Power, identity & politics: Women come out from behind the men in the potent, thoughtful Portia’s Julius Caesar

Nikki Duval & Christine Horne. Set & costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Shakespeare’s women continue to take centre stage this summer—this time, with Shakespeare in the Ruff’s production of AD Kaitlyn Riordan’s Portia’s Julius Caesar, a potent and thoughtful adaptation of Julius Caesar from the point of view of the women in this story. The sharply wrought script weaves the text woven from 17 Shakespeare plays, four sonnets and a poem with new dialogue—and the women behind the men come to the fore as they wrestle with their own issues of identity, power and justice. Directed by Eva Barrie, Portia’s Julius Caesar is currently running outdoors in Toronto’s Withrow Park.

While all of Rome celebrates Caesar’s (Jeff Yung) triumphant return from a successful campaign against the sons of Pompey, his wife Calpurnia (Nikki Duval) confides in her bosom friend Portia, wife to Brutus (Christine Horne), regarding her concerns over their lack of an heir and Caesar’s relationship with the legendary Cleopatra, who she fears may usurp her. Nursing a newborn son herself, Portia is supportive and optimistic for her friend’s chances of bearing a child; but soon finds herself uneasy in her own marriage as Brutus (Adriano Sobretodo Jr.) becomes increasingly distant and absent from their home.

Meanwhile, some in Rome are troubled by Caesar’s desire for a crown, which he hides with false humility; and there are those who fear that the republic may become a monarchy ruled by a boisterous, boasting tyrant. Among these are Servilia (Deborah Drakeford), Brutus’s imperious power-brokering mother and Cassius (Kwaku Okyere), Brutus’s friend—who both fan his deep concerns over Caesar’s popularity and hunger for power. Choosing his love of Rome over his love of Caesar, Brutus joins Cassius and a group of like-minded conspirators in a deadly plan to put a stop to Caesar’s rise to power. Hiding in the shadows to learn what is afoot, Portia catches wind of the plan; now faced with wanting to warn her friend Calpurnia but not betray her husband, she goes to Calpurnia with a story of a dream of Caesar’s bloody statue. Coupled with the Soothsayer’s (Tahirih Vejdani) recent warning, Calpurnia attempts to stop Caesar from going to the Senate on that fateful day—even after Brutus has persuaded him to do so—but fails to convince.

The actions that follow create a heartbreaking rift between Calpurnia and Portia, and make for additional tragedy in this tale of power, propaganda and loyalty. Portia fears for her life and that of her son when Marc Antony (Giovanni Spina) turns the people against Brutus, Cassius and their fellow assassins. Returning home to find Brutus gone, Portia learns that Servilia has secreted their son away to keep him safe. But how safe can anyone be in these chaotic, bloody times? In the end, the living are left to mourn their dead—and judge themselves for their actions in the outcome.

Remarkable work from Duval and Horne as Calpurnia and Portia; friends of their own accord, with a relationship separate from that of their husbands, these women truly love, nurture and support each other. Duval gives a moving performance as Calpurnia; an intelligent woman, well aware of her husband’s station and rise to power, Calpurnia beats herself up for not having children and blames herself for his womanizing. And seeing her friend nurse her baby makes Calpurnia want a child even more. Horne deftly mines Portia’s internal conflict as a contented, happy mother and supportive wife and friend whose reach only goes so far. Portia simply can’t wait on the sidelines when she knows that something serious is afoot with Brutus—and her insistence that he confide in her comes from a genuine desire to help. Longing to not only do their duty, but be real, invested partners to their husbands, Calpurnia and Portia can only respond as events emerge—and do what they believe is right under the circumstances. Drakeford gives a striking performance as the sharp-witted, intimidating yet vulnerable Servilia. Unable to wield direct political power herself, Servilia employs what influence she has to persuade individuals and manage events; and with no female role models at the time, she appears to model her behaviour after that of powerful men—perhaps finding herself at odds with her natural instincts.

The outstanding ensemble also includes a Young Ruffian Chorus (Troy Sarju, Sienna Singh and Jahnelle Jones-Williams); and the male actors also portray the various washerwomen—as women and slaves, they represent the lowest among the 99% in Rome. Okyere’s fiery, volatile, hasty Cassius is the perfect foil to Sobretodo’s cool, diplomatic, calculating Brutus. Spina does a great job balancing Antony’s fired-up warrior and eloquent orator; and, in addition to the enigmatic Soothsayer, Vejdani gives us a playful and seductive Casca, a Roman courtesan in this adaptation whose part in the plot includes distracting Antony from the impending plot against Caesar.

Portia’s Julius Caesar continues at Withrow Park (in the space just south of the washrooms) until September 3, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (no show on August 27, but there will be a special Labour Day performance on Sept 3); the show runs 110 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets are PWYC at the venue (cash only: $20 suggested); advance tickets available online for $20 (regular) or $30 (includes camp chair rental).

