Foolish destruction & a chance for redemption with a contemporary twist in the haunting, playful The Winter’s Tale

Back to front: Richard Lee & Eponine Lee. Scenography by Claire Hill. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Back to Withrow Park last night for more outdoor Shakespeare excellence, as community-connected, entertaining and accessible Shakespeare in the Ruff opened their adaptation of The Winter’s Tale last night. Adapted by Sarah Kitz with Andrew Joseph Richardson, and directed and choreographed by Kitz with assistant director Keshia Palm, this haunting, playful production gets a contemporary twist. When a king’s jealous suspicions get the better of him, he destroys his family and a childhood friendship—and while those around him navigate the fallout, there may be room for redemption as Time passes and hearts change.

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Tiffany Martin & Jason Gray. Scenography by Claire Hill. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Jealousy and suspicion come to a boil in the mind of King Leontes of Sicilia (Richard Lee, in a passionate, compelling performance as a powerful, yet fearful man), and he convinces himself that his wife Hermione (a regal, heartbreaking Tiffany Martin) and visiting childhood best friend King Polixenes of Bohemia (an affable royal turn from Jason Gray) are lovers—and the child she carries isn’t his. He orders his servant Camillo (Kaitlyn Riordan, in a role that showcases her nuanced adeptness with comedy and drama) to poison Polixenes; troubled by her King’s directive and unable to carry out the deed, she and Polixenes flee Sicilia. Hermione is imprisoned and gives birth to a daughter, which loyal courtier and friend Paulina (played with fierce, grounded kindness by Jani Lauzon) presents to Leontes, in hopes of melting his heart. Unmoved, he banishes the infant to the wilderness. Hermione is put on trial by and found innocent by the Oracles; but in the meantime their son Mamillius (Eponine Lee, adorably precocious and haunting in this role) dies and, overcome with heartbreak, she too dies. Left alone with no heir, his family’s blood on his hands, and his best friend and ally forever severed from him, Leontes falls into despair.

The second half takes us forward in time, 16 years later, where Bohemian Prince Florizell (Giovanni Spina, bringing tender bashfulness and resolve to the romantic young suitor), son of King Polixenes, woos and marries the young shepherdess Perdita (played with independence and resilience by Andrea Carter). Polixenes and Camillo witness the wedding in disguise, and Polixenes reveals himself to soundly forbid the union of his son to a peasant; once again, the tender-hearted Camillo comes to the rescue and helps the young couple flee to Sicilia. As all gather in Sicilia, the two halves of this story converge— bringing revelations, and a chance for reunion and redemption.

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Andrea Carter & Giovanni Spina. Scenography by Claire Hill. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Lovely work from the ensemble in a production that is as playful and entertaining as it is powerful and poignant; incorporating a live soundscape of Time’s tick tock, bell toll rhythm; and a beautiful lullaby shared between mother and son that becomes an eerie refrain as the young boy continues to observe the proceedings even after his death (sound design, composition and lyrics by Maddie Bautista). Everyone does multiple roles here, with the comic antics of Lauzon (Old Shepherd) and Richard Lee (Clown), and Martin’s loveable scallywag servant Autolycus—not to mention Eponine Lee’s Bear—bringing the necessary comic relief to these otherwise intense and tragic events. And Martin delivers a heart-wrenching, inspirational account of a woman’s struggles, resistance and resilience as she travels far from home and back again—an everywoman’s voice throughout the ages that resonates—inspiring us to view this tale through a contemporary lens.

A cautionary tale of how suspicion and fear can turn an otherwise good leader into a tyrant; and how those who care about him can have the courage and wisdom to try to make things right.

The Winter’s Tale continues at Withrow Park, running Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m. until September 2, including a special Labour Day performance on September 2. Advance tickets and lawn chair rental are available online; otherwise, tickets are pay what you can (PWYC) at the park on the night of the performance.

Click here for accessibility info. And you can get rain updates here on their Twitter account.

All’s Well That Ends Well adaptation a delightfully dark comedic romp with a twist

Christopher Mott, Chanakya Mukherjee & Liz Der. Photo by Stevie Baker.

 

Dauntless City Theatre is back at Berczy Park (aka the dog fountain park across from the St. Lawrence Centre) with a delightful immersive, site-specific adaptation of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. Adapted and directed by Scott Emerson Moyle, assisted by Jordi O’Dael, this version of the play is queer, twisty, darkly funny—and calls out bad behaviour—in an intimate, energetic romp of sauce and wit that’s part cautionary tale, part dark comedy.

