Stratford Festival’s “Shakespeare in Love”

I know this might come as a shock, but I have never seen the movie version of Shakespeare in Love. I mean, I own the movie: I bought it one time when it was on a great sale, but I never got a chance to watch it. So I wasn’t totally sure what to expect when we went to go and see the play. I knew it was a little historically inaccurate, and I knew that people LOVED it. I can now join the list of people who LOVE that story. 

One thing I hadn’t known going in was that Tom Stoppard was involved in writing this story. That small fact gave me a whole different perspective on the piece. Stoppard’s works are brilliant, and this one is no exception. The integration of Shakespeare’s works into the world around him, the nods to the real people who were instrumental in Shakespeare’s success, and just playing with the conventions of the period (a woman on stage?!? Never!) and using it all in a way that is so smart and humorous, I was thoroughly entertained. While  it’s certainly a play which rewards those who are familiar with the period and its players, this was a show that had everyone laughing!

Being able to have the sets and costume designs from the West End production was a real treat! The set was beautiful, with the wood panneling looking so much like Shakespeare’s Globe. I was amazed by the number of places the actors had to run up and down, in and out of the woodwork. It was totally mesmerizing! The costumes were equally beautiful, intricate and transportive; showing the extravagance of court and the simplicity of everyday life. From lace and pearls to leather and linen, they were all dressed perfectly. The addition of on-stage musicians also enhanced the Renaissance feel, and it was so great to see those musicians playing actual roles within the play. 

Like Humphrey (Will Shakespeare) and Shannon Taylor (Viola de Lesseps) lead the incredible cast, full of Startford’s finest playing Elizabethan England’s finest. Notable mentions going to Tom McCamus (Fennyman), Stephen Ouimette (Henslowe), Micheal Spencer-Davis (Tilney), Saamer Usmani (Christopher Marlowe) and Brad Hodder (Ned Alleyn) just to name a very few. It was a great joy for me to see these people who I’ve read about, studied and imagines brought so beautifully to life. I could hardly contain myself as they talked about Beaumont and Fletcher, had Hemmings and Condell as part of Shakespeare’s cast, John Webster being uber creepy and gory (sings of things to come), Tilney being such an uptight Master of Revells; I was in my glory. 

I cannot express how much I enjoyed Shakespeare in Love. I look forward to a rainy day off where I can finally watch the award winning film of one of my newest favourite stories. If you’re in Stratford this weekend, make sure to catch this amazing play on Sunday for its final performance.

Stratford Festival’s “The Hypochondriac”

The Hypochondriac may have started a little later in Stratford’s season, but it was definitely worth the wait. A hilarious Restoration comedy which was just as relevant today as for Molière himself, The Hypochonriac is sure to tickle everyone’s funny bone!

I really enjoyed the frame narrative for the play; not only was it based on the true facts surrounding the original play itself, but also was a great nod to the time period in general. I loved the Commedia Dell’Arte performance, the juggling and music and tumbling, all beautiful examples of the kind of street art which was so prevalent at the time and heavily informed Molière’s theatre. We also get to see Molière’s company preparing for the performance, totally unaware of what will befall them later in the evening. When the “doctors” came out at the end of that section with the cell phone, I nearly feel out of my chair laughing; I love it when they’re able to give the standard “Please turn off your cell phone” message in a unique and funny way. 

The appearance of King Louis further solidified the time period for the piece, but then also gave context to the many nods which are given to him throughout the play. It also added a level of meta-theatricality, making the frame all the more complete. 

However, at the end of the play, when the play within the play is over, and Molière (Stephen Ouimette) has taken ill, that meta-theatrically comes into play again as La Thorilliere (Ben Carlson) calls out “Is there a doctor in the house?” Reality comes crashing in on the hilarity we have just witnessed. This sobering ending was totally smashed to bits at the performance I attended, where someone said back “I’m not a doctor, but I’m a dentist!” We all laughed at the spontaneity of the whole incident, and yet it’s one of the things that make theatre the beautiful art it is; no one had ever shouted back before, the cast was flabbergasted! And yet that afternoon that lone voice responded to La Thorilliere’s pleas. And who knows if it’s happened again since? These one-off experiences make the show all the more memorable.

However the expert acting in this show is what’s truly memorable! Ouimette especially was pitiful, hilarious and yet loveable; a perfect Restoration lead. He was supported by a large, impressive cast, including Brigit Wilson, Trish Lindström, Ian Lake, Luke Humphrey and Shannon Taylor. They were truly able to bring not only Molière’s story, but his whole world to life on stage. And some of the cast exhibited extraordinary tablets: from tumbling to juggling to music and dancing, the expertise of the whole cast was truly put on display, and made for a feast for the eyes.

