Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) Roars With Wit and Humour

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Left to Right: Allison Lynch (Desdemona) and Julie Orton (Iago) in Anne-Marie MacDonald’s Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet),  presented by The Shakespeare Company & Handsome Alice Theatre & Hit & Myth Productions. Photo Credit: Benjamin Laird Arts & Photography.

Co-presented with The Shakespeare Company and Hit & Myth Productions, Handsome Alice Theatre, formerly known as Urban Curvz Theatre, makes its debut with Anne-Marie MacDonald’s 1988 play Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet). Winner of the Governor General’s Award for Drama, the Canadian play applies feminist theory to the works of William Shakespeare, namely Othello and Romeo & Juliet, critiquing academia and the patriarchy while doing so.

Directed by Kate Newby, Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) tells the story of Constance Ledbelly (Ayla Stephen), a doctoral student who believes Othello and Romeo & Juliet were originally intended as comedies. Her theory is based on the Gustav manuscript, a mysterious document that Constance has yet to decipher. Constance’s dissertation is ridiculed by Professor Claude Night (Mabelle Carvajal), whom she has a crush on. Professor Night’s news that he has accepted a position at Oxford University, the very same Constance was hoping to land, devastates the lowly academic. Heartbroken, Constance loses all hope for both her romantic and academic aspirations, deciding right there and then that she will die alone, forgotten by Professor Night.

From here, the play plunges straight down a rabbit hole, dropping Constance first into Othello then Romeo & Juliet. Our hapless heroine embarks on a quest through her subconscious to find her identity, meeting the characters of Shakespeare’s plays along the way. Constance’s presence, however, changes the plays from tragedies to comedies, fulfilling her theory, albeit with unintended results as she becomes too involved in the plots.

What stands out most in MacDonald’s subversive play is the influence of the male gaze on Shakespeare’s female characters. For one, Constance refers to characters by what male academics have written about them, which creates some dissonance when she actually meets them. And then, there’s Shakespeare himself who sees Desdemona (Allison Lynch) as a possession for Othello who has her life in his hands, not unlike Professor Night with Constance. Juliet (Geneviève Paré) is prepared to die for Romeo (Julie Orton), her self-worth tied to romantic love with a man, again not unlike Constance and her love for Professor Night.

And so, Constance’s journey of self-discovery is about reclaiming her identity from patriarchal subjugation.

MacDonald’s play is very funny, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s also very smart. The text is rich in commentary about sexuality, the glass ceiling for female academics, and male-centric interpretations of English literature, all of which the Canadian playwright delivers with a deft hand. Thankfully, the play’s quirky humour is able to breathe through all these layers. Sometimes, comedic plays with big ideas fall flat as they are neither very funny or very insightful, effectively crushed under the weight of their ambition. MacDonald’s play rises to the task of producing smart, entertaining theatre.

Under Newby’s direction, the production is wild and delightfully weird. The director has chosen to stage the play in the 1970s, the era of funk and free love. The production is certainly funky with its collection of disco tunes, like Do The Hustle (Anton de Groot, Light and Sound Designer). The era is appropriate given the gender-bending that occurs with not only the presence of an all-female cast, but also Romeo and Juliet’s cross-dressing to win Constance’s favour; liberation from the status quo.

Julie Arsenault’s set is simple, yet effective. A two-tiered structure sits in the middle with two trap doors on its top. There is a balcony at the back of the theatre. At first glance, the floor – and the balcony wall – has normal flooring tiles, but then upon closer examination the tiles are actually pages of text from Shakespeare’s plays! Arsenault’s detail really establishes the Shakespeare wonderland Constance finds herself in.

In this wacky wonderland, we have an all-star female cast firing on all cylinders. Orton is a genuine scene stealer, and that’s a tough statement given that the comedic talent here is simply astounding. Even Orton’s most miniscule physicalities as the scheming Iago are hilarious. Her knack for physical comedy is no doubt from her years of improv experience. And then there’s Stephen who plays the Constance as if she were a cat hoarder days away from appearing on some TLC reality show. It’s an understated performance that fits marvelously with the surrounding absurdity. Lynch channels her inner Xena, warrior princess, for Desdemona, and it’s fantastic. Paré plays the death-obsessed, if not suicidal, Juliet with zest – o happy dagger indeed! Carvajal plays brings plenty of meaty machismo to the male characters of Professor Night, Othello and Tybalt.

Handsome Alice Theatre’s debut production is ferociously funny. Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) is a near-perfect introduction to this company dedicated to unleashing the female voice.


