Review: HERE FOR NOW Open-Air Festival, Stratford, Ont.

by Lynn on July 29, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

What: An open-air theatre festival of six plays presented live until August. 30.

Where: On the back lawn of the Bruce Hotel in Stratford, Ont.

Why: To present live theatre safely by local actors of Stratford.

When: The plays run from Friday through Monday, from late-ish afternoon into the evening.  

How: for tickets.

Fiona Mongillo is the fearless Artistic Director of Here for Now Open-Air Theatre Festival. She has fashioned this six show festival to bring live theatre to the people of Stratford (and those who think nothing of driving from Toronto to Stratford to see live theatre) using local talent. Storytelling is the most important endeavor of the festival.

I saw five of the six shows over two days this past weekend. I will see the last play—I See The Crimson Wave–next weekend. The plays are eclectic in nature and tone, varying from the true story of an abused wife who got even in Whack!; the wildly inventive Instant Theatre in which the audience provides the suggestions and the cast of four improvises the plays; The Dark Lady is a wonderful work of imagination about who ‘the Dark Lady’ was in Shakespeare’s sonnets; A Hundred Words for Snow is a story of love, devotion, and fulfilling a wish to a parent; and Infinite Possibilities is a bit of whimsy about the truth about Shakespeare and others told by Shakespeare himself who appears in balloon pants which he stole from Geraint Wyn Davies’ trash.


Written by Mark Weatherley

Directed originally by Lucy Jane Atkinson

 Associate Director, Monique Lund

Cast: Fiona Mongillo

Siobhan O’Malley

Olivia Viggiani

In 1911 Angelina Napolitano (Fiona Mongillo) admitted to a neighbour that she had just killed a pig. The ‘pig’ was her husband, Pietro (Olivia Viggiani). She killed him with an axe. In his sleep. She was arrested, tried and found guilty.

In spare, clear detail, Mark Weatherley has written an absolutely gripping tale of spousal abuse, revenge and justice that has such resonance for us more than 100 years after the fact. Angelina and her husband Pietro first emigrated from Naples, Italy to New York City because Pietro felt he would get rich there, buy a house and live well. Except that he was lazy, impatient to make it rich and couldn’t keep a job. They eventually moved to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. where he got a job as a labourer. In the meantime, they had four children. He was an abusive husband who beat Angelina and even attacked her with a knife. When she complained to the police Pietro was charged but he got off. Times have not really changed. When Pietro told her to make some money through prostitution—she was 6 months pregnant—and he threatened her if she didn’t, it was the last straw.

The production is terrific. Monique Lund has realized the original direction of Lucy Jane Atkinson. All the parts are played by three gifted actresses. Angelina Napolitano (Fiona Mongillo) makes her dramatic entrance walking slowly, as if in a trance, dragging a very large, long-handled axe along the pavement. She approaches the stage and stands in a space encircled by a rope. That confinement symbolizes Angelina’s life in that marriage. Fiona Mongillo as Angelina is both concerned by her husband’s quixotic changes of his mind and feisty when defending herself against him.  Mongillo beautifully conveys how trapped Angelina was as a wife in that marriage and as a woman in regards to the legal system.

Olivia Viggiani plays various parts but mainly Pietro. She swaggers and struts with a sneer and seems to loom over Angelina. There always a sense of danger as Pietro. Siobhan O’Malley also plays various characters but mainly Angelina’s inexperienced but committed lawyer.

It’s a fascinating, unsettling, gripping play.

Instant Theatre

Cast: Rebecca Northan

Ijeoma Emesowum

Bruce Horak

Kevin Kruchkywich

The improv group, Sidewalk Scenes and An Undiscovered Shakespeare, has created Instant Theatre which are four completely improvised playlets partially devised from the audience’s suggestions. Each scene is ‘directed’ by a member of the group and improvised by the rest. The director calls “scene” when he/she feels the scene has accomplished its purpose. The audience then votes on which scene they want to continue and which scene bites the dust.  There are set aspects to each scene so that the group can use a rack of costumes when appropriate. Needless to say, no two plays are the same; each performance is different.

What is consistent is the furious paced invention, imagination, nimble playing and sharp improvisational skills of this group. This group of four is so attuned to each other that they can riff from idea to idea with ease. As with any improvisation, some ideas work better than others. But the skill and boldness of this group is just inspiring to watch.

The Dark Lady

Written by Jessica B. Hill

Cast: Jessica B. Hill

Rylan Wilkie

Curiosity is a wonderful thing and actress Jessica B. Hill is loaded with it. She was preparing for a role with the Stratford Festival Company and was reading through Shakespeare’s sonnets for curiosity. She read all the sonnets and found the later ones, the Dark Lady Sonnets, were full of jealous obsession and borderline cruelty. There was such a difference between the man who wrote such vivid women as Rosalind, Beatrice and Cleopatra etc. and this misogynistic man in the later sonnets that it got her thinking, imagining, pondering and creating a way to connect the two.

