Stratford Festival’s “Breath of Kings: Rebellion and Redemption”

When the news came out that Graham Abbey had been working on an adaptation of four of Shakespeare’s history plays, and that they were going to modify the Tom Patterson Theatre especially for the production, I was thrilled. There’s nothing more exciting than getting to see a brand new piece and in a totally different way than it would normally be staged. Breath of Kings exceeded my expectations and gave me a totally different view of Shakespeare’s histories; it made me want to see the full versions immediately!

Breath of Kings: Rebellion tells the story of Henry Bolingbroke and his rise to power over King Richard II, using the plays Richard II for its first act and Henry V Part 1 for its second act. A political thriller for the first act turns into a bloody battle for supremacy by the second, making for an amazing buildup to the final battle. Breath of Kings: Redemption focuses more on young Henry, or Prince Hal, and his rise to power through Henry V Part II and Henry V. Once again culminating in an epic battle, this piece was fascinating and fast paced as young Hal goes from miscreant to King overnight.

The most immediate thing that struck me was the stage. Not only was it redesigned to be theatre in the round (which I LOVE) but for Rebellion there was a thick layer of mulch covering the stage. This mulch would be pushed, dragged, and raked all over the stage. I loved how when the play needed to take place indoors the mulch was pushed aside with the boxes to create a hallway-like path. But for me the best part was after the battle scene, the mulch had been spread back out over the stage, so there was this amazing map of the battle left on the floor after the actors had left, I can only imagine how incredible it must have looked from above. For Redemption, the stage was the bare white that you could see underneath the mulch, but as the battle of Agincourt was waged, the floor came up in these massive, jagged pieces which left the earth turned up and ragged by the end of the play; a torn world which Hal will be responsible to put back together. Paired with amazing costuming and lighting, the play was a visual spectacular and every detail and movement carried such weight and purpose.

The cast was massive, with a whole host of Stratford’s best populating the stage. Helmed by Graham Abbey (Henry IV), Tom Rooney (Richard II), and Araya Mengesha (Henry V) the level of passion in these performances breathes such life into these pieces and makes them the memorable experience that they are. Richard II was such a fascinating character, the way we watch him succumb to Bolingbroke and his men, then seeing Bolingbroke, who used to wield amazing power, get so ill was heartbreaking. The whole time you’re watching their enemies try to rise against them, while others rally to their side. I had previously seen Henry V in full, and so knew of the death of Falstaff, but what I hadn’t realized was that he died of a broken heart; it broke my heart to see Hal cast off his old friends, miscreants though they may be, in favour of being the “king” he thinks he has to be. He rejects their company almost immediately instead of helping them as he’s now able to do. This deeply saddened me, and actually made me watch the second act of Redemption with a totally different gaze than I had when I saw Henry V. I was also thrilled that the Chorus in Henry V was kept, the Chorus has some of the most beautiful poetry in Shakespeare’s cannon, and the play would have felt incomplete without it.

One of the elements that was particularly interesting was how many men were portrayed by women. It brought the dynamic to a totally different level to both pieces, and seeing these women in power roles was inspiring. It confirmed the level of innovation and expertise that was poured into this show and made it an experience I’ll never forget.

I was absolutely blown away by this production. I cannot begin to recommend it enough. The plays close September 24th, so catch it before it closes!!

University Player’s “An Experiment with an Air Pump”

I had the absolute pleasure to see the University of Windsor’s latest offering An Experiment with an Air Pump last Saturday night. As usual, it was a thrill for me to walk into a play with no expectations other than the good word I had heard buzzing about the show. With some of my cast members by my side, we were thrown into a world of science, art, love and intrigue which certainly did not disappoint.

The set was immediately striking, and set the tone perfectly for the rest of the play. Swathed in curtains and centring on a large arch/doorway, you immediately felt the sense of grandeur that the piece calls for. The use of projection throughout the play was certainly one of the most interesting aspects to me. When entering the theatre the curtains are scrawled with scientific jargon (my more scientifically minded comrades assured me it was quite legitimate though) about DNA, next there was the painting the play is based off of, then a dove, and then finally the noose that does in poor Isobel. It was not only visually stunning, but also made moments that would have been otherwise difficult to stage powerful and meaningful. The costumes for each period so beautifully complimented each other, allowing for ties to easily be drawn between the two scenarios and yet capturing the strong individualities of each character.

