Summer: a grove, a warm, clear night, a Shakespearean love story. Sounds romantic, right? In the case of two productions currently playing in Toronto, not so much.
Both Canadian Stage and Driftwood Theatre have their annual outdoor summer productions onstage here this weekend. Both productions are sharp and stylish, but take a decidedly darker look at love than you might expect from a mid-summer frolic in the park.
Canadian Stage's ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL is an assured, droll, and unsettling production of one of Shakespeare's more difficult romances. Ted Witzel is a clever and imaginative director and there's much to admire in his production. His battle scenes are particularly compelling. He makes great use of contemporary music in the transitions. The set by Teresa Przybylski is dynamic. I particularly liked the mismatched chairs as a metaphor for all of the mismatched couples. The relationships are clear, the character work by the actors is skillful. It's a production with a lot of style and lot of soul, but sadly, very little heart.
Helen lives under the protection of the Countess Rossillion, mother of Bertram, and proprietress of a spa in the south of France. As the Countess, Nicky Guadagni is confident and capable: the best actor onstage with the delivery of the text.
As Helen, Mina James fares far less well. She seems adequately besotted with Bertram, but plays Helen as a one-note "nice girl" driven solely by desperation, without a shred of malice or cunning, which hardly seems in keeping with the course of action she takes to close the deal with him. She's also not very nuanced in her delivery of the text.
Helen pursues Bertram to France where the King of France (a funny and well-spoken Marvin L. Ishmael) bestows the hand of her heart's desire, and a sizable dowry in exchange for curing a fistula. The butt-plug on a drill she deployed made me think her old man was a scholar of South Park, not medicine. The torture device turns up later in the show in a more sinister context.
Betram, who seems to be having an affair on the down low with his clearly love-struck friend Parolles, and, is wilding with girls on the side, wants nothing to do with Helen, who he considers beneath contempt. He marries her, but refuses to consummate the relationship, choosing instead to flee to a battlefield in Florence, leaving Helen with a list of near-impossible contractual conditions to meet before the marriage is valid.
Kaleb Alexander plays Bertram as a good-looking, privileged douche-bag. It's certainly a valid take on the character, but it leaves the audience with no possibility of rooting for him and Helen as a couple. I kept hoping he'd get a fatal case of clap or die in a road-side explosion.
As it is, when it turns out Diana has deceived him, and he has, indeed, bedded and impregnated his legal wife, he seems inexplicably chuffed by the turn of events.
The director has made the centre of the production Betram's friend, the bad apple, Parolles. Here, Parolles is a gay man who is being punished for who he is. Quasim Khan give a wonderfully complex performance, garnering our sympathies, while clearly exhibiting the character's less attractive qualities. The scene where Parolle's fellow soldiers give him a comeuppance for bragging and lying, is, here, an ugly gay bashing. It's the most powerful moment in the production.
The other star turn is Rachel Jones as the clown Lavatch, in cow prints and a Dolly Parton wig, delivering a series of beat poems by Witzel. Like Parolles, Lavatch is castigated for owning her sexuality. You can't take your eyes off Jones when she's onstage. She does a great job with Witzel's monologues, though I would have preferred Witzel had concentrated on ensuring all his actors delivered the poetry in the text of Shakespeare's play, rather than supplementing the Bard's writing with his own.
As stylish, clever and well-observed as the production is, you can only feel sorry, rather than hopeful for the couple at the heart of the play. It's entertaining as social satire: but it's not much of either a comedy or a romance.
Then, over in Withrow Park, Driftwood Theatre has set the even more problematic TAMING OF THE SHREW in 1989, turning it into a pop musical. The '80s love duets as sub-text can't wall-paper over the fact that Kate (a suitably fierce Siobhan Richardson) is handed by her mother over to Petruchio, who, with his eye on her dowry, starves her, hits her and gas-lights her into submission.
D. Jeremy Smith has directed a fast-paced and engaging production, heavily focused on music and on a secondary gay rights theme. Lucentio (a lovely Fiona Smith) is gender fluid, giving her secret courtship of Bianca (a very sweet Tahirih Vedani) a plausible contemporary context. These are the lovers we find ourselves rooting for. Paulo Santalucia is also delightful as Tranio.
Geoffrey Armour has the thankless task of playing Petruchio. He comes off as a guy who believes he is in love with Kate, and that he's doing the right thing: in short, he plays him as a textbook nice guy abuser. I don't think I've ever seen a production of the play where the dynamic between Kate and Petruchio was as disturbing.
The premise of the production is ostensibly that Kate and Petruchio are in a consensual D/s relationship. I can see how this concept held appeal, but the text of the play doesn't really support it. It's a fun production and it's worth seeing, but nothing that happens here changes the dark heart of the story. This SHREW is a portrait of an abusive relationship in a fancy black leather music box.
ALLS WELL THAT ENDS WELL continues in High Park until September 4th, with performances Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday at 8:00 PM. www.canadianstage.com TAMING OF THE SHREW continues in Toronto in Withrow Park until July 24th with performances at 7:30 PM and then in various Ontario destinations: www.driftwoodtheatre.com