Helena (a feisty, resilient turn from Liz Der) has recently lost her father, a skilled and respected doctor, and is now the ward of the recently widowed Countess Rousillon (Andrea Lyons is a treat in this edgy, hilarious performance), whose son Bertram (played with sneering pride and entitlement by Chanakya Mukherjee) is now the new Count. Helena is hopelessly and secretly in love with Bertram, but dares not hope for a match, as she is not noble-born. She is, however, very skilled in the healing arts; and when news arrives that the King of France (played with imperiousness tempered by warmth by Christopher Mott) has been very ill with no cure in sight, she sees a way to prove her worth to Bertram, who has travelled to the French court with his BFF Parolles (a cheeky, lovable scoundrel, played with gusto by Annelise Hawrylak).

Despite his skepticism after many failed treatments administered by many learned men, the King agrees to Helena’s treatment—and rewards her success by offering her the choice of any man in court for her husband. Taking this opportunity, she chooses Bertram; and when he rudely refuses her proposal, the King forces him into marriage. With war brewing in Florence, Parolles sees a way out and suggests that she and Bertram leave France and join the army. They do so, with Bertram leaving word with Helena that he will be her husband only if she successfully completes the impossible task of getting a ring from him and getting pregnant with his child. Helena pursues Bertram to France and, with the help of the independent and savvy innkeeper Diana (Melanie Leon), who Bertram has been doggedly pursuing to bed, hatches a plan to make the impossible possible.

Rounding out the company are Eric Benson as the priggish, arrogant M. LaFeu, an elder courtier at the Countess’s home; Tallan Alexander as Lavatch, the Countess’s saucy valet; and Holly Wyder as the spritely, guitar playing Dumaine the Younger and Anthony Botelho as the cheeky, trumpeter Dumaine the Elder, sibling messengers and our guides around the park.

And just as Helena and Diana put one over on Bertram, Parolles’ fellow soldiers (Lyons, Mott, Alexander and Benson) pull some trickery on him, revealing his true character. Prideful and careless of others, both Bertram and Parolles fall hard, and must surrender to their respective fates in the end. And an unexpected match is made in the process.

Part cautionary tale, part dark comedy, the energetic and entertaining ensemble keeps us on our toes—literally and figuratively—with twisting plot turns, and hilarious battles of words and wits; with some characters thinking and acting with their hearts and others working from somewhere decidedly south of there. Sharp-witted skills at verbal thrust and parry is in great evidence between Hawrylak’s Parolles and Benson’s M. LaFeu, as well as Hawrylak and Der’s Helena, and Lyons’ Countess and Alexander’s Lavatch. And Der’s performance is a great combination of love-struck and determination in Helena’s one-sided attentions to Bertram, and keen debate and care with the King—all while trying to prove herself worthy of Bertram’s love, which he clearly doesn’t want or deserve.

The adaptation lives up to the title, connecting us with the story in an intimate and contemporary way in an immersive, site-specific production that incorporates gender-bending casting, queer twists and calling out bad behaviour. The underlying misogyny and classism get big time push-back with powerful, capable and intelligent female and queer characters who ain’t taking no guff. (And with a female Parolles, we’re also reminded that even women can be dicks.) Beware of the proud and scornful, and the braggart cowards—and the proud and scornful mustn’t underestimate the smart and resourceful, no matter what their station. And don’t waste your talent and affection on someone who doesn’t care for or deserve you.

All’s Well That Ends Well continues in Berczy Park until August 25, with Friday and Saturday evening performances at 7:30 pm (except for Fri, Aug 9); and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1:00 p.m. Admission is pay what you can (PWYC), suggested $20 per person; look for the Dauntless City Theatre banner, east of the fountain.

 

Department of Corrections: The original post had matinee performances listed at 1:30 p.m.; they’re actually at 1:00 p.m. This has been corrected.

