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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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.

Love, revenge & calculated cruelty in the sexy, darkly funny & tragic Les Liaisons Dangereuses

 

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Renee Cullen (Merteuil) & Chris Coculuzzi (Valmont) – photos by Dave Fitzpatrick

Amicus Productions opened its 2016-17 season with Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, directed by Victoria Shepherd, at the Todmorden Mills Papermill Theatre last night.

An edgy, erotic, sometimes chilling story of manipulation, desire and social gamesmanship, Amicus’s production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses plays out on a traditional proscenium stage, complete with drawn curtains, on a minimalist but gorgeous chess-inspired set (Alexis Chubb), with stunning period costume and wigs (Lindsay Forde), and sound design that includes original compositions (John Stuart Campbell, ft. Vivien Shepherd on vocals).

The Marquise de Merteuil (Renée Cullen) wants revenge against a former lover, and turns to another former lover, the notorious Vicomte de Valmont (Chris Coculuzzi), with a plan for him to seduce the man’s intended fiancée, the young Cécile Volange (Christina Leonard). In exchange, Merteuil promises Valmont a night of passion. Valmont has seduction plans of his own, however; he intends to bed the pious, loyal and married Présidente de Tourvel (Melanie Leon), a woman equally famous for her virtue as he is for his vice.

When his plans at his aunt’s home (Mme de Rosemond, played by Jenn Keay) are foiled by Cecile’s mother Mme de Volange (Kerrie Lamb), Valmont decides to go along with Merteuil’s plan, as the two also conspire to assist Cécile in her secret romance with the young Chevalier Danceny (Conor Ling). Meanwhile, Valmont has set his man servant Azolan (Andrew Batten) to spy on Tourvel, via his relationship with her maid; all this while paying regular visits to his favourite courtesan Émilie (Lindsay Forde). Constantly put off by Merteuil, Valmont goes to great lengths to procure payment for his services to her – and finds himself tangled in his own web.

Cullen and Coculuzzi are nicely matched as Merteuil and Valmont, who are both cunning as cats and master manipulators. Cullen’s Merteuil is coldly beautiful and ruthless; a woman tired of the second-class status afforded to her sex, she’s learned to take power by making pawns of those around her. Coculuzzi is diabolically charming and witty as Valmont; a sexy beast who’s gained notoriety as a callous rake (i.e., heartbreaking man whore), Valmont enjoys the game – but, unlike Merteuil, he’s more about the chase than the kill. As Tourvel, Leon brings a lovely sense of conflict and repressed lust; a gentle, pious soul, she is drawn to Valmont – and as much as she fights her feelings, she can’t help but succumb to the burgeoning passion between them. Some remarkable two-hander scenes, particularly in Act II, between Merteuil and Valmont (war) and Valmont and Tourvel (beyond my control).

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Chris Coculuzzi (Valmont) & Melanie Leon (Tourvel)

Leonard gives Cécile a great combination of wide-eyed innocence and insatiable lust; schooled by Valmont, she learns things that aren’t taught to nice young ladies. And Ling’s Danceny is adorably awkward and proper; on the brink of manhood, he is innocent and naïve – and he too learns a thing or two.

Excellent work from the supporting cast: Lamb’s prim and trusting Mme de Volange; Batten’s wry-witted and resourceful Azolan; Keay’s wise and kind Mme de Rosemonde, who’s onto more than you might think; Forde’s good times party girl Émilie; and Jeff Burke gives a nice turn as the Major-Domo, who’s seen so much and says so little.

Love, revenge and calculated cruelty in the sexy, darkly funny and tragic Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses continues at the Papermill Theatre until Nov 19; check here for ticket purchase/info or call 416-860-6176.

You can keep up with Amicus Productions on Twitter and Facebook.