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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.

Theatre review: Hart House’s Titus Andronicus

One of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays straddles comedy and tragedy

Theatre review: Hart House’s <em>Titus Andronicus</em>

Hart House made a bold choice for its annual Shakespeare production this year with Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest and most gratuitously violent plays. It’s neither as beloved as Hamlet or Macbeth, nor as technically sophisticated, but it deals with similar themes of revenge and power. Hart House’s production is able to balance the play’s comedic and dramatic elements without overemphasizing either.

Titus Andronicus also straddles the boundary between comedy and tragedy. Director James Wallis’ vision for the play was to create the sense of a carnival, of funhouse mirrors and the dual world of the grotesque and comedic, a promising vision that played well with the themes and tones of the play. While Wallis’ production occasionally edges close to giving in to the tragedy, on the whole it balances the two modes well, leading to a funny, horrifying, and thought-provoking performance.

The production also shines in its enthusiastic acceptance of the play’s natural horrific, comedic, and tragic dimensions. The grotesque fully plays out on stage, while the comedic horror of some moments, like when Titus’ daughter Lavinia holds a dismembered hand in her mouth, manages to elicit both laughs and squirms from the audience.

At the same time, the trauma of sexual assault, the fear and grief of losing a child, and the heartbreak of a lover’s death are all portrayed with full respect for their tragedy.

The casting of female performers in some of the originally male roles also adds a layer of depth and insight. The show’s first on-stage death becomes the death of a female child, making the later rape of a female character in revenge more powerful for its parallels. Lavinia’s lover is portrayed by a woman, also providing for deeper engagement with the theme of sexuality.

The production also features some electrifying performances. Shalyn McFaul and Tristan Claxton, who play Tamora and Saturninus, perform with particularly great gusto and liveliness and play off each other well, constantly contributing to the comedy of the performance. David Mackett, who plays Titus, comes alive in the second half of the performance, enthusiastically embracing Titus’ descent into silliness.

Titus Andronicus relishes and revels in the violence it portrays, but it also has touching and startling moments. It’s a horror story on the surface with a surprisingly meaningful deconstruction of revenge underneath.

Any production of the show must grapple with these competing strands. Done well, the play can be fascinating; if it succumbs wholly to either the comedic or the tragic, it can be profoundly disappointing.

Hart House’s production manages to handle these dual elements well — both over-the-top and darkly humorous — while also showing the devastating effects of sexual assault, murder, and the tragic consequences of revenge. The result is a fun, exciting, and thoroughly enjoyable production — one well worth attending.

Titus Andronicus runs at Hart House Theatre until March 10.

Shakespeare’s First Folio goes on display at Fisher Library

Additional 60 books reveal Folio’s history, source material

Shakespeare’s First Folio goes on display at Fisher Library

The University of Toronto is marking 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare with a special exhibit at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. ‘So long lives this’: Celebrating Shakespeare, 1616-2016 features Shakespeare’s First Folio from 1623 — the only copy in Canada. 

The First Folio was published seven years after Shakespeare’s death. It was the first time a book of plays was printed, and the first time that more than half of the plays were published.

“Until then folios were mostly used for printing important religious, political, and historical works. With the First Folio in 1623, the format of the book itself confers a new kind of importance on plays — and plays written and performed for nearly the full stratum of English society, from working-class people to the royal court,” said Alan Galey, director of the Master of Information Program at U of T.

Galey worked with fellow U of T professors Peter W.M. Blayney and Marjorie Rubright and Western University assistant professor Scott Schofield to curate the exhibition.

“Without it, we probably would never have been able to read — or even know about — plays including Macbeth, The Tempest, Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, and Anthony and Cleopatra [sic],” added Galey.

Almost 60 other books will be on display, some of which Shakespeare may have used for inspiration in his own work.

“Reading the same sources that he did helps us understand how he apprenticed himself, so to speak, to other writers and dramatists,” said Galey.

“We often value writers now for their originality, but Shakespeare’s actual practice as a dramatist reminds us of a basic fact about writing: that writers make stories out of other stories, and that creativity frequently comes from adaptation, reinvention, and even what today we would call remixing,” adds Galey.

In addition to source material, the exhibition features Shakespeare’s other three seventeenth century folios, Shakespearean scholarship from the Renaissance, and present day texts.