Rockin’ good fun for all ages in the delightfully whimsical, magical A (Musical) Midsummer Night’s Dream

Ahmed Moneka as Puck. Production design by Julia Kim. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Driftwood Theatre Group is back this summer, celebrating its 25th season with a tour of its outdoor Shakespearean awesomeness. This year, it’s a delightfully whimsical, silly, rockin’ Bard’s Bus Tour production of A (musical) Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare, adapted by Kevin Fox, Tom Lillington and D. Jeremy Smith; directed by Smith, assisted by André de Angelis; and music direction by Lillington. I caught the magical shenanigans in Toronto at Withrow Park last night.

King Theseus (James Dallas Smith) and his betrothed Hippolyta (Siobhan Richardson) are called upon by distressed nobleman Egeus (Ahmed Moneka) to intervene when his daughter Hermia (Marissa Orjalo) refuses to go along with an arranged marriage to Demetrius (Nick Dolan). Hermia is in love with Lysander (Nathaniel Hanula-James); and her BFF Helena (Kelsi James) is in love with Demetrius, who only has eyes for Hermia. Bottom line: Old-school law says if Hermia doesn’t marry Demetrius, she’ll be put to death—so she and Lysander run away into the forest, hotly pursued by Demetrius and Helena.

In the forest, another royal couple—Oberon (James Dallas Smith) and Titania (Richardson)—are estranged and at war over the custody of an orphaned human boy. In an attempt to steal the boy away, Oberon sends sprite Puck (Moneka) to fetch a magical flower, the juice of which will cause its victim to fall madly in love with the first thing they see; Oberon applies the flower to the sleeping Titania. Under Oberon’s orders, Puck goes to anoint Demetrius so he’ll fall in love with the scorned Helena—but mistakenly applies the flower to Lysander. Now both men long for Helena, and threaten to serious harm on each other to win her.

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James Dallas Smith as Oberon & Siobhan Richardson as Titania. Production design by Julia Kim. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Meanwhile, laid off auto worker Bottome (Steven Burley) gathers in the forest with fellow mechanicals (aka tradesmen: Dolan, Hanula-James, Orjalo and James) to rehearse a play they hope to perform at Theseus’s wedding, where a practical joke played by sprite Puck (Moneka) turns Bottome into a donkey and scatters his friends in fright—and draws the loving attentions of the bewitched Titania when she awakens to see him.

Of course, chaos and hilarity ensue—and Puck must find a way to make it right. And the whole thing culminates with a play within a play, as the bumbling but earnest mechanicals perform their hilarious classical tragedy at the wedding.

This is the kind of Shakespearean comedy where you pretty much have to go silly or go home—and the Driftwood cast really gives ‘er as they accompany the magical hijinks with a catchy rock, soul and opera-inspired a cappella music score (with Fox and associate music director Alison Beckwith providing additional vocals). The production also incorporates some fun Dungeons & Dragons and Pokémon moments.

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Steven Burley as Bottome; with Nanthaniel Hanula-James, Nick Dolan & Marissa Orjalo as the mechanicals. Production design by Julia Kim. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Burley is hilarious as the loveable windbag Bottome, who would play all the parts if he could—deep down, a man adrift and reaching out for community. Hanula-James and Orjalo are hysterical as the vain cellphone and selfie-obsessed Hermia and Lysander; Dolan brings a sullen teenage edge to Demetrius and James is adorkable as the scorned, awkward Helena. Smith and Titania are nicely matched, doing double duty as the human and magical royal couples; imperious yet full of their own quirks and foibles, they show us that it’s not just humans who can be fond and foolish in love. Moneka is a delight as the mischievous Puck; and comical as the old-fashioned, technically-challenged Egeus.

Driftwood’s reputation for making Shakespeare accessible for all ages, as well as introducing creative innovation to the canon, is in full force with this enchanting, fun production. Bring the family, a picnic, some chairs or a blanket—and enjoy an evening outdoors with this magical comedic favourite.

A (musical) Midsummer Night’s Dream is back at Withrow Park tonight (July 27) at 7:30; and continues around Ontario until August 18, when it closes at Mann Raceway Plaza in St. Catharines. Check the Bard’s Bus Tour page for the full schedule of dates/locations, as well as reserved seating. Admission is pay-what-you-can (PWYC) or free; suggested contribution is $20-$30 per person. Check the company’s Twitter account for weather-related updates.

As part of its 25th anniversary celebration, Driftwood is collecting audience stories about experiences seeing their productions; you can do that on paper at the venue or on social media (make sure to tag Driftwood). You may also want to consider lending your support with a donation to keep the company going for another 25 years.

