By Lory Diaz
A long running summer tradition in Toronto is Canadian Stage’s Shakespeare in High Park, which is now in its 34th season. The performances take place at the High Park Amphitheatre, located in the heart of the park diagonally from the Grenadier Restaurant around the off-leash grounds. Don’t worry about getting lost as ample vibrant signage indicates the way, or just look for the incredibly helpful volunteers who are always happy to answer questions!
Agreed upon by both returning and new attendees is how picturesque the entire performance area can be during Toronto’s warm summer nights. The amphitheatre has natural seating with stone backing and premium seats come with a small pillow for added comfort. I highly recommend that everyone bring some snacks, a blanket, or additional cushions and make a fun family evening, or quaint date night out!
This year’s plays include Shakespeare’s iconic tragedy Hamlet, directed by Brigit Schreyer Duarte and All’s Well That Ends Well directed by Ted Witzel. The choice of genres is quite interesting and if given the opportunity, I would recommend watching both as the contrast between the two services to highlight their similar underlying themes. This fact isn’t brought to light until the very end of each play. The audience is left questioning character intent, and whether it really was all worth it. This helps in highlighting the strengths in both productions.
Hamlet‘s opening night was ended early due to severe rain storms. The entire cast demonstrated true dedication and professionalism acting through the rain until organizers had to call it a night.
Despite the incomplete performance, the cast received applause and praise from the crowd. Lead actor, Frank Cox-O’Connell has strong stage presence, and right from his first lines, commands the audience’s attention. He brilliantly shifts between Hamlet’s signature mad state to reflective and pensive moments. There were light showers during the well-known monologue, which served to heighten the mood of the scene, and Cox-O’Connell delivered a stellar performance. He is absolutely a name to keep an eye on!
Second opening night had better weather, and allowed the audience to enjoy the chemistry of the cast without weather distractions. All’s Well That Ends Well is a starkly more contemporary and controversial play though. Not only has the dialogue been injected with today’s colloquial language, but the props themselves include what I can only describe as a silicone phallus attached to a power drill. Some audience members will find this hilarious, and say that it contributes to the comedic aspect, while others may find it too heavy-handed and deem the production as slap-stick. Witzel is a returning name to Shakespeare in High Park and known for pushing boundaries, which is not surprising for a director with strong ties to the creative and supportive crowds of theaters such as Buddies in Bad Times. Either way, you’re going to leave with a fresh perspective on a canon of the dramatic arts.
If the above description turns readers off from attending All’s Well, please keep in mind that it truly is the complementary nature of the two plays that makes the entire 2016 Shakespeare in High Park season so brilliant. Without revisiting the more reserved production of Duarte’s interpretation of Hamlet, and really taking in the dedication and acting skills of the entire cast, one won’t have as fine an understanding of the complexity of All’s Well and its original intent. Witzel has described the characters as displaying “toxic masculinity” and reminds audiences that Shakespeare was forcing his audience to question gender norms: a woman takes the courting process into her own hands and heads out into war, while a soldier is cruelly hazed for not displaying traditional manliness.
The plays start at 8 p.m., with a recommended thirty minute early arrival time. There is a backstage tour available at 6:15 p.m. though. I would suggest any families taking school-aged children, or students of theatrical arts explore this option. The backstage experience helps in developing an appreciation for single set performances, and the true creativity required to take the viewer on an adventure: transforming a limited number of cast (11 actors playing 34 characters) and creatively working around budget constraints ($50 a week for SIHP, versus the usual $8000 indoor production allotment). It’s an informative session and well worth the early arrival.
I’m a big supporter of collaboration and think it’s commendable of the Canadian Stage to work with the York University theatre program to give recent graduates experience within their field. This year, there are two recent York grads in the cast gaining exposure to audiences and learning from veteran actors such as Nicky Guadagni, who gives strong performances in both Hamlet and All’s Well That Ends Well.
Shakespeare in High Park is on until September 4, 2016 with both productions running on alternating days: Hamlet on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, with All’s Well That Ends Well on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Run time for each performance is 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission. If you decide to check out only one play, you’re still supporting a great program and a great Canadian tradition. I’m already anticipating the 2017 season, and definitely going to check out what else the Canadian Stage is bringing to Toronto audiences throughout the year! Tickets for Shakespeare in High Park are Pay-What-You-Can. Premium tickets are $25 and can be reserved online.