Theatre review: A modern take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The retelling of this classic story captured humour, whimsicality, and dreamlike themes

Theatre review: A modern take on <i>A Midsummer Night’s Dream</i>

“Then I saw her face, now I’m a believer,” sang Nam Nguyen, a guitar-playing fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of William Shakespeare’s most well-known comedies.

The Victoria College Drama Society (VCDS) opened its 2018–2019 season on Thursday night with a dreamy performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Directed by Abby Palmer, the play was adapted to suit a contemporary audience and ran for 2.5 hours with a 10-minute intermission. Some of Shakespeare’s original text is still used, but much of the convoluted words and language have been edited and translated into modern English.

More interestingly though, is that Palmer’s adaptation is set in 1968 America. The new setting is brought to the forefront with the inclusion of swapped gender roles, LGBTQ+ people, and people of colour, as well as snazzy costumes, lively singing, and dancing. In multiple scenes, characters dressed in bold miniskirts, platform heels, and tie-dye break out into popular songs like the ‘60s hits “I’m a Believer” and “Stand by Me.” This specific directorial adaptation is more relevant than ever in today’s political climate of social movements and regressive leadership.

Midsummer focuses on four interconnected plots: the relationships between the characters of Hermia (Eiléanór O’Halloran), Lysander (Rachel Leggett), Helena (Mitchell Byrne), and Demetrius (River Oliveira). Against the law of Theseus (Devon Wilton), Hermia and Lysander intend to get married, while Demetrius attempts to win over Hermia, and Helena tries to win Demetrius.

In the forest and the realm of Fairyland, Oberon (Wilton), king of the fairies, and his assistant Puck (Nicole Eun-Ju Bell) concoct a special potion to set things right among the couples. Meanwhile, a group of hippie actors rehearse a play of their own that they hope to perform at Theseus’s wedding. Things go wrong and chaos ensues, but everything seems to have a funny way of working out in the end.

This hilarity balances the commotion of the many different and deep themes and scenes in the play. Characters in serious conversations in the foreground are met with amusing moments between characters in the background. In one instance, Hermia and her father argue over her arranged marriage to Demetrius while Lysander and Helena secretly fight behind them. The audience was constantly having a laugh at these actions and other witty one-liners.

Visual elements helped to bring the dream world even more to life, with a colourful set design, hilarious sound effects like the characters’ car driving behind the audience, and lighting effects that featured prominently throughout the show.

The play was performed at the Emmanuel College Quad, which added to the ambience and fit seamlessly with the forest scenes on stage. Most of the seating was on tarps on the grass, although some chairs were provided.

Audience interaction was a large part of the show. It was a bit startling when characters suddenly walked up and down the aisles, and even across the tarps of people on their way to the stage. Puck spoke directly to the audience several times throughout the show, as if talking to a friend. For a small outdoor theatre, this truly enhanced the intimacy and sense of community, especially in the chilly fall evening.

Overall, the musical performances of the cast and the modern dream world setting made for a magical night.

Scenes from the shadows

Four stories of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse from members of U of T campus theatre

Scenes from the shadows

Content warning: descriptions of sexual harassment, sexual assault, relationship abuse.

“The theatre community… helped me get through a lot of difficult things in my life. There’s a lot of people there I will love forever,” Janet* says. “But there’s also people there who, if I never see them again, I’ll be happy. That’s not just because they did anything to me [or to someone else]… but because they stood by and let things happen.”

Janet was involved in campus theatre during her time at U of T, and her ambivalence about the experience resonates with others. While many students consider theatre a wonderfully welcoming place, the stories of others reveal a darker side of the picture.

It’s been a year since the #MeToo movement skyrocketed to fame, and it’s well worth considering what lessons it has to bear for theatre at U of T. With that goal in mind, I spoke to students within campus theatre at the university who experienced sexual harassment, assault, or abuse from fellow cast or crew members.

Women in power, men in control

A unifying thread in #MeToo cases was that men in powerful positions within the industry exploited their ranks to dominate women. On a smaller scale, gendered attitudes still play a role in many university interactions, and campus theatre is no exception.