*New Toronto performance added: Thurs, Aug 15 at 7:30 pm at the Daniels Spectrum Courtyard.

Toronto Fringe: Twelfth Night from Malvolio’s perspective in the riveting, visceral and cerebral I, Malvolio

Justin Otto. Photo by John Gundy.

 

impel theatre gives us Malvolio’s perspective of the events from Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night in Tim Crouch’s riveting, visceral, cerebral I, Malvolio, directed by Kendra Jones, assisted by clown consultant Calvin Peterson. I, Malvolio had its closing performance at the Smart Cookie Club at Artscape Youngplace last night.

As we prepare to enter the theatre, we’re given a Student Theatre Evaluation Form, with five questions about the presentation we’re about to see; here, we are middle school students and a guest speaker will be joining us. The chairs within room 109 are both child- and adult-sized; and we can also choose to sit on a cushion on the floor; we are invited to make ourselves comfortable, and participate—and even leave—as we like.

Dressed in yellow socks, black shorts and a worn t-shirt with yellow suspenders, and sporting clown makeup, Malvolio (Justin Otto) sits on the floor, reading a love letter—purportedly from his mistress Olivia, but actually a practical joke instigated by her uncle Sir Toby Belch, with the help of conspirators within the household. He maintains throughout that he is not mad, but does he protest too much? Turning his attention to us, like an overly strict substitute teacher, he snaps at us to correct our posture and turns accuser, and making us complicit in the practical joke that went too far against him. If we’re going to behave like children, we’re going to be treated like children. And he will have his revenge upon us all.

He takes us through the story we know from Twelfth Night from his point of view. How he takes his job as Olivia’s Steward very seriously; his hawk-eyed attention ever set on keeping order, cleanliness and decorum within the household. How his uncharacteristic behaviour was inspired by a love letter he thought was written in earnest; and how he was locked up in the dark and filth as a madman—only to be released to learn it was all a joke, and his beloved mistress has married a man she’s known for less than a day! And what about the crazy goings-on of the others? Viola dressing as a man. The love triangle between Olivia, Viola and Orsino. And Viola’s twin Sebastian agreeing to marry Olivia after knowing her less than a day!

Otto is a compelling presence, giving a performance that is grounded in his body, both visceral and cerebral as he lays out Malvolio’s arguments. Playing Devil’s advocate as he sets out this other perspective of the story, he forces us to examine our responses to mean-spirited practical jokes and bullying, as Malvolio rages on, reliving the pain, trauma and humiliation of what was done to him. And considers what form his revenge will take as he draws willing audience members into his plan of action. Malvolio isn’t mad—but he is broken and struggling to regain his sense of identity and equilibrium.

Sure, Malvolio is an overly proud, self-righteous, humourless, insipid man. He also has a fastidious attention to detail, order and management, making him excellent at his job. And he didn’t deserve to be treated so.

Keep your eyes peeled for future impel theatre productions.

Toronto Fringe: Madcap comedy & love a winning combination in the playful, mercurial The Taming of the Shrew

Chris Coculuzzi & Alexandra Milne. Photo by Kathy Plamondon.

 

Aquarius Players bring Shakespeare to the Fringe stage with their madcap, playful production of The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Nicole Arends and running in the St. George the Martyr Courtyard.

Baptista (Scott Moore) has two daughters: the wild Katherine (Alexandra Milne) and the sweet Bianca (Greta Whipple). Bianca has a few suitors on the scene: older locals Hortensio (Chris Irving) and Gremio (Daryn DeWalt); and a new face in town, the young Lucentio (Michael Pearson), who is smitten on sight. Problem is, Baptista is determined to marry Katherine off first—but no one will have her.

Enter Petruchio (Chris Coculuzzi), who has recently inherited his father’s estate and is out in the world looking for adventure. Hortensio and Gremio convince him to woo Katherine—exulting her great dowry and father’s wealth—so they may continue their suits with Bianca. Meanwhile, Lucentio has hatched a plan of his own, switching places with his servant Tranio (Paige Madsen), who will run interference with the other suitors and press his suit to Bianca while he inserts himself into Baptista’s home as a tutor. Here, he winds up in hilarious competition with Hortensio, also in disguise as a tutor.

