Camping out with Shakespeare in the park: Freewill Shakespeare Festival returns with an intriguing pair of plays

(clockwise from left) Gianna Vacirca, Ben Stevens, Patricia Cerra, Oscar Derkx in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Ryan Parker

The sheep ensemble, The Winter’s Tale, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls,

“If this be magic, let it be an Art as lawful as eating.” — The Winter’s Tale

The actors pull up at rehearsals in shorts on their bikes, dodging geese (mosquitoes, squirrels  and the odd coyote), and ride right up to the stage. The directors take a break at picnic tables (and reapply Off).

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And as for the the audience … well, as we’ve discovered in the course of a love affair 30 summers long and counting, there is a powerful allure about the combination of nature, Shakespeare, and those lingering Edmonton summer dusks in the great outdoors. 

Yes, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival is back this week rain or shine— with an alternating pair of high-contrast plays by their resident playwright (they’re on a first name basis with the world’s starriest).

In signature bold, accessible productions, Freewill has often let a Shakespeare tragedy and a comedy create unexpected sparks off each other. The 31st annual edition, opening Thursday and Friday at the Heritage Amphitheatre in Hawrelak Park, gives us two of the strangest, most category-resistant plays in the entire canon.

They almost bookend the celebrated and mysterious career. The Two Gentlemen of Verona (directed by Kevin Sutley) is a not-quite comedy with a romantic setup and a bitter taste; it dates from Shakespeare’s early days as an up-and-comer. The Winter’s Tale, a late-period “romance” full of magical interventions and surprising shifts of tone (directed by Dave Horak, is neither comedy nor tragedy, though it has elements of both, on its 16-year route to reconciliation.

Sutley, who’s making his Freewill directing debut with the odd and intriguing “comedy” after a dozen years as a member of the acting ensemble, calls The Two Gentlemen of Verona “a puzzle – even if it weren’t for the ending….” Two love-struck young men, best friends forever, go off, first one then the other, to see the world. And one of them, Proteus takes it into his head to fall madly in love with his friend Valentine’s beloved, with less than salubrious results for all concerned.

That ending can be a corker: Proteus assaults Silvia, who’s rescued at the last moment. “And then the men forgive each other … “especially problematic in a contemporary context,” as Sutley puts it. “There are ways to dampen the attack. But I feel we have to face up to it, to address it and make a different sort of comment on it.”

As Sutley says, “a puzzle,” the way The Taming of the Shrew is a puzzle and Carousel is a puzzle in musical theatre. “How do we address the dark moments in a play that’s otherwise a very silly light comedy? I’m pleased with how we’ve dealt with that.” 

Says Sutley, “it feels like a very early play with a writer experimenting with ideas that would be seeds for later plays.” He laughs. “I honestly didn’t know what I was getting into. But it’s been such a good experience!” 

““I leaned into the weirdness,” laughs Dave Horak of The Winter’s Tale.“I didn’t shy away from that.” In fact, for Horak, whose Edmonton Actors Theatre archive includes such unusual offerings as 70 Scenes of Halloween and The Bomb-itty of Errors, (a hip-hop re-telling of A Comedy of Errors), weirdness is part of the attraction. “I’ve gone with the fact that The Winter’s Tale is magical, mythical, an unbelievable story….” 

And so are the staging challenges that have perplexed and stressed  many a director for 400 years. “How do you do the bear? How do you do the statue?” summarizes Horak, who made his Freewill directing debut with last summer’s zany neon-drenched production of A Comedy of Errors he set on a lowball Hollywood backlot.

Start with the wildlife. The Winter’s Tale famously contains the most famous stage direction in all of Shakespeare: “exit, pursued by a bear” in Act III. It’s not considered out of the question that Shakespeare’s company borrowed a real one from the bear-baiting pits near the Globe.

And since there’s a sheep-shearing contest amid the rustic harvest festivities to which the play abruptly shifts after the harrowing court scenes, there are sheep. And they don’t just stand around looking sheepish, says Horak. “I’ve given the sheep a dance and a song, a production number!”

Belinda Cornish and Alice Cornish Meer in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Photo by Ryan Parker.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona notably contains the canon’s most coveted non-speaking role. It’s for a dog. Crab, who regards his master with lofty disdain, belongs to Proteus’s servant Lance. In Sutley’s production he’s played by the adorable showbiz veteran Alice Cornish Meer, who resides in real life with Belinda Cornish and Mark Meer. “She’s been coming to rehearsal, getting to start to know the play,” says Sutley.

The bear is a challenge, and Horak is mysterious. “A person in a bear suit? An offstage report? A projection?” says Horak, reviewing a shortlist of staging possibilities  for this “moment of horror and comedy: weird, uncomfortable, strange, often gets a laugh… “

Like the play, “it takes tragedy and comedy and  and stitches them into something unclassifiable.”

“How can I give the bear his moment? I’ve gone with old-fashioned theatrical magic,” Horak says. “I hope it works! It’s an experiment for me too…. I keep fussing with it.”

And here’s another oddity: At the mid-point of the play, just after the bear has pursued poor Antigonus to a gory end, Time enters as a stand-alone character to announce that we’re about to arrive 16 years in the future. Horak says he’s given Time to the “ghost of the child” Mamillius, a mortal victim of his father’s inexplicable all-consuming suspicion that his wife has slept with his best friend.

The statue that comes to life in Act V, suddenly warm and breathing after those 16 years, is of Hermione, the wife of a king, Leontes, whose declension into raging homicidal jealousy happens so fast at the outset — “under a minute,” says Horak — it seems motiveless.

For any actor, whose first impulse is to search out ‘what’s my motive?’  Leontes is a challenge. Horak has cast Sheldon Elter, the engaging creator and star of Métis Mutt and a Freewill fave. “He’s so likeable onstage,” says Horak. “So good-hearted….”

Leontes is drawn as such a monster, as Horak puts it, and we’re  naturally disposed to analyze him, understand him. “But Shakespeare doesn’t give us that,” thinks the director. “There’s a kind of madness that sweeps over him. And he can’t figure it out himself: there’s no back story, no psychological reasoning.”

“That gives it the framing of a story around the campfire,” says Horak.

On even dates (and most matinees), then, you’ll see an odd early comedy, “so intriguing for its changes in textual style,” as Sutley says. It puts the ideal of romantic love up against male friendship, and lets the former win out. Sutley sets his production vaguely in the ‘90s (with original music by Matthew Skopyk).

On odd dates, you’ll see a strange late play with startling relocations “from courtroom drama to pastoral comedy to romance, and magic realism,” as Horak puts it. “Only a mature playwright would have the confidence to experiment with the narrative, with structure, with genre” the way that happens in The Winter’s Tale.

Horak locates the court in a setting that vaguely evokes the late ‘20s pre-Crash world of The Great Gatsby before it shifts to “the rustic feel of Appalachia, early 1940s,” (music for onstage players by Darrin Hagen). “I’m attracted to a play and a playwright who seems a little reckless. I mean, the guy has written Hamlet already. And when you’ve done that, you don’t have to take chances. You can be done!”


Freewill Shakespeare Festival 2019

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Winter’s Tale

Directed by: Kevin Sutley, Dave Horak

Where: Heritage Amphitheatre, Hawrelak Park

Running: Thursday through July 14

Tickets: or at the gate


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