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Thursday, 30 June 2011

Memorial for Michael Langham July 10, 2011

June 30, 2011… A memorial for Michael Langham, Artistic Director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival from 1956 to 1967, will include tributes from Artistic Director Des McAnuff, General Director Antoni Cimolino, performers Christopher Plummer, Martha Henry, Len Cariou, Don Harron, Roberta Maxwell, Ian Lake and Trent Pardy, director Michael Bawtree, theatre critic Robert Cushman, and Mr. Langham’s son, Chris Langham.

DATE: Sunday, July 10, 2011
TIME: 10:00 a.m.
PLACE: Festival Theatre, 55 Queen Street, Stratford

Seating is general admission. No tickets are required.

For your reference, the release issued at the time of Mr. Langham’s death is here.


Stratford Shakespeare Festival to Join Toronto's Pride Parade

June 30, 2011… The Stratford Shakespeare Festival will have a float in Toronto’s Pride Parade Sunday, July 3.

Designed and coordinated by Sean Mulcahy, the float is inspired by this year’s production of Hosanna and will feature Gareth Potter as Cleopatra, accompanied by a number of Festival artists and staff. The float was built and assembled by Festival staff, crew and artisans.

The Pride Parade starts at 2 p.m. Sunday, and runs down Yonge Street from Bloor to Gerrard Street.
This is the first time the Festival has entered a float in the parade.


Monday, 6 June 2011

2012 Season in a Nutshell

Festival Theatre:
Avon Theatre:
Tom Patterson Theatre:
Studio Theatre:
*denotes world premiere

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Review: Jesus Christ Superstar - Triumphant

Paul Nolan (centre) as Jesus. Photo: D. Hou
Jesus Christ Superstar
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Des McAnuff; Musical Direction by Rick Fox
Choreographed by Lisa Shriver
Designed by Robert Brill (set), Paul Tazewell (costume), Howell Binkley (light), Jim Neil (sound), Sean Nieuwenhuis (video)

The Story: As he has spread the message of God the prophet Jesus Christ has gained a great following, and some great enemies. One of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, is fearful that the more people believe him to be god-like, the more he will attract the unwanted attention of the Roman government who might punish all Jews, not just those who follow him.  The Jewish High Priests share this concern, and in the days before Passover, Judas asks them to help him stop Jesus – a betrayal with far-reaching consequences.

There is a certain generation of theatre-goers who need no introduction to this musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber. Records were worn out and parents driven up the wall with the soundtrack on heavy rotation, it even reached #1 on the Billboard chart in 1971. It’s no wonder why: the Bible’s New Testament, set to squealing electric guitar, piety and rebellion in one sweet package - what’s not to love?

And let’s face it, at the risk of giving him a Messiah complex, no one does modern musicals better than Des McAnuff. And no one assembles better talent than the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and with that combination BAM! a whole generation is set to discover Jesus Christ Superstar again.
Paul Nolan. Photo: D. Hou

The superstars of this production are certainly deserving of the title. First, there is Paul Nolan as Jesus, who even though he was battling a virus opening night barely seemed to struggle with the demanding vocals (he must be miraculous at full strength). Showing off his acting chops, Mr. Nolan’s savior was decidedly the human being Judas believes him to be, displaying great trepidation with overwhelming crowds of wanna-be apostles and the sick wanting to be healed – he even loses his saintly patience from time to time. He also keeps Mary Magdalene at arm’s length (most of the time) as if to keep her from being too hurt as his death approaches.

Josh Young. Photo: D. Hou
As the equally doubtful Judas Iscariot, Josh Young is a powerhouse singer, never in danger of being dominated by the loud musical score (which thankfully was much less earsplitting than last year’s Evita). Mr. Young takes the traitor, gives him a hint of jealousy of Mary’s relationship with Jesus, throws in a dash of fearful bravado, adds a smidgeon of suspense and voila! A memorable, dashing, tragic Judas is born.

