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Saturday, 31 July 2010

Gem of a Production: Pearl Gidley opens at Blyth

Pearl Gidley
Written by Gary Kirkham
Directed by Miles Potter
Starring Catherine Fitch, Gil Garratt, Patricia Hamilton, Sam Malkin

The story: Piss-and-vinegar Pearl Gidley and her romantic-minded sister Edith are leading their unassuming and unexciting lives in Blyth, Ontario in April 1971, when their neighbor George asks them to take in a border, a young Vietnam veteran named Charles. In a time of financial crisis in the country and violent conflict overseas, each of them has their own inner battles that threaten the carefully built détente within the home. But secrets kept too long may make people a little squirrely, and when truths are acknowledged will they each find peace or will their lives be torn apart?

Author Gary Kirkham looked no further than the town of Blyth for inspiration for his new play – Pearl Gidley actually existed, although the her story is fictionalized for dramatic effect.

The story as told by the author is fairly predictable. Pearl is a melancholy being, and it is not long before one can glean that the root of her melancholy is a long-ago romance turned sour. The elephant in her room is a beautiful upright piano that she never plays, though she once used to be a concert pianist. So the play of course ends with her at the keys to bring it full circle. It is the type of story one might hear on Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Café, full of pathos, good intentions and dollops of every-day, earthy humour.

I happen to love the stories on Vinyl Café. As directed by Miles Potter, Pearl Gidley is beautifully realized, like comfort-theatre one wishes to return to again and again; as played by Catherine Fitch, Pearl Gidley goes from being our most irritating eccentric aunt to the one we look forward to visiting, or in this case, watching. When you do, there are a few rules to follow:

Rule number 1: Know your Dylan. Not the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Dylan Thomas, but that other poet, Bob Dylan. His music is featured and his spirit hangs in the air surrounding Charlie and George. (Attitudes expressed regarding the Vietnam conflict that may bear similarities to current international wars are most likely entirely intentional.)

Rule number 2: Know your Canadian history. Trudeau is in power, the old age pension is a newly devised form of red-tape-torture, your new SIN number does not refer to the number of indiscretions you’ve committed, and there are draft dodgers in the neighbourhood. In America it is less than a week before a massive march on Capitol Hill in Washington in which over 700 medals were “returned” by Vietnam veterans.

Rule number 3: Applaud your Blyth actors. Edith and Pearl are portrayed by Patricia Hamilton and Catherine Fitch, sparring like true siblings with the dirty-looks, cold silences and well-placed verbal jabs, but with the undercurrent of deep affection. They are both charming and funny – Ms. Fitch in Pearl’s “mean as a polecat” way, and Ms. Hamilton in her warmth and knowing looks. The tension is maintained between them until the very end, for which the author and director are to be applauded as well.

Rule number 4: Don’t forget about the men. The characters of Charles and George are just as developed, and Gil Garratt and Sam Malkin flesh them out wonderfully by showing bravery can come in many forms – the slightly crippled George puts up as much a fight in the Vietnam conflict as Charlie had, albeit in a different way.

Rule number 5: Remember that love takes many forms, can come on in a heartbeat, there is no age limit for it, and people can do strange and wonderful things as a result of it.

Rule number 6: Enjoy Pearl Gidley. It runs at the Blyth Festival until September 4th. (Somebody alert Stuart McLean.)

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

More Casting in 2011: Brent Carver, Lucy Peacock, Martha Henry Return

[PRESS RELEASE] Brent Carver, Martha Henry, Lucy Peacock to return for 2011; Darko Tresnjak to direct Titus Andronicus

July 20, 2010… The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is delighted to announce that Brent Carver, Martha Henry and Lucy Peacock will be returning for the 2011 season and that Darko Tresnjak, former artistic director of the Old Globe Shakespeare Festival, will make his Stratford directorial debut in the coming year.

