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Shakespeare in High Park's Hamlet gets rained out but All's Well That Ends Well


by Drew Rowsome -
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann


Hamlet and All's Well That Ends Well run in repertory until Sat, Sept 3 at the High Park Ampitheatre, 1873 Bloor St W. canadianstage.com 

Canadian Stage's Shakespeare in High Park is as much an experience as it is theatre. Shakespeare is considered one of the titans of theatre and literature, but an evening under the stars also has a certain mandate to entertain: one can feel good about stretching one's intellectual muscles but it is also important to have a good time. On a balmy night under the stars, it is a magical fusion. 

But when the stars cloud over, as the sky did for the opening night of Hamlet, the stage is upstaged by the inclement inclinations of Mother Nature. Just as Frank Cox-O'Connell was launching into the famous "To be or not to be" speech, gathering power and charisma with every phrase, the skies opened and the rest of the play was not to be. That is a shame as this Hamlet was gaining momentum and offering some intriguing twists. 

It is unfair to critique without seeing the entire show but some things should be noted. Nicky Guadagni contributes a dithering comical Polonius, Alon Nashman (Boticelli in the Fire & Sunday in Sodom) and Rachel Jones generate real sexual heat as a besotted Claudius and Gertrude, and Cox-O'Connell (clad in an Incredible Hulk t-shirt at one point to illustrate the duality at the heart of Hamlet) was moving from a depressed cutter to a disturbing mania that deserved to climax. The contemporary setting seemed to be about to comment on celebrity culture and mental health stigma but as it was cut short, the opening night audience was left with more questions than thematic resolution. But we were also left in more than enough suspense to want to return to satisfy that curiosity.

All's Well That Ends Well fared better weatherwise but also, despite concluding with a bitterly ironic happy ending, left a lot of questions. Most audience members have at least a passing acquaintance with Hamlet - as Cheri Dinovo pointed out in the obligatory opening night opening remarks, it is the text The Lion King was cribbed from - but All's Well That Ends Well is rarely produced, seldom quoted and is considered one of Shakespeare's most problematic plays. 

The basic plot of All's Well is a rom-com mashed with hag horror: Helen, a spunky Mina Jones who brings great clarity to the prose, will stop at nothing to entrap Bertram into marriage. She is an unlikable character but the object of her affection/obsession, Bertram, is just as unpleasant. Kaleb Alexander (DelicacyThe Marquise of OFamily Story) has to apply all his abundant charm and exuberance, and the spice of shirtlessness, to turn Bertram into a credible object of desire. Against the odds, he succeeds.

Director Ted Wintzel (The Marquise of OLulu v4) takes the text and bends, subverts and stylizes it into a satire on gender, sexuality, warmongering and the nasty things that people do in the name of love, family and the pursuit of power. There is not an innuendo unexplored (a butt plug attached to a power drill supplements the cast as another character), a comic moment un-milked, nor a cynical dig passed over. Bertram is interpreted as semi-closeted gay but that gets confused with his seduction of/by Rose Tuong's devious Diana. The flamboyant Qasim Khan, who steals every scene he is in, is both honoured and bashed for his sexual openness. It is as confusing as it is oddly apt.

The clown/"knave" Lavatch is re-imagined as a "slut" and Rachel Jones is a brazen delight, a maelstrom of caricatures and sexuality that blows even Guadagni's hilarious mean girl soccer mom from hell off the stage. Jones has also been given extra narrative dialogue (penned by Witzel?) that advances and clarifies the plot while also giving an emotional heft and bittersweetness to the proceedings. She sings a wonderfully louche - Lana Del Ray by way of Angelo Bandalmenti - version of Cigarettes After Sex's "Nothing's Gonna Hurt You Baby" that shatters the fourth wall and climaxes with a drag queen costume change cribbed from Charles Aznavour. 

This All's Well That Ends Well is wildly ambitious, deeply disturbing and very entertaining. If all the ideas don't quite gel or resolve satisfactorily, that only serves to illuminate the contradictions and tensions at the heart of the text. At the heart of our daily existence. The elderly straight couple seated in front of me dialogued: "Well that was strange," "But fun." The elderly gay male couple beside me launched into a heated discussion on just how sacred Shakespeare's words are versus the necessity of intellectual rigour (and that Alexander and Cox-Connell should never ever wear shirts when onstage). A child at the front had to be restrained from rushing the stage to get its hands on the power drill butt plug. It all ended well with lots of questions remaining. A magical night. 

Hamlet and All's Well That Ends Well run in repertory until Sat, Sept 3 at the High Park Ampitheatre, 1873 Bloor St W. canadianstage.com 


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