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Tuesday, 28 October 2008

More on future of the Tanya Stage

Reports on the possible destruction of Stratford's thrust stage go back aways. Jamie Portman, theatre critic and arts reporter for the Ottawa Citizen, reported this story ("Stage, exit left, for a Stratford icon") back in April, 2008.

In the article, he quotes current Artistic Director, Des MacAnuff, as saying, "I love the original Moiseiwitsch design and we will always return to that whenever it is appropriate."

In the same article, General Manager Antony Cimolino is quoted as saying, "...absolutely, we will always have the Tanya stage."

This runs counter to what is said in Saturday's article in the Beacon Herald (see below) that "we'll hold onto all the pieces".

Monday, 27 October 2008

More on future of the Tanya Stage

According to a recent letter to the editor in Stratford's Beacon Herald, the new administration at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has plans to demolish the historic thrust stage, designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch, and replace it with one full of jigs and reels. This article appeared the following day:

What's the next stage for the Festival stage?
by Laura Cudworth
A scenic carpenter at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is speaking out against any plans that may alter the famous Tanya Moiseiwitsch thrust stage.

Walter Sugden is concerned the stage will be changed or "destroyed" if it's modernized to increase the space underneath it. The stage would have to be pulled up for the excavation underneath to allow for larger trap doors and machinery below the stage, he said.

"My basic feeling is I've worked there for 36 years, I can't consciously feel good with myself if I don't speak out," he said. "All I hope to do is make people aware. If they feel like I do, I hope they'll express to the Festival their feelings."

He admits he may be "romantic about it" but he sees the stage as a critical piece of heritage for both the Festival and Canadian Theatre. In his earlier years he worked with Ms. Moiseiwitsch.
"I love the nicks in the stage that have happened in past productions," he said noting the likes of Maggie Smith, William Hutt, Nicholas Pennell and Jessica Tandy have all walked across the oak stage.

The stage is nearly 50 years old, he said.

General director Antoni Cimolino downplayed the possibility the famous thrust stage would be altered. He acknowledged though an assessment of the Festival auditorium is underway but expects it will take about two years to complete.

The assessment includes lights, acoustics and the backstage area.

"Over time stages evolve," Mr. Cimolino said. "Pillars, locations of doors change over time but it's not our intention to change the stage."

However, he acknowledged the trap in the stage is "too small to bury Ophelia" and ways to increase the space below may be looked at. Should the space underneath be increased attempts will be made to preserve the stage and keep the lumber intact, he said.

"The fact is over the years a lot of that stage has changed. It's a living, working stage. I assure you, we'll hold onto all the pieces and keep them and use them when we can."

He suggested the emphasis of the study focuses on aging wiring and lighting systems rather than the stage.

In order to do the work the Festival would have to undertake a fundraising campaign and get government grants. Whatever work is decided on will likely be done over the course of a couple of winters, Mr. Cimolino said.

"We're in the process of a long-term analysis study -- there's lots of time for consideration before anything is done."

Mr. Sugden praised the new artistic team for the "spectacular season" but also stressed "there's a certain amount of stewardship they have to take on."

"In the business world now the popular talk is about the brand. I think that stage is an important part of the Festival's brand."


This letter to the editor was published in the Stratford Beacon Herald on Friday, October 24:

Save the Tanya Stage
by Walter Sugden

The cultural history of Canada and North America is intrinsically tied to the physical spaces -- the great halls and stages -- in which artists have shared their talent, inspiration and dreams.
Stages are very much alike ... good acoustics and a platform on which an audience can witness words spoken, songs sung, music played and dances performed.

Yet one of these stages is special, unique, to Canadian artistic heritage. It is a place of innovation and deep theatrical history for future generations, a place of immeasurable value. It is the Tanya Moiseiwitsch thrust stage, the flagship stage of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. And it is going to be destroyed.

The original Tanya stage was built at the insistence of Sir Tyrone Guthrie because of its importance to the spoken word of Shakespeare. Through the 1950s it evolved into a piece of brilliance from one of the world's best theatre designers. It is a piece of heritage for the City of Stratford, their tradesmen and volunteers who built it. It is the first of its kind since the late 1600s and has been copied by admiring and respected theatres around the globe.

However, the new artistic leadership at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has blueprints ready to turn the Tanya stage into a "modern" facility in which they hope to mount "modern productions of spectacular proportions." These plans involve the destruction of the Tanya stage, the platform of well trodden oak, capable of lasting centuries, on which acting titans like Christopher Plummer began their careers.

If these plans go ahead, no "replacement replica down the road" will be able to replace the heritage lost. It will not be original, it will not be special. The great pride and awe it inspires will be greatly diminished. The community around the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis knows something about this. They had one designed for them by the same brilliant designer. It was ripped out in the '80s.

Ours is the last one in existence, a North American icon. The kind of stage on which Shakespeare was meant to be performed, and unless artists and their supporters raise a cry of outrage, this unique Tanya stage will be destroyed to make way for a "modern" one, something akin to a Cirque du Soleil stage of sub-floor machinery and pyrotechnics of every possible design.

Unfortunately many artists are hindered from speaking out because they rely on the seven- or nine-month contracts that the Stratford Shakespeare Festival provides.

Although I am employed at the Festival as a stagehand and scenic carpenter, I feel I must speak out. It is my belief that the Festival's artistic director and senior management are given stewardship over the Festival's stages and history, not just licence. They may feel strongly that these planned changes are for the theatre's viability, but I beg to differ.

Shortly after I began working at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 1973, I stole a moment to step out onto the centre balcony of the Tanya Moiseiwitsch stage. A feeling hit me so strongly, of being the focus, that it was frightening. Every actor appearing on that stage must feel like they've come to Mecca. You cannot hide. It is just you and the spoken word, and you must rise to the occasion, and challenge, that this stage offers you. I was awestruck and amazed that I would be working for that experience, building and servicing their shows.

I am a stagehand and scenic carpenter. I am not an artist but a skilled craftsman that helps all the artists' work come alive on that magical stage. I've had the honour of keeping it "in good nick" over the years, to watch its patina grow warm under the artists' feet. The artistic spirit of acting giants like Dame Maggie Smith, Bill Hutt, Jason Robards, Jessica Tandy, Alan Bates, Nicholas Pennel, Pat Galloway, Brian Bedford and dozens more is imbued in that strong oak stage for future generations.

This is my voice. Please lend yours to persuade the current artistic management and board of directors at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival to let Canada keep her flagship stage. It has never been broken. It has never needed fixing. It is a marvel that can last for generations who have yet to discover a love for theatre on this stage.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Further Casting 2009 Stratford Festival

Contrary to swirling rumours, Lucy Peacock is returning to the Festival in the 2009 season. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival announced today that Lucy Peacock, Irene Poole and Adrienne Gould will play the leads in Chekhov's The Three Sisters.

They are joined in the cast by Tom McCamus, James Blendick, Gordon S. Miller, Juan Chioran, Sean Arbuckle and Kelli Fox.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Further 2009 Casting at Stratford

Another press release issued October 9th states that Seana McKenna will indeed be playing the lead in Phedre, translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker. The cast will also include Jonathan Goad, Adrienne Gould, Sean Arbuckle, newcomer Claire Lautier, and the returning Tom McCamus. The production will be directed by Carey Perloff, who is currently the artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The Rumour Mill Grinds Away...

The local grapevine in Stratford is saying that some Festival favourites have not been invited back for the 2009 season, including Peter Donaldson, Lucy Peacock, Scott Wentworth, and Diane D'Aquila. Another favourite, Steven Sutcliffe, has been lured to the Shaw Festival next season.

More Casting 2009 Stratford Season

According to an October 7th press release from the Stratford Festival, Geraint Wyn Davies is performing in three shows next season. He will be the title character in Julius Caesar, Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Duncan in MacBeth (opposite Colm Feore in the title role).

Also appearing in Julius Caesar are Yanna McIntosh as Calpurnia, Cara Ricketts as Portia, Jonathan Goad as Marc Antony, Tom Rooney as Cassius and Ben Carlson as Brutus.

Also appearing in A Midsummer Night's Dream are Laura Condlln as Helena, returning Dion Johnston as Oberon, Tom Rooney as Puck, Sophia Walker as Hermia, Gareth Potter as Lysander and Yanna McIntosh as Titania. No word yet as to who is playing Demetrius.

Yanna McIntosh, Dion Johnston, Gareth Potter and Sophia Walker will all be appearing in Macbeth as well, as Lady Macbeth, Macduff, Malcolm and Lady Macduff, respectively.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

2009 Season Casting Announcement

In a press release the Stratford Shakespeare Festival announced that Brian Bedford has been cast as Lady Bracknell in next season's The Importance of Being Earnest. Also cast are Sara Topham as Gwendolyn, Ben Carlson as Jack, Mike Shara (formerly from the Shaw Festival) as Algernon, and Stephen Ouimette as Rev. Canon Chasuble. The show will be designed by Desmond Heely.

