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Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Heebie-Jeebies Galore: The Blyth Festival opens with A Killing Snow

Directed by Kate Lynch
Starring Catherine Fitch, Gil Garratt, Patricia Hamilton, Sam Malkin and Lisa Norton

The Story: Four individual travelers must take shelter when they are driven off the road during a heavy blizzard just after Christmas in Huron County. One person is dead, an unfortunate soul who ended up in a ditch. The home that the others invade belongs to a retired Latin teacher, and strangely enough, each person seems to have a connection to the other. Stranger still, they all have a connection to this dead language, Latin. "Dead" being the operative word…

There is nothing like a locked-room mystery to tease one’s ‘little grey cells’, as one famous fictional detective would put it. Take five people who dislike each other for as yet unknown reasons, put them in a locked room, have the lights go out, add some mysterious messages and discordant string music, and voila – a murder occurs. Make the locked room an isolated house in southwestern Ontario as a wild winter storm rages, and according to writer Paul Ciufo, the same thing might happen. Now. Whodunit?

Is it Gerry, the bitter Latin teacher? He has had his home invaded by (almost) strangers, one of whom seems keen to get a look at his latest manuscript.

Is it Callie, the young grad student, who can’t quite get her career off the ground?
Is it Alena, the sophisticated classics professor, whose summer cottage on Lake Huron is threatened by factory-farm run-off?
Is it Libby, the older woman, who sees much more than she lets on?

Is it Jack, the arrogant farmer-cum-model, who likes to run off at the mouth?

There are problems with the story. For a start, what are the odds that five people anywhere today know that much Latin, let alone in one isolated cottage? Yes, it gives a great classic tone to the dialogue (it is always translated) but the way it is tied to the killer's motive is tenuous at best. And, because of the way one character is written, it is fairly easy to recognize said character as the murderer. However, there are enough red-herrings, plot-twists and down-right creepifying special effects to keep even the biggest mystery fan thoroughly entertained, and the cast is excellent.

Actor/director Gill Garatt provides the comic relief as Jack, the farmer with what seems to be a big heart and an unfortunately bigger mouth. His main foil is in Lisa Norton as Callie, at her best when in taking histrionics about who the killer might be. Sam Malkin returns to Blyth after a long absence as the curmudgeon Gerry, and manages to show Gerry’s irritation and outrage but have it tinged with just a bit of panic when things move out of his control. Catherine Fitch gives Alena just the right hint of smugness as the successful prof, and Patricia Hamilton (snagged from the Shaw Festival), runs the gamut of emotion as Libby, from tough-as-nails mother, to sympathetic friend, from frightened victim to quirky prescient.

There were a few technical glitches during this particular performance – the audience probably is not supposed to see how the mysterious messages appear, nor see the side door open and close in the dark (one of the house lights reflects off of its window), but these few are easily outstripped by the other tricks and treats from the tech department: a constantly howling wind, sinister string music, frequent blackouts, a stage lit with only lanterns, and a kitchen window that occasionally shows more unnatural things than the storm outside.

The story as a whole may have plot holes big enough to drive a snowmobile through, but it was nevertheless highly enjoyable for this mystery fan. Especially since on the drive back to Stratford I was following a full, Halloween-orange moon, there were wisps of low, thick fog that kept enveloping my car, and I passed a truck, stopped on the side of the road, flashing its distress lights. I confess, I didn’t stop. A Killing Snow had freaked me out enough for one night! It continues in repertory at the Blyth Festival until August 13th.

And yes, that would be Friday the 13th, too…

Tuesday, 29 June 2010


Upon a closer read of the press release, I understand that the "newly commissioned musical from the team behind The Drowsy Chaperone" won't actually be produced in the 2011 season, but for a season later down the road.  So as of right now, 11 productions are in the line up for the 2011 season.  How apt!

Monday, 28 June 2010

2011 Playbill in brief

The Merry Wives of Windsor: directed by Frank Galati, Festival Theatre. Starring Geraint Wyn Davies (Falstaff), Tom Rooney (Ford) and Janet Wright (Mistress Quickly).
Richard III: directed by Miles Potter, Tom Patterson Theatre. Starring Seana McKenna as Richard III
Titus Andronicus: no director / casting yet available; Tom Patterson Theatre
Twelfth Night: directed by Des McAnuff, Festival Theatre. Starring Brian Dennehy (Sir Toby), Stephen Ouimette (Sir Andrew), Ben Carlson (Feste), Tom Rooney (Malvolio)

Camelot: directed by Gary Griffin, Avon Theatre. Starring Geraint Wyn Davies (King Arthur)
Jesus Christ, Superstar: directed by Des. McAnuff, Avon Theatre. Starring Paul Nolan (Jesus), Chilina Kennedy (Mary Magdalene)

Hosanna: directed by Weyni Mengesha, Studio Theatre. No casting yet announced.
The Little Years: directed by Chris Abraham, Theatre and casting not yet announced.
Newly commissioned musical: from the creative team of The Drowsy Chaperone. No theatre, director or casting yet announced.

