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BWW Review: THE AENEID at the Stratford Festival is an Important Piece of Art

The Stratford Festival's production of THE AENEID, currently playing in repertory at the Studio Theatre, is not your standard version of Virgil's classic epic. Director, Keira Loughran brings an old story into the modern world-and does so to great effect with the World premiere of Maureen Labonte's translation of Oliver Kemeid's unique and inspired version.

A relatively small cast takes on various roles and the direction and design allow for the transitions from one role/scene to the next to be easy to follow-even for audiences who are not particularly familiar with Virgil's epic.

The intimate setting of the Studio Theatre, combined with minimal, but brilliant design by Joanna Yu and fascinating movement developed by Movement Coach Tedi Taffel, allows the audience to become fully immersed in this world. This is important because it lets us to feel so connected to the characters that we are able to not only better understand their plight, but hopefully also gain a more nuanced understanding of the plight of thousands of refugees from various places around the world.

Like with the classic version of THE AENEID, this version follows a group of refugees as they try to escape terror and near-certain death in their homeland, and venture out to try and find a new home and a better life. In this version, those refugee stories parallel those that are constantly being told around the world. The play not-so-subtly addresses current crises that exist with refugees and explores some of the direct and indirect effects of immigration laws, refugee camps, etc.

The magical and mystical elements of the classic story-such as the journey to the underworld-are still present, but with this choice to highlight some of the very real, heart-wrenching issues that exist in the world today, this version of the play is always very much rooted in reality.

A key element to the success of this production is the cast. Gareth Potter gives a powerful performance as the lead, Aeneas, a man trying to find a better life for his child, who unwittingly becomes a leader among his fellow refugees as he journeys to escape the terror of his home country and to find a new place in the world. Potter's portrayal of Aeneas' perseverance even in the most trying of times is very moving. Like any hero, he makes some mistakes, and questions himself, but most importantly he continues trying.

Saamer Usmani is fantastic as Aeneas' loyal companion, Achates, and Michael Spencer-Davis provides a show-stopping monologue as Aeneas' father, Anchises that will send chills down your spine and once again encourage the audience to use this play to reflect on real life.

Lanise Antoine Shelley gives two excellent performances-first, as Lucy, a grieving mother, barely clinging to sanity, and then as Elissa-a refugee waiting at a camp for her papers to come through, and becoming increasingly and understandably frustrated with the process of it all. Elissa also forms a relationship with Aeneas, causing him to question whether he should continue his quest for land to call his own.

One thing that crossed my mind while watch the play, was that although the cast is racially diverse-which is certainly necessary in order to tell this story (and quite honestly, necessary in order to best tell most stories!), I did initially bristle at the fact that Aeneas, the character who becomes the leader/hero/moral compass of the story, is a white male. This did not affect my overall enjoyment of the play, but it did make me wonder if audiences might feel that this casting perpetuates a 'White Male Saviour' narrative that seems to be ever so frequent in all forms of media. The stories told in this play are so nuanced and layered, and although race is not specifically addressed in this story, this still feels like an interesting choice considering how race is absolutely a relevant part of the story in terms of the current ongoing refugee crises in the world around us and the role race plays in those situations. Mr. Potter's performance was excellent, but this is still something I am pondering days after seeing the play. I suspect this is something that Ms. Loughran considered during casting, and it would be interesting to be able to discuss the choice with her further. I am in no way an expert on this topic, but it certainly did impact the way the play made me feel.

Overall, this production is an incredibly moving piece of art. The conversations I heard fellow audience members having at intermission were deep, important conversations. A few audience members who had perhaps not done their homework, had been taken by surprise by the ways in which this version differs from the original story, but that is a small price to pay when a company and creative team have the opportunity to put something so important on the stage, and to do it using a classic story no less. This play will allow many people to adjust their lens on the way they see the world-and that, I believe is always an artist's goal.

THE AENEID continues in repertory at the Studio Theatre until October 4th.


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From This Author Lauren Gienow