Brian Bedford is also directing Earnest, so casting himself as Lady Bracknell may be a tip of his hat to the late stage giant William Hutt, who played the role in much-acclaimed productions in the 1970's.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Memorial Service for Richard Monette

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival has announced that a public memorial, a Celebration of Richard Monette's Life, will be held at the Stratford Festival Theatre on Monday, October 20, 2008, at 7 p.m. Seats must be reserved throught the Festival box office 1-800-567-1600.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Longtime Artistic Director Richard Monette Passes Away

From CBC News on-line

Richard Monette, the longest-serving artistic director of the Stratford Festival, has died at 64.

Monette had been suffering from vascular disease and was going into hospital for tests Tuesday evening when he suffered a pulmonary embolism, said Antoni Cimolino, general director for the theatre festival in Stratford, Ont.

Cimolino described Monette's death as a terrible loss for Canadian theatre.

"He had a Canadian voice at a time when we were still finding our voice as a nation," he told CBC News.

As a former actor, Cimolino said he was "blessed" to be directed by Monette.

"I always felt that actors were at their best under Monette's direction," he added. "He allowed them to speak with their own voices."

Although Monette was a larger-than-life theatrical personality, he was also an honest, real person, Cimolino said.

Monette retired from the festival in August 2007 after 14 seasons during which Stratford added a fourth theatre and an acting school, and again become financially profitable.

'Ran this theatre with his heart'
"Any note that you ever received from Richard he signed it with his name and a heart, and he ran this theatre with his heart," said actress Cynthia Dale, who joined the Stratford company at Monette's urging in 1998.

"It made such a difference to so many people," she said, recalling Monette's role in bringing musicals to the Shakespearean company.

"I think he showcased the musicals because he realized what an important part they were of theatre," she said in an interview with CBC News. "I think he was smart enough to realize that there were many parts that he had to showcase, and that being populist and making money was not a bad thing."
Dale said Monette "changed my life" by bringing her into musicals such as Camelot on the Stratford stage.

"He was singularly the most important person in my career because of the opportunities he gave me and belief he had in me," she said.

He was born in Montreal on June 19, 1944, and graduated from Concordia University in that city.

He received his first theatrical notice at an inter-varsity drama competition at Hart House Theatre in Toronto in 1959, where he took top acting honours.

He went to Stratford in 1965 where he played small roles. He performed in Rolf Hochhuth's Soldiers at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto and the production took him to Broadway.

Moves to London
At 23, he moved to London, appearing in the British production of Oh Calcutta.
On his return to Canada, Monette played in the English-language production of Michel Tremblay's Hosanna.

He played more than 40 roles at Stratford, and in 1988, he directed his first play at Stratford, The Taming of the Shrew.

He was appointed the company's artistic director-designate in 1992 and was officially named to the post in 1994.

Des McAnuff, now artistic director at Stratford, said the loss of Monette creates an "immense void" that will not soon be filled.

"He was a brilliant actor, a gifted director, an inspiring artistic director and a great Canadian," McAnuff said in a statement.

"I will sorely miss his wit, his insight, his advice, and especially the warmth and wisdom that were among his many distinguished attributes."

Expressed 'some regrets'
Monette told CBC News in 2007 that he had done everything he had set out to do at Stratford, now known as the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

"There are always some regrets , but basically I did what I wanted to do. And I've been at it a long time — my back was giving out, I was tired. This is a very difficult job. Very. It's 24-7," he said.

Looking back on his 14 seasons, he said the accomplishment he was most proud of was establishing Stratford's Birmingham Conservatory of Classical Theatre Training, which trains new actors and directors.

"They're the future of this place as much as the audience."

Monday, 8 September 2008

2009 casting rumour mill continues...

- further rumours around town (and in at least one national newspaper) have Colm Feore also starring as Macbeth

This is now confirmed in a press release from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival: Colm Feore will star as both Cyrano and Macbeth in 2009.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Plummer and James Triumphant in Caesar and Cleopatra

Caesar and Cleopatra
By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Des McAnuff
Featuring Christopher Plummer, Nikki M. James, Steven Sutcliffe, Dianne D’Aquila, Peter Donaldson, Gordon S. Miller

The story: On the eve of Julius Caesar’s invasion of Egypt, the Roman general wanders the desert and ponders his role to the giant sphinx. He is overheard by the 16-year-old queen Cleopatra, who does not recognize him and is hiding from Caesar whom she believes is a cannibal. She is temporarily without her throne, but Caesar sees potential in her fiery spirit and promises to help turn her into a ruler and take back her rightful place. However, the Egyptians do not easily bow to the invading Romans or to a queen who has a Roman as a mentor, and as events turn ever more dangerous, the generous Caesar learns that Cleopatra’s intense ambition may overthrow all his philosophical lessons in political leadership.

For those unfamiliar with Shaw’s plays (usually performed at that other theatre festival), one could be excused if one believed Caesar and Cleopatra would be a historical tragedy along the same lines as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra. However, while politics is a main theme of this play, this play is funny – there are so many quips and one-liners and significant pauses and back-handed insults that in less skilled hands the importance of the political principles would be lost altogether.

The indomitable Christopher Plummer plays Caesar, his comic timing and desert-dry delivery of a good portion of those one-liners is so dead-on and natural it is as if he is having a normal conversation in his own living room. As smooth as he is with wit, Mr. Plummer as easily moves to sorrow and regret. His sternness as he rebukes Cleopatra’s flippant dismissal of soldiers’ lives is palpable, as is his distress in the belief he has caused their deaths by invading Egypt unnecessarily (read: Iraq). He moves from being a philosophical leader to a sly strategist, from flattered idol to patient and fond mentor, and does so with effortless charm, revealing why Caesar is a man to be loved and feared at the same time.

Mr. Plummer has an obvious rapport with Nikki M. James, who plays Cleopatra. She has obviously worked hard on vocal projection since opening the grimly received Romeo and Juliet, and seems far more comfortable with Shaw’s prose than Shakespeare’s poetry; but here, her work has paid off in spades. From the farthest corners of the balcony seating one can see and hear that Ms. James looks and sounds as petulant and child-like as a 16-year-old spoiled queen should, but also, in the second half, as a queen who discovers her own mind - and her set of claws. She delivers the barbs about Caesar’s age with an innocence and naivety of a young but selfish queen, but is just as effective as she chillingly – almost gleefully - orders her nurse to assassinate one of her politicians.

There are numerous strong supporting performances as well – director Des McAnuff certainly chose his team well. Diane D’Aquila is at first quirkily funny as Cleopatra’s nurse, Ftatateeta (a superstar in her own mind), but is could induce nightmares as Ftatateeta grows ever-more sinister and viper-like as her mistress’s own sense of power grows. In a cleverly choreographed fight scene Ms. D’Aquila gives a Roman sentinel (Ian Lake) a run for his money, abetted by Gordon S. Miller as the genial and unflappable Apollodorus. The completely flappable Britannus is played by Steven Sutcliffe (looking remarkably like Errol Flynn, especially as he enters one scene on a winch); he is hilarious as he stodgily insists, dead-pan, on propriety in the ‘scandalous’ Egyptian palace. Britannus’ loyalty for Caesar is matched by Rufio’s, portrayed here by Peter Donaldson with an impatient gruffness that nevertheless allows Rufio’s fondness for the general to peek through his rough exterior. John Vickery’s as the just Lucius Septimus has a lovely moment of putting Caesar in his place, and Timothy D. Stickney brings both a sense of righteous pride and dignity to the role of Pothinus, the deposed King’s tutor.

The sets and costumes of Caesar and Cleopatra are as excellent as the performances. The set, designed by Robert Brill, comprises the shadowy suggestion of a sphinx, enormous pillars, the prow of a golden boat, and a glossy black floor reminiscent of obsidian painted with hieroglyphics. The costumes, by Paul Tazewell are gorgeous representations of Egyptian and Roman robes in bright, shimmering, pleated fabrics and rich colours. The nearly motionless figures of Egyptian gods - actors dressed in ebony and gold costumes, complete with golden masks of Horus, Anubis and other Egyptian deities - are the crowning glory to this beautifully designed and acted production.

