21 November 2013
Two very different productions of two of Shakespeare’s most popular plays are currently gracing Toronto stages. One, a clever inside-baseball exploration of Twelfth Night, best suited to the sort of audience who has already seen the melancholy comedy too many times. The other a faithful bare-bones rendering of the bard’s most enduring tragedy, Romeo & Juliet. Both productions vaguely modernize without blatantly pushing the action into 2013 and both take place in a bar (Twelfth Night is set in one, the site-specific R&J is staged in one). They share many things, but the most intriguing is the clear and unabashed love for the source material that permeates both productions. This is Shakespeare via people who really like Shakespeare and the effects of that phenomenon are measurable.
Let’s start with the simpler of the two: Romeo & Juliet, the first full-length, non-Fringe production from Shakespeare Bash’d.
In the company’s tradition, this Romeo & Juliet is text-centric with basic costumes and very little in the way of set or props (there are two benches, a handful of swords, and a dram of poison- that’s about it give or take a book and a bottle). Unlike previous Bash’d productions, however, Romeo & Juliet isn’t cut down to fit the Fringe-friendly 90 minute structure (R&J is barely cut at all, even the Always Cut scene between Peter and the musicians makes it in). Those efficient edits and the intimate Victory Café space where Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing met such great success were key to making the bare-bones mandate work. At 30/30 Dundas West, the actors have to project further to reach the back of the room; at 2 hours and 30 minutes, they have to work twice as hard to hold the audience’s attention- neither of these things is a task that improves the performance of any actor attempting to focus on character and story authenticity without the help of pretty distractions and both literal and metaphorical things to lean on.
Directed by James Wallis, the thing that really holds Romeo & Juliet back from the caliber of its company’s previous work is the tragic lack of James Wallis. Part of the credit for the overwhelming feeling of not-quite-as-magical-ness could go to the lack of Eric Double in the director’s chair but I think it mostly comes down to the gap where the company’s usual leading man should be. Wallis is a fine director- he knows his text, he respects his characters, there isn’t a blackout set change to be found in the whole production- but he’s a really special actor. It felt like a waste seeing the company’s best onstage asset pacing the back of the room when the so-so production could really use a star turn. Which is not to say that he should be playing Romeo, or even Mercutio, I just wished a few more of Wallis’ strengths as a performer had been passed on to his cast in the rehearsal process. Perhaps I’m noticing it because the company is going straight from the prose-tastic Much Ado to the grandiose poetry of R&J but a lot of the casual naturalism that I associate with Bash’d (and I definitely associate with Wallis) seems to be missing despite much of the cast being made up of the company’s usual suspects. Milan Malisic and Julia Nish-Lapidus do the best job of capturing that Shakespeare Bash’d feeling of organic interaction as Mercutio and the Nurse, but the cast in general didn’t give me much to latch on to. The exception is Hallie Seline who notably outshines Kelly Penner’s over-the-top Romeo with a more nuanced and human approach to her smarter-than-average Juliet. Wallis helps her out with thoughtful details like a bookworm-y past and a tender relationship with her father that sets up III.v for an even greater fall. Such moments are Wallis’ principal directorial contribution- small things that inform character without deviating or interpreting the standard text. This is a very simple Romeo & Juliet, directed in what I think of as true Original Practices, dedicated to presenting the director’s favourite play at its most unadorned. Unfortunately, a cast more dynamic than this one is required to fulfill such a vision. A cast that Shakespeare Bash’d usually has.
In recent years, Twelfth Night has become the accessible Shakespearean staple. Its wealth of memorable characters, lively but relatively easy to follow plot, strong heart and grand humour all endear it to commercial audiences who may not be prepared to or interested in dissecting Coriolanus’s psychology or differentiating 6 people all named Henry. It can be done with a decently small budget and has lots of great roles in perhaps the truest ensemble comedy Shakespeare ever wrote (with a female lead, no less). It’s a smart choice for any company; a fairly fool-proof text that can almost direct itself. And So Many People seem to do just that: let it direct itself. Because the script is relatively directorial-issue-free and the story is famous enough to be clear without Wikipedia but not so famous that the audience’s attention may be hard to keep (here’s looking at you, R&J), Twelfth Night is not often given the directorial consideration that something like, say, Titus Andronicus might be. That’s the sort of play that directors get artsy and intellectual about; they dive deep into the text, mining for meaning and looking for the heart of each character and what drives them. For his current Hart House production, director Matthew Gorman has given Twelfth Night that kind of consideration.
It’s not a perfect production- there are some choices, some scenes, some performers who don’t quite fit the bill- but Gorman has taken a play that I’ve seen countless times and found beats I’d never heard, jokes I’d never considered, and character details I’d never seen played. His production makes interesting choices rooted in serious study of the text and smart-kid Elizabethan know-how. He relocates the action into a fictional Illyria pub briefly mentioned in the play by the 10th most important character; he mines an iambic pentameter joke out of Malvolio’s letter reading scene (how have I never seen someone play that joke before?!). It’s a nerdy production full of the sort of details that only the nerdiest of audience members are likely to get (seriously, there’s an iambic pentameter joke; not a joke In iambic pentameter, a joke About iambic pentameter) but it places thoughtfulness and creativity above stodgy faithfulness and knows that Shakespeare nerdom is, at its best, not predicated on pedestal-placing. Gorman shows what is clearly a strong love of Shakespeare by participating in the playwright’s work rather than simply staging it and he does so with exactly the sort of investigation and interpretation that best shows off one of the bard’s most oft-produced and thus oft-overlooked plays.