As moving as her performance is in Grapes of Wrath, it is a great pleasure to hear Chilina Kennedy sing again in the role of Mary Magdalene. As determined an apostle as any follower, Ms. Kennedy’s Magdalene not only cares for Jesus but acts as den-mother to all the disciples, even Judas. In fact, there seems to be a love-triangle brewing under the surfaces of the three main characters, which, given the ends that both Jesus and Judas meet, gives another level of tragedy to Mary – perhaps in love with two men (in different ways), she is the one left alone.

Brent Carver. Photo D. Hou
There are a number of other amazing performances here, but two stand out:  as Pontius Pilate Brent Carver is the epitome of how to act through singing; his Pilate is haunted and haunts the memory long afterward. And in the almost-11-o’clock number Herod’s Song, Bruce Dow is a twisted, lascivious Herod more interested in doing the Charlston or playing his sparkly grand piano a la Liberace than in this boring man some call the Christ.

Hip-hop dance moves, urban street-chic costuming, an electric ticker-tape count-down, giant retro-projections, a couple of Canadian Idols*, and an enormous lever that pushes Jesus out over the audience breaking that fourth wall - the Festival spared no expense on this production and if you don't come away invigorated and humming you were at the wrong show.

Jesus Christ Superstar continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 29th, although I’m thinking an extension is likely. (Unless it ends up in Toronto or Broadway first.)

Bruce Dow (centre) and cast. Photo: D. Hou
*Aaron Walpole (Annas) and Melissa O'Neil (Martha)

Review: Girls Can’t What? Seana McKenna breaks a glass ceiling as Richard III

Seana McKenna as Richard III. Photo: D. Hou
Richard III
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Miles Potter
Designed by Peter Hartwell

The Story: At the conclusion of the Wars of the Roses, the house of York has come to power and England is in a time of fragile peace, which does not suit Richard of Gloucester, brother to the new King Edward. Determined to cause as much chaos as possible, Richard manipulates and murders his way to the crown, leaving a wake of bodies whose ghosts, he finds, do not rest well in their graves.

Expectations were high for this production of Richard III. Not only is it the first play to have ever been performed at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival 59 years ago, it is the first time a woman, Seana McKenna, has played the lead role, a move that is rare anywhere in the world, let alone in Stratford. As such, it breaks a Bardic glass ceiling – turning 180-degrees from a time when women were not allowed on the stage at all, to a moment when a woman takes on the role of one of theatres greatest villains.

The result is… not what was expected. That Ms. McKenna is a dynamic Shakespearean actor is never in doubt, and in her costume (complete with stringy, balding wig – think Filch in the Harry Potter movies), she certainly looks the part of a crafty, archetypal villain – all that was missing was a curled mustache for her to twirl a la Snidely Whiplash. Her movements are off-balance (to illustrate Richard’s foreshortened leg or unhinged mind, take your pick), mostly crab-like in walking and awkward when kneeling, but surprisingly quick when angered.

Ms McKenna is at her thrilling best while Richard is malevolent and conniving, less convincing when meant to be menacing.  What is missing is some depth to Richard’s villainy, the charisma that woos Lady Anne and beguiles Hastings, the chameleon-like shifts between nice and nasty. Ms. McKenna’s Richard is creepy, but not fully threatening.  
Martha Henry as Margaret. Photo: D. Hou
In reading the program notes and numerous interviews with both actor and director Miles Potter, however, one wonders if this was a deliberate choice, because the word vice keeps cropping up. The medieval stock character “Vice” is exactly that two-dimensional, stereotypical villain portrayed by Ms. McKenna. Immediately recognizable because he is so malformed or ugly, Shakespeare’s audiences would have known that Vice is present only to destroy Virtue. This is emphasized by the inclusion at the beginning of this production – before Richard’s opening soliloquy - of a type of morality play as the newly empowered Yorkists re-enact their murder of Henry IV and banishment of Queen Margaret.  It is a bold choice for such a well-known play, but it works to establish the “glorious summer” the court now enjoys that Richard despises.

