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Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Welcome Back, Merry Wives! Come Again Soon

Lucy Peacock, Geraint Wyn Davies and Laura Condlln. Photo: D. Hou.

The Merry Wives of Windsor
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Frank Galati
Designed by Robert Perdziola
Featuring Laura Condlln, Lucy Peacock, Tom Rooney and Geraint Wyn Davies

The Story: When the broke Sir John Falstaff decides to woo Mistress Ford and Mistress Page at the same time to get at their husbands’ money, he has no idea the woes he is about to heap on his own head. Not only do the friends compare notes, they decide on a course of revenge that will both humiliate the knight and prove to the jealous Mr. Ford the honesty of his wife. But perhaps it is Falstaff who gets the last laugh when the Page’s are both duped in their marriage plans for their daughter Anne.

Why has it been sixteen years since The Merry Wives of Windsor has graced a Stratford stage? Last enacted here in 1995, it has been far, far too long between productions. It is a delightful, fun-filled play; a great vehicle for actors with comedic chops, especially for women for whom there are too few leads in Shakespeare’s canon. Perhaps it was the fear of having to live up to the success of the last production – the late, great William Hutt last portrayed the Merry Wives’ Falstaff – but half a generation has passed since the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has produced it, which is a shame for what is probably the most accessible Shakespeare play for modern audiences. Thank the deity of your choosing, then, that The Merry Wives have finally returned to Stratford. 

Lucy Peacock and Laura Condlln. Photo: D. Hou.

The wives of the title are portrayed by Lucy Peacock and Laura Condlln. “Played” is actually the better term, because there is no doubt that Ms. Peacock and Ms. Condlln are having such a hoot of a time in these roles that it is akin to watching a couple of BFFs on stage (I am pretty sure Ms. Peacock barely contained a giggling fit during one scene opening night). Ms. Condlln plays the chief schemer Mistress Page with honest indignation, and wonderful expression; Ms. Peacock’s Mistress Ford is the gleeful, giddy follower for most of the time but she shows a wistful envy for her friend’s happy marriage and a real frustration with the jealousy of Mr. Ford, which Ms. Peacock subtly turns to adoration with the play’s resolution.

Tom Rooney. Photo: D. Hou
Although the women knock it out of the park, Tom Rooney comes close to stealing the show as the jealous Mr. Ford. The thought of being made a cuckhold by his wife and Falstaff sends him into an impotent blood-boil – complete with Don-Knotts-like fuming and blustering – that gets better and better throughout the play. Not one to hold back at either extreme, his apology to his wife (when he is let in on the scheme) is as complete as his rage, and just as funny. A few well-placed visual jokes add to his hilarity, but one gets the sense Mr. Rooney does not really need them.

Geraint Wyn Davies. photo: D. Hou
Filling the fat-suit of Sir John Falstaff – with alacrity - is Geraint Wyn Davies. The plotting knight of the Henry IV plays is now down and out, and perhaps it his desperate need for money which forces him into the ridiculous situations that the merry wives design, but whatever the reason Mr. Wyn Davies wades – or waddles – fearlessly into them all. Falstaff’s narcissism and rotundness produces some of the best farcical moments, including an absolutely spectacular pratfall and recovery from actors Victor Dolhai and Robert King.

Director Frank Galati has produced a very even-keeled production, neither over-the-top nor too understated, and very well-paced; there was rarely a lull in the action or dialogue. The biggest fracture comes unfortunately at the hand of one of the most anticipated performances: as Mistress Quickly Corner Gas’s Janet Wright just did not have the liveliness of Ms. Peacock or Ms. Condlln, and her scenes – so textually rich with comic opportunities – were flat by comparison. Janet Wright may have missed her comic cues, but other actors made mincemeat of theirs – Nigel Bennett as the drawling French Dr. Caius does not miss a chance to mangle the English language, Christopher Prentice is a delightfully dense and expressive Master Slender, and James Blendick has the audience in stitches as Slender’s long-suffering, muttering Justice Shallow. Once able to catch their collective breath from laughing, the audience promptly had it taken away again in the last scene, a magical lantern-lit forest with a life-sized tree (modelled after one by the Avon River).

