Power, plots & passion in the compelling, intimate & deftly performed Caesar

Kevin Kashani as Marc Antony and Melanie Leon as Julius Caesar in Caesar—photo art by Joseph Hammond

 

Wolf Manor Theatre Collective continues its 2016-17 season of startling, up close and personal theatre with its production of William Shakespeare’s Caesar, directed by Dylan Brenton and opening last night to a packed house in Kensington Hall.

Triumphant Caesar (Melanie Leon) is out of control and turned tyrant, while still managing to maintain support among everyday Romans, who want to crown her as Emperor. Her friend Brutus (Megan Miles) is deeply concerned about the impact her rule could have on Rome, while Cassius (Maddalena Vallecchi Williams) goes one step further and hatches a plan to take Caesar out of the equation. Cognizant of her friend Brutus’s popularity, Cassius recruits Brutus, as well as Casca (Felix Beauchamp) and others, to her cause: assassinate Caesar.

Forewarned by a soothsayer of dark portents on the Ides of March, Caesar is reluctant to make her regular trip to the Senate—and wife Calpurnia (Beauchamp) implores her to stay at home. However, her pride and vanity are stroked by one of the conspirators (Kevin Kashani) and she ventures out despite all warnings. And despite Cassius’s warnings to Brutus about Caesar’s favourite Marc Antony (Kashani), Brutus refuses to shed his blood and even allows him to speak at Caesar’s funeral.

After Caesar is killed, Brutus speaks before her fellow Romans to quell mounting fear, confusion and anger—and they are satisfied. That is, until Antony gives that famous speech at Caesar’s funeral and turns the tide of public opinion, sparking a war—with Antony and Caesar’s son Octavius (Beauchamp) on one side and Brutus, Cassius and their supporters on the other. When all appears lost, both Brutus and Cassius take their own lives, with Brutus’s reputation for pure intentions throughout this endeavour remaining intact.

For those of you who’ve seen earlier Wolf Manor productions, the gender fluid casting will be nothing new. Casting female actors in male roles and vice versa provides interesting new takes on familiar characters—and serves as a reminder that women are just as capable of pride, violence and power brokering; and men of tenderness, caution and introspection. The intimate, in the round staging gives a Coliseum feel to the set; we’re witnesses to these events, but we’re also the citizens of Rome. And the running image of the sands of time—pouring out of letters, wine bottles and even Caesar’s blood—hearkening to a sense of legacy and that, whether emperor or everyman, we are all bound for dust.

Brenton has an especially strong and compact cast for this tale of power and might for right. Miles gives Brutus a nice balance between eloquence and strength. Pensive and fair-minded, Brutus is a reluctant leader driven by a firm resolve to do what’s best for Rome, no matter what the cost—even to herself. Vallecchi Williams tempers Cassius’s blunt boldness with a sharp mind and an intuitive insight into men’s hearts. Her finger on the pulse of public sentiment, her plans go well beyond mere schemes and plots. And her love and friendship with Brutus reveal a gentler, emotional side; great chemistry between Miles’ mild-mannered Brutus and Vallecchi Williams’ fiery Cassius.

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Foreground: Maddalena Vallecchi Williams & Felix Beauchamp; Background: Megan Miles in Caesar—photo art by Joseph Hammond

Leon gives a great turn in two very different roles: the proud, vain and tyrannical Caesar; and Brutus’s fiercely loyal and loving wife Portia, where she plays a lovely two-hander in which Portia, beside herself with worry, begs to know what ails Brutus. Beauchamp also does a marvelous job with multiple roles: as the eerily quiet, menacing Casca; Brutus’s wide-eyed serving boy; Caesar’s wife Calpurnia, who relays a dream of dark portents; and the sturdy young Octavius. Kashani does a great job with the many sides of Antony; ready to spill blood after he’s spilled tears over Caesar’s corpse, he proves himself to be a master manipulator of mob mentality during his sly spin on the conspirators during the funeral speech, as well as a fine warrior—and is greatly underestimated by his enemies.

With shouts to the design team for creating the minimalist, evocative environment and atmosphere: Tessa Hallett (set), Nikolas Nikita (costumes) and Elizabeth Elliott (lighting).

Power, plots and passion in the compelling, intimate and deftly performed Caesar.

Caesar continues at Kensington Hall till May 28; full schedule and advance tix available online. Advance booking strongly recommended; it’s an intimate venue with limited seating and a very strong company.

You can keep up with Wolf Manor Theatre collective on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Looking to support great local indie theatre? Please consider supporting the company’s Fund What You Can campaign.

Profound longing & desperate hope in the beautifully melancholy, immersively designed Three Sisters

Left, clockwise from top: Dana Puddicombe, Arinea Hermans & Christina Fox; Right, from top: Nikolas Nikita & Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski—photo by Joseph Hammond

With several highly successful one-off productions under its belt, Wolf Manor Theatre Collective continues its inaugural 2017 season with its second production, Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, directed by Mallory Fisher—opening last night at Kensington Hall in Toronto’s Kensington Market.