 

The Shakespeare Company & Handsome Alice Theatre & Hit & Myth Productions present Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) by Anne-Marie MacDonald, May 12 – 21 at Vertigo Theatre’s The Studio.

For more information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit: http://www.shakespearecompany.com/current-season/goodnight-desdemona-good-morning-juliet/

The Shakespeare Company’s Macbeth Conjures Wicked Suspense

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Haysam Kadri (Macbeth) and Anna Cummer (Lady Macbeth) in The Shakespeare Company and Hit & Myth Productions’ Macbeth, presented by Vertigo Theatre. Photo Credit: Benjamin Laird Arts & Photo.

In the entirety of William Shakespeare’s works, Macbeth (Haysam Kadri) and Lady Macbeth (Anna Cummer) are likely the most dysfunctional power couple. And it is all about power with the Macbeths, dominance and royal authority by any means necessary. There are other forces at work, too, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, forces that stare back from the abyss.

Presented by Vertigo Theatre, The Shakespeare Company and Hit & Myth Productions’ Macbeth conjures wicked suspense through its striking lighting design, direction, and performances.

Directed by Craig Hall, Shakespeare’s Macbeth stages the rise (and fall) of its titular character as prophesied by a trio of witches. Here, the witches are a strange family whose members are a Child (Keelen McCauley), Mother (Julie Orton), and Father (Joel Cochrane). Returning from battle, Macbeth and Banquo (Nathan Schmidt) meet three witches who tell Macbeth that he will climb the ranks until finally becoming king of Scotland. Banquo’s descendants will become kings, the witches prophesy, but he will not. The witches disappear into the night, leaving the two men to wonder what truth, if any, their prophecies carry.

Unlike Hamlet where the main character mopes around until the very end, Macbeth cuts straight to the chase, making it one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays. Like Prince Hamlet, Macbeth is severely troubled by the idea of committing regicide. Lady Macbeth has to not only push her husband to take the crown, but also devise the plan to murder King Duncan (Stephen Hair) in order for him to do so. Macbeth greatly differs from Hamlet in that the play explores what happens when a seemingly good person takes innocent life, rather than focus solely on the act of killing itself. (Maybe if Hamlet hadn’t wrapped up so fast, audiences would have seen a young Prince Hamlet deal with that newly discovered part of himself). Macbeth doesn’t stop at King Duncan, but continues killing anyone who stands in his way, including his friend Banquo. Shakespeare seems to caution that once the threshold is broken, darker sides of a person are released.

Interestingly, Hamlet and Macbeth start off in almost the same way, with the appearance of supernatural forces that guide the (tragic) hero’s journey. While the witches count on Macbeth’s overconfidence to be his downfall, none of that is possible without Lady Macbeth, arguably the play’s main villain. She runs with the idea of Macbeth becoming king. Once Macbeth shows weakness in front of his wife, Lady Macbeth is quick to shame her husband for ‘not being a man’. Here, the director emphasizes that there is a genuine, if intense, love that exists within the relationship, making its corruption by Lady Macbeth even more poignant. Initially, Macbeth acts out of love and obedience to his wife, but then takes a path of his own, causing Lady Macbeth to severely regret her actions.

Speaking about corruption, Set Designer Hanne Loosen’s Scotland has a bit of a wasteland vibe to it with the heavy, brooding fog that fills the stage. The trees that loom overhead in the back hide secrets (and a dead body). Anton de Groot’s lighting design casts the Macbeth residence in hard light for the most part, with some soft light for the good guys like Macduff (Karl Sine). The lighting is very atmospheric and telling about the state of Scotland and the characters on stage. There is a general sense of dread that comes across with the way actors’ faces are shadowed.

What’s refreshing about Kadri’s Macbeth is the humour that the actor brings to the role. It’s welcomed relief from the grimness of the production. The humour works, too, with just how twisted, unhinged, and unpredictable Macbeth becomes near the end. Make no mistake, however, the actor is more than adept at playing the monster Macbeth soon becomes. Kadri delivers a compelling performance that slays, in more ways than one.

Cummer is absolutely enthralling as Lady Macbeth. The emotionally nuanced performance really digs itself deep under the character’s skin to bring out the darkness that lurks inside a seemingly good person. And who better to flesh out that darkness than Cummer, a magnificently articulate actress. Her power over Kadri’s Macbeth is absolute as her words sting like the most venomous snake in the jungle. The sleepwalk scene is made even more interesting by the fact Lady Macbeth’s crushing power turns against her, destroying her in the process.

