Identity, recognition & family in the fascinating, moving, intimate Canadian Rajah

Jon De Leon & Barbara Worthy. Costumes by Jennifer Triemstra-Johnston. Photo by Kelsi Dewhurst.

 

The Canadian Rajah Collective presents the world premiere of Dave Carley’s Canadian Rajah, directed by Sarah Phillips and running in the ballroom at Campbell House Museum; it’s the true story of Esca Brooke, the first-born son of one of the White Rajahs of Sarawak who was whisked away as a small child and into the care of an English vicar and his wife, who eventually settled in Madoc, Ontario. This fascinating, moving and intimate two-hander gives a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the history, memories and motivations observed by Brooke and his father Rajah Charles Brooke’s English wife Marguerita (Ranee Ghita), culminating in a tension-filled and revelatory meeting at her home in England.

Canadian Rajah begins with two individual pieces of personal storytelling as Esca Brooke (Jon De Leon) waits and his white Rajah father’s English wife Ranee (Barbara Worthy*) prepares and stalls in advance of their meeting at her home in England. Each fills in the events that transpired before and after Esca’s birth; and the subsequent discovery of his identity and his pursuit of recognition from her are revealed from very different perspectives.

Esca is a brown boy raised by the white British Daykins in Canada, an object of curiosity and gossip in his adopted country. Earning scholarships and respect in his academic and professional endeavours despite his otherness—and aided by the addition of the second name Brooke—he discovers that his mother was Dayang Mastiah, a Malay princess, and his father was the white British Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Brooke. Ranee was Brooke’s British wife; a “brood mare” and vital source of income to his Rajah title, courtesy of her wealthy family; she also bore him sons. Reminiscences are shared through bittersweet swatches of memory—rife with the excitement and adventure of new worlds, experiences and people; and seasoned with grief, loss, and an unbreakable sense of family loyalty and protection.

Compelling and sharp-witted performances from De Leon and Worthy, who both portray various other characters native to the respective landscapes of these individuals. In a performance that conveys both profound dignity and a heartbreaking sense of pain, De Leon’s Esca is a proud, well-educated man without a country; not looking for fame, fortune or position from official public recognition from the Brooke family, he seeks only to ease the hurt of prejudice and racism experienced by his children—in particular, his daughter Grace. Worthy’s sharply drawn portrayal of Ranee is both playfully bold and mercilessly cunning; ranging from Ranee’s precocious youth as a forward-thinking young woman out for adventure in an exotic new world, to the imperious dowager keeping a close watch and tight rein on her family, with special attention on the political climate at large. Eschewing British culture and social expectations, and relishing her new title and position, Ranee embraces the culture and language of her new home; but the discovery that her husband has a “native” wife and son is too much—and sets off a calculated series of events aimed at protecting her family and their kingdom.

And though these two characters are at odds, facing off in the final scene during their meeting, similar traits and motivations emerge: they’re both survivors of unusual and tragic circumstances, adapting to and thriving in their new homes, and fiercely determined to secure a bright and prosperous future for their children. And while British imperialism and publicly recognized noble status have the upper hand in this scenario—one gets the sense that there were no winners here.

Canadian Rajah continues at Campbell House Museum until February 17; advance tickets are available online—strongly recommended, given the intimate nature of, and limited seating in, the upstairs ballroom venue.

*After Chick Reid came down with pneumonia and was unable to continue with the production, Worthy stepped into the role of Ranee as a last-minute replacement. Reid is recovering and doing well.

 

Orange is the new Hamlet in Driftwood Theatre’s steel-sharp, fast-paced tale of grief, revenge & truth

Hamlet illustrationDriftwood Theatre Group launched its 21st annual Bard’s Bus Tour with their production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet earlier this month, text adapted by Toby Malone and directed by Driftwood Artistic Director D. Jeremy Smith – currently running in Toronto at Withrow Park from July 21-26.