Mr. Tresnjak will direct the 2011 production of Titus Andronicus at the Tom Patterson Theatre. Mr. Tresnjak, a prominent director of theatre and opera, was artistic director of San Diego’s Old Globe Shakespeare Festival from 2004 to 2009. His classical theatre credits include The Merchant of Venice for Theatre for a New Audience and the Royal Shakespeare Company Complete Works Festival; All’s Well That Ends Well for The Public Theatre; and Pericles, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Winter’s Tale for The Old Globe. He has won numerous awards in the U.S., including the Alan Schneider Award for Directing Excellence.

“I've known Darko for several years and have been a great admirer of his work,” says Artistic Director Des McAnuff. “I've been wanting him to come to Stratford from the first year of my appointment and am thrilled that he is finally joining us. He has a staggeringly extensive resume when it comes to directing Elizabethan and Jacobean plays at the highest level; I'm confident he will be a major player in our directorship.”

“The announcements today herald exciting news for our Festival audiences,” says General Director Antoni Cimolino. “In Martha, Brent and Lucy we have long-time Festival company members who are not only audience favourites in Stratford but also artists who are highly respected internationally. As well, Darko is a great addition to our team of directors. All this news bodes well for a dynamic and much sought after 2011

Brent Carver is returning for his eighth season to play Merlyn and Pellinore in Camelot, directed by Gary Griffin. He will also play Pontius Pilate in Mr. McAnuff’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Mr. Carver has been delighting audiences with his two stand-out performances this year – as Jaques in As You Like It and Brent in Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.

Among many awards in his career, Mr. Carver won a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman and was nominated for his portrayal of Leo Frank in Parade. Mr. Carver’s Stratford credits include Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, the Emcee in Cabaret, the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance, Edward Lowenscroft in Elizabeth Rex, the title role in Hamlet, and Edmund Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night.

“Brent Carver has been an important player for Stratford over the years and I am very proud of his work in 2010,” says Mr. McAnuff. “Brent is at the forefront of the acting profession in Canada and beyond, and it is testimony to the great strength of our company that he is joining us again for 2011.”

Martha Henry will play Margaret in Richard III. Ms Henry, who is the director of the Festival’s Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre, is playing Mme de Rosemonde in this season’s production of Dangerous Liaisons. Ms Henry began her Stratford career, which has spanned 36 seasons, playing Miranda to William Hutt’s Prospero and Lady Macduff in Christopher Plummer and Kate Reid’s Macbeth in 1962. More recently, she directed the acclaimed 2009 production of Three Sisters. In 2008 she gave outstanding performances as Hecuba in The Trojan Women and as the Countess of Rossillion in All’s Well That Ends Well, with Brian Dennehy playing the King of France. Ms Henry is the recipient of numerous honours, including the Governor General’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She is a Companion of the Order of Canada.

“As head of the Birmingham Conservatory and one of our leading players, Martha Henry is a major presence in the Stratford company,” says Mr. McAnuff. “In 2010 almost 30% of artists came from the Conservatory; Martha is certainly an artist that leads by example, and I'm thrilled to be able to announce her participation in the 2011 season.”

Lucy Peacock will return for her 23rd season to play Mistress Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Frank Galati. She will also play Morgan le Fey in Camelot. Ms Peacock has appeared in more than 55 productions at Stratford. This season she can be seen as the deliciously dim-witted Audrey in As You Like It and will play Nana in For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, which opens on August 11.

In 2007 she gave seven knockout performances in one production, the one-woman show The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead. She is well remembered for her 2008 performances – as Ursla the Pig Woman in Bartholomew Fair and as the gorgeous Masha in Three Sisters. Her classical roles at Stratford include Lady Macbeth, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Rosalind in As You Like It and Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her musical credits include Dolly in Hello, Dolly and Anna in The King and I.

“Lucy Peacock has become a mainstay on our stage and we are very excited to have her back centrestage for 2011,” says Mr. McAnuff. “She is not only a great actress but an inspiration and mentor to emerging players in our acting company.”