The production runs 90 minutes, and in that 90 minutes Hall is able to establish a great number of things, particularly the supernatural/occult presence. Since the play is staged during the mid-late 19th century, there are no cauldrons or pointy witch hats, but instead the occult and symbols associated with it. Hall achieves great results with these elements as the supernatural not only feels otherworldly, but also as if it should not be summoned to begin with (like a Ouija board in the attic). Andrew Blizzard’s earth trembling sound design grants the supernatural even more terror.

The Shakespeare Company and Hit & Myth Productions’ Macbeth is a thrilling night at the theatre.


The Shakespeare Company and Hit & Myth Productions’ Macbeth runs March 30 – April 16 at Vertigo Theatre’s The Studio.

For more information about the show, including how to buy tickets, visit: http://www.shakespearecompany.com/current-season/macbeth/

 

I Say, You Say: Holt Takes The Stage For Shakespeare’s Will

Elinor Holt plays Anne Hathaway in Thiessen's one-woman drama Shakespeare's Will. Photo credit: McDonald Photography.

Elinor Holt plays Anne Hathaway in Thiessen’s one-woman drama Shakespeare’s Will. Photo credit: McDonald Photography.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, maybe. Ask William Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway (Elinor Holt) what she thinks about that.

One part history, several parts dramatic whimsy, Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen’s Shakespeare’s Will should not be taken as a pure biography of Anne Hathaway’s life. Think of the play – presented by Sage Theatre – more as an imagining inspired by historical fact. Thiessen’s imagining is primarily inspired by Shakespeare’s last will and testament, an actual document whose phrasing has produced much speculation on the nature of Anne and William’s relationship.

On the eve of William’s funeral, Anne is pressured by her husband’s sister, Joan, to hurry home and read his will. Anne is hesitant, however, to read her late husband’s final wishes. Instead, the widow journeys back to when she, at the age of 26, met the young Shakespeare. The 18-year-old writer is, surprisingly, a man of few words, content only to respond with ‘aye’ when speaking with Anne. Despite this, Anne falls for and eventually marries William – Anne’s pregnancy may or may not have fast tracked that decision.

Anne and her three children are just about abandoned by William when his theatrical aspirations call him to London. Yes, he sends money and (very brief) letters from the city, but what about the months spent away from his family? What about Anne’s unfulfilled sexual desires? Maybe Anne’s overbearing father was right about not trusting Catholics. After all, William is nowhere close for support when the plague breaks out.

Thiessen may not be interested in telling just any old love story, but the play certainly feels familiar. One reason for the play’s familiarity is that at its core, its premise is this: a woman marries an artist whose career takes him far away from home. No doubt, what makes this specific story standout is the mystique surrounding Shakespeare’s personal life. Given that Anne is very much on the periphery of that fascination, more of an answer on an high school English exam than a historical figure, Thiessen’s play feels as though any couple of the same dynamic could replace Anne and William.

Thiessen’s rich, flowing language has a rhythm to it that Holt carries wonderfully. Kelly Reay’s smooth direction matches Thiessen’s style impeccably. The director’s strong awareness of space and movement transforms the stage into an almost dream-like sea of memories where Holt is caught adrift. Ajay Badoni’s emotional lighting design plunges the stage further into this ethereal state, to the tune of Allison Lynch’s solid musical composition.

Memory is a powerful thing as Holt demonstrates in full force. How Holt so effortlessly sweeps back and forth between Anne’s memories is mesmerizing. Every word spoken feels honest, almost as if Holt were revealing a secret to a friend. Holt truly lives every detail of Anne’s personal history, from the birth of her children to her unhappy encounter with tragedy. Alone, Holt conjures an intimate, stirring performance that almost convinces us otherwise about Thiessen’s loose imagining of history.

Ultimately, Thiessen’s springboard for imagination, as he calls it, misses the mark by telling a story about a woman like Anne Hathaway, not a story about Anne Hathaway. Thiessen admits the play is not a proper historical representation of Anne Hathaway, and that apology is founded. Although there is not a vast wealth of knowledge about Anne Hathaway’s personal life, there is still something strange about trying to stage Anne’s perspective when it relies so heavily on her husband’s legacy. Thiessen’s script is written well as it offers plenty for Holt to sink her teeth into, but audiences may feel a lingering disconnect in the back of their minds.


Sage Theatre’s Shakespeare’s Will runs Nov 6 – 14 at the Joyce Doolittle Theatre.