The Grapes of Wrath: directed by Antoni Cimolino, Avon Theatre. Starring Chilina Kenndy (Rose of Sharon) and Janet Wright (Ma)
The Homecoming: directed by Jennifer Tarver, Avon Theatre. Starring Brian Dennehy (Max), Stephen Ouimette (Sam)
The Misanthrope: directed by Brian Bedford, Festival Theatre. Starring Brian Bedford, Ben Carlson (Alceste)

2011 Playbill Released: Brian Dennehy, Brian Bedford Return

PRESS RELEASE  June 28, 2010… The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is delighted to announce that Brian Dennehy (right) will be returning to the Festival stage to play Sir Toby Belch in the 2011 production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, directed by Artistic Director Des McAnuff.

“We are delighted to have Brian Dennehy return to the Festival in 2011,” says Mr. McAnuff. “He is perfect for the role of Sir Toby Belch. I first started talking to Brian about Stratford back in 2007, backstage after a performance of Inherit the Wind on Broadway, which he starred in with the great Christopher Plummer. It is particularly gratifying to get to work with him personally as a director, not only because he is one of the great stage actors of our time but also because he is a tremendous champion of this theatre.”

“Brian Dennehy’s performances in Krapp’s Last Tape and Hughie in 2008 were unforgettable and among the most successful productions in terms of ticket sales at the Studio Theatre,” says General Director Antoni Cimolino. “I know our audiences will be eager to see his portrayal of Sir Toby, a role that is a perfect fit for his wonderful comedic talents.”

Mr. Dennehy will also play the raving patriarch Max in Harold Pinter's The Homecoming at the Avon Theatre, the first Pinter work to be produced at the Festival. It will be directed by Jennifer Tarver. Ms Tarver first directed Mr. Dennehy at Stratford, in the 2008 production of Krapp’s Last Tape. A winner of both the Pauline McGibbon Award and the John Hirsch Director’s Award, Ms Tarver also won a Dora Award for best director and was named Best Director of 2007 by Toronto’s Now magazine. Ms Tarver directed the 2009 production of Zastrozzi and is directing the 2010 production of King of Thieves.

Season to feature four Shakespeares

In addition to Twelfth Night, the 2011 season will feature three other Shakespeare works: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Richard III and Titus Andronicus.

Frank Galati will make his Stratford debut directing The Merry Wives of Windsor, at the Festival Theatre. The production will feature Geraint Wyn Davies (left) as Falstaff. Tom Rooney will play Ford. Mr. Galati is a two-time Tony Award-winner (Best Play and Best Direction) for his production and adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. He also directed the Tony-winning production of Ragtime in 1997. Mr. Galati is a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, an associate director at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and a professor of performance at Northwestern University. Mr. Galati adapted the novel The Accidental Tourist for the screen, winning an Academy Award for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), as well as the UK’s BAFTA Award and the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Mr. Wyn Davies is currently playing Stephano in The Tempest, and his one-man show Do Not Go Gentle will open at the Festival on July 13. Mr. Wyn Davies’s extensive career includes film, television and stage work across North America and in the U.K. He has spent seven seasons at Stratford, playing a most memorable Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2009, a season that also saw him play Duncan in Macbeth and the title role in Julius Caesar. His Polonius in the 2008 production of Hamlet received great critical acclaim.

Mr. Rooney (right), who will also play Malvolio in Twelfth Night, is playing Duke Frederick and Duke Senior in the current production of As You Like It and Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale. He will open in For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again in August. Audiences will well remember his turn as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and as Cassius in Julius Caesar, as well as his stand-out portrayal of the Porter in Macbeth during the 2009 season. He also played Wilbur in the Toronto and Broadway productions of Hairspray and was seen for three seasons on This Is Wonderland playing Crown Attorney David Kaye.

Richard III, directed by Miles Potter, will be presented at the Tom Patterson Theatre. Seana McKenna (left) who has played almost every leading lady written by Shakespeare, will now turn her talents to one of the greatest male roles in the canon.

“This is a project that Seana and I have been discussing for some time,” says Mr. McAnuff. “She is one of our greatest players and with this performance she will continue to further our united cause for non-traditional casting. I am thrilled to be able to support her dream to play Richard.”

Ms McKenna has been dazzling Stratford audiences for 19 seasons, most recently as Paulina in this season's production of The Winter's Tale. Other recent Stratford credits include the title roles in Phèdre and Medea, as well as Andromache in The Trojan Women. A multiple Dora Award-winner, Ms McKenna was recently awarded an honorary Master of Fine Arts in Acting from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

The fourth Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, will also play at the Tom Patterson Theatre. The director has yet to be announced.