Evan Buliung, Gareth Potter, Cara Ricketts, Andrea Runge return

Three graduates of the Birmingham Conservatory will return to play leading roles in 2011: Evan Buliung, Gareth Potter and Andrea Runge. Another young member of the company, Cara Ricketts, has also been confirmed.

Evan Buliung will play Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, directed by Mr. Cimolino and Roger in The Little Years, the new John Mighton work commissioned by the Festival. This season Mr. Buliung is playing Mac in King of Thieves, another Festival commission, which opens August 12. This past winter he was seen in the Toronto productions of Cloud 9 and Art. Mr. Buliung, who was a member of the inaugural Conservatory, has been seen on the Stratford stage as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Edgar in King Lear, Rosencrantz in Hamlet and Lucius in Titus Andronicus. 

Gareth Potter will take on the title role in Michel Trembley’s Hosanna, the role that launched the acting career of former artistic director Richard Monette. Mr. Potter will also play Richmond in Richard III. Mr. Potter, a member of the 2003-04 Birmingham Conservatory, can be seen as Ferdinand in The Tempest this season. He is also playing Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which opens August 10. Other recent credits include Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, Malcolm in Macbeth and Edgar in King Lear.

Andrea Runge, who can be seen this season as Rosalind in As You Like It, will take on another of Shakespeare’s young heroines, Viola in Twelfth Night. She will also play Anne Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Ms Runge made her Stratford debut in 2009 as Cecily Cardew in The Importance of Being Earnest. She joined the Birmingham Conservatory after the 2009 season.

Cara Ricketts will return for her third season to play Maria in Twelfth Night and Ruth in The Homecoming. This season Ms Ricketts is appearing as Celia in As You Like It and Perdita in The Winter’s Tale. She made her Stratford debut in 2009, playing Portia in Julius Caesar, Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a Weird Sister in Macbeth.

“We have a vibrant and vital echelon of young actors in our company,” says Mr.McAnuff. “Andrea, Cara, Evan and Gareth are part of a vanguard of new leading players that without question will grace our stages for many years to come. Great young actors are the key magnetic force to attracting the young audiences of today and tomorrow. These four actors exemplify the kind of young talent that we are featuring at Stratford today.”

Casting for the 2011 season continues. Details will be announced as they become available.

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; King of Thieves.

Tickets are available through the box office at 1.800.567.1600 or by visiting


Monday, 19 July 2010

2011 Playbill: Seana McKenna in Shakespeare’s Will

[PRESS RELEASE]  July 19, 2010… The Stratford Shakespeare Festival has added a 12th production to its 2011 playbill. Seana McKenna (right) will present her one-woman show Shakespeare’s Will at the Studio Theatre.

The production, which had a limited and very successful run in 2007, will be directed by Miles Potter, who will also be directing Ms McKenna in Richard III, as previously announced.

Written by Vern Thiessen, the play is set just after the death of William Shakespeare. It is a fictional story in which Shakespeare’s widow, Anne Hathaway, looks back on life with her brilliant but enigmatic husband.

“I am very pleased to be featuring Shakespeare’s Will in 2011, a play Richard Monette first presented here during his final year as artistic director,” says Artistic Director Des McAnuff. “This solo production provides us with an opportunity to showcase Seana McKenna, as we have featured other leading members of our company over the years, including Geraint Wyn Davies in Do Not Go Gentle this season, Brian Dennehy in Krapp’s Last Tape, Brian Bedford in Ever Yours, Oscar, Lucy Peacock in The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead, Domini Blythe in Fanny Kemble and, to look further back, Christopher Plummer in Barrymore in 1996.”

“Shakespeare’s Will was an engrossing night in the theatre when we presented it in 2007,” says General Director Antoni Cimolino. “It has great appeal for those who are interested in Shakespeare – and our audience is composed of people who are – and quickly became one of the season’s hot tickets. I am delighted that those who were unable to see it then will have an opportunity to see this gem of a production next season. And I’m sure there will be many who are eager to renew their acquaintance with Seana McKenna’s Anne Hathaway, as well.”