For more information about the show, including ticket information: http://sagetheatre.com/

Artists’ Collective Theatre Brings Arden of Faversham to Canada

Artists' Collective Theatre's Arden of Faversham by Unknown ran Oct 22 - 30 at Festival Hall. Imaged provided by Artists' Collective Theatre.

Artists’ Collective Theatre’s Arden of Faversham by Unknown ran Oct 22 – 30 at Festival Hall. Image provided by Artists’ Collective Theatre.

Enjoying its Canadian premiere at Artists’ Collective Theatre, Arden of Faversham (1590) is a play whose authorship has long been disputed. Scholars have attributed the domestic tragedy to the likes of Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, and William Shakespeare. While the authorship is still debated today, what is known for certain is that Arden of Faversham is based on a true crime from 1551.

Directed by Christopher Weddell, Arden of Faversham stages the grizzly murder of Thomas Arden (Peter Cameron) by his wife Alice (Jennifer Merio) and her lover, Mosbie (Felix Leblanc). Alice and Mosbie hire hitmen Black Will (Ben Francis) and Shakebag (Josh Bertwistle) to murder Thomas. Other conspirators include servants Michael (Jonathan Molinski) and Susan (Megan Baldrey), property rival Greene (Amanda Liz Cutting), and a painter named Clarke (Conrad Belau). The plot against Thomas repeatedly fails, despite many (humorous) attempts on his life.

Weddell has staged Arden of Faversham in the style of a film noir drama. An appropriate choice given that England’s seedy underbelly is thrust to the spotlight in this true crime dramatization. Weddell captures the style well by emphasizing the social decay surrounding the characters. Michelle McAulay’s lighting design sees the hall darkly lit , populating the performance area with shadows – shadows that hide malicious intent.

Weddell has turned an otherwise musty narrative that runs too long into something of a farce. The emphasis on character antics works fairly well with the film noir elements. Blackwill and Shakebag’s assasination attempts are played like a series of Boris and Natasha plots. Bertwistle returns each time filthier and more beaten up, barely able to talk, but just alive enough to try one more time. Really, the dark humour is not a gigantic leap considering the strangeness already present e.g. a painting that kills any who look it at.

Even still, the play runs far too long, especially since the audience knows Thomas will eventually get sacked. The big (and bloody) moment is quite rewarding, thankfully.

What slows the production are the number of set pieces that have to be wheeled around between scenes. Stairs are a prominent image here. The set, designed by Nigel Francis, is visually appealing, but the actual build is concerning. The Arden residence wobbles whenever actors go up and down the stairs.

Merio’s Alice is truly befitting of the title femme fatale. The actress delivers a striking performance as the seductress who bends men to her deadly will. Leblanc’s Mosbie may be a lover, but he is also a worthy opponent for Alice. Cameron carries himself well as Thomas, a wealthy and reviled businessman. Eric Pettifor joins Cameron as Thomas’ trusted companion. Francis and Bertwistle really throw themselves into the comedic roles of Blackwill and Shakebag, respectively. The audience laughs plenty watching these two fail again and again, receiving a beating each time by Cutting.

Even actors in smaller roles pull their weight in this production. Molinski gets big laughs from the audience in fun character moments peppered throughout. Linda Kee brings a delightful energy to the stage as Bradshaw, an unknowing accomplice who was acquitted posthumously. And Charlotte Loeppky, who plays various roles, is solid, making us wish she were given more stage time.

Certainly, Arden of Faversham is not for everyone. The Elizabethean tragedy is difficult to access, mainly due to its unruly length. Where this production succeeds is in its efforts to make the play accessible by adapting the narrative to a familiar context. Issues aside, ACT’s Arden of Faversham is an alluring production that delivers both intrigue and fun.


Artists’ Collective Theatre’s Arden of Faversham ran Oct 22 – 30 at Festival Hall.

Artists’ Collective Theatre: http://acttheatre.ca/

Mercutio & Tybalt Impresses at Calgary Fringe Festival

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From left to right: Tybalt (Celene Harder) and Mercutio (Val Duncan) bring their side of the story to life in Valour & Tea’s Mercutio & Tybalt. Photo Credit: Chris Tait.

William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has seen its fair share of adaptations and retellings, but none, Mercutio (Val Duncan) says, have come even close to the truth. For how many know that Mercutio and Tybalt (Celene Harder) were actually close friends? That is the premise of Valour & Tea’s newest work Mercutio & Tybalt, a hilarious reimagining of Shakespeare’s most popular play.

