Power, plots & passion in the compelling, intimate & deftly performed Caesar

Kevin Kashani as Marc Antony and Melanie Leon as Julius Caesar in Caesar—photo art by Joseph Hammond

 

Wolf Manor Theatre Collective continues its 2016-17 season of startling, up close and personal theatre with its production of William Shakespeare’s Caesar, directed by Dylan Brenton and opening last night to a packed house in Kensington Hall.

Triumphant Caesar (Melanie Leon) is out of control and turned tyrant, while still managing to maintain support among everyday Romans, who want to crown her as Emperor. Her friend Brutus (Megan Miles) is deeply concerned about the impact her rule could have on Rome, while Cassius (Maddalena Vallecchi Williams) goes one step further and hatches a plan to take Caesar out of the equation. Cognizant of her friend Brutus’s popularity, Cassius recruits Brutus, as well as Casca (Felix Beauchamp) and others, to her cause: assassinate Caesar.

Forewarned by a soothsayer of dark portents on the Ides of March, Caesar is reluctant to make her regular trip to the Senate—and wife Calpurnia (Beauchamp) implores her to stay at home. However, her pride and vanity are stroked by one of the conspirators (Kevin Kashani) and she ventures out despite all warnings. And despite Cassius’s warnings to Brutus about Caesar’s favourite Marc Antony (Kashani), Brutus refuses to shed his blood and even allows him to speak at Caesar’s funeral.

After Caesar is killed, Brutus speaks before her fellow Romans to quell mounting fear, confusion and anger—and they are satisfied. That is, until Antony gives that famous speech at Caesar’s funeral and turns the tide of public opinion, sparking a war—with Antony and Caesar’s son Octavius (Beauchamp) on one side and Brutus, Cassius and their supporters on the other. When all appears lost, both Brutus and Cassius take their own lives, with Brutus’s reputation for pure intentions throughout this endeavour remaining intact.

For those of you who’ve seen earlier Wolf Manor productions, the gender fluid casting will be nothing new. Casting female actors in male roles and vice versa provides interesting new takes on familiar characters—and serves as a reminder that women are just as capable of pride, violence and power brokering; and men of tenderness, caution and introspection. The intimate, in the round staging gives a Coliseum feel to the set; we’re witnesses to these events, but we’re also the citizens of Rome. And the running image of the sands of time—pouring out of letters, wine bottles and even Caesar’s blood—hearkening to a sense of legacy and that, whether emperor or everyman, we are all bound for dust.

Brenton has an especially strong and compact cast for this tale of power and might for right. Miles gives Brutus a nice balance between eloquence and strength. Pensive and fair-minded, Brutus is a reluctant leader driven by a firm resolve to do what’s best for Rome, no matter what the cost—even to herself. Vallecchi Williams tempers Cassius’s blunt boldness with a sharp mind and an intuitive insight into men’s hearts. Her finger on the pulse of public sentiment, her plans go well beyond mere schemes and plots. And her love and friendship with Brutus reveal a gentler, emotional side; great chemistry between Miles’ mild-mannered Brutus and Vallecchi Williams’ fiery Cassius.

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Foreground: Maddalena Vallecchi Williams & Felix Beauchamp; Background: Megan Miles in Caesar—photo art by Joseph Hammond

Leon gives a great turn in two very different roles: the proud, vain and tyrannical Caesar; and Brutus’s fiercely loyal and loving wife Portia, where she plays a lovely two-hander in which Portia, beside herself with worry, begs to know what ails Brutus. Beauchamp also does a marvelous job with multiple roles: as the eerily quiet, menacing Casca; Brutus’s wide-eyed serving boy; Caesar’s wife Calpurnia, who relays a dream of dark portents; and the sturdy young Octavius. Kashani does a great job with the many sides of Antony; ready to spill blood after he’s spilled tears over Caesar’s corpse, he proves himself to be a master manipulator of mob mentality during his sly spin on the conspirators during the funeral speech, as well as a fine warrior—and is greatly underestimated by his enemies.

With shouts to the design team for creating the minimalist, evocative environment and atmosphere: Tessa Hallett (set), Nikolas Nikita (costumes) and Elizabeth Elliott (lighting).

Power, plots and passion in the compelling, intimate and deftly performed Caesar.

Caesar continues at Kensington Hall till May 28; full schedule and advance tix available online. Advance booking strongly recommended; it’s an intimate venue with limited seating and a very strong company.

