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

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Preview: Moving modern LGBT take on classic star-crossed lovers in Romeo and (her) Juliet

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Leslie McBay (Romeo) & Krystina Bojanowski (Juliet)

Headstrong Collective and Urban Bard took us to the Church of Shakespeare at Bloor Street United Church last night – literally and figuratively – in their preview performance of Romeo and (her) Juliet, directed by Urban Bard A.D. Scott Emerson Moyle, and produced by Headstrong Collective co-founders/producers/actors Melanie Hrymak and Leslie McBay.

Outside the sanctuary, on opposite sides of the doors, are tables with photographs of Tybalt (Hrymak) and Mercutio (Max Tepper), with accompanying guest books and condolence cards. Inside, front and centre, there is a poster-sized photograph of Romeo (McBay) and Juliet (Krystina Bojanowski), an image captured at their wedding. The play is set during a memorial service, and in Friar Laurence’s (Lisa Karen Cox) memory of events from the previous week.

This is a moving, modern-day, queer interpretation of Romeo and Juliet; the lovers are both women, as are Benvolio (Clare Blackwood) and Friar Laurence (Cox), while Nurse is Capulet’s male assistant (Shawn Ahmed, who also plays Sgt. Prince, a community liaison officer). Mrs. Capulet (Siobhan Richardson, also doing double duty as fight director) is Capulet’s (Geoffrey Whynot) second wife, with the up and coming Paris (Adrian Shepherd) their prime choice for a son-in-law. The one-line character descriptions in the program read like Facebook status points and the cast reflects the diverse culture of Toronto – and the enmity between the Capulets and Montagues is as much about the one percent vs. the 99 percent as it is about family feud.

McBay and Bojanowski are lovely as the ill-fated teen lovers; McBay’s Romeo is a sensitive romantic, with a melancholy edge and soft butch swagger, and Bojanowski’s Juliet is bright and sweet, unspoiled by her privileged life and looking forward to a sense of independence while away at university. Blackwood and Tepper give strong – and often comic – performances as Romeo’s BFFs: the streetwise and protective Benvolio (Blackwood) and party boy Fool Mercutio (Tepper). Hrymak’s Tybalt is nicely nuanced – haughty and proud, but not without conscience in her drive to defend her family’s reputation. Whynot carries Capulet’s alpha male power well, his angry outbursts hinting at the potential for physical violence; Richardson’s Mrs. Capulet, step-mother to Juliet, is a compelling contradiction of chilly Rosedale matron whose emotions run deep and intense. Cox does a beautiful job as Laurence, the supportive community cleric, as well as mentor and friend to Romeo – caught in the middle of a family war and desperately trying to resolve it. Doing double acting duty, Ahmed is the picture of efficiency and warmth as Nurse, and equally supportive, but at the end of his patience, as Sgt. Prince; and Adrian Shepherd gives us a perfectly coiffed and well-mannered Paris, with a hint of bad boy beneath the golden boy exterior, and a nice turn as the wary street-dwelling drug dealer who begrudgingly sells Romeo the deadly poison.

The site-specific venue works incredibly well for this production of Shakespeare’s timeless classic tale of star-crossed love – and the 90-minute abridged version of the script hits all the important plot points and sweet spots the audience needs to become immersed in the story. In the end, are bereft and grieving – including the audience.

With shouts to composer Stephen Joffe for the moving atmospheric soundtrack; and stage manager Christina Abes for keeping things running smoothly and at a good pace in the complex, multi-level playing space.

Headstrong Collective/Urban Bard production of Romeo and (her) Juliet is a powerful contemporary urban interpretation, beautifully staged and truthfully acted. Go see this.

Romeo and (her) Juliet opens tomorrow night (Fri, Sept 5) and runs until Sept 20 at Bloor Street United Church (300 Bloor Street West at Huron); entrance is on the Bloor St. side, around the middle of the building. You can purchase tickets at the door 30 minutes before the show or online here. Please note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time; the show runs 90 minutes with no intermission.