Sabrina* held an executive leadership role in campus theatre in 2017–2018. An interesting thing about the U of T theatre community, Sabrina explains, is that unlike in Hollywood or other male-dominated environments, many of those in positions of power are women. But sexism doesn’t disappear when women have power; it just takes on a different form. As Sabrina puts it, “It’s almost like [men] are trying to get power in a female-driven community.”

Sabrina and fellow female executives have had numerous negative experiences working with men who didn’t respect their authority. Male directors would often scrutinize their leadership decisions or devalue their opinions in ways that Sabrina felt were unfair; some of this was accompanied by sexist remarks. Other men mocked the capabilities of female set designers, reflecting the common stereotype that women somehow aren’t suited for technical work.

During Janet’s time in theatre, while some theatre executives enforced “zero tolerance” policies for harassment, in many cases she saw men push boundaries and then get off the hook. Sometimes this would happen during productions scripted to include romantic scenes. In one audition Janet witnessed, one actor suddenly pulled their scene partner into a kiss without consulting them first. Incidents like these, Janet tells me, are often brushed off as “trying to make the scene better,” though she feels that some actors use intimacy scenes as excuses to be inappropriately physical.

Female representation in U of T theatre may also come with unintended consequences. Janet was frustrated to see men whom executives and cast knew as harassers continually get cast in plays, simply because there were too few men available for the part. Gender-blind casting could have avoided that problem altogether: her response was always, “Cast a girl.”

There’s no real way to quantify sexism, let alone to determine how pervasive it is within certain campus environments. But testimonies like these are significant, particularly coming from women in relatively senior positions. Repeated microaggressions, disrespect for women’s authority, and lack of accountability can lay the groundwork.

A similar toxic cocktail underlies the allegations against the now over 200 powerful people engulfed by #MeToo, most of them powerful men — from inappropriate comments to unwanted touching to full-fledged sexual assault.

Even when nefarious motives aren’t in the picture, theatre is an environment of intense closeness. The enormous amount of time cast and crew spend together can blur personal and professional boundaries, particularly in the campus context, where students are mostly young and often friends as well as colleagues.

Sabrina recounts multiple instances of male colleagues who seemed to get the wrong idea about the nature of their relationships with the women they worked with. One female crew member was repeatedly badgered by a male colleague until Sabrina and the executive delivered a pointed reminder about professionalism to the entire cast.

In another case, Sabrina and a female friend went to a cast party. Both of them held management roles and presumably deserved to celebrate their work on the production. An intoxicated male colleague’s aggressive advances made them so uncomfortable that they decided to just leave.

PEARL CAO/THE VARSITY

No typical abuser

#MeToo shone a light mainly on powerful men within the industry. But an inclusive perspective on the movement demands accountability for all perpetrators, even if they aren’t who we might expect.

When Melanie*, an assistant stage manager, became intoxicated at a cast party, a female theatre executive insisted on accompanying her home to her residence. Exhausted and ill, Melanie got into bed, but the woman refused to leave her alone. Taking advantage of Melanie’s condition, she forced herself on her and then stayed the night.

“The next thing I know, she’s in my bed and kissing me, and then she just didn’t stop,” Melanie says. “It took me a while to figure out that it was rape.”

In previous weeks, Melanie had noticed executives making inappropriate sexual comments and being overly touchy with the cast. She considered this inappropriate, but it wasn’t until her sexual assault that the significance of those incidents started to resonate. Melanie confided in a female cast member, and she found common ground — her friend confessed that a female director had also pestered her with uncomfortable comments like, “I only cast you so I could stare at you all day,” or “I only cast you because I wanted to fuck you at the cast party.”

But until it happened, Melanie didn’t feel unsafe around the woman who assaulted her. The theatre executive was a queer woman who advocated for equity and sex positivity, widely respected by her peers. The woman’s gender and the position she occupied within the community made it all the more difficult to process that she was capable of what she had done. It was only afterward, when Melanie was already traumatized and wracked with anxiety and guilt, that she found out the woman who sexually assaulted her had also raped two others.

While marginalized people have benefited from generally ‘safe spaces’ like theatre, Melanie is now concerned that myopic approaches to progressivism can isolate certain people from scrutiny. “They’re women and they’re gay and they promote female empowerment and self-love and hate the straight white male,” Melanie says. “They couldn’t possibly be dangerous — right?”