Written and directed by Duncan and Harder, Mercutio & Tybalt catches up with the titular characters in the afterlife. Still bitter about the fact that the story of two dumb, hormone-crazed teenagers has endured the last 400 years, Mercutio and Tybalt decide it’s time that they share their story with the world. What follows is an epic tale of bromance, full of puppetry and swordplay, that weaves in and out of familiar scenes from Romeo and Juliet.

Duncan and Harder stay true to the Bard’s style by performing the show entirely in iambic pentameter, with modern slang included in the mix. In doing so, Mercutio and Tybalt’s vaudeville-inspired antics are given a natural, if not musical, rhythm for the actors to follow.

Duncan and Harder have crafted a wildly fun show that works for both friends and acquaintances of the Bard. Harder’s bad-tempered Tybalt is the perfect foil to Duncan’s immature, yet sharp tongued Mercutio. The pair work brilliantly together, delivering a charming performance abundant in wit and attitude.

Mercutio & Tybalt captures the spirit of its source material, while delivering something fresh and vibrant at the same time. Audiences will find much to enjoy here, guaranteed.


Val Duncan and Celene Harder’s Mercutio Tybalt runs July 31st – August 8th as part of the 2015 Calgary Fringe Festival.

For more information about the show and how to purchase tickets, visit: http://see.calgaryfringe.ca/events/464-mercutio-tybalt

MacAlpine’s Polonius and His Children Delivers Intense Family Drama

Anna MacAlpine's Polonius and Children ran as part of Sage Theatre's 2015 Ignite! Festival. Pictured: John McIver (Polonius) and Brianna Johnston (Ophelia). Imaged provided by Sage Theatre.

Anna MacAlpine’s Polonius and Children ran as part of Sage Theatre’s 2015 Ignite! Festival. Pictured: John McIver (Polonius) and Brianna Johnston (Ophelia). Imaged provided by Sage Theatre.

One hopes that the dead find peace in the afterlife; some respite from their mortal pains. That is, after all, the promise of death: an ultimate end. But what if, what if the dead are no different than those who roam the earth, burdened by secrets and regret?

Anna MacAlpine’s Polonius and His Children imagines a reunion between the titular character (John McIver) and his children – Ophelia (Brianna Johnston) and Laertes (Greg Wilson) – in the afterlife. The reunion is, unfortunately, not a happy one as the characters, the very same from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, meet only to confront each other on unresolved issues. Among them is an unseen, mischievous spirit of the void (Amy Sawka) who narrates the drama.

Ophelia is the first to meet Polonius. Upon seeing her soaked dress, Polonius, whose stab wounds have not healed, asks who drowned her. Ophelia’s response is, very fortunately, interrupted by Laertes’ entrance into the void. Quickly, Ophelia and Laertes find that their father, despite an eternity for reflection, is the same old fool he was when they were alive.

While Polonius’ children both assert themselves against their father, it is Ophelia who struggles most to have her independence recognized. Even in this hellish landscape, Polonius and Laertes continue to dominate Ophelia’s life. They speak so much over Ophelia that she is never given the chance to explain herself. In fact, MacAlpine argues, Ophelia has never been allowed to explain herself.

Here, MacAlpine examines through a feminist lens the works of art inspired by Ophelia’s death. MacAlpine does so by envisioning what Ophelia would say about the artists who, over the years, have portrayed her as a virginal beauty who died a ‘beautiful death’. It was not beautiful, Ophelia says, it was painful. And why is there, she asks, such importance placed on virginity? How does that make a death beautiful in any way? Ophelia’s soliloquy is replete with anger, frustration at the narratives imposed upon her exploited body.

Along the way, MacAlpine infuses humour into the play in the way of clever references to the source material. The playwright, too, has fun with the characters whom she has written with her own flavour. Although, while the humour works in some areas, the humour feels out of place and at odds with the play’s overall brooding tone.

In terms of performances, the ensemble is strong. Sawka is very physical and light on her feet. Her playfulness never upstages the main action. McIver plays Polonius brilliantly. McIver’s mannerisms signal a Polonius who has lived one life too many; an old man unable to find rest. Johnston and Wilson do well as Ophelia and Laertes. Wilson’s casual demeanor mixed with his solid delivery attracts big laughs from the audience. Johnston nails the soliloquy given to her, she is truly in synch with her character.

MacAlpine’s Polonius and His Children is a smart, poignant drama that intrigues with its troubled characters and urgent themes.


Anna MacAlpine’s Polonius and His Children was presented by Sage Theatre’s 2015 Ignite! Festival. The festival ran June 18-20 at The Studio inside Vertigo Theatre.