Lust, corruption & the pursuit of justice in Shakespeare BASH’d sharply funny, timely Measure for Measure

Sochi Fried & Geoffrey Armour. Scenic design by Caitlin Doherty. Photo by Kyle Purcell.

 

Shakespeare BASH’d returns to a Toronto pub to present one of the less produced plays of the canon: Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, directed by Catherine Rainville and opening last night at Junction City Music Hall. Given the current #MeToo climate, with powerful and famous—in some cases, respected and even beloved—men called out and taken to court for sexual harassment and assault, and female accusers disbelieved and finding themselves faced with challenging choices, it couldn’t be more timely.

Duke Vincentio (David Ross) is well aware that local laws regarding moral and sexual conduct have gone by the wayside, with officials turning a blind eye to cases of fornication, adultery and sex work. When he decides to get some distance and perspective on his kingdom and people—in what today, we’d call an undercover boss move—he leaves his deputy Angelo (Geoffrey Armour) in charge, with trusted advisor Escalus (Olivia Croft) acting as his second; the Duke tells no one that he’s actually staying in the city, disguised as a Friar as he conducts his observations.

No sooner has Angelo been granted power than he starts rounding up whores, bawds (Lesley Robertson as Pompey) and fornicators, including young Claudio (Jeff Yung), who with the exception of an official ceremony is essentially married to his pregnant love Juliet (Megan Miles). Juliet’s condition protects her from execution, but Claudio is to be put to death for his crime. Claudio’s friend Lucio (Michael Man) informs Claudio’s sister Isabella (Sochi Fried) of her brother’s fate, urging her to plead with Angelo for mercy. When she does so, Angelo’s response is to extort her chastity in exchange for her brother’s life.

Faced with the terrible choice of seeing her brother put to death or surrendering her virtue, Isabella encounters the disguised Duke, who has some interesting information about Angelo, and hatches a plan with her, the maid Mariana (Melanie Leon) and the Provost (Drew O’Hara) to make things right.

With its signature accessible performance and resonant connection with the audience, Shakespeare BASH’d plays up the comedy in this production, however dark at times, to add a spoonful of sugar to this otherwise serious cautionary tale. Angelo’s heavy-handed adherence to the letter of the law, coupled with his vain and entitled sense of virtue and status, make for an ugly and merciless rule—and, like many men in his situation, he believes his power and position make him immune to scrutiny. Who would believe the accusations of a young female nobody? This is how men like him have gotten away with it. The ending is a question mark, making us wonder even about the ‘good guys.’

The ensemble is a finely tuned storytelling delight. Stand-out performances include Armour’s conflicted but entitled Angelo; a dark and corrupt man who struggles with his own lustful desires, he ultimately believes he’s above the law he’s so cruelly enforcing. As Isabella, Fried brings a sense of quiet contemplation, thoughtful oration and fierce vulnerability; Isabella’s genuine goodness and attempt at true justice stand in sharp contrast to Angelo’s hypocritical mask of virtue. Ross gives the Duke a balanced sense of fairness and firmness; progressive where Angelo is regressive, the Duke realizes that the law is a living thing that must reflect the society it rules. Hilarious, sharp-witted comic turns from Man, as the incorrigible scallywag Lucio; and Robertson, as the delightfully coarse Pompey. And shouts to producers/co-founders Julia Nish-Lapidus and James Wallis for stepping in with outstanding comic timing and panache—and off book!—for actor Cara Pantalone (as Mistress Overdone, Froth and Abhorson), who was off sick with no voice last night. The show must, and does, go on.

Lust, corruption and the pursuit of justice in the face of merciless hypocrisy in Shakespeare BASH’d sharply funny, timely Measure for Measure.

Measure for Measure continues at Junction City Music Hall till May 6; advance tickets available online ($20) or at the door ($25 cash only). The first half of this short run is sold out, and there’s limited availability for Friday-Sunday. Tickets are going fast, so book in advance or arrive extra early to get on the wait list.

