Love & games in Dauntless City Theatre’s delightful, immersive, gender-bending adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing

Kate Werneburg & Chanakya Mukherjee. Photo and design by Dahlia Katz.

 

Dauntless City Theatre’s Bard in Berczy brings us a delightful, immersive, gender-bending adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Adapted and directed by Eric Benson, Much Ado opened last night in Toronto’s Berczy Park (in St. Lawrence Market, with the cool dog-themed fountain).

We’re invited to gather near the Dauntless City sign (on the east side of the fountain) as the stage is set for this tale of love, games, jealousy and schemes. The ukulele-playing Balthazar (Holly Wyder) is our guide throughout this tale, as she leads us around the park to witness the various scenes unfold.

Returning home from war, Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks), her sister Don John (Melanie Leon), and officers Benedick (Kate Werneburg) and Claudio (Ira Henderson) stop for some R&R at the home of Leonato, Governor of Messina (Andrew Joseph Richardson) and his wife Innogen (Andrea Irwin). From the get-go, it’s clear that Claudio is smitten with their hosts’ son Hero (Chase Winnicky); and, as evidenced by their edgy, wit-filled banter, Benedick definitely has history with Hero’s cousin Beatrice (Chanakya Mukherjee). Their mutual love professed, Claudio and Hero decide to marry, and the vacation gathering goes into wedding planning mode.

Emboldened by the love in the air, the Prince and her hosts hatch a plan to bring the stubborn Benedick and scornful Beatrice into a love match. Meanwhile, jealous of her sister’s station and affection for Claudio, Don John seeks a way to cause mischief and bring chaos to the upcoming nuptials. Her follower Borachio (Wilex Ly) concocts a plan to disgrace Hero, using his lover Margaret (Jordan Shore), in sight of Don Pedro and Claudio to make them think Hero was with him the night before the wedding. Chaos ensues, the wedding is abruptly called off at the altar—and the accidental apprehension of one of the culprits by the local constabulary, led by the bumbling Head Officer of the Watch Dogberry (Andrea Lyons) and her partner Verges (Erin Eldershaw), could make all the difference between tragedy and a happy ending.

This abridged adaptation (90 minutes, no intermission) brings the audience into the action as we follow the story scene by scene around the fountain, bridged by snatches of music (supplied by Wyder, with music direction by David Kingsmill) that call back to the action. The fact that most of the roles have been gender reversed in casting (except for Leonato, Innogen, Claudio and Borachio)—creating two same-sex male couples—offers a fresh, new look at familiar characters. And Leonato’s wife Innogen, who has no lines in the original script, has dialogue in this version—largely borrowed from Leonato and the Friar; this puts her in a much more active position in the problem-solving plans of her household.

Big shouts to the ensemble for a thoroughly enjoyable, intimate experience of this Shakespeare favourite. Werneburg and Mukherjee have great chemistry as Benedick and Beatrice, shifting from prideful, witty verbal combatants to love-struck, stammering romantic prospects. The stubborn scorn of romance melts away as their friends’ well-meaning prank blooms into the realization that they really do love each other. And Winnicky and Henderson are adorably sweet and bashful as the young lovers Hero and Claudio. The gender reversed casting and same-sex couples make for some interesting insights into societal assumptions of male and female behaviour. Women can be tough soldiers who scoff at romance, men can be empathetic and show their feelings, and love is love no matter what the equation.

Other stand-outs include Leon’s mean-spirited, sullen Don John. Seething with jealousy over that which she lacks, Don John does what she wants and consequences be damned—but finds her cruel trickery offering limited mirth and sport. And Lyons and Eldershaw bring on the comic relief big time as the hilarious, goofball leaders of the Watch—combining physical comedy with the malapropism-filled text to great effect and LOLs.

Much Ado About Nothing continues at Berczy Park until Aug 26, with performances on Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 1:00 p.m. Admission is PWYC; gather around the Dauntless City sign and be prepared to move around the space to keep up with the action.

You can keep up with Dauntless City Theatre on Twitter and Facebook. In the meantime, check out Phil Rickaby’s great interview with Benson, Werneburg and Chanakya on Stageworthy Podcast.

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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.