Peter Hartwell’s colour palatte of red, white and black is also archetypal, and although it is very effectively lit with Kevin Fraser’s lighting design, one would have thought the Festival would invest more in a production that was sure to attract so much attention instead of leaving the set so spare and the costumes rather ordinary. Marc Desormeaux’s mixture of Gregorian chant, harp and celtic flute set a haunting musical score that was richer than the set itself.

Of the men-playing-men, most impressive was David Ferry who brings a surprising amount of spirit to the brief role of King Edward IV. When he appears just before his death, Mr. Ferry shows us a king hurriedly making peace in his kingdom, trying to race the grim reaper to create a lasting legacy.  Also effective were Nigel Bennett as Hastings and Michael Spencer Davis as Duke of Clarence – both completely and touchingly taken aback to find they are betrayed by Richard. Andrew Gilles plays an enigmatic Lord Stanley with integrity, and Oliver Becker appears as the thuggish Ratcliffe – he plays a thug well, but one hopes Mr. Becker will be given a chance to break the mold into which he has been cast for the past few seasons.
Yanna McIntosh as Queen Elizabeth. Photo: D. Hou
Of the women-playing-women, both Yanna McIntosh as Queen Elizabeth and Martha Henry as Margaret hit the bull’s eye. Ms. McIntosh brings the passion and clarity for which she is renowned to the despairing Elizabeth who only once seems to come under Richard’s spell when (s)he grabs her for a ripping kiss. And no one does dripping venom better than Ms. Henry, whose Margaret’s wry bitterness is tinged with glee as she waits for her curses to be fufilled. (Opening night Ms. Henry actually made the audience gasp when she spitefully grabs the Duchess; and a little more physicality from Richard in that vein might have made him more terrifying.) Roberta Maxwell as the Duchess of York sounds a bit shrill in her final invective to her son, but it makes it evident that Richard is his mother’s son after all.
Roberta Maxwell as Duchess of York. Photo: D. Hou
As for the woman-playing-the-man, Ms. McKenna and her director do pour a number of nuances into Richard III that are intelligently wrought; Lady Anne spits at him and as he wipes it away he smells his hand as if it is honey.  His nephew the Duke of York claps him on his back and he starts, throwing the child to the floor and staring at him in a panic before resuming the “goodly uncle” act. The ghosts of Richard’s victims that appear to him before the final battle remain on stage, interfering with the campaign, removing Richard’s crown, making sure Richard meets Richmond and loses. But for all these clever touches the play as a whole lacks an oomph to make it a monumental triumph.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” But one gets the feeling that if an audience member had stood up and yelled “NO!” to this Richard, he might actually have hesitated instead of immediately lopping off the dissenter’s head. Nevertheless, I plan to see it at least once more – if only to be chilled by those ghosts again.

Richard III continues in repertory until September 25 at the Tom Patterson Theatre.

2012 Season Unveiled: McAnuff Extends Contract

[Press Release]  June 4, 2011... The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Board of Governors is delighted to announce that Des McAnuff will continue as Artistic Director through the 2013 season.

“Mr. McAnuff is a very gifted director and leader who is much in demand, and we are delighted that he has agreed to continue as our Artistic Director for an additional two years,” says Dr. Lee Myers, Chair of the Board of Governors.

“Stratford is an extraordinary place,” says Mr. McAnuff. “The Festival is a treasured institution for our audiences, our artists and our country. We’ve been able to make some great strides in the last four years, both building on our longstanding traditions and infusing a renewed spirit of innovation. I’m thrilled to continue as Artistic Director through to the 2013 season.

“I’ve completed the planning on our 2012 season, the Festival’s milestone 60th, and have some preliminary plans in place for 2013. Although I have some exciting projects emerging in my work outside of Stratford that will pull me away following the 2013 season, I do hope to serve as a director in the future here and to continue to play an active role in the development of this magnificent theatre.”

“Mr. McAnuff has made his mark on Stratford in his first four years at the helm as Artistic Director,” says Dr. Myers. “He has strengthened our exceptional acting company and added to our ensemble of internationally renowned directors and other theatre artists. He has successfully expanded the Festival’s work into other media, filming productions of Caesar and Cleopatra and The Tempest for cinema release and television broadcast.