Bring a blanket, beach towel or chair; bug spray also recommended. Concerned about the possible impact of weather conditions on a performance? Keep an eye out on Shakespeare in the Ruff’s Twitter feed or Facebook page for updates and cancellations.

In the meantime, check out this insightful and revealing Toronto Star piece by Carly Maga about the show, including an interview with AD/playwright Kaitlyn Riordan.

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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.

Foul treachery, sweet slithering manipulation in Shakespeare Bash’d compelling, accessible Richard III

James Wallis in Richard III. Photo by Kyle Purcell.

 

Shakespeare Bash’d opened its 2018 season to a sold-out house at the Monarch Tavern last night with a classic tale of murderous machinations and royal double-crosses with its production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, directed by Julia Nish-Lapidus with associate director Megan Miles.

For those not familiar with the history and characters behind this drama: no worries, there’s a handy, brief introduction in the program to orient you to the background and major players in this story of violence, betrayal and plotting over the English throne.

The War of the Roses has just ended, with The House of York (who wore the white rose) victorious over the House of Lancaster (wore the red rose). Taking advantage of the recent upheaval and a country still divided, Richard of Gloucester (James Wallis) turns his brother King Edward IV (Trevor Pease), who’s been suffering ill health, against their brother Clarence (also played by Pease; do-able as Clarence and Edward are never in a scene together). Playing the long game, Richard is counting on Edward’s imminent death – which, when it comes to pass, only leaves him with two young princes to deal with.

Weaving a complex, tangled web of deceit that includes toxic gossip dissemination and emotional manipulation, Richard manages to calm the wrath of Anne (Jennifer Dzialoszynski), widow of the usurped Prince of Wales, who he slayed – in that classic complex and difficult two-hander that takes place over the casket of her dead husband. She later has little choice but to consent to marry him. Unrelenting in his drive and ambition, and dangerously unpredictable, even Richard’s followers become uneasy around him – and rightly so. As the bodies pile up on his way to the throne, friends who supported him – like Hastings (Kelly Wong) and Buckingham (Cosette Derome) – are executed when he whiffs even the slightest scent of disloyalty or hesitation in executing his orders.

And just when you think Richard can’t get any more disgusting, after he orders the assassination of his two nephew princes, he gets rid his wife Anne (poison) and goes on to demand that his brother’s widowed queen Elizabeth (Catherine Rainville) speak to her daughter Elizabeth (his niece) to prepare her to be his queen!

Richard III’s crimes do not go unpunished. In the end, the House of Lancaster rises up and Richmond (Drew O’Hara) rallies supporters to depose the tyrant king and reunify the country.

Outstanding work from the multitasking ensemble in this complex, dynamic tale of familial homicide, vengeance and bringing down a tyrant: Cosette Derome, Jade Douris, Jennifer Dzialoszynski, Suzette McCanny, Shalyn McFaul, Drew O’Hara, Trevor Pease, Catherine Rainville, James Wallis, Kelly Wong and Joseph Zita. Wallis gives us a subtle, cunning and menacing Richard. Richard is the king of fake news – and, as we know from current experience, when it comes to fake news, he who smelt it dealt it. Casually executing acts of horrible violence, Richard is adept at masking his true feelings and masterfully manipulates public opinion, playing the humble and devout servant of the realm when it suits his skeevy, scheming purposes.

Other stand-outs include Derome’s ambitious and sly Buckingham; friend and loyal supporter of Richard’s schemes, even she can’t help but be disturbed by his actions and orders. McCanny is fierce in her curses and merciless in her rage as Margaret, the widow of Henry VI. McFaul (as the Duchess of York, Richard’s mother) and Dzialoszynski (as Anne) give heartbreaking performances in their vengeance-filled grief over their lost husbands and kinsmen; overcome by circumstance and feelings of powerlessness, they fight back as best as they can with their words. And, speaking of fighting words, Rainville (Elizabeth) is fearless in her dagger spitting face-off against Richard, ferociously attempting to defend her young daughter even as she mourns her lost husband and murdered sons.

Pease gives several strong performances: the mild-mannered, baffled Clarence; the regal and struggling new King Edward; and the chilling Ratcliffe (Richard’s muscle). O’Hara is an inspiring Richmond, giving a rousing pre-battle speech in the vein of that famous Henry V speech; seeking to heal a brutally injured country, Richmond plans to bring peace and unity in his victory. Adding some welcome comic relief are Wong’s wry-witted, smug Hastings; and, sent to take care of Clarence in the Tower, O’Hara and Zita’s darkly comic assassins become hilariously dazed and confused when confronted with their target.

This minimalist production is staged effectively and dynamically in an alley format (audience on both sides of the long, narrow playing area); and the hard rock music interludes, and jeans, t-shirt and sweater costuming, give it a contemporary edge.

Foul treachery, sweet slithering manipulation and a tyrant falls in Shakespeare Bash’d compelling, accessible Richard III.

Richard III continues at the Monarch Tavern till February 11; advance tickets are already sold out, but if you arrive early, you can get on the wait list 30 minutes before show time ($25 – cash only).