Avon and Festival theatres to offer musicals

Gary Griffin will return for his third season, to direct Camelot at the Festival Theatre. Mr. Griffin has had terrific success at Stratford, with the breakout hit West Side Story in 2009 and the Festival's first rock opera, Evita, in 2010. The book and lyrics for Camelot were written by Alan Jay Lerner, the music by Frederick Loewe.

“Gary Griffin has become one of our principal directors in a very short time,” says Mr. McAnuff. “That is due to the fact that he is not only enormously talented but also highly skilled. He has a terrific feel for this institution and understands exactly how to take us to the limit.”

Geraint Wyn Davies will play King Arthur in the production. Mr. Wyn Davies’s musical roles at Stratford include Henry Higgins in the 2002 production of My Fair Lady and Antipholus Syracuse in the 1986 production of The Boys From Syracuse.

In 2011, the Festival will stage its second rock musical. Artistic Director Des McAnuff will direct Jesus Christ Superstar, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, at the Avon Theatre. In 2009, Mr. McAnuff directed his first Stratford musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was such a success that its run was extended and it was picked up by Mirvish Productions as part of its 2010-11 season in Toronto.

Mr. McAnuff is a two-time Tony winner for Best Musical for his productions of Big River and Jersey Boys and a two-time Tony winner for Best Direction of a Musical, for The Who’s Tommy and Big River. In 2010, he directed the critically acclaimed productions of As You Like It and The Tempest, featuring Christopher Plummer as Prospero. He also directed Mr. Plummer in the 2008 production of Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, which was made into a Gemini-nominated film.

“I have been speaking to Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber for some time about doing Superstar, which, along with The Who’s Tommy, I consider to be the greatest rock and roll musical of all time,” says Mr. McAnuff. “The audacious and virtuosic 1970s album had a profound effect on me when I was a budding theatre artist and I’m delighted that I’m going to be allowed to share it with Stratford audiences.”

The production will feature Paul Nolan as Jesus and Chilina Kennedy as Mary Magdalene, together again after their enormous success as Tony and Maria in West Side Story. This season, Mr. Nolan is playing Orlando in As You Like It. Ms Kennedy is playing the title role in Evita and Lois Lane in Kiss Me, Kate.

Season to feature classics ancient and modern

General Director Antoni Cimolino will direct The Grapes of Wrath by Frank Galati, based on the American classic novel by John Steinbeck, at the Avon Theatre. Mr. Cimolino directed the widely popular Bartholomew Fair in 2008. His other Stratford credits include As You Like It, with music by Barenaked Ladies; Coriolanus, featuring Colm Feore and Martha Henry; King John, with Stephen Ouimette; Love’s Labour’s Lost, with Brian Bedford; Twelfth Night, with William Hutt; The Night of the Iguana, with Seana McKenna; and Filumena, with Richard Monette.

“I was profoundly moved by Frank Galati’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath,” says Mr. Cimolino. “Our work in El Salvador – where Festival volunteers are helping CUSO with skills training and development work – has reinforced for me the fact that the plight of the tenant farmer and migrant worker has not changed over time. It is our responsibility in this production to let their voices be heard.”

The Grapes of Wrath is a play ideally suited to the directorial strengths of Antoni Cimolino and I was thrilled that he agreed to take the helm of this production following his success with last year’s production of Bartholomew Fair,” says Mr. McAnuff. “Grapes is a play I am very close to. When I was Artistic Director at La Jolla Playhouse, I helped launched Frank Galati’s internationally successful adaptation of it, assisted by Stratford dramaturge Robert Blacker. I am doubly pleased to be using that adaptation and to have Frank with us in our 2011 season directing The Merry Wives of Windsor.”

The production will feature Chilina Kennedy as Rosasharn and Janet Wright (right) as Ma.

Ms Wright will also play Mistress Quickly in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Ms Wright returns to the Festival for the first time in more than a decade. She is well-known as Emma in the hit TV series Corner Gas, part of her extensive career in film and television. In her six seasons at Stratford in the 1990s, she directed Juno and the Paycock and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and played such roles as Queen Eleanor in King John, Agave in The Bacchae, Aemilia in The Comedy of Errors and Gertrude in Hamlet, with Stephen Ouimette (below), who will also return for the 2011 season.

Mr. Ouimette will play Sam in Ms Tarver’s production of the contemporary classic The Homecoming, which will be staged at the Avon Theatre. As mentioned, Mr. Dennehy will play Max in the production.

Mr. Ouimette will also play Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night.

“Putting Stephen side-by-side with Brian Dennehy as Sir Toby Belch promises to deliver up a comic duo without parallel in my experience,” says Mr. McAnuff. “As can only happen in a repertory company, these two brilliant actors will also step into the roles of Sam and Max in The Homecoming, displaying the depth of their remarkable talents.”

Mr. Ouimette had audiences roaring with laughter in 2009, when he played Hysterium in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Well-known for his portrayal of Oliver Welles in the series Slings and Arrows, Mr. Ouimette has spent 18 seasons at Stratford, directing the hit 2004 production of Timon of Athens and playing the title roles in Hamlet, King John, Amadeus and Richard III, as well as many other leading roles. In addition to Hysterium, he also played Canon Chasuble in 2009 in The Importance of Being Earnest, under the direction of Brian Bedford.

