St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival, Prescott
It’s a dismal day, all cumulonimbus, threatening thunderstorms, threatening to rain on my parade. The grey flannel light, the kind that encourages headaches and grumpiness, can’t quite dispel the cheeriness of my Designated Travel Companion (DTC). He’s confident that the clouds will give way to clear skies so we can enjoy Two Gentlemen of Verona outdoors at the amphitheatre in Prescott. I have my doubts. Harumpf. Grumpiness.
Heading east, we stay on Hwy 401 as long as humanly possible, until we trade efficiency for scenery. The Thousand Islands Parkway shoots off from the highway just east of Gananoque, and is a much prettier road, snaking in and out from the shoreline of the St. Lawrence River. Constructed in the late 1930s, the road was very briefly part of the 401 until loud opposition from locals forced the bypass to relocate further north; it was given its current designation in 1970.
The unused westbound lanes from its former days as a four lane highway have been wisely repurposed as a well-maintained, multi-use path. Recently repaved and running about 40km in length, it’s part of Ontario’s Waterfront Trail. We do spy a few steely-eyed cyclists along the way, but the gleeful grey-haired ladies careening past in the eight-person golf cart seem to be having more fun.
We pass by entrances to many private residences and clusters of cottages, but finally dip down into the single, looping road of Rockport for a look-see. You can get a sense of what life was like on the river 150 years ago if you squint a little. Historic buildings still stand, but these days the former boat-making community makes a name as a major embarkation point for the very popular 1000 Islands cruises. A quick peek at an operator’s site provides information in seven different languages.
It’s clear why the area is a tourist magnet; even on this grey day, the views and the air are lovely. Add to that the wealth of things to do, especially if one is outdoorsy. One tourism site lists 16 different kinds of sporting activities including fishing, kayaking and world class freshwater scuba diving at over 200 shipwrecks in the area. No mention of the famed salad dressing, however, which is more my speed.
The entire 1000 Islands area is so rich with history that I’m sorry to have to skim past. I console myself with the fact that I’ll be back next month to explore further, maybe take in a boat cruise myself, when I head to a show in Gananoque.
The meandering along the Parkway puts our arrival into Prescott later than intended. We arrive too late for the Farmer’s Market in the parking lot near the Clock Tower, and somehow miss the Forwarders’ Museum, which is closed tight when I pull on the doors. Which frees up a little time to pop into the Salvation Army store on King Street. As a thrift store aficionado, I am disappointed but not unhappy with this development. In the shop, I witness the donation of a dollhouse and, not two minutes later, someone coming in asking if they have one for sale. I leave empty-handed but DTC finds a clean-lined carafe, made in West Germany, for a buck.
Standing prominently among the beautiful, well-preserved buildings of the downtown area, the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival (SLSF) has a well-appointed storefront box office. Besides being able to reserve and pick up tickets, you can purchase SLSF t-shirts and other souvenirs, books about and plays from Shakespeare, puppets, and playbills. You can even get a peek at the costume designer’s inspired sketches for the season’s shows.
It’s a low-key afternoon on the main street in Prescott, although there is a little more activity along the attractive waterfront. Opened in 1989, the Sandra S. Lawn Harbour and Marina offers 148 slips (including free docking for the duration of the show!), a playground, picnic facilities and the amphitheatre. DTC and I take a stroll along the harbour. It’s quiet out on the river today, the water lazily lapping the rocks, nary a freighter in sight. The air is warm and fragrant with the smell of fish. A gang of roving seagulls follows DTC and his bag of peanuts, regularly raining little birdie expletives on him for not sharing.
We walk up to the Kinsmen Amphitheatre which will house Two Gentlemen of Verona later this evening. It is unguarded, save for a warning of security cameras; the stage empty but with a gold and pink Art Deco-inspired backdrop already in place. It’s an outstanding public performance space. We later learn that the city has very recently completed upgrades to the stonework and grass that comprise the seating, and to the landscaping; the latter thoughtfully designed with linden trees and plants inspired by Shakespeare’s plays. I imagine somewhere there must be a rose, by any other name, smelling as sweet.
As the afternoon winds down, DTC and I head over to The Red George Public House. We are seated on the sunken patio, looking out over the parking lot that looks out over the water that looks over to Ogdensburg, NY. It’s well-hidden from the main street, but worth seeking out as much for the atmosphere as for the story.
In 2007, a group of 50 enterprising locals banded together and raised the capital for the pub by selling 100 shares at $5,000 a pop. It was built in the basement of the Moran Hooker Trade Centre, a 1828 warehouse that was part of the Forwarding Trade of days past. The place looks like it’s original to the building, decorated in dark wood and brick walls and gleaming glassware. It’s a good place to pull up a barstool and get the latest gossip.