Petruchio marries Katherine and takes her to his home, assuming extreme, erratic and bizarre behaviour himself to gradually calm her and get her rage under control. His servants Grumio (Elaine O’Neal) and Curtis (Christina Leonard, who also plays Lucentio’s sax-playing servant Biondello, who leads us around the courtyard as the scenes change) are both in on and puzzled by all of this. It all becomes a crazy game of ‘Petruchio says,’ and he and Katherine fall in love as her cold, hardened heart melts.

Lucentio and Tranio have a few more tricks up their sleeves, including disguising a wandering Pedant (Irving) as Lucentio’s father Vincentio, who will vouch for Lucentio’s character and station to Baptista—a decision that blows their cover when the real Vincentio (DeWalt) shows up. By then, Lucentio and Bianca are already married; and their agreeable fathers forgive them as they host a wedding feast for friends and family. And, with the mad cap craziness of the Petruchio/Katherine dynamic, Katherine’s final speech advising wives to follow their husbands’ lead—though still challenging by today’s standards—becomes an argument for wives to take the lead on maintaining peace and serenity in the household.

The cast is an entertaining delight in this lively 90-minute outdoor Shakespearean romp of love, disguise, competition and well-meaning manipulation. Coculuzzi and Milne are nicely matched as the patient, meticulous rogue Petruchio and the enraged, neglected wildcat Katherine; her extreme internal rage boiling over to the surface, she behaves like a wild animal—and he applies a remedy appropriate to taming a wild creature, with great care and calculation. They are nicely supported by the ensemble, especially Whipple’s bratty favourite daughter Bianca; Pearson’s lusty, love-struck Lucentio; Madsen as the puckish wise servant Tranio; and Leonard’s awkward child-like Biondello. And Irving and DeWalt give great comic turns as Bianca’s thwarted suitors, with Irving doing hilarious double duty as the saucy, likely drunken, Pedant.

With the mercurial word play, and imaginative physicality and comedy, this Shrew is a mad world of rage and love—with wacky desperate situations requiring equally wacky desperate measures—and love wins in the end.

The Taming of the Shrew continues in the St. George the Martyr Courtyard, with two more performances: today (July 13) and July 14 at 2:00; check the show page for advance tickets. Chairs are available in and around the courtyard for those who need them; otherwise, there are blankets to sit on.

Missed a show or want to see it again? Check out the latest Fringe announcements: Fringe Awards & Patron’s Picks and Best of the Fringe.

Hearts & minds poisoned to a tragic conclusion in Shakespeare BASH’d powerful, intimate, thought-provoking Othello

Front: E.B. Smith & Catherine Rainville. Back: James Graham. Photo by Jonas Widdifield.

 

Toronto favourite Shakespeare BASH’d continues its 2018-19 season with a deep-dive into one of the most complex, messily human plays in the Shakespeare canon: Othello. Directed by James Wallis, assisted by Olivia Croft, and featuring a stellar cast, Othello opened last night for a short run this week at The Monarch Tavern. Before our eyes, hearts and minds are poisoned—and deeply human flaws exposed—along the way to a tragic finale in this intimate, powerful production.

Right off the top, Iago (James Graham) plants seeds of doubt and unrest, playing on sentiments of racism, prejudice and misogyny as, from the shadows and with the aid of the jealous, entitled Roderigo (Jeff Dingle, bringing comic relief in a goofy turn as the foolish would-be suiter), drops the bomb on Venetian senator Brabantio (played with candid self-righteous anger tinged with heart-wrenching resignation by David Mackett) that Othello (E.B. Smith), a general with the Venetian army, and his daughter Desdemona (Catherine Rainville) have had carnal knowledge of each other. Iago won’t stand for Othello’s glorified station as a respected, successful general and especially objects to Cassio’s (Dylan Evans) recent promotion over him; and Roderigo wants Desdemona for himself. Seething with resentment and jealousy over men who have that which they do not, both have their minds set on vengeance and scheme to claim that which they feel belongs to them.

Smugly, even gleefully, relating his plans throughout, the cunning Iago speaks directly to us as he maps out how, step by step, he intends to turn Othello against Cassio and Desdemona, all the while using the foolish Roderigo as his own personal bank account and sidekick, and his trusting wife Emilia (Jennifer Dzialoszynski), who serves Desdemona, as an unwitting accomplice. And all while pretending to be everyone’s friend and confidante.

