This year’s Toronto Fringe Festival was chalk full of fantastic and thought-provoking plays and performance pieces. I had the pleasure of attending three productions this year, taking in Shakespeare Bash’d’s Merry Wives of Windsor, Ale House Theatre’s Twelfe Night, as well as Ale House’s leading lady Hilary McCormack’s production of Hanger. All three plays were a joy to watch because both Ale House and Bash’d pride themselves on their adherence to Shakespeare’s original text and are committed to recreating and reimagining early modern staging practices.
I want to first off commend Hilary McCormack for her beautifully tragic piece, Hanger, which she both wrote and starred in. I’d also like to commend her for her ability to perform both pieces in one night. Seeing her transition from such an intense and emotional role in Hanger to her comic and regal performance as Olivia in Twelfe Night was an amazing feat and demonstrated her amazing artistic ability and range. I have now seen Hilary in three productions in the last few months and each one was more incredible than the last. I’d also like to commend Joshua Stodart for his amazing direction of both Hanger and Twelfe Night: you can see by glancing over at him during the performances how much pride he has in his actors and the amount of humour and love he puts into the direction of each production.
Twelfe Night was both hilarious and heartwarming. All the actors had perfect comedic timing and were able to drive home the hilarity of the hijinks, miscommunications, and ridiculous antics of the characters in the play without being overly ridiculous. The costumes also added to the hilarity of the performance. The obvious wigs worn by Peyton LeBarr as Viola, G. Kyle Shields as Sebastian, and Matt Shaw as Sir Andrew, as well as the white face make up worn by Hilary McCormack and Andrea Massoud as Olivia and Maria were humorous, but also drove home one of the central messages of the play: people are not always what they seem and that we all sometimes wear masks and disguises around other people. For Viola, the wig hid the fact that she was not her brother and allowed her access to a male-centric world and the ability to provide for herself as a single woman with no family or connections. For Olivia, the white face makeup allowed her to demonstrate her wealth and status, ensuring her ability to keep her retinue in line, but it also allowed her to hide her insecurities and emotions from those around her.
The entire cast was incredible and played off each other well. Peyton LeBarr as Viola and Hilary McCormack as Olivia, not only were hilarious but became the emotional core of the play as well. Tal Shulman’s performance as Malvolio was relatable, capturing the social climbing awkwardness and formality of the character. Matt Shaw as Sir Andrew, Tim Maclean as Sir Toby Belch, and Chris Whidden as Fabian, were a perfect comedic trio and along with the scenes involving Andrea Massoud as Maria, were some of my favourite in the show. Tayves Fiddis as Orsino was the perfect romantic lead. He was funny, confused, and like many Shakespearian comedic leads rolled with the punches when his male confidant and friend turns out to be a beautiful woman in love with him. Jake Vanderham
was a great Feste; he was cocky, mischievous, outspoken, and seemed to be aware of the audience, all perfect qualities for a fantastic Shakespearean fool. I was thoroughly impressed with the show. The only thing slightly off with the production was the creation of a false thrust stage, as this obscured the line of sight for many watching the show. If you haven’t been able to catch Ale House’s last couple of shows, stay tuned because they’re a company you don’t want to miss.
Shakespeare Bash’d production of The Merry Wives of Windsor was a laugh riot. I had never seen Merry Wives performed and was somewhat unfamiliar with the play. Bash’d production served as a fantastic introduction and I can now safely say that Merry Wives can now be counted as one of my favourite of Shakespeare’s comedies.The entire ensemble were hilarious and worked well with each other, but in this play, the female characters were able to shine.
Merry Wives is significant for its consideration of gender roles in marriage and in society. It is interesting that Mistress Page and Mistress Ford are not portrayed as lusty and insatiable women, nor are they portrayed as damsels in distress that need their husbands to defend their honour. When Falstaff attempts to seduce both women, they take matters into their own hands in order to teach him a lesson. What is also amazing about this play is that though Ford suspects his wife of infidelity through much of the play, he is more concerned with retribution against Falstaff than his wife. Also intriguing is the fact that the Ford and Page believe their wives when they reveal what has really been going on and offer to help their wives on the women’s own terms. What is equally interesting about The Merry Wives of Windsor is that the marriage plot between Anne Page and her suitors, which would normally be the main story line, is pushed to the background in favour of Mistress Page and Ford’s story. By putting women exerting their own agency at the forefront, this play sends an incredibly female friendly message.
This production was appropriate in a time where women’s agency, feminism, and equality are issues that are being openly discussed and advocated. This production maintained the originality of Shakespeare’s play while also driving home to the audience that the early modern period was not so different than our own. The play’s venue also added to the charm of the production. The play was performed at Victory Café where the audience and the players were encouraged to “drink down all unkindness.” This was another instance of the early modern mixing with the present day. The venue also recalled The Boar’s Head Tavern and Falstaff’s earlier appearances in the Henriad, which helped to add context to Merry Wives and depth to Falstaff’s character.
The cast and direction of the play was incredible. They all seemed to be having the best time. Suzette McCanny as Mistress Ford and Julia Nish-Lapidus as Mistress Page were both incredibly hilarious, strong, dynamic, exaggerated, and over the top in the best way possible. They owned the stage. As with every production or room he enters, A.J. Richarson’s over the top energy and dynamic presence was felt even before the play began. He was a fantastic Master Ford, he was bumbling, he was endearing, and he was able to demonstrate that though Ford is concerned with his honour, he still loves his wife throughout the production. He also played Ford in a farcical way which I felt was a great choice and added to the lightheartedness of the comedy. Andrew Knowlton as Page was also fantastic and helped drive home the lighthearted comedy of the play. Lynne Griffin was perfectly cast as Mistress Quickly, she was sexually forward and opportunistic without ever becoming a caricature or becoming unlikeable. Jeff Dingle as Slender and David Ross as Shallow were extremely dynamic together on stage as the inept suitors to Anne Page. Drew O’Hara as Fenton and Zachary Parkhurst as Doctor Caius were also hilarious as suitors to Jade Douris’s fantastic portrayal of Anne Page. I especially enjoyed that Zachary chose to maintained Caius’s original phonetic, horribly accented, broken English filled speeches and was able to deliver them without being offensive! Sean Sullivan was incredible as Falstaff. He managed to portray Falstaff as offensive and over the top, while also making it clear to the audience that Falstaff was out of touch and doesn’t have a clue how to act around women, or anyone else outside a tavern. While Sean portrayed Falstaff as a bumbling fool and someone worthy at time of ridicule, he also portrayed him as endearing, the loveable fool that people may need to teach a lesson, but is never worthy of malice. The entire cast did a wonderful job.
Make sure to catch the rest of Bash’d’s incredible 2015-16 season! Next up on August 30 is a staged reading of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II at the Imperial Pub, which is sure to be incredible. Later in the year they will be performing King John and Hamlet! I know I’ll be there!