Will goes fringing: Freewill Shakespeare Festival takes their resident playwright to the Fringe

Laura Raboud in Macbeth, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

Troy O’Donnell, Ian Leung (rear), front from left Christina Nguygen, Yassine E Fassi El Fihri, Sarah Feutl in Much Ado About Nothing, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

For more than three decades, they’ve camped out in the river valley every summer with the world’s most famous playwright. And they’ve shown off their artist-in-residence in big full-bodied productions under the Heritage Amphitheatre canopy.

For the first time in their history, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival is going to the Fringe. In this second pandemic summer, in a cross-festival adventure, we’ll see their two summer Shakespeare productions — — small-cast, fast and furious 75-minute versions of Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing — starting Friday at the August festivities.

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Beatrice and Benedick’s “merry war” in Much Ado will happen on the Vanta outdoor stage, in a five-actor version created by Freewill artistic director Dave Horak. A trio of female actors have at Macbeth, the hurly-burly of Shakespeare’s great tragedy of “vaulting ambition,” betrayal, and murder on the stage of the Old Strathcona Performing Arts Centre, in a rambunctious version licensed from the Brit company Splendid Productions. It’s a rare example of taking Shakespeare indoors for a company that has always specialized in the al fresco experience.   

“Going to the Fringe and being Fringe shows” (as artistic director Dave Horak puts it) is part of Freewill’s summer of creatively taking arms against the sea of trouble that pandemics are. “Let’s just err on the side of caution,” was his mantra, along with “fun, accessible, and keep the text.” The 2021 Plan B, “new hatch’d to the woeful time,” got immediate traction: bold, small-cast, quick-on-their feet condensations that take Shakespeare to The People, in parks, on their patios, and in their backyards (suggested price $500). “We were instantly sold out,” Horak reports. The only downside: “we’re very weather-dependent.”

Freewill Shakespeare Festival’s two productions, running at the Fringe.

As he points out, “we weren’t going to be able to do our big signature full-length shows in the park anyhow.” Freewill’s usual performance venue is the 1100-seat amphitheatre in Hawrelak Park, and their cast and crew tally is about three dozen, for productions that run two-and-a-half hours or so, and (whoa!) have an intermission. His first official act as Freewill artistic director was to cancel the 31st annual festival last summer; “it broke my heart.” And he was determined that wasn’t going to happen again.

Going to the Fringe “makes sense.” Will goes fringing? Doubt it not. The Bard has been at many a Fringe in his time, with casts as small as one (remember the one-man Hamlet, with a cast of red balloons?), in costumes ranging from blue jeans to body bags. Horak himself is a veteran Fringe artist. His first Fringe outing as an actor, he tries to recall, “was as an actor, probably a kids’ show. Tim (the late Tim Ryan) directed.” He appeared in many Leave It To Jane shows before he started directing at the Fringe, for that indie, the Plain Janes, or his own Edmonton Actors Theatre.

Horak, who directs both the Shakespeares, explains that in another departure from Freewill rep practice, the casts for the Scottish play and Much Ado are separate, for COVIDian reasons. Both include a mix of veteran actors familiar to Edmonton audiences, and newcomers. All had originally been hired for last summer’s festival. “Both shows rely on lots of physical action, and a go-for-the-gusto attack,” he says. At 75 minutes, with lots of doubling (and tripling and quadrupling) of roles, “they’re fleet and action-packed!”

“I played a small part in a production of Macbeth when I was 19,” Horak recalls. The play wasn’t a particular favourite of his, though, he says — till now. “I’m really loving having women play the parts…. You hear the masculine stuff in a very different way,” he says of the escalating violence and bloodshed unleashed by a Scottish usurper (and his aggressive wife) who does the unthinkable to gain the crown. “Somehow it seems even more violent.”

The adaptation acquired from Splendid Productions is full of sassy asides, and “leans into the political,” says Horak. Leadership and ambition, rather than magic and the supernatural, are its keynotes. Nadien Chu, Rochelle Laplante and Laura Raboud play three Bouffons, the piece’s  “choral storytellers,” who take on the characters plus the Unknowns, gender-fluid versions of the three witches. The heart of it, says Horak, is “looking for a new leader,” an idea that resonates strongly in the summer of 2021. 

The comedies, Horak thinks, are trickier to adapt than the tragedies. For one thing “the subplots can be just as interesting as the main plot.” For another, “there’s always mistaken identity,” intricate to pull off when actors are playing multiple parts. In the end he himself adapted Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare’s great multi-hued mid-period comedy, for five actors, three men and two women (Ian Leung, Troy O’Donnell, Yassine El Fassi El Fihri, Sarah Feutl Christina Nguygen). “The actors just love playing, performing,” he says of the fun of rehearsals that have been happening live, five hours at a stretch, at Workshop West’s home space. “A theatrical sandbox, and they get to play all the parts, falling in and out of love.”

“It made sense for me to direct both…. I’ve gone directly from not working at all, to trying to keep my sanity!” Horak laughs. “It’s exhausting, and it’s also energizing.”

And he offers a teaser: When you see a Freewill show at the Fringe, you’ll find out which two Shakespeares the company will do when they return to the Heritage Amphitheatre next season.

Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth preview Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, at Louise McKinney Park before Fringe performances begin Friday and run through Aug. 21. See fringetheatre.ca for the full schedule and tickets. Director Dave Horak’s Macbeth cast: Nadien Chu, Rochelle Laplante, Laura Raboud. The Much Ado About Nothing cast: Sarah Feutl, Yassine El Fassi El Fihri, Ian Leung, Christina Nguygen, Troy O’Donnell.

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