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Review: Heroines get their due in UVic production of Shakepeare's Women

Libby Appel play a natural fit for student show; Crystal Pite a standout in busy week of live performances
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Nerissa (Naomi Duska) gossips with Portia over cocktails, discussing the lacklustre dating profiles of her lady's suitors. This scene from The Merchant of Venice is one of many featuring the Bard's most iconic female characters in Shakespeare's Women, at the Phoenix Theatre until March 26, 2022. DEAN KALYAN

It seemed sinfully delightful to enjoy a busy week of live performance in Victoria without mask requirements. We’re not quite back to full normalcy yet, of course. While masks in theatres are no longer mandatory, they’re strongly encouraged for audiences attending Shakespeare’s Women, Libby Appel’s rather academic homage to the Bard’s heroines, playing the University of Victoria to March 26.

Face coverings are also encouraged at Pacific Opera’s excellent Bon Appétit!/The Italian Lesson, starring vivacious mezzo-soprano Megan Latham. There’s still time to catch this clever double-bill at Baumann Centre on March 20 and 23 (these shows are sold-out; there’s an added performance March 25 due to popular demand).

Only half the audience masked up for a pair of fine Ballet B.C. performances at the Royal Theatre last weekend. On Friday night the atmosphere was celebratory — partly because it was fun to be out and about within a crowd, partly because Crystal Pite’s astonishing The Statement was so well danced.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, masks were in scarce evidence at Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson biographical talk on Wednesday. The uber-garrulous vocalist chatted for an impressive two hours straight at the Royal before taking a breath preceding a Q&A session. The crowd was sprinkled with middle-aged metal fans in Iron Maiden T-shirts, some with kids in tow.

Shakespeare’s Women might be retitled The Bard’s Greatest Hits for Female Characters. Appel, a former director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, has taken samples of dialogue and assembled them into a montage. The idea is to shine a light on Shakespeare’s heroines — a sort of “sisters are doin’ it for themselves” proposition.

The UVic student show, at the Phoenix’s Chief Dan George Theatre, is directed by Dean Gabourie, former associate director at the Stratford Festival. Shakespeare’s Woman has a feminist sub-text; Gabourie rightly points out that in Shakespeare’s era female characters were played by male actors.

So it’s high time to give women their due — an admirable enough idea. The script, however, is hobbled by the fact that a dizzying cornucopia of characters is presented out of context. The slice-and-dice approach can be confusing, especially given modern audiences are already challenged by the archaic language.

We hear from Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, Ophelia, Juliet, Helena (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Olivia (Twelfth Night), Isabella (Measure for Measure). Rosalind (As You Like It), Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing), Katherine (Taming of the Shrew) and more. There’s also guest appearances from the men: Hamlet, Romeo and so on.

A play like this is a natural fit for a university in that it provides students, especially young women, the chance to sample a multitude of classic roles. Still, it’s a bit like plucking out Mona Lisa’s smile and an arm from Botticelli’s Venus and shoving them into a new painting. Torn from their natural settings, the depth of meaning cannot help but be diluted.

There are good things about this production. The notion is that these diverse characters pop in and out of a nightclub with throbbing electro music. The conceit works, thanks in part Brock Keeler’s atmospheric design: warehouse/industrial with rusting girders.

On Thursday night there was some lovely singing, particularly that of Sarah-Michelle Lang, a quirky sonneteer armed with a ukulele. Sophia Radford (Rosalind), Christopher Salt (Mavolio/messenger ) and Maddy el Baroudi (Isabella) were among those offering strong performances. Especially enchanting was a well-rehearsed dance finale for full ensemble, choreographed by Jacques Lemay.

Pacific Opera Victoria’s new show benefits from the talents of four women who whip up big fun bristling with verve and intelligence.

Singer Megan Latham is a sheer delight in Bon Appétit! and The Italian Lesson — a pair of a solo pieces by American composer Lee Hoiby. The production also benefits from Glynis Leyshon’s lively, inventive direction, Pam Johnson’s cheerful, functional set and the vivacious, precise accompaniment of pianist Kimberley-Ann Bartczak.

The amount of stage business in this accessible double-bill would fell a lesser talent. Bon Appétit! takes inspiration from a cooking show, with Latham, as Julia Child, vocalizing robustly while whipping up a chocolate cake. Even more impressive is The Italian Lesson in which she portrays a Park Avenue gadabout. Latham sang with commendable clarity and heft, all the while scolding children, gossiping with friends, bossing a cook, juggling a lover and pretending to learn Italian.

There were several works on the Ballet B.C. bill presented by Dance Victoria. Yet the audience members I ran into afterwards mostly raved about The Statement.

The astounding work is choreographed by Crystal Pite, a Victoria native with a successful international career. The 20-minute piece is set to a spoken-word soundtrack. Four business-suited minions do a dance of desperate damage control in the wake of some murky disaster. Unrelenting corporate-speak, mimed by the dancers, hints at dark horrors and weasel-like buck-passing: “I’m here to get a statement explaining how your department acted independently — I don’t care if it’s the case or not the case.”

The movement was unrelentingly sharp and angular, sometimes contorted, with the dancers’ limbs slicing the air with scalpel-like precision. Brimming with intelligence and a heady intensity, The Statement is thrilling modern dance.