One of the most impressive things about this stylish, Biedermeier production of The Merry Wives of Windsor is that the audience begins to chuckle before much farcical action takes place, laughing just at the jokes contained in the text - which means the actors delivering them were nailing the lines, without any help from visual gags or gimmicks. This is the mark of an excellent company, a group of truly professional and well-trained actors and a director who believes in them, and it is an astounding, rare thing to witness. Catch The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Festival Theatre this season until October 14th– and hope it does not take another sixteen years to reappear.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Interview with Seana McKenna

Seana McKenna will be starring as Richard III this season at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Read my interview with her in StartStratford.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Brian Bedford's Earnest nominated for 3 Tony Awards

Brian Bedford's production of The Importance of Being Earnest, which was first produced at the Avon Theatre in 2009, has been nominated for three Tony Awards:
 - Best Revival
 - Best Actor (Brian Bedford)
 - Best Costume Design (Desmond Heeley)

It has been playing at the Roundabout Theatre in New York City for several months. Briand Bedford returns to Stratford this summer as Oronte in The Misanthrope.

The Tony Award winners will be announced June 12.

Read the full story here on

Monday, 2 May 2011

Stratford Challenge finalists for Shakespeare performance selected

[Press Release] Festival selects five finalists to compete for $17,500 purse

May 2, 2011…The five finalists of the Stratford Challenge have been chosen; groups will perform their scenes for a panel of expert judges at the Studio Theatre on May 5 for the chance to win the grand prize of $10,000.

The five finalists are:
• St. Elizabeth Catholic High School, Thornhill – Titus Andronicus (Act II, Scene iii)
• Unionville High School, Markham – Richard III (Act I, Scene ii)
• The Country Day School, King – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act II, Scene i)
• Etobicoke School of the Arts – The Merry Wives of Windsor (Act III, Scene iii)
• Bell High School, Nepean – Othello (Act V, Scene ii)

“This Challenge was issued to broaden students’ experience of Shakespeare and get them excited about his work in their own modern context,” says Artistic Director Des McAnuff. “It’s part of the initiative we launched in 2009 to ensure that every student in Ontario has the opportunity at least once in his or her school career to see a production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Young people are our future, and it is vital that we do everything we can to stimulate their imaginations and awaken them to the potentially life-changing power of creative thinking.”

“This program was the result of a great idea and a generous donation from one of our donors, Felice Sabatino,” says General Director Antoni Cimolino. “We are very grateful for his enthusiastic interest in coming to us with the concept for this competition and the generous seed money to get it off the ground. We want to be sure to reach out to students in new ways to ensure they have every opportunity to experience the work of the world’s greatest playwright.”

“The Stratford Shakespeare Festival, the most significant classical theatre company in North America, is leading the way in enriching arts education,” says Mr. Sabatino, who has produced other world-class challenges. “The Stratford Challenge is intended to further that enrichment, by inspiring and nurturing the theatre artists of tomorrow and reaching out to the next generation of theatergoers. It’s my hope that the $10,000 prize – the largest prize being offered to performing arts students – will be a great incentive and will take kids beyond watching theatre to actually creating it. And I hope that in the future, we will be able to reach out even further by offering challenges in musical theatre, new work and soliloquies and I would love to see the project expand nationally and internationally.”

The Stratford Challenge was launched in October 2010 and asked Ontario high school students to produce a 10-minute scene from Shakespeare, record it on DVD and send it to the Festival.
In its inaugural year the Challenge received close to 100 entries from high schools all across the province. A panel of 11 current and former Festival artists watched all submissions; each selected his or her top three, and from those selections the panel collectively chose the top five.

Finalists will perform their scenes at the Festival’s Studio Theatre before an invited audience. The performances will be adjudicated by Artistic Director Des McAnuff, General Director Antoni Cimolino and Toronto Star theatre critic Richard Ouzounian.

The first-place team will receive $10,000, to be shared by the school and the students involved in the scene. Second place will receive $2,500, and third place $1,500. Fourth and fifth-placing groups will receive $1,000 each.

Shakespeare Writing Competition winner
In addition to the Stratford Challenge, the Festival also issued the Shakespeare Writing Competition, which asked students to write 500 words on the topic “Why Shakespeare?” for the chance to win $1,500.

“The writing competition is a way of reaching out to students interested in other aspects of the creative disciplines and encouraging intellectual and spiritual reflection,” says Mr. Sabatino. “It’s my hope that directors, writers, and others will gain a fuller perspective and appreciation for the arts through the various aspects of this competition.”

The winner of the Shakespeare Writing Competition is Calvin Akler, a student at Dunbarton High School in Pickering.

“Calvin managed to grasp the essence of what Shakespeare tries to do, as well as providing a very decent duplication of the Bard’s writing style,” says Mr. Ouzounian, who made the final selection from the top three entries. “But best of all, he appreciates how relevant Shakespeare’s work remains in this ever-changing world.”


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