Taking comedy and tragedy to the park: the Freewill Shakespeare Festival returns

Kristi Hansen and Belinda Cornish in The Comedy of Errors, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Ryan Parker.

Hunter Cardinal in Hamlet, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There’s a vast expanse of theatrical distance between the two shows you’ll see alternating in the outdoor Shakespeare festival that opens tonight in the river valley. Tonight’s show is a comedy, and a farcical one at that; tomorrow’s is a tragedy, widely regarded as the theatrical peak that must be scaled. One’s the shortest play Shakespeare wrote, one the longest (though never performed untrimmed).

The challenging 30th anniversary edition of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival opens tonight with Dave Horak’s production of The Comedy of Errors, an early madcap comedy of escalating confusion unleashed by not one, but two, sets of twins. Marianne Copithorne’s production of Hamlet, the first one at the festival in a dozen years, opens Friday on the same stage, with the same cast. And it’s for you to savour the reverb.

What would change if …?  There’s a question Horak and Copithorne floated for the two high-contrast Shakespeares that co-habit the park this summer.

The last time Horak directed The Comedy of Errors, in 2013, it was a four-actor rap version: The Bomb-Itty Of Errors came at you in a high-speed volley of iambic pentameter, as the title suggests. “In its own original way it was really very faithful to the play!” he laughs. 

What would change if … he had a company of 16? “When I re-read the play, says Horak,“what struck me was how busy the world is, all these people charging through the marketplace of a town…. It seems important to the type of comedy it is. A transient kind of place!”  Sixteen actors, a veritable small town’s worth, was a cause to celebrate.

The Freewill restriction — the house esthetic, and an appealing one for the great outdoors — was “I couldn’t do an Elizabethan period production.” And, pratfalls in doublet-and-hose aren’t hilarious anyhow. So, “somewhere contemporary,” says Horak re-tracing the course of his thoughts. “Something about the comedy suggested vaudeville. I’ve seen quite a few (versions) that took that approach. And then I landed on the idea of a film set….”

“Lots of movement and colour! Lots of people going from one place to another! Classic Hollywood, kinda 1950s,” says Horak, the artistic director of Edmonton Actors Theatre. “A B-grade film set. Maybe C-. Where Ephesus (comedy central) is peopled by people in costumes. Lots of of drag, lots of cross-dressing. It’s a place where you can buy into all the dress-up, all the putting on of character…. ”

“Dave Horak had way too much time to think about it!” laughs Horak of an enterprise to which the scientific terms “zany,”  “wacky,” and “completely shameless” might profitably be applied. Two brothers, both named Antipholus (one from Ephesus, one from Syracuse), have servants, both named Dromio — and that’s just the start.

Since half the Freewill Shakespeare ensemble are women this year, Horak and co are having sport with cross-gender casting. The Antipholi are played by women, Belinda Cornish and Kristi Hansen; you can tell they’re twins by their blue coiffures. “There’s a long tradition of drag in Shakespeare, of course…. It works really well for Comedy. Lots of conversation about gender and identity!”

What would change if…

Hamlet were played by an actor who is not middle-aged? After all, as Copthorne points out, Shakespeare’s troubled and probing tragic hero is, as written, a college student.  Since the role is one of the most demanding and arduous in the entire repertoire — he has more lines to speak, by almost two to one, than any other Shakespeare character — it almost often goes to seasoned Shakespeareans in their late ‘30s or ‘40s (Olivier was 41). So you do occasionally wonder why it’s taken a smart guy so long to graduate.

The Hamlet we’ll see in Copithorne’s production is charismatic 25-year-old Hunter Cardinal, the Romeo of her 2016 production of that early Shakespeare tragedy. And Hamlet’s friends are not only college-age too, but naturally, in a young crowd, it makes sense that his pals include women. Bobbi Goddard plays Horatio. Vanessa Sabourin is Rosencrantz.

Shakespeare’s  hero is often labelled the great procrastinator, a moody ditherer when it comes to avenging his father’s murder. When Hamlet is actually a young man, and the action — says Copthorne of her production — feels like it’s taking place in a 10 days or two weeks, instead of the more usual matter of months, things change. Deeply disturbed by grief and the o’erhasty re-marriage of his mom, Hamlet  “is doing the best he can in the amount of time he has.”

It’s not that Hamlet is moping, or wallowing, or even just congenitally indecisive, says Copithorne. “Young people feel things very deeply…. And people who don’t have a lot of life experience, or time, make mistakes.” 

It’s Copthorne’s second Hamlet for the Freewill Shakespeare Festival (her first, in 2006, starred former Freewill artistic director John Kirkpatrick). Its challenges for outdoor performance haven’t gone away, laughs the director. “How do you make a ghost appear, at 8 p.m. in the park (when it’s still light), and make that remarkable? How do you do the arras for Polonius to hide behind?”

“There’s so much to solve,” she says happily. “It’s an enormous beast.”

Look back on 30 years of summer Shakespeare in the park, with 12thnight.ca. And check out Thou Art Here’s roving production of a new Ben Stevens play premiering at the festival (and opening Saturday): But Hark, A Voice!.


The Comedy of Errors, Hamlet

Theatre: Freewill Shakespeare Festival

Directed by: Dave Horak, Marianne Copthorne

Starring: Hunter Cardinal, Belinda Cornish, Kristi Hansen, Gianna Vacirca, Nadien Chu, Ben Stevens, Ashley Wright, Robert Benz, Vanessa Sabourin, Nathan Cuckow, Kevin Sutley

Where: Heritage Amphitheatre, Hawrelak Park

Running: through July 15, The Comedy of Errors on odd dates and matinees, Hamlet on even dates.

Tickets: freewillshakespeare.com

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