For the Toronto Fringe Festival 2021, Brown Cotton Outreach takes beloved characters from Trinidad & Tobago’s Carnival and reimagines their antics in a digital format in Play Mas’ With Shakespeare: A Carnival Rebellion. Five devil characters compete with each other to concoct the most outrageous destruction of democratic society. Hurling Shakespeare quotes at each other, they plot a ruinous dictatorship!
There is a fiery, anarchic energy here that enchanted me. The cast—Danielle Elliott (King Jab Jab), Afi Ford Hopson (Jab Molassie), Louris Martin Lee-Sing (Midnight Robber), Leslie-Ann Lavine (Pierrot Grenade) and Wayne Lee-Sing (Jamette)—doning vivid costumes and make up, perform vintage calypsos based on original recordings from 1930 through to 1960.
There is a definite anti-establishment vibe to this. Their Shakespeare quotes are related to whatever point they are trying to make, but the off-hand, dismissive way they cite act and scene suggests they are scoffing at our reverence for traditional, European theatrical forms.
This undercurrent of mockery is fascinating to me as the tone and style seems very reminiscent of Commedia dell’arte. I’m not familiar enough with Carnival to speculate confidently on this aspect of the performance, but I could sense a deliberate, playful tension between the adoption of colonial influences and a wilful scorn for them.
The dialogue is written by Wayne Lee-Sing and the production is directed by Ellen O’Malley Camps. The filmic direction, by Louris Martin Lee-Sing and Wayne Lee-Sing, brings the separated performers together with split screen. With a flat, all-black background, the illusion of their being in the same space is impressively convincing, but it only holds up well during the wide shots.
Play Mas’ With Shakespeare: A Carnival Rebellion is the sort of piece that would be best appreciated as an in-person experience. I imagine the performers would normally interact with an audience in a more dynamic way than they can here. This digital production does, though, capture much of the mischief and revelry.