In 2011, Mr. Bedford (left) will return to direct a French classic, Molière’s The Misanthrope, at the Festival Theatre, using the translation by Richard Wilbur. Mr. Bedford will also appear in the production. Ben Carlson will return for his fourth season at Stratford to play Alceste in the production.

Mr. Bedford and Mr. Carlson (right) last shared the stage together in the glorious 2009 production of The Importance of Being Earnest, in which Mr. Bedford played Lady Bracknell and Mr. Carlson played John Worthing. The production of Earnest was so well received that it will be featured as part of New York's Roundabout Theater Company season this winter.

In 2007, Mr. Bedford directed and played the title role in King Lear at the Festival Theatre. This will be his 27th season at Stratford. He has acted and directed in Los Angeles, San Diego, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Starring in many Broadway productions, he has received six Best Actor Tony nominations and won the award for Molière’s The School for Wives.

Mr. Carlson, who will also play Feste in Twelfth Night, is currently entertaining audiences with his riotous turn as Touchstone in As You Like It. He is also moving them to tears with his portrayal of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. Mr. Carlson has played the title roles in Macbeth and Hamlet at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. In 12 seasons at Shaw, his roles included John Tanner in Man and Superman, Eustace in The Return of the Prodigal and Andrei in Three Sisters. His portrayal of Hamlet at Stratford in 2008 received great critical acclaim.

Tremblay and Mighton featured at the Studio

The Studio Theatre will feature a production of Hosanna by Michel Tremblay, directed by Weyni Mengesha. Tremblay returned to the Stratford playbill in 2010 with For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again. His work had last been seen here in the 1990s.

Ms Mengesha (right) will be making her Stratford debut with this production. She first received acclaim directing Trey Anthony's Da Kink in My Hair and composing its score. Her other directing credits include A Raisin in the Sun (one of Now magazine’s Top Ten Theatre Productions of 2008) and d'bi.young.anitafrika's play blood.claat. Most recently she served as dramaturge on The Africa Trilogy, a highlight of Luminato's 2010 season.

Also playing at the Studio is a new Canadian work, The Little Years, by John Mighton, commissioned by the Festival in 2008. The commission is an expansion of a work from earlier in Mr. Mighton's career. This will be the second of three commissions to come to the stage under Mr. McAnuff’s tenure. The first, King of Thieves by George F. Walker, opens this August. The third, by Judith Thompson, is ongoing.

The Little Years will be directed by Chris Abraham, returning for a second season after directing 2010's For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again. Mr. Abraham is known for his bold staging of contemporary classics. He is the artistic director of Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre, founding artistic director of Go Chicken Go and co-founder of Bill Glassco’s Montreal Young Company, as well as an instructor at the National Theatre School. In addition to his many theatrical awards, he won a Gemini for his first film, I, Claudia, based on the award-winning play.

New musical commissioned from Drowsy Chaperone team

The Festival announces a fourth commission this year, a musical project from the creators of The Drowsy Chaperone, Bob Martin, Don McKellar, Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison.

“I have often said that I would love to see new Canadian musicals developed at Stratford,” says Mr. McAnuff. “I am very excited with this first step and we all look forward to seeing what this talented team creates. I think it’s deliciously ironic that members of this group lampooned us here at Stratford so successfully with the hilarious series Slings and Arrows and I’m excited to see what will come of this new partnership.”

“This tremendously exciting lineup of plays for the 2011 season builds on the great strength of the current year’s offerings,” says Mr. Cimolino. “We encourage our patrons to check their calendars now and set aside time to visit Stratford this year and in the upcoming season.”

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s 2010 season runs until November 6, featuring As You Like It; Kiss Me, Kate; The Tempest; Dangerous Liaisons; Evita; Peter Pan; The Winter’s Tale; Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris; For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again; Do Not Go Gentle; The Two Gentlemen of Verona; and King of Thieves.


Saturday, 26 June 2010

L’esprit de Jacques Brel c’est douce-amère

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
Production Conception, English Lyrics and Additional Material by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman
Based on Jacques Brel’s Lyrics and Commentary
Music by Jacques Brel
Directed by Stafford Arima
Featuring: Jewelle Blackman, Brent Carver, Mike Nadajewski, Nathalie Nadon and orchestra members Laura Burton, Anna Atkinson, George Meanwell and Luc Michaud

The Story: A single light bulb hangs over a bare stage, one wall of which is draped in looped red curtains. A thunderclap and all goes black. As the light crackles back on, it reveals the stage now surrounded by eight figures. They each take a tentative step onto the stage, smile in recognition of each other, and one moves to the piano on the platform. Three notes, and the Marathon begins…

So it is not as much a story as a loose narrative built around twenty-six songs from the catalogue of Belgian troubadour Jacques Brel. The eight figures arrive when an audience has gathered to hear them. They have no formal names; four of them are musicians, four of them are singers. The songs they perform are touching, comical, romantic, and nearly all are performed with the trademark Brel crescendo. And although each song has a distinct story and character, listen carefully - they are almost all touched with something darker, even the ones that will at first induce hysterical giggling.