The play itself takes place in two different time periods, 1899 and 1999. “On the threshold” as the play discusses of two centuries, we see the juxtaposition of science, what it means, how it clashes with the arts, and how two families living in the same estate but generations apart are dealing with both similar and vastly different issues. I think this is the element that I have been puzzling over the most in regards to this production: How is it possible for science to have progressed so much in a hundred years, and what on Earth will it look like in another 84 years from now? In 1899 the scientists are obsessed with the human anatomy, and dissections are still practically public entertainment. We see these sorts of fascinations in Frankenstein with its chopped up bodies and creating life. In Air Pump we see Thomas Armstrong (played by Brendan Kinnon) pine for Isobel Bridie (Emerjade Simms), not truly for her love, but for the opportunity to asses her deformity. We see how all life was submitted to science, great or small, in an age where discoveries were abounding. But then when you flash forward to 1999, and we start looking at the Human Genome Project, and all of the ethical questions surrounding that, there is a sense that while the technology has come a long way, our fascinations with “fixing” humanity and understanding all of its facets certainly has not depleted. Armstrong’s character comes off as monstrous for engaging in such machinations in the name of science, yet Ellen (Clarisse Reid) thinks the world will see her as similarly cruel for the work she intends to pursue. It brings about a great moral debate, how far is too far? Or does too far even exist? All of this is contrasted with the spouses of the scientists. Isobel who loves words, Tom who is an out-of-work English Prof, and Susannah Fenwick, wife of Dr. Joseph Fenwick (Ryan Iwanicki) whose experiments on his daughter’s dove we see at the very start of the play. The struggles between the minds and hearts of artists versus their scientific counterparts becomes paramount to the play, as the artists tend to bring the moral issues to the fore for the scientists. And all of this is brought down on the heads of the Fenwick daughters, Harriet (Natalia Bushnik) and Maria (Andrea Meister). Harriet especially possesses the scientific mind of her father but is forced to attempt to apply it to creative activities by her mother. While Maria’s mind is purely romantic and wistful, that is much to the chagrin of her logical minded twin. We watch them bicker and fight, just as their parents do, and just as their descendants will do 100 years later. How much has changed, really? It would seem like everything and nothing, all at once.

The actors handled this dense, deep text with an ease and grace well beyond their years. Simms’ physicality especially was impressive, as she convincingly played her hunchbacked deformity. Also, the amount of quick changes that occurred in the second act were astounding, and both the cast and crew deserve huge kudos for pulling off such seamless changes. I’ve watched these actors bloom from their first year into these impressive young adults who are ready to take on the world. For some of these actors this was their last time on the University stage, and they have every reason to be VERY proud of themselves.

I was enthralled with this play, and I feel like it has changed the way I see the world, which to me is the hallmark of a great piece of theatre.

Stratford Festival’s “Antony and Cleopatra”

August 24th promised my first viewing of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra at the Stratford Festival. For me, this play was very interesting; because I had never studied it, but had read it, I knew what to expect but not in my usual academic way, however it’s always infinitely better to see a play than to simply read it. It was kind of nice, because I got to relax and go on the journey with the characters and immerse myself in the story.

This play is beautiful. It was beautiful to watch and beautiful to listen to. The way that Shakespeare wrote this play was absolutely beautiful; especially some of Enobarbus’ and Antony’s speeches are like music to the ears. However, this is one of those Shakespearean plays where if you miss a line, you miss a lot! While you can keep up, there are so many nuances in the beautiful poetry that it is easy to become slightly lost in what is happening, especially when the characters begin to turn on one another and it’s like you’ve missed the one word that’s seemed to set them off!

The set had such beautiful simplicity, and I just loved the way they were able to seamlessly show the difference between Egypt and Rome. (However it did make me think, in Shakespeare’s day, at the Globe, where there was little to no set at all, how on Earth did those people keep up? Not because I think they weren’t capable of it, but because the show itself flips between locations so frequently that even I got confused a few times!) The costumes were stunning, especially the ones for the Egyptian women. While they were a little risqué, they were gold and luscious and fitting for the queen of Egypt. And the togas and armour for the men were fabulous!

