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If music be the food of love ...

ShakespeareFest's flagship production mixes As You Like It with a Beatles beat

If William Shakespeare remains the world’s most performed playwright, he is also the playwright most subject to creative tinkering.

Theatre preview

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ShakespeareFest presents As You Like It
Adapted by Daryl Cloran
Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
To Feb. 1
Tickets: $27.25-$82.75 at royalmtc.ca or 204-942-6537

Scratch the surface of the classic 1950s sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet and you have The Tempest. Transplant the star-crossed lovers of Romeo and Juliet to the mean streets of New York in the late 1950s and, voilà, West Side Story.

The urge to recycle, re-invent and re-interpret the Bard is seen throughout the program of ShakespeareFest, the 20th — and final — iteration of the Master Playwright Festival produced under the umbrella of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. The fest’s 23 productions — not counting the staged readings — see Shakespeare’s work subject to extraordinary liberties.

Foremost among these is Royal MTC’s flagship production of the pastoral comedy As You Like It on the John Hirsch Mainstage.

Fashions from the British Invasion of the 1960s replace the usual medieval costumes in As You Like It, which launches the Royal MTC’s ShakespeareFest. (Dylan Hewlett photos)

Fashions from the British Invasion of the 1960s replace the usual medieval costumes in As You Like It, which launches the Royal MTC’s ShakespeareFest. (Dylan Hewlett photos)

In this production, the action is moved to 1960s-era British Columbia, where the characters and sets are dressed in era-appropriate psychedelia, and the play’s bucolic setting reflects the back-to-nature hippie ethos.

The show was conceived by director Daryl Cloran for the Vancouver company Bard on the Beach and combines Shakespeare’s text with two dozen Beatles songs. It was a huge hit under the Vanier Park tent in the company’s 2018 season, according to the show’s musical director Ben Elliot, who also played Silvius in that production, but assumes only musical director duties for this co-production with Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre.

Ben Elliot (Supplied)

Ben Elliot (Supplied)

"We set audience records attendance records and the show was extended an extra two weeks," says Elliot, 35. "We were just so pleased and surprised."

John Lennon once quipped the Beatles were "bigger than Jesus," but it may be, at this point in history, they’re bigger than the Bard. Elliot says the secret of the show’s success was that it "opened the door to a different type of audience member that wouldn’t necessarily have come to see Shakespeare.

"Every single person knows the Beatles, even if they don’t realize it’s Beatles music."

It’s a potential outrage for Shakespeare purists, to suggest an equivalence between "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah," and "All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players."

Also on the ShakespeareFest program

III
Fill the (W)hole Theatre Co., 200-70 Albert St. (Jan. 23-Feb. 8)
With a cast of three women, this play strips most of the characters from Macbeth to delve deeper into the three witches that compel the play’s action.

12th Night: A Musical
By Simon Miron and Paul De Gurse, Village Conservatory for Musical Theatre and the Keep Theatre, Crescent Fort Rouge Church (Jan. 24-Feb. 7)
The classic comedy Twelfth Night is reinterpreted by a pair of local musical theatre vets with a mix of contemporary music and classical text. Featuring original music that’s “a mix of Hamilton and Meatloaf.”

III

Fill the (W)hole Theatre Co., 200-70 Albert St. (Jan. 23-Feb. 8)
With a cast of three women, this play strips most of the characters from Macbeth to delve deeper into the three witches that compel the play’s action.

12th Night: A Musical
By Simon Miron and Paul De Gurse, Village Conservatory for Musical Theatre and the Keep Theatre, Crescent Fort Rouge Church (Jan. 24-Feb. 7)
The classic comedy Twelfth Night is reinterpreted by a pair of local musical theatre vets with a mix of contemporary music and classical text. Featuring original music that’s “a mix of Hamilton and Meatloaf.”

Awaken
By Tracy Penner, Shakespeare in the Ruins/Zone 4, Rachel Browne Theatre (Jan. 15-26)
Local actor-playwright Penner fills in the 16-year gap following that infamous Act III stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” Penner also plays Paulina, devoted companion to the presumed-dead Hermione (Daria Puttaert) and the play explores that relationship as never before. (It also acts as something of a preview to SiR’s upcoming production of A Winter’s Tale.

Desdemona, a Play about a Handkerchief
By Paula Vogel, R-G Productions, Forrest Nickerson Theatre (Jan. 30-Feb.2)
This comic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s Othello has a mission to give added dimension to the otherwise tragic heroine Desdemona.

Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)
By Ann-Marie MacDonald, Theatre Projects Manitoba, Colin Jackson Theatre (Jan. 30-Feb. 15)
Canadian playwright MacDonald literally created comedy from tragedy with this feminist revisioning of Shakespeare’s Othello and Romeo and Juliet, as studied by “Spinster” academic Constance Ledbelly (Robyn Slade).

Hamlet
By William Shakespeare, Bunchback’d Toads, The Output at Video Pool Artspace, 2nd floor. (Jan. 31-Feb.8)
This insolent interpretation of the Melancholy Dane takes place at a wedding reception celebrating the “incestuous union” of King Claudius and his new bride (and former sister-in-law) Gertude.

