“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.

 

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.

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.