You can keep up with Wolf Manor Theatre collective on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Looking to support great local indie theatre? Please consider supporting the company’s Fund What You Can campaign.

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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.

Toronto Fringe: Mistaken identities. Jealous love. All in good fun in hilarious, high-energy The Comedy of Errors

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Shakespeare BASH’d bids a fond farewell to the Victory Café with their hilarious, high-energy Toronto Fringe production of William Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, directed by Julia Nish-Lapidus, assisted by Megan Miles.

Twin sons (Kelly Penner) of a nobleman (David Mackett) and their twin servants (Tim Welham) are separated from each other, then their parents. Luckily, each son (both named Antipholus) stays together with his man (both named Dromio), but when Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse land in Ephesus, weird things start happening, including being set upon by a rampaging jealous wife (Suzette McCanny), and debtors threatening jail or worse when they are mistaken for the Ephegean counterparts. All four young men begin to question their own and each other’s sanity, and the boys from Syracuse wonder if they’ve landed in a city of witches. But no worries, as this is a comedy, all are reunited and all ends happily.

It’s always a good time with the Shakespeare BASH’d folks; and this minimalist, modern dress production is no exception. Stand-outs include Penner as the proud, noble and confused Antipholus twins; and Welham’s saucy, put-upon servant/side kick twin Dromio’s. McCanny is hilariously neurotic and ferocious as Adriana, the baffled, neglected and determined wife of Antipholus of Ephesus; and Bailey Green does lovely double duty as Adriana’s supportive, loyal and level-headed sister Luciana, and the sassy but friendly local Courtesan.

Mistaken identities. Jealous love. Where’s my money, bitch? All in good fun in The Comedy of Errors.

The Comedy of Errors continues at the Victory Café (upstairs) with four more performances: July 7-9 at 7 p.m. and July 10 at 5 p.m. You need to get tix in advance or line up early at the box office for this one, kids. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.

Toronto Fringe: The man. The ego. The outsider. Orson Welles meets Shylock in the compelling Orson Welles/Shylock

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The Shylock Project is in town from Syracuse, NY with a Toronto Fringe run of Orson Welles/Shylock, written and directed by Matt Chiorini, in the Factory Theatre studio.

Structured as a docu-fantasy radio play, Orson Welles/Shylock is a multimedia, largely verbatim theatre piece that incorporates quotes, reviews, interviews and text from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, as well as projection effects and film footage of Welles in an impromptu performance of Shylock’s famous soliloquy on a beach at sunrise.

Featuring a cast of four actors, including Chiorini, Brittany Fayle, Drew Gripe and Vincent Randazzo – who each play several characters, including Welles at various ages – we get a brief history of Welles’ career. His mother started reading Shakespeare to him when he was a preschooler, and by the time he was 18, he was starting to produce, direct, write, adapt and star in his own productions, starting with theatre and moving to filmmaking. An outsider in Hollywood, and pretty much anywhere he went, he found a particular resonance with Shylock. He created a large body of work, but much of it was left unfinished due to financing issues, the most notable of which was his 1960 made for TV version of The Merchant of Venice, which stopped production when CBS pulled its financing. Only a small portion of the footage remains, as Welles reported it was later stolen.

The four-person cast does a stellar job portraying Welles throughout his career, from the brash, fearless rookie of an 18-year-old, to middle-aged titan, to the aging veteran forced to take acting jobs to subsidize his own projects (and thankful he didn’t do Love Boat). Encouraged and praised from a very young age, there was nothing he couldn’t do. A workaholic with a huge ego, demanding standards and a razor-sharp wit, he eschewed any editorial hands on his work but his own. But throughout it all, like Shylock was in Venice, but not of Venice – Welles was in the industry but not of the industry. An outsider till his death at 70, we get various portraits of him from a number of review clips, quotes and interviews; and one gets the impression that – like his most famous film character Charles Foster Kane – few, if any, really knew him at all. And his Shylock soliloquy is heartbreaking.

The man. The ego. The outsider. Orson Welles meets Shylock in the compelling Orson Welles/Shylock.

Orson Welles/Shylock continues at the Factory Theatre Studio, with three more performances: today (Thurs, July 7) at 4 p.m.; Sat, July 9 at 7:30 p.m.; and Sun, July 10 at 12:00 p.m. These guys aren’t local, so catch them while they’re still here. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.

