folio.  All three versions have significant differences of wording and even of whole passages. Acting companies can with justification pick and choose which version or conflation of versions the wish to present.  Freewill remains true to its name and has freely conflated characters and left out passages as size of company and time available necessitate.  They have not taken the sorts of risks I’ve mentioned they take in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the Lear on the Freewill stage is not quite the same as the one in the text you may have brought along in your backpack.

I’m not complaining: Freewill presents a tight, easily followed version of Lear.  As they do in Midsummer, the company makes all the characters stand clearly apart in the audience’s minds.  Sheldon Elter as Edmund struts about the stage, proud and powerful, always in control, while Nathan Cuckow’s Edgar is by turns languid and wiry as he moves from reading a book quietly at court to gibbering in his Mad Tom disguise, being pushed by events til the end.

Belinda Cornish and John Ullyatt as Regan and Cornwall are deliciously and sexily sadistic. Annette Loiselle’s Goneril has the ambition of Lady Macbeth, but Troy O’Donnell as her husband, Albany, subtly shows that he’s not wholly interested in the game. From the beginning he clearly remains loyal to the banished and anger-filled Kent (John Kirkpatrick) and it is he that brings the final resolution on the corpse strewn stage.

Julian Arnold as Gloucester is spot on as he, like his son Edgar, is cruelly pushed and led by events out of his control.  Kristi Hansen’s Cordelia, a small roll, is handled well, radiating her devotion to honesty in the opening scene, and become a hard battle leader on her return to the stage.

And, King Lear himself.  John Wright crumbles magnificently before our eyes as the King progresses from a bit of a Santa when he first appears to make his mistaken division, to a wheelchair-bound senility in his penultimate appearance.

My only major complaint is that I would have liked Dave Horak to have drawn out more the tragic wisdom of the Fool.  The Fool strikes me as, after Lear himself, the most important character in the play.  I would have liked to see him given more prominence.  And my only minor complaint is that Jesse Gervais is put into multiple minor roles, which he performs magnificently, and painfully, while always wearing the same, distinctive jacket, an unusual exception to Freewill’s remarkable ability to set characters apart from each other, even when played by the same actor.

Unlike with A Midsummer Night’s Dream this year, the Freewill company took a more or less traditional route with King Lear, but they made it a powerful and enthralling journey.  There’s still a week left, so see King Lear at least once!

A footnote on the Freewill audience

As I mentioned, when the Wednesday performance was suspended and then cancelled due to the weather, the audience members were remarkably understanding and seemed to be happy with the twist the show had taken. I commend them for this.

I was troubled, however, by a quiet incident during intermission.  I happily went to the back to get some hot chocolate, and happily lined up with the others.  As I stood, I noticed that a gentleman in a wheelchair was waiting to the side of the line I was in, obviously unable to navigate the grass and hill over which the queue stretched, and so, queueing in the only place he could. The line moved forward. No one stopped to let the gentleman in to make his purchase. He seemed invisible to everyone.

When my turn came, I held back and spoke to him, something like “Are you . . .?” with a gesture toward the counter.  The gentleman said a thank you and rolled forward to order some hot chocolate.  The volunteer working the counter immediately came out of the tent to more easily serve the gentleman and I moved forward to make my purchase.  No delay. No inconvenience. For me.

I don’t know why others didn’t let the gentleman have his turn. To me it seemed obvious in an instant that he was queueing in the only way he could and that his place in line was ahead of me.  Perhaps I noticed because I have a lot of experience with people with disabilities. I don’t know.  But I found the gentleman’s intentional or unconscious relegation to the back of the line disturbing.

