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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Theatre For Thought, August 18, 2012

joel fishbane

People who know me know how vehemently I tend to react to those who alter Shakespeare and keep it to themselves. Toronto actress / producer Kaitlyn Riordan knows me well – or at least well enough to assure me that her company’s inaugural production, Two Gents is very clearly an adaptation of a Shakespeare classic (Two Gentleman of Verona). “The ending is different from the original,” she assured me, though she admitted that many people may not even notice.  “Nobody knows anything about [the original,]” she admitted. “It’s an early work – much like us.” 

The “us” Riordan is referring to is Shakespeare in the Ruff, a new Toronto-based company dedicated to bringing the Bard to Riverdale, the neighbourhood east of the city’s downtown core. The company is a reboot of one that existed years ago – Shakespeare in the Rough, who performed once upon a time in Riverdale’s Withrow Park and inspired company founder Brendan McMurty Howlett.

“The original members encouraged Brendan to recreate the company,” Riordan said. “They knew there was still an audience.” Riordan herself came on board early on to helm the company’s fundraising endeavours. A hyper-talented actress (bias alert – she once appeared in a production of my play Short Story Long), Riordan will also appear in Two Gents playing both Sylvia and Lucetta. 

Born in Montreal, Riordan is a self-proclaimed Shakespeare nut who once sat in the rain for four hours just so she could watch Hamlet.  “I leapt at the chance to have a say when it came to a new Shakespearian production precisely because he’s been my passion for so long.”

The decision to alter the ending came from discomfort with a moment in the original text when Proteus, one of the titular gentleman, attempts to rape young Sylvia in the woods. “In the original, there are no repercussions to this,” Riordan said, referring to the manner in which Proteus goes unpunished for his actions. “In our version, forgiveness does not come as easily.”

To create the new ending, the company mined some of Shakespeare’s other works, including the sonnets and portions of Love’s Labours Lost. “The additions have given the female perspective more muscle,” Riordan explained. “Some of the additions are just two lines, some are entire monologues.” She added that the play’s arc hasn’t changed – the play, for her, is still very much about the challenges of being on your own in the world for the first time. “What do you do when you lose the moral compass of your parents?” she asked. “What do you do when you have to find your own?”

Performing in Withrow Park was a challenge that the company embraced. The show is very site-specific, with the park’s landscape providing inspiration for much of the staging. As for the threat of bad weather or other acts of God, Riordan was non-plussed. “Shakespeare wrote these plays to be performed in the Globe, which was an outdoor theatre…I’ve never seen one of those impromptu moments – rain, a bird on stage, a flock of sheep – ruin the show.” 

For all her onstage talents, Riordan has also revealed a talent for fundraising. She spearheaded the company’s signature event, “Serving Shakespeare, which marries a cocktail party with topical entertainment. “The cast performs an episode of Elizabethan Bachelorette,” laughs Riordan. “Which is exactly what it sounds like.” For the benefit of a “bachelor”, the actors perform Shakespeare’s sonnets to prove their worth. 

“It’s been enormously successful,” she added. “And best of all, we reach people that we would never otherwise reach.” Which goes back, of course, to the company’s core mandate: in marrying modern themes with classic text, the artists behind Shakespeare in the Ruff all hope to ensure old Will stays relevant for a new generation. 

“Two Gents” adapted from the play “Two Gentleman of Verona” by William Shakespeare appears at Toronto’s Withrow Park from August 15 – September 2, 2012. For more information, visit

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