Poisoning hearts and minds by playing on people’s deepest fears, prejudices and weaknesses, as well as their egos—all the while dropping pearls of apt wisdom on his respective targets—Iago manipulates and orchestrates a falling out between Othello and his friend/second in command Cassio, and gradually makes Othello distrust Desdemona’s fidelity, which he inflames by encouraging Cassio to turn to Desdemona to speak on his behalf to Othello. And that damned handkerchief—a treasured gift from Othello to Desdemona, left behind by her and found by Emilia, who gives it to Iago to please him—becomes the last straw when it is found in Cassio’s chambers. Tormented by rage and despair over his belief that Desdemona has been untrue with his best friend Cassio, that seemingly small thing pushes Othello past the edge of reason, with dire and tragic results.

A powerful, compelling performance from Smith as the tragic hero Othello; a soldier’s soldier, forced by systemic racism and oppression to constantly prove himself as a man and as a general, Othello’s great love for Desdemona becomes his downfall as Iago’s machinations work on his jealousy and sense of honour; and even more importantly, his doubts of deserving her as his partner and equal. Rainville exudes a quiet, but luminous, presence as the loyal, tender Desdemona; eschewing social mores and risking the condemnation of her family and friends, Desdemona courageously and authentically follows her heart to be with Othello. Drawn together in a relationship of mutual ‘otherness’—Othello navigating racism and Desdemona dealing with misogyny—he loves her gentle generosity of spirit and she his bravery and perseverance.

Graham is entitled sociopathic perfection as the cunning, vengeful Iago; kind to be cruel as weaves his web of fake news, mistrust and hatred among good, trusting people, Iago is the diabolical puppet master of the tragic tale. Dzialoszynski is both delightful and heartbreaking as Iago’s sassy, witty and neglected wife Emilia; longing to please her husband and, without malice, she becomes an unknowing accomplice in the tragic events that unfold between Othello and Desdemona. And Evans is adorably boyish and cocky as the eager, ambitious young Cassio; flawed and foolish in his own way, Cassio’s reputation and bromance with Othello are tarnished when he fails to govern his wayward behaviour—and his careless treatment of lover Bianca (a playful turn from Natasha Ramondino) signals a man boy with some growing up to do.

Great work all around from this outstanding cast, which also features Melanie Leon (as the stalwart Montana, Othello’s predecessor in Cyprus), Wilex Ly (the fastidious Lodovico) and Julia Nish-Lapidus (the politically apt Duchess and the hilarious drunken party girl Clown).

Just like The Merchant of Venice continues to spark debate over being an anti-Semitic play or a play about anti-Semitism, so too does Othello have at its core the debate of racist play vs. a play about racism. No matter which side of the debate you’re on, there’s no doubt that these plays both reveal, in a very raw and human way, the ways in which the elite dominant culture—in this case, white Christian males—wields its own sense of entitlement and keeps a tight grip on power as it keeps the ‘other’ in their place through systemic oppression based on religion, race and gender. (Sound familiar?) And the sad truth that even good men can be pushed too far, with serious and tragic consequences.

Othello continues at the Monarch Tavern until February 10; it’s a super short run and an intimate venue—and they’re already sold out—but if you get there early and get on the wait list, you may just luck out and find yourself a seat.

Check out this great interview on the debate on Othello being a racist play or a play about racism with actors Smith and Rainville by Arpita Ghosal on Sesaya.

Power, identity & politics: Women come out from behind the men in the potent, thoughtful Portia’s Julius Caesar

Nikki Duval & Christine Horne. Set & costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Shakespeare’s women continue to take centre stage this summer—this time, with Shakespeare in the Ruff’s production of AD Kaitlyn Riordan’s Portia’s Julius Caesar, a potent and thoughtful adaptation of Julius Caesar from the point of view of the women in this story. The sharply wrought script weaves the text woven from 17 Shakespeare plays, four sonnets and a poem with new dialogue—and the women behind the men come to the fore as they wrestle with their own issues of identity, power and justice. Directed by Eva Barrie, Portia’s Julius Caesar is currently running outdoors in Toronto’s Withrow Park.

