Suffrage, prohibition, love & puppets in Driftwood’s charming, timely, re-imagined Rosalynde (or, As You Like It)

Ximena Huizi & Sochi Fried. Production design by Sheree Tams. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Driftwood Theatre Group puts a beloved Shakespearean heroine’s name back on the marquee with its charming, timely 2018 Bard’s Bus Tour production of the re-imagined Rosalynde (or, As You Like It), directed by AD D. Jeremy Smith. It’s 1918; and women’s suffrage, prohibition and WWI are at the forefront—and so is true love. I caught Rosalynde in Toronto at Ontario Place Trillium Park last night.

The Duke’s Distillery has been taken over by Frederick (Eric Woolfe), a hard-nosed gangster who has ousted his brother Senior to take over the business and run illegal booze across Lake Ontario to the U.S. Senior has fled to the Forest of Arden, finding rustic sanctuary with a small group of loyal followers. The banished Senior’s daughter Rosalynde (Sochi Fried) has been allowed to stay, as she’s the beloved friend of Frederick’s daughter Celia (Ximena Huizi)—but when he finds public opinion favouring his niece, he banishes her as well. Armed with a plan to flee to the forest disguised as brother and sister, the two young women sneak away with the company Fool Touchstone (Geoffrey Armour) in tow.

The neglected young Orlando (Ngabo Nabea) is facing similar struggles at home with his cruel older brother Oliver (Derek Kwan). When he goes to test his mettle at a local wrestling match, he and Rosalynde become mutually smitten; and he defeats Frederick’s man Charles (puppet, Megan Miles). When his faithful old servant Adam (Armour) learns that Oliver and Frederick are plotting against Orlando’s life, he urges his young master to flee—and the two leave their home for the safety of the forest.

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Ngabo Nabea, with Ximena Huizi & Sochi Fried in the background. Production design by Sheree Tams. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The Forest of Arden is where the magic happens. Disguised as the youth Ganymede, Rosalynde advises the love-struck Orlando, as well as the love-sick shepherd Silvius (puppet, Kwan), whose rebuffed attentions to Phebe (puppet, Miles) are thwarted further by Phebe’s new-found attraction to Ganymede. And one of Senior’s (Woolfe) friends, the world-weary, profoundly disheartened suffragette Jaques (Caroline Gillis), searches for meaning and a reason to carry on as she observes life in the forest, the unfolding love stories and a Fool out for a wife. Love, reunion, and new perspectives on life and the world unfold—and the forest inhabitants demonstrate compassion, equity and brave determination. And yet, we’re reminded that not all will partake in the new rights and opportunities that emerge during this time: men and women of colour do not yet have the right to vote; and men of colour are denied the opportunity to serve in the war.

Stellar work from the ensemble in a production that entertains as much as it illuminates. Weaving in snatches of news on the suffrage movement, prohibition and the First World War, we get the sense of a time and place immersed in great upheaval and social change. The rural natives of the forest are all puppets, as are some of Frederick’s henchmen (Eric Woolfe is also the AD of Eldritch Theatre, specializing in horror and fantasy storytelling using puppetry, mask and magic)—masterfully brought to life by various members of the cast, especially Megan Miles.

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Megan Miles as Charles the wrestler. Production design by Sheree Tams. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Fried is luminous as the mercurial, fiercely independent, giddy in love Rosalynde; coupled with Nabea’s brave, bold and adorably bashful Orlando, we see two abused young people forced to flee their homes and take charge of their lives—and coming to see the world, themselves and love with new eyes. The wisdom of women figures prominently in this production, from Huizi’s sharply witty, sassy, ever loyal Celia to Gillis’s poignant, well-travelled, experienced aviatrix Jaques. Jaques comes by her melancholy honestly, having seen—and feeling too much—of the world’s unfairness and cruelty. Here, the women school each other and the men in their lives: Jaques shares her experience with observant Celia; and the practical Rosalynde teaches the idealistic Orlando about the everyday nature of romantic relationships. Armour gives a hilarious, high-energy performance—bringing laughs and social commentary—as the quixotic scamp Touchstone.

Rosalynde (or, As You Like It) has one more performance at Ontario Place Trillium Park tonight (Aug 2) at 7:30 p.m.; thanks to the generous support of Ontario Place, admission is free—and Driftwood is happily accepting donations. Bring a chair, a blanket and bug spray (chair rental is available for $5—get there early). There’s a concession stand with drinks (including alcohol) and snacks; you can also score some sweet Driftwood merch over by the chair rental tent.

The Bard’s Bus Tour continues on its way, wrapping up its run on August 12. Check the Driftwood website for performance dates and locations; admission is free or PWYC, as indicated in the venue listing. Worried about weather? Check out the rain policy here.

For more on Rosalynde, check out director D. Jeremy Smith and actor Sochi Fried in an interview with Gill Deacon on CBC’s Here and Now.

 

 

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SummerWorks: Caught in a web of deceit & love in the exquisite, heartbreaking Mr. Shi & His Lover

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I caught the closing performance of Mr. Shi and His Lover, a Macau Experimental Theatre/Music Picnic contemporary Chinese music theatre co-production, a special SummerWorks presentation at the Theatre Centre Mainspace. Inspired by the real-life love affair between a Chinese opera singer turned spy and a French diplomat, the show is performed in Mandarin with Chinese and English surtitles, with text by Wong Teng Chi, surtitle translation by Derek Kwan, music/music direction by Njo Kong Kie and direction by Johnny Tam.

A love affair between opera singer Mr. Shi (Jordan Cheng) and French diplomat Bernard (Derek Kwan) ends in scandal and imprisonment when it’s discovered that Shi is a spy – and a man disguised as a woman.

Lovely, nuanced and moving work from Cheng and Kwan – in moments of revealing solitude and in powerful, evocative two-handers. With a masterful combination of movement, gesture and voice, Cheng brings a beautiful balance of delicacy and strength to his performance as Shi; although Shi lives for, and revels in, a life of performance, he’s not prepared for getting caught in his own lie. Kwan gives Bernard a great sense of tension; his corporate sense of propriety and manners belie the deep love of ideal beauty and the heart of a romantic. As rational and logical as Bernard strives to be, he cannot explain love away when his ideal woman turns out to be a man. Mining the layers of public and private persona, betrayal, revelation, and attempted forgiveness and redemption, both must admit to real love. And in the end, each man ultimately becomes his own judge and jury.

Njo Kong Kie (piano) and Carol Wang (percussion) create a two-person orchestra for the production; positioned upstage on opposite sides, scoring and underscoring the story of Shi and Bernard’s life together and apart. The music and lyrics draw inspiration from Peking opera, pop music and modern-day music theatre; revealing the inner workings of these characters and heightening the poignant tragedy of their relationship.

Identity, perception, intrigue, scandal – and most potent of all – love; this story has it all. A performer and a diplomat caught in a web of deceit and love in the exquisite, heartbreaking Mr. Shi and His Lover.

Mr. Shi and His Lover closed its SummerWorks run at the Theatre Centre Mainspace yesterday afternoon. Keep an eye out for future productions on the show’s website.