photo by Tatiana Jennings
Richard III. Photo by Tatiana Jennings

We are now approaching the end of what I am tempted to call “Shakespeare Season” in Toronto. In addition to Stratford’s nearby productions (this year King Lear, Antony & Cleopatra, King John, and two excellent Midsummers), Canadian Stage served up Titus Andronicus and As You Like It in High Park, the Fringe Festival played host to modernized versions of both Love’s Labour’s Lost and Julius Caesar (not to mention Bard Fiction), Driftwood did The Tempest, and R&J got a balletic remount before being beautifully shaken up by Soulpepper in A Tender Thing and Headstrong Collective/Urban Bard  in Romeo & (her) Juliet (both still currently playing).

The winter months usually bring a rather harsh Shakespeare drought so as we close out these bardtastic few months, here is the lowdown on the remaining productions (the first two just opened) and those we didn’t get a chance to talk about sooner.

Richard III, The Pleasures of Violence (Kadazuke Kollektif in partnership with Bad New Days)
I’ve been talking all summer about my frustration with directors who bring very little imagination to their productions of old texts. I appreciate strong choices, modernization, adaptation and theatrical guts so I’m hesitant to criticize Tatiana Jennings’ crazy new version of Richard III… but I’m going to anyway. There are a lot of choices here that are so over-the-top that they elicit incredulous laughter when the intended effect is clearly horror (pretty much any choice relating to Lacey Creighton’s sexual torture victim portrayal of Lady Anne falls into this category). But, while many of the choices just don’t really work, I do appreciate that honest, thoughtful attempts were made (and some choices do work, more on those in a moment). What bothered me about this Richard III is that it’s nearly impossible to follow, despite cutting so little of the original text that the production runs a criminal 3 hours and 25 minutes (or so states the program; in reality, it’s longer). So much space is taken between lines and so much filler dialogue is added (Stanley begins his letter to Hastings with a rambling intro along the lines of “Hello, how are you? I am fine”; it’s absurd) that the 0ver-long production is able to take up nearly four hours of your life even without the inclusion of important things like clarifying exposition and key characters (I’d be surprised if anyone missed Dorset but I’m pretty sure Henry Tudor, aka Richmond, was pretty important; without him, act five almost ceases to exist entirely). There is so much double casting, so much added trickery, so many confusing metaphors that the plot gets entirely lost, to the point where, if I hadn’t known what was going on, I wouldn’t have had any clue what was going on. Usually a strong leading performance in the iconic title role can clarify the direction of the play and minimize the political noise that most often makes the story confusing, but there is just so much Stuff happening here that Lee McDonald’s intriguingly jovial performance gets overwhelmed (he’s even robbed of his opening monologue); by the first intermission, it was still somewhat unclear who the central character was (that might be okay in Cymbeline, where Cymbeline matters not much at all but, but Richard III is Nothing without Richard III). But I promised I’d tell you what does work- McDonald is a very interesting leading man with a completely new energy for the role and the bold choice of no visible deformity (which I loved); the cast is generally fairly strong, despite a few annoying performances in supporting female roles, and some of the double casting shows real range (Scott Edwards as a murderer is a highlight, as is Shawn Lall’s restrained take on the Duchess); Tyler Winn delivers both of my favourite performances in the show with an uncommonly mature Prince Edward and sadly gentle Clarence; Montgomery C Martin’s projection work is superb, including the evocative use of visual “noise”; and Vladimir Kovalchuk’s beautifully versatile bench design and Jennings’ use of its spacial possibilities are almost thrilling enough to make four hours of confusing, over-the-top Shakespeare worth it. Almost.

Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by John Gundy
Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by John Gundy