“At the same time, our work is finding a home further afield with the co-production of Phèdre in San Francisco, the transfer of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to Toronto, and the extended run of Brian Bedford’s hugely successful production of The Importance of Being Earnest in New York, for which Mr. Bedford received a Tony Award nomination.

“Mr. McAnuff’s progressive stance on casting has increased the company’s diversity, a trend that has been lauded in the media and among members of the industry. Deeply committed to developing new audiences and increasing student attendance, he is also dedicated to providing the best training for Stratford’s artists through our Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre and the Michael Langham Workshop for Classical Direction, thereby ensuring that future audiences will continue to enjoy superb classical theatre.

“His strong commitment to new play development is evidenced by the numerous world premières staged over the last four years, including this year’s new version of The Little Years by John Mighton, which was commissioned by the Festival.

“The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is in extremely good hands under the leadership of Mr. McAnuff and General Director Antoni Cimolino, and I’m particularly excited about the plans for the forthcoming 60th season in 2012.”

2012 season covers ‘complete Stratford landscape’

A one-man show adapted, arranged and performed by Christopher Plummer is one of the highlights of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s 60th season, a season that also features three world premières – including a new Canadian musical.

The playbill announced today by Mr. McAnuff includes three Shakespeare plays (plus a comic one-man adaptation of Macbeth), a tragedy by Sophocles, a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and a selection of other musicals and comedies that will appeal to audiences of all ages.

“I’m very excited about our 2012 season,” says Mr. McAnuff. “It covers the complete Stratford landscape, from Shakespeare – and an innovative Canadian take on Shakespeare – to a substantial body of new work.

“By including one of the classic Greek tragedies on our playbill, we touch the very roots of western drama; and to have the great Christopher Plummer return to our company in a show of his own creation seems to me to embody perfectly the marriage of tradition and innovation that characterizes our Festival.

“I know our patrons will be as delighted as I am to see Gilbert and Sullivan back on our stages. I’m thrilled, too, that we once again have family-oriented repertoire on the playbill, and I am immensely proud of the fact that we will also be premièring a new Canadian musical.”

“I want to congratulate Des and all of the Festival artists who will be involved in what I know will be an outstanding 60th season,” says Mr. Cimolino. “As someone who was intimately involved with the planning of the 50th season and had the pleasure of playing Romeo in the 40th season, I take great joy in watching this theatre flourish and grow. Des has created a tremendous playbill with which to mark this milestone. It reaches into every corner of our mandate, from classics to new commissions, and will give our audiences great cause for celebration in 2012.”

At the Festival Theatre, Mr. McAnuff will direct Henry V, perhaps Shakespeare’s most penetrating study of kingship. Ending years of civil strife occasioned by his father’s seizure of the crown, Henry unites his people by means of a campaign against the French, culminating in his famous against-the-odds victory at Agincourt.

Also at the Festival Theatre will be one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Christopher Newton, former Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival and a member of the Stratford Festival acting company in the 1960s. Featuring the famously bickering duo of Beatrice and Benedick, it’s a tale of young love disrupted by the villainous Don John, whose machinations are finally brought to light by the hilariously inept Dogberry.

42nd Street, with music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin and book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, follows the journey of Peggy Sawyer, a chorus girl who becomes a star when she takes over a leading Broadway role on opening night. Regarded by many as the quintessential backstage musical, it will be directed by Gary Griffin, whose Stratford productions of West Side Story, Evita and Camelot have won widespread popular and critical acclaim.

Completing the line-up at the Festival Theatre is Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, a comedy that owes its existence in part to the Festival’s first Artistic Director, Tyrone Guthrie, who in the early 1950s urged Wilder to rework its earlier incarnation, The Merchant of Yonkers.

“There’s a fascinating bit of trivia about Guthrie’s involvement with The Matchmaker that I’ve heard from both Michael Langham and Christopher Plummer,” says Mr. McAnuff. “Wilder actually came to Stratford to work with Guthrie on the new version of his play – and while he was here, Guthrie also put him to work in the prop shop.”

