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 2015 Production of Hamlet 

I wanted this play to have a special post, just because of my love of Hamlet in general as well as the special experience I was able to have with it.

The thing that I noticed right off the top and which will always make this production stick out in my mind was how Hamlet was portrayed. We’re all very used to a thoughtful, pensive and hesitant Hamlet in words as well as action. Jonathan Goad’s Hamlet was almost manic in his actions, making his monologues far more like a stream of consciousness. It was amazing to watch him bounce between ideas and really get us all wrapped up in his ideas and in his “feigned” madness.

The set for the show was stunningly simple, with large black obelisks essentially becoming anything and everything they needed to be. From the parapets of the castle to gravestones to the chapel to Gertrude’s chamber, they were everything and so beautiful. I loved how the costumes were so bright, but not patterned, so their colours created a blindingly stark contrast to the black if the pillars as well as Hamlet’s. They also used light exceptionally well, particularly the light coming from the trap door. At the beginning, that’s how we first see Hamlet, and it’s also how we finally see Hamlet as he is lowered into his grave. 

The acting, on all parts, was riveting. I know this play so well, and yet I cried from the scene of Ophelia’s madness all the way until the end; continuous streams of tears as things just went from bad to worse and then some. The audience is forced, because of the lack of extravagance in the production, to truly focus all of their energy on the story, and it truly made it a far more moving experience than I have ever had with this particular play.
What made our experience so special was the literally life changing opportunity my sister and I were fortunate to have; we were got to shadow a performance of Hamlet. It started with a quick backstage tour and a chat with some of the dressers for the show, then onto fight practice before they got into their costumes (both the leads and the understudies take part in fight practice, just in case). Then we separated, and I stayed backstage for the first half of the show. It was awesome; the actors and crew were so welcoming and made us feel comfortable in their space. 

I loved getting to see the infrared camera to see everything during the blackouts. It was also amazing to listen to the radios and how the cues are given: there are so many more people backstage for just one performance than I had ever imagined.

I got to sit in the Stage Manager’s booth, high above the stage, for the second half of the show. The perspective is totally unique, and while there was barely room for the all knowledgeable SM and myself, it was amazing to watch her work. What I loved most was getting to ask her questions about what it’s like to work with directors and what advice she had for me as a director; she was wonderful, and made the whole thing so perfect.

But there was one moment, this amazing moment where I realized the true caliber of the Stratford Festival and really understood what it was to work with a professional theatre company. For the scene in Act Three where Hamlet and Gertrude are talking in her chamber, they had this beautiful bed which rolled out onto the stage on a hydraulic system. Then the notice comes over the headset: “The bed didn’t go down.” “What?” says Annie. They repeated themselves and Annie asked who all was aware of the malfunction. Unfortunately the actress playing Gertrude (the ever amazing Seana McKenna) was not, as she had gone to her place in the vom before the problem was detected. The flurry of talking and attempted solutions flooded the radio as the scramble ensued backstage (as I was later informed by my sister). The came the moment of truth, when they were supposed to sit on the bed. Polonius (Tom Rooney) was already dead behind the bed, and Seana just barely touched it with her hip and it glided ever so slightly away. Of course, the blocking changed instantaneously as Seana redirected Jonathan Goad over to the stool in the chamber rathe than the bed. She handled it flawlessly. “The next time’s worse though” Annie reminded me, as Ophelia was supposed to push Horatio onto the bed. I’ll never forget, she turned off the radio, looked at me and said “What should we do?” I had no clue, “Can we shore it against one of the pillars?” I asked. But then Annie reminded me that those slid too, made easy to move by felt on the bottom. Then the word comes through “We got it!” They had made it work again. In a matter of a few minutes they managed to have it ready for the next scene it was required in. 

I was blown away, and I always will be, by those moments: the shock, the anxiety, but also the teamwork, the troubleshooting and the relief when all was right again. It was astounding. 

When it was all over, we were met with plenty of goodbyes and were full of stories to tell. That kind of experience can never be replaced, and I’m so thankful to have had it.

Rarely Pure Theatre’s “Choking the Butterfly” 

Rarely Pure Theatre’s latest piece, James Johnson’s Choking the Butterfly is absolutely not to be missed! Premiering this past weekend at Windsor’s Garage Door Theatre, this stunning work was intense and moving beyond expectations.

Looking at the lives of formerly conjoined twins, whose knowledge of the world barely extends past one another, Choking the Butterfly takes us on a journey of self discovery and self loss, questioning all the while if one can exist without the other.

The show is embodied by three excellent performers: Christna Bryson, Ken Caughey and Michael Hogan. These actors mesmerized the audience, making the show’s 80 minutes feel like no time had passed at all. Bryson’s performance as Betty was every bit as strong and powerful as Johnson intended, as we witness Betty’s wings unfurl little by little. Her transformation is in such stark contrast to her brother Barney’s (Caughey) decline, and yet you pity each of them in their own way. Caughey nearly had me in tears; to watch Barney try to be like Betty, try to be a strong man, and yet constantly face physical and mental roadblocks made me ache for him. Brody, played by Hogan, becomes this interesting influential force in the lives of Betty and Barney, aiding in their simultaneous rise and fall. We see his personal struggles come through in every action, every decision Brody makes, and then watch their affect on the twins. Truly, I was amazed at the performances that were given, the dedication and full embodiment of these characters was wonderful to behold, and makes it such a can’t miss show. 

The set being simple and versatile, and so perfectly suited to the space made it a true experience for the audience. The bare costuming lets us focus on them as people while also providing us with constant reminders of where they’ve been over the course of the story. We see their hardships written on their bodies, their clothes and in their faces. The audience is faced with the gravity of the situation without anything to distract them, which makes the work all the more engaging and heartbreaking.

If you’re in the Toronto area and want to catch this amazing show, it’s on at The Storefront Theatre from June 9-12 and 15-19. You can check out their Facebook page for more info and tickets!

Where I’ve Been – Part 2

Hello All,

I feel so awful that I haven’t written in a long while, once again making theatre has affected my writing about theatre. However, I don’t want this to be the case any longer. So, instead of doing individual posts for each play, I might do a few collaborative posts based on the theatre company/where I saw the shows (the only exception to this will be my review of Hamlet, as I got to have a particularly amazing experience with that show). While the reviews might be a little condensed, this way I can say a little bit about what I’ve seen lately and then start off the summer (and this season at Stratford) with a blank slate.

I really do want to keep things going, I want to keep writing about theatre because it brings me such joy, and I hope what I write brings you some joy as well! I’m going to do my utmost best to keep on top of things (starting now!) and keep you all up to date about what to see and where to go and get a conversation about this beautiful art form going!

So Hamlet will be coming soon, and then some awesome combo ones after that! Stay tuned!!

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 “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!!