Two Planks and a Passion Theatre integrates nature into storytelling for two deeply meaningful, inventive and playful shows at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts just over the North Mountain in the lush farm country of the Annapolis Valley.
Women fighting for the vote emerge in gorgeous white dresses on a hilltop, singing a glorious choral song in Nothing Less!, a powerful, comedic two-hour musical drama about an important moment in Nova Scotia history and the work that still needs to be done.
After Nothing Less!, as the sun sets, actors forsake all costumes and props for a bare-bones retelling of A Midsummer Night's Dream around a fire constantly stoked as it gets darker and darker and the lovers in the woods get more and more confused by fairy magic.
Unexpectedly, there are parallels. In Nothing Less!, the brand new play about 1918 Nova Scotia suffragists by bestselling author Ami McKay and Two Planks artistic director Ken Schwartz, as well as in Shakespeare's 400-year-old comedy, women are pushed around by men in an established social order.
They are fed up and want to change the direction of their lives.
It's all for love in Shakespeare's oft-produced comedy, but in Nothing Less! women are 25 years into a seemingly impossible battle to gain the vote and they dream of becoming equal members of society.
This fast-paced, funny and poignant play has great original, harmonized choral music, a lively cast, lots of theatrical invention where politics and domesticity intersect, and a strong plot. It shouldn't be missed.
Daisy, in a compelling performance by Jamie Konchak, is a spirited, conflicted young woman, torn between love for her childhood sweetheart and a burning desire to change the world.
Her fierce Aunt Jane — played by the always engaging and commanding Burgandy Code, who can go emotionally deep in a flash — seeks an opportunity to challenge Nova Scotia's premier on his upcoming visit to the tiny Nova Scotia farming community of Apple Tree Landing.
However, Daisy's mother, Ma Thorpe, in a fine and gently comic performance by Chris O'Neill, is reluctant to upset men during wartime. She wants Daisy to put together a winning picnic basket for a long-held auction where male bidders are as interested in the female pie-bakers as in the pies.
Music is peppered throughout Nothing Less! in hymns and original songs by composer and lyricist McKay that range from a wonderful rap with women tapping out the beat using whisks in steel mixing bowls to a rousing sisterhood anthem.
A trio of women like the Three Graces is led by a fighting Astrid Snow, played by Victoria Houser with angry eyes, a lean powerful body and a beautiful soprano voice that is key to the harmonies.
McKay makes Astrid a cousin to the real historical figure of New Brunswick's Gertrude Harding, a martial arts bodyguard for Emmeline Pankhurt, head of the U.K. suffrage movement, and Two Planks is selling great "Suffrajitsu" T-shirts.
The sisterhood includes the compelling actors Stephanie MacDonald as Jane's more mature friend Gloria, Andrea Lee Norwood as the younger Lucy and Riel Reddick-Stevens in her theatrical debut as the young Cleo Jess.
For the men, director Schwartz has capable Two Planks vets who easily command an outdoor stage. Ryan Rogerson is the kindly and wise newspaper editor who is more supportive than the women think while Graham Percy and Jeff Schwager are strong confrontational characters, with Devin MacKinnon as Daisy's sweet but traditional boyfriend.
McKay and Schwartz have slyly slipped in references to Trump, Hillary Clinton and today's misogyny in the U.S.
When the women sing their final song of sisterhood, it's a call to continue the fight for equality and justice for all people in society.
While the great outdoors is the set, with Schwartz cleverly moving actors in and out of the land and the audience, Jennifer Goodman's costumes are the main design element and they are grand.
The women wear rich pastel skirts and suit jackets, lavish long dresses, period delicately floral aprons and innocent whites. There is a lightness and beauty in their clothing versus the men's darker, drabber wear.
A Midsummer Night's Dream by Fire is a totally different theatrical experience but, again, director Schwartz makes very interesting choices and it's exciting to see the cast in a completely different style of storytelling for a charming, delightful and magical experience.
The only costumes are blankets turned into books, donkey ears and a red cape for Puck.
Schwartz has cut the play down for a one-hour, 40-minute intimate and pure telling that focuses on the young lovers, with great performances by Andrea Lee Norwood as Hermia and Jamie Konchak as Helena. Their desperation is so keenly felt, they are both so articulate in making Shakespeare's language clear and contemporary and their fight around the fire is a terrific scene.
Graham Percy is regal as both Theseus marrying Hippolyta (Riel Reddick-Stevens) and the fairy king Oberon while Chris O'Neill plays a gentle Titania manipulated by Oberon into loving a man/donkey.
Ryan Rogerson's Puck is an understated trickster, which is a refreshing change from the often overacted, leaping, declamatory man-fairy in this oft-produced play.
For the fairies, actors move behind the audience seated on the fireside benches. They hold long sticks raised over the audience's heads with lit glass pots at the ends as they chitter and chatter, sigh and whisper.
Burgandy Code stars as the hapless, narcissistic Bottom and is remarkably good at donkey noises.
Stephanie MacDonald as Quince wonderfully leads the band of mechanicals staging a play within a play as a frustrated director with Devin MacKinnon as Snug (also Demetrius) and Jeff Schwager as Starveling (also Lysander).
The mechanicals' production of Pyramus and Thisbe is usually a comic high point of A Midsummer Night's Dream, but less so here. It is very dark by the time it's staged and hard to see and, frankly, the benches get hard. (However, people can rent seat back cushions for both shows.)
Afterward, when the magic ends, people can stay to roast marshmallows or wander out of the forest, marvelling at the journey they've been on.
Both shows run to Aug. 19, Nothing Less! from 6 to 8 p.m. with 2 p.m. Sunday matinees; A Midsummer Night's Dream from 9 to 10:40 p.m. They are not always on the same night. The schedule, including talkbacks and Halifax shuttle dates, is online. Pay what you can is Wednesday for Nothing Less!
There is a golf cart for transportation to sites for those with mobility issues. Bring sun hats for Nothing Less!