The Masque at the end of the play has to be one of my favourite conclusions to one of Molière’s works, as Argan (Ouimette) becomes the solution to his own ailments, and we can see a clear path to happily-ever-after for the characters involved. It provides a perfect juxtaposition to the ending to the play itself as I had mentioned previously; once Argan’s problems are solved, Molière’s begin. 

One of the things that I found the most interesting was how a modem audience was able to connect so fully to this play. Often times with Restoration comedy, there are so many jokes which are couched in inuendo or timely references that they don’t play well for a modern audience. Yet because this play deals with the human body, our health and the medical system, it remains totally relatable and still hysterical for today’s theatre-goers. It actually gives the show the same kind of universally human qualities that we see in other of our most beloved plays. 

The Hupochondriac closes on the 14th, so make sure to catch this hilarious comedy!

Stratford Festival’s “All My Sons”

I’ve always had a tumultuous relationship with Arthur Miller’s works, I’ve been reading his plays since grade 12 and frequently found that I was disappointed; in the characters or the plot trajectory, nothing really grabbed me. All My Sons did everything but disappoint. Honestly, it totally redeemed Miller in my opinion, with this gripping, troubling, beautiful play.

I found that the themes of this play were very similar to some of Miller’s other works. All My Sons focuses on the relationship between father and son, and how the “American Dream” fits into that relationship. In this case, Joe Keller wants his business to be passed down to his sons, so he makes questionable decisions to ensure that that’s able to happen. Where we see the real tension is between the older generation’s idea of what is necessary versus the younger generation; as the information of the true events of Keller and his former business partner Mr. Deever get revealed it becomes more and more of a burden on Chris, Joe’s son. We see, in two very different ways (through the Keller’s and the Deevr’s), how the sins of the fathers are visited on their sons: one is through anger and mistrust, the other a crushing guilt.

Kate Keller is convinced that her elder son, Larry, who is MIA from the war, is bound to come home. We watch as it consumes her waking and sleeping thoughts. She evens involved her neighbours in trying to convince the rest of the family that she must be correct and Larry must be alive. Her passion boarders on insanity, and yet we see that come crashing to reality when Ann Deever (who used to be Larry’s girlfriend but is now beloved of Chris) shows Kate a letter which Larry sent to her just before he disappeared. It was one of the most striking moments in the play, as Kate reads the letter, she only lets out one shriek, one moment of total release, and then it’s as if all of her sanity has been restored. Instead of destroying her, which I thought it would, the letter makes her somehow more resolute and strong. The change was so instantaneous and the opposite of what I expected, I was floored.

With the play being performed as theatre in the round, these difficult issues and moral crises were inescapable, and I loved it. While the set itself was beautiful and you truly feel like you’re in a beautiful backyard, there was a moment where I realized that there was no way out, for the characters or for us as audience members. Because you are denied the esthetic distance of a proscenium stage, it forces you to be just as involved as the characters are and go on the ride with them, for better or for worse.  

This play was superbly acted, they left you no choice but to care deeply about the characters on stage. Lucy Peacock and Joseph Zeigler lead the cast as Mr and Mrs Keller, providing passionate perofmances that cut to the core. Tim Campbell’s performance as Chris Keller was marvellous, his emotions reached out to every member of the audience, and he had us all feeling heartbroken by the end of the play. Sarah Afful and Michael Blake play Ann and George Deever, who have such drastically different relationships with the Kellers that it hardly seems like they’re related at all, yet their performances were equally beautiful, showing how one event can impact people so differently. Supported by the talents of E.B. Smith, Lanise Antione Shelley, Rodrigo Belifuss, Jessica B. Hill, Maxwell Croft-Fraser, and Brandon Scheidler, this was a well constructed cast without a weak link. 

All My Sons is a play that will leave you puzzling and thinking long after the performance is done. This amazing production only runs until Sunday, so get your tickets now!

Stratford Festival’s “John Gabriel Borkman”

I had been greatly anticipating this show since it’s announcement. I was excited to see a new Ibsen play which I new nothing about and which starred so many of my favourite actors at the festival.  John Gabriel Borkman surpassed any and all expectations I had for the show, presenting an intriguing story beautifully told by its actors and designers.

John Gabriel Borkman is one of those shows which you carry with you once you leave, which is something that I love about theatre. You leave feeling like you’ve been affected by this piece.  It’s rather incredible really, because it is an odd premise, but it’s presented in such a way that I left the theatre mulling it over in my mind for hours.