While all of Rome celebrates Caesar’s (Jeff Yung) triumphant return from a successful campaign against the sons of Pompey, his wife Calpurnia (Nikki Duval) confides in her bosom friend Portia, wife to Brutus (Christine Horne), regarding her concerns over their lack of an heir and Caesar’s relationship with the legendary Cleopatra, who she fears may usurp her. Nursing a newborn son herself, Portia is supportive and optimistic for her friend’s chances of bearing a child; but soon finds herself uneasy in her own marriage as Brutus (Adriano Sobretodo Jr.) becomes increasingly distant and absent from their home.

Meanwhile, some in Rome are troubled by Caesar’s desire for a crown, which he hides with false humility; and there are those who fear that the republic may become a monarchy ruled by a boisterous, boasting tyrant. Among these are Servilia (Deborah Drakeford), Brutus’s imperious power-brokering mother and Cassius (Kwaku Okyere), Brutus’s friend—who both fan his deep concerns over Caesar’s popularity and hunger for power. Choosing his love of Rome over his love of Caesar, Brutus joins Cassius and a group of like-minded conspirators in a deadly plan to put a stop to Caesar’s rise to power. Hiding in the shadows to learn what is afoot, Portia catches wind of the plan; now faced with wanting to warn her friend Calpurnia but not betray her husband, she goes to Calpurnia with a story of a dream of Caesar’s bloody statue. Coupled with the Soothsayer’s (Tahirih Vejdani) recent warning, Calpurnia attempts to stop Caesar from going to the Senate on that fateful day—even after Brutus has persuaded him to do so—but fails to convince.

The actions that follow create a heartbreaking rift between Calpurnia and Portia, and make for additional tragedy in this tale of power, propaganda and loyalty. Portia fears for her life and that of her son when Marc Antony (Giovanni Spina) turns the people against Brutus, Cassius and their fellow assassins. Returning home to find Brutus gone, Portia learns that Servilia has secreted their son away to keep him safe. But how safe can anyone be in these chaotic, bloody times? In the end, the living are left to mourn their dead—and judge themselves for their actions in the outcome.

Remarkable work from Duval and Horne as Calpurnia and Portia; friends of their own accord, with a relationship separate from that of their husbands, these women truly love, nurture and support each other. Duval gives a moving performance as Calpurnia; an intelligent woman, well aware of her husband’s station and rise to power, Calpurnia beats herself up for not having children and blames herself for his womanizing. And seeing her friend nurse her baby makes Calpurnia want a child even more. Horne deftly mines Portia’s internal conflict as a contented, happy mother and supportive wife and friend whose reach only goes so far. Portia simply can’t wait on the sidelines when she knows that something serious is afoot with Brutus—and her insistence that he confide in her comes from a genuine desire to help. Longing to not only do their duty, but be real, invested partners to their husbands, Calpurnia and Portia can only respond as events emerge—and do what they believe is right under the circumstances. Drakeford gives a striking performance as the sharp-witted, intimidating yet vulnerable Servilia. Unable to wield direct political power herself, Servilia employs what influence she has to persuade individuals and manage events; and with no female role models at the time, she appears to model her behaviour after that of powerful men—perhaps finding herself at odds with her natural instincts.

The outstanding ensemble also includes a Young Ruffian Chorus (Troy Sarju, Sienna Singh and Jahnelle Jones-Williams); and the male actors also portray the various washerwomen—as women and slaves, they represent the lowest among the 99% in Rome. Okyere’s fiery, volatile, hasty Cassius is the perfect foil to Sobretodo’s cool, diplomatic, calculating Brutus. Spina does a great job balancing Antony’s fired-up warrior and eloquent orator; and, in addition to the enigmatic Soothsayer, Vejdani gives us a playful and seductive Casca, a Roman courtesan in this adaptation whose part in the plot includes distracting Antony from the impending plot against Caesar.

Portia’s Julius Caesar continues at Withrow Park (in the space just south of the washrooms) until September 3, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (no show on August 27, but there will be a special Labour Day performance on Sept 3); the show runs 110 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets are PWYC at the venue (cash only: $20 suggested); advance tickets available online for $20 (regular) or $30 (includes camp chair rental).

Bring a blanket, beach towel or chair; bug spray also recommended. Concerned about the possible impact of weather conditions on a performance? Keep an eye out on Shakespeare in the Ruff’s Twitter feed or Facebook page for updates and cancellations.

In the meantime, check out this insightful and revealing Toronto Star piece by Carly Maga about the show, including an interview with AD/playwright Kaitlyn Riordan.