Mental health takes centre stage in the mercurial, heart-wrenching, provocative adaptation Hamlet(s)

Skipping Stones Theatre gives us a new, contemporary take on the Shakespeare classic brings mental health front and centre with its mercurial, heart-wrenching, provocative adaptation Hamlet(s), directed by Sean O’Brien, supplemented by additional Shakespearian text; and opening last night to a sold out house at b current Studio in Artscape Wychwood Barns. Here, we have a Hamlet who’s literally and figuratively beside himself, played by two actors; a young man struggling with emerging Bipolar I as his world crumbles around him.

I never get tired of seeing how different theatre companies interpret and adapt Hamlet. Opening with “To be or not to be…,” Hamlet’s (Tristan Claxton and Kate McArthur) emerging mental illness is established off the top of Hamlet(s). The double casting turns soliloquies into Hamlet’s conversations with himself; and the effective tag team nature of his dialogue reveals a troubled, fractured mind rolling through manic, mixed and depressive episodes—with McArthur’s side of Hamlet taking on an inner voice quality.

This adaptation also examines the responses of friends and family to a loved one’s mental health crisis. Ophelia (Breanna Maloney) is featured more prominently, taking on a more active role; mindful and concerned about Hamlet’s welfare, she enlists the assistance of Hamlet’s friend Horatio (Liz Der). Conflicted and torn about telling her father Polonius (Mike Vitorovich) about Hamlet’s increasingly erratic behaviour, and unable to find another way to help him, Ophelia chooses to place her trust in a parent; this makes her subsequent mental breakdown following Polonius’s death—at Hamlet’s hand—all the more heartbreaking. And one can see how and why Horatio would consider taking her own life after all attempts at helping her friend have failed—and those who were supposed to help and care for him have only betrayed or neglected Hamlet.

Claudius (Tim MacLean) and Gertrude (Shalyn McFaul) are also concerned—he out of fear of exposure and losing his ill-gotten throne, and she out of guilt and neglected love—but are after a quick fix for Hamlet’s problem. Enter Hamlet’s old friends Rosencrantz (Felix Beauchamp) and Guildenstern (Tamara Freeman), summoned to cheer Hamlet up; but instead of genuinely listening to Hamlet, they offer mere positive spins to counter his intimations of what ails him.

Unable to level off and organize his rapid-fire thoughts and emotions, Hamlet’s in no shape to enact revenge on Claudius for the murder of his father. Directly responsible for the death of Polonius, and perhaps also feeling responsible for Ophelia’s subsequent breakdown and death, Hamlet eventually faces off with the vengeful Laertes (Erin Eldershaw) in what’s being sold as a friendly fencing match. Surprisingly calm and ready for death—one gets the impression that he may be opting for suicide by vendetta.

Remarkable, gripping, lazer-focused performances from Claxton and McArthur as the dual Hamlets; both revealing a full range of struggling, conflicted emotional and psychological experience—from dejected despair, to playful antics, quixotic exchanges and a-ha flashes of inspiration. It’s raw, real and present—fascinating, heart-wrenching and thought-provoking to watch.

Equally fine work from the rest of the ensemble, with Maloney’s ethereal, loving Ophelia and Der’s sweet, nerdy Horatio clearly the only ones who are truly on Hamlet’s side; desperate to help their friend, they’re both frustrated and baffled as they grasp for a solution. MacLean gives a slick, corporate edge to the pompous, entitled Claudius; and there’s a tinge of melancholy to McFaul’s cool, detached Gertrude. Vitorovich gives us some great comic turns as the intelligent but verbose Polonius and the cheeky, sharp-witted Gravedigger; and Eldershaw offers up compelling performances as the irreverent, fiery Laertes and the divalike First Player. And Beauchamp and Freeman are a great pair as the affable but duplicitous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are more concerned about serving at Claudius’s pleasure than they are with helping their friend.

Those who aren’t protective of Hamlet’s health and welfare aren’t necessarily bad people—some are merely self-serving, clueless, in denial or negligent. And even those who strive to truly help find themselves spinning their wheels due to lack of awareness and subsequently missing what resources may be employed to help. Just like real life. A long neglected aspect of our health care system, we’re gradually seeing mental health come to the forefront. More of us are realizing that mental health is health.

