february 2019 | Volume 176
Production photo: Nancy Caldwell.
GOODNIGHT DESDEMONA (GOOD MORNING JULIET)
by Ann-Marie MacDonald
Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery St.
Jan. 24-Feb. 17
www.unitedplayers.com or 604-224-8007 ext. 2
Back in the 1980s, before everyone became aware of the sexism and misogyny inherent in the history of drama, our theatres, our films and the acting profession itself; before Shakespearean companies like Bard on the Beach and directors like Ravi Jain began gender-reverse casting to provide more, better roles for women (see Vancouverplays’ archived reviews of Prince Hamlet and Much Ado); before companies like Vancouver’s Classic Chic began producing all-female Shakespeare plays—before all that there was Ann-Marie MacDonald.
Her 1988 comedy Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) offers an intelligently raucous feminist take on two of Shakespeare’s most familiar classics, giving actresses a chance to swordfight and engage in the kind of joyful physical performance that male actors have always had the opportunity to do, comically critiquing Shakespearean misogyny and the Stratford Festival, giving free rein to polymorphous perversity and cross-dressing.
In short, she wrote a brilliantly entertaining, ultra-theatrical, gender-bending play with a sharply political edge.
It’s been a while since we’ve seen the play in Vancouver so United Players’ production is welcome, especially in the hands of Sarah Rodgers who might be, at the moment, the city’s best director.
After a slow start, Rodgers’ seven actors put on a marvelous show, the best comic work of the year so far.
Zosia Cassie is terrific as Constance Ledbelly, the mousy academic Shakespeare scholar who magically finds herself inside Shakespeare’s plays, interfering with the plots of Othello and Romeo and Juliet, proving her thesis that Shakespeare adapted them from comedies in which a Wise Fool prevented them from becoming tragic, and finding her own strength and selfhood in the process.
She’s aided by her Shakespearean alter egos, Desdemona and Juliet. Olesia Shewchuk does star-quality work as Desdemona (as well as Mercutio), the warrior-woman who teaches Constance to be tough and whose battle cry is “Bullshit!” “Shakespeare really watered her down, eh,” says Constance, in one of the show’s many big laugh lines.
Danielle Klaudt is very cute as lusty, hotblooded Juliet, in love with her own melodramatic idea of death. Constance learns from her to let herself go emotionally and swing both ways sexually (though it doesn’t occur to anyone that sex with 14-year-old Juliet is pedophilia!).
Vincent Keats is also excellent as both Iago and rampantly bi-sexual Romeo. When Tybalt (Tre Cotton, a solid Othello and hilarious Nurse) ardently carries off cross-dressed Romeo near the end, Desdemona exclaims, “Zounds, doth no one in Verona sail straight?!”
In addition to the five principals, all but Cassie playing multiple characters, Rodgers uses musicians Matthias Falvai (who also plays the Chorus) and Mariana Munoz to cover the quick changes of Brian Ball’s handsome, mobile set and Catherine E. Carr’s delightful costumes with clever musical riffs: a little Prince for one scene, choruses of Aerosmith’s “That dude looks like a lady” for another.
Rodgers uses Falvai’s sound and Darren W. Hales’ lighting to great effect in the sequences where Constance travels across time, plays and genres. And oh my, her comic staging and direction, including a couple of running gags, is marvelously imaginative and very, very funny.
Having seen, read and taught this play many times, I thought I knew it all. But when Keats’ Romeo, courting Constance in her male garb as Constantine, speaks a line Shakespeare has Romeo say to Juliet—“Call me but love …”—and clearly pronounces it, “Call me butt-love”—I knew I was in the presence of some ingenious comic alchemy.
Don’t miss this show.
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