Although Caesar and Cleopatra continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until November 8, tickets are going fast. Funny as well as poignant for our times, this is one play that should not be missed.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

R&J take two

After seeing Casar and Cleopatra and noting with some glee that Nikki M. James' had found a voice strong enough to last against Christopher Plummer (see review next week), I decided to go back to see Romeo and Juliet again. Unfortunately, strangely, you still can't hear her as Juliet. It may be that she just doesn't have the rhythm of the Bard down pat yet, and it can take years to get that right. But I'm afraid the show hasn't improved with age overall - Peter Donaldson still commands the stage as Friar Lawrence, Gordon S. Miller elicits great sympathy as Benvolio and Lucy Peacock is a wonderful prattling nurse. John Vickery's performance as Capulet did capture more of my attention on my second viewing, but overall, meh. I'm going to blame the director, since it's obvious that the cast members (Evan Buliung and Gareth Potter in particular) are capable of more oomph. Many of them are lost on that gargantuan, noisy set. In a season where shows like Hamlet and Cabaret leave the heart soaring, the tragedy of these young lovers has remained bogged down.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Dancing up a storm in Moby Dick

Moby Dick
Based on the novel by Herman Melville, adapted and directed by Morris Panych
Choreography and movement by Shaun Amyot and Wendy Gorling
Featuring David Ferry, Shaun Smyth, W. Joseph Matheson and Marcus Nance

The Story: A young sailor Ishmael and his new friend Queequeg find work aboard the whaling ship Pequod. As they get under sail their captain is nowhere to be seen; however once they are at sea Captain Ahab appears and reveals the ship’s mission – to find and kill the great white whale, Moby Dick, whom Ahab believes to have malevolently and deliberately injured him in their previous confrontation. Ahab’s obsession troubles Ishmael and the first mate, Starbuck, as it quickly becomes obvious that not even the safety of his crew will stand in the way of Ahab’s quest.

If you will pardon the obvious pun, transforming the 135-chapter novel of Moby Dick into 100 minutes of theatre was the leviathan of undertakings, not to mention doing so in movement and dance rather than in text and straight acting. However, Canadian playwright Morris Panych was undoubtedly the right man for the job. Not as abstract as a ballet by any means, Panych has used the music of Claude Debussy as inspiration, in particular La Mer, and he and his choreographer and movement coach (Shaun Amyot and Wendy Gorling), have developed a clearly illustrated abridgement of the tale of a man’s obsession and our relationship to the natural world.

The little dialogue in the production comes from pre-recorded snippets from the book, Ishmael’s thoughts that echo and reverberate like the action of waves on words. Starting with a statement from the novel’s last chapter, “the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago”, the movement also starts with the end of the story: the actors slowly file on stage and one by one become men who have drowned, suspended in the sea. The echoing words slowly become clearer towards the end of the play, as if Ishmael’s memory of events are catching up with him, and the production ends with the first words of the novel, the only words actually spoken on stage, “Call me Ishmael.”

But how does one convey a whaling schooner, storms, and a great white whale on a tiny stage? In this case, very, very cleverly. I almost hate to give it away, the effects are so cunning – three ladders, and a number of actors with loose shirts transform into a three-masted tall ship. Actors heaving a canvas sail on the floor and a siren with a model ship become a very effectively-portrayed storm-tossed vessel. As for the unseen whale, it envelops the audience in sound that is felt as much as it is heard, courtesy of a great design from Wade Staples.

Actor David Ferry is as charismatic as his haunted character, Captain Ahab, and the way that he and Shaun Smythe’s Ishmael observe each other forms one of the most interesting relationships of this production. Another interesting contrast is formed between Starbuck (W. Joseph Matheson) and the enigmatic Fedallah (Shawn Wright) as they suspiciously regard one another. If I have one quibble with this production it is that the tolerant and respectful character of Queequeg (Marcus Nance) is sketched a little too lightly when he should be a direct contrast to the more narrow-minded members of the crew, although Mr. Nance and Mr. Smythe make it very clear that Queequeg and Ishmael greatly value their friendship.

Some of the most memorable characters in this play are not actually in the book, these being the sirens as performed by Kelly Grainger, Alison Jantzie and Lynda Sing. In grey-green, flowing garments designed by Dana Osborne they look and move exactly like one would imagine the mythical sirens should. They became turbulent oceans, seagulls, small whales, and of course temptresses. More to the point, they became the embodiment of the sea itself, as Ishmael describes in the novel: “These are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean's skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang.”

Audaciously conceived and impressively drawn, this commissioned production of Moby Dick continues in repertory at the Studio Theatre until October 18.

Monday, 25 August 2008

The rumour mill runs rampant for the 2009 season

Rumour has it...
- that Seana McKenna will play the lead in Phedre, which will then travel to San Francisco
- that Brian Bedford will be playing Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest (just like William Hutt did)
- that Donna Feore's husband, Colm Feore, will be returning to Stratford's stages in Cyrano or Macbeth

No casting has been officially announced as of yet.

Stratford Shakespeare Festival Announces 2009 Season

In a press release on August 18, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival announced it's 2009 playbill:

Macbeth by William Shakespeare, at the Festival Theatre, Directed by Des McAnuff
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare, at the Festival Theatre, Directed by David Grindley
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare at the Avon Theatre, Directed by James MacDonald
Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson, at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Directed by Antoni Cimolino
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, translated and adapted by Anthony Burgess, at the Festival Theatre, Directed by Donna Feore
The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Directed by Martha
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, at the Avon Theatre, Directed by Brian Bedford
And a companion piece, Ever Yours, Oscar, a one-man performance compiled by Peter Wylde from the letters of Oscar Wilde, at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Directed by and featuring Brian Bedford
Phèdre by Jean Racine, in a new translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker (World première), at the Tom Patterson Theatre
The Trespassers by Morris Panych (World première), Directed by Morris Panych
Zastrozzi by George F. Walker, Directed by Jennifer Tarver
Rice Boy by Sunil Kuruvilla (no director as of yet)
West Side Story based on a conception of Jerome Robbins, at the Festival Theatre.
Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Directed by Gary Griffin, Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, at the Avon Theatre. Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Directed by Des McAnuff, Choreographed by Wayne Cilento

Thursday, 21 August 2008

The Delicate Balance of Palmer Park

Palmer Park
By Joanna McClelland Glass
Directed by Ron OJ Parson
Featuring Dan Chameroy, Kelli Fox, Yanna McIntosh, Nigel Shawn Williams

In 1967 there were race riots in 59 cities in the United States, the worst of which were in the Detroit civil rebellion, or the 12th Street Riot. Shortly thereafter over 100,000 Caucasians left the city in an exodus dubbed “white flight.” As a result, property values plummeted. As funding for school boards was tied to property taxes, schools and their students soon suffered from overcrowding and under-funding. However, some upper-middle-class districts had been succeeding in racial integration in both their neighbourhoods and schools: Palmer Park is the story of one such neighbourhood that tried – but ultimately failed – to uphold this ideal.

The story is much more complicated than this brief introduction, and Joanna McClelland Glass’ play does not gloss over the very real, very volatile issues of this era. No solution is offered, no happy ending is tied off in a sweet red bow. The events preceding the play are still very much retained in the memories of a living generation, and Ms. Glass deftly navigates the issues without judgment, pity or moralizing.

That being said, every person in the audience for this play will hear and see something different, depending on their own experiences. For me, white and born after the events, it is a revelation of my own naivety; for someone with memory of the events themselves it may evoke all the emotional turmoil of the time; for someone who is black, it may stir up a lot more than that. During one monologue by Dan Chameroy, who plays the white Martin Townsend, I suddenly realized that his reasonable, impassioned plea for the ideal of integration would sound completely different – and possibly arrogant – to someone with less pasty skin than I, who was overworked and whose children were suffering in an under-funded school. As such, it is a powerful piece of theatre.

Mr. Chameroy and Kelli Fox play the idealistic and naïve Townsends with just the right amount of nervous confidence and compassion as they learn more and more about the realities their neighbours, the African-American Hazletons, must endure discrimination on a day-to day basis. As the Hazletons, Yanna McIntosh and Nigel Shawn Williams are both outstanding as they (mostly) patiently explain to their new friends the lay of the land – for instance, that unless blacks are well-dressed, they will not be seated in road-side restaurants. The look of incredulous pity on Ms. McIntosh’s face as this is explained to Kate Townsend is heartbreaking.

Also living in the neighbourhood of 65% whites and 35% blacks are the Rifkins (Brad Rudy and Severn Thompson), the Marshalls (Kevin Hanshard and Lesley Ewen) and the Lamonts (David Keeley and Jane Spidell). Kevin Hanshard doubles as the beleaguered Alvin Wilkinson, who is determined to ship the extra students from a poor nearby school to the relatively wealthy Palmer Park school; his just rebuttal of Martin Townsend’s plea is firm and leaves the audience wondering: how was such a dilemma ever to be solved fairly?

Palmer Park is not all about social issues – it is as much about the things these neighbours had in common as it was in exploring their differences: the way they grew as a community and in friendship. (The baseball scene is the most memorable example of this and is pure joy to watch – a mad three or four minutes of rapid-fire, hooting dialogue from the men as they cheer on the World Series winning Detroit Tigers of 1968). It makes their subsequent departure from the neighbourhood all the more poignant.