Now, the issue with going full-nerd with a Twelfth Night (which almost no one ever does) is that you run the risk of throwing off some of the more mainstream audience. Some things- like the iambic pentameter joke- just go straight over the layman’s head and don’t get in the way of their enjoyment. Some things- like the smart and poignant choice to have Viola join in Feste’s II.iv serenade- are easily and equally appreciated by anyone with ears and an attention span. But some choices do inescapably favour the audience members who know the text well. Alexander Offord’s performance as Feste, for instance, delighted me because I value naturalism and love it when a character has a pace and cadence that’s unique from those around them (especially the character in question is the fool). But the intriguing way Offord swallows choice words and throws others out at top speed makes it hard to consistently distinguish what’s he’s saying if you’ve never heard the text before. The script edits for this production, to take another easy example, send Act I rollicking along at a thrilling pace. There’s scene splicing and rearranging and line cuts and massive timeline compression that plays the first three days of Cesario’s employment with Orsino as a three-minute job interview that happens silently just stage right of the action. It’s an awesome effect if you’ve heard the exposition scenes before and you can inherently tell your Andrews from your Tobys. I loved the boldness of the cuts and the way that the simultaneous action fills out the world while keeping the pace up and the runtime down, but it’s not a user-friendly edit.
With less time wasted on small talk, the actors are tasked with establishing their characters as memorably as possible. Alison Blair stands out almost immediately with her fun and quick Maria (though I will say she’s a tad overzealous with the physical comedy). Her Maria is an easy investment that pays off beautifully when she plays a heartbreaking wordless crisis of conscience during the cleverly executed Malvolio-in-a-box scene. The victim of her charming scheming is Scott Farley’s fascinating Malvolio. What’s so special about Farley’s performance is that he baits the audience into hating him more than average in his early scenes. He’s got that stick so far up his butt that it’s a wonder he can walk; he’s a moustachioed cartoon of a man with a petty streak larger than Olivia’s ego. It’s a ballsy move, toying with alienating the audience like that, but Farley is so compelling a dramatic actor that he effortlessly pulls his viewers back in on cue, allowing “The Tragedy of Malvolio” to own the final two acts. The unease of act five created by a tragic Malvolio is made all the more intense by another choice that’s less standard but just as interesting- the heartbreak of Andrew. Christopher Manousous plays a fairly standard Andrew while finding freshly funny ways to make his iconic one-liners stand out (“I was adored once too”; “that’s me, I warrant you!”) but it’s the hurt he plays when David Tripp’s boring drunk of a Toby denounces their friendship that ties the whole performance together and makes something memorable out of a simple sidekick. Even the often dull Orsino is thoughtfully interpreted for this production, Liam Volke playing the Duke as a kind but over-dramatic leader rather than the strapping, self-indulgent doofus that rules most Illyrias. He shares a genuine tenderness with Darcy Gerhart’s Cesario that translates promisingly when everyone conveniently gets married and I felt like she had real reasons to love him beyond the Most Eligible Bachelor of Illyria vibe of an unmarried Duke. I also was really taken with Will King as Sebastian, which is incredibly cool because I usually think Sebastian is a waste of time. King’s calm, loyal, regal presence informs the character’s outsider-ness and carries his backstory into the few scenes he has on the island, strengthening his relationships with both Viola and Olivia as a by-product.
Annoyingly, Viola and Olivia are two of the only characters who don’t benefit dramatically from Gorman’s impressive character insight. For a rare female-driven Shakespeare text, this production stands out mostly for its men (Gorman included, though Jenna McCutchen’s useful, sneaky and pretty set is definitely a win for the women). Gerhart is a fine Viola but doesn’t bring anything to the character that I haven’t seen many times before. My real disappointment was with Arlin Dixon’s Olivia, though said disappointment was more or less in line with expectation. Olivia is among Shakespeare’s most abused characters, consistently undervalued by actors and directors alike in some grand conspiracy to ignore that she’s not the play’s resident silly ingenue but rather a strong, bored woman left alone in the world with only Feste to tell her the truth about anything. Dixon is far from the worst Olivia I’ve seen, but damn if I didn’t let the rest of Gorman’s brilliantly thought-through production get my hopes up.
Both productions are valid, useful tributes to a great playwright. They both come at their source material with the sort of love that affects an audience through the work. They’re just for very different audiences. I brought a friend with me to Shakespeare Bash’d’s production and, as I nitpicked, she sat happily remembering just how great of a text Romeo & Juliet is (because it’s a truly special script and more people could stand to remember that). If your life needs more Shakespeare, 30/30 Dundas West is the place to be. But, for me, the delicious intellectual excess of Gorman’s Twelfth Night at Hart House was far more satisfying.