The story itself is interesting, about a Bank Manager who looses everything and we watch how it affects his family dynamic long after the event has actually occurred. The tension between family members is palpable, and it makes for a riveting story as detail after detail is revealed about their past an how that has come to affect their present. The events of the play were eerily similar to modern cases such as that of Bernie Madoff, making the play far more relatable to our modern audiences than Ibsen could have ever anticipated. At the same time it always is a little unsettling when you see a play written 120 years ago and can find the same behaviour in the world around you; an amazing situation of how life can imitate art.

The stage and set where so whitewashed, and then when the characters enter in their jet black costumes, they seem so foreign in their environment. For me, their dark ensembles truly embodied the pain and suffering that they were enduring. From the black lace of a widow, to draping black velvet, their costumes outwardly displayed their inner torment in such a beautifully visual manner. Especially when juxtaposed against the crisp white of Frida’s dress or the light purple of Mrs. Wilton’s ensemble, all of which plays against the white stage and the snow that tumbles from the sky at the play’s end; it’s a visually stunning show which left me breathless.

Another breathless moment occurred right at the beginning of the play, as twin sisters Mrs. Borkman (Lucy Peacock) and Miss Rentheim (Seana McKenna) first see each other after years of not speaking. When Seana enters the stage, there is this amazing moment where they just stare at one another, taking each other in after so many years apart, and it’s like the theatre collectively held their breath until one of them spoke. Seana and Lucy are such incredible foils for one another in whatever show they are in, but this one was particularly impressive. The way that they are able to play off of one another and the struggle between the two which only gets deeper the more we discover about their pasts made the piece riveting. You become so invested in their lives and why they don’t get along any more and it truly makes you feel deeply for them, especially once you realize that they’ve both been hurt by the same man: John Gabriel Borkman. While I don’t want to give away the juiciest of details, it’s amazing to see how one man in his quest for greatness is able to destroy everything and everyone around him. Scott Wentworth did a phenomenal job portraying the tortured Borkman, whose dream of wealth and glory still haunts him after so many years of his scandal haunting his own family. While you want to hate him for what he’s put his family through, there’s something sympathetic in his desire for something greater than himself and wanting to be able to pick back up once he’s been knocked down. The three leads were perfectly cast, and to watch them all play so well off of one another was truly a pleasure; it’s like watching an All Star game, where the best of the best get to play together and the audience watches in awe of them.

Something that really strikes me is how the play bears the name of John Gabriel Borkman, and while the story is about how his decisions have affected all of the people around him, it’s truly the women who drive the play. It’s Mrs. Borkman’s need for her son to make something of the Borkman name again which drives young Erhart away, but it’s also Miss Rentheim’s total denial of Borkman’s dreams has more power than I think even she realized she could wield over him. Erhart (Antoine Yared) thinks that running off with Mrs. Wilton (Sarah Afful) and Frida (Grace Eddleston) will give him a new life, yet he’s still under the influence of a woman and her desires. In the end, it’s the reconciliation of the sisters which provides a true sense of satisfaction and closure to the piece. It was truly a marvel, one which I will not soon forget.

There’s only one week left of performances of this stunning show! It closes Sept. 23rd, so don’t miss out on your chance to take in this amazing work.

Flashback Friday – Stratford 2015

As I ready myself for a weekend of theatre at the Stratford Festival, I want to take a quick look back at the remaining shows which I saw from the 2015 season.
On August first I was lucky to get to take in two shows: Carousel and Love’s Labour’s Lost. Both of them were fairly new to me (I saw Carousel when I was young but didn’t remember the production), and made for a memorable day of theatre. 

Carousel was a visually stunning show which I thoroughly enjoyed. I had a great personal attachment to this show as a friend of mine from school, Alexis Gordon, had the lead role of Julie Jordan. This was her Stratford debut and she blew me away! She paired so well with Johnathan Winsby, and I was amazed by her beautiful voice. She was one of a great many amazing actors involved in this production.

The carousel itself was AMAZING! Such a beautiful, intricate piece of machinery that immediately solicited “oohs” and “ahs” from the audience. The glowing full sized carousel horses were stunning. It truly sets the stage for the rest of the play: the allure of the carnival, the light it brings into their lives, and the darkness that settles when it leaves. 