As part of Driftwood’s Shakesperience program, early arrivals to last night’s performance were treated to a pre-show chat between AD/director Smith and Dr. Jill Levenson, Professor Emeritus at UofT on Hamlet and the adaptation Driftwood is using for this production. The themes of grief, revenge and truth run throughout this tragedy – grief in particular. Malone’s adaptation for Driftwood mainly draws from two versions of the script: the 1603 (first) quarto and the 1623 folio. Known as the “bad quarto,” the 1603 text lacks the refinement of later versions, but has a brisk pace that lends itself well to the action and staging of the play. By combining these two variations of the text, Malone has created a script that is both fast-paced and eloquent – and by so doing, Hamlet doesn’t come off as an overly intellectual procrastinator, but a highly intelligent and virtuous man struggling with grief and rage over the loss of his father at the hands of his uncle.

The set (designed by director Smith) is inspired by a prison motif – real prison, not Martha Stewart prison – the environment is grey, harsh and grim, with concrete slabs, steel girders, chain link fencing and barbed wire. The sparse furniture a single folding chair and a steel cot frame wound with barbed wire, serving as a bed, platform, etc.

Hamlet is one of my favourite plays – and Driftwood’s production is compelling, moving and darkly comical, with a remarkable cast assembled for this journey of revelation and tragedy, most of them playing multiple roles. Paolo Santalucia is stellar as Hamlet, giving the intellectual, melancholic introspection hits of dark comedy and razor-sharp edge (reminiscent of a young Robert Downey Jr. circa Less Than Zero). Layer upon layer of Hamlet’s mind and soul are uncovered – from depression in his grief to blind rage in his revenge. Jon de Leon does a nice job as the arrogant and entitled Claudius, and does some interesting double duty as the ghost, Claudius’s brother/Hamlet’s father, imperious and otherworldly (with some incredible props work on the grotesque skull-like head, mounted on a helmet, its eyes bulging beneath a mouldy crown). Nehassaiu deGannes is regal, sensuous and kind as Gertrude, on her son’s side and unaware of Claudius’s treachery.

As Polonius, Richard Alan Campbell rides the edge of affable and irritating, with the air of a nerdy lawyer, wise in the ways of court politics, but clueless about the more down-to-earth aspects of human nature. Christopher Darroch does some really nice work as the passionate, noble Laertes, a basically good young man pushed to the edge of his own revenge, and a great turn as the thuggish Rosencrantz. Natasha Mumba brings a lovely combination of fierceness and fragility to Ophelia – no push-over, she is Hamlet’s equal, and her spiral into madness over the loss of her father is heartbreaking to witness. Sarah Finn is excellent as Horatio, Hamlet’s loyal friend and confidant – torn between supporting him in these dark times and finding the truth, and protecting him from himself and the forces that seek to destroy him. Horatio is the objective observer – and will be the chronicler of what comes to pass here, a fair-minded speaker of truth who must come to terms with her own grief in the end. And Steven Burley, in his 21st season with Driftwood, does a stand-up job as Hamlet’s hip, bro-like schoolmate Guildenstern and the cheeky, Fool of a gravedigger.

With shouts to costume designer Melanie McNeill, lighting designer Emily Lalonde and composer/music director Tom Lillington for their most excellent work in creating the prison-like world of Hamlet’s Denmark.

Orange is the new Hamlet in Driftwood Theatre’s steel-sharp, fast-paced tale of grief, revenge and truth – stunningly designed and richly performed.

You have a few more chances to catch Driftwood Theatre’s production of Hamlet in Toronto at Withrow Park (until July 26). The company continues its outdoor performance tour of Hamlet around Ontario – visiting 26 communities in all – until August 16; check here for locations/dates and please note the 7:30 p.m. start time.

As some of its previous annual donors were unable to contribute this year, Driftwood is facing a $25,000 funding shortfall this season. Please consider lending your support by donating what you can to this remarkable local Shakespeare touring company.