I felt that the three main leads, Geraint Wynn Davies as Antony, Yanna McIntosh as Cleopatra and Tom McCamus as Enobarbus, did a fabulous job. And they were in very good company. Ben Carlson was a fabulous Octavious Caesar and there was a host of other fantastic characters who made the play so enjoyable. They truly brought these legendary historical figures to life and made them feel so real. They made this very political and very complicated play into what felt like real life. I give it a huge BRAVO all around!

The only odd thing about this show is that I felt like I didn’t really relate to anyone, or feel bad for anyone. Shakespeare shows the flaws of all of these great historical people so that by the end, while you’re sad that Antony and Cleopatra die, you also know that it’s history, so it’s not like the ending is really a surprise. You’re sad because it seems preventable, like Romeo and Juliet, where a little communication is all that’s needed to make things right again. And yet you’re certainly not as sad as when those young lovers take their own lives. I think I pitied Enobarbus the worst, because he was always just trying to do the right thing by Antony, and made the wrong decisions along the way, and yet even he was shown to be somewhat scandalous. So it was less emotional than some of the other plays, it was still an interesting experience.

There are only three performances left to see this great Shakespearean play! Make sure you get to see it!

http://www.stratfordfestival.ca/OnStage/productions.aspx?id=24524&prodid=52422

Stratford Festival’s “King John”

August 2nd I was delighted to take in the Stratford Festival’s production of Shakespeare’s King John.  I was so excited to get to see John as it is not frequently done at the Festival, and with it being directed by Tony nominated director Tim Carroll I knew I was in for a real treat.

One of the main reasons that I enjoy Mr. Carroll’s productions so much is because he likes to use Original Practice for his plays. This goes for everything, from the costuming to the lighting to the way the actors say their lines; I absolutely love it. Another way the original practice really makes a mark on this play is the audience interaction. The bastard Phillip (played by Graham Abbey) has many soliloquies wherein he addresses the audience. During these, there is a great amount of participation with the audience (although I won’t say just what!). This is again a practice that Shakespeare’s audience would have been very familiar with that modern theatre can stray away from. Aside from the use of female actors, it’s just like seeing a Shakespearean play as his audience would have seen it. For a purist like me, it’s an amazing experience, and I find that I can focus on the story more than wondering what the director is trying to do with the play, which is especially helpful with a play like King John that I haven’t seen before.

I found that this plot line was very easy to follow, so I’d definitely recommend it for people who aren’t very familiar with the Bard’s work (as well as the Shakespeare lovers like me, of course!). It’s funny, because while there is death in the play, it doesn’t really come off as a tragedy. I think because it is historically based, the events seem inevitable and therefore doesn’t elicit the same kind of catharsis that something like King Lear or Hamlet does. That being said, it is a fabulous play that really takes you on an adventure with King John and the turmoil of his kingdom.

The issue of death is dealt with in two very interesting ways (however I will try not to spoil them too badly). The death of Arthur, the young heir to the throne, was dealt with in a very interesting manner. His cause of death (I shan’t say how) is very difficult to stage, and yet I thought that Carroll and the cast staged it beautifully. However the death of King John himself is so symbolic and beautiful. The moment he relinquishes his crown, his head slumps and you know that it’s the end of not only his reign, but himself. Like King Lear, without his kingdom he has lost all sense of self to the point of death.

The issue of madness is quite interesting in this play. While it does not occupy the central theme of the play, some of the best speeches from the play are spoken by the characters in the height of their madness. There are two examples of madness in the play and they come about very different ways. Constance’s madness sprouts directly from the death of her son Arthur. Her madness takes hold quickly and seems to affect her completely. Seana McKenna portrays her so well, and especially this scene blew me away. To watch her come out with her hair undone and sputtering this speech about her son was heartbreaking, especially because she denies it so wholeheartedly. Likewise, Tom McCamus’ portrayal of King John was wonderful. Everything from his voice to his mannerisms was totally John and not himself at all. His madness was a slower descent, and it is revealed that he believes there was poison involved. However there are times when he seems aware that his mind is slipping, and doesn’t seem himself, and those moments make his death very difficult to watch.

The acting overall was impressive, and when there are no large sets and traditional costumes, the play relies on the strength of the actors and they certainly did not fail this text. They made it such a pleasure to watch and experience. I was very happy that this was the way I saw this play first; I have a feeling that other productions will likely pale in comparison to the sheer beauty and simplicity of this play.

If you would like to buy tickets, here’s the link! : http://www.stratfordfestival.ca/OnStage/productions.aspx?id=24494&prodid=52421