Love & games in Dauntless City Theatre’s delightful, immersive, gender-bending adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing

Kate Werneburg & Chanakya Mukherjee. Photo and design by Dahlia Katz.

 

Dauntless City Theatre’s Bard in Berczy brings us a delightful, immersive, gender-bending adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Adapted and directed by Eric Benson, Much Ado opened last night in Toronto’s Berczy Park (in St. Lawrence Market, with the cool dog-themed fountain).

We’re invited to gather near the Dauntless City sign (on the east side of the fountain) as the stage is set for this tale of love, games, jealousy and schemes. The ukulele-playing Balthazar (Holly Wyder) is our guide throughout this tale, as she leads us around the park to witness the various scenes unfold.

Returning home from war, Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks), her sister Don John (Melanie Leon), and officers Benedick (Kate Werneburg) and Claudio (Ira Henderson) stop for some R&R at the home of Leonato, Governor of Messina (Andrew Joseph Richardson) and his wife Innogen (Andrea Irwin). From the get-go, it’s clear that Claudio is smitten with their hosts’ son Hero (Chase Winnicky); and, as evidenced by their edgy, wit-filled banter, Benedick definitely has history with Hero’s cousin Beatrice (Chanakya Mukherjee). Their mutual love professed, Claudio and Hero decide to marry, and the vacation gathering goes into wedding planning mode.

Emboldened by the love in the air, the Prince and her hosts hatch a plan to bring the stubborn Benedick and scornful Beatrice into a love match. Meanwhile, jealous of her sister’s station and affection for Claudio, Don John seeks a way to cause mischief and bring chaos to the upcoming nuptials. Her follower Borachio (Wilex Ly) concocts a plan to disgrace Hero, using his lover Margaret (Jordan Shore), in sight of Don Pedro and Claudio to make them think Hero was with him the night before the wedding. Chaos ensues, the wedding is abruptly called off at the altar—and the accidental apprehension of one of the culprits by the local constabulary, led by the bumbling Head Officer of the Watch Dogberry (Andrea Lyons) and her partner Verges (Erin Eldershaw), could make all the difference between tragedy and a happy ending.

This abridged adaptation (90 minutes, no intermission) brings the audience into the action as we follow the story scene by scene around the fountain, bridged by snatches of music (supplied by Wyder, with music direction by David Kingsmill) that call back to the action. The fact that most of the roles have been gender reversed in casting (except for Leonato, Innogen, Claudio and Borachio)—creating two same-sex male couples—offers a fresh, new look at familiar characters. And Leonato’s wife Innogen, who has no lines in the original script, has dialogue in this version—largely borrowed from Leonato and the Friar; this puts her in a much more active position in the problem-solving plans of her household.

Big shouts to the ensemble for a thoroughly enjoyable, intimate experience of this Shakespeare favourite. Werneburg and Mukherjee have great chemistry as Benedick and Beatrice, shifting from prideful, witty verbal combatants to love-struck, stammering romantic prospects. The stubborn scorn of romance melts away as their friends’ well-meaning prank blooms into the realization that they really do love each other. And Winnicky and Henderson are adorably sweet and bashful as the young lovers Hero and Claudio. The gender reversed casting and same-sex couples make for some interesting insights into societal assumptions of male and female behaviour. Women can be tough soldiers who scoff at romance, men can be empathetic and show their feelings, and love is love no matter what the equation.

Other stand-outs include Leon’s mean-spirited, sullen Don John. Seething with jealousy over that which she lacks, Don John does what she wants and consequences be damned—but finds her cruel trickery offering limited mirth and sport. And Lyons and Eldershaw bring on the comic relief big time as the hilarious, goofball leaders of the Watch—combining physical comedy with the malapropism-filled text to great effect and LOLs.

Much Ado About Nothing continues at Berczy Park until Aug 26, with performances on Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 1:00 p.m. Admission is PWYC; gather around the Dauntless City sign and be prepared to move around the space to keep up with the action.

You can keep up with Dauntless City Theatre on Twitter and Facebook. In the meantime, check out Phil Rickaby’s great interview with Benson, Werneburg and Chanakya on Stageworthy Podcast.

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Casual cruelty & family secrets in ferociously funny, devastatingly poignant August: Osage County

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Marie Carriere Gleason (foreground), with Paul Cotton, Kelly-Marie Murtha, Melinda Jordan, Pearl Ho & Andrew Batten – photos by Bruce Peters

Alumnae Theatre Company cordially invites you to attend a family gathering at the home of Beverly and Violet Weston in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

Alumnae opened its production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County on the mainstage last night. Directed by Victoria Shepherd and featuring a talented ensemble, this is family dysfunction at its grittiest, no holds barred best.

