Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 15/7/2016 (1532 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Anyone who was ever a student facing the prospect of reading a large, unwieldy classic piece of literature is familiar with the study guide option.
American students used Cliff Notes. Contemporary students employ the online option SparkNotes.
John D. Huston, born in Winnipeg, and Ryan Gladstone born in Calgary, recall Canada’s Coles Notes. Both actors are adding their own colourful touches to their Coles Notes distillations of classic works at the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival.
Huston offers a quickie tour of 10 plays by the Bard in playwright Timothy Mooney’s Shakespeare’s Histories: Ten Epic Plays at a Breakneck Pace (Venue 29 - One88). Gladstone, as performer and playwright, premières his take on Leo Tolstoy’s massive novel War and Peace, with its 632 characters, at Venue 13, the Bandwidth Theatre.
Huston allows the time was right for this performance of the Bard’s historical plays on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. But he had an even better incentive.
"How often do you get a chance to play Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Henry VIII... and Joan of Arc!
"And not just any Joan of Arc, a real badass Joan of Arc," he says of the martyred female warrior as seen in Henry VI, Part One. "This is Joan of Arc as the villain. I thought: that sounds like a lot of fun."
Obviously, it was a challenge to sum up 29 hours worth of drama in a single hour, an effort Huston acknowledges is exhausting.
"My costume is a series of eight T-shirts on top of each other," he says. "By the time the last one comes off, well, it’s a black T-shirt. You know, how you wear red in a battle so you don’t show blood? You wear black so you don’t show sweat."
Huston is not such a Shakespeare devotee that he would deny the plays have boring bits, which the format allows him to sweep by "swifter than arrow from tartar’s bow" (to quote A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
"The director told me: ‘You should have someone in the audience to time it for you. You can check in periodically to make sure you’re keeping up and building tension in the piece.’"
"So it’s a race against time to do 10 epic plays in 60 minutes or less."
Taken together, he says, it’s easy to see how the histories resemble a certain cable-TV fantasy series.
"George R. R. Martin has been quite open about the fact that Game of Thrones was inspired, in part, by what goes on in these plays," Huston says. "He’s showing rich, powerful people behaving very badly."
Like Huston, Gladstone gave himself an hour to summarize War and Peace, inspired by a book he purchased at a McNally Robinson Booksellers in 2004 (and his sole prop in the show).
"When I first got the idea to do it, TV was doing a history of Canada and a history of the world. We were looking for big things to reduce."
The idea eveolved into a grander vision, Gladstone says.
"It’s not just the story of the book, it’s the story of around the book," he says. It’s the story of Leo Tolstoy, the story of Russia and Napoleon and history and how it all relates to contemporary society.
"So it became something to share my nerdism with the world," he says, adding that an initial run-through of his play ran three hours, before he managed to shrink it to one.
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This year’s edition of the fringe features several more sped-up solo version of classics, including Mooney’s Breakneck Hamlet (Venue 9 - Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall), and the even more truncated Half Hour Hamlet (Venue 4, Onstage at Pantages).
Local company Blackout Productions had the sense to divide The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) between three performers, also at Venue 4. Performer Katie De Roo, 24, says she first performed the piece at university with fellow cast member Cora Fast.
She acknowledges that the 400th anniversary is a convenient excuse to stage the Complete Works at the fringe this year.
The more compelling reason: "I love the play," she says. "But also, a lot of people know Shakespeare and know his main works, but they don’t know a lot about his other shows, like Titus Andronicus. So they learn about that. And it’s presented in this really hilarious way."
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Randall King Reporter
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.
The local sketch comedy troupe is usually a mainstay of the Winnipeg fringe, but not this year, says member Jane Testar.
“HTA is working on some video-based stuff coming up, so we decided to take fringe off,” she says. “But you haven’t seen the last of us! We’ll be pretending to be animals on stage again before you know it.”
Testar is still doing double duty with the musical improv supergroup Outside Joke (Venue 18 - Gas Station Arts Centre) and the standup show The Humourists (Venue 9 - Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall) with Ashley Burdett and Vanessa Macrae.
“It just wouldn’t be fringe if I weren’t running myself ragged with multiple shows,” Testar says.