Ms McKenna has been dazzling Stratford audiences for 19 seasons, most recently as Paulina in this season’s production of The Winter’s Tale. She is also playing la Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons, which opens August 12.

With more than 100 productions to her credit in Canada and the U.S., Ms McKenna has played 20 of Shakespeare’s leading ladies and in Shakespeare’s Will takes on the role of his wife. She has appeared in 38 Stratford productions with recent credits including 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.

Mr. Potter returns to the Festival for his 11th season. An award-winning artist, Mr. Potter has acted and directed at virtually every major Canadian theatre. His Stratford credits include the classics Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew, as well as Medea and Orpheus Descending, which were remounted by Mirvish Productions to further critical acclaim. He was the dramaturge and original director of the hit Canadian play The Drawer Boy, for which he received a Dora Award. He won a Jessie Award for his 2007 production of The Taming of the Shrew for Bard on the Beach in Vancouver.

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; King of Thieves. Tickets are available through the box office at 1.800.567.1600 or by visiting


Saturday, 17 July 2010

The Tempest: Awash with Special Effects

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Des McAnuff
Desinged by Robert Brill, Paul Tazewell
The Story: Trapped on a magical island for twelve years with his daughter Miranda, the sorcerer Prospero, former Duke of Milan, conjures a storm with the help of the spirit Ariel to shipwreck his enemies to his shores. His revenge is at hand…

The Tempest is considered to be Shakespeare’s last play, written as a swan-song to his career as actor and playwright. It contains parallel story lines among vastly different characters, and some of the most beautiful, descriptive poetry in his canon. This sophistication of story and language comes with a price; not much action. There are no wars, no poisonings, no stabbings, no cross-dressing… in fact, aside from a terrific storm at the beginning of the play in which several characters are thought to be drowned, no one dies – there are two plots to kill Prospero and the King of Naples, but neither is carried out. In short, it is a very dialogue-heavy play, almost boring (gasp!) to watch.

What is does have is magic. Copious amounts of it. And in 2010 there are far more ways to bring this magic to life than in Shakespeare’s day, but. It takes a skilled director to balance both the magic and the poetry, and in the 2010 Stratford’s Tempest, the magic sadly wins, and not always in the best way, as some of the special effects are, well, cheesy (gasp!) .

Prospero’s magic cloak – made of sparkling coral and seaweed, it looks magical enough on its own without the electrical crackling and LED lights flashing on and off. Ariel’s harpy wings – magnificent in form, but with mechanical, choppy motion that sharply contrasts how Ariel (Julyana Soelistyo) moves throughout the rest of the play. Better they had remained still, instead of being made to flap, because the flapping flops. The ‘ring of fire’ – six or eight little sparklers that fizzle out randomly – fizzles metaphorically as well. Maybe they are to illustrate Prospero’s resignation of magical power, but it is a sad come-down for someone who hours before conjured a storm capable of bringing down a ship.

Many more of the effects are really quite clever (they did employ a magic coach, after all), but they all share one very important drawback – while occurring, attention is focused solely on the effect, and not what is being said by the actors. This is where the balance between magic and text is thrown off, to the detriment of many fine performances, most notably, that of Christopher Plummer. I am sure this will be corrected as this production is filmed for cinematic release, but in the meantime, the theatre audiences lose out.

Christopher Plummer does not need special effects, truth be told; one just needs to watch and listen to him instead of the effects to realize this. His prowess for speaking Shakespeare’s words like he’s having a regular conversation is near legendary, which is why the infamously long expository scene with Miranda seems to fly by. He is a feisty, at times angry, Prospero, who breaks down weeping with regret when remembering the people of Milan who loved him. He has the same power in smaller moments, and his plea at the end of the play is nearly heartbreaking as he watches the last sign of Ariel float to the floor. In fact, the relationship he has with Ariel is closer and more affectionate that that with his daughter Miranda – one gets the sense that he will have the hardest time letting Ariel go once he leaves the island behind.