When the Weston family patriarch (Thomas Gough) goes missing, middle daughter Ivy (Andrea Lyons) – the only child who stayed in town – rallies the family around her ailing mother Violet (Marie Carriere Gleason). Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Carol McLennan) and husband Charlie (Rob Candy) are the first to arrive, and we get a sense of the estrangement that underpins the family dynamic. The Weston’s oldest daughter Barbara (Kelly-Marie Murtha) is the most wanted – but least wanting – to be there; she arrives from Colorado with husband Bill (Paul Cotton) and 14-year-old daughter Jean (Melinda Jordan) in tow. Add to this mix youngest Weston girl Karen (Kathleen Jackson Allamby) and fiancé Steve (Chris Peterson), and cousin Little Charles (Neil Cameron), and the family circus is complete – occasionally witnessed from the outside by housekeeper/caregiver Johnna (Pearl Ho) and Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Andrew Batten). The atmosphere becomes rife with nostalgia (for better or worse), secrets and schemes as things fall apart and come together only to fall apart again and again.

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Marie Carriere Gleason & Andrea Lyons

Nice work all around from this large, engaging cast. The play runs two and a half hours, plus intermission, but doesn’t feel like it. The Weston family women anchor this story – and the cast is particularly strong here. Gleason’s Violet is a complex puzzle of illness, addiction and survivor; quick to offer unsolicited – and decidedly not feminist – advice to the women in her life, her brutal honesty is shockingly unforgiving. Moments of manipulation and Hollywood-calibre drama queen can turn (seemingly) into flashes of genuine tenderness. Lyons gives a lovely, multi-layered performance as the put-upon Ivy; a character that could easily become a one-dimensional family doormat, she pushes back with a sharp wit and dark sense of humour. She has a pure heart and the patience of a saint, but as the main butt of her mother’s criticism, even she has her limits. Murtha’s Barbara is the picture of a woman on the edge, struggling with a complex set of emotions as her whole world is crumbling around her. The family rock, she strives to keep things together even as she’s falling apart herself – by turns angry, exasperated, protective and acerbically funny, putting out one fire as another appears. Allamby’s Karen is a beautiful contradiction; a high-energy chatterbox, Karen strives for self-awareness and adulthood, but comes off as flakey and deluded, with a poignant, child-like quality to her rose-coloured family nostalgia, born of selective memory. McLennan’s Mattie Fae, like her sister Violet, is a complex woman of contradiction – as cruel in her judgemental criticism (in her case, aimed at her son Little Charles) as she is fiercely protective of her family, including her son. And Jordan brings a precocious, wise child edge to Jean; a self-possessed young film buff coming into herself as she deals with her parents’ relationship issues.

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Pearl Ho & Thomas Gough

Other stand-outs include Gough’s wry-witted, melancholy alcoholic Beverly; a lauded poet and academic at the end of his rope, we only see him at the top of the play, but his presence resonates and stays with us. Batten brings an understated, quiet and boyish bashfulness and sense of anticipation to the Sheriff, a former beau of Barbara’s. And Peterson’s Steve is both charming and skeevy; a smooth operator under that sweet, helpful exterior.

It’s like watching a train wreck – and you can’t look away. The high drama of this family gathering is tempered by sharp-edged, dark humour – which the family uses for both self-protection and sniper attacks – and occasional moments of genuine, loving connection. Nothing brings out a family’s true colours like tragedy.

With shouts to set designer Alexis Chubb’s minimalist, multi-level set, with its inventive and effective multiple playing areas and nooks for the various family vignettes. And to John Stuart Campbell for the sound design and original composition; his song “Can’t Run Far Enough” features vocals by Vivien Shepherd and Ron Smith on harmonica – and haunting, wistful western sounds.

Casual cruelty and family secrets abound in Alumnae’s ferociously funny, devastatingly poignant production of August: Osage County.

August: Osage County continues on the Alumnae mainstage until April 23; check here for ticket purchase/info. Performances include a pre-show chat with the design team at noon tomorrow (Sun, Apr 10); and a post-show talkback with the cast and crew on Sun, Apr 17.

Related trivia/info: Former Alumnae President (and damn fine actor) Dinah Watts is in a London Community Players’ production of August: Osage County in London, ON right now. Lett’s first play Killer Joe is in production at Coal Mine Theatre till April 24 (I’m seeing it on Tuesday). And founder/playwright at Cue6 Theatre Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman (who was in Alumnae’s production of Wit, and has play We Three running now at Tarragon) is on the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s literary team for the world premiere of Letts’ play Mary Page Marlowe.

Oh yeah, and here’s the awesome trailer for the Alumnae production of August: Osage County (video by Nicholas Porteous):