Jazz-age Illyria

Click here for the article as it appears on EYE WEEKLY’s official web site. Originally published July 14, 2010.

William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night
Philosopher’s Stage, Philsopher’s Walk, southwest of Museum subway station July 13-24, 8pm. Tuesdays PWYC, Wednesdays-Saturdays, $8-$10. www.canopytheatre.ca

Long before its opening this week, Canopy Theatre’s Twelfth Night was drawing crowds. Though that’s not much of a surprise considering the venue for the production (and its rehearsals), Philosopher’s Stage, is in the busy pedestrian walkway between the University of Toronto’s faculties of law and music, overlooking Philosopher’s Walk.

Twelfth Night is quite a spectacle on its own. It’s one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, rife with cross-dressing and double-crossing, as the madcap nobility of Illyria pursue romance. It also has a lot of clowns in it. In short, it is excellent summer theatre fare, exactly what the Canopy Theatre company was looking for to celebrate its 10th anniversary.

For this production, Illyria is in the United States of the 1920s. Don’t worry though: there won’t be any Al Capone–style accents. This production is in the capable hands of Canopy veteran Jeremy Hutton.

“Canopy is not very prone to modernizing,” Hutton admits. Their first productions, Shakespeare’s Roman and Greek plays, all took advantage of the classically inspired academic architecture surrounding the stage to evoke another time. In breaking with that, Hutton carefully chose the 1920s to preserve the social strictures that drive the play. Viola (played by U of T law student Kate Southwell) still needed to feel compelled to dress like a man and the setting needed to be suitable for the idle rich to pursue frivolity and love. Though he makes no claim to being the first to have thought of this, Hutton is using the ’20s to express his own muse.

Hutton has been working in outdoor theatre for the past 10 years, with Canopy and in Halifax’s Shakespeare by the Sea festival. He has been acting and fight directing, but before the theatre Hutton was a music student who graduated from U of T. For Twelfth Night, he’s composed original music to go along with Shakespeare’s songs, inspired by barbershop quartets, legendary jazzman Red Nichols and 1920s crooners like Harold “Scrappy” Lambert. As much as this peculiar makeshift venue is a draw and an inspiration, it is also a challenge. The music is entirely a cappella, since the logistics of a big band or orchestra were overwhelming.

While maybe not the best venue for acoustics, the Philosopher’s Walk has proven to be a step toward the festival stage. Just two years into its productions, Canopy went from a company composed of many non-theatre U of T grads to one that  has a legitimate foothold into the Toronto scene. Andre Sills, who appeared in 2003’s Titus Andronicus, has moved on to Stratford, appearing in Julius Caesar, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream this year. Ginette Mohr, who appeared in 2005’s Electra, was nominated for a Dora Mavor Moore Award and is now appearing at Stratford’s As You Like It.

Hutton is delighted with this year’s recruits. While many members of the cast are new to Canopy this year, there are a few stand-outs. Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski and Paolo Santalucia are both in the thick of their training as actors, both only 20 years old. Shepherd-Gawinski — who plays Feste,  the hardest-working clown in Illyria — is heading to the National Theatre School in Montreal this year. Santalucia is playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a rube, straight man and romantic rival) and currently studies at the University of Toronto Mississauga. In Hutton’s words: “They’re some of the most talented actors I’ve come across in a long time.”

No matter what the challenges of the venue or the potential futures of individual actors, when showtime comes, Hutton’s number one priority is engaging the crowd: “Some actors will say there is such thing as a dead audience — I don’t buy that.”

He is unfazed by rehearsal-crashing pedestrians. When asked if rehearsing or performing in such a busy place is a distraction, he shrugs it off.

“A lot of people sit down and watch for 10 or 15 minutes, but they usually leave when I make the actors really work a scene. During opening night, the house lights aren’t going to go down. We’ll see the people. It’s a dynamic audience experience and I have to be careful as a director not to over-direct, so people have freedom to adjust on any given day.

“That should be celebrated.”

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