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Wednesday, 26 August 2009

A Little Black Magic on A Midsummer Night

A Midsummer Night's Dream
By William Shakespeare
Directed by David Grindley
Featuring Laura Condlln, Bruce Godfree, Dion Johnstone, Ian Lake, Yanna McIntosh, Tom Rooney, Geraint Wyn Davies

One of the reasons this play is so often performed is because it is funny, easy to follow (despite its complicated love tangles), and its poetry about the nature of love can appeal to audiences of any age. That might not be the case with this version of Dream; reactions are likely to be very polarized, depending upon to which generation one belongs.

This is because director David Grindley and designer Jonathan Fensom has taken the fairies out of their conventional pastel-coloured butterfly wings and put them in black leather, torn fishnet, tribal tattoos, Goth makeup and messy, punk hair. In fact, he has set them squarely on the fringe of society, where, let’s face it, fairies have always existed. These fairies are the kind that cause mischief, leave changelings in place of babies, inhabit the night and live by their own laws and codes – as fairies did in Celtic lore (as Shakespeare knew it) before they were co-opted by Disney. To most people, they will look as exotic as the customary tiny creatures with pointy ears, but in an entirely darker way.

The stage lighting (designed by Michael Walton) is quite dark – it might be too dark for most sections of the audience to appreciate the great costumes and makeup. For instance, Oberon’s right bicep has a tattoo that winks at Stratford, but this could be missed by anyone not sitting front and centre. (And just so you know, Oberon’s look was set by a designer last summer, so any resemblance to a young Michael Jackson really is accidental).

What is great about this production is that even though it looks so vastly different from any other version, the text of the play supports this interpretation – not like setting a play in “Scotfrica”. Even the gunfire at the start fits - it represents Hippolyta’s capture, although it is not really necessary (and altogether too loud).

Sophia Walker is a gleeful Hermia, Ian Lake and Bruce Godfree’s (left, top) Demetrius and Lysander are both comical, especially when under the influence, so to speak, but Laura Condlln (left) ups the ante with a hilarious, intelligent, and sympathetic Helena. With great timing and command of the text’s rhythm, Ms. Condlln is also adept at physical comedy, which makes her Helena one to remember.

Despite looking like a mod version of Alice Cooper, Tom Rooney’s (right) Puck exhibits the correct amount of naughtiness; there is a not only a great deal of fun but also a slick slyness to him that allows you to question just how loyal he is to Oberon – this Puck is a rock god who enjoys the spotlight in his own right.

As Titania and Oberon, Yanna McIntosh and Dion Johnstone (top photo) both have the necessary posture and chemistry to carry their duel, and both delicately reveal the soft centres beneath the tougher licorice coating of their characters – their reconciliation is sexy and magical.

Geraint Wyn Davies (left) shows again how deft an actor he is by creating a sweet, innocent Bottom who could in fact charm the fairies from their trees – if he didn’t have a curious resemblance to a donkey under Puck’s spell. His physical transformation is brilliant, one that may have other designers kicking themselves for not having thought of it first.

Other genius bits of staging: the balcony that warps and bends, creating the “dark mirror-world” of the fairies, who gracefully treat it like a piece of furniture, while the gangly humans grasp and trip as they scramble over and around it. (Thank the scenic carpentry crew for that bit of stage magic.) Also, although the play takes place in a matter of days, all four seasons are experienced: as Oberon and Titania’s feud escalates, we see autumn and winter, and as things start to get sorted out we see signs of spring and finally summer, when all the lovers are reunited. It is very subtly done, but like the music that starts electric and becomes infused with something more organic, it represents a gradual harmonizing of all the characters. Lastly, the production has the best curtain-call. Ever.

This is one thoroughly original, unforgettable Dream, and it continues in repertory both night and day at the Festival Theatre until October 30th.

Caesar and Cleopatra up for Geminis

The 2009 Gemini Award nominees were announced earlier today, and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's 2008 production of George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra nabbed two nominations:
- Best Performing Arts Program or Series or Arts Documentary Program or Series
- Best Performance in a Performing Arts Program or Series: Christopher Plummer

(For our American friends, The Geminis are the Canadian equivalent of the Emmy's.) The Geminis will be handed out on November 14th in Calgary. Watch Caesar and Cleopatra on Bravo! online.

(It's just a little ironic that Stratford gets a nod for a Shaw play!)

2010 Season Announced at Stratford

In a media release posted today, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival announced its 2010 season, which includes appearances by Geraint Wyn Davies, Brent Carver and Christopher Plummer. There will be 4 Shakespeare plays produced, 3 musicals and one very family-friendly play at the Avon Theatre:

2010 Playbill
Festival Theatre
As You Like It
, By William Shakespeare, Directed by Des McAnuff, starring Brent Carver (right) as Jaques
Kiss Me, Kate, Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter, Book by Bella and Samuel Spewack, Directed by John Doyle
Dangerous Liaisons, By Christopher Hampton, Directed by Ethan McSweeny
The Tempest, By William Shakespeare, Directed by Des McAnuff, starring Christopher Plummer (left)

Avon Theatre
Peter Pan
, By J.M. Barrie, Directed by Tim Carroll
Evita, Music by Andrew Lloyd Weber, Lyrics by Tim Rice, Directed by Gary Griffin

Tom Patterson Theatre
The Winter’s Tale
, By William Shakespeare, Directed by Marti Maraden
Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, By Jacques Brel and Eric Blau, Directed by Stafford Arima, starring Brent Carver
For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, By Michel Tremblay, Directed by Chris Abraham

Studio Theatre
King of Thieves, By George F. Walker, Directed by Jennifer Tarver
The Two Gentlemen of Verona, By William Shakespeare, Directed by Dean Gabourie
Do Not Go Gentle, By Leon Pownall, Directed by Dean Gabourie, starring Geraint Wyn Davies (right)

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Musicals Extended

In a media statement released this afternoon, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival announced it has extended the run of both musicals by one week.