What made me sad was how the reviews of the play focused so heavily on the domestic violence aspect of the play, rather than the story as a whole. While the subject is rather jarring, and certainly unacceptable by modern standards, it is truly just a portion of a much larger story. The play, as a whole, is beautiful, and while the ending is a little strange I feel like there are larger issues at play like love, forgiveness, and learning from the past. It was an emotional journey with sensational singing and dancing; truly a joy to behold. 

Later that evening, I was fortunate enough to take in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. Upon good advisement, I read the play on my way there, and yet the language was so beautifully crafted that it was easily understood. The play is funny beyond measure, and while it lacks the clear resolution we all desire, its self awareness of this fact made it all the more enjoyable.

One aspect which I found especially intriguing was how the play looks at learned men. Both depictions have major flaws, and yet Holofrenes’ ignorance comes off as merely comical, while Navarre’s lack of will power (along with the rest of his men) is slightly more disconcerting. Neither of them truly exhibit all of the qualities they claim to have, and so we get a glimpse of how similar “learned” men were viewed in the period.

In direct contrast to them are Moth and Don Adriano de Armando, and while they provide a level of comic relief, Moth is the most observant character in the play. These two stole the show, making us laugh and question what we were watching throughout the show. It’s amazing to see this articulate child be far smarter than the grown men he serves.

I found that this was an exceptionally well cast piece, with every bit of the puzzle fit in so perfectly. It was also a fun mix of Festival favourites and newcomers, which was such fun to watch!

The following afternoon, We got to experience The Sound of Music. This show has always been a favourite of mine, yet this production easily stood on its own and didn’t even warrant comparison to the film. I actually found it to be great fun to get to fall in love with this story all over again. 

The while production, every little element of it, was awe inspiring; I couldn’t stop smiling throughout the show. Stephanie Rothenberg, who played Maria, was so genuine and emotional, she did an amazing job with the kids, she was a pleasure to watch. She sang beautifully, as did the Mother Superior, and I felt that she played off Ben Carlson very well.

The set itself deserves special mention, as they had a full size gazebo which collapsed and expanded like an umbrella and a little tree on a hill for Maria’s hilltop scenes. This, paired with the grand staircase which was able to be transformed into every location required, shows the true extent of the marvel the Stratford Festival is able to inspire.

The children in the show were absolutely adorable, and performed like such professionals. We even found out later that one of the young ladies was the understudy, but you would never have known. They brought a happiness and light to the show which totally made it the incredible show it was.

Overall, the Startford 2015 season was one of pure delight. From old friends to new discoveries, dramas to musicals, thought provoking to light hearted; 2015 had it all! I’m so glad I got to see as many shows as I was, and I look forward to what 2016 has in store.

Stratford Festival’s “As You Like It”

I was so happy to take two of my dearest friends to Stratford for their first time to see As You Like It back in June. We had been planning the trip since last December, so we’d been counting down the months and weeks until we finally got to go! The show was well worth the wait, and was way beyond expectations.

The setting for the show was wonderfully done; from the costumes to the hair, they didn’t miss a beat at making sure we knew it was the 80’s! Setting it in the East Coast made it even more fun. It really helped with the inclusive feel of the show (more on that to come) and gave a whole different kind of energy and life into the performance. The singing and dancing was infectious! We couldn’t stop smiling and danced all the way to the car. The set itself was beautifully simplistic and malleable, making each location distinct and lovely; the Forest of Arden being the most beautiful of all.

As I mentioned earlier, the show asks for full audience participation, and what a joy it is to do so! Upon entering the audience is asked to take a small bag with several items inside (most of which you get to take home!) and you are given instructions by Hymen herself (played by Robin Hutton) as to what props to use when. It was great fun and made for lots of laughs. One of my favourite moments happened in the second scene of the play, as Celia (Trish Lindström) is trying to comfort her saddened Rosalind (Petrina Bromley), Celia takes away the tub of ice cream that Rosalind has been devouring, and offers it up to an audience member. “Sure! I’d love some!” I said, and next thing I knew I had a tub of ice cream with a scoop or two of vanilla left in the bottom. With a thumbs up from Celia I figured I’d likely not get an opportunity like this again, so I enjoyed the rest of the ice cream throughout the next scene. What a treat! We laughed about it all through dinner! We loved getting to be trees in the Forrest, waves in the sea, and a lush meadow fit for a wedding. If you love to feel like a part of the show, you’ll love this production!

Aside from the setting, Jillian Keiley made another fascinating choice which I really enjoyed seeing played out: the Duke and Jaques were both women in this production. It was a very interesting contrast to the usually male dominated sphere of the Forrest. The Duchess Senior (Brigit Wilson) is surrounded by her people, and is therefore more safe than Rosalind and Celia would be on their own. But Jaques’ character is even more layered in this production, and made her even more interesting.