Although the characters discuss what it is to be prejudiced and they discover perspectives on race that they had never recognized before, Palmer Park never becomes preachy, for all the education it provides. It is an illuminating play, directed with sensitivity by Ron (OJ) Parson and is definitely worth the price of admission. Palmer Park continues in repertory at the Studio Theatre until September 21.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Best Value in Shakespeare's Universe

Shakespeare’s Universe: Her Infinite Variety
Written and Directed by Peter Hinton
Featuring Peggy Coffey, Laura Condlln, Matthew MacFadzean, Karen Robinson, Michael Spencer-Davis and Dayna Tekatch

What a great way to spend an hour and a quarter: the warmth of the sun, a cool breeze bringing the scent of nearby roses, the chirrups of birds and squirrels in the rustling leaves overhead, relaxed laughter earned by good actors with a compelling story…

What’s that? Leaves overhead? In a theatre?

Oh yes. Perhaps you have not heard, or not been by Upper Queen’s Park lately, but there is now a fifth stage at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, an outdoor pavilion, nestled against a tree, surrounded by a screen designed to blend into the park. On the inside is an open stage, a second scrim with London’s image on it – a London that Shakespeare would have known - and in front of the stage, bleachers. And on the stage, one of the most fun, interesting pieces of live theatre on stage this season. It is Stratford’s version of Shakespeare in the Park, but better, because it has all the professional resources that are at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival to support it.

Peter Hinton’s first foray into Shakespeare’s Universe gives us the history of women in Shakespeare’s time. According to the literature of the day (mostly written by men), women fell into four categories: the maid (an unmarried girl), a scold (a woman with a sharp tongue), the moll (any woman who worked for a living but often a prostitute), and the witch (any woman who was older, poor or deformed, usually a combination of the three). Mr. Hinton’s history lesson about how women lived and loved in Elizabethan England is more entertaining - and more memorable – than any history book, especially as delivered by the four actresses portraying these women.

Dayna Tekatch plays the maid sweetly but without being too coy, and sings “A Maid That’s Deep in Love” beautifully; Peggy Coffey is at her impish best as the scolding shrew – but is most moving when mourning for her loveless marriage. Laura Condlln is pitch-perfect as the cheeky moll Bess Bridges (she and Michael Spencer-Davis provide the best sword fight of the season) and Karen Robinson’s performance as the pitiable “witch” is startling both in its compassion and sudden eerie turn (although her poise while portraying the writer Amelia Lanyer is a particularly strong moment). The men, Matthew MacFadzean and Mr. Spencer-Davis, provide the necessary balance in this mini battle-of-the-sexes as the Puritan and the Poet: the writers, politicians, lovers and opponents of these women. They also provide the necessary tenor for harmonious renditions of songs like “Hedger and Ditcher” (a distinct crowd-pleaser). The music and songs that are worked seamlessly into the fabric of the storytelling adds the extra elements of mirth and wistfulness to play about brutal age – especially brutal for women – but throughout, Her Infinite Variety reminds us that Shakespeare, as evidenced by the way they are portrayed in his plays and sonnets, was ahead of the curve in understanding how women thought and what they felt. That ribbon of hope woven into the text is as bright as its music.

Some have questioned the professionalism of the pavilion: Is an outdoor stage in keeping with the spirit of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival? I think Tyrone Guthrie, the founding artistic director who started it all under a tent, and who insisted upon the very best in every aspect of theatre – I think he’d be pretty damned proud. Shakespeare’s Universe: Her Infinite Variety is the best value going this season: with the calibre of acting, design, writing and direction, it is worth a lot more than the paltry ten-dollar admission fee, even in its rained-out location of the Café Lobby (minus the swords). It continues until September 28.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Haunting Dennehy in Hughie / Krapp's Last Tape

Hughie, by Eugene O’Neill, directed by Robert Falls
Featuring Brian Dennehy and Joe Grifasi

The title character Hughie – a former night clerk in a run-down New York hotel - never makes an appearance. He died about a week before the action takes place. His chief mourner (to hear him tell it) is Erie Smith, a rumpled, boozing, floozing old gambler, played by Brian Dennehy, who has been on the booze since Hughie’s funeral. Coming home, he is surprised at the presence of a new night clerk – last name also Hughes, played with dead-pan melancholy by Joe Grifasi. Erie is tickled by the name coincidence and immediately tries to engage the ‘new Hughie’ with stories of the old.

Except, the new night clerk has pretty much checked out. Sitting under a clock so dusty no one could tell the time, he vaguely reacts only to the city sounds: a passing subway, a dog barking. He does not listen to Erie at all, just making the appropriate nods when it seems they are expected.

But Erie reveals a lot about Hughie, and Mr. Dennehy’s natural performance also reveals a lot about Erie. Relating the stories he told Hughie, Erie is a larger-than-life character, but in front of this audience his physical self belies him: the tired gait, the too-eager, too-loud laughter, the yellowed-linen suit and scuffed shoes, and the disillusionment, the uncertainty and even the harsh edge that Mr. Dennehy allows to creep into Erie’s voice from time to time.

Hughie seemed a decent guy, probably the only friend Erie had and definitely the only one who helped Erie see himself as he wanted to be. Getting the new Hughie to give him the same substantiation is uphill work, but Erie gets there in the end - a connection is reached when the new Hughie realizes that all this time, Erie has been referring to gambling. New Hughie likes to gamble, it seems. The new Hughie might not be as decent a guy as the old Hughie, but it’s good enough for Erie. The audience almost sighs with relief to know that at least in his own eyes, Erie is going to be ok, and that too, is good enough for Erie.

Krapp’s Last Tape, by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Jennifer Tarver
Featuring Brian Dennehy

Many people come to feel that their lives didn’t go according to plan, and wonder where they took a wrong turn – which decision, which action or inaction formed their present situation and circumstances? In Krapp’s Last Tape we have a man who, though he may not realize it, has captured his moment of wrong-turning in a recording – and with morbid fascination keeps listening to it, over and over, relishing the memory and also relishing being haunted by it. It begs the question – is it better to know, to have a physical manifestation of this fatal turning point, or is it better not to know, to wonder, but retain the potential to step past it?

It will take a better philosopher than I to figure it out.

In this bleak little play about life’s decisions and memory’s power, Brian Dennehy’s portrait of this man Krapp is as soul-stirring as it gets. When the single white light illuminates him at his shabby desk there is a quick intake of breath from the audience - his transformation from the hearty, bluff Erie Smith is so complete it is like looking at a completely different actor. He is slumped, unkempt, unshaven, severely short-sighted, and has arthritic hands. He is deflated. For the first few minutes he stares at something in the distance of his mind as his gaze slowly turns to rest on the audience, seeing them but not seeing them. As silent as he is, he commands the audience’s silence. No rustling, no coughing; just watchful waiting. He finally heaves a sigh, shuffles around the desk, rummages in the drawer for something - presumably one of the tapes from the p! lay’s title. But instead he brandishes a banana – that ubiquitous symbol of comedy that lets the audience relax. A little. Krapp carefully peels it, deliberately drops the peel on the floor. He toes the peel, amusing himself, toying with the idea of slipping on it and is surprised when he succeeds. Then he gets down to business, listening to his tapes.

We and the older Krapp listen to the thirty-years-younger Krapp with something akin to indulgence. Krapp laughs at his own arrogant voice at 39 describing how arrogant he was at 29, and the audience wonders if he is still arrogant; he is more distracted by the fact that he cannot recall what “viduity” means than the fact it was used to describe his dying mother. But it might be more accurate to use the modern term “arrested development”, arrested at the point at 39 when he dismissed a certain possibility.

Audiences may prefer the play Hughie, because it ends on a slightly positive note. Instead, it is Mr. Dennehy’s performance as Krapp that will haunt them: the tiny changes of expression, the torment, defeat, or sudden spark in his eyes. Unfortunately I do not have a tape to let me relive his performance, but I am thinking that might be a good thing. Too much Beckett might be dangerous for the sanity.

Hughie and Krapp’s Last Tape continue as a double-bill in repertory at the Studio Theatre until August 31. This is a tour-de-force that you should regret missing, because even the additional performances have been sold out. Happily, there is a waiting list….

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

My Favourites So Far

It seems when you review things people begin to believe you are an expert in that field, so I'm getting asked - a lot - what I recommend seeing at the Festival. I don't like to recommend any one thing because there are many reasons why I choose to see a particular play - I may like the story, or the director, or the cast, or even the composer - and theatre-going is such a personal, subjective experience (for me, anyway).

So my short answer is: See everything you can.

Even if you've seen Hamlet 50 times before, every new cast and director will plumb its depths with fresh eyes and attitudes and that will reveal utterly new things about it - it's like learning something new and tittilating about an old friend. Even if you've never heard of Fuente Ovejuna, go see it because it is unfamiliar and you'll invariably catch a glimpse of drama from another culture. If the thought of sonnet poetry makes your eyes roll, you've never heard it properly - I never had - but Simon Callow's There Reigns Love will correct that. If you think the film versions with Liza Minnelli and Robert Preston just can't be topped, I think you'll be surprised - and perhaps shocked - with both stage versions of Cabaret and Music Man.

