Actor Kazz Leskard has a formidable yet funny task as one of the central characters in the raucous new Fakespeare Festival, set to tear up the Drive this summer.
In one of the shows on Awkward Stage Productions’ double bill, Titus, he has to play ol’ frill-collared Will himself. But in the whacked-out world of Andrew Wade and Jenny Andersen’s musical twist on Titus Andronicus, he’s learned not to get too analytical about tackling the mind behind so many masterpieces.
“At first, I said, ‘I’m confused about who I’m supposed to be,’ ” Leskard says with a laugh, joining fellow actor Courtney Shields and director Andy Toth in the foyer of the York Theatre, where the fest will be based. ‘Am I William Shakespeare alive in his lifetime? Or is this some fourth-wall-breaking, ethereal Shakespeare that lives outside of fiction and is able to make pop-culture references?’ And I believe the answer was ‘Yes!’
“I like plays that don’t get too precious,” he adds, “that say, ‘This is all pretend, so let’s just enjoy the joke.’ ”
That was the driving philosophy behind Titus (cheekily subtitled The Light and Delightful Musical Comedy of Titus Andronicus) when it debuted at the Vancouver Fringe Festival last year, earning full houses and an enthusiastic Pick of the Fringe award. That led to talks with the Cultch, which offered up support and the York. Toth saw the opportunity to polish the piece on a larger stage, as well as pair it, in repertory, with another witty Canadian Shakespearean spoof: Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), in which academic Constance travels back to the worlds of Othello and Romeo and Juliet and gives them a feminist reboot.
As it turns out, the plays make a perfect pairing, Leskard points out.
“In Goodnight Desdemona, the parody starts off with us taking the material seriously, as Shakespeare wrote it, and then Constance gets sucked into that world and pulls it apart. It just gets sillier and goofier,” he explains.
“Whereas in Titus, it starts out goofy: the convention is that William Shakespeare is trying to make it a light, goofy comedy and realizes there’s no making the show as funny as he wants to make it because it’s filled with all this serious subject matter.”
“His goal is to turn the play that he loves into something that everybody loves, and as it goes on, he realizes the futility of doing that,” adds Toth, who’s also a well-known actor around town. “There’s no way to turn a horrible situation into something comedic and light and fun. It’s his coming to terms with the fact that horrible things exist in the world.”
The result requires its performers to walk a razor’s edge between comedy and tragedy. They also have to pay homage to Shakespeare’s elegant words even while eagerly taking the piss out of them.
“It’s sort of a duality,” Shields agrees, adding the cast has been having a blast. “You have to lean into the comedy when it’s appropriate, but Titus Andronicus is one of the darkest, bloodiest plays Shakespeare ever wrote.” In it, the character Lavinia is raped and mutilated—not usually the stuff of comedy. Toth says he’s got to achieve a tone where the assault is clearly wrong, and yet such events morph absurdly into song and dance.
Shields adds that the actors in Goodnight Desdemona, who have to pull off perfect couplets as well as believable, fully choreographed fight scenes, must dig back into their rigorous training in Shakespeare to tackle the fare at Fakespeare. “If you don’t understand the original source, you can’t satirize it,” she says simply.
Still, this year’s Fakespeare shows go beyond satirizing the Bard; both productions also take on theatrical and societal conventions with gusto. It’s pretty subversive, for example, to cast women (including Shields) in male roles in a play that focuses on such misogyny. Titus also takes on the casting of people of colour (or lack thereof) as part of its script. For its part, Goodnight Desdemona has its own share of clever gender play, and Constance gets to save two female victims from their Shakespearean fates, turning at least one of them into an all-out warrior.
With two such strong parodies kicking off the new fest, one wonders if there’s enough of this material to sustain the event well into summers to come.
“Sure!” Toth exclaims, mentioning West Side Story as just one other work that could fit the bill. And he sees the fest as a nice, East Side–suited alternative in a season often devoted to more straight-up renditions of the Bard.
As he puts it, in a tone as cheeky as the festival’s: “I think Fakespeare is nice counterprogramming for the summer.”
The Fakespeare Festival takes place at the York Theatre from next Wednesday (August 3) to August 28.