Orange is the new Hamlet in Driftwood Theatre’s steel-sharp, fast-paced tale of grief, revenge & truth

Hamlet illustrationDriftwood Theatre Group launched its 21st annual Bard’s Bus Tour with their production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet earlier this month, text adapted by Toby Malone and directed by Driftwood Artistic Director D. Jeremy Smith – currently running in Toronto at Withrow Park from July 21-26.

As part of Driftwood’s Shakesperience program, early arrivals to last night’s performance were treated to a pre-show chat between AD/director Smith and Dr. Jill Levenson, Professor Emeritus at UofT on Hamlet and the adaptation Driftwood is using for this production. The themes of grief, revenge and truth run throughout this tragedy – grief in particular. Malone’s adaptation for Driftwood mainly draws from two versions of the script: the 1603 (first) quarto and the 1623 folio. Known as the “bad quarto,” the 1603 text lacks the refinement of later versions, but has a brisk pace that lends itself well to the action and staging of the play. By combining these two variations of the text, Malone has created a script that is both fast-paced and eloquent – and by so doing, Hamlet doesn’t come off as an overly intellectual procrastinator, but a highly intelligent and virtuous man struggling with grief and rage over the loss of his father at the hands of his uncle.

The set (designed by director Smith) is inspired by a prison motif – real prison, not Martha Stewart prison – the environment is grey, harsh and grim, with concrete slabs, steel girders, chain link fencing and barbed wire. The sparse furniture a single folding chair and a steel cot frame wound with barbed wire, serving as a bed, platform, etc.

Hamlet is one of my favourite plays – and Driftwood’s production is compelling, moving and darkly comical, with a remarkable cast assembled for this journey of revelation and tragedy, most of them playing multiple roles. Paolo Santalucia is stellar as Hamlet, giving the intellectual, melancholic introspection hits of dark comedy and razor-sharp edge (reminiscent of a young Robert Downey Jr. circa Less Than Zero). Layer upon layer of Hamlet’s mind and soul are uncovered – from depression in his grief to blind rage in his revenge. Jon de Leon does a nice job as the arrogant and entitled Claudius, and does some interesting double duty as the ghost, Claudius’s brother/Hamlet’s father, imperious and otherworldly (with some incredible props work on the grotesque skull-like head, mounted on a helmet, its eyes bulging beneath a mouldy crown). Nehassaiu deGannes is regal, sensuous and kind as Gertrude, on her son’s side and unaware of Claudius’s treachery.

As Polonius, Richard Alan Campbell rides the edge of affable and irritating, with the air of a nerdy lawyer, wise in the ways of court politics, but clueless about the more down-to-earth aspects of human nature. Christopher Darroch does some really nice work as the passionate, noble Laertes, a basically good young man pushed to the edge of his own revenge, and a great turn as the thuggish Rosencrantz. Natasha Mumba brings a lovely combination of fierceness and fragility to Ophelia – no push-over, she is Hamlet’s equal, and her spiral into madness over the loss of her father is heartbreaking to witness. Sarah Finn is excellent as Horatio, Hamlet’s loyal friend and confidant – torn between supporting him in these dark times and finding the truth, and protecting him from himself and the forces that seek to destroy him. Horatio is the objective observer – and will be the chronicler of what comes to pass here, a fair-minded speaker of truth who must come to terms with her own grief in the end. And Steven Burley, in his 21st season with Driftwood, does a stand-up job as Hamlet’s hip, bro-like schoolmate Guildenstern and the cheeky, Fool of a gravedigger.

With shouts to costume designer Melanie McNeill, lighting designer Emily Lalonde and composer/music director Tom Lillington for their most excellent work in creating the prison-like world of Hamlet’s Denmark.

Orange is the new Hamlet in Driftwood Theatre’s steel-sharp, fast-paced tale of grief, revenge and truth – stunningly designed and richly performed.

You have a few more chances to catch Driftwood Theatre’s production of Hamlet in Toronto at Withrow Park (until July 26). The company continues its outdoor performance tour of Hamlet around Ontario – visiting 26 communities in all – until August 16; check here for locations/dates and please note the 7:30 p.m. start time.

As some of its previous annual donors were unable to contribute this year, Driftwood is facing a $25,000 funding shortfall this season. Please consider lending your support by donating what you can to this remarkable local Shakespeare touring company.

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.