As soon as Marathon is complete, the dark red curtain is swished away, revealing a wall papered with curling, faded posters from past concerts the ensemble has given, and which has scattered frames, the largest of which is of Jacques Brel himself. Then the fun really begins.

Mike Nadajewski (left) performs most of the comical songs; his timing, deadpan and physicality are as impeccable as his vocals, and because he has lured you into a false sense of hilarity in previous numbers like Mathilde and The Bulls (in which he engages the front row of the audience), the wistful bitterness we see in his rendition of Fanette and the repressed rage he exhibits in Next is like a punch in the gut. He has great chemistry with Brent Carver in Middle Class, with both acting as bratty and smug as we all are at age 21 when we know it all.

Mr. Carver (right) is the consummate performer, his expressiveness is never so evident as it is with these complex  songs and in the intimate space of the Tom Patterson Theatre. He timidly appeals to the audience with his Bachelor’s Dance, swells us with yearning for Marieke (a song he partially sings in Dutch*) and he soothes us with My Childhood before making us weep with the same song. His physical intensity builds as he relates the tale of Amsterdam until his railing sweeps the audience utterly away.

Jewelle Blackman’s (left) throaty vocals add a dash of soul to the arrangements; she unfortunately fails to fully articulate some of her lyrics, but she certainly encapsulates the passion of them to near perfection. Her rendition of Carousel is particularly spellbinding, as is her French duet of the familiar La Moribond, with Nathalie Nadon.

Ms. Nadon (right) is a true chaneuse, she has a lightness of tone in numbers like Timid Frieda, and I Loved, but easily switches gears for the sad Sons of…, and melancholy of Old Folks. She sings Ne me quitte pas as a duet with a softly lit, single acoustic guitar (played byGeorge Meanwell), and although it is sung in French, no meaning is lost in her evocotive, almost whispered interpretation.

Instead of hiding the orchestra behind a wall or curtain, director Stafford Arima was clever to bring them into the show. They become characters themselves as they step forward like street musicians to interact with the singers. It had the added advantage of being able to adjust to the volume of the singers – who wear mics – so there is never an imbalance.

The order of the songs performed has been tweaked from the original cast recording; some have been left out and others added from the vast Brel songbook. Musical director Rick Fox has also given many new arrangements – he has slowed the tempo of some, allowing the audience to focus on the intricate lyrics.

In the second half of the show the flow of songs becomes even darker; mortality is the theme and each of the characters meets it with varying degrees of bitterness, desperation and finally soft acceptance. As they finish performing If We Only Had Love, the back wall opens, the performers walk toward the light, and the stage goes black once more. You get the sense that they knew their time was fleeting, and now that their job is done, it is time to go back from whence they came at the beginning of the show – until it is time for the next performance.

Intense, yes, but not the kind that leaves you breathless – it is the kind that leaves you wanting more. But because the characters have finished, there is never an encore, however hard the audience calls. If you want an encore, you’ll just have to go back again. Be quick – Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is only playing at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 25, and it is almost sold out.

(*or is it Flemish?  If you know, please let me know, below!)

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Press Release: Festival extends runs of Evita and Kiss Me, Kate

June 22, 2010… The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is extending the runs of Kiss Me, Kate and Evita, adding an extra week to the 2010 season.

Both musicals have been a hit with audiences since previews began in the early spring and tickets are selling quickly.

“It’s a wonderful endorsement of the work we do to see such positive response from every corner,” says Artistic Director Des McAnuff. “We’re thrilled to be extending our season, providing theatre lovers with even more opportunities to see these two outstanding musicals.”

These extensions have been made possible thanks to funds provided to the Festival through the Marquee Tourism Events Program, part of the federal government’s Economic Action Plan.

“The federal government has done a great service to the arts in Canada by introducing the Marquee funding program,” says General Director Antoni Cimolino. “In addition to allowing us to augment our marketing program, Marquee funds have allowed us to extend the runs of Evita and Kiss Me, Kate. Simlarly, last season’s funding allowed us to open A Midsummer Night’s Dream to an increased number of students, and to publicize our season more effectively.”

Five performances of Evita have been added:

Monday, November 1 at 2 p.m.
Tuesday, November 2 at 2 p.m.
Thursday, November 4 at 2 p.m.
Friday, November 5 at 2 p.m.
Saturday, November 6 at 8 p.m.

Two performances of Kiss Me, Kate have been added:

Wednesday, November 3 at 2 p.m.
Saturday, November 6 at 2 p.m.