Wolf Manor gives the Chekhov classic a contemporary flavour with a gender-fluid take on the story of three sisters struggling with the ennui of living in a dull provincial garrison town as they long to return to their beloved Mosco.

The play opens on youngest sister Irina’s (Christina Fox) name day; it’s also a year to the day since their father died, leaving his four adult children the house. Eldest daughter Olga (Dana Puddicombe) is a teacher and middle daughter Masha (Arinea Hermans) is married to teacher Kulygin (Kaleb Horn); all three women are tired with boredom and long to return to Mosco. Only Irina and their brother Andrey (Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski), who often keeps to his room reading or playing violin, are cheerful. She’s young, and still full of hope and possibility; and he’s in love with Natasha (Nikolas Nikita).

Brief respites from the gloom of ennui emerge, courtesy of a family friend, the entertaining Doctor Chebutykin (Scott McCulloch), and visits from local officers Tuzenbach (Jordin Hall) and Solyony (Nikita). And the arrival of the new commander Vershinin (Meghan Greeley) makes things even more interesting—especially for Masha, who has over the years become repulsed by her bookish and pedantic, but kind, husband and finds herself drawn to the chatty, philosophical newcomer.

Disappointment and disillusionment snowball over the few years that pass. Andrey realizes that marriage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and escapes into gambling, which puts the whole household into great debt. The Doctor, two years sober, falls off the wagon in a very bad way. Natasha lords it over her sisters-in-law, taking over the house and revealing a vicious side under that elegant demeanour, and creating a growing sense of claustrophobia among those who live there. Olga becomes something she vowed she’d never be: Headmistress. And even Irina’s balloon is popped, as she takes on work that is meaningless and mind-numbingly dull. Things go from bad to worse when a fire destroys a large section of the town, and the news that the battalion is being sent off on a new assignment—a heartbreaking prospect for Vershinin and Masha.

The immersive design places the audience both in and around the action, with a main playing area in the centre, and nooks and spaces around the outer edges (Beth Elliot, technical director/lighting design). Only two characters address us directly, baring their souls: Andrey and Chebutykin. By the end of the play, it’s as if we’re the birch trees surrounding the family home; silent witnesses to the goings-on there.

Beautiful work from the cast on these characters who all long for connection, belonging and understanding; each is grasping for meaning and hope, if not for now then for the future. Fox does a really nice job with Irina’s dissolve into disillusionment; having put her love life on hold with the idea of finding true love in Mosco, Irina settles for Tuzenbach, who is a good man, but not her desire. Hermans is heartbreaking as Masha, whose default is melancholy and whose heart awakens with the arrival of Vershinin; and the news that Vershinin must leave destroys her. Puddicombe brings a great sense of inner conflict to Olga; an ‘old maid’ school teacher and protective big sister to her siblings, Olga has abandoned her own desires to familial duty—a brave soldier who carries on no matter what. Shepherd-Gawinski brings a sharp edge to Andrey, the picture of the adorable, beloved brother who turns to gambling in his distress; outnumbered and put-upon by his sisters and his wife, he is as good-humoured as he can be. Stuck in the middle as he is, he too has put aside dreams in order to fit into his new life as husband and father—and the strain shows.

Greeley gives a moving performance as Vershinin, a military officer with the heart of a lover and philosopher. With an emotionally fragile husband and two daughters at home, Vershinin too finds an escape from the struggles of her life when she meets Masha. And their goodbye is heart wrenchingly sad, but inevitable as Vershinin must do her duty. Nikita does a marvelous job juggling Solyony and Natasha, as well as being the production’s costume designer. While both are classist, vain and irritating, these characters also have their secret hearts; Solyony is in love with Irina and Natasha is anxious to be accepted into Andrey’s family.

McCulloch’s performance as Chebutykin reveals the deep darkness in the Doctor’s heart; a jovial, sharp-witted man of 60-something, Chebutykin’s tendencies towards fatalism, and even nihilism, send him back to the bottle. Horn gives us an adorkably funny and mildly irritating Kulygin, who’s a silly nerd, but with a truly kind and forgiving heart under the dapper suit and glasses. And Hall gives us a lovely idealistic and philosophical Tuzenbach; like the others, he too wonders what the future will bring, but he’s also got his feet planted firmly in the present and wants to make the best of it.

Profound longing and desperate hope in the beautifully melancholy, immersively designed Three Sisters.

Three Sisters continues at Kensington Hall till March 26; full schedule and advance tix available online; advance booking strongly recommended, as it’s an intimate space with limited seating.