This may be because Trish Lindstrom (left) plays Miranda as a more mature (and less modest) version than usually seen – she grows angry with Prospero, chastises him, and is less scared of Caliban. Her meetings with Ferdinand (Gareth Potter, far left) are played for giggles - one could say she is a lusty wench indeed. As such, father and daughter have already parted ways, and Prospero is rather more attached to the child-like Ariel.

In her blue costume Ariel looks like a water sprite, and with her mirthful, impish laugh Julyana Soelistyo (right) holds the audience in the palm of her diminutive hand. She captures the ethereal nature of Ariel in her Cirque du Soleil movements, popping up in the most unexpected places, but also the gravitas of humanity: “Do you love me, Master?” she asks in a wistful voice. She is also adept at holding a moment by remaining perfectly still, which is unfortunately not a skill shared by many actors.

There is so much to like about this production: there are wonderful performances by Geraint Wyn Davies as the drunk-as-a-skunk Stephano, Bruce Dow as the flamboyantly campy clown Trinculo (complete with Bozo-red hair and ruffle) and Dion Johnstone (left) as Caliban in a half-skeletal, half-lizard costume – he even slithers like a half-lizard, but has two glorious moments of being fully human, one of which is an acknowledgment from Prospero. The costumes are amazing, the tilting set is a feat of engineering, and both help emphasize that the play is on an island. The musical score by Michael Roth is simply lovely.

Just keep your eye on Mr. Plummer and the actors, and try not to be pixie-led by the special effects.

The Tempest continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until September 12.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Tom Patterson Honoured

[PRESS RELEASE] Provincial plaque memorializes Stratford Shakespeare Festival founder Tom Patterson

STRATFORD – Today, the Ontario Heritage Trust and the Perth County Historical Foundation unveiled a provincial plaque to commemorate Stratford Shakespeare Festival founder Tom Patterson.

“Tom Patterson’s vision and perseverance were the driving forces behind the phenomenal success of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival,” said Dr. Thomas H.B. Symons, Chairman of the Ontario Heritage Trust. “We are proud to honour his dedication with this provincial plaque.”

The plaque reads as follows:


A native of Stratford, Ontario, Tom Patterson grew up during the Great Depression and dreamed of plans that might revitalize his community. After serving in the Second World War and completing university, he worked as an associate editor for a trade publication in Toronto. During the early 1950s, Patterson began discussing plans to establish an internationally renowned Shakespearean festival in his hometown. Although considered a risky venture by some, Patterson gained encouragement from Mayor David Simpson and the local council, and from British Shakespearean director Tyrone Guthrie. Through determination and perseverance, Patterson was able, in less than two years, to turn his dream into reality. The Stratford Shakespearean Festival opened in July 1953 with a production of Richard III, and created a new standard for North American theatre. Remaining with the Festival until 1967, Patterson was also founding director of the Canadian Theatre Centre and founding president of the National Theatre School. He received numerous honours for his work, including Officer of the Order of Canada (1977).

“The Stratford Shakespeare Festival has become an internationally renowned cultural institution,” said Minister of Tourism and Culture Michael Chan. “Tom Patterson created a new standard for theatre in North America that remains to this day.”

The unveiling ceremony occurred on the Stratford Festival Theatre grounds, where the provincial plaque will be permanently installed. Event supporters included: the City of Stratford, Orr Insurance and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
“The history of theatre in Canada is divided into two parts; namely, the part before Alec Guinness spoke the first lines of Richard III on the stage of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival on July 13, 1953, and the time after July 13, 1953,” said Roger Hilderley, Chair of the Perth County Historical Foundation. “Tom Patterson of Stratford, Ontario, is the person whose vision and determination in the founding of the festival created this watershed in Canada's cultural landscape and is one of Stratford's greatest citizens.”

“Tom Patterson not only gave us a great idea, he also gave the Festival an extraordinary spirit,” said Antoni Cimolino, General Director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. “His joy, his love of talent and his strong belief in the seemingly impossible have come to define the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. We are such stuff as Tom’s dreams were made on.”

