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Jessica B. Hill wrote and stars in The Dark Lady, playing poet Emilia Bassano opposite Eric Blais as William Shakespeare.Leif Norman

Over seven seasons at the Stratford Festival, Jessica B Hill rose through the ranks of the acting company to shine speaking Shakespeare’s words in lead roles as Helen in All’s Well that Ends Well and Lady Anne in Richard III.

This summer, however, Hill is taking the stage at Shakespeare in the Ruins (SIR) in Winnipeg and then Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan in Saskatoon to speak her own words – in her own new play, The Dark Lady.

She’s starring in the history-inspired, romantic two-hander as poetess Emilia Bassano – the most frequently cited of candidates for the “dark lady” described in Shakespeare’s sonnets 127 to 152 – opposite Eric Blais as William Shakespeare himself.

Hill describes The Dark Lady as “a contemporary take on how Shakespeare might have become Shakespeare and an ode to Emilia Bassano’s life, work and enduring legacy.” She answered some questions about her play and performing in it by email.

What first got you interested in the “dark lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets?

The “dark lady,” and the fact that we even call her so, has intrigued me since I first read the sonnets back in theatre school. But it wasn’t until I reread them (while preparing to play Helen) that I fell down a rabbit hole researching Emilia Bassano. Emilia’s life and Shakespeare’s work mirror each other rather deliciously, and the compounding coincidences between the two are nothing short of enthralling.

What are two things people should know about Bassano aside from the possibility that she might have been Shakespeare’s muse?

1. Emilia was one of the first female poets to publish her work, call herself a professional, and actively seek patronage. 2. Her proto-feminist book of poetry, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail God, King of the Jews), reinterprets the Bible from the women’s perspective and actively calls on men to see women as equals.

What’s a line of Bassano’s writing that you admire?

This line always makes my jaw drop: “Men, who forgetting they were born of women, nourished of women, and if they were not of the means of women, they would be quite extinguished out of the world, and a final end of them all; do like vipers deface the wombs wherein they were bred.”

But I also love this line… for obvious reasons: “For well we know this world is but a stage / Where all do play their parts and must be gone.”

What’s it’s like to act at SIR after your seasons at the Stratford Festival?

I met Rodrigo Beilfuss, SIR’s artistic director, and The Dark Lady’s director, at Stratford. We were in the Birmingham Conservatory together seven years ago, when it was run by the inimitable Martha Henry. We immediately clicked and always talked about writing and directing our own plays. Making it actually happen has been thrilling.

The grounds at both Shakespeare in the Ruins and Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan are stunning, and there’s something so lyrical about speaking Shakespeare’s verse outdoors. The same level of vocal projection required at Stratford is very much needed here; we’re playing in the round, at nature’s whim.

SIR also has its own particular brand of magic: a deer trotted across our set the first morning, a curious fox came for a visit during post-show notes. Sometimes the elements cooperate beautifully as if on cue, and sometimes, yes, there’s the wind and the rain. I first fell in love with Shakespeare as a child watching Shakespeare-in-the-Park in Montreal, so it’s quite special to premiere The Dark Lady here, in a forest of Arden of our own.

The Dark Lady runs at SIR from June 15 to July 2 and then at Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan from July 6 to 23. This interview has been condensed and edited.

Beautiful Canadians

Canadian musical theatre performers are naturals at playing Carole King for some reason.

Canuck Broadway star Chilina Kennedy didn’t originate the role of the So Far Away singer/songwriter in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, but she did play the part the most times during the popular biographical show’s New York run. Meanwhile, Kaylee Harwood, another Stratford Festival alum, played her on the North American tour.

Now, Harwood is starring as King again in a new production at the Arts Club in Vancouver through August 6. You’ll also find Emily Lukasik (Once at Mirvish Productions, the Shaw Festival) giving the role a go in a Drayton Entertainment production, now at the Huron Country Playhouse in Grand Bend, Ontario, until July 1.

Speaking of Shakespeare...

The Beach is back. Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach, that is.

While we wait for an inevitable Elton John/Shakespeare cross-over (that is not The Lion King), there’s Daryl Cloran’s hit production of As You Like It infused with songs by The Beatles back on the boards until September 30. (Marsha Lederman reviewed it back in 2018 for the Globe and Mail.)

A brand-new production of Julius Caesar, adapted by Stephen Drover and directed by Cherissa Richards (currently up for a Dora Award in Toronto for directing the Crow’s production of Red Velvet), also opens this week at Bard on the Beach and runs to September 24.

Toronto festivals - official and otherwise

There’s been a Guillaume Côté festival of sorts going on in Toronto this month.

Frame by Frame, the 41-year-old choreographer and principal dancer at the National Ballet of Canada’s collaboration with director Robert Lepage, just finished a run at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. And now he’s back on that stage this week, dancing Romeo in Alexei Ratmansky’s version of Romeo and Juliet for the last time. (Ratmansky, a choreographer of mixed Russian and Ukrainian descent, cut ties with Russian ballet companies after Russia invaded Ukraine; according to a recent New York Times article, some of those companies are still performing his shows but have scrubbed his name from them.)

Also this week, X (Dix), a piece from his Côté Danse company inspired by The Odyssey and set to a score by Son Lux, plays at Crow’s Theatre from June 14 to June 18.

Even amid the Luminato Toronto Festival (just two weeks long this year; it ends on the weekend), Toronto theatre companies have continue to open a flurry of new productions.

A couple that I missed last week were Perceptual Archaeology (Or How to Travel Blind) at Crow’s Theatre, Alex Bulmer’s show about her travels as a blind person (that is billed as created for blind and sighted audiences alike), and Armadillos, a new play-within-a-play by Governor General’s Award-winner Colleen Wagner inspired by the classic Greek myth of the Marriage of Thetis and Peleus, at Factory Theatre.

This week, No Save Points - “a play you can play” that’s a mix of memoir, theatre and video game created by Sébastien Heins - opens in an Outside the March production presented by Starvox Entertainment at the Lighthouse Artspace at 1 Yonge Street.

These three run this week and next.

What the Globe and Mail is reviewing this week

This weekend, the Stratford Festival opens another trio of productions: Much Ado About Nothing, in a production directed by Chris Abraham; A Wrinkle in Time, adapted by Thomas Morgan Jones from the classic fantasy novel by Madeleine L’Engle; and Richard II, in a new adaptation by Brad Fraser and directed by Jillian Keiley.

Look for our reviews starting next week.

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