“Studying the other books also helps to elucidate the printing history of the First Folio itself. So for instance one of the other books had a type that got broken at some point,” said Anne Dondertman, director of the Fisher Library. “So when that same broken piece of type reappears in a particular play in the First Folio, it makes it possible to determine the order of the printing of the plays in the Folio.”

The exhibit is free to attend and runs until May 28, 2016. The Fisher Library is also running a screening series at the Media Commons Theatre, which will showcase film adaptations of Shakespeare’s work.

“If you come and see the exhibit and the modern material that’s included I think its [sic] brings it home that Shakespeare is still a source of inspiration to ordinary readers today but also to people who are making books or illustrations,” said Dondertman.

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Much ado about Shakespeare

The rare book library's latest exhibit displays original Shakespearean works

Much ado about Shakespeare

“So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, so long lives this, and this gives life to thee,” reads “Sonnet 18,” one of William Shakespeare’s best known poems. Centred on romance and illuminating its own immortality, it inspired the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library’s latest exhibition ‘So Long Lives This:’ Celebrating Shakespeare, 1616–2016. Marking the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, much of the playwright’s work is currently on display at the library.

The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is an esoteric time capsule accessed mostly by grad students — a bibliophile’s utopia. Past the secured entranceway, the remnants of the artifacts rest enclosed in glass display cases adorned with banners and a bust of the man himself.

The first case holds Shakespeare’s First Folio, produced in 1623 — seven years after Shakespeare’s death — by printer and publisher Isaac Jaggard. It is on display to show the table of contents and notes a few print errors. Of the 230 surviving copies today, it is the only copy in Canada and was gifted by Sidney Fisher at the library’s grand opening in 1973.

Accompanying the First Folio is Thomas Wilson’s A Christian Dictionary, the first biblical English dictionary. Another piece is Andre Fayn’s The Theater of Honour and Knight-hood, which features heraldic, meticulously hand-colored illustrations, along with a note by stationer George Lathum proclaiming, “I warrant this book perfect.”

The second case holds Shakespeare’s Second Folio (1632), Third Folio (1663), and Fourth Folio (1685); the third one remains the rarest of them all and contains seven additional plays. All four folios were published posthumously and remained largely unedited, until they gained popularity among scholars in the 1700s.

The workmanship of the time period is emphasized throughout the exhibit. The third case is dedicated to showcasing William Jaggard and his publishing colleagues’ expert craft. Thomas Milles’ Catalogue of Honor bears an intricate engraving of classical figures writing Latin on stone.

A 1613 pocket-sized edition of Francis Bacon’s philosophical Essays is bound in vellum. Ralph Brooke’s catalogue of English royalty is strikingly hand-coloured in vibrant red, blue, white, and yellow. Robert Glover’s Nobilitas Politica Vel Ciuilis is one of William Jaggard’s most ambitious printings and illustrates a majestic engraving of Queen Elizabeth I in parliament.

The exhibition also showcases a wide variety of ancient writing. The fourth display case highlights works that Shakespeare read during his writing process. Raphael Holinshed’s The First and Second Volumes of Chronicles shows a landscape similar to the Garden of Eden, which contained the most extensive history of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales that was available during the period. Shakespeare also turned to Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes (1579) for the history of famous figures like Julius Caesar or for the romance of Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare alludes to Ovid’s Metamorphoses in several of his plays, including Richard II, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The fifth display case highlights linguistic history by showcasing words as a globally influenced form of calligraphy. John Baret’s An Alvearie, or Quadruple Dictionarie contains a multilingual mélange. Henry Cockeram’s English Dictionary is the first monolingual English book, self-described as a dictionary; it was created for the general public rather than the linguistically elite to help with difficult words. Robert Dodsley’s On Biblical Subjects shows exquisite hand illustrations containing a prophetic curse, which the reader enacts by lifting up the paper’s flaps.

The finale of the main floor is case eight, which displays modern twentieth century productions, including works by Toronto locals. Don Taylor’s Illustrations for Macbeth (2012) is an eerie-looking book that features aesthetic bloodstains of ‘Dechard Rinderpest’, a pseudonym of a local actor driven insane by his role as Lady Macbeth. Robert Wu’s cover designs are displayed via several preparatory sketches in the lower Maclean Hunter Room, among other varying treasures.

The exhibit is much more than Shakespeare alone. It moves chronologically through history, and in doing so, exemplifies the British playwright’s tremendous legacy.