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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.

Keep up with Shakespeare BASH’d on Twitter and Facebook.

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

Chaotically insightful and darkly funny ride in Alumnae Theatre’s Escape From Happiness

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Lesley Robertson (Mary Ann), Andrea Brown (Elizabeth) and Renée Haché (Gail) – photo by Scott Gorman

“Please don’t do anything you can’t live with later.”
“I can live with a lot.”

Alumnae Theatre Company opened its 2014-15 all-Canadian season with George F. Walker’s Escape From Happiness on Friday night and I dropped by the theatre for the Sunday matinée.

Directed by Andrea Wasserman, Escape From Happiness is one of three plays in Walker’s East End Trilogy, a dark comedy of family dysfunction, set against the backdrop of crime vs. law and order. When a series of troubling events threaten the safety of her family, Nora (Heli Kivilaht) rallies her two oldest daughters, Elizabeth (Andrea Brown) and Mary Ann (Lesley Robertson), to the family home in order to discover who beat up youngest sister Gail’s (Renée Haché) husband Junior (Maxwell King). Tom, the family patriarch (David Cairns), gravely ill and mostly keeping to his room, goes unacknowledged by Nora as the husband and father of the house (she insists he’s only someone who looks like him), and cared for by Gail and Junior. A history of alcoholism, explosive anger and violence has created a huge rift in the family, and Gail is the only one willing to forgive. Add to the mix low-level criminals Rolly (Robert Skanes) and Stevie (Colin MacDonald), and diametrically opposed detectives Mike (Ryan Seeley) and Dian (Joanne Sarazen), then turn up the volume to 11 and break off the knob as these people struggle to cope with some very bizarre circumstances.

Wasserman has an excellent ensemble for this wacky and edgy journey. Kivilaht’s Nora is a lovely combination of spacey and wise, kind and sharp-edged in her eccentric observations of the world and the people around her. Brown is both hilarious and intense as the eldest daughter Elizabeth; a lawyer and family protector, and bad-ass beneath the suit – and more like her father than she’s likely willing to admit. Robertson’s Mary Ann is adorably kooky, a gentle and nurturing soul struggling to find her way in the face of some harsh realities; like Nora, an unexpected and unusual voice of truth. Haché is outspoken and suffering no fools as youngest daughter Gail, possessing of a forgiving heart and in many ways the sanest of the bunch. King brings a very likeable and child-like quality to Junior; a sweet and loyal guy, but not too bright. Cairns gives a nicely layered performance as ex-cop Tom, the deposed man of the house; well-meaning in his actions, but lacking the foresight and luck – and sense of boundaries – to carry them off.

Sarazen and Seeley do a marvelous job of playing off each other as new school vs. old school cops. Sarazen’s Dian is sharp-witted but cheerful new order cop, driven and socially aware, and obsessed with innovation, while Seeley’s Mike is an old-time veteran of the force – pragmatic, gruff, racist and prefers to go with his gut. Skanes and MacDonald are a riot as father/son crime team Rolly and Stevie – nicely mirroring the dynamic between Tom and Junior, with the fumbling older man acting as mentor to the dim-witted younger man.

Shouts to Brandon Kleiman’s set design, a neat, but worn and somewhat grimy family kitchen – including some great details via props assembled by Jackie McClelland; and to Sara Brzozowski’s costumes, which both identify and round out the characters really nicely. And to the original music by Boy Ballz, bringing some awesome hip hop and urban beats – the perfect soundtrack for this play.

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Robert Skanes (Rolly) & Heli Kivilaht (Nora) – photo by Scott Gorman

Alumnae Theatre’s production of Escape From Happiness is a chaotically insightful and darkly funny ride, featuring a kick-ass cast. Get yourselves over there to see this.

Escape From Happiness runs on the Alumnae Theatre main stage until October 11. Purchase tickets an hour before curtain time (cash only), or in advance online, by telephone at (416) 364-4170 (press 1) or by email at reservations@alumnaetheatre.com