I see everything on stage during the season and I invariably come away with favourites that I return to see later on. But asking me to choose a favourite or to recommend just one show? I can't! But I will tell you that even though I did my honours thesis on Taming of the Shrew, Peter Hinton's production made me feel as if I didn't know the play at all, and that Cabaret made me weep uncontrollably the last time I saw it. But I've already seen others a second time, and I'll be coing back for seconds and possibly thirds on yet more.

I can't be more specific than that - but I hope you enjoy and are moved by whatever shows you choose to see.


The Love Affairs of There Reigns Love

There Reigns Love
Devised and performed by Simon Callow
Commissioned and premiered by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival
Directed by Michael Langham

There are four love affairs present in Simon Callow’s one-man entertainment called There Reign’s Love.

The first love affair is that of a poet and a beautiful young man to whom he writes a great number of the poems about love and beauty. The second is that of the poet and his “Dark Lady of the Sonnets”; the third is the affair that occurs between that same dark lady and the beautiful young man. Those affairs form the story possibly hidden in the background of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, revealed most clearly when they are reordered as proposed by a psychoanalyst by the name of John Padel.

The fourth love affair present is that of Simon Callow’s evident love of Shakespeare’s poetry, and the idea that in this reordering – perhaps the order in which they were actually written - the sonnets appear to be autobiographical in nature, thus perhaps revealing an intimate bit of the enigmatic Bard’s life. It is an intriguing idea - tantalizing even - and although Mr. Callow cautions the audience to treat everything he says with the utmost suspicion, his enthusiasm is infectious, and his ‘performance’ of most (but not all) of the sonnets brings alive those with which we are all familiar, and more importantly, makes sense and illuminates those that are less known.

Mr. Callow has invited patrons to sit on the stage during his performance, so do not be surprised to see audience members lounging comfortably on cushions downstage while Mr. Callow appears upstage. (The only quibble one may have with this production is that this obvious desire for intimacy with the audience may have been better suited for the cozy Studio Theatre; but then, Mr. Callow would not have had use of Tanya Moiseiwitch’s lovely balcony, incorporated as it is at the Tom Patterson Theatre into Charlotte Dean’s warm set.). Mr. Callow explains Mr. Padel’s theory and then begins to animate the sonnets: at first subtle movements and steady voice, growing more enlivened as the story heats up. All the while Mr. Callow’s beautiful, precise diction gives no doubt for his passion for speaking the sonnets; it shines through with each crisp word.

While it may feel like more of a lecture than a performance in places, I’ll say this: if we had all had teachers like Simon Callow, not only would we have learned a hell of a lot more, but we would never dream of yawning at the Sonnets and poetry in general ever again. Grab your chance to see this once-in-a-lifetime production with one of the foremost Shakespearean actors in the English-speaking world before it ends on August 3rd.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Exhilerating Fuente Ovejuna

Fuente Ovejuna
By Lope de Vega
Translation and directed by Laurence Boswell
Featuring Sara Topham, Robert Persichini, Jonathan Goad, Scott Wentworth and James Blendick

The Story: Based on true events from medieval Spain, Fuente Ovejuna is the story of a small village whose tyrannical overlord, Fernán Gómez, took whatever he wanted, including the women of the village. Fed up with his cruel despotism, the town revolted. When King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella found out, they sent interrogators to the village to find what happened but no one in the town would confess, instead all saying “Fuente Ovejuna did it”. Faced with such solidarity the king and queen pardon the town, who then pledge loyalty to these far fairer rulers.

The story is an old one, and so is the author – Lope de Vega was Shakespeare’s Spanish contemporary and the people of Spain know his works like Westerners know Shakespeare’s. Set to wonderfully harmonizing music by Edward Henderson, this play’s new translation is from its director, Laurence Boswell. Truth be told, something is lost in the translation, because it is certain Lope De Vega never used terms like ‘information overload’ and ‘let’s do it’. While this attempt to make an old play sound new is valiant in theory, it is very obvious and the play really does not need this artifice since it is such a good story – it could have been performed in Spanish and it still would have been completely understood.

This is due not only to the director but to the powerful cast. The play really belongs to two characters, the first being Laurencia, played by Sarah Topham. She transcends her usual solid performance to present a character that ranges from spunkily sweet to fiercely enraged: as the object of Gómez’s pursuit, Laurencia escapes his imprisonment and shames the wavering men of the village into revolt, before leading the women in their own offensive strike. Ms. Topham not only portrays the clever, teasing but innocent Laurencia well, but also delivers an impassioned, knock-out speech, and sells the ensuing fight scene extremely well.

The other outstanding performance comes from Scott Wentworth as the odious Commander Fernán Gómez de Guzmán, the governor of the village. Gómez is a master manipulator, and Mr. Wentworth plays him with a mean, paranoid edge (with a bit of a Napoleon complex mixed in) that makes as dangerous a villain as ever seen on Stratford stages. At the horrifying moment he breaks a staff over the elderly Esteban’s back the audience’s loathing is palpable, but Mr. Wentworth never goes too big with the act either. It is a truly outstanding performance.

The entire cast (of nearly 30) deserves praise – it is a first-rate ensemble. As the town’s elder and Laurencia’s father, James Blendick is stately, dignified and jovial, and nearly everything Gómez is not. Robert Persichini is brilliant as the village clown Mengo, to a point where you really do not know if he will or won’t confess under torture to his role in the revolt. The friendship portrayed between his character and that of Nigel-Shawn Williams as the poet Barrildo is sweetly deeper than at first glance. It is terrific to watch Jonathan Goad’s hesitance to be both suitor and hero as Frondoso, and to see Lindsay Thomas’ range as the victimized Jacinta. As Gómez’s henchmen, Stephen Russell is a swaggering “just following orders” kind of guy, while David Keeley provides a touch of hero-worship in his admiration of Gómez that is both sweet and kind of appalling. And although their time on stage is short, Geraint Wyn Davies and Seana McKenna are able to portray why Ferdinand and Isabella are the better leaders, worthy of being followed with just a few subtle motions.

Aside from the one little quibble about the insertion of modern-day colloquialisms into the text (and a detestable slow-motion mob scene), this play is a top pick for this season’s sleeper hit for its excellent performances, complementary sets and costumes and sheer story-telling power. Watching it come to life is gives one a thrill like discovering a long-lost portrait by Velázquez. Do not wait to see it, as tickets will soon be hard to get. Fuente Ovejuna continues in repertory until October 4th. For tickets call 1-800-567-1600 or click here.

Wishing It Were All Well

All’s Well That Ends Well
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Marti Maraden
Featuring Daniela Vlaskalic, Jeff Lillico, Martha Henry, Brian Dennehy and Juan Chioran

The Story: Helen, the daughter of a famous doctor, cures the King of France and is rewarded the husband of her choice. Unfortunately her choice is Bertram, Count of Rossillion, who wants nothing to do with her. Forced to marry Helena by the King, Bertram immediately runs off to war, vowing never to honor Helena as his wife until she meets certain impossible conditions. However, through various stratagems Helena manages to meet these challenges, and Bertram comes to understand the sort of woman he has married.

This play is a bit of a wink on Shakespeare’s behalf, because well-performed or not, the story does not end satisfactorily for most of the characters, the characters themselves not being very likeable. Bertram is probably the worst, for ditching his wife and trying to seduce another woman while at war, but Helena resorts to lies and dirty tricks to get him back. The clown Parolles is a braggart and a coward who is unmasked at the end, the seemingly honourable Lord Dumaines have some skeletons in their closets (as revealed by Parolles), and even the Countess of Rossillion and King of France put their pride above consideration for others. Neither tragedy nor fully a comedy, All’s Well That Ends Well is a tricky play to enjoy at the best of times.

Unfortunately, this is not one of those times. Introduced by prim piano music reminiscent of Hagood Hardy (specifically Anne’s Theme), the production is stiff from the very start. The set has steely-looking flying buttresses and illuminated scrims at the back of the stage that must look magnificent to anyone sitting along aisle five of the theatre, but the effect is lost on anyone sitting past aisles four or six. The costumes designed by Christina Poddubiuk are gorgeously crafted works of art, but as they are late Victorian (the production is set in 1889), one wonders if the starched formality of the silhouettes hinder, rather than enhance the actors’ interpretations of their roles.

Daniela Vlaskalic and Jeff Lillico are not able to elicit sympathy at all for the characters they play. Ms. Vlaskalic is a little too earnest and moony as Helena, and Mr. Lillico a tad too juvenile as Bertram, like the adolescent caught sneaking out rather than a grown man committing adultery. Leah Oster is a shade too cool as Diana, the object of Bertram’s seduction, and Tom Rooney is so dead-pan as the clown Lavatch that his many witticisms are nearly lost. There are several moments when he enters, stares out at the audience, and then leaves again. The first time is slightly amusing, and then it is just odd. Martha Henry looks unhealthily grey in her mourning black costume, and her performance as the Countess Rossillion lacks her usual panache.