To order tickets contact the box office at 1.800.567.1600 or visit the Festival at, where the new performances have been added to the online calendar.
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s 2010 season runs until October 31, featuring As You Like It; Kiss Me, Kate; The Tempest; Dangerous Liaisons; Evita; Peter Pan; The Winter’s Tale; Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris; For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again; Do Not Go Gentle; The Two Gentlemen of Verona; and King of Thieves.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Kiss Me, Kate: Bold and Bright

Kiss Me, Kate
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Sam and Bella Spewack
Directed by John Doyle
Featuring Juan Chioran, Mike Jackson, Chilina Kennedy, Monique Lund, Steve Ross, Cliff Saunders
(all photos by David Hou)

The Story: It is the 1940’s in Baltimore, and ex-spouses Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi are starring in a new adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. Lilli still has feelings for her ex, but he is favouring his new ingénue Lois Lane, who is actually in love with her cabaret co-star, Bill Calhoun. Thanks to Bill’s gambling, some toughs have come to collect his debt – which he signed in Fred’s name. Lilli learns of Fred’s fling and in a fury tries to leave the show, but Fred persuades the debt collectors force her hand, because maybe, just maybe, he still has feelings for her, too.

The play-within-a-musical storyline might be a bit confusing but let us state right now, this is not Shakespeare’s play, it is Cole Porter’s musical. The characters in the musical are playing actors who perform Shakespeare rather badly. They are supposed to be bad Shakespearean actors whose offstage lives begin to leak onstage; that is a small part of what makes this musical so funny. (It is not nearly so funny to explain to one’s audience neighbours who thought they’d be seeing The Taming of the Shrew - sans music - so let’s move on.)

This is a musical the audience will either love or hate. They will not hate it because of the performances, which are wonderful; they will hate it because of the bold choice of costumes for the Shakespeare part. Think of the Jetson’s in Shakespearean dress – asymmetrical, cartoon-like sketches of the Renaissance silhouette, with big, stiff hoops the women in particular must navigate, but without the fussiness of ruffles and brocades. Designer David Farley unpacked the big box of Crayola’s for them – fuchsia, chartreuse, scarlet, goldenrod – the colours are bold and they brighten the space and actors wearing them.

The set is same. Starting out ‘backstage’ with a ghost-light, rafters, sandbags and scaffolding, the ‘onstage’ set is as bright as the ‘backstage’ is dull. Saturated colours, nothing exactly square, and often the actor’s costumes double as the set pieces – it illustrates the “make-do” innovation with which many theatre companies without large resources must contend. The backdrop for the Shrew set is a set of canvas curtains painted with cubist-inspired Italianate scenes. With the avant-garde set, costumes and over-acting (from the characters, not the real actors), the show within a show would have utterly failed in 1940’s Baltimore, but thankfully audiences today are more accepting (the critic hopes).

The musical begins with a single actor onstage (Jordan Bell), a boy who remains onstage throughout the entire story – a sort of ‘everyman’ audience who is seduced not just by the onstage glory, but the backstage dramas of the actors. He is not the only one seduced either. The two toughs, played by Steve Ross and Cliff Saunders in perfect unison, also begin to feel the pull of the limelight, and slowly transform into actors within the play. They not only look forlorn when they have to give up their costumes, but perform one of the most delightful, hummable numbers of the play – Brush Up Your Shakespeare (in perfect Brooklyn accents) – to extend their time on stage (although the launch of this number seems to come out of nowhere).

Part of the backstage drama is due to the shenanigans of Lois Lane, played very perkily by Chilina Kennedy (right, with Jaz Sealy, Kyle Golemba and Mike Jackson). As Lois leads on both of her leading men, she nevertheless shows great fondness for Bill in numbers like Why Can’t You Behave? and Bianca, but can’t help showing off for her backstage cohorts in Always True to You in My Fashion and Tom, Dick or Harry. Ms. Kennedy’s sparkles as Lois repeatedly tries to be the centre of attention and her pratfalls make for great physical comedy. Her boyfriend Bill (Mike Jackson) is at first cavalier, throwing ‘how you doin?’ winks at the audience, then turns into a big softie by the end of the show.

Juan Chioran’s Fred Graham is a man who is pompous (which is expected for the character) and also a bit fragile (which is not), like a man who is trying too hard to hold onto youth and past glories. He is as mad a Petruchio that ever trod the boards, and as desperate a Fred to keep Lilli in character and in check. Mr. Chioran (left) is the backbone of this production.

Where Mr. Chioran is the backbone, Monique Lund (right) is the heart, playing Lilli/Kate. She is utterly convincing as both the sophisticated Lilli Vanessi and as the furious Kate. Her vocal range is amazing, but so is the expression she gives to each individual number: So in Love is sung so hauntingly it produces goose-bumps, so humanly it produces tears (Mr. Chioran’s reprisal is just as soft and wistful). Yet I Hate Men is shrill and funny, and in Kiss Me, Kate her parody of operatic pyrotechnics is jaw-dropping. Ms. Lund (right) owns the most hilarious moment yet witnessed this season – a well-timed, clever, exit-stage-left, barely possible in her voluminous hooped-costume – it produces fits of giggles even after leaving the theatre.