Jaques was portrayed by Seana McKenna, who outdid herself once again with this role. Hearing her say one of the most famous speeches in the Shakespearean Cannon (“All the world’s a stage…”) was even better than I had imagined. What fascinated me most was Jaques’ position as a voyeur, and how that was manifested in this play. It is frequently mentioned how melancholy Jaques watches the world go by, commenting on things as (s)he goes, however in this production, the voyeurism goes to the extent of Jaques having cameras and notepads, ways of recording what (s)he sees. The notion that (s)he was, in the court at least, some kind of reporter makes total sense, and also explains some of the melancholy that (s)he finds in the world. It was brilliant!

These are truly just some of the highlights of what will always be a memorable show to me. The whole thing created such a perfect image of what this play can do, and where Shakespeare’s words can take us, it’s well worth seeing. Bring the family and go on a theatrical adventure! I truly can’t recommend this show enough! For ticket information, visit http://www.stratfordfestival.ca

Stratford Festival’s “Pericles” and Director’s Day 2015

I was so excited to get to see a play by Shakespeare which I had absolutely no previous connection to whatsoever. This is such a rare occurrence for me, that when it does happen, it’s lovely to take advantage of. So I knew next to nothing going into the play, other than that Pericles was one of the most complex plots I had heard of. I was absolutely blown away with what director Scott Wentworth did with the piece.

How we got to experience this play was wonderfully unique and something that I hope to do again. We got to take part in what is called Director’s Day, where we have a pre-show chat (and lunch!) with the director, then we see the show (or you can see another one) and then you come back for a Q&A and dinner! The way the day is organized is beyond awesome, and they certainly have the whole thing down to a science. But to hear about the play from Mr. Wentworth himself was wonderful, as he was able to give us enough of an idea about what we were going to see that we could understand what he wanted to accomplish, but he certainly didn’t spoil anything for us either. And to get to hear his thoughts about directing and what it means to be a director was really inspiring for me as I was just embarking on my first directorial venture.

When I first saw that the play was set in the Victorian period, I was a little hesitant and didn’t really understand, but then I thought about the ideas of expansion and colonialism and thought, ok. But then to hear Mr. Wentworth talk about it, about the taboo subjects that the Victorians appalled but Shakespeare could talk about, and how he wanted to see “what they were so afraid of,” it made it even more enjoyable. And yet the play just seemed to feel right, and not just because of what I had heard beforehand, it just suited the out of this world plotline and wonderful characters.

The costumes and sets for this play were beautiful, and allowed for the audience to be transported to the various locations that Shakespeare requires. The set especially was beautiful for the scenes at the abbey, where the walls were filled with lit candles. It was mesmerizing and yet didn’t detract from the scene. What was even more amazing was when the rest of the cast came out to act out the shipwreck and removed Pericles’ clothes and passed around his boat. To watch them move as a single unit and become what is so hard to depict was awesome, and one of the moments that still stands out in my mind.

The role doubling for each adventure Pericles embarks on was rather amazing, and forced us to draw the parallels that Mr. Wentworth wanted us to. Wayne Best certainly went through the most drastic changes between roles, and that made it all the more incredible to witness. And while it seems like that would be confusing, it somehow flowed so well that I never felt confused. The plot seemed so linear despite it having a rather circular pattern to the plot.

Mr. Wentworth’s focus on the female characters of the play was really refreshing and certainly came through in his choices. By having a woman, who turns out to be Pericles’ wife, narrate the play as the goddess Diana instead of Gower was inspiring, and added an energy that wouldn’t otherwise be afforded this text. It really turned our attention to the women in Pericles’ life and how his choices affected them as well. The reunion of Pericles and Marina actually had me in tears, and while it was sort of the penultimate reunion, it certainly was the one with the most emotion behind it.

The other highlighted element was the music, which I truly loved. The fact that it was based on a poem and written by Mr. Wentworth’s wife was just delightful, and added this mystical element to the show. Music has this ability to tie all of the ideas of the play together, and create this familiar and unifying element that even aided in the emotional reunion of Pericles and Marina. It was totally unexpected and yet felt completely organic within the play itself.

This is all apart from the incredible acting in this production. This text is not easy, nor is having to play multiple roles throughout the production, and yet it was handled flawlessly. Evan Buliung was amazing as Pericles, and was supported by Debora Hay, Wayne Best and many more in a stellar cast. I cannot wait for the movie version of this production to come out. To have the ability to relive it over and over is thrilling!!