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!!

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!!

Stratford Festival’s “Hay Fever”

On October 5th, I got to see my final play of Stratford’s season: Noel Coward’s Hay Fever. I was excited to see this play because it was being performed by some of my most favourite actors, and it meant that I had once again been able to partake of all the Festival has to offer, which is honestly an amazing feeling.

Hay Fever was in interesting play, and I found that it fit in with the theme of the season very well. The plotline itself was rather odd though, it had farcical elements but also it seemed to almost be like an absurdist play. It had many of the in and out elements of farce, but seemed to be missing the third act where everything goes completely awry. And yet in that third act, the sort of absurd elements come into play, as they have gone completely back to normal and seem to forget everything that had happened the night before. It made for a very different experience, and yet one that I certainly enjoyed.

Visually, this play was beautiful! I loved the set especially. I basically want my house to look like that: books everywhere (even when you sit), art adorning the walls, and chez lounges instead of couches. And then the costumes were fantastic! The 20’s are such a beautiful time for clothing, and they certainly made sure these characters looked amazing. The opulence of their dinner outfits in contrast to their slightly disheveled house makes the situation even more amusing. One of the most hilarious features of the set was the staircase. There was a funny step, that made everyone trip except for Lucy Peacock’s character Judith, who just glided over it like it didn’t matter. It made us all laugh so hard every time!

The acting in this play was superb! The whole cast was wonderful, and made the play engaging for me. I personally really enjoyed Lucy Peacock, Gareth Potter and Cynthia Dale’s performances, it truly was a very solid ensemble cast. They were able to bring these interesting and odd characters to life in a very believable way. To me, they were all exceptionally well cast, and that makes a huge difference in the play. There needs to be a great contrast between the Bliss family and their guests, and I found that this was certainly achieved and that makes the play all the more amusing.

Of course the other issue to deal with is how madness factors into this play. I don’t’ want to go too in depth here as I will be writing a larger piece about the season soon, but this play had a very different and very interesting look at madness. Really, it looks at madness via social perception, and how their guests view them versus how they view themselves. I found it to be very fascinating, because it was so different from the other plays presented this season, and very much like the domestic comedy of manners.

Normally, I would be highly recommending you go and see this show, but unfortunately it has closed for the year. Hopefully you were able to enjoy this production and loved it as much as I did!

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