Hamlet (The Rest Is Silence)
Echo Theatre, Dalnavert Museum (Jan. 22- Feb. 9)
Actor Kevin Klassen presents a stripped-down Hamlet with only Hamlet’s lines spoken. Klassen himself performed this show for the fringe festival, but this time, he presents it in the intimate Dalnavert setting (seating only 15) with five other performers, including deaf actor Jordan Sangalang, Harry Nelken, Marsha Knight, Angela Chalmers and Charlene Van Buekenhout.

I, Malvolio
By Tim Crouch, Impel Theatre, Crescent Fort Rouge United Church (Jan. 24-Feb. 7)
Twelfth Night’s pompous buffoon gets his own show courtesy of Crouch, who performed this show to acclaim at the Toronto Fringe Festival.

King Lear
Providence Productions in association with Looking Glass Productions, Gas Station Arts Centre (Jan. 21-Feb. 2)
Curiously, this apparently straightforward production of Shakespeare’s tragedy is among the traditionalist outliers in the festival.

Macbeth
University of Manitoba Theatre Program, John J. Conklin Theatre (Jan. 22-Feb. 1)
This production takes place in the 1980s, when the toxic masculinity of the drama dovetails with the era in which it is set.

Measure for Measure
7 Ages Productions, Forrest Nickerson Theatre, (Feb. 6-9)
Shakespeare’s dark comedy of “morality and mercy in Vienna.”

O(Phelia)
By Leigh-Anne Kehler, Saucy Gal Productions, Dalnavert Museum (Jan. 24-Feb. 7)
Playwright Kehler also plays Gertude opposite Melissa Langdon’s Ophelia in a 45-minute “unseen scene” between Hamlet’s mother and his unrequited lover.

Othello
Beau Theatre & Echo Theatre & Raven, Dalnavert Museum (Jan. 26-Feb. 8)
Winnipeg actor Ray Strachan assumes the titular role of the Moor of Venice in a drama examining the racism and misogyny within Shakespeare’s text.

Queen Lear Is Dead
By Jessy Ardern, the Fox Den Collective, Broadway First Baptist Church (Jan. 21-Feb. 2)
The tragedy of King Lear gets a cheeky darkly comic prequel where audience members are invited to choose thier own pathway among Lear’s surviving daughters at the “celebration of life.”

Romeo and Juliet
Pocket Frock Productions, Video Pool (Jan. 19-23)
Pocket’s Frock’s production notes claim “No Leonardo DiCaprios were harmed in the making of this production.” Assume a less-than-serious take on the romantic tragedy.

Shakespeare in the Pub
Edited by Dora Carroll, Ian Bastin and Bill Rambo, Little Brown Jug, 336 William Ave. (Jan. 31-Feb. 9)
Shakespeare plus booze equals fun, one assumes.

Shakespeare’s Villains
By Steven Berkoff, Krakt Theatre, Saddlery on Market, 114 Market Ave. (Jan. 21-Feb. 1)
Frequent screen villain Steven Berkoff (Octopussy, Beverly Hills Cop), wrote a play reconsidering some of Shakespeare’s most notorious villains. Ric Reid performs this “masterclass in evil.”

Shakespeare’s Will
By Vern Thiessen, Who Knows, Rory Runnells Studio, 503-100 Arthur St. (Jan. 30-Feb. 9)
A one-woman show starring Deb Patterson as Anne Hathaway, the wife of William Shakespeare, on the day of his funeral.

Shakespeare’s Women — And Their Men
The Adriana Theatre Collective, Dalnavert Museum (Feb. 4-9)
Several of Shakespeare’s most compelling women as performed by Margaret Groome.

Shylock
By Mark Leiren-Young, By the Book Productions, The Bhigg House, 337 Oxford St. (Jan. 24-26)
John D. Huston brings his fringe fave about an actor trying to negotiate the problems of performing the Jewish moneylender from The Merchant of Venice.

The Taming of the Shrew
Winnipeg Mennonite Theatre, St. Boniface University, Martial-Caron Theatre (Jan. 29-Feb. 2)
Certainly one of the most problematic of Shakespeare’s comedies gets taken on by Winnipeg Mennonite Theatre.

Upstart Crow
By Sharon Hamilton, Shoestring Players, Forrest Nickerson Theatre (Jan. 23-26)
Five hundred years after his death, Shakespeare and his friend Richard Burbage are beguiled by a random jester to leave their graves and watch rehearsals of Shakespeare’s plays.

Will’s Words: A Personal Journey
Compiled by Jon Ted Wynne, the King’s Players, Rachel Browne Theatre (Feb. 4-9)
Winnipeg actor Wynne, who was pretty much born to recite Shakespeare, joins Rhiannon Benedict for an appreciation of the Bard’s dialogue.

Individual tickets for ShakespeareFest start at $15. ShakespearePass is $100 for 10 shows.

But apparently, the Beatles and the Bard are a match as contrarily harmonious (if unlikely) as Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Shakespeare would have appreciated the power of pop, Elliot says.

"Shakespeare became high art later on, when the scholars really started to get into it," he says. "But he wrote for both the groundlings and the upper class. So I don’t think, in his day, it would’ve been seen as very pompous art or super-intellectual.

"And the same with Beatles music," Elliot says. "Scholars came to Beatle music after studying it and realizing: This is actually quite intricate. Their song structure is profound in its simplicity. And so they definitely mirror each other quite well.

"You might not necessarily think Shakespeare and the Beatles go together," Elliot says. "But there’s this kind of cool, seamless integration... with As You Like It in particular."

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

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

Read full biography

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