People who occupy powerful or privileged positions can be guilty of misusing them for their own gain. In big industry or professional entertainment circles, it’s often men who occupy those positions. Given the survivors I spoke with, that’s not necessarily true.

During their involvement in various campus productions, Lake* was thrust into an abusive relationship with Nate*. Nate leveraged their management position to exercise increasing control over Lake’s life, creating intense anxiety and splintering Lake’s existing relationship in the process. Though Lake has now broken off the relationship and reunited with their former partner, it still haunts them that Nate was able to abuse their position and get away unscathed.

Nate’s responsibilities included scheduling the cast, which, given the intensive hours associated with theatre, effectively allowed them to control Lake’s whereabouts. “It became very clear that they enjoyed being a stage manager not because, you know, theatre is fun, but because they enjoy power and they enjoy control,” Lake says.

On top of this, Nate was an experienced sex educator; offering to answer Lake’s questions about sex, Nate adopted a twisted sort of ‘mentorship’ role and thereby pulled Lake into a toxic sexual dynamic. In public, Nate brought elements of their sexual relationship onto the set without Lake’s consent, in one instance pulling their hair during a rehearsal. In private, Nate disregarded Lake’s boundaries and pressured them to use kinks as a method of conflict resolution, resulting in repeated physical and sexual abuse.

It’s difficult to come forward as a survivor in the first place, and it’s even harder when the person who hurt you is someone in power. Underlying both Melanie’s and Lake’s testimonies is a common dilemma. Keep quiet about your trauma, and you have to live with it alone. Come forward, and you may be judged, and you may not be believed.

Certainly, in an industry environment, it’s a bad thing to get a reputation, but that extends to smaller semi-professional and extracurricular spaces, too. “You’re so unsure about your position in the community, you don’t want to be known as difficult or causing a problem,” Janet says.

Then there’s the concern that even if you talk, no one will listen. When Lake told others about the abuse, a few were shocked, despite Lake feeling that the signs were obvious. Disturbingly, others revealed they were aware of Lake’s situation but were unsure whether to interfere — and ultimately decided it was none of their business.

“[Nate] not facing consequences is one thing,” Lake explains. “But the fact that there is this community that I feel in a lot of ways enabled this to happen, through not paying attention to what was going on, [that] says a lot.”

Change through conversation

Janet, Sabrina, Melanie, and Lake tell four different but related stories. Their stories don’t represent everyone’s experiences with campus theatre — but they’re also likely not the only ones.

We have to encourage survivors to come forward, and one approach is through policy. Many student-led theatre groups don’t have specific anti-harassment policies, but complainants can seek redress through standard U of T reporting procedures, through the policies of student society offices that oversee certain campus groups, or alternatively, through informal practices.

According to co-executive producers Marie Song and Sonny Nightingale, the Victoria College Drama Society requires its executives members to attend equity training, and it consults with the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council’s Equity Commissioner when they put on shows with sensitive content. The St. Michael’s College Troubadours’ production manager, Jeremy Hernandez-Lum Tong, says that the group seeks to ensure members’ safety by holding actors and crew accountable to the university’s general anti-harassment policies. The Trinity College Dramatic Society (TCDS) and the University College (UC) Follies did not respond to requests for comment.

Michelle Brownrigg, Senior Director of Co-Curricular Education and Chief Program Officer at Hart House, oversees Hart House Theatre. Brownrigg’s team is cognizant that its productions involve a mix of student volunteers, recent graduates, and professional and semi-professional designers, which cuts across age and experience. Hart House requires all of its members to conform to guidelines within an “artists’ handbook,” which provides clear expectations for cast and crew no matter who they are. The handbook also contains information about the university’s anti-harassment policies and procedures for filing complaints.

Hart House has also supported the U of T Drama Coalition by funding the launch of  “intimacy direction” workshops in 2017. Originating with Tonia Sina, Alicia Rodis, and Siobhan Richardson, co-founders of Intimacy Directors International, intimacy direction focuses on challenging power dynamics that could give rise to harassment. Inspired, Coco Lee, then the coalition’s alumni advisor, brought the practice to U of T.

“A lot of what intimacy directors do is be proactive about building a culture of consent in the rehearsal room,” Lee explains. As trained professionals, intimacy directors guide cast through choreography of intimacy scenes, from romance to physical fights; they also facilitate exercises that safely build emotional chemistry between cast members.