"Five performances of West Side Story have been added to the schedule: Tuesday, November 3 at 2 p.m.; Thursday, November 5 at 8 p.m.; Friday, November 6 at 2 p.m., Saturday, November 7 at 2 p.m.; and Sunday, November 8 at 2 p.m. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum will have three additional performances: Wednesday, November 4 at 2 p.m.; Thursday, November 5 at 2 p.m.; and Saturday, November 7 at 8 p.m." (Right: Deann deGruijter and Stephen Ouimette in Forum. Photo by David Hou.)

See the press release for ticket sale dates.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Sean Cullen replaces injured Bruce Dow in Forum

According to a Festival announcment this morning, actor Sean Cullen (left) will be replacing Bruce Dow (centre, below right, in 2004's Guys and Dolls) in the role of Pseudalous for the rest of the season in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Regretably, Mr. Dow is recovering from an injury. His understudy to this point, Randy Ganne, will resume his demanding work with West Side Story. Steve Ross, currently performing as Raganeau in Cyrano de Bergerac, will take over for Mr. Dow as Officer Krupke in West Side Story.

Mr. Cullen is a comedian-actor-author, who performed the role of Max Bialystock in the Toronto run of The Producers, has appeared in comedy festivals around the world, and was a finalist in NBC's Last Comic Standing last year. Mr. Cullen has won three Gemini Awards for his work on television and three Canadian Comedy Awards for film and live performance.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Ouzounian posts news of 2010 Stratford Season

In a Toronto Star Article printed today, Richard Ouzounian states that Marti Maraden (right) will be back next year to direct A Winter's Tale. He speculates that the other Shakespeare plays will likely be The Tempest and As You Like It - both were last performed at Stratford in 2005.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Something For Everyone (Unless you have no sense of humour)

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Des McAnuff
Featuring Bruce Dow, Stephen Ouimette, Cliff Saunders, Michael Nadajewski, Chilina Kennedy and Dan Chameroy

The Story: In a bid for freedom, and against his master’s wishes, the slave Pseudolus tries to unite his master’s son Hero with Philia, a virgin courtesan who has been sold to the warrior Miles Gloriosus. When the master returns early, Philia mistakes him for the captain, who mistakes her for a flirty new maid. Pseudolus enlists fellow slave Hysterium to assist in duping the masters, the captain and the owner of the courtesans but when he is arrested he is only saved by an old man’s family secret.

If the plot described above sounds suspiciously like a 1960’s sitcom, it’s because the names behind it – Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart – worked on some television’s biggies back in the day, most notably, “M*A*S*H”. Full of pratfalls, mistaken identities, sight gags, scantily-clad women and cross-dressing men, this production does its pedigree proud. Indeed, the stage curtain reveals exactly what to expect before it even rises.

Director Des McAnuff is more at home with this kind of show, a contemporary musical comedy on the proscenium stage, and he certainly proves it with his staging. Not a single opportunity for laugh is missed – it is nearly vaudevillian that way - and only a person with no measurable sense of humour will find anything to dislike about this comedy. In fact, if you suspect you do not have a sense of humour, you can skip both the play and the rest of this review.

Even the set and costumes (designed by John Arnone and Dana Osborne), are in on the wink-wink-nudge-nudging. The bright sets with moving pieces, and costumes befitting each character’s name – wait until you see the courtesans Vibrata and Gymnasia – both help make this show an all-encompassing laugh-in.

Of course, the actors have a part in this too. As the slave Pseudolus, Bruce Dow’s chipmunk’s grin and impeccably–timed antics (not to mention his powerhouse singing) has the audience grinning back for the entire show. He is very well-matched by Stephen Ouimette who nearly steals a few scenes as the dead-pan Hysterium. It is a wonder the two have not performed together before now.

The romantic lead Hero is played by Mike Nadajewski, whose na├»ve, earnest and starry-eyed lover is a hoot, while Chilina Kennedy does a complete one-eighty from her West Side Story role (Maria). As Philia, she fuses Marilyn Monroe with Chrissy Snow (Three’s Company), and if there is a sudden resurgence in ‘dumb-blonde’ jokes, we will be able to blame it on Ms. Kennedy’s perfect portrayal of this dim-witted character.

Making a later – and quite spectacular - entrance as the captain Miles Gloriosus, Dan Chameroy pays tribute to William Shatner and every other self-involved male-hero stereotype, and Cliff Saunders is utterly cringe-worthy as the cowardly and slimily sycophantic Marcus Lycus, keeper of the lovely courtesans.

There are many other memorable performances, but the three Proteans are a special treat. Jordan Bell, Stephen Cota and Julius Sermonia interact with and support all the other “named” characters, and these three garner a belly-laugh nearly every time they appear in their various guises.

In a nutshell, this play has no soliloquies, no moral, not one iota of seriousness and requires no thinking at all from its audience. It may be considered a low-brow comedy by some, but by Zeus, it is the best-performed low-brow comedy you will see anywhere, provided by a stack of talent both on and behind the stage.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until November 1.

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