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.
Assist.

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):

Auf.
Take him up.
[The Volscian Soldiers don’t move.]
Assist!
[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]
[Exit]

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

Go see it.

image

On Watching Zeffirelli’s “The Taming of the Shrew” for the First Time in Many Years

I have a dim memory of the first time I saw Franco Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew.  It was on television.  I’m sure I was watching with my parents, and the image of Elizabeth Taylor falling in the muddy stream and being left behind by her laughing husband is pretty much all that has stuck with me for forty years or so.

Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet I saw in High School and many times since.  I’ve always thought it a wonderful interpretation of Shakespeare’s play with a great deal to recommend it.  On returning to Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew, however, I found little to recommend.  Yes, Zeffirelli has assembled lush and beautiful costumes and sets of great detail. But those sets have too much of a smell of polystyrene, the beautiful Italian light of Romeo and Juliet is missing, and the pacing despite large cuts and rewritings of Shakespeare’s text, is, frankly, plodding.  Elizabeth Taylor discharges her roll as Katherina professionally, but Richard Burton as Petruchio and the rest of the cast have been set free, or directed, to chew the (polystyrene) scenery with gay abandon.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, The Taming of the Shrew is a difficult play for a contemporary audience.  When the fundamental theme of the play, the breaking of a strong woman through starvation and sleep deprivation, is combined with the swinger misogyny of the mid-Sixties, the result is unbearable.  Petruchio’s country house here is a grubby man-cave, complete with lecherous douche bro retainers. “And Philip’s dagger was not fully sheathed”, a line not in Shakespeare’s text, is inserted apparently for the sole purpose of making an open codpiece joke, a bit of wit Petruchio and his buds think wonderful.  And then they start the torture of Katherina.

I’m not sure that Zeffirelli had any awareness of the misogyny of The Taming of the Shrew.  But there is one very odd detail which suggests he, or a set dresser, did look more carefully.

As Lucentio (Michael York) arrives in the streets of Padua, he passes two criminals enduring public punishment, one in a suspended cage, the other below in stocks.  Large signs are lettered with their crimes: “Drunkard” for the caged man; “Wife Stealer” for the man in stocks. Shrew 1

I’m not sure that “wife stealing,” phrased that way, has ever been a recognized offense in Padua. Almost immediately, Lucentio falls in love-at-first-sight with Bianca (Natasha Pyne), then he witnesses his new love chased through Padua by a gang of young men who eventually corner her and force her veil from her face.  As Zeffirelli portrays it, this is, if you’ll pardon the image, a thinly-veiled gang rape, a gang rape which seems to greatly amuse everyone, including the victim.

Later in the film as the drunken Petruchio hauls away his forced bride Katherina, Bianca’s sister, they pass the same two unfortunate prisoners, signs again prominently displayed. “Drunkard” and “Wife Stealer”.
shrew 2

What to make of this subversive bit of set-dressing associated with two rape scenes?  In no way does it ameliorate the symbolic gang rape of Bianca or the misogynistic celebration of Katherina’s forced marriage and later joy that she has been broken under torture.  The cage is where the drunkard Petruchio belongs, and his wife stealing logically deserves the stocks.  But he is presented by Shakespeare and Zeffirelli, and played by Burton, as the hero, not only for his drunken wife-stealing, but more so for his triumphant success in inflicting the Stockholm Syndrome on Katherina.

I don’t know the intention behind the small gesture of putting those prisoners into the two scenes.  But I certainly don’t feel any better about The Taming of the Shrew, either Shakespeare’s or Zeffirelli’s, because of them.

