by Ann-Marie MacDonald
Presentation House Theatre
North Vancouver
March 23-April 9

In the 1980s, long before Fall on Your Knees and Oprah’s Book Club made her a famous novelist, Ann-Marie MacDonald was a Toronto actress looking for good stage roles. Even at Stratford, she noticed, the lead women were mostly passive victims. So she decided to write her own play in which a mousy female academic pursues alternative ideas about Shakespeare.

Constance Ledbelly theorizes that Othello and Romeo and Juliet were originally comedies by another author with a Wise Fool character that Shakespeare eliminated, making the comedies tragic. Pursuing her thesis, Constance somehow falls through a reality warp like Alice though the looking-glass and finds herself inside the two plays, intervening in their plots. Her journey leads to a renewed sense of her own identity and the discovery that Shakespeare’s heroines were once a lot more independent and aggressive than his scripts would have us believe. MacDonald’s clever twists on the Bard and her gender-bending feminist comedy have made this one of the most popular Canadian plays of the past two decades.

The obvious coup for One Night Castle Projects, tackling the play at North Vancouver’s Presentation House, was casting Cailin Stadnyk as Constance. Coming off her star turn as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, Stadnyk brings instant credibility to the new company. She’s a natural comedienne, her trademark squeaky voice and gawky persona providing delicious comic contrast with the formality of Shakespeare’s characters and language.

Astonished to find herself in Othello, speaking blank verse no less, Constance counts out the iambic pentameter on her fingers: “My God. Perhaps I’m on an acid trip./What if some heartless student spiked my beer?!” Recognizing that Desdemona was actually a powerful Amazonian warrior, she gasps, “Boy, Shakespeare really watered her down, eh?” Stadnyk’s wide-eyed delivery makes Constance irresistible.

The talky first act lurches along somewhat, despite impressive sword fighting on the small stage and strong work from James Rowley as Othello. Leanne Koehn pushes a little too hard to make Desdemona seem the toughest broad in Cyprus. But after intermission things really take off when Constance finds herself in Verona and the play turns into a sex farce in drag. Taken for a boy, she’s pursued by both Romeo (Jeff Gladstone) and Juliet, both horny bi-sexuals who dress in each other’s clothes. Veteran British Panto director Ellie King knows exactly how to handle this kind of material. The delightful Anna Cummer nearly steals the show as sex-and-death-obsessed Juliet, and Rowley shows great comic versatility as Juliet’s Nurse and Tybalt, whom he plays in full Keanu Reeves mode.

Borrowing shamelessly—the Ghost from Hamlet makes an appearance along with a Twilight Zone-ish narrator complete with low-rent lighting effects—Ann-Marie MacDonald gives us intelligent revisionist Shakespeare without tears. Good dirty fun for the wise fool in us all.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Monday, April 4, 2005 8:49 AM
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