Love or hate the production, the performances are formidable, the songs are hummable and the costumes are, at the very least, memorable. All in all, Kiss Me, Kate is enjoyable, and it continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 30th.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

36th Blyth Festival Season Opens with World Premiere of A Killing Snow

[Press Release] Blyth, Ontario, June 17, 2010— The world premiere of A Killing Snow by Paul Ciufo officially opens the 36th Blyth Festival season on June 25.

Artistic Director Eric Coates says, "Every year I marvel at the extraordinary passion of the artists, technicians, administrators and volunteers who bring this festival to life. This season is no different, as we open with two very demanding productions, which are both sure to hit home with our audience. I am confident that word of mouth is going to be our best friend in 2010 when it comes to box office sales. Also, I’m pleased to announce that I've banned the vuvuzela from Blyth Memorial Hall."

A Killing Snow is a witty take on the murder mystery genre and follows many of the conventions of a typical whodunit. The play revolves around four travelers who take refuge from a Huron County blizzard in the secluded home of Gerald Goldie, retired Latin teacher. All of the strangers share a working knowledge of Latin, a serious distaste for their host…and a growing animosity for each other. As ominous Latin phrases begin to appear on the walls, it becomes clear that someone has murder on the mind. And as the body count rises, the stranded guests are forced to choose between certain death in the blizzard, or tempting fate in the safety of Gerald’s home.

A Killing Snow is Ciufo’s second play to premiere at the Blyth Festival. His 2007 hit, Reverend Jonah, was a finalist for the 2008 Governor General’s Literary Awards.

Familiar faces appearing in A Killing Snow include Catherine Fitch, Gil Garratt and Lisa Norton. The cast also includes Patricia Hamilton, who makes her Blyth Festival debut, and Sam Malkin, whose last appearance at the festival was in 1979. A Killing Snow is directed by Kate Lynch.

Preview performances of A Killing Snow will run June 23 -24, prior to the official opening on June 25. A Killing Snow plays at the Blyth Festival in repertory until August 13.

A Killing Snow is sponsored by the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 420, Blyth and the Legion Ladies Auxiliary to Branch 420. Media Sponsors are CKNX Radio – am920, 101.7 The One and 94.5 The Bull.

The Blyth Festival’s 2010 season runs June 23 to September 4 and also features Bordertown Café, Pearl Gidley and The Book of Esther. For more information please visit or call 1-877-862-5984.

2010 Season Sponsors are Sparling’s Propane Company Limited and CTV.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Stratford Alum Cynthia Dale in New Toronto Show

Those lamenting the loss of Cynthia Dale (left) from Stratford stages will be pleased to learn she'll be close by this year in Toronto in a new show called Love, Loss and What I Wore, from creators Nora and Delia Ephron.
Louise Pitre (right), who was recently in town performing with the Stratford Symphony Orchestra, will also be appearing in the show, along with several other illustrious Canadian actresses.

Friday, 11 June 2010

2011 Season Rumours already? Opening week isn't even over!

First, the Sears winter catalogue arrived two weeks before the official start of summer, and now, still whirling from a week of openings that isn't even over yet, we're getting heady new rumours coming down the pipe for the 2011 season at Stratford.

Toronto Star columnist Richard Ouzounian reported today that two likely shows for the next Stratford Shakespeare Festival season will be Jesus Christ, Superstar and Twelfth Night, both to be helmed by current Artistic Director Des McAnuff.
(I'll think about that later - I still have 5 reviews for this week to write.)

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

By William, I Think He’s Got It!

As You Like It
Directed by Des McAnuff
Designed by Debra Hansen
Featuring Ben Carlson, Brent Carver, Paul Nolan, Lucy Peacock, Cara Ricketts, Tom Rooney, Andrea Runge

The Story: Banished from court by her usurping uncle, Rosalind and her cousin Celia flee to the forest of Arden disguised as a boy and shepherdess. They encounter the rustics who live in the forest and others who have fled the dangerous palace, including Orlando, a young gentleman who has been roughly treated by his older brother and is lovesick for a certain Rosalind. The disguised girl loves him, but does not reveal herself until other love triangles make things a little too complicated to keep up her charade.

Perhaps it is because As You Like It is as close to a musical as you can get in Shakespeare. Perhaps it is that he has figured out how to use the iconic thrust stage to the best advantage at last. Whatever the reason, the much-maligned Des McAnuff seems to have shaken off the specters of his past Bardic attempts and found his way through the Forest of Arden with a unique vision that lasts from start to finish.

There has been much buzz about Debra Hanson’s use of surrealist art in this production, most notably Magritte and Salvador Dali, but it is not only truly beautiful on stage, it is in harmony with the text. The fascist court is not entirely original, but set as it is in the 1920’s between World Wars, there was little other choice to show the rigid political structure of the ‘nobility’. The use of surreal all-seeing-eyes and faceless guards enhances the sense of brutal suffocation at court.