The strongest performance comes from Juan Chioran who clearly enjoys playing Parolles, and understands how to make him as endearing as he is laughable. The scene in which he is being interrogated by his own regiment disguised as “enemy forces” is easily the highlight of the production, although the banter he shares with Stephen Oiumette as Lafew is a close second. Brian Dennehy plays a King resigned to his illness but with startling moments of intimidating power: at different points he grips Helena’s arm and gets in Bertram’s face as if daring them to cross him. Although they have little to do, Fiona Reid is worth watching on the sidelines as she makes the most of the Widow’s comic potential, and Ron Kennel, Ins Choi, David Leyshon and Bruce Godfree provide much-needed giggles as some over-eager young lords.

A problematic play that needs something extra to make it memorable, this production of All’s Well That Ends Well regrettably does not live up to the title, nor up to the standard of other productions on stage this season. It continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre just until August 23, 2008. For tickets call 1-800-567-1600.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Shrew's blocked blocking

The one quibble I have with the production of Shrew is that some of the blocking (where an actor stands/sits during a scene) actually blocks the audience's view of what's happening centre stage. It wouldn't normally be a problem, but Mr. Hinton's production has a raised platform downstage, on which actors periodically stand, backs to the audience, while something else is going on centre or upstage. It was very aggravating, both times I watched it, from different areas of the theatre. Why the actors weren't instructed to sit, crouch, slouch, kneel, or lie down at these times is a mystery known only to them and the director. If anyone knows, please enlighten me. I haven't seen it yet from the balcony loevel, perhaps from up there it does not make a difference. From the orchestra level, it certainly does. ~RG

Thursday, 3 July 2008

I didn't forget the men

I really hate being limited to 650 words (or so) per review, especially when there is so much going on. For instance, Patrick McManus takes the character of Biondello - normally a bit of a twit - and turns him into an Elizabethan Steven Cojocaru - the fashion guy from ET! He's the best-dressed fellow on stage and makes the most of it comepletely.

Randy Hughson is quite disarming as Hortensio/Litio, especially as he and the Queen have a little something going on between the lines of text that is enchanting, and Juan Chioran makes a perfectly silly Gremio, using his um... costume to the fullest extent and the fullest laughs.

Seeing Shrew again soon, and I expect even more to be revealed.

Women Rule in Taming of the Shrew

Taming of the Shrew
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Peter Hinton
Featuring Irene Poole, Evan Buliung, Lucy Peacock, Barbara Fulton

Because he mines the a play so deeply, a Peter Hinton production often turns the text inside out and backwards until you feel like you never knew the story at all. The result is rich, absorbing theatre, and to get the full benefit of what he creates, the trick is to see his productions at least twice.

First of all, Mr. Hinton begins his production of Taming of the Shrew with the use of the folk songs of John Playford to punctuate the story superbly; second he retains the induction. Often cut completely from other productions, the induction involves the drunken tailor Christopher Sly being tricked by a real lord into thinking he is also a lord of importance. It is a little odd, because part way through the second scene he disappears from the text entirely. However, it creates a framework for the other play, and it shows a true slice of daily life as Shakespeare knew it. This is especially important as the production is set in Elizabethan England, with as close a replica of an Elizabethan stage as you will get on this side of the Atlantic. Designed by Santo Loquasto, it resembles the old wooden Globe, has smoky, greasy lanterns (look closely for the decaying corpses), rudimentary mechanical cogs and a fully functional dunking stool for the shrewish ladies in the crowd. Oh, and it has Queen Elizabeth I, herself.

Yep, in this production, the real lord is turned into Queen Elizabeth I, who remains on stage for a good portion of the play. In this way the audience is kept aware of the framing device, and where other productions this season have cut holes in the fourth wall, this device keeps the audience firmly behind it. Played by a very elegant Barbara Fulton, Elizabeth is clearly enthralled with the romance between Bianca and her many suitors (who cannot hope to wed her before her elder sister, the shrewish Kate, is matched). Her Royal Highness eventually joins the fun when given the part of the widow for the final scene. She and the secretly wanton Bianca (played by Adrienne Gould) form a sort of partnership in the end, just as Kate and Grumio do.

With the further re-casting of Lucy Peacock in the traditionally male role of Grumio, Petruchio’s servant, the dynamic between master and servant changes completely. It is clear that the pair have a history, possibly sexual, which alters the dynamic between the servant and new mistress as well. Even if she is not centre stage, do not forget to watch Ms. Peacock; it is fascinating to see how each relationship is subtly revealed and transformed.

The shrew Kate is played by Irene Poole as a woman who not only wants her father’s love, but also his respect. From a single line in the text, Mr. Hinton has given Kate a limp, which adds to both her vulnerability and fierceness. It also reveals Petruchio’s sensitivity (as played by very disarming Evan Buliung – he appears to be the only man with courage in him); when they reach the turning point in their relationship he almost unconsciously supports her. Ms. Poole remains firey even during Kate’s infamous last speech, but instead of becoming either submissive or sarcastic, Ms. Poole simply reveals what is expected of both husband and wife, and reminds the other women not to forget it. It is a surprisingly but completely believable treatment of the speech.

For purists, this production of Taming of the Shrew is likely not going to be a favourite, but history buffs will love a glimpse into the gritty world of Elizabethan England, and feminists should be pleased at Mr. Hinton’s examination of the various roles of women of this time. For fans of theatre in general, this multi-layered and cunning production is sure to create a high that will leave you wanting more.

Taming of the Shrew continues in repertory until October 25th. For tickets call 1-800-567-1600.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Learning Love's Labours

Love’s Labours Lost
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Marti Maraden
Featuring Ian Lake, Alanah Hawley, Peter Donaldson, Steven Sutcliffe, Brian Tree, John Vickery

The Story: After swearing off women and other “frivolous” pursuits in favour of acadaemia, the King of Navarre and his friends belatedly realize they are expecting a visit from the lovely Princess of France and her pretty friends. Secretly in love with the ladies, each of the lords try to keep the others from discovering their affections, lest they be accused of breaking their vow, while the old Spaniard Don Armado has his own dilemma – he too has taken the vow but finds himself unexpectedly in love with the country girl, Jaquentta. He sends the fool Costard to give Jaquenetta a love letter, but Costard gives her the one lord Berowne meant for the lady Rosaline, and soon the lords are trying to keep faith with their vow while still managing to court the ladies.

Hooray for the return of a “young company” show, to showcase the talents of the theatre stars of tomorrow. This production of Love’s Labour’s Lost is given to the most recent graduates of the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre Training. The eight actors play the eight ‘leading’ roles of the Lords of Navarre and Ladies of France, with members of the veteran acting company generously taking a supporting role. This is something that the Festival has done in the past under artistic director Robin Phillips, and since one tends to learn more by doing rather than by watching, this is an exciting opportunity for these young actors to stretch their wings.

That being said, they could be stretched a great deal further than they as yet show. Of the eight, two actors stand out, that of Ian Lake playing Berowne, and Alanah Hawley playing the Princess of France. They are easy to watch, clear in their delivery and where Ms. Hawley had a commanding presence reminiscent of Seana McKenna, Mr. Lake exudes the charm seen in other recent BCCT graduates like Gordon S. Miller (appearing in this production in the supporting role as a Forester). Even though Rosaline is a great part for a young woman, Dalal Badr does not yet have the strength of voice to match her counterpart (Mr. Lake), and likewise Trent Pardy (playing the King of France) is overshadowed by his counterpart (Ms. Hawley). It is true that the other lords and ladies parts are not as challenging, so it is often quite easy to overlook them, but they are performed in such a safe approach that they became regrettably forgettable.

So even though the young company bears the main story, the veterans end up stealing the show with the subplot. As the loquaciously inefficient Don Armado, Peter Donaldson’s entrance is ripped from the book of Brian Bedford, and he continues to generate delighted laughs throughout the play until his sudden, dignified turn at the end. Abetting him in the fun is his co-star from last season, 11-year-old Abigail Winter-Culliford. Moving from southern accent to Shakespearean speech is a hard task for any actor, but she has obviously worked very hard, and is just as obviously having a great time as the impish and tantrum-throwing Moth. Furthering the mirth is Steven Sutcliffe as a very saucy and dapper Boyet, a barely recognizable Gareth Potter as Nathaniel, John Vickery as the pompous (and in this case, windy) Holofernes, and the inimitable Brian Tree as Costard, who may have written the book on comic timing.