A challenge with programs like intimacy direction, however, lies in showing theatre groups the merit they have to offer. Although Lee received positive feedback from those who participated, uptake was limited, and Lee hopes that this will change. She acknowledges that it can be challenging to fit additional sessions within already-packed rehearsal schedules, but she is also disappointed that “people often don’t think they can spare the time to create that safety.”

It’s also important to convince directors that they can adopt these measures without losing control. “It wasn’t until the end of the year when we clued into the feedback from people that there was a fear that their agency in the process would be taken away,” Lee says. She notes a bit of irony in that: the purpose of intimacy direction is to give actors agency, and presumably, that will result in better productions and working environments.

Beyond institutionalized changes, a more positive environment will come with small, proactive steps from members of theatre groups themselves. Janet tells me that she made it her mission throughout her time at U of T to raise concerns whenever she saw something going wrong. She looked out for younger students at cast parties and made seemingly small gestures, like asking audition partners if they were comfortable with physical touch. Over time, a number of her colleagues had started to do the same, so Janet tried to keep people talking. Sometimes they listened, and sometimes they didn’t.

The beautiful thing about theatre, though, is that it can force people to pay attention. The medium itself is a vessel for conversation, and campus productions like What She Said by the UC Follies in 2016 or TCDS’ How I Learned to Drive in 2018 have critically engaged with stories of sexism and harassment and elevated the stories of survivors.

Like a hashtag, pieces like these can spark dialogue. And coupled with policies and proactive moves, the ideas behind them can help ensure that theatre remains the safe space that it’s meant to be.

“Bad behaviour like sexual harassment lives in the shadows where we feel we can’t talk about it,” Lee says.

It’s time to switch on the spotlight.

*Names have been changed.

Heathers: The Musical: the first production of Hart House’s 2018–2019 season

The cult classic tackles themes of rape culture, eating disorders, teen suicide, and gun violence

<i>Heathers: The Musical</i>: the first production of Hart House’s 2018–2019 season

From September 21 to October 6, the dark teen comedy Heathers: The Musical will be performed in Hart House. Heathers celebrates its 30th anniversary this year; when it was first released in 1988, it was groundbreaking with its discourse surrounding contemporary topics.

The Varsity sat down with Justan Myers and Emma Sangalli to discuss character development, gun violence, and performing in the historic Hart House.

The Varsity: For both of you, this is your first time working at Hart House Theatre ­­— what is that like? It’s a historic space; how has the process been?

Justan Myers: Working in this space is incredible. I’ve been mostly in Toronto working in smaller blackbox­-esque theatres, so it’s great to have this wide open space. There’s so many different ways to use it, and with our incredible set, just finding so many cool ways to bring the audience into the world has been really fun.

Emma Sangalli: It feels like a real established theatre. It’s old, you can feel the history, and that’s beautiful ­­ just knowing there have been so many passionate artists in this building doing what we’re doing. And our director has been using it very creatively.

Justan Myers: It’s really cool to have that juxtaposition of how old and how experienced the space is versus how many emerging artists are in this production —­­ kind of that combination of youth and freshness, but then also this foundation.

TV: Can you tell us a little bit about the characters you’re playing?

JM: So, I play Jason “JD” Dean. He’s the typical social outcast —­­ he’s moved schools a lot and he doesn’t have any friends, so Veronica sort of captures his attention. Little does she know that he has a lot of unresolved problems from both his childhood and the way he’s grown up that leads him to influence her into some bad decisions later on in the show.

ES: Yeah, Veronica is not popular at the start of the show —­­ she’s kind of dorky, very smart, a little bit of an old soul. She ends up becoming popular and her whole story is kind of discovering the cost of popularity, I would say, and realizing it’s not worth it.

Emma Sangalli. PHOTO COURTESY OF HART HOUSE THEATRE

TV: This play is based on a film, the 1988 cult classic, Heathers, which many people say played a role in defining its generation. Are you looking to the movie, or past productions, to inform your rehearsal process?

