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FROM QUEENS TO CYPRUS
Canadian Classic Kicks Off Belfry Theatre's Shakespeare Season
by Morgan McPherson
Tonight was the night where I got to experience that intangible transformation that takes words on a page and, as if through alchemy, changes them into an experience you can properly lose yourself in. I got to see Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Canadian classic, Good Night Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) at the always-charming Belfry theatre.
Eleven years ago, as a fresh-faced teenager, I took the one English class of my university career, and recall reading both Othello and Good Night Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet). To be honest, until tonight, I forgot that I had read Othello at all, but never forgot Good Night Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet). I distinctly recall it to be one of the only works in that class that I enjoyed reading, and when given the opportunity to see it staged, I did a little happy dance and headed off to the theatre. It’s so rare for someone who hasn’t studied theatre to have read a play, then finally get to see that work put forth onto the stage. Everything about this production was fantastic, and a testament to the magic that can be worked when the right material meets the right creative team.
Written in 1988, this production was directed by Ron Jenkins (whose recent credits extend nearly as long as my arm), whose work as a director and a playwright has won numerous awards. The set was colorful and creative, designed to a tee byCamellia Koo. I would like to note here that I have been to two performances in as many weeks with sets designed by Koo, and have adored both. I enjoyed a rather unique view from the balcony and so really got to see some creative maneuvers and set features that those seated on the ground floor would not have been as able to enjoy. From a Cyprian battleground to a graveyard in Verona, Brian Linds' sound design and Michelle Ramsay's lighting complement each other perfectly and do not disappoint.
The play's action centers on the character of Constance Ledbelly, a graduate student and assistant professor at Queen’s University who is working on her doctoral dissertation. Much to the laughingstock of her colleagues, Connie's thesis is based on the premise that Shakespeare’s tragedies Romeo and Juliet and Othello are not really tragedies, but were originally meant to be comedies penned by some unknown author, and that the heroines in both plays, Juliet and Desdemona, are not the meek, tragic characters they turned out to be in the finished works. She seeks to decipher an obscure text to find the identity of the author and thus prove her theories correct. When Claude Knight, the professor she has been working alongside for a decade delivers a personal and professional blow, Constance begins to throw the contents of her desk into her recycling bin, and is sucked in herself! She is pulled first toOthello's Cyprus and then Romeo and Juliet's Verona and, with the help of Desdemona and Juliet themselves, begins a quest to find the unknoswn author and ends up discovering a lot about herself in the process.
The cast of this show was extremely talented. Daniela Vlaskalic plays the indomitable Constance Ledbelly, and most of her deliveries left me (and the rest of the audience) holding our stomachs with laughter. Honestly, we were in stitches. The other actors played multiple roles to great effect (I was at times fooled into thinking they were all different actors). Michael Dufays plays the moor Othello, Claude Knight, the rather pompous university professor, Tybalt, and Juliet's nurse. Jameson Matthew Parker is both the scheming Iago, sensitive (but also cross-dressing) Romeo, while also playing the play's narrator. Nicola Elba is bloodthirsty Desdemona and Mercutio and Pippa Mackie plays a servant but most importantly spoiled, hot-blooded adolescent Juliet, ready to impale herself at the drop of a hat. I was simply blown away by the whole performance; every thing about it was hilariously well-done, from the acting to the sets and sound to the choreography (byJessica Hickman) and fight sequences (by Michael Dufays). I would give this show as many golden feather pens as I can, and can tell you with certainty that I will be going again before the run of the show is over. See you there.
"I [...] tell you with certainty that I will be going again before the run of the show is over."
I remember sitting in the left balcony of the Belfry Theatre, 21 years ago this fall, for Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), and laughing myself silly.
The swish and swirl onstage, coupled with wonderful parries and thrusts, and great bursts of bravado, cloaked in rhythmic language, simply charmed me. When Michael Shamata, artistic director, announced earlier this year that the Belfry 2013/2014 season would include a reprise of this Governor General and Chalmers award-winning play, I wondered how it had weathered the decades.
Robust and energetic, full of repartee, wit, and feminist and philosophical references, it is nonetheless accessible to individuals who might not be as academically versed. (Although there were plenty of audience members on opening night who caught the “ibid” joke).
Daniela Vlaskalic, last seen on the Belfry stage in Drowning Girls (a SPARK Festival production and one of my highlights of 2010) is Constance Ledbelly, university English professor, in all her mousy perfection. No one pays her much attention. She’s in thrall to her department head (a perfectly loathsome Claude Night (Michael Dufays)) and ignored by students and colleagues. Her particular scholarly whim is to prove that Shakespeare’s Othello andRomeo and Juliet were intended to be comedies.
Timid and hunched over her desk for much of the first act, it’s only when she disappears, in a puff of smoke, down the worm-hole of time, to emerge in Othello’s world, that we realize what an impressive character she can be.
Ron Jenkins directs the accomplished cast with gusto. They are full of élan as they cavort and caper in prodigious displays of sword craft, and do great justice to this brilliant mash-up. The splendid fight choreography (Michael Dufays, who also plays an assured Othello) provides ample action for individuals more accustomed to Die Hardthan Shakespeare, while aficionados and scholars of the Bard will not be disappointed in this raucous send-up of all things “Will”.
