Jeff Ho, Prince Hamlet, Pearle Harbour and a theatre/gender revolution
by DREW ROWSOME -
Genderbending is time-honoured theatrical dynamite. Men in dresses have used comedy and pathos to dig at deep truths about life and to expose hypocrisy. The Theatre Centre is hosting two stellar examples as Jeff Ho stars as Ophelia in Prince Hamlet while concurrently Pearle Harbour pitches a revival tent and presents Chautauqua as part of The Riser Project.
"I've always wanted to play Hamlet," says Jeff Ho. "But I never thought I'd get to be the other half of that romantic plot. We've talked a lot about what it means to do this gender-crossed casting. And in my terms, it means we bring all of ourselves. None of us are really trying to perform the gender or the sexuality, we're performing the text. And of course Jeff Ho being queer and Asian, I bring all of that to Ophelia. I'm performing the soul of Ophelia from how I understand love, which is inherently queer."
Prince Hamlet is a production celebrating Why Not Theatre's first decade. Ho explains that director Ravi Jain (Salt-Water Moon, Gimme Shelter) has taken the text and "sliced it up," added ASL resulting in an almost choreographic effect, while also casting across genders and race. "So much of our rehearsals so far has been about who gets the right to tell this story?" says Ho. "We have ideas of who looks like a Hamlet, what companies should have the right to do this story. But we're really trying to see how we can blow that up. And see what story remains. What the bare bones are and how we can support that."
Ho is not a stranger to Shakespeare, not only did he study it at the National Theatre School but he also got his first professional roles in Montreal's Shakespeare in the Park. But it goes further back. "When I first emigrated, I was blessed with the best ESL teacher who taught us poetry to learn English," he remembers. "So I had actually been reading sonnets from the time I arrived in Canada. Not for the sense of the words, not to speak it beautifully, but to learn the inherent music of English. So I feel I've always been tied to Shakespeare."
And he also found ties with the character of Ophelia. "The first thing I connected with Ophelia on was that strong core of filial piety. Her struggle of where she fits in, being divided between Hamlet's love, and needing to stay loyal to her father. I definitely felt that, coming to Canada and my mother sacrificing so, so much for us to come and give us a better life. And for me to realize that I needed to do this theatre thing, this art thing. And to be completely abandoned, to be left alone, silenced. And left to run off. I survived, Ophelia didn't."
He happily emphasizes that Ophelia is not, as he at first thought, a supporting role. "Now I consider it one of the huge parts and I'm incredibly happy. It's a gift part. It's one of those parts that widens range and is a deep challenge. She doesn't speak much initially because in the world of the play consists of men silencing her at every turn. But she has this beautiful moment in Act 5, and for once she steps it up and lets it rip."
Pearle Harbour is the very definition of letting it rip. Pearle Harbour's Sunday School was a barely controlled explosion of religious satire, drag, sexual harassment, and arts and crafts. The thought of her conducting a revival meeting on a larger scale is as giddily wonderful as it is terrifying.
"Do you feel lost?" asks Harbour. "Are you troubled? Are you behind on your emails? Do you yearn for community that enhances, rather than annihilates, the feeling of being a true individual? The world is full of uncertainty and inharmony, but for one week only, salvation is passing through town! Gather together with our new leader, all-American World-Wartime gal Pearle Harbour, under the milky canvas of our beautiful tent. We will sing together, learn together, breathe together, and live our Truths! In our Chautauqua tent, we come together because we're falling apart."
The Riser Project, also a Why Not Theatre production, takes independent theatre artists and gives them the financial ability to create work on a larger scale. As well as Chautauqua, The Riser Project is presenting The Draupadi Project, a reimagining of the epic Mahabharat; a Muslim/Jewish collaboration Two Birds One Stone; and El Retorno/I Return that explores the effect of the Chilean revolution on family.
Ho and Harbour, Prince Hamlet and The Riser Project, are part of the sexual and racial evolution/revolution of theatre. "It's a huge privilege to be in Canada where we step into new stories every time we go to a new restaurant," says Ho. "It's fascinating to see how theatre has changed in the last few years since I graduated from theatre school. The scope is changing. We're looking at stories through different lenses. Opening up to different stories. It comes with triumphant failures and we need that, but at the same time, as a community we're leaning towards stories across the spectrum of identity, interculturalism, intersectionality. It's thrilling."
Prince Hamlet runs Mon, April 17 until Sat, April 29 at The Franco Boni Theatre, The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St W. theatrewhynot.org
Chautauqua runs Wed, April 19 until Wed, April 26 at the BMO Incubator for Live Arts, The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St W. riserproject.org
The Riser Project runs from Wed, April 19 until Sat, May 13 at the BMO Incubator for Live Arts. The Theatre Centre. riserproject.org