JM: Yes and no. The characters are so much more fleshed out in the musical that it’s really its own work in a sense. I know my character changed a lot, because in the movie he’s a little 2D. ­They don’t give him a lot of super relatable moments. In the musical, they gave him more backstory, something for the audience to grab onto. So, in a sense, yes, because there’s so many of those iconic lines they took from the movie that you want to nail because the audience just knows them, but the character work itself had to come more from our own basis.

ES: At the end of the day, the part of you that’s an actor and the part of the character that you find through research just sort of come together, and you’re able to find the thread. It’s a little difficult, because the movie was quite a bit different from the musical in terms of, I would say, undertone. In the movie, there’s a little bit of ambiguity on whether [Veronica] is a good guy or a bad guy until closer to the end. Whereas in the musical, she’s kind of the belle of the show, as our director likes to say. ­­It’s pretty clear that she’s got a strong moral compass from the beginning. So definitely we had to look at as much source material as we could find, but you also have to dive into the text that the writers of the musical give you and flesh out the characters on the page, because it really is quite a bit different from the movie.

TV: Was there any moment during rehearsals when you had to really step out of your comfort zone or do something you’d never done?

ES: One of the most famous songs in the show is “Dead Girl Walking.” For me in terms of comfort it was definitely a step, because I have never played a romantic role and it’s basically a full, simulated sex scene onstage. So, it’s very much like, we had to come into rehearsal with all our guards down ­­— throw those fears out the window, be a professional actor, and just do it. But it’s so nice working with Justan, because I’m so comfortable with him.

Justan Myers. PHOTO COURTESY OF HART HOUSE THEATRE

TV: This show deals with a lot of really pressing contemporary issues like bullying and suicide —­­ who do you hope sees this show? What would you want them to take away from it?

JM: I think it is very important for teens to see this show, especially with increasing gun violence and hate crimes and things like that. It’s so easy to become desensitized to that because of media and everything, so to just get a real —­­ I mean, ‘real,’ it’s a musical —­­ but [it’s] a more grounded perspective of what these issues are.

ES: It’s funny because when you think about Heathers, you wouldn’t think of words like ‘solution’ and ‘hope,’ but that was something I really took from the writers’ notes of the musical ­­— that’s really what it’s about, solutions and hope, and it really tries to answer all of the problems that it brings up. I think it’s important for anyone to see this show. There are people that maybe shouldn’t see this show, because there’s a lot of heavy stuff in it, but it is cushioned by humour and by good-­heartedness. I think it’s an important story for this day and age, and for this city specifically. For Toronto in the last year, a lot of stuff has happened and because of social media we all know about it right away. It’s hard when you go on social media and all you see is another shooting, another truck driver. We all care, and want to do something, but sometimes we don’t know what to do ­.­

JM: It feels bigger than us.

ES: I think the beauty of this show is that it boils it down to a very simple solution:­­ be kind to the person next to you, offer them a hand, and include them. That’s a big one in this show. Be a friend, you know? That’s something very tangible, that we can all do every day, that will hopefully help change the amount of bad things we see happening. So, in that case, I do think it’s really important for anyone who can handle this type of subject matter to come see it, because it really does give you some inspiration, and also some tools to go out into the world and make it beautiful.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When you can’t make it to the drive-in, the sofa is a great place to spend a lazy summer evening

A perfect movie for capturing every summer vibe

When you can’t make it to the drive-in, the sofa is a great place to spend a lazy summer evening

Here’s a list of movies for all your summer watching needs.

For beach vibes: Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Honourable mention: The Descendants

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is set in balmy Hawaii, amid palm trees and dreamy ocean waves. Between Kristen Bell in a pink bikini and Mila Kunis with a white tropical flower tucked behind her ear, this movie is sure to make you wish you could leave city life behind to join the characters in a warm haze of sand, cocktails, and bathing suits. Also, Paul Rudd as a surf instructor is officially my summer chillness guru.

For thriller vibes: Jaws

Honourable mention: I Know What You Did Last Summer

Famously featuring a great white shark devastating unwitting beachgoers, this movie is ideal for those of us who want to both get in the summer spirit and are in the mood for mystery and suspense. With its marvellously tense soundtrack mingled with a summer resort aesthetic, Jaws is a great way to add a surreal creepiness to an otherwise tranquil summer day.

