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.

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Taming the Shrew like it’s 1989 in sharply witty, playfully bawdy, LGBTQ+ Bard’s Bus Tour

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Geoffrey Armour & Siobhan Richardson – photo by Dahlia Katz

Driftwood Theatre Group launched its annual Bard’s Bus Tour earlier this month, this time with a 1980s Toronto Pride take on William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Driftwood Artistic Director D. Jeremy Smith and running this week at Toronto’s Withrow Park.

A challenging play to produce for modern-day audiences, given its dynamic of patriarchal dominance tinged with misogyny, Smith and company decided to take the opportunity to present the play from a contemporary point of view, exploring themes of identity, consent and equality.

Set in 1989, Lucentio (Fiona Sauder) and Tranio (Paolo Santalucia) travel from small-town Ontario to Toronto to experience the sights, sounds and possible romantic entanglements of Pride. Upon their arrival, they witness a family matter gone public, as Baptista (Renée Hackett) engages in a battle of words with Hortensio (Drew O’Hara) and Gremio (played by various company members, in mask), both would-be suitors to her youngest daughter Bianca (Tahirih Vejdani). Baptista refuses to let anyone marry Bianca until her eldest daughter, the wild Katharine (Siobhan Richardson) is wed first, an edict which prompts Hortensio to enlist the aid of his old friend Petruchio (Geoffrey Armour), newly arrived from Hamilton, recently furnished with a great inheritance after his father’s death and seeking a wife.

In the meantime, Lucentio has fallen for Bianca, and they* and Tranio devise a plan to woo her, whereby they switch identities so Tranio can present Lucentio as a tutor to Baptista’s household. Meanwhile, Petruchio and Hortensio have hatched a similar plan, placing Hortensio as a music teacher. The initial spark between Petruchio and Katharine becomes apparent as they begin a game of wits and dominance. They marry on the day of the Pride Parade, and he immediately takes her away to his home in Hamilton where he begins the process of taming her as the two test their boundaries. Add to this wacky mix are two Vincentio’s (Lucentio’s father): a pedant enlisted by Tranio to play the part in order to validate the dowry offer and the real Vincentio, who arrives searching for his child.

Artfully staged, with a minimalist set comprised of modular, movable Tetris pieces (designed by Smith), and utilizing commedia dell’arte masks (for Gremio, Vincentio and the various servants, each played by various members of the company), puppetry, inventive props, and outrageous and colourful 80s costuming (Melanie McNeill), Driftwood’s The Taming of the Shrew challenges our preconceived notions of this play in a battle of equals, loving who they want to love and how they want to love.

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Paolo Santalucia & Fiona Sauder – photo by Dahlia Katz

Shouts to an outstanding ensemble, with its high-energy performances and totally rad a cappella renderings of favourite 80s pop tunes (arrangements by Tom Lillington). Armour is both charming and rough as Petruchio, a ruffian with a loving disposition beneath the lusty denim and flannel exterior. Richardson is fierce and unforgiving as the neglected Katherine, whose heart longs for love beneath that scrappy attitude; she consents to soften under her husband’s direction as they set the terms for their relationship of equals. Sauder is adorably love-stricken and determined as the floppy-haired cutie pie Lucentio; and Vejdani’s Bianca is a small but feisty gal under the good little sister exterior. Hackett is a strong negotiator and drives a hard bargain as the noble, put-upon mother Baptista; and is hilarious as Petruchio’s laid-back servant Curtis. Santalucia is a delight as the sharp-witted, mercurial and flamboyant Tranio; and O’Hara gives a hilarious turn as the spurned and opportunistic Hortensio.

Taming the Shrew like it’s 1989 in Driftwood Theatre’s sharply witty, playfully bawdy, LGBTQ+ Bard’s Bus Tour 2016.

The Taming of the Shrew continues at Toronto’s Withrow Park until this Sunday, July 24 – please note the 7:30 start time. Toronto performances include the following extras:

July 20: Pre-show chat (6:45 p.m.) with Dr. Nikki Cesare Schotzko, University of Toronto

July 21: Intermission show by 80s throwback a cappella band Retrocity; post-show chat with the actors

July 22: Pre-show chat (6:45 p.m.) with Headmistress Shaharazad

Shrew then moves on to various locations across Ontario till August 14; check here for cities, dates and seat reservation info.

*In this production, the part of Lucentio has been cast to be gender fluid, identifying as neither male nor female; therefore, the pronoun “they” is used.