The Ontario Heritage Trust is an agency of the Government of Ontario, dedicated to identifying, preserving, protecting and promoting Ontario’s heritage.

Learn more:
For more information on the Provincial Plaque Program, visit

– 30 –

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Border and Time Crossing with Bordertown Cafe

Directed by Katherine Kaszas

The story: With an overbearing American grandmother, a taciturn Canadian grandfather, a mother who was born in America but is Canadian by choice and an absentee American father, how does a Canadian-born teenager get advice or values? And when they all live and work around a café that straddles the Canadian-US border, will their differences ever coalesce into anything resembling a family?

Much of the humour in Bordertown Café is based on the endless, grudging amusement Canadians feel for our cousins to our south, and the stereotypes we like to believe are true. The proudly American Maxine, Jimmy’s grandmother, prattles in a passive-aggressive way in her Minnesota accent about the greatness the States has to offer, while his quiet, observant grandfather gets things done by letting them be. The mom, Marlene, is as inarticulate as Maxine is talkative, and Jimmy takes after his mom. It’s no wonder the communication in this family takes left and right-hand turns willy-nilly; no one ever comes right out and says what needs to be said.

In this way, each character’s story unfolds in tantalizing little pieces, each thread growing a little more colourful as the actors breathe life into them.

A newcomer to Blyth, Nathan Carroll captures Jimmy’s vacillating uncertainty and reminds each member of the audience what it is like to be awkwardly seventeen. Although it turns out Jimmy’s main desire is to take care of his mother, he yearns to be the man he sees in his grandfather, but hopes for a more normal life than he can have living in the back few rooms of a café. He has a decision to make.
As played by Brad Rudy, Jim does finally show young Jimmy that he is not the untarnished paragon he seems to be, allowing Jimmy the freedom to make that choice. At first the strong, silent type, Mr. Rudy gets Jim to unbend little by little to reveal a man who did have younger and stupider days, and who has seen more of the country than he lets on.

He is also a rather doting father to Marlene, played by Marion Day, who turns to him, rather than her mother, when she cannot find the words to talk to Jimmy herself. She has the words – Ms. Day fires them out so rapidly she stirs Marlene into a veritable tizzy with her imagined suppositions – but not the ability to say the right thing at the right time.

Although she shares it, this disability does not stop Maxine, however. Talking over, under and through everyone else non-stop, Michelle Fisk gives Maxine such a motor-mouth that the audience barely has time to keep up with her “Maxine-isms”, such gems like “He may be slow but he’s not stupid”, or “Violence in America is somethin’ the Russians don’t have.” Ms. Fisk shows the greatest range, being peppery for most of the play but dissolving into hurt and alarm with the knowledge her beloved grandson might leave.

The entire cast shows great ease with each other, moving around the intricately cluttered set and each other with impeccable timing that keeps the audience in the palms of their hands. Thank director Katherine Kaszas for this, keeping everyone as tightly wound as the prairie is wide; the result is an honest look at what it means to be a family that spans the couple of decades since it was orignally written, and transcends all borders entirely.

Bordertown Café continues in repertory at the Blyth Festival until August 14th.

Do Not Go Gentle: Purgatory for Thomas, Paradise for Audience

Do Not Go Gentle
By Leon Pownall
As directed by Leon Pownall; realized by Dean Gabourie
Starring Geraint Wyn Davies

The story: Dylan Thomas reflects on his life and career from a nebulous purgatory that resembles his own writing den.

A quotation from Leon Powell’s play reads, “If you are a bad poet, learn to act. If you are a bad actor, better to become a poet.”

So what happens when you have a very good actor portraying a very good poet in a well-crafted play?

Something approaching brilliance.

That the writer, actor and subject share the same nationality surely helps plumb the depths of Thomas’ psyche. That Mr. Davies has performed this role several times in recent years – of late in New York City – also adds to this depth. Mr. Gabourie's realization is a very symmetrical production, gently lit with both warmth and cold by Louise Guinand - Stratford audiences reap the benefit of all.

