TWO GENTS adapted from William Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen Of Verona, directed by Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, with Jesse Griffiths, Adrian Morningstar, Kaitlyn Riordan, A.J. Richardson, Lesley Robertson and Trudy Weiss. Presented by Shakespeare in the Ruff at Withrow Park (725 Logan, south of Danforth). Previews August 15, opens August 16 and runs to September 2, Wednesday-Sunday 7:30 pm. Pwyc ($15 suggested). shakespeareintheruff.com. See listing.
Growing up in Riverdale, Brendan McMurtry-Howlett never had to cross the valley to see Shakespeare in an outdoor west end venue.
All he had to do was go to Withrow Park and catch the annual production of Shakespeare in the Rough, one of the most enterprising companies founded in the 90s. For more than a dozen years, until the company closed in 2006, directors like Dawn Marie McCaugherty (one of the founders), Diana Kolpak, Sue Miner, Michael Waller, Ruth Madoc-Jones, Sanjay Talwar and Dean Gabourie entertained audiences with excellent productions of the Bard.
McMurtry-Howlett wants to bring that kind of entertainment to a new audience with the revival of the company, now dubbed Shakespeare in the Ruff, with a tongue-in-cheek nod to the Elizabethan starched material worn as a collar.
"Even six years after the company closed, the neighbourhood is still talking about it," says the National Theatre School grad, who's directing the Ruff's first show. "I wanted to revive the quality work that I saw and, over a few pints at a bar, I pitched the idea of bringing the company back. A year of planning, fundraising and regular meetings have brought us to this point."
The company premieres in the same location as the earlier troupe, at the bottom of a natural slope with two imposing trees defining the central playing area and with a wonderful vista of green beyond.
They're starting with an adaptation of The Two Gentlemen Of Verona, which McMurtry-Howlett recalls was a childhood favourite. It involves best friends Valentine and Proteus; Valentine leaves hometown Verona for Milan, where he falls for the duke's daughter, Silvia. Proteus also loses his heart to her when he visits Valentine, forsaking his own love, Julia, who dresses as a boy to seek out her lover in Verona.
It's the stuff of Shakespearean comedy, says the director, adding that despite the plot twists "it's straightforward in so many ways, with most scenes between two characters, great speeches, memorable clowns and a dog."
He does have some problems with the ending, in which all the troubles among the four lovers are wrapped up pretty quickly, without the women having much to say about their futures or what happened during the course of the play.
"But echoes of this early script appear in later Shakespeare works, and we're taking bits from those plays in adapting the last scene. For example, in Two Gents there's a balcony scene, as in Romeo And Juliet, and a ring exchange between a cross-dressing woman and a noblewoman, which happens later in Twelfth Night."
McMurtry-Howlett has set the play in the Canadian West of the 1880s and calls the production Two Gents.
"We thought about using other periods, possibly that just before the First World War, but production elements would have been too costly. I wanted something that would suggest a different era but still be within our budget, and the western frontier came to mind.
"After all, you can wear a cowboy hat - which is cool, anyway - and conjure up a whole world's mythology and imagery for the audience. And it meant we didn't have to be so time-specific in our design that we'd lose the pleasure of performing outdoors."
The period, notes McMurtry-Howlett, was one of societal shifts, when young people could head west and take the risk of starting up a farm or business in an open expanse of land.
"So our Valentine and Proteus leave the comfort of Verona, Ontario and travel to an uncertain territory outside of their comfort zone; along the way, they find that the societal pressures they knew at home are rather more relaxed out west."
McMurtry-Howlett invited the talented actor, director and teacher Diane D'Aquila to be the project's consulting director; he gives her credit for lots of the work the company has done. There are plans to involve D'Aquila in next year's production, which should be a treat.
The company's had help not only from the local community but also from other theatre artists. Elizabeth Saunders has taught workshops to the young troupe of seven energetic high school students who have formed a guerrilla troupe called the Young Ruffians, under the leadership of Marcel Stewart and Lois Adamson. The young people have been working on audition pieces, sitting in on rehearsals and will present a show of their own the last weekend of the run of Two Gents, in the same park space. Nina Okens, who created many of the costumes for Shakespeare in the Rough, offered her previous designs to the new Ruffians.
And the challenges of working outdoors?
No, other than mentioning the occasional sunburn, McMurtry-Howlett would rather focus on the positive aspects of performing in a wall-less theatre: making dramatic use of the unexpected occasion when a dog wanders onto the stage or a biker pedals through the action without realizing there's a play going on.
"To be outside in the fresh air is good for the soul, and it helps us all with our art."