In the 31st year of Shakespeare in High Park, Canadian Stage has programmed two productions that are performed on alternating evenings. The two plays could not be more different.
Both Macbeth and The Taming of the Shrew involve manipulative spouses and deceptive plots—but where one ends in marriages and love, the other ends with bloodshed and terror. One is infamously problematic, and the other is one of Shakespeare’s most popular. And the two directors, Ted Witzel and Ker Wells, both of whom join Shakespeare in High Park after completing a directing program held in collaboration between Canadian Stage and York University, only exaggerate the differences.
Wells’s gritty treatment of Macbeth (Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday nights) is the stronger option for audiences willing to turn an evening of outdoor theatre, typically lighthearted and family-friendly, into a bleak exploration of humanity at its worst. With the build of a real soldier, actor Hugh Thompson portrays a Macbeth that’s less of an intellectual and more of an everyman—a man whose success comes from his strength on the field, not from tactics. He’s easy prey for the Weird Sisters’ wicked schemes and easier still for those of his wife. But once his plan is set in motion, his natural tendencies take over and the only impulse he recognizes is to keep killing.
Though Philippa Domville’s performance as Lady Macbeth is more calculated (and less chilling) than Thompson’s, the atmosphere in Wells’s Scotland gets more and more foreboding (with the help of sound designer Lyon Smith and lighting designer Laird MacDonald) as the sun sets in the park. Creative choices involving a creepy puppet of a demon baby, a sinister twist in the role of Rosse (played by Thomas Olajide), and the eerie unknown fate of MacDuff (Ryan Hollyman, in the production’s best performance) put Wells’s own mark upon the well-studied play. His lesson: Macbeth is no anomaly, and murderous instincts could, and may still, surface in any of the play’s characters. That’s a horror that lasts beyond Macbeth’s beheading.
Audiences hoping for some lighter summer fare are better off with Ted Witzel’s production of The Taming of the Shrew (playing on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday nights). And though Witzel puts a spin on the infamously misogynistic script to dampen the offense, its problems still scream like a woman being starved by her new husband. (Yes, this actually happens in the play.)
This Shrew is as bright and sweet as cotton candy. The players look like an upper-class, punk-rock box of Smarties—but the story is the same: Baptista, a rich man, has two daughters. Men lust after the young Bianca but fear the wrath of Katherina. The problem is, Bianca can’t wed until Kat has found a husband. Enter Petruchio, who yearns for Baptista’s money. So he marries Katherina, and verbally and physically abuses her until she obeys his commands. Witzel gives Sophie Goulet’s Kat a bit more backbone—especially for her final monologue, which closes the play—but it’s still painful to see her suffer through Petruchio’s punishments.
Witzel has more success with Bianca (Jennifer Dzialoszynski) and her many suitors. The wealthy scholar that wins her heart, typically named Lucentio, is now Lucientia, played by Tiana Asperjan. The gender switch doesn’t work perfectly with the text, but it at least presents a female character with a sense of agency. Lucienta is a passionate woman who’s clever and educated, and she manifests her own favourable outcome. It seems like all the other women in Padua are still chained by the attitudes of their time. Maybe it’s something in the water.