Hamlet(s) continues in the b current Studio Theatre until November 24, with performances tonight (November 17) and November 22-24; please note the 7:30pm curtain time. Advance tickets available online—a good idea given the limited seating in this intimate venue, with a short run—at the door.

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Last call for Ale House Theatre Co.’s Twelfe Night, or what you will – one night only Thurs, July 16

Twelfe-new-photo-250x250Did you miss seeing Ale House Theatre Co.’s Original Practices production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfe Night, or what you will during Toronto Fringe?

Fear not, gentle theatre lovers! The company is doing one more, very special, performance at St. Vladimir Theatre on Thursday, July 16 at 8:00 p.m.

What’s so special about this performance, you ask? This time, the show will be Pay What You Decide.

What the heck is Pay What You Decide? The good folks at Ale House Theatre Co. explain it thusly:

... recently employed by the ARC theatre of Stockton-on-Tees, England … Patrons will have free entrance to the venue and performance. After enjoying the show, they are
free to leave as little or as much money as they decide. Ale House is calling it the “Ale
House Last Call: Free to enter; Leave what you will!” evening.

Ale House Theatre Co.’s Twelfe Night, or what you will is directed by Joshua Stodart, and features a fine ensemble cast: Hilary McCormack, Tayves Fiddis, Dan Henkel, Mitchell Janiak, Peyton LeBarr, Tim MacLean, Andrea Massoud, Matt Shaw, Kyle Shields, Tal Shulman, Chris Whidden and Jake Vanderham. I saw the production last week during Toronto Fringe; here’s the write-up.

So be of good cheer and get your butts out to St. Vladimir Theatre on Thursday, July 16 for a most delightful production of Twelfe Night, or what you will. In the meantime, give Ale House Theatre Co. a follow on Twitter to keep up with future productions.

Toronto Fringe: A most delightful production of Twelfe Night, or what you will from Ale House Theatre Co.

Twelfe-new-photo-250x250Finally got to see Ale House Theatre Co. do Shakespeare yesterday. They’re running an Original Practices version of Twelfe Night, or what you will, directed by Joshua Stodart, at St. Vladimir’s Theatre during Toronto Fringe.

An Original Practices production uses the stage conventions and tech that were known to be used in Shakespeare’s time – and this dictates the staging and tone of the play. This production of Twelfe Night features some hilarious physical comedy and characterizations, and keeps the pacing light and quick – which keeps the pranking schemes from getting too mean-spirited, and the sudden decisions about love and marriage from looking too crazy. All nicely book-ended with Feste, who plays recorder at the top of the show (he’ll take period-appropriate requests) and sings at the close.

Stodart has assembled a fine cast for this tale of tragically separated twins, disguise, crazy love and mistaken identity. Stand-outs include Peyton Le Barr, who brings an adorably puckish yet vulnerable quality to Viola; Hilary McCormack (doing double duty this Fringe, also performing in Hanger, directed by Stodart) is striking as the lovely and proud Olivia, her stubborn resolve to cloister herself away melting into a puddle as she falls crazy stupid in love with Cesario (Viola in disguise); Andrea Massoud is wonderful as the saucy and cunning Maria – and she has excellent chemistry with Tim MacLean’s drunken sot of an aging party boy Sir Toby Belch and Matt Shaw’s hilariously awkward twerp of a Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Tal Shulman does an excellent turn as Olivia’s arrogant and snobbish steward Malvolio, who turns to a silly pile of mush himself at the prospect of being adored by his mistress. And Jake Vanderham charms as the sharp-witted, good-natured Fool Feste, entertaining us on the recorder and with a lovely set of pipes of his own.

All in all, a most delightful production of Twelfe Night, or what you will from Ale House Theatre Co. Get yourself out to see some excellent good fun Shakespeare.

Twelfe Night, or what you will continues at St. Vladimir’s until July 12 – check here for exact dates/times. In the meantime, give Ale House Theatre Co. a follow on Twitter to keep up with future productions.