Mr. Davies makes his entrance in the dark, to the gentle air of “All Through the Night”, a Welsh lullaby. Stooping to pick up his own scattered pages of writing, he looks at each one, and begins to recite Thomas’ “In My Craft or Sullen Art”, Mr. Davies’ own lilting accent harmonizes with Thomas’ lyric poetry. He then addresses the audience and pours himself a Very. Large. Whisky. Which he does not drink.

“I am Dylan Thomas,” he says, somewhat unnecessarily. But not to him. “The poet?” he persists, revealing the first crack in the poet’s façade, that of an inferiority complex, the need to be recognized as a writer of distinction.

As the performance continues, in which he does not drink, Mr. Davies brings us back through the themes in Dylan’s writing, and in his life. He beams when describing childhood and reciting from “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, a projection of softly falling snow behind him. But he drifts into sadness: “It’s why we hold childhood close – to feel warm and cozy outside the womb.” Another story about childhood, about his grandfather and his best waist coat, but this one is darker, bringing us close to Thomas’ other major literary theme – death.

And with that, Mr. Davies downs the entire Very Large Whisky, and transforms. This Dylan Thomas that is just as eloquent, but more loutish, delving into some of his sexual escapades and infidelities, his conscience being interrupted by thoughts of his wife Caitlin. And now that he is off the wagon, down goes another Very Large Whisky, and the anger boils to the surface.

Dylan Thomas in life was never fully accepted by the English Literati, and Mr. Davies’ explosion of rage toward these academics would make the toughest shrink in his seat. This, the numerous times he hurt Caitlin, plus the need to live up to of all people, Shakespeare (“That son of a bitch, he wrote it all!”), is what keeps Thomas in purgatory. His answer to Shakespeare, recited in a weakening voice:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And then the cleverest inauguration of an intermission, followed by Mr. Davies reappearance wearing an Elizabethan ruff – except it looks more like a very small tutu – and some quick pieces of Shakespeare’s best known soliloquies. This is followed quickly by another Very Large Whisky after which Mr. Davies stumbles Dylan Thomas over to his desk chair, sits heavily, and proceeds to give the story of King Lear, sprinkled with recitations from the play. They are Very Good Recitations. In fact, Mr. Davies’ is so good as Lear that one entirely forgets that he is still wearing a very small tutu around his neck, and that is impressive.

There is more drunken railing about the “matrons of America” and how they loved him, but that in order to write, he had to be alone – something Caitlin never understood. “Inspiration, creativity and me – a poet’s ménage a trios!” he exclaims, as his voice weakens again and he begins to shake. Uncontrollably. The bottle is empty, however. “They loved me in America,” he chokes. “Loved me to death.”

Once re-centred, Mr. Davies takes a moment to let Thomas apologize to his Caitlin, and the audience senses the end is near – both the play and Thomas’ purgatory are ending. Although Dylan Thomas finds redemption in the words he wrote, he will find immortality that outlasts his infamy in his compatriots’ play and performance.

The play ends as it begins – a rumpled, sober Thomas, picking up and examining his work, the chair and stool knocked over once again, the strains of “All through the Night” playing, and with the words, “In my craft or sullen art…”

Do Not Go Gentle is in repertory at the Studio Theatre; the run is nearly sold out, even with extra shows added.

Monday, 5 July 2010

The Winter’s Tale, Told by a Master

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Marti Maraden

The Story: Jealous King Leontes of Sicilia deludes himself into believing his queen Hermione had an affair with his best friend, King Polixines of Bohemia, and now carries his child. He orders his advisor Camillo to murder Polixines, but Camillo cannot obey – he and Polixines flee to Bohemia. Enraged, Leontes arrests the shocked queen, and thus begins a terrible cycle of misery that is yet happily resolved – sixteen years later. (For a full synopsis, click here.)

