Fond, foolish love & trickster shenanigans in the roaringly entertaining Twelfth Night

Shakespeare BASH’d continues its 2016-17 season with a ripping version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; directed by James Wallis with associate director Drew O’Hara, and opening to a sold out house at the Monarch Tavern last night.

Set in the 1920s, and inspired by the music, speak easy atmosphere and carpe diem abandon of that decade, this version of Twelfth Night also hits notes of melancholy and the lost innocence of a society that’s just come through its first world war—self-medicating with jazz and booze, and grabbing love and happiness when and where they can.

Orsino (Shawn Ahmed) is deeply in love with Olivia (Hallie Seline), but she is in deep mourning for her father and now her brother, whose death occurred soon after. Meanwhile, Viola (Jade Douris) has washed ashore, surviving a ship wreck in which she fears her twin brother Sebastian was lost. Aware that she is a woman alone and setting foot on less than friendly territory, she disguises herself as a page named Cesario and goes to work for Orsino. Seizing an opportunity to utilize the pretty youth, Orsino sends Cesario/Viola to press his suit to Olivia—leaving Olivia smitten with Cesario, which is beyond awkward for Cesario/Viola, as she’s fallen in love with Orsino.

In Olivia’s household, her drunken uncle Sir Toby Belch (Daniel Briere), ignored suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jesse Nerenberg) and sassy gentlewoman Maria (Julia Nish-Lapidus) plot revenge on Olivia’s severe, proud steward Malvolio (Jesse Griffiths) with the help of the newly returned Feste (a female Fool in trousers played by Lesley Robertson) and the local parish priest Fabian (Augusto Bitter).

Meanwhile, we learn that Viola’s brother Sebastian (Jeff Yung) has survived the wreck; saved by the ship’s captain Antonio (Nate Bitton), now a good friend and devoted to Sebastian. And, of course, as this is Shakespeare, there’s a comedy of errors with the twins—and as it’s a comedy, it all works out in the end. But this is a comedy with dark undertones, particularly with the tricks played on Malvolio, which go from harmless prank to gas lighting; and there is an edge of wounded melancholy evident in all the characters.

Really nice work from the ensemble, who invite the audience along the journey, bringing us into this world. Stand-outs include Seline’s Olivia, a lovely and richly layered performance; a proud, strong woman, Olivia has sharp enough wit to match any man, but also a tender and fragile heart. Seline conveys as much from a facial expression as she does with the text. Griffiths does a great job with Malvolio; stiff and imperious, with a nasty, prideful underbelly, the self-righteous Malvolio is too self-involved and delighted to see what’s really going on when the others punk him.

Robertson drops the mic as Feste; hilariously witty and a master debater, she too has a soft heart—especially for Curio—and we get the sense that, beneath all her tomfoolery, she’s come through the war deeply hurt. And Briere and Nerenberg make for a very funny, odd team as the drunken, layabout Belch and awkward, clueless Aguecheek.

Speaking of tomfoolery, the letter reveal scene is particularly hilarious, with Belch, Aguecheek and Fabian rushing about to hide as they watch Malvolio read a love letter he believes to be for him from Olivia; as is the duel scene between the terrified Aguecheek and Douris’s adorably baffled and equally petrified Cesario/Viola.

Opening with music selections from the period—and featuring accompaniment (guitar, ukulele and piano), lovely vocals and original music by Franziska Beeler (as Curio)—there’s a sexy, jazzy vibe to this production; and nicely bookended with the dance number (choreographed by Douris) at the curtain call.

Fond, foolish love and trickster shenanigans in the roaringly entertaining Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night continues at the Monarch Tavern until February 5; it’s a short run and they’re already sold out, but if you show up early, they may be able to squeeze you in. Please note the 7:30pm start time for evening performances; there are also matinees at 2pm on February 4 and 5.

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Photo by Kyle Purcell: Jesse Nerenberg, Julia Nish-Lapidus & Daniel Briere, with Jesse Griffiths’ legs

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Toronto Fringe: Take a trip into the Underworld with the beautifully theatrical, sensuous & thought-provoking Persephone

persephone 2A well-known myth gets a new, feminist-inspired perspective at this year’s Toronto Fringe in Pencil Kit Productions’ lush, multi-disciplinary staging of Persephone. Directed by Claren Grosz and created collectively by the company, the show is currently running at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse.

In this version of Persephone’s journey to the Underworld, we are shown several sides of the story – and everyone seems to have a different version. Love-struck Hades (Christopher Sawchyn) makes a request to Zeus (Felix Beauchamp) to arrange a marriage with his daughter Persephone (Sydney Herauf), but clearly no one checked in with her mother Demeter (Jacklyn Francis). Beside herself with worry as she searches for her beloved daughter, Demeter casts the world into winter in protest in an attempt to force Zeus’s hand and get Persephone back. In the end, though, it is Persephone who decides and enacts the terms of her release.

Using movement and dance that is both playful and erotic, as well as music and song – and with a delightful comedic introduction to the tale – the ensemble does a remarkable job with the storytelling. Herauf gives us a fulsome, well-rounded performance as Persephone; going from precocious, curious child to a strong-willed teen who questions authority, to a young woman discovering her own desires and choices as she navigates the decisions that were made for her. Sawchyn is imperious and seductive as Hades; and despite his commanding personality, he’s far more sensitive and accommodating than one would think. A lonely god, he seems to really want to get to know Persephone and cares about her welfare and happiness. This in contrast to Beauchamp’s cocky Zeus, who is decidedly more old-school patriarchy; with a laissez-faire attitude toward fatherhood, his power is absolute – but despite his arrogance, he’s not stupid and knows he must make a compromise with Demeter or the people will perish in the harsh conditions of her imposed winter. Francis is lovely, majestic and nurturing as Demeter (aka Mother Nature); in today’s terms, her parenting style would be called “helicopter,” and her fear for her daughter’s safety, while well-founded, is overly controlling at times. Afraid to let her daughter go and ferocious in her pursuit to get her back – you don’t wanna mess with Mother Nature.

Really nice work from the members of the chorus, who portray multiple characters, including trees and a river. Laura Katherine Hayes give a great turn as Persephone’s irreverent, playful friend and lover Diana; and Augusto Bitter and Fiona Haque do a lovely re-enactment of the Orpheus and Eurydice tale. Keshia Palm injects some fabulous sass; and Sheree Spencer brings mystery and some beautiful violin music.

With shouts to the design team: Sim Suzer (costume) and Kennedy Brooks (lighting) for their evocative work on this production.

Take a trip into the Underworld with the beautifully theatrical, sensuous and thought-provoking Persephone.

Persephone continues at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse until July 9. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.