The seasons change in this production (as evidenced by the luxuriant costumes, lighting and music, by Charlotte Dean, Michael J. Whitfield and Stephen Woodjetts, respectively), and as the characters find their labour of love lost in autumn, they look to the following spring to renew their hope of a happy future together. The audience can hope that the more inexperienced actors will soon grow into their parts and steal the limelight back to the main story.

Love’s Labours Lost continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until October 4th. For tickets call 519-273-1600.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

The Trojan Women: Can You Feel Their Pain?

The Trojan Women
By Euripedes; translation by Nicholas Rudall
Directed by Marti Maraden
Featuring Martha Henry, Seana McKenna, Kelli Fox, Yanna McIntosh

The Story: It’s the end of the Trojan War, a campaign waged on Troy by the Greeks that has lasted 10 years. Mourning their ruined city, the defeat of their homeland, and the deaths of their heroes and husbands, the women of Troy lament their gods’ indifference, cast blame on the beauteous Helen as the war’s cause, and fearfully wait to hear what fates their captors have in store for them.

Think about military conflict - any military conflict – and you can pretty much guarantee that its history will be written by the victors, and those victors will take the spoils. Perhaps Euripides first illustrated this in 415BC with this play, and these two truths are reasons why The Trojan Women still resonates. In seeing it, we come face-to-face with war’s powerless victims and we are forced to think about the atrocities they confront even today.

The problem with this production is that for some reason, the audience does not empathize with the women on stage for part of the performance (it is only 90 minutes long, so every minute counts). If we have to remind ourselves that this play is still current, there is something wrong with the way it is being done – we should feel the women’s building horror, anger and despair and feel a deep connection to current events immediately. Yet we do not. In between the truly moving performances of Seana McKenna, Yanna McIntosh and Martha Henry, the women wait to hear news of their fate, and the audience waits for them to get on with it. The angst of the chorus feels superficial, and instead of feeling their pain we instead lose focus and begin to wonder: if they were in such despair why didn’t they hang themselves as an alternative to being slaves or concubines to the Greeks whom they despised so much?

That, of course, is missing the point of the play: that despite the ruin of their lives, these women must, and do, endure. But it does not follow that the audience should endure lapses in what should be an entirely poignant portrait of a society in tatters. It is uncertain whether this is the fault of the acting or direction or the new translation by Nicholas Rudall. The military costumes worn by the Greek soldiers are also distracting: designer John Pennoyer may have meant to illustrate hand-me-down uniforms that have been cobbled together over a ten-year war, they have the unfortunate result of being reminiscent of the gear worn in Mad Max movies. (However, the burka-like robes in muted blues and browns worn by the Trojan women are timeless – they could be Biblical, or they could be what women in desert countries still wear today.)

In between these lapses are some excellent performances. As the constant bearer of bad news, Sean Arbuckle is a compassionate herald Talthybius. Ms. McIntosh as Helen of Troy is beautiful -- and beautifully -- garbed while her peers are in rags. She could be a litigator in the way she defends her actions, but rather than argue like a whiny ninny, she speaks softly, and smoothly seduces the audience as easily as she does Menelaus, her former husband. Opposing her is Ms. Henry as Hecuba; strong despite her age and broken body, scathing in her derision of Helen, yet able to comfort her daughter-in-law Andromache with great gentleness. She is especially touching in her attempt to aid her truthful-but-never-believed daughter Cassandra, who reveals the fates of the odious Greeks (superbly done with feverish, twitchy tension by Kelly Fox). The production’s most heartrending scene belongs to Ms. McKenna as Andromache, whose pain is completely palpable. Her small son is literally torn from her grasp to be killed – for no more reason than that it is feared he will grow up to avenge his father’s death – at which point the soul-piercing wail that Ms. McKenna unleashes will reverberate in your heart for days to come. Go to see The Trojan Women for this scene alone, and bring plenty of tissues.

The Trojan Women continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until October 5th. 1-800-567-1600 for tickets.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Terrific Cabaret - In Both Senses of the Word

Book by Joe Masteroff
Based on the play by John Van Druten and Stories by Christopher Isherwood
Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by Amanda Denhert
Featuring Bruce Dow, Trish Lindström, Sean Arbuckle, Nora McClellan and Frank Moore

The story: Struggling American novelist Cliff Bradshaw arrives in Berlin, New Year’s Eve, 1929. It’s a time of hedonistic attitudes, fully embraced by the members of the Kit Kat Klub, a cabaret where Cliff meets English chanteuse Sally Bowles, and where the enigmatic Emcee holds court. Cliff and Sally have a great time partying while their landlady Fräulein Schneider grows close to her friend Herr Shultz. However the creeping presence of the Nazi party gradually makes itself felt, putting all their lives - and their way of life - in danger.

From the very first glimpse of the set you realize this is not your grandmother’s musical. Broken windows, crumbling stone, rusted iron stairs the set designed by Douglas Paraschuk looks like a tetanus infection waiting to happen. Yet the characters that live in this seedy world do so – for a while – to the fullest, grabbing at love and life where they can. No wonder Cliff becomes seduced by this life.

The audience can share his enthusiasm – director Amanda Dehnert brings to life a production that is tantalizing, comical, seductive, horrific and sad – all in a good way. It has two hearts, Bruce Dow as the Emcee and Sean Arbuckle as Cliff Bradshaw. The Emcee and his company lure Cliff into their world, and watch as his own story unfolds. As Cliff becomes aware of the political situation in Germany, he also becomes aware of the watchful Emcee, and this development is fascinating to view from the floor.

But the audience does audience is not protected behind the fourth wall for this show. An actor swings out over the front rows, Kit Kat dancers appear in the aisles, the Emcee speaks directly to us and when Nazi sympathizers suddenly rise out of the audience to join in a grotesque parody of the formerly sweet ballad “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” in their loud, harsh voices, we become as trapped and helpless as the characters on stage. It is a heart-thumping moment: only Cliff acts to kill the lights with a sharp clang, plunging all of us into darkness and stunned silence.

The performances are as dazzling as the direction. Known for his jollier roles, Bruce Dow evolves his version of the Emcee from a cheekily sinister imp into a sort of chorus, and then into a sort of muse, intent on drawing Cliff nearer to fulfilling both their needs, to remember and write about the life of the Cabaret. Sean Arbuckle paints Cliff as a perceptive and realistic optimist, and is and movingly expressive when he sings “Don’t Go”. Trish Lindström brings the appropriate joie de vivre to the appealingly selfish Sally Bowles, and shows a hard, glittering defiance in the title number as she makes her self-destructive choice. Nora McClellan and Frank Moore are unforgettable as they bring wistful tenderness to their roles as the pragmatic Fräulein Schneider and the Jewish Herr Shultz who refuses to comprehend the growing danger that the Nazis represent.

With its gritty costumes and memorable music, this production of Cabaret is terrific in both senses of the word -- it evokes the terror of the era but superbly so. Every second is nail-bitingly tense or sad and there isn’t a single moment when you can really relax. Parents considering bringing their children or teens should be prepared to answer questions afterward – the play contains themes important to our collective history and memory, but they are explored a very dark and sometimes explicit manner.

Cabaret continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 25th. 1-800-567-1600 for tickets.

Super Music Man Opens at the Avon

Meredith Willson’s The Music Man
Book, Music and Lyrics by Meredith Willson
Story by Meredith Wilson and Franklin Lacey
Directed by Susan Schulman
Featuring Jonathan Goad, Leah Oster, Fiona Reid and Christopher Van Hagen

The Story: It is 1912 and a traveling salesman calling himself Professor Harold Hill is out to hornswoggle an insular little Iowa town into buying band instruments for its children whom he promises to teach to play – but he plans to get out of town once he has their money because he cannot play a single note! His patter easily wins over the stubborn school board and ladies’ auxiliary, but he finds he has to work much harder at convincing the mayor and lovely librarian, who is also the town’s music teacher, with whom he alarmingly finds himself in love.

Known to recent audiences as a Shakespearean actor, Stratford veteran Jonathan Goad stretches his vocal chords in the title role of The Music Man this year, and his easy charm and charisma make him an excellent choice for the sweet-talking Harold Hill who can more easily conduct people than a marching band. Apart from doing a great job with the speedy patter of ‘Ya Got Trouble’, and the rousing ‘Seventy-six Trombones’, Mr. Goad also deftly illustrates Harold’s inner struggle when suddenly confronted by a selfless act that could save his hide from a tar and feathering, and the sudden lack of confidence when forced to lead a marching band that cannot play a true note. He is a wonderfully human swindler, this Harold Hill.

Harold’s foil, Marion the Librarian, is sweetly played by Leah Oster, whose voice swells to giddy heights on the beautiful ballads, like ‘Till There was You’. Although she could certainly overpower him, Ms. Oster tones it down to meet Mr. Goad’s softer voice on their few duets with wonderfully romantic results. Marion’s journey is not as clearly defined in her portrayal as Harold’s is in Mr. Goad’s, but they compliment each other so nicely that one barely notices their differences. They are obviously having a great time in their roles, and it simply radiates into their spell-bound audience.