The story of marriage broker Dolly Gallagher Levi, who sets her own sights on one of her clients, the irascible businessman Horace Vandergelder, The Matchmaker was later adapted into the musical Hello, Dolly! (presented at the Festival in 2005). It will be directed by Chris Abraham, who directed a memorable production of For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again for the 2010 season and is directing The Little Years, opening later this season.

Meanwhile at the Avon Theatre, the incomparable Christopher Plummer takes to the stage to present his one-man show A Word or Two, a deeply personal work that focuses on his love of literature and the way it has shaped his life. Including selections from Stephen Leacock, Bernard Shaw and, of course, William Shakespeare, A Word or Two will be supervised and directed by Mr. McAnuff.

Two musicals will be presented at the Avon Theatre: Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta The Pirates of Penzance and the family favourite You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

Directed by Ethan McSweeny, whose acclaimed production of Dangerous Liaisons was a highlight of the Festival’s 2009 season, The Pirates of Penzance is the delightfully zany story of the love between Frederic, indentured to a pirate crew made up entirely of orphans, and the lovely Mabel Stanley, whose father is “the very model of a modern Major-General.”

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, inspired by the world-renowned comic strip Peanuts, brings to the stage all Charles M. Schultz’s beloved characters – including Charlie’s beagle, Snoopy, and his nemesis, Lucy – in a musical guaranteed to delight the whole family. With book, music and lyrics by Clark M. Gesner, the show will be directed by Donna Feore, whose most recent Festival credit was her 2009 production of Cyrano de Bergerac.

The season’s third Shakespeare play, Cymbeline, will be presented at the Tom Patterson Theatre, where it will be directed by Mr. Cimolino. It tells of the trials of Imogen, separated from her husband Posthumus through the villainy of the would-be seducer Iachimo. Like The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, Cymbeline belongs to a group of plays Shakespeare wrote late in his career in which he explored themes of loss, reunion and reconciliation.

Joining Cymbeline at the Tom Patterson Theatre is a classic from ancient Greece: Sophocles’ Elektra, in a translation by celebrated Canadian poet Anne Carson. A timeless tale of vengeful matricide and the price that must be paid for it, Elektra will be staged by Athenian director Thomas Moschopoulos, one of modern Greece’s most internationally acclaimed theatre artists.

Four Canadian works, including three world premières developed through the Festival’s New Play program, will round out the 2012 season.

Robert Service, who immortalized the Yukon in such beloved poems as “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam Magee,” is the subject of the new musical Wanderlust, to be presented at the Tom Patterson Theatre. Written and directed by Morris Panych, with music by Marek Norman, this Festival commission celebrates both the allure of the frontier and the power of the imagination with a wit that matches the best of Service’s poetry.

In The Hirsch Project (working title), developed through the Festival’s New Play program, Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson paint an intimate portrait of former Festival Artistic Director John Hirsch. Compiled from documents, letters and interviews, this play for a solo performer tells the story of Hirsch’s escape from the Holocaust, his arrival in Canada and his rise to national and international acclaim as a theatre director. Mr. Nashman will perform the piece, which will be directed by Mr. Thompson at the Studio Theatre.

In another world première developed with the New Play Department, Daniel MacIvor’s The Best Brothers, two brothers re-examine their lives and relationships – with their partners and with each other – after the death of their beloved mother. This brilliant and biting comedy will be staged at the Studio Theatre under the direction of Dean Gabourie, the Festival’s Assistant Artistic Director, who directed 2009’s hilarious production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Also at the Studio will be MacHomer, an ingenious and wildly entertaining multi-media production in which Shakespeare’s Macbeth meets the animated TV show The Simpsons. Created and performed by Canadian Rick Miller, who adopts more than 50 different Simpsons character voices while retaining most of Shakespeare’s text, this one-man saga of blind ambition, fate and doughnuts has become an international hit, earning delighted acclaim from audiences of all ages.

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s 2011 season continues through October 31, featuring The Merry Wives of Windsor, Camelot, Twelfth Night, The Misanthrope, The Grapes of Wrath, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Homecoming, Richard III, Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s Will, The Little Years and Hosanna.