For romance vibes: Call Me by Your Name

Honourable mention: (500) Days of Summer

Set in the small town of Crema in northern Italy, this movie is a delicious exploration of the ups and downs of summer love. Call Me by Your Name captures the salacious heat of summertime lust, the playfulness of a fast-paced friendship, and the excitement of pursuing someone forbidden. You can witness the blissful sensuality of falling in love against a technicolour backdrop of tall grasses and shaded ponds. It also isn’t a real summer romance film unless there’s a strange sex scene involving fruit, and Call Me by Your Name certainly delivers on that front.  

For innocent Disney vibes: Moana

Honourable mention: Lilo and Stitch

It’s an animated movie about a strong young woman embracing her passion for the ocean by defying the confining boundaries of her island — you can’t watch it without developing an unshakeable desire for adventure. Featuring a dazzling but deadly crab, a beautiful grass-covered goddess who finds her heart, and songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda at his finest — Moana inspires you to take the voyage across the ocean — whatever your own metaphorical ocean may be.

For horror vibes: It

Honourable mention: Friday the 13th

This coming-of-age movie about finding friendship during a time of adversity is often punctuated by characters groaning that it’s summer break, a time for relaxing and having fun, not fighting monsters. It is perfect for those of us who disagree and think the whole point of summer break is fighting monsters.   

For showbiz glam vibes: Almost Famous

Honourable mention: La La Land

If summer is the time when you repress all the biology facts you’ve been cramming in your brain and return to your childhood fantasies of living a rock-and-roll lifestyle, this is the movie for cultivating your delusions. Almost Famous is about a young hopeful journalist on the road with a bus full of washed-up rockstars and glamorous groupies — the summer road trip of your dreams.

For childhood nostalgia vibes: High School Musical 2

Honourable mention: The Parent Trap

This movie asks “what time is it?” for us to all yell back, in perfect unison, “SUMMERTIME!” High School Musical 2 has a song for every summer scenario: summer job doldrums, perfecting that fabulous poolside aesthetic, the inevitable breakup after a summer romance fizzles, angsty soul searching on the golf course, and, for some reason, a “pineapple princess” pining after a fish with a long, complicated Hawaiian name.

For ‘80s classics vibes: Dirty Dancing

Honourable mention: National Lampoon’s Vacation

With its iconic soundtrack and killer dance numbers, this movie will make you long for those days of family vacations. Except this time, instead of wasting your holiday sunbathing and begging your older sister to sneak you mojitos from the bar, you could be falling in love with the resort’s dance instructor to the tune of your favourite ‘80s pop songs.

For teenage revelry vibes: Meatballs

Honourable mention: American Pie 2

If summer makes you nostalgic for high school (shudder), then you probably spent your teenage years partying at your friend’s beach house, or drunkenly singing songs around a bonfire. Meatballs, however, will make you wish you had spent your summers as a camp counsellor — the main duties of which are apparently playing pranks and scoring chicks. This film will make you pine for the semi-innocence of those blissful teenaged summers.

For musical vibes: Mamma Mia

Honourable mention: Grease

Amanda Seyfried’s character is a makeup-free, beachy-haired goddess who always has a bathing suit on underneath her white summery blouse, in case she needs to frantically chase after a retreating boat. Spoiler: she does. She lives on a fictional Greek island called “Kalokairi” that is essentially a slice of heaven. The crystalline ocean and Mediterranean architecture of the island would also make me want to periodically burst into song. To me, the soundtrack to this movie is the soundtrack of summer.

Hart House’s Putnam County Spelling Bee is D-E-L-I-G-H-T-F-U-L

The ensemble cast portrays their roles with humour and sincerity

Hart House’s Putnam County Spelling Bee is D-E-L-I-G-H-T-F-U-L

“My parents keep on telling me just being here is winning, although I know it isn’t so!” sings Chip, a character in the charming musical comedy The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which opened at Hart House Theatre on Friday, November 10.

The show is set in a high school gymnasium, where contestants compete in the Putnam County Spelling Bee and for a place in the national competition. The story is told across nearly two hours, with the contestants taking turns to spell words that range from easy, like ‘cow,’ to more difficult, like ‘Weltanschauung.’ As the show progresses, the spellers are eliminated one by one, until a single contestant is left. They reveal their backstories between rounds.

