A large, translucent golden sphere lashed between two trees was visible well away from the seating area for Shakespeare in the Ruff’s 2017 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I am always amazed by the level of spectacle this small company is able to produce with minimal props and set. I have been a patron of Withrow Park Shakespeare in both its incarnations. In the late 90s, I attended productions of the original “Shakespeare in the Ruff”, which became defunct in the early 2000s after a 25-year run. Inspired by the original company’s efforts to create a community centred, accessible outdoor theatrical culture in Toronto, Shakespeare in the Ruff re-emerged in 2012.
I must confess, there was a frown and an eyebrow-raise on my face when Shakespeare in the Ruff announced this year’s play. In my view, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare’s most overdone work. It is easy to understand why it is so often performed. With the story told in less than two hours, its brevity demonstrates near prescience about modern attention spans on Shakespeare’s part. It is breathtakingly witty lyrical nonsense that stands the test of time, but nonsense all the same.
And convoluted nonsense at that. Four stories converge when a wedding, a play rehearsal, an elopement, and a fairy conspiracy all take place in an enchanted forest on the same night. As you can imagine, wackiness ensues.
Despite my opinion that the play is played out, I still really enjoyed this production. My favourite thing about Ruff performances is the absence of a backdrop. The players are able to take full advantage of the expansive space, with entrances and exits from all directions, circling the park.
In my book, In the Ruff’s performances are historically informed practice at its finest. They embrace what was awesome about Elizabethan theatrical culture. Going to the theatre was a full day affair for Elizabethan audiences and show goers often packed a picnic. Less delectable items from people lunches were apt to be thrown at the performers if they were unsatisfied with the show. I have never seen anyone throw food at the players, but you can eat your picnic while you sit on blankets or camp chairs in Withrow Park, maybe even with a discreet glass of wine (shh!). People walking their dogs, kids on scooters that light up, and loud conversations about the drama of daily life all become part of the entertainment.
At the same time, the approach to delivery, timing, body language, and expressions was all very 21st century, making the Elizabethan English feel no different from a conversation you would hear today in a gastro-pub.
This rustic and carefree interpretation of dream also featured some impressive performances from local emerging talent. Jonelle Gunderson as petite spitfire Hermia and Eva Barrie as willowy, lovelorn beauty Helena had charming BFF chemistry together.
The sparks between Hermia and same-sex partner Lysandra played by Joella Crichton were also scintillatingly believable. This subtly executed plot twist brought a very different spin to their mentions of breaking the laws of Athens.
Michelle Polak was power and sensuality personified as Titania/Hippolyta. Her commanding demeanour remained intact throughout, even while she was besotted of an ass. I must also give a shout out, a brava, and all the cheers to Nikki Duval’s Bottom. With an effortless command of physical comedy, character acting, and comedic timing, Duval neighed off into the sunset with a stolen scene every time.
Consistent with Ruff’s grassroots ethos, the costume design was simple and almost timeless. Fluid, pliable shifts and tunics predominated, giving the sense that this could have been either ancient Greece or the Danforth.
In short, pack a picnic and go see this show while it’s on. The house staff all wear Shakespearean ruffs, and it’s adorable.
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing until September 3, 2017 at Withrow Park (725 Logan Avenue)
- Show times are 8 PM from Tuesday to Sunday until September 3.
- Ticket prices pay what you can (suggested $15).
- You can purchase a ticket in advance or rent a chair for $30 online
Photo of Joella Crichton, Eva Barrie, Danny Ghantous, Jonelle Gunderson and Nikki Duval by Dahlia Katz