Much Ado About Nothing (Single Thread Theatre Company)
A few things really set Single Thread’s interactive Much Ado About Nothing apart the first time is was mounted back in 2011. The first was the exquisite Spadina House location and director Jonathan Langley’s clever use of the space (the premise: we’re newly hired servants heading out in two groups on a tour of the house before our first day of work). The second thing was a few key cast members who brought a lot to often overlooked roles like Claudio and Margaret. The biggest thing was Viktor Lukawski whose My Theatre Award-nominated performance as Dogberry was so fun and inventive the whole production benefitted from the residual joy of his few scenes. When I arrived at Spadina House last week (drenched from a walk in the abhorrent rain that would trap the production inside, eliminating all the beautiful garden scenes), I took my seat in the servants’ quarters and found Viktor Lukawski sitting next to me in the audience. It turns out that when you recast the one truly exceptional performer in the original production, your remount can’t quite recover (for the record, I’m sure it was a scheduling conflict since Single Thread is far too smart to recast their best actor on purpose). The other really significant casting change is Tyler Seguin’s promotion to Benedick from Don Pedro, though this has less of an effect on the overall quality of the piece since the small amount of wry humour that’s lost in the transition is replaced by Seguin’s superior chemistry with returning too-serious Beatrice Helen Juvonen (Seguin’s real-life partner). For audience members experiencing the production for the first time, the magic of Spadina House (at least on a dry night) is sure to delight just as much as it did back in 2011, though the scene transitions and direction seem less fluid in the hands of new director Karen Knox. When you leave the servants’ quarters, the audience is divided into two groups- one will follow Scott Dermody’s uncompromising butler Jarvis to stumble upon the male shenanigans, and one will follow Tiffany Deobald’s staunch Anna (replacing Sarah Thorpe’s far sweeter version) to witness their female counterparts. Having seen the women last time (most of them having returned to their roles for the remount), I disobeyed my assignment and followed Dermody (for the record, you should not do that; do as you’re told or you will be yelled at). Though it meant missing almost every word uttered by Leah Holder as Margaret (one of my favourites from 2011)- and I felt like just the male and group scenes didn’t quite cover enough expositional ground for anyone seeing their first Much Ado– I was very glad to be in the group I illegally chose because it meant getting the full Jarvis experience. It was horrible; Scott Dermody is the meanest boss ever! Which means it was great. His improvised performance as the stick-in-the-mud tourguide is sharp and hilarious but also beautifully reactive (at one point in the first wedding scene I gave up on the main action and just started watching him as he stood straight-backed against the wall with shock, outrage and heartbreak fighting it out on his carefully composed face as he experienced the story from the background). Whether he’s stalling for time by asking if anyone knows proper duel protocol or leading the group back downstairs because he temporarily forgot where he was going, Dermody’s Jarvis is definitely the performance highlight of this pale, Lukawski-less version of the Single Thread Much Ado.

Cymbeline's Reign. Photo By Mikael Lavogiez
Cymbeline’s Reign. Photo By Mikael Lavogiez

Cymbeline’s Reign (Shakespeare in the Ruff)
This was the first Shakespeare in the Ruff production I wasn’t totally crazy about. That’s partly because Cymbeline is a really strange play that I don’t think benefits much from being significantly shortened (there are already a whole host of underdeveloped characters, cutting more lines doesn’t do them much good) and partly because the Ruffians are particularly adept with clever comedy and, mixed in with the drama, Cymbeline is more accents & hijinks funny than wit & irony funny like 2012’s Two Gents or 2013’s Richard III (Richard III is actually a hilarious text, someone just forgot to tell the Kadozuke Kollektif). Artistic Director Brendan McMurtry-Howlett‘s scholarly script cut is always a highlight of the Ruff production and he did what he could to condense this plot-heavy play into a park-appropriate one-act by eliminating the entire Belarius storyline and filling the gaps with more Caius Lucius and some drunken soldiers who’d been temporarily imported from Illyria (aka he stole lines from Twelfth Night because Illyrian drunks are the best drunks). There was nothing particularly wrong with this production, it just didn’t have the magic of its predecessors and featured only two performances I really want to talk about- my favourite and least favourite characters. In my opinion, Cymbeline‘s most compelling arc has always belonged to the clear-sighted servant Pisanio, who doesn’t pause a moment before boldly disobeying orders for the sake of true service when his foolish master has lost his head and heart. I was therefore delighted to see that underrated role go to one of my favourite performers Victor Dolhai, who became a favourite due to his relentless refusal to treat a small role as a small undertaking. He did the same with Pisanio, mining the heaps of empathy and melancholy that so many actors refuse to go searching for in the great and heroic Pisanio. My least favourite character is the idiot who gives Pisanio the order to kill Imogen that he promptly disobeys. Flimsy, proud and rash, Posthumus is one of those infuriating Shakespearean “heroes” who doesn’t deserve the feisty lady who loves him (in this case Kaitlyn Riordan’s charming Imogen) and most certainly does deserve to be the prey of whatever savvy villain decides to ruin his life for the fun of it (in this case David Patrick Flemming‘s exaggerated Iachimo). The task of saving Posthumus can only be accomplished by combining thoughtful direction that emphasizes the childhood  innocence of his love for Imogen (the entire rich backstory of which unhelpfully precedes the beginning of Cymbeline) and a strapping actor who has killer chemistry with his leading lady and can charm the audience into forgetting he has an anger management problem so severe that he ordered his wife’s death just a few acts before their happy ending. Which brings me to Jesse Griffiths, an actor I’ve seen many times and always liked but for some reason have rarely written about. Though he doesn’t make a habit of stealing the spotlight, the ever-reliable Griffiths is probably one of the most valuable members of the indie Shakespeare scene (I was actually shocked when his name only came up once when typed into the MyEntWorld search box; that’s my bad). His natural ease with the verse and tendency towards subtlety have protected him from giving a single bad performance in my memory, but it’s his incredible versatility that makes him a real find for any company that operates on a roster system. Classically handsome with a look young enough to still play the lovers but strong and mature enough to play the soldiers, Griffiths has run the gamut in recent years from Tranio (main requirements: comic timing, goofiness) to Friar Laurence (authority, calm, exposition delivery) to Catesby (moral ambiguity, ability to play the underling) to Valentine (charisma, romance, unrelenting good-guy-ness) and most recently to Posthumus for whom he added some rough edges and a hot temper to his natural leading man charm and managed to make me root for him (there has been exactly one other Posthumus who has ever succeeded on that front); it also helped that he had great chemistry with Kaitlyn Riordan’s Imogen, resulting in an act five kiss so good that a kid in the front row yelled out “ewwwww” (which is pretty much the best gauge ever for kiss excellence). So Cymbeline was just okay, but now you know about Jesse Griffiths; I’m just sorry it took me so long to mention his name.