The creative team is a veritable panoply of Canadian theatre, as evidenced by the array of awards and nominations including Jessies, Doras, Sterlings, Bettys and Siminovich.*
Designer (costumes and set) Camellia Koo has placed the action in a beautiful library that doubles as Constance’s office. Backed by stacks and shelves filled with books (over 1000 apparently), it also contains a fascinating apparatus through which characters appear and re-appear. The costume for Desdemona (Nicola Elbro), with its daring cut-away providing an ample view of leg, definitely sets the expectation for this character’s actions. Elbro’s Desdemona is blood-thirsty and quick to anger, lustful and physically strong.
Other than Vlaskalic, each cast member plays multiple roles with comedic panache (Elbro as the servant, Jameson Matthew Parker as a cross-dressing Romeo, Dufays as Juliet’s nurse). Nothing is what we expect of Shakespeare – Romeo is a quiet and romantic young fellow, while Juliet (Pippa Mackie) is a spoiled brat with a definite appetite. Scenes where she tries to seduce Constance as they dance (choreography by Jessica Hickman) begin in demure fashion but slowly unravel in a hilarious remix of moves. Is there a medieval version of the “Funky Chicken”?
The swirling designs of Michelle Ramsay’s lighting reminded me at times of scenes from The Sorcerer’s Apprenticeand emphasized the mystical, magical nature of Constance’s quest. Sound Designer Brian Linds can always be counted on to bring battle scenes to life – full of clanging swords and war whoops – as well as create century-specific music for each occasion.
Full of mysteries and riddles, with comedy that is by turns base and highly elevated, this mainstay of Canadian theatre receives full justice in the Belfry Theatre’s current production. Thanks for introducing it to another generation.
"The splendid fight choreography provides ample action for individuals more accustomed to Die Hard than Shakespeare!"
Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet at Belfry Theatre – a review
by Janis Lacouve
On Tuesday night I had the good fortune to see Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) at the the Belfry Theatre. I should mention that I was so grateful for a night out sans toddler & teen, I might have been happy staring at my lap. However, I’m pleased to report that this play was waaaay better than lap-watching. It was clever, funny and engaging—exactly what one would expect from a play written by Anne-Marie MacDonald and put on by the Belfry.
The play centres around mousy, underappreciated assistant professor, Constance Ledbelly and her theory that Shakespeare not only stole his two greatest tragedies from unknown authors—but that the original works were intended to be comedies. Constance, brought brilliantly to life by Daniela Vlaskalic, postulates that the tragedies in both Othello and Romeo and Juliet, could have been easily avoided if Shakespeare hadn’t omitted the “Wise Fool” character who could have set things right.
Narrated by the coverall-wearing, cigarette-smoking Jameson Matthew Parker (who also plays Iago and Romeo), we follow Constance to through a wormhole in time conveniently located in the blue box beside her desk. From the battlefields of Othello to the palazzos of Romeo and Juliet, Constance proceeds to rewrite literary history in her quest to find the “Wise Fool” and discover her “true identity”. Inspired by the ferocious Desdemona and exasperated by the oversexed, death-obsessed Juliet, Constance confronts the women of Shakespeare and questions them about feminism, love and relationships. And like all good quests, this one ends in blood, (crocodile) tears and a lot of laughs.
Through a fast-paced introduction, we learn that literary conspiracy theories are not Constance's only obsession—she’s also hopelessly in love with the self-centred Professor Claude Knight played by Michael Dufays. With a bow-tie, a pipe and an unlikeable laugh, Dufays' performance is deliciously dastardly. When the professor announces his plans to marry and move to Oxford to take a position promised to Constance the full scope of their relationship is revealed. Constance has devoted her life to Claude who’d been using her for years. Her love is clearly unrequited and when she falls apart we’re taken along for the ride.
All of the performers are gifted in physical comedy. Nicola Elbro flits from the hot-blooded Desdemona to macho Mercutio and a silly lute-playing Veronese servant with ease. While Pippa Mackie masters both a spoiled and libidinous Juliet as well as a perfectly ridiculous horn playing soldier. Parker is equally as delightful as the romantic, cross-dressing Romeo as he is as the base and conniving Iago. And Dufays gives excellent physical performances as the hot-blooded Tybalt and the hot-aired Othello. I genuinely had a great time watching the characters tumble, duel and dance their way through Shakespeare. The set design is simple and effective and they handle the time travel/transition scenes with style.
But I gotta say, it was Daniela Vlaskalic’s Constance that won my heart. I’d heard so much about the iconic character of McDonald’s Constance Ledbelly, that I went in with pretty high expectations. Thankfully I wasn’t disappointed. From the opening scene Vlaskalic comfortably embodies the beloved red toque-wearing, Velveeta-eating academic’s physical character and her delivery of the Constance’s social commentary, barbs and quips to the rhythm of blank verse is truly engaging and funny. Whether she was removing her rubber boots to air out her woolen socks or making out with Romeo, I was rooting for her. Constance is someone I’d want to hang out and so one can only logically deduce that Daniela would be, too. And so I’ve decided she will be my new best friend. Kidding! Kind of.
Complaints? Critiques? I was seated in the left balcony and I missed a couple of things happening on the far left side of the stage. I wouldn’t have minded so much, except that the rest of the audience seem to find it so hilarious and I was left craning my neck and wondering. At one point I heard raunchy disco music and caught a brief flash of what I guess was a scantily-clad Tybalt dancing in a doorway. So, I missed that. When you’re buying your tickets you may want to take that into consideration. A dirty dancing Tybalt is probably something you don’t want to miss.