It’s pretty weird for me to be writing about Shakespeare in Prince Edward County. I’ve been going there for years to visit but I never would have considered it a place to see theatre. But along with my own transition into someone who visits the county more than once a year, comes the transition of Festival Players, a staple in county theatre, into a company headed by Stratford’s Graham Abbey. This signals big changes for Festival Players and Prince Edward County.
I saw Hippolyta’s Wedding: A Midsummer Night’s Dream last Saturday night under the giant tent in Wellington. The set and lighting was simple but effective. Beautiful, colourful lanterns hung above the stage. There were two white walls with some lattice work on either side and a lounge chair on stage right. On both sides of the stage was wine provided by Rosehall Run winery which was a nice little ode to the county and their sponsor. As you may have guessed from the title, there is also some adaptation taking place within the framework of the show. I loved this, of course.
The action takes place within the rehearsal for Hippolyta’s wedding which worked well because the audience is already situated under a tent that could be used for weddings. But, lucky for the audience, we don’t lose out on the forest element of Midsummer because we’re outdoors and surrounded by trees and looking out on the lake. One of the perks of doing theatre in the county is using the natural landscape to the advantage of the play and the company certainly did this. A lot of funny moments derived from watching characters far off in the distance, such as watching Demetrius (played by Neil Babcock) running as fast as he can away from Helena (Siobhan O’Malley).
The story was pretty clear considering the new framework except for one part. I was really confused about whether or not Titania and Oberon were actually faeries or if they just thought they were. As the show transitions between the opening scene into the forest, Hippolyta (Anna Hardwick) and Theseus (Connor Thompson) must change into Titania and Oberon. Puck enters and appears to cast some sort of dreamy spell on each of the characters during a musical sequence. A costume change takes place and suddenly we have a fairy king and queen. But are they actually magical? It seems as though Puck is the only character in control of everyone. Is he their magical marriage counselor asking them to roleplay out their disputes in another form? Or do we take this at face value and accept Puck as a ringmaster simply controlling the transition and believe in the two realities?
I personally like the marriage counselor idea. I think this because Hardwick’s Hippolyta was very sassy to Theseus in the beginning and then not-so-sassy at the end. I just don’t believe her strong Hippolyta would transform her feelings towards Thompson’s cold and business-like Theseus so quickly without some magic involved.
The one aspect of the show that I found a little disappointing was the lovers. Now I should start by saying that I did think they were good and there were definitely some good moments for each of them. For instance, I loved Lysander, played by Alex Furber, giving a giant “woo” following his engagement to Hermia, or when Lysander and Demtrius exited stiffly in unison to go fight for Helena’s heart. I really liked the goofy moments and I just wish there had been even more. This could just be my preference but I was missing the illogical and messy Helena or the truly outrageous lovey-dovey love potion behavior in the boys. It could just be the tentativeness about messing around with Shakespeare that prevented them getting into the ridiculousness of the lovers. But like I said there were all good, I just wanted it a bit more amped up.
On the flip side, Geoffry Armour (Peter Quince) and Bruce Dow (Nick Bottom) were totally in their element. They both were completely comfortable with Shakespeare and adlibbing. Being able to physically articulate Shakespeare to an audience is just as important as the dialogue (possibly even more so) and they both nailed this. Dow was charming as the overdramatic and conceited Bottom and it was easy to tell how much fun he was having with the production. The audience was with him every step of the way. I found the scenes with the mechanicals consistently the strongest. I should throw in a shout out to Furber who also played the lisping wall and was one of the scenes that made me laugh the most. This is my fifth time seeing Midsummer and the play scene is always gold when done well. And this company certainly achieved that.
Overall, I enjoyed this production a lot. Adapting the framework, adlibbing dialogue, and using the county’s landscape are all elements I hope to see more of in the future. It also included a lot of fun musical elements including garbage can drums. I also hope they do lots more Shakespeare there. I am very excited to see how Graham Abbey impacts the company once he officially takes over as artistic director in 2018. As much as I enjoyed this production and the cast, I do hope that gender parity and diverse casting become a priority for the company.
I think there is a lot of good stuff in the works for Festival Players. Already a trendy tourist destination, there is no reason why Prince Edward County could not become a destination for theatre as well with the help of Abbey’s Stratford connections and perhaps a permanent theatre space in the future which could supply year-round theatre. I’m very excited about the possibilities for the future of the company and at the very least I will continue to be a happy camper if they keep doing Shakespeare.