Romeo & Juliet
Romeo & Juliet

Romeo & Juliet (Humber River Shakespeare Company)
Let’s start with the good news. 1) Candy Pryce was a really great Nurse- kind, clever and genuinely funny. 2) Steve Coombes made one of those choices I think is key to the character but rarely gets made and played Lord Capulet as a well-meaning man who genuinely loves his daughter. The tenderness he showed Juliet early on made III.v hurt like it’s really meant to. 3) This was a production full of really big performances. I didn’t actually like that about it, but it contrasted interestingly with Kelly Penner’s other R&J in the past year. Because the energy level of his Romeo was closer to the cast average, he felt like he belonged in this world a lot more and thus the better parts of his performance (his joyful enthusiasm, his full-scale emotional commitment) got more of a chance to shine. 4) The Capulet party was based around a fully choreographed dance number to a funky version of Prokofiev’s ballet setting of that scene. It was a little bit surreal but Awesome. 5)… that’s all. Everything else was either overwhelmingly predictable or obnoxiously over-wrought. Humber River’s productions are usually fairly straightforward but I’m used to seeing a lot more truth from them than they found in Romeo & Juliet. And it was Romeo & Juliet! I can give you a little leeway when Cymbeline doesn’t quite work out but Romeo & Juliet? Something has to go very wrong for the heart to be missing from R&J.

The Comedy of Errors
The Comedy of Errors

The Comedy of Errors (Urban Bard)
Thank God for Urban Bard’s collaboration with Headstrong Collective on Romeo & (her) Juliet. Urban Bard was one of the first companies I really loved after moving back to Toronto. They were doing great work back in 2010 but then were mostly silent for a long time, and I kept missing Drunk Macbeth at its one-night-only performances. Then, finally, the company came roaring back with two productions separated by just a few weeks: Romeo & (her) Juliet and Comedy of Errors. Not in that order. Comedy of Errors came first, which is why I say, again, Thank God for Romeo & (her) Juliet. Holy moly this was bad. Beyond my wildest dreams kind of bad, and I went in knowing I was about to see one of the worst scripts ever to be mentioned in the same document as Shakespeare let alone be actually written by the man. I will gladly admit that I enjoy certain productions a lot more because they picked a stronger script. For example, Shakespeare in the Ruff’s Cymbeline would have been a much better production if the calibre of the work that went into it was applied to something better than Cymbeline (flip side, the last sentence of my Humber River R&J review). There are some texts I always love, like As You Like It, and I always hate Comedy of Errors. But that does not mean I’ve always seen Comedy of Errors done badly. In fact, I’ve seen at least one exceptional Comedy of Errors in my time (here’s looking at you, Propeller Shakespeare!). It’s always going to be at least a little bit bad, but this was all bad, all the time. From the hokey “we got a grant for this!” Upper Canada setting (note: I don’t know if they got a grant but you never want to look like you made a big artistic decision based on appeasing a money source) to the atrocious grab bag of accents (literally none of which were well executed) to the least interesting use of the “Urban” in Urban Bard I’ve ever seen from usually solid director Scott Emerson Moyle. Even the good actors (Adrianna Prosser, Christopher Mott) gave middling performances in this one. Occasionally one of the Dromios (Jade Douris or Sara Jackson, hard to distinguish) would get off a clever line reading or two, but the absolute best thing about Urban Bard’s Comedy of Errors was that it was followed so quickly by their wonderful R&(h)J that we can all agree to pretend this one never happened.