Ann-Marie MacDonald’s award-winning comedy Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) has been around for almost 30 years, but Brian Fidler and Clare Preuss are convinced it will still play well to contemporary Whitehorse audiences.
“I think it appeals to the core audience of the Guild that likes a good Canadian classic show, and that loves Shakespeare,” Fidler said, explaining why he chose it to open his second season as the Guild Society’s artistic director.
For the play’s director, Toronto-based Clare Preuss, the themes of sexual identity and gender politics are just as relevant now as when it the play premiered in 1988.
“Part of the reason it survives is that it’s asking questions without giving hard and fast answers. It’s asking a lot of questions, which is great. It’s really fun to play with.”
While Desdemona/Juliet has a philosophical core, “… it’s also slapstick comedy and full of gender-bending and questions about gender and sexual orientation,” Preuss said.
“I think it really plays quite intelligently with Shakespeare’s themes, and also challenges some of those themes.”
Veteran Whitehorse theatre-goers will recognize the Governor-General’s award-winning piece from a 1991 production here, directed by Anton Solomon. This time around, Preuss has recruited Solomon to serve as fight choreographer.
The play’s starting premise involves the efforts of a Queen’s University academic, Constance Ledbelly, to unravel an obscure text that may, or may not, have been the source for both Shakespeare’s Othello, and his Romeo and Juliet.
“The language is challenging, because you’re juggling Shakespearean language that’s taken out of context, with Ann-Marie’s sort of philosophical and intellectual hypothesis, or thesis,” Preuss said.
Language is not the only challenge her five-person cast has to face.
“We actually have a lot of fight choreography, which Anton has done beautifully for it. And then there’s actually dance choreography, like full-on dances. So, they’re taking it all and running with it.”
Recognizing that sexual politics – “especially the queer politics” – has changed considerably between the 1980s and 2017, Preuss chose to update the play’s current-day setting to the 1990s.
“We toyed with the idea that when Constance, the lead character, goes back into these Elizabethan realities, she’s actually going back to them in her mind, through her filter of the mid-’90s reality.
“So, we’re mashing up all the costumes [by Kaori Torigai], which are incredible. It’s a real mix of super-’90s pop style mixed with Elizabethan style. We’ve done that with the dance as well, and the fights,” she said.
“The Romeo and Mercutio and Tybalt scene is set in a pool hall, so they begin fighting with their pool cues, almost like street fighting, then they go into using daggers. And there’s Elizabethan dance mixed with ’90s Paula Abdul-style dancing.”
Besides shifting centuries, each of the actors – except Telek Rogan as the questing Constance – has to shift among different roles. Reid Vanier, for example, starts off as Professor Claude Night before morphing into Othello, Tybalt, and even Juliet’s nurse.
“Which is also very funny, because he’s got a large beard and he’s a very tall, broad-shouldered man.”
Carman Lam Brar plays a student who is late handing in a paper, as well as a Gulf war-era soldier, and the young Juliet. Loughran Thorson-Looysen is cast as her Romeo, as well as the Chorus, Iago and a ghost.
Katie Avery plays the professor’s love-interest, Ramona, as well as both Mercutio and Desdemona, and a servant.
“In our version of the servant, she plays guitar, she plays the Indigo Girls version of Romeo and Juliet, and she is also the DJ at the party, so it’s pretty funny.”
This is the second play Preuss has done for the Guild. Last year, she directed Matt Murray’s Myth of the Ostrich. But until rehearsals started, she hadn’t met her Desdemona/Juliet cast members, even during auditions.
“I was in Switzerland at the time, auditioning people over Skype. It was a bit nerve-wracking, especially because there’s a lot of requirements of the cast. It’s a very physical show,” she said.
“Juliet has to appear 13. She says she’s 13 going on 14, and Romeo’s very young as well. I had never auditioned folks that age [in Whitehorse]. I’d never auditioned men before, because Myth of the Ostrich was all women, so when Brian proposed the show to me, I said I trust you know there’s going to be people who can do this.”
In the end, she said, “Everyone came through the door who needed to come through the door.”
Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) opens on Thursday, October 5 and runs until Saturday, October 21 at the Guild Hall at 27 – 14th Avenue in Porter Creek. Curtain is at 8:00 p.m. For more information, go to www.GuildHall.ca.
This Season’s Lineup
Besides Good Night Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), the Guild’s playbill for 2017-18 includes an eclectic selection of plays, directed by two visiting directors (one female, one male) and two local directors (one male, one female).
The next show scheduled is Good People, by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire.
According to the Guild’s artistic director, Brian Fidler, “It speaks to the racially-charged times that we’re living in right now, and the polarity in the United States between the rich and the poor – these two Americas that have their own versions of what is true.”
It also has “some really juicy parts for women in their 40s and 50s,” he said. There are some great performers in that age group in Whitehorse, and I wanted to get something really good for them.”
Good People will run from November 30 to December 16, under the direction of Torontonian Clinton Walker, who has previously mounted several Guild shows.
Fidler, who is also a puppeteer, will direct Hand to God, a dark comedy by Robert Askins, about a group of teens who use puppets to act out biblical stories in a church basement until one of the puppets runs amok.
“I was looking for something that was up my alley, and also something that would be a little bit edgier. I think there’s an appetite for that kind of edginess, mixed with really dark humour,” Fidler said.
Hand to God will run from January 25 to February 11.
The season will end with a musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin.
Fidler chose it, in part, to provide opportunities for participants in last year’s improv classes at the Guild.
“There is an improvisational element to the spelling bee show that I thought would appeal to this group of performers that has been coming out regularly. I wanted to have something that we could really sink our teeth into,” he said.
Directed by Jessica Hickman, that show will run from April 5 to 21.