Like film producers who alter original endings, record producers who alter the final mix, film directors who alter content and public relations directors who play fast and loose with the truth, what might be the consequence of messing with beloved masterpieces? In answer to that question precious few would guess “you’re it”—and on one’s birthday no less.
Anne-Marie MacDonald’s precursor to the first incarnation of Belle Moral (cross-reference below)—where the pickled human body part is a prophetic ear rather than a wee appendix—is an unabashed celebration of feminism, wordplay, Shakespeare’s craft (and the continuous-to-this-day, academia-fuelled debate of who actually done it), cross dressing (along with its close cousin, gender bending) and self-discovery. That’s an exceedingly ambitious agenda to cover in just three acts. (Or might that be three just acts?)
At the heart of the matter is PhD-in-progress, ghost writer for an uncaring professor, Constance Ledbelly. Constant she most certainly is in her quest to unmask the MIA “Wise Fool” in Othello and Romeo and Juliet whose contributions—she wants to establish—were stripped out by the Bard, turning a pair of side-splitting comedies into tragedies most foul. In order to prove her thesis, she is magically transported straight into the plays (heralded by flashing lights and bold brass) and interacts directly with the famed characters. Unlike Alice Through the Looking Glass, Constance’s literary excursion uses a metaphorical garbage can as its portal (not surprisingly, both Alice and Constance dote on their cats).
Playing the pivotal role, Lesley Robertson uses her broad comedic skills to good effect if a tad unrefined in the early going (the Lily Tomlin-like snorts, nonetheless, tickled the opening night crowd’s funny bones). At first a reluctant then breast-pounding Amazon, her personal baggage shedding cries of “bull shit” were mightily impassioned. Finally, the Yorick revelation served the twin purposes of paying off the skeleton ashtray/dead languages gags even as the reinvigorated teaching assistant’s internal metamorphosis was completed.
The four other cast members each take on multiple roles.
Nathan Bitton provides an appropriately sage Chorus (yet even the stage cigarettes caused a few audience members some discomfort), a marvellously transformative Romeo (hot on the hilarious trail/tail of Constantine, “a degenerate Greek”, then very much at home in drag), dexterously conniving Iago and the flitting, fleeting Ghost.
Movingly readily about Scott Penner’s largely functional (oh for the trappings of a full-service thrust stage) purposely Spartan set, Nicholas Porteous soared as the haughty professor, gave a yuk-pleasing performance as a-moorish Othello (try saying this to yourself…followed with a few bon mots, d’accord?), convincingly railed against the sexual mayhem that engulfed Tybalt and brought the house down (while artfully setting up the transformations to come) as Juliet’s Nurse with a five o’clock shadow.
Cydney Penner was at her bloodthirsty best as Desdemona, singlehandedly bringing Constance to her senses even as heads rolled; Ramona, Mercutio and Servant were also well served by this versatile performer.
The notion of lust unbound was given full measure via Katie Ribout’s Juliet whose stunning realization that if she had but one maidenhead to lose with Romeo, slipping into the land of Lesbos might deliver another heady taste of deflowering, was a standout of many “points made” from MacDonald’s fascinating insights. Her manipulative Student portrayal drew knowing hoots from the U of T/Hart House assemblage.
Director Carly Chamberlain did her level best to keep the fast-moving production from slipping into the tawdry terrain of farce. It’s always a challenge to bring a healthy dose of “less is more” into play when the temptation to use robust physical comedy alongside the already laugh-infused lines can produce more moments of hilarity for the cast than the patrons. Once the opening act settled down, everything fired on all cylinders before a few too many crotch grabs and pelvic thrusts threatened to soil the fabric of the playwright’s artfully woven journey into timeless stagecraft and timely understanding of self. JWR