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BWW Reviews: Stratford Festival's TAKING SHAKESPEARE is Heartwarming and Thought-Provoking

Tuesday night marked the opening of TAKING SHAKESPEARE at Stratford Festival's intimate Studio Theatre. This play, written by Canadian playwright John Murrell, and directed by Diana LeBlanc, tells the story of an unlikely bond that develops between a professor (Martha Henry) and a struggling university student (Luke Humphrey) as they explore Shakespeare's OTHELLO and slowly begin to learn more about one another in the process. This show not only provides a master class in acting, but a master class in OTHELLO as well. It is both poignant and funny and it is sure to leave the audience reflecting on important moments from their own lives (happy or sad) and those people who have left an impact on them over the years.

Martha Henry is, at this point, a legend at Stratford Festival, and is returning this year for her 39th season. She is also the director of the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre at the festival-A program from which Mr. Humphrey is a recent graduate. This allows the two to have some real experiences to play off of as they create these characters; though, I somehow doubt that Ms. Henry is as prickly as 'Prof' or that Mr. Humphrey, in his third season at the festival, is as unacquainted with Shakespeare as Murph is. This said, the pair brings these characters to life to great effect.

TAKING SHAKESPEARE is set in the Prof's apartment, and covers a 5-week time period in which the Prof and Murph slowly become acquainted, and slowly tackle the Prof's favourite Shakespearean play, and the only one on Murph's reading list that 'spoke' to him (mainly due to its short title); OTHELLO. What's interesting about TAKING SHAKESPEARE, is that it is not only a beautiful character exploration of these two unlikely friends, but is also a lesson on OTHELLO-which happens to be another play being put on by the Stratford Festival this season. It just so happens that the star of OTHELLO, Dion Johnstone was sitting directly in front of this reviewer during this performance of TAKING SHAKESPEARE. It was fun to occasionally glimpse at his reactions when the Prof and Murph were interpreting his character.

The pairing of TAKING SHAKESPEARE and OTHELLO in the same season allows for theatregoers to have a very unique experience should they choose to see both. The works of Shakespeare can mean different things to different people, and to already be immersed in the world of one of his plays, and then to explore it through someone else's eyes is very exciting, entertaining, and quite frankly, educational! Conversely, those who see TAKING SHAKESPEARE first, will come into OTHELLO with a new perspective and will likely read more deeply into certain scenes that were meaningful to the Prof and Murph. Combining these two shows in one season was a clever move by Artistic Director, Antoni Cimolino, and one that will be very rewarding for Stratford Festival audiences.

This season, the Stratford Festival is exploring the themes of 'Community' and 'The Outsider'. Both Murph and the Prof are outsiders within the academic community at the university, and in the eyes of Murph's mother (the Dean). At first, the pair seem to be the ultimate outsiders to each other as well. It is the attempt to learn about each other-their passions, their dreams, and their regrets; that allows these two to form a a sense of community of their own, and it is through Shakespeare that they find a commonality.

Ms. Henry and Mr. Humphrey are both perfectly cast in these roles. They bring to life some very relatable characters and keep the audience thoroughly entertained throughout. The Prof may initially seem to be a one-dimensional intellectual who has given up on the intelligence of the world around her; but the audience soon sees the layers beneath a soul who has been hurt before and who has closed herself off to those around her--but who still has a burning passion for the work of Shakespeare and the way his plays speak to the human condition. Murph, too, is revealed to be a deeper character than he appears to be when the audience first meets him. This said, he also matures and grows throughout the play. In the first half of the play, Murph is never wearing a matching pair of socks. As the play progresses, and as Murph finds something that he is passionate about in OTHELLO, and perhaps starts paying a little more attention to the world around him, his socks start to match. This was a simple, yet clever idea to demonstrate how this young man is slowly starting to care a little more about his life and the world around him. There are several clever details like this throughout the play that undoubtedly enrich the experience.

If you, as a theatregoer appreciate layered characters, Shakespeare, the pursuit of knowledge, unlikely friendships, or will appreciate this play!

TAKING SHAKESPEARE runs until September 22nd at Stratford Festival's Studio Theatre.

Photo Credit: V. Tony Hauser

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