Taking Risks Really Pays Off! “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by The Freewill Shakespeare Company

Is A Midsummer Night’s Dream the most frequently produced Shakespeare play of recent times?  It seems like it to me. It is a pleasant romp and even more pleasant when enjoyed in an outdoor theatre such as Edmonton’s tremendous Heritage Amphitheatre. Too often I find, however, that companies take the safe, easy route with A Midsummer Night’s Dream: playing Bottom and the Mechanicals as over-the-top Disney bumpkins; making Bottom the extreme focus of the play; just strolling through pleasant sets reciting pleasant lines — in short, taking no risks.

The no risk course was not chosen by director Marianne Copithorne and The Freewill Shakespeare Company for the latest Edmonton Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Risks are taken left and right, front and centre, and most of the throws come up sevens or elevens. I can’t help but think that Kevin Corey’s repeated mutterings as Puck of “Oh crap!” are a reference to the risks taken in this production.

The first gamble taken is with the very first page of the usual printed text, the Dramatis Personae: Freewill has slipped in a new character, Fern(Annette Loiselle), Nick Bottom’s wife.  She storms in from the back of the amphitheatre yelling for her husband (John Ullyatt), who stands on the stage, virtually invisible in the storm of her entrance.  Her brief conversation with her husband before Shakespeare’s opening conversation between Theseus(John Kirkpatrick) and Hippolyta(Belinda Cornish) adds a new layer of parallel to the play, bringing the theme of marriage into the Rude Mechanicals’ sub-plot, the only level of the play from which Shakespeare absented it.  A risk taken by Freewill — write a new scene and a new character for the Bard.  I had my doubts as the play started, but I think the gamble pays off.  The theme is made more obvious for a contemporary audience and the mechanicals are given a rounded backstory, elevating them above the cardboard bumpkins they too often can be.

But what becomes of Fern Bottom is even more ingenious.  Puck’s first scene, written as a dialogue with an unnamed fairy, begins with Fern being questioned by Puck.  The lines are redistributed between Puck and Fern and as the scene progresses, Fern is transformed by Puck into a fairy.  Fern-as-fairy remains a part of the Fairy entourage until near the end of the play.  Here we see a metamorphosis parallel to that of Bottom.  Fern’s transformation also brings Bottom and Fern into close parallel with the separated lovers of the fairy court, the Athenian court, and the four young Athenians.  To be clear, very little of what Shakespeare wrote is changed by Fern’s insertion.  But the nuptial theme is given a different emphasis and colour.  Another rich pay-off for a risk taken.

Perhaps the most unexpected change Freewill has made is to replace the Indian slave boy over which Titania and Oberon quarrel with a small dog(Atom Cornish Meer).  Yes, a shih tzu takes the place of the silent brown child usually placed on stage beside Titania.  My first thought was “Is this just a sanitization of the paedophilic slavery elements of the text?” Then I thought “Well, is it bad to sanitize those elements?” And then I thought “By making the quarrel about the dog, great events really do spring from trivial things, the play is more family friendly, the play is more accessible to a modern audience in a country where — I’m told — more families have dogs than have children, and, those in the audience having any familiarity with the play will be made only more aware of the paedophilic slavery that has been replaced by the cute puppy.”

Furthermore, Helena’s “Spaniel” speech gains resonance from the presence of a dog at the noble level, as does the Man in the Moon character in the Mechanical’s play.  The puppy Theseus is constantly begging to hold becomes an image tying together all levels of the play’s society.

Yet another risk pays off.

The Freewill production bucks tradition in a few other ways.  For example, Kevin Corey’s Puck is not the spry, acrobatic, possibly androgenous sparkling figure we often see in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Rather, he is a bearded, noticeably round figured Bacchus with grey hair poking out of his woodland headdress.  This Puck is earthy and every bit a match for his Lord, Oberon.  Yes, for example, he errs in carrying out Oberon’s plan, but Puck has no qualms about pointing out that Oberon’s instructions are the root of the error, and puck suffers no repercussions for point that out.  A little detail I couldn’t help noticing was that Pucks administration of the potion to Lysander’s (Sheldon Elter) eyes was performed remarkably like Puck were gouging out Lysander’s eyes.  Certainly a reference to Freewill’s companion production this year, King Lear.  I look forward to the blinding of Gloucester with unseemly glee.