As I did when considering The Freewill Players’ The Taming of the Shrew,  I again am considering whether it is possible to stage The Taming of the Shrew without a profuse apology for its pervasive misogyny.  In my wondering I have come up with a curious thought:  what would be the effect of a modern dress production of The Taming of the Shrew, but in the modern dress of Kandahar or the Swat Valley of Pakistan.  What would happen if The Taming of the Shrew were staged completely faithfully to the script but with burkhas or niqabs instead of Elizabethan dresses? Zeffirelli’s Bianca enters veiled, and, Petruchio, after all, has more of the Taliban or Boko Haram about him than he does of Sir Walter Raleigh dropping his cloak in the puddle for Queen Elizabeth to tread upon.  Such a staging would remain faithful to the text, but no contemporary Western audience would be able to ignore the misogyny.   Would some say “you’re insulting Islam” or “you’re taking Shakespeare out of context”? Possibly. But the text is unchanged – is Shakespeare insulting Islam?  And modern dress is routine in Shakespeare production today. Why is it any more “out of context” to set The Taming of the Shrew in the Swat Valley than it was for Ralph Fiennes to set his Coriolanus in the former Yugoslav republics?

Doubtless such a production would offend all over the place.  But somehow I think it would be worthwhile for the shaking up it would bring.

In the end, such a production would demand an answer to the question “Can you defend this play?”

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.

Quick Notes on “Romeo and Juliet” at the Citadel Theatre

I’ve been a little hard on The Citadel Theatre (and its audiences)  and Tom Woods in the past, but, I have to say, the current staging of Romeo and Juliet is a tremendous, thoughtful romp.  Sadly, there are only a few days left in its run — could one imagine it being held over?

Wood’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream two seasons ago was a pleasant enough treatment, a painless entry to Shakespeare for school kids and those wishing to avoid challenge.  It was comfortable.

Wood’s Romeo and Juliet also has a degree of comfort, but it is, thankfully, and in spite of the youth of the characters, a fully adult outing.  In the opening slow-motion melee of Capulet and Montague women and men, blood is drawn front and centre, by a dirk to the eye, no less.  Mercutio’s (Jamie Cavanagh) life’s blood oozes from a belly wound, Tybalt’s (Nick Abraham) face is beaten in, and Friar Lawrence (Jamie Williams) delivers his opening monologue on herbs from a very unusual position.  Wood has given an interesting subtext to the relationship between Tybalt and Lady Capulet (Mabelle Carvajal) – they got a thing going on – which perfectly emphasizes the youth of the Lady — she is roughly twenty-six as written.  There is  desperate clutching for life in deadly feud- and plague-ruled Verona.

The matinee show I saw featured Brendan McMurtry-Howlett and Shaina Silver-Baird, the “young Romeo and Juliet” – two pairs of actors alternate in the roles.  McMurtry-Howlett, all wiry and hopped up on youth and love with golden curls on top, put me in mind of young Brent Carver in the same role in 1976.  Silver-Baird, perhaps not everyone’s idea of Juliet, is a head-strong fire-plug, controlling her situation – and the stage – with an unexpected certainty.  In short, a teenage girl.  Any idea that these are two foolish, mooning, love-struck youth is immediately erased by Silver-Baird’s Juliet’s determination.  Indeed, because Wood has banished the Chorus from the opening, replacing him with a plainsong choir, Romeo and Juliet are not “star-crossed” on this stage. The sole cause of their tragedy is that Friar Lawrence’s letter did not reach Mantua.  We believe their love will last.

A technical note:  I was pleased, particularly after the over-amplified but spectacular Mary Poppins next door, that for Romeo and Juliet the Citadel set aside the microphones.  It was so good to hear the actors voices coming from where the actors actually stood, instead of them all being gathered in an unidentifiable place somewhere over my head.  Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but I’ve always felt that, given a space with appropriate acoustics, actors should use their talents and their actual voices to reach the audience.  It was gratifying to see this cast reminding us that whatever technical wonders are available, theatre is at its essential, an actor and an audience.  With just their voices, Tom Wood’s direction, and Shakespeare’s words, the cast from the Robbins Academy held us spellbound for three hours – no small feet in our 140 character world.

Romeo and Juliet will be at the Citadel Theatre on the MacLab stage until April 27.

Just for fun, when I got home, I rooted around and found my copy of the poster from the 1976 John Neville directed production starring Brent Carver and Nicky Guadagni:

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(and I tried to ignore Colin Maclean’s sexist comments on that 1976 production)