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 “To Moscow”

To Moscow was certainly a play for people who love theatre, this reviewer included, and I had an amazing time watching the lives of two of the most revolutionary theatre practitioners unfold in front of me. If you haven’t seen it yet, you need to get out and see it ASAP!

Liza Balkan made an amazing decision to have the cast get ready for the show out on stage. For a play that looks at actors and acting, to have the cast talk to the audience, get ready and basically let us in on what would be going on backstage onstage was fascinating, educational and just perfect in my opinion. The seamless transition from “backstage” to the world of the play was fantastic, and it really gave an organic feel to the rest of the play.

The plot of the play itself is rather incredible considering how famous and how much work Stanislavski and Chekhov did in such a short period of time. These two men essentially created our modern notion of theatre, without them we would be still using the declamatory style of melodrama rather than Stanislavski’s more natural theatre. To watch how these two theatre giants met, developed careers, how their personal lives intertwined and developed, it made for a wonderful piece of theatre.

The actors portrayed their characters wonderfully. I was so impressed. Mauro Meo and Andrew Iles who played Stanislavski and Chekhov respectively were the centerpiece of a phenomenal cast. Gwendolyn Tofano’s performance as Masha Chekhov was powerful, and Rebecca Young as the actress Olga Knipper was enchanting. Breanna Maloney and Tamlynn Bryson embodied their characters so well, and Maloney especially made us have such empathy for her character and her situation. Robin Ross and David Hudyma rounded out this small but definitely mighty cast.

The costumes and set were amazing. It was a lot of fun getting to watch the actors get dressed. There are so many layers and the costumes are so intricate, that it makes you appreciate them even more. There was such beauty in the simplicity of the set, and the multimedia aspect of the play was awesome. To get to think about all of the amazing quotes from both the writings and plays of these two men were amazing, and set the tone for the scene very well.

When I see a play like this, which talks about the real lives of these amazing theatre artists, I wonder what they’d think of it. Would they like how we remember them? Did the events and conversations really go this way, or are we missing some unknown element to the story? To me, plays like this one are so important because they preserve in some way the amazing lives of men whose story cannot be forgotten.

Honestly, this is an amazing play. There are only two performances left, tonight at 8 and tomorrow at 2. Get there if you can! It’s definitely worth the trip and has nice romantic tones for Valentine’s Day weekend!

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