It should come as no surprise that the majority of shows on view at ShakespeareFest aren’t written by William Shakespeare.
Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)
By Ann-Marie MacDonald
● Theatre Projects Manitoba at Colin Jackson Theatre
● To Feb. 15
● Tickets $10-$17 at 204-989-2400
Indeed, straight-up Bard shows are in the minority in the program. Most of the 23 dramatic productions at the fest represent flights of theatrical fancy inspired by Shakespeare’s work. This is especially true of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), by Canadian playwright Ann-Marie MacDonald. First produced in 1988, the comedy finds two of Shakespeare’s most tragic heroines spinning in the orbit of troubled academic Constance Ledbelly (played by Robyn Slade), who refracts the two characters in the course of her own voyage of self-discovery.
The play won a Governor General’s award for drama and has been performed twice before in Winnipeg, at the Warehouse Theatre in 1991 and at the Black Hole Theatre in 2002.
It was the earlier production that caught the fateful attention of a theatre student named Michelle Boulet, who would go on to become the artistic director of Shakespeare in the Ruins. Boulet, 50, suggests the experience may have been pivotal in her career.
"I think I was just in first or second-year university, so I was totally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and I went and saw this play," she says.
"And for me the impact on me as I sat there was great, because I was someone that was intimidated by Shakespeare," she says. "Of course, I eventually got over that."
Boulet ended a 12-year run as the A.D. at SiR last year, and directs this production for Theatre Projects Manitoba. She says that even after 32 years, MacDonald’s work delights in the way it delivers a fresh perspective to Shakespeare’s centuries-old works.
"Ann-Marie did what we all want to do in Shakespeare, in terms of getting in there and making it accessible and trying to retell the story in a way," Boulet says. "And I think that’s what she did. She ripped her favourite parts — the most dramatic parts — out of Othello and Romeo and Juliet and then she incorporated them into her own narrative."
"I remember how it was a bit irreverent and extremely exciting," Boulet says, adding the show proved to be a sign she made the right choice changing her field of study from nursing to theatre.
"It was one of those plays that had such impact on me. I decided this is why I want to do this, because it was that marriage of just having the audience in the palm of your hand and having a group of actors who had so much to work with, which is what I love. If you give actors so much raw material to work with, they will just fly.
"And that’s what I have with the cast that I have now," she says, referring to Slade, Laura Olafson, Tom Keenan, Joanne Roberts and Ryan James Miller.
"They’re so amazing and so adept and so funny and yet at the same time, they have a huge heart which actually grounds the play and takes it from just being kind of wacka-wacka Keystone Cops kind of comedy," she says. "There’s an underlying need to address all the fears in Constance. Really, really good theatre should make you laugh and at the same time, you should also be touched by it and this play does that."
Boulet left the artistic director position last year, and stresses she didn’t know at the time that Shakespeare would be the featured author in the 20th — and final — Master Playwright Festival. The coincidence makes her feel like one of Shakespeare’s fools of fortune.
"I had no way of knowing that I might be involved in this stuff until after I left my position, so it almost came about like... the two planets just aligned themselves and I find myself in this rehearsal hall, which has been lovely.
"I want to direct more so it’s been almost the perfect show for me," she says. "I can’t speak for artists on why I got the nod, but there must be something about the fact that I have a comfort with the Shakespeare so it doesn’t intimidate me.
"I love to direct Shakespeare, but also, as a segue into freelancing out in the world, it’s really great to hone my skills and direct non-Shakespeare," she says. "So this has been a really great challenge."
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.