Élan and altered expectations: Perchance Theatre Brings Shakespeare back to Cupids
By Robert Ormsby
After a year of producing Shakespeare online, Perchance Theatre returned to Cupids this summer with a strong and varied season of live performance.
There are connections between Perchance’s virtual and live seasons. Its 2020-2021 online project, The Power of One, featured a series of video monologues from all of Shakespeare’s plays. It opened at Perchance’s theatre in Cupids with Greg Malone’s “Seven-ages-of-man” speech from As You Like It, one of two Shakespeares from 2021’s live season. Other videos were filmed at locations around the province, concluding with Allison Moira Kelly’s “To-be-or-not-to-be” speech from Hamlet, the other in-person Shakespeare at Cupids this year.
Marthe Bernard led an assured group of players in As You Like It. She was very strong as Rosalind, exiled by her uncle, Duke Frederick (played with cool villainy by Bridget Wareham), from court to the forest of Arden where she disguised herself as a man named Ganymede (full disclosure: I previously worked with several Perchance members on a community-outreach project). Bernard was matched well with the excellent Evan Mercer as Orlando who was smitten with Rosalind. When he, too, fled to the forest, “Ganymede” taught him how to woo Rosalind. As Rosalind’s cousin Celia, Elizabeth Hicks generated real comedic energy with Bernard, especially in the Arden scenes. Wareham owned her scenes as Phebe, the rustic maid scornful of her lover Silvius (Michael Smith). Owen Van Houten as the clown Touchstone and Michael Smith as the melancholic Jaques both combined charisma and an assured vocal delivery. Michael Nolan added dignity to the three persecuted characters he played – deposed Duke Senior and loyal servants Adam and Corin – while managing to make Shakespeare’s semi-opaque banter funny. Owen Carter infused his brief turns as three minor figures (Jaques de Boys, Courtier, Forester) with individuality and Jodee Richardson and Erika Squires offered fine musical accompaniment to the action.
Music was key to the theatrical flair with which Todd Hennessey directed the production, and he was lucky he could rely on Richardson’s talent throughout. The show began with performers casually entering and playing instruments as they greeted us and each other. Near the play’s end, Squires sang the god Hymen’s lines endorsing marriages and the action concluded with lively song and dance. A musical interlude also signaled the play’s transition from court to forest, which was accomplished by lowering the upper half of the theatre’s back wall to expose a stand of spruce. It was the most effective use of the building I had seen for a long time.
Perchance Artistic Director Danielle Irvine directed Hamlet with similar élan and many of the actors from As You Like It. The production revolved around Kelly’s Hamlet, played as a woman. An accomplished and sympathetic actor, Kelly subtly played with signs of gender to alter our expectations for this iconic and deeply misogynistic tragedy. Bernard as Ophelia, Van Houten as her brother Laertes, and Nolan as their father Polonius were excellent throughout, but were best early on when the humanity of their family dynamic was treated seriously. Patrick Foran’s impish clown/gravedigger easily defeated Hamlet in their battle of wits prior to Ophelia’s burial and Richardson was excellent playing both Old Hamlet’s Ghost and regicidal King Claudius (this was a nice piece of casting/doubling from Irvine). As Gertrude, Wareham, however, was a real stand-out in this show: she moved through a range of emotions effortlessly, and her seasons at Perchance have shown her to be an utterly compelling presence in any role she performs.
Hamlet’s most exciting scene was the third-act play-within-the play, which symbolically recapitulated Old Hamlet’s murder. Irvine had her cast (Foran, Hicks, and Smith were the touring Players) perform this interlude’s “dumb-show”/mimed murder and the subsequent formal rhymed-verse speeches in a stylized manner that was a welcome departure from conventional psychological-realistic Shakespeare. The nervous audience laughter that this strange interlude inspired was a reminder of the risks that artists take in live theatre.
As Irvine comments, these risks are worth taking; so is meeting the challenge of making in-person performance happen again. Being live, she says, “is what we do so it is everything!” She notes that wearing masks and other safety measure took some of the fun out of rehearsals and that she had to edit the script repeatedly to get the performance down to two hours so the company could remove the intermission to comply with public safety regulations. Perchance also made adjustments to the theatre’s architecture, worked hard to seat spectators safely, and actors had to overcome the difficulties of not being able to read masked audience members’ facial expressions during performance. Still, Irvine says she “tried to look at every challenge as an opportunity and it went well.”
Theatregoers were obviously glad for the opportunity to be back in Cupids for Shakespeare this season: Irvine relates that, despite a lowered seating capacity, their box-office numbers nearly matched those of 2019. It is a hopeful sign for the future of live performance on the Avalon and across the province.
Robert Ormsby is Associate Professor of English at MUN, whose research interests include Shakespeare in Performance.
Photos: from As You Like It, l-r Michael Smith, Elizabeth Hicks, Evan Mercer, Marthe Bernard, Owen Van Houten; from Hamlet, l-r Alison Moira Kelly, Marthe Bernard, Elizabeth Hicks, Patrick Foran; photos by Pam Edwards.