The oldest outdoor theatre event in Canada celebrates 30 years with an old favourite and contemporary twists.
Summer living in Toronto means taking everything we love to do inside—brunching, drinking, watching movies, exercising—and shoving it outside. So it’s no surprise that Canadian Stage’s Shakespeare in High Park (renamed this year from the previous Dream in High Park), the longest-running outdoor theatre event in the country, has had such a good run. This year, it’s celebrating its 30th edition.
To mark the occasion, director Richard Rose (who is also the artistic director of Tarragon Theatre) takes this summer’s play into the past and the future. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a nod to the event’s inaugural production in 1983, but Rose’s interpretation propels it from ancient Athens to modern-day Canada—Mounties, bagpipes, and all. If that sounds gimmicky, it kind of is. Rose uses all the tricks in the book—audience participation, special guests, dramatic entrances and exits, onstage stripping—but it all works, and the result is a constant stream of knee-slappers.
In Rose’s version, the soon-to-be-wedded Theseus (Dmitry Chepovetsky) and Hippolyta (Tamara Podemski)—who pull double-duty as fairy royalty Oberon and Titania—arrive in Ontario cottage country and attempt to settle a dispute between Hermia (Rose Napoli, who is filling in for an injured Sophia Kolinas), her father Egeus (John Dolan), her lover Lysander (Eric Morin), and her betrothed Demetrius (Ali Momen), who Hermia’s friend Helena (Sarah Sherman) is in love with.
As Hermia and Lysander flee into the woods one night, followed by Demetrius and Helena, some tricky fairies (with Gil Garratt as Puck) wreak havoc on the love quadrangle using their magic. All the while, four actors, collectively known as The Mechanicals, try to rehearse a production of Pyramus and Thisbe for Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding. In perhaps the most inspired choice, Rose turns the The Mechanicals into a reflection of today’s multicultural makeup. He gives us Pierre Le Coing (Pierre Simpson) instead of Peter Quince, Tom Chow (Richard Lee) instead of Tom Snout, Francis Filchenkov (Mark Crawford) instead of Francis Flute, and an overeager real estate agent (John Cleland) instead of Nick Bottom. Equally genius is the choice to get double-duty out of this crew by having them play Titania’s fairies.
Morin’s Lysander is a bandana’d rocker whose limitless energy and libido allow him to take his sudden unexplainable lust for Helena to new heights, excellently countered by Sherman’s tortured and insecure Helena (who is used to channelling her unrequited frustrations with jogs through the woods). Napoli’s Hermia has bite when it comes time for her to accuse her friend of stealing her man. Momen’s Demetrius seems like he forgot long ago who or what he actually loves. The standouts are Cleland, Simpson, Lee, and Crawford as the haphazard Mechanicals/fairies. Their play-within-a-play had us doubled over.
Karyn McCallum’s costumes vary haphazardly from modern suits and running gear, to traditional robes and peasant wear. The plants that transport us from the kingdom to the enchanted woods in her set are underwhelming, but we do appreciate how the set embraces the green outdoors rather than working against it.
Rose’s raucous revival of the Shakespeare classic is a milestone for Canadian stage. It could prove that Shakespeare in High Park is still 30 years young.