Ian Farthing, Artistic Director of the Festival and Director of this evening’s production, joins us as our desserts arrive, and tells us a bit more about the Red George. The private room around the back, the one adorned with photos of actors and past season’s posters, is the “unofficial Shakespeare” room and the traditional location of opening night festivities. The pub is extremely supportive of the SLSF, supplying free vouchers for fundraising events, and selling beverages pre- show and at intermission. In fact, it’s so closely tied to the Festival, if there’s a change of venue due to rain, the Red George gets a call so staff can direct the patrons. Tonight, however, it appears that DTC’s prediction is true: the skies have cleared and there isn’t a hint of rain on the horizon.
I ask Ian how a town this size (pop: 4284) can support a theatrical company, especially one that features Shakespeare. He quotes the common Prescott saying: “Summer doesn’t start until the actors get here.” The inhabitants are invested in the success of this festival. Its existence gives them a sense of pride, and they are proud to be a part of it, to the tune of 200 active volunteers, for example. And they support financially, too. A flip through the robust 2014 season program (44 pages!) reveals many ads from local businesses and a lengthy list of donors and sponsors.
The St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival also works hard to reach back into the community, to make the theatre an accessible excursion for many. They have a generous ticketing policy which admits children 14 and under for free when accompanied by an adult. Ian says that it’s part of their mandate to make the Festival accessible “not only in terms of the artistic product, but also financially. It makes it a more affordable outing for a family to enjoy the experience, and introduce kids to theatre and Shakespeare in particular.”
And sometimes, it’s the kids who lead the parents. Ian tells us the story of a 4-year-old who plopped down near the beginning of an outdoor rehearsal for Macbeth and stayed for the duration. The Festival’s unofficial slogan is: “This ain’t your High School Shakespeare”. He reminds us that the plays “weren’t written to be read or studied. They were written to be experienced.” So the plays get trimmed, for clarity but also for incredibly practical reasons: “The mosquitoes descend at 9:20 on the dot so we need to be finished by then.” Ian is sure that Shakespeare, a pragmatic businessman, would have approved.
It’s when I return to the amphitheatre for the show that I truly begin to appreciate that sense of community investment. This place is alive and bustling, in a way that was a mere suggestion hours earlier. Audience members stock up on refreshments and souvenirs and rented lawn chairs. Volunteer Front of House staff greet us cheerily, take our tickets and hand over programs. The raffle ticket sellers roaming the aisles are happy and enthusiastic; I’m sold. For $5, I purchase a ticket to win a Big Green Egg. Fingers crossed.
Ian is already halfway through his nightly introduction by the time we arrive, but I do catch a few salient points. As hinted by the backdrop and costume designs, we learn that this production was inspired by The Great Gatsby. He shares a few interesting facts about Shakespeare and warns us that Crabbe the dog is a scene-stealer. Indeed. At intermission, Crabbe (as played by Ellie Mae Casselman, making her professional theatrical debut) has a small coterie of fans surrounding her.
The play begins in the most relaxed and welcoming way. Musicians and actors slowly wander onstage from all points surrounding us, lounge around or converse idly with the audience, then begin to warm up before belting out songs by George Gershwin and Irving Berlin and others popular in the Jazz Age. The costumes are neutral in tone: white and ecru and tan with strong black accents. There’s a flapper aesthetic to some women’s dresses and the men have straw hats and spats. It’s an evocative palette.
The Festival’s mandate of accessibility continues into the performance. The music was deliberately chosen for its familiarity. The audience taps its toes and drums fingers on thighs and hums along in places. Monologues are addressed to us. The actors move through the audience, occasionally sitting down for a spell. Launce and her little dog conscript some spectators at one point in the play. Even the Red George gets a shout out.
And the audience gives back as much as it’s given; they are invested. There are murmurs of delight when Crabbe makes her first entrance; giggles when she yips. Big laughs in all the right places, groans for the worst puns, and gasps of disbelief when one of our heroes turns traitorous.
Two Gentlemen of Verona is “a green play”, possibly even Shakespeare’s first, commonly considered to be one of his weakest. However, the thoughtful editing and deft direction by Ian help the show to zip along playfully. It’s also clear why Ian’s been asked, multiple times over the years, “Who wrote the modern adaptation?”. It’s the ultimate compliment; you know you’re connecting with your audience when they absorb the centuries-old words without a second thought.
The show is an utter delight, start to finish. The action whirls past, in one side, out the other, flowing effortlessly like the river behind. The musically talented cast play multiple instruments and weave songs throughout the scenes and in-between, everything in constant motion. Everyone has great fun with the material; it’s impossible to single out any performance for praise as all are incredibly strong. We leap to our feet at the end, clapping until the last cast member exits up the stairs and out the top of the amphitheatre.
It’s a perfect night. There’s a slight breeze off the river and the sinking sun stains the clouds pink and purple. I see an osprey wheeling through the air, the strains of Gershwin floating away in the dying light. As we begin the drive home (on the 401—it’s dark and it’s a long drive. I’m allowed.), humming Blue Skies and gushing about the show, I’m reminded of Ian’s more expressive extension of the Festival’s unofficial slogan: “It’s not puffy pants theatre.” He’s right. It’s really not. And Prescott likes it that way.
Anne Heathcote—a writer, roadtripper and theatre lover—is counting her blessings in Prince Edward County.