The contestants consist of an eclectic and quirky mix of characters. Former spelling bee champion Rona Lisa Perretti (Amy Swift) and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Art Carlson) are introduced as the host and pronouncer of the competition, respectively, alongside a mix of overachieving student competitors.

Leaf Coneybear (Kevin Forster) is the only student who didn’t make first place in his district’s spelling bee and spells his words in a trance, and Marcy Park (Braelyn Guppy), who speaks six languages and skipped fourth and fifth grade, has high expectations for winning the competition.

William Barfée (Hugh Ritchie) exudes confidences, using his “magic foot” to spell out words before giving an answer, and the determined Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Erin Humphry) faces severe pressure from her two dads in the audience, frequently ranting about the state of politics in America.

Chip Tolentino (John Wamsley), last year’s champion, is back to defend his title amidst some raging hormones, and Olive Ostrovsky (Vanessa Campbell), a somewhat nervous newcomer, is best friends with her dictionary and the only contestant without parents or supporters in the audience.

Finally, Mitch Mahoney (Carson Betz) is present at the spelling bee in order to complete his community service by comforting the eliminated contestants with a hug and a juice box.

The ensemble portrays these roles with both humour and sincerity. The audience often erupted with laughter at the production’s endless jokes, but attendees were also moved by heartfelt moments like “The I Love You Song” sung by Olive and her parents. Another unique aspect of the show is its audience participation, with several theatergoers brought onstage to participate as contestants in the spelling bee. These unscripted scenes make for hilarious moments.

Throughout the story, the characters learn that winning isn’t everything. This is especially true in a scene near the end, when Marcy asks Jesus himself (Wamsley) if he’ll be disappointed if she loses, to which he replies, “Of course not… I also won’t be disappointed with you if you win… this isn’t the kind of thing I care very much about.”

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will play at the Hart House Theatre until November 25.

Victoria College Dramatic Society celebrates its centennial

Theatre organization commemorates milestone with a seasonal focus on Canadian heritage

Victoria College Dramatic Society celebrates its centennial

The Victoria College Drama Society (VCDS) is celebrating its centennial season by focusing on bringing the works of Victoria University and University of Toronto alumni to life. Since its founding as the first drama society of Victoria University in 1918, the VCDS has developed into a platform that strives to provide the experience of drama to U of T community members of all disciplines, ages, genders, and cultural backgrounds.

The selection of plays for the centennial season leans heavily on drama, exploring the development of Canadian heritage and the meaning of a uniquely Canadian identity. Leora Nash, one of the VCDS’ two Executive Producers, told The Varsity that the idea to focus on a celebration of Canadian theatre and its relevant themes came alongside the Canada 150 celebrations this past summer. Nash and co-Executive Producer Alyssa Dibattista began planning the centennial last year.

Of the many diverse play proposals submitted by potential directors, Colours in the Storm, written by  Jim Betts and directed by Shannon Dunbar, was chosen to kick off the season on October 19. The musical follows Tom Thomson and his struggles as a painter, from his debut in Algonquin Park to his mysterious death. The show focuses not only on an “iconic” Canadian artist, wrote Nash, “but also looks at the evolution of conservation… and the beginnings of what we might consider some of Canada’s iconography (lush nature, outdoors).”

Contrasting with Colours in the Storm, which inhabits a more traditional perspective on Canadian identity, the play Lady in the Red Dress will display a more contemporary representation of our culture. Written by David Yee and directed by Jasmine Cabanilla, the play is a modern-day noir unfolding within the context of the Chinese-Canadian redress movement. “[It] comments on the state of diversity and inaction in our history,” Nash stated.

The season will also include a production of Bob Martin and Don McKellar’s musical The Drowsy Chaperone, a parody of American musical comedies centring on the wedding of an oil tycoon and a Broadway star. Despite the show being a late addition to the season, Nash believes that it complements the other selections well, as it embraces a classical musical spirit. The final production of the VCDS’ 2017–2018 season will be a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the first production ever put on by the society.   

Nash stated that the VCDS is “very proud” to be including so much Canadian theatre in its season. The group has also been working in conjunction with Victoria University alumni on outreach efforts, including advertising, and on a centennial subcommittee focusing on planning and event logistics. A closing gala, to be held in March, will honour both alumni and current students involved in the VCDS and Victoria University theatre.