Modern dress is certainly no longer unconventional, but Freewill’s costumes, designed by Narda McCarroll are certainly worth mentioning.  One might describe them as “Central Twentieth Century”.  I had a sort of Tortilla-Flat-Guys-And-Dolls-Rat-Pack feeling as the characters strode, ran, danced, wrestled and stumbled across the stage, but always I thought “Summer!”  Bottom and the Mechanicals are almost zoot-suited, on the verge of singing “Luck be a Lady Tonight!”  Theseus’ court is an elegent summer evening cocktail party with the beautiful people.  And Helena, Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius are Steinbeckian everywoman and -man heros in the hills above Monterey.  And always the summer sun is shining out of their richly coloured clothes.

The Performances

In a nutshell:  Confident and relaxed all around.

Often it is Hermia and Helena and their suitors who are the focus of productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Freewill, however, have somehow struck a balance.  The Athenian Court does not feel tacked on, as it sometimes can.  The Rude Mechanicals are not an interruption of the action of the young Athenians in their comedy of errors.  And the young Athenians are engaging individuals themselves.  All the separate streams of action drive forward together, commenting on each other in a way I can’t remember ever experiencing in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The young Athenians, Hermia (Bobbi Goddard), her lover Lysander (Sheldon Elter), Helena (Kristi Hansen) and Hermia’s suitor Demetrius (Jesse Gervais) come across at times as more rustic than the rustic mechanicals.  In their performances, these four seem to me to have drawn from the deep roots of Shakespeare’s comedy, from Plautus and the Roman stage.  This is not negative criticism.  Although the four very much reflect ancient types the actors inject charming personality and a few noticeably modern mannerisms — I remember particularly Bobbi Goddard’s (Hermia) aggressive body- and facial language directed at Helena (Kristi Hansen). Where does that come from? Is it a Jersey thing?  I’m not up on pop culture — I recognize a reference, but I seldom know to what it refers.  And Lysander and Demetrius’ arm wrestling match was wonderful!

Too often I’ve found that I have trouble distinguishing Hermia from Helena, Lysander from Demetrius.  This afternoon I had no such trouble.  Helena the gentle (before she gets riled up) but strong bean-pole. Hermia the steaming fire-plug. Lysander the honest stalwart. Demetrius the slightly braggart fop.  And all four actors physically distinct enough to state the differences and talented enough to drive home both the failings and the lovableness of their characters.

It was likely a risk casting John Ullyatt as Nick Bottom.  Ullyatt is such a powerful and talented actor, singer and dancer that his presence on the stage in a perhaps minor roll can be a recipe for the upstaging of the lead characters — I seem to remember exactly that happening in Beauty and the Beast at the Citadel a number of years ago.  But Ullyatt, while brilliant as ever, vanishes into the crowd when not the focus, and every one of the mechanicals, so often cyphers, shines as an individual light.  And Ullyatt’s performance as Bottom performing Pyramus is brilliant, right down to his hyperextended death scene and rigor mortis, a perfect compliment to Luc Tellier’s voice-breaking turn as Flute performing Thisbe.

As brilliant as Ullyatt’s performance was, for me the glue that held the Freewill Midsummer Night’s Dream together is the dignified, understated and beautifully varied performances of John Kirkpatrick and Belinda Cornish as Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania.  Their playful jousting over the dog, both in the Athenian court and in the fairy realm, comes across as nothing other than true.  Oberon’s frustration with Puck is real, but just a subtle twitch in the background as Puck speaks.  Titania’s magical infatuation with ass-headed Bottom is ridiculous of course, but Cornish doesn’t just make us believe her performance, she makes us believe Titania’s love.

The Freewill Shakespeare Company’s remarkably balanced, winningly risk-taking and stunningly moving production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues until July 21, 2013.