February 22, 2020

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For never was a story of more... woah!

Shakespeare's tragedies played for laughs in Canadian playwright's imaginative, feminist work

If most of the plays at ShakespeareFest spin off with flights of fancy based on the Bard, you may want to lay some responsibility at the feet of Canadian actress-playwright Ann-Marie MacDonald.

In 1988, she threw a contemporary narrative atop the stories of two of Shakespeare’s most tragic heroines: Desdemona, wife of Othello, who falls victim to the rage of her husband; and Juliet, who commits suicide when she comes under the mistaken belief that her lover Romeo has taken his own life.

In the Theatre Projects Manitoba production of Goodnight Desdemona, (Good Morning Juliet), MacDonald’s literary heroine Constance Ledbelly (Robyn Slade) is working on a theory that both Othello and Romeo and Juliet were originally written as comedies, but in the absence of a wise fool character, events slide inexorably into tragedy.

Constance’s life is itself something of a tragi-comedy. She toils in the musty halls of academia, but her work largely goes to the credit of the arrogant Prof. Claude Night (Ryan James Miller), who announces he is Oxford-bound on the strength of Constance’s work.

Things come to a head when she is passed over for tenure and faces having to move her career to — horrors! — Regina. In a magical turn of events, she finds herself transported to Cyprus, overhearing the manipulations of Iago as he tries to turn Othello (Miller, yes, regrettably, a white Othello) against Desdemona (Laura Olafson).

Once Desdemona’s murder is averted, their story does indeed turn comic, as Constance’s new bestie learns about Constance’s romantic misfortunes and urges bloody retaliation. (MacDonald has great fun with the notion that Desdemona is turned on by violence, and Olafson commits to the notion with orgasmic zeal, giving new meaning to the term "bloodlust.")

But that pesky manipulator Iago contrives to turn Desdemona against Constance. Another magical intervention plucks Constance from Cyprus to Verona, where she once again intervenes in the pivotal moment in Romeo and Juliet, where Tybalt (Miller) kills Mercutio (Olafson), forcing Romeo (Tom Keenan) into an act that will set the stage for tragedy.

Passing herself as the male "Constantine," Constance somehow captures the heart of the bi-curious Romeo, which is probably just as well, since the passionate Juliet (Joanne Roberts) has lost all interest in her swain. (MacDonald makes a point of reminding us Juliet is 14 years old.)

MacDonald was not the first to do such a number on Shakespeare. Tom Stoppard brought two minor Hamlet characters to the foreground in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead back in 1966 to great satiric effect.

But in 1988, MacDonald’s refracted look at Shakespeare’s heroines through a feminist lens was — and remains — marvellously pertinent, even as it impertinently suggests these women aren’t the insipid victims they are often made out to be. Desdemona wants to be a warrior. Juliet is kind of a proto-goth chick, in love with death. Constance’s journey is to define herself anew through them.

MacDonald’s script impressively transposes Shakespearean iambic pentameter to contemporary ideas, but the play’s overall hilarity can’t be undersold. It helps that director Michelle Boulet employs formidable comic talent here, especially Slade, who is a consistent delight as Constance.

Though Boulet has specialized in Shakespeare in the past couple of decades, she proves a solid hand with the play’s farcical elements, augmented by Brian Perchaluk’s quirky, compact set design.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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