It’s believed that Emilia Bassano is one of the possible models for the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. She was an English poet of Italian descent and musician who lived from 1569-1645. Her father was a court musician of Elizabeth 1 and Emilia was educated in royal circles. It is conceivable that she could have met Shakespeare (1564-1616). On the basis of her one volume of poetry she professed herself to be a professional poet. (seems reasonable to me).

As Jessica B. Hill writes in her note: There are 12 of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady sonnets in this piece, text from 20 of Shakespeare’s plays, and 5 excerpts from Emilia Bassano’s sole book of poems “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum”. I love to think that these two brilliant minds found each other, learnt from each other and influenced each other. This narrative I’ve weaved through their poetry paints their story through their works and finds her voice in his words.”

The Dark Lady is a compelling, engaging creation of theatre. Hill poses several questions: “What if—Shakespeare and Bassano met, had a relationship, informed each other’s work? Hill also creates a heady world of words, images, court intrigue, a woman’s place in that world, having to be as wily as a man to navigate the murky waters or court politics etc.

As Emilia Bassano, Jessica B. Hill is feisty, confident and commanding. She has to make her points and stake her space against this literary star of court with grace but not be a pushover. As Shakespeare, Rylan Wilkie plays a man who certainly is curious about this intriguing woman and learns quickly not to underestimate her. It’s a performance of a man who is always surprised by some new aspect of this women.

Jessica B. Hill also pricked my curiosity about other accomplished women who also lived around this time. I wondered if Emilia Bassano knew about Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1569-1645) who was trying to forge her own career in a man’s world. And I bet Aphra Behn (1640-1689), the first woman to make her living as a playwright in London, knew of Emilia Bassano, even though Behn was born five years before Bassano died. Good theatre makes you think about a lot of things.

A Hundred Words for Snow

By Tatty Hennessy

Directed by Jonathan Goad

Cast: Siobhan O’Malley

This is a wonderful coming of age play about Rory, a young (teenage) woman who wants to do right by her late father and take his ashes on the trip of a lifetime.

Playwright Tatty Hennessy weaves a deeply layered, richly worded play that slowly ramps up the pace and has us gently gripping the arm rest, or at least the seat of the chair. It’s a story of the various situations a young woman can get into if they aren’t prepared, but are smart enough to deal with because of resolve and tenacity. And at its core is a love story of a daughter for her father.

The playing area is a raised platform and Siobhan O’Malley as Rory, uses the space with economy and control. She engages the audience in the most natural of ways, facing them, looking them in the face, making the performance intimate and compelling. It’s directed with meticulous attention to the detail of the words by Jonathan Goad and the result is a performance by Siobhan O’Malley that is mesmerizing.

Infinite Possibilities

Written and performed by Mark Weatherley

Directed by Monique Lund

Timing is everything in the theatre, and William Shakespeare certainly knew a thing or two about that. Except he miscalculated here. None other than William Shakespeare made an appearance on the back lawn of the Bruce Hotel to set the story right. He had heard about the Stratford Festival dedicated to his works and decided to come for the opening night but didn’t count on the pandemic to close the place. (He’s at the end of a long line of disappointed people—but I digress).

The charming, bearded and even boyish Mark Weatherley as Shakespeare appears in ‘balloon pants’ (those billowy pants the puff out at the waist and balloon to the knee—the rest are tights (or long shorts if you will). He says he stole them from the trash of Geraint Wyn Davies—who knows a thing or two about Shakespeare’s characters. Weatherley sets the stage immediately with light-hearted humour, impishness and a touch of silliness.

The aim of the show is to tell the truth. The most important truth is that Shakespeare wrote his own plays; not some Earl or other high-ranking man, not some other guy who was dead for the whole of Shakespeare’s life—Shakespeare. Weatherley nicely dispatches the myth that a simple man who was not high born or highly educated could not possibly know as much about all the many things that appear in Shakespeare’s plays.

Weatherley then goes on to other mysteries. The Mona Lisa for example. Who was she? Why is she smiling. Weatherley suggests that the iconic picture is really a paint-over for something else. And who is it a painting of? I’m not telling. You have to see the show.

There are other moments of intriguing “possibilities” that Weatherley poses. It’s all done with good humour, a brisk pace thanks to director Monique Lund, and a lovely connection with the audience.

Bravo to Fiona Mongillo and her company of stalwart actors who put this festival together on the back lawn of the spiffy Bruce Hotel in Stratford. I know I miss hugging during these weird times. This festival made me realize how much I also miss applauding live theatre. Every one of my audiences clapped loudly and long after each show.

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