You can keep up with Wolf Manor Theatre collective on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Looking to support great local indie theatre? Please consider supporting the company’s Fund What You Can campaign.

The Hogtown Experience is the bee’s knees!

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Laura Larson (as Anastasia Petrov), Dov Mickelson (as Tracey Doyle) & Aisha Jarvis (as Sally Styles) – photos by Joseph Hammond

Better late to the party than never – I finally got out to see the Hogtown Experience at Campbell House Museum last night. And what a party it was!

Written by Drew Carnwath and Sam Rosenthal, and directed by Rosenthal, assisted by Nicola Pantin, the Hogtown Experience is an immersive, site-specific theatrical event that puts you in the middle of the action, which includes over 30 actors and live music, as you rub elbows with politicians, union muscle, gangsters, speakeasy girls, temperance ladies, party girls, moonshiners, a lady doctor and a baseball star.

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David Rosser as Sam McBride

When you arrive at Campbell House (I’d suggest getting there half an hour before show time), you may wander the grounds and the house. Catch some jazz in the basement speakeasy or get an early introduction to some of the characters on the front lawn, where the Temperance ladies are protesting the evils of drink, and mayoral candidate Sam McBride (David Rosser) and his wife Fanny (Kirstin Rae Hinton) are greeting and glad-handing, and the small-town Busch brothers (Matthew Bradley and Tim Ziegler) are anxiously anticipating a meeting with Delacourt to pitch their moonshine. Or wander towards the back, where the Schwartz brothers (Scott McCulloch and Jorge Molina) talk business and the wily, opportunistic Tracey Doyle (Dov Mickelson) inspects his girls before they start their shift – one of which (Anastasia, played by Laura Harding in last night’s performance) makes an appointment with the friendly, socially aware local doctor Libby Prowse (Lori Nancy Kalamanski) for her friend/co-worker Maddy (Lea Beauvais). And there’s a rambunctious, playful and strange little girl (Claire Frances Muir) running around there too.

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Dana Fradkin (as Ronnie McBride) & Drew Carnwath (as Ben Stein)

Newspaper man Ben Stein (Carnwath), who’s dating the McBride’s daughter Ronnie (Sappho Hansen Smythe,* who has been playing the role this summer), gives us an introduction and some ground rules. We are here for a party at the home of union boss Bob Delacourt (David Keeley) on the night before the 1926 municipal election, where the conservative, tee-totalling, penny-pinching incumbent Mayor Thomas Foster (Jerome Bourgault) is up against the more progressive, alcohol-friendly and forward-thinking McBride. From there, the audience is divided into three groups, and each group is guided to a room in the house to start their rotation of three scenes. You may speak to the characters, but only when spoken to.

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Jerome Bourgault as Thomas Foster

My group was first taken upstairs to the ballroom, to a meeting of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union, led by the imperious President Mary O’Grady Hunt (Tara Baxendale), where we hear anecdotes of personal family tragedy that resulted from intoxication. We were then treated to a lively and intense dining room scene, where the McBrides and their supporters – including Delacourt, who remained eerily silent and stone-faced – toasted their good fortune, and a surprise guest made an appearance, decidedly spoiling the good cheer. Then it was down to the games room, where our cheeky hostess Katie (Siobhan Richardson) took all bets, including one from the jovial Police Chief Draper (Robert Clarke); and over to the speakeasy for drinks (cash bar, where you can order wine in a teacup or a can of beer in a paper bag) and music, overseen and kept running smoothly by the tough, but gentleman-like Donato Granta (Conrad Bergschneider).

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David Keeley as Bob Delacourt

From there, where you go and what you see is up to you. You are encouraged to give rein to curiosity and follow characters, open doors – and see what you may find. Young love. Backroom deals upon backroom deals. Desperate, last-ditch efforts to win a race. One of the speakeasy girls in trouble. You won’t be able to catch everything, and you may want to see the show more than once; to this end, keep your program (handed out as you leave) and that will serve as your discount voucher for your next visit. And with all the election and boozy shenanigans – not to mention the red hot jazz – you may want to take them up on that deal.

An outstanding ensemble and fabulous music, creating a unique, intriguing and engaging theatrical experience, and a colourful taste of 1920s Toronto. This humble scribe had a marvelous time at the pre-election soiree at Campbell House last night. The Hogtown Experience is the bee’s knees – go see it!

The Hogtown Experience runs until August 28 at Campbell House Museum; performance info and advance tickets here; otherwise, it’s cash only at the gate.

In the meantime, you can keep up with Hogtown on Twitter and Facebook; and check out the show trailer:

* Department of Corrections: The role of Ronnie McBride, previously attributed to Dana Fradkin, was actually played by Sappho Hansen Smythe. Due to the scope of the show and the size of the ensemble, there is a rotating cast, so some characters are played by different actors, depending on when you see the show.