By contrast, the Forest of Arden is dominated by blown-up photographs of moths and butterflies – it fills the stage floor, creating a lush carpet for the forest. Only one tree exists in these woods, but it comes alive with leaves and blooms, and actors double as props as well, portraying living, flowing, bouquets of flowers or forest animals. (There are moments when the beauty of the set eclipses the action on stage – the lioness is so statuesque one may miss the budding romance between Celia and Oliver). That the young lovers of Arden will herald in a new society when they return to court is emphasized by the surreal art, which challenges one to see things as they could be, not in their traditional, strict purpose.

This production is full of beautiful, surprising moments, but not everything flows evenly from one moment to the next, despite its quick pacing. It is almost like watching a handful of excellent, but individual performances, with one or two exceptions.

For instance, while harmony in the story is complemented by the early jazz and ragtime melodies that the band of merry men play and sing within the forest (composed by Justin Ellington) there is at least one sour note in their midst: Brian Tree plays the elderly Adam with much warmth and humour, and so his death is surprising. Although it is in keeping with the text (Adam inexplicably disappears in the second half of the play), it happens in the middle of an up-beat melody and so is robbed of the poignancy that this character deserves. The scene ends with Orlando sprinkling his ashes in the forest while watched by a new father-figure, which is a stroke of brilliance.

The same father-figure (Tom Rooney, doubling as the fanatical Duke Frederick and gentlemanly, exiled Duke Senior) also takes care of Jaques, making sure his collar is turned up against the cold. But this Jaques represents Magritte’s anonymous Man in the Bowler Hat, and as played by Brent Carver, he is ever the pessimist with an umbrella in hand. As the other characters change into lighter colours with the season, Mr. Carver’s Jaques never does, and he is alone in self-imposed darkness as the others are flooded with light and hope. Mr. Carver seems to believe in Jaques’ words, so he nearly convinces the audience of man’s infirmity as he delivers the ‘seven ages of man’ in soft-voiced urgency; his other pronouncements are just as soberly heartfelt.

It is great to see an Orlando, played here by Paul Nolan (far right), not merely play-acting as he talks of love, but responding to an attraction he feels for someone he thinks is a man. Looking entirely befuddled, he is not sure what to make of it, although there are tantalizing moments when he seems to realize “Ganymede” is not all “he” claims to be. Ganymede is in fact Rosalind, played by Andrea Runge (right). As Rosalind should, she hits her stride when in disguise, and her propensity to be too girlish is checked by her cousin Celia, played by Cara Ricketts (whose silent, expressive looks are as much fun to watch as the leads) (right centre).

The other lovers who act foils to Orlando and Rosalind’s love include a starry-eyed, awkward Ian Lake as Silvius, and Dalal Badr as a high and mighty Phoebe. They arrive in one scene on a chaise in the form of a sheep (you know what is coming, then watch with anticipation as it unfolds in all due hilarity). The other couple is Touchstone and Audrey (left): played by Ben Carlson throughout with quick, acid tones (as garrulous as Touchstone is, Mr. Carlson never lets the audience down by losing the text’s meaning) he still shows real affection for Audrey; she is played by an utterly adorable Lucy Peacock with such vacancy one wonders if she is even present. They are perfect opposites and as such are in perfect harmony (especially when the band shows up again).

In fact, of all the lovers on the stage, it was only Mr. Carlson and Ms. Peacock who seemed to really gel; this will get better by season’s end, no doubt. All in all, this was a production I would be happy to see again; it is by far the best Shakespeare Mr. McAnuff has directed so far, giving me high hopes for The Tempest, which he will open later this month.

As You Like It continues in repertory until October 31 at the Festival Theatre.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Stratford Shakespeare Festival Officially Opens Monday

Tune in for live coverage of the Gala arrivals on Monday, June 7, from 6:45-7:30pm (EST); in attendance will be some of Canada's top talent from the entertainment industry:

Christopher Plummer and Elaine Plummer
Seán Cullen and Kim Temple
Colm Feore and Donna Feore
Peter Donaldson and Sheila McCarthy
Zaib Shaikh and Kirstine Stewart
Stephen Ouimette
Lisa Lambert
Morris Panych and Ken MacDonald
Robert McQueen

Also in attendance will be several government officials:
• The Honourable David C. Onley, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, and Mrs. Ruth Ann Onley
Gary Schellenberger, MP Perth-Wellington
Michael Chan, Minister of Tourism and Culture for Ontario
Drew Fagan, Deputy Minister of Tourism and Culture for Ontario
John Wilkinson, Minister of Revenue for Ontario
Greg Sorbara, MPP for Vaughan
Dr. Jean Augustine, Fairness Commissioner of Ontario
Mayor Dan Mathieson, City of Stratford

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