Thursday, 2 June 2011

Review: Epic Win - The Grapes of Wrath

Tom McCamus, Evan Buling and Janet Wright. Photo: D. Hou

Based on the novel by John Steinbeck
Directed by Antoni Cimolino

The story: Tom Joad, in prison for four years for killing a man who had stabbed him during a brawl, returns to his homestead in 1930’s Oklahoma to find that the land has been repossessed by the bank and his family has cleared out – a fate shared by thousands in depression-era Oklahoma, the ‘dust-bowl’. Reunited, the twelve Joads plus former preacher Jim Casy pack all of their meager possessions into a run-down truck, and prepare to leave on the 1500-mile drive to California, where the promise of jobs and bright futures await… they hope.

Not everyone who uses the currently trendy word “epic” understands the full meaning of the word. They would only have to crack the spine of the novel The Grapes of Wrath to get an inkling of what it truly signifies – the struggles, heartaches, small victories and self-discoveries of a people. Or they could come see this season’s production.

“Epic” was the task faced by Frank Galati to adapt John Steinbeck’s 500-plus-page, Pulitzer-winning novel into a three-hour play. “Epic” was the feat of reengineering the Avon Stage to accommodate the weight of the Colorado River. “Epic” was the job of director Antoni Cimolino and his cast of twenty-one to effectively represent the thousands of displaced farmers hoping for better lives in utopian California, and the disillusionment that exploitation wreaked upon a generation. And “epic” is the biblical journey of the Joad Family from the wasteland of Oklahoma to their promised land.

The Joads see themselves as everyday people but are larger-than-life. Evan Buling plays Tom Joad, who comes to see that looking neither back nor forward will serve no-one’s future. He is a reluctant champion of the dispossessed, and Mr. Buling plays up the reluctance with harsh denial and occasional violence, creating a very nearly tragic hero of Tom. But with his exit and promise to keep fighting, one gets the sense that someday migrant workers will find the fair wages and livings they seek.
Victor Ertmanis, Chilina Kennedy, Janet Wright. Photo: D. Hou

Ma Joad (Janet Wright) comes to the fore as matriarch as Pa (Victor Ertmanis) fails as the family’s leader the longer their journey goes on. Ms. Wright’s fine portrayal of unrelenting stoicism in her Ma Joad is almost too unrelenting; the one crack Ma reveals after Granma’s death is near heartbreaking, and one wishes Ms. Wright would have found other such opportunities to reveal Ma’s vulnerability.  

No longer pious in the bible-thumping sense, Jim Casy (the former preacher-turned-unknowing-Marxist) has become a man of the people, patiently observant and ultimately Tom’s mentor. Actor Tom McCamus infuses this character with a wry, inscrutable wit that in less deft hands might feel overly sanctimonious or militant. As such, Casy is likeable as the mild insurrectionist, a credit to Mr. McCamus.

Some of the other Joads break away from the family as the play goes on, much to the worry of Ma – first the sweetly simple Noah (Steve Ross) feels he’s got to stay by the Colorado River, happy-go-lucky Al (the very cheeky Paul Nolan) decides to stay with his fiancée Aggie, not to mention the deaths of Granma, Granpa and the desertion of Connie, husband to Rose of Sharon.

Chilina Kennedy takes Rose of Sharon from being Tom’s bratty younger sister to a woman ready to step into her mother’s role as matriarch with great speed. Almost invisible in the first half of the play, she must endure the upset of unrealistic dreams, desertion, and a still-born baby by the end; director Antoni Cimolino keeps to the final ending that Frank Galati kept and Steinbeck fought to keep – it is different than the Henry Fonda movie, and I hope for Ms. Kennedy’s sake that all audiences appreciate her bravery and the scene’s gravity.

Other performances of note include Robert King, memorable as always, in the small roles of the desolate Man Coming Back and batty Mayor of Hooverville, Ian D. Clark as the sassy Granpa, Randy Hughson as the haunted Uncle John and John Vickery as the quietly menacing Camp Proprietor, one of many nameless intolerant thugs the Joads and other “Okies” (Oklahoma migrants) encounter along