One of Shakespeare’s later works, The Winter’s Tale belongs to that dubious class of his plays called ‘romances’, the plots of which contain both tragic and comic elements, and spans an incredible length of time. Thus, like Pericles, The Winter’s Tale is rarely performed. But as any publisher (or librarian) knows, romance sells; there is no reason why directors should shy away from stories such as these.

Fortunately for us, this is something Marti Maraden knows, and her graceful touch shines in this story suitable for any summer’s evening, allowing the fairy-tale like elements of the fable to charm her audiences completely.

The differences between the Kings are made obvious in costume, designed by John Pennoyer; Sicilia is somber, elegant and tailored, the women wear their hair in Grecian fashion, the men wear their hair short and tidy. In Bohemia, although it is described as less opulent than Sicilia, it is wild with colour, hand-crafted textiles and men and women who wear their hair long, or covered in bright (and furry) hats and scarves.

The parallel stories of the two Kings are not as obvious, but both go off the rails – sixteen years apart – and threaten to exile their children. As Leontes, Ben Carlson (left) leaves no doubt that Leontes is a jealous husband, quite possibly with a god-complex, but very definitely paranoid. He is most disturbing when he seems to barely be keeping it together, and when he is physically confrontational with Camillo (Sean Arbuckle) and Antigonus (Randy Hughson); the power of a tyrant is palpable every seat in the house.

Dan Chameroy’s Polixines (right) is also a tyrant of a sort; after meeting his son’s beloved and witnessing her worth, he still flies into an implacable rage; while Leontes rants, Polixines demands with quieter, more threatening anger. It is satisfying to see Mr. Chameroy hold his own with the Bard, known as he is for his musical roles.

The accused Queen Hermione is portrayed by Yanna McIntosh (below, background), who once again demonstrates the strength of a Shakespeare heroine. Reduced from queen to prisoner, both children taken away from her, dressed in rags, Hermione must defend herself on trial, and this is where Ms. McIntosh is devastating: not only does she clearly present Hermione’s belief in her own innocence, but she also shows her anguish, bewilderment, and despair, all the while retaining the regal bearing of a queen.
Hermione’s rock in this turbulence is her friend Paulina, played by the indomitable Seana McKenna (left, foreground). Paulina is the moral centre of the play, the person who speaks the common sense Leontes will not hear, the fairy-godmother who keeps Hermione’s memory alive for sixteen years. Ms. McKenna is also the rock of this production that in Ms. McKenna’s interpretation, Paulina’s fiery temper and waspish tongue comes from a huge heart. This Paulina has compassion for everyone, from the ranting Leontes to his tiny baby; Ms. McKenna shows it in the sympathetic pat she gives her husband, in the way she holds Hermione at her trial, in the delight she shows at Florizel and Perdita’s arrival and especially in the tears she sheds at the families’ final reunion. (And her delivery of a Shakespearean zinger is without equal.)

The anti-Paulina of the play is Autolycus, played by Tom Rooney (right), who shows him to be as much a coward as a rogue; his antics will have the audience watching their own purses (literally, for anyone sitting in the front row). His hijinks are some of the comedic highlights of the show, but there are two other devices that deserve some credit – Randy Hughson as ‘Time’, who, thanks to a crew-manipulated contraption, appears in mid-air at the start of the second half. He appears almost angelic, which is appropriate, given that he ends the previous scene exiting “pursued by a bear”. The bear in question is part prop, part costume, part puppet; very abstract in design and brilliantly lit only in strobes, looks very much like the nightmare of a King’s diseased mind come to life. It was incredible to behold, and many kudos to the actors/props/wardrobe people who made it corporeal.

This play is a marvel, the first to which I bought second tickets. Ms. Maraden knows well enough that a fairy tale does not to have the depths of its subtext plumbed for suspect explanations – all it needs is the story, the words of the characters, and an audience willing to have faith in both.

The Winter’s Tale continues in repertory until September 25th at the Tom Patterson Theatre.

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