Canadian Stage’s annual Shakespeare in High Park (formerly known as Dream in High Park but apparently that was too confusing) is always fun for its picnic-under-the-stars tone, even if the plays are bad. Which is important, because this year’s productions aren’t exactly good. Neither is a complete loss- both Titus Andronicus and the slightly more successful As You Like It have a few strong performances that raise the bar- but neither is executed to the level I want to expect but have learned to live without when it comes to the High Park productions.
The first thing that stands out is that the costumes are unintentionally hilarious. The men, for the most part, appear only moderately silly in their suspenders and fedoras or long skirts and lion heads. But the women… Rosalind and Celia appear to be wearing knockoff Snow White outfits at court while Tamora pairs a confounding bubble skirt with a leather bodice that looks like it was taken straight off a mannequin in the window of a sex shop (apparently Titus is meant to be Japanese-inspired; perhaps if we’re in a strictly 2D manga world). The most ridiculous by far, however, is Lavinia the Power Puff Girl, decked out with her own bubble skirt, Spice Girl boots, and Wonder Woman wrist cuffs and headgear. This truly inspired ensemble is all white to better contrast her act five look when tragedy has finally done what tragedy always does and driven her towards a punk rock lifestyle.
Perhaps it’s the binding ridiculousness of her costumes, or maybe she’s under the mistaken impression that she was cast as a pair of dumb ingenues, but Chala Hunter plays both Celia and Lavinia as young women deserving about as much respect as a grown woman dressed as a Power Puff Girl naturally commands. Celia fares a bit better- though the strange text edits do her few favours (Oliver is also debilitatingly cut with most of his speech about why he’s suddenly a good guy gone)- but Lavinia is a whiny, self-righteous brat with a propensity for pulling faces, an angle on the character that severely inhibits the emotional stakes of the play. Shauna Black’s Tamora is similarly uninspiring, discovering the obvious note of sex-as-power in the character then proceeding to play only that one note for the entirety of the performance as though it were the only thing there to discover.
But hark, what light through yonder mediocrity breaks-
James Graham takes up the one note played by Black and harmonizes excellently, adding much-needed comedy to this generally dramatic Titus as a particularly petulant Saturninus, entranced and ruled by Tamora to the point of impuissance. Emilio Vieira’s performance as surviving son Lucius is also fairly strong, capturing that character’s intriguing moral ambiguity and contrasting well with his charming performance as Lord Amiens in As You Like It (his beautiful singing voice is a highlight of that production). The moderate success I mentioned of As You Like It over Titus is mostly due to Amy Rutherford’s amusing Rosalind and Jan Alexandra Smith as Jaques. The most successful actor in the cast by miles, Smith is also excellent as Marcus in Titus but it’s her refreshing, scene-stealing turn as the melancholy Jaques that is the only truly great performance of the High Park season.
As You Like It is also just a more easily digestible text than Titus (in the sense of it being well-constructed; not because it lacks Titus‘ violence, though that too). As You Like It will be at least baseline charming no matter what you do with it. What bothers me is that a director as smart as Nigel Shawn Williams would allow it to be just baseline charming. There isn’t a summer in recent memory when there wasn’t some sort of As You Like It production in Toronto; most people in the audience have seen it at least once (I’ve seen 3 in the past 13 months). It’s time to explore (well-past time, really). You don’t need to reinvent the wheel or, I don’t know, turn Arden into a surrealist dreamscape, but make like Chris Abraham and his still-commercial, still-accessible Midsummer Night’s Dream– find something new.
More obnoxious is Keira Loughran’s directorial treatment of Titus. Though they look silly in practice, the animal miming bits and strange “and then there’s an electric guitar!” details didn’t bother me all that much because they are evidence of thought and effort. It did bother me that the fights are all slow and careful, but that’s another execution problem and we’re talking on an idea level right now. No, my issue here was very very simple- Titus Andronicus lives on blood. Even if it’s quickly swept away like in Darko Tresnjak’s inspired 2011 production, the blood needs to be there (this is not 1955, our collective sensibilities can’t be easily shocked). Things need to get messy so the Tarantino-style gruesome intensity of the play comes through. Titus is all about impulse- characters driven by their guts and their groins until there’s nothing left of them for careful consideration to save. Blood- the pulse of it, where it rushes, our visceral reaction to seeing it spilt- is the fuel on which everything runs. In this production, there is no blood, only ribbons. Ribbons- with their celebratory, childhood associations- stir the exact wrong emotions. Lavinia’s hands get cut off and it appears that she is carrying around pompoms. When it’s time for Titus to lose his hand, a red scarf appears and Sean Dixon tucks his now spare limb into his pants in a way that suggests he’s relieving some of the stress all the ribbons have caused.
I’m all for a funny Titus; a darkly funny bloody tragedy that rests insightfully on the shoulders of its title character’s line about laughing because he has no tears left. But this is an accidentally funny Titus (apart from Saturninus, who is doing it on purpose), amusing not because laughter is the only coping mechanism we can access to process the extremity but because it’s trivial- filled with ribbons instead of blood. At one point, Marcus looks to Titus- who seems resigned to his tragic fate- and asks an endlessly quotable question: “Now is the time to storm; Why art thou still?”. Now is the time to be making intellectually ambitious, emotionally evocative theatre (especially if you are funded by CanStage not Kickstarter). So why is Shakespeare in High Park hanging ribbons on the place where they’ve been standing still for far too long?