Jeffrey Renn refuses to delve into the scholastic aspect of famous playwright William Shakespeare, and he knows plenty, preferring to expose his audience in a modern music way at Phoenix Theatre starting next week.
Renn isn’t new to acting, directing, or reinterpreting the Bard. From Stratford to Broadway, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts alumnus has performed Shakespeare across the continent.
“I have been blessed to work with rare artistic genius when it comes to Shakespeare including the legendary Robin Phillips,” he says.
The late Phillips was the artistic director who put the Stratford Festival on the map.
“I’m a zealot for the theatre, I want to convert people under 30 to my church, my church being the theatre,” Renn says. “I want to excite young people at the prospect of what it is to make art.”
He found that same enthusiasm directing the cast and crew from the University of Victoria’s theatre department as they develop Shakespeare’s oldest, and funniest, of plays. The Comedy of Errors is an entangled farce of mistaken identity first told in Roman times. It tells the story of two sets of twins, separated at birth, who find themselves in the same city. As their two worlds collide, chaos ensues, resolving into a tale of family reunion, love, and self-reflection.
But Renn doesn’t just tell the story, he looked toward the youth to inspire this rendition. Today’s youth frame themselves through phones and tablets naturally creating daily performance for family, friends and the world.
“They are constantly making meaning of their own lives, as a performance,” Renn says. “Let’s look at this play thorough the lens that kids come to look at art. Our youth understand themselves as a performative thing, through their devices,” he says.
Looking at the technology leading up to today’s reality, brought him to the original music video Bohemian Rhapsody, released at a time when he was the Phoenix students’ age.
“Music videos has a culture unto itself, since Elvis to today, youth speak through the music of themselves,” he says.
That led to integrating Shakespeare’s lines into music from Nina Simone to Beyoncé, from Queen to Justin Timberlake creating a pop musical with contemporary choreography.
The wide musical coverage leads to a similar variety in choreography by Christina Penhale, of Salt Spring Island’s exitStageLeft and a graduate of the Oak Bay-based Canadian College of Performing Arts. “This choreographer has moves too, she goes from hip hop to tap and swing dance,” Renn says.
He’s set Comedy of Errors in New Orleans to give the audience a sense of place and attitude, hopefully immediately invoking voodoo, extravagance “licence to do whatever you want to do,” he says.
A mosh pit on stage and a sequence of LED dancers with lighting from rock concert to inherent theatricality.
Fourth-year student Aidan Dunsmuir fills the auditorium with energetic sound design.
“I don’t think I could get three professionals to do what this young man did alone,” Renn says. Dunsmuir essentially did the “book” if it were a musical, and created the soundscape while dealing with the technical aspect of how to get it to work, from hardware placemnt to mixing. “He’s created the whole musical and sonic world.”
It’s a sentiment he shares with much of the instructional staff and students of the theatre program.
“The Phoenix, they run a wonderful ship,” Renn says. “They are running what is in effect a professional theatre with a student crew. I would never have imagined they could go in all the places I’ve asked them to go – and joyfully.”
The Comedy of Errors is on stage March 13 and 14 at 8 p.m. for public previews. Evening shows are March 15 to 17 and 20 to 24 at 8 p.m. with matinees March 17 and 24 at 2 p.m. There is a preshow lecture, Friday, March 16 at 7 p.m. Tickets $16 to $26 available at the Phoenix box office from noon to 8:30 p.m. or at 250-721-8000.
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