The expertly deadpan Fiona Reid plays Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (in a perfectly lurid violet gown), with hilarious support from Christina Gordon, Shelley Simester, Stephanie Roth and Sarah Topham as the “dance” committee (those pantaloons are priceless). They are routinely serenaded by the school-board-turned-barbershop-quartet, consisting of Shawn Wright, Laird Mackintosh, Jonathan Munro and Marcus Nance. Eddie Glen is adorable as the reformed salesman-huckster Marcellus Washburn, as he quickly returns to his old habits as Harold’s abetting sidekick, and Michelle Fisk puts another healthy comedic kick into Marion’s mother, Mrs. Paroo. The dance corps is excellent, and their library number is especially delightful, as they act out an impromptu (and abridged) version another play on stage this year. It is both clever choreography and very funny.

The familiar abounds in the production; the River City set designed by Patrick Clark (who also designed the costumes) bears a remarkable resemblance to Stratford’s own downtown core, and even young children in the audience will see peers their own age trodding the boards. Aveliegh Keller plays a precocious Amaryllis, and Christopher Van Hagen steals the show the moment he suddenly appears centre stage to enthusiastically “thing in hith little lithp” in ‘The Wells Fargo Wagon’. All of the children appear as professional as their older counterparts, and boy do they look sharp in those bright red and white band outfits!

Although it might seem an old-fashioned bit of American apple-pie, this fast-paced musical about a couple of outsiders who find their hearts is a show of great family fun. That’s fun with an F that rhymes with S (sort of) which stands for a super show.

The Music Man continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until November 1. 1-800-567-1600 for tickets.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Webcasts and YouTube videos

For those who want behind the scenes knowledge of plays, actors and stage direction, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has been conducting live webcasts which are archived here and on YouTube here.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Ben Carlson leads stellar cast in Hamlet

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Adrian Noble
Featuring Ben Carlson, Geraint Wyn Davies, Adrienne Gould

The story: Prince Hamlet of Denmark is visited by the ghost of his father the late king, who reveals that Claudius, the king’s brother, murdered him to gain his crown and wife. Already disgusted by his mother’s quick remarriage to Claudius, Hamlet vows to seek revenge for his father, taking him – and others - down a dark path.

The intermission for Hamlet comes two hours into the play, but it takes less than two minutes to become so enthralled by Ben Carlson’s performance that you want to take the play in huge gulps, impatient for next moment’s speech or action. Even fully knowing the story, it is hard to predict how it will unfold, what will be revealed about Hamlet. Mr. Carlson’s intuition in mining the character, his charisma that draws the audience to him and his uncanny skill in speaking Shakespeare’s words with such clarity is so astonishing that the end of the play comes far too quickly. In the soliloquy “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” a ferocious challenge is thrown at a suddenly flinching audience, as if we were somehow complicit in causing his pain.

The connection to the audience is emphasized in some clever staging. Actors disappear up the aisles while spotlights are thrown on them and the audience; the pointed set protrudes near the front row, alarmingly near when Claudius dies on that spot. While it does not break that fourth wall, it certainly puts a thrilling crack in it.

Exceptional staging accentuates many strong performances. Geraint Wyn Davies, Bruce Godfree and Adrienne Gould form a solid and affectionate family unit as Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia that sharply contrasts the dysfunction of Hamlet’s family. Hamlet obviously loves Ophelia in this production and in the ‘nunnery’ scene Ms. Gould and Mr. Carlson produce a relationship between Ophelia and Hamlet that is deep, many layered, and remarkably touching. In Ms. Gould’s portrayal we see an Ophelia who is optimistic and hopeful that her love for Hamlet is not unrequited. We see an Ophelia who desperately wants to help Hamlet but does not know how, and has been forbidden by her father – she must disappoint one of the men she loves. This scene is also very intriguing. Does Hamlet know that he is being spied on at this point or doesn’t he? The answer is “yes” to both questions, and the result is both sad and terrifying.

However this production is not all grim. Alongside Mr. Wyn Davies’ pitch-perfect Polonius, humour is used to wonderful effect in parts not traditionally funny. The audience is allowed to relax and laugh, and these brief respites make the ensuing tragedy all the more terrible. A fine example is Ophelia’s mad scene, where Ms. Gould grotesquely mirrors her earlier scenes: a beloved treasure box has become a doll’s coffin, and a tender piano duet played earlier with her father is perverted when she plays it with Claudius.

There are imperfections – Maria Ricossa does not produce an especially warm, motherly Gertrude, although that appears to have been the intent. As Claudius, Scott Wentworth illustrates the growing burden of his guilt well enough, but is strangely quiet, as if he does not want to audience to intrude on Claudius’ thoughts; next to Mr. Carlson’s delivery the difference in clarity is very noticeable. For such central characters one hopes that both these things can be attributed to opening night jitters and will smooth out in later shows.

But the strong far outweighs the weak, and other characters that are formidably drawn include Tom Rooney’s concerned Horatio, and Victor Ertmanis’ First Gravedigger, among others. For those who remember Peter Donaldson’s Timon of Athens (2004), this production is of the same diamond-cut calibre, and should not be missed.

Hamlet continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 26th. 1-800-567-1600 for tickets.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Where is the Love? Romeo and Juliet Opens at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Reviewed May 27, 2008
Robyn Godfrey for the Stratford Gazette

Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Des McAnuff
Featuring Gareth Potter, Nikki M. James, Evan Buliung, Peter Donaldson and Lucy Peacock

The Story: Girl meets boy, parents disapprove, and miscommunication leads to bloodshed and teen suicide.

The names of Romeo and Juliet are so ingrained in our culture that reviewing the story hardly seems necessary. Naturally Shakespeare’s tale has more depth than that, and in Des McAnuff’s inaugural production as Artistic Director, the traditional love tragedy takes an unusual back seat to the paths of violence in the characters' world.

The production opens with onstage Vespas, and Armani-clad fellows in dark shades that evoke the Mafia, especially when several pistols are shot off in quick succession (once horrifyingly aimed at a baby carriage). Happily this Hollywood style does not persist for very long, although the escalation of fighting continues to be an emphasized theme.

For example, during the fantastic Queen Mab speech, given voice in this production by Evan Buliung, Mercutio becomes wilder and wilder the longer it goes on until he is utterly out of control. Buliung whips himself and the audience into a frenzy until he is brought solidly back to earth – it is a brilliant way of subtly stressing the way aggression can rapidly intensify into violence, or in Mercutio’s case – self-destruction.

The characters in this production are all tougher than usually imagined. Peter Donaldson’s Friar Laurence is a warrior monk, one who has little patience, who shouts a lot and even shoves Romeo around; he almost bullies Romeo into escaping Verona, but he of all the performers exudes the most grief when tragedy overtakes his good intentions.

Lucy Peacock’s Nurse is also able to stand up to Lord and Lady Capulet for a moment longer than often portrayed, but has one giggling from beginning to end of her prattling speeches. Her extra-puffy sleeves and ribbon-bedecked cape make her larger-than life, and there is an obvious rapport between her and Nikki M. James as Juliet which shines through the layers.

As Juliet, Nikki M. James looks and sounds the part of a thirteen-year-old – not whiny, but child-like. While this is good for playing a young girl, it is not great for an actor in an 1800-seat theatre, and it is only during her scene of grief over Romeo’s banishment that her voice grows strong enough to fill the space. If she can capture that voice and hold it for the rest of the play, she will be a much stronger Juliet.

Her Romeo is played by Gareth Potter, who comes on very enthusiastically, as any horny teenager might. However, while there is passion in his delivery, there is little passion between him and Ms. James. The blocking gives them no time to develop it - the enormous (and somewhat noisy) bridge/balcony hinders them, and as they awaken after their only night together, the light barely comes up before Romeo hops out of bed to make his escape. As a result, the last death scene does not feel tragic at all.

This is puzzling, because for the most part, there are lots of vulgar jokes, gestures and innuendoes slung around this production – literally. Why the emphasis is on the lewd and not the love is not clear.

There are other strengths – Gordon S. Miller brings the oft-overlooked Benvolio to life; Sophia Walker and Stephen Sutcliffe deliver the text beautifully. The comedy is wonderful and it was clever to put the prologue and epilogue in the sturdy voice of Peter Donaldson. The modern-to-Renaissance costumes of Paul Tazewell were in luscious hues of the traditional blues and reds, and brava to the wardrobe attendants for those lightening quick-changes.

However the weaknesses ultimately undo this production – the red set and background music is distracting, and the actors need to gel and find the love. Taking bows to an overly loud version of The Cure’s Just Like Heaven may seem appropriate given the lyrics, but was just another jarring example of something amiss.

Romeo and Juliet continues in repertory until November 8 at the Festival Theatre; give it a few weeks to find its heart. 1-800-567-1600 for tickets.

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