But hark, a new play! Thou Art Here at Freewill Shakespeare Festival

But Hark, A Voice!, Thou Art Here Theatre (2017 workshop production). Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“For the long and short is, our play is preferred….”  (IV, ii, A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

In one of the most reliably hilarious (and heartwarming) sequences in all of Shakespeare, a co-op of serious and inept amateurs are working on a show. 

From the first read-through through rehearsal to opening night at court, the “rude mechanicals” of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, applying themselves vigorously to “the most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe,” have brought down the house.

“It’s my favourite part of one my favourite plays,” says the actor/playwright Ben Stevens. It’s the inspiration for But Hark, A Voice!, premiering this week as part of this year’s imminent 30th anniversary edition of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival.

Stevens is a core member of Thou Art Here, the ingenious , indie-minded “site-sympathetic” Shakespeare company, who are all about taking the Bard to the people, in unexpected “found” spaces. “We wanted to tell a bit more of their story,” he says of the artisans led by a bossy weaver, Bottom, who magnanimously offers to play all the parts.

Stevens “started pulling lines and phrases” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and created an arc. Instead of Bottom, the perennial scene-stealer who “talks the most and gets lots of laughs,” as director Neil Kuefler puts it, But Hark, A Voice! highlights Flute. He’s the shy bellows-mender who gets assigned the girl part, Thisbe, and isn’t thrilled about it.

“There’s a lot to heart and fear and honesty about him,” says Stevens. “He’s embarrassed about playing a girl…. We know he’s disappointed. But he gets there in the end. I try to turn up his discomfort and fear. And Neil turns up his buying into the play…. Flute is hesitant, nervous, excited, then fully committed.” 

Which says something about the seductive embrace of theatre. As Stevens laughs, theatre is “more fun if you really go for it. Says Kuefler, “it’s why we do what we do: theatre is for everybody. This is about the community of theatre. And it’s exciting.”

“For the first few scenes they’re in rehearsal. And things go awry,” says the director. The mechanicals have to impress the festival director before the Hawrelak Park fairies reduce their plans to chaos.

But Hark, A Voice!, Thous Art Here workshop production 2017. Photo supplied.

As Edmonton audiences know from such Thou Art Here productions as Much Ado About Nothing at Rutherford House, the company is playful about crossing gender lines. Here, in the the interests of “making things more equitable” (there are exponentially more male than female parts in Shakespeare), Bottom is played by a woman (Monica Maddaford). And so is Flute (Christina Nguyen). Bonus: there’s a fascinating theatrical complexity, as Stevens points out, about “a woman playing a boy afraid of being a woman.”

You’ll be on the move with the actors. “We’re trying to embrace all parts of the site,” says Kuefler of the roving production in which the audience meets just outside the main gate of the Heritage Amphitheatre complex in Hawrelak Park. Yes, you’ll be seeing the mysterious backstage.

 It’s the fifth year Thou Art Here has collaborated with the Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Before the mainstage performances, as a service to the plot-challenged, they do larky puppet versions — “the world premiere of a whole new set of puppets!” says Kuefler — of the plays we’ll see, this year A Comedy of Errors and Hamlet. “They’ve been so generous in welcoming us,” Kuefler says of the festival. “This year we have a tent all to ourselves!”

You wonder which are trickier, in creating puppet versions of Shakespeare, the  comedies or the tragedies? Surprisingly, Stevens says Hamlet “is a little bit easier; it’s easier to make jokes about the heavy stuff…. With A Comedy of Errors, the jokes are already there.” 

“We want to make it accessible,” says Kuefler. “It’s all about having fun with Shakespeare.”


But Hark, A Voice!

Theatre: Thou Art Here at Freewill Shakespeare Festival

Written by: Ben Stevens

Directed by: Neil Kuefler

Starring: Christyina Nguyen, Monica Maddaford, Alyson Dicey, Taylor Chadwick, Mohamed Ahmed, Rebecca Sadowski

Where: Meet at main gate, Heritage Amphitheatre, Hawrelak Park

Running: June 23 through July 14. For full schedule and tickets see thouartheretheatre.comPuppet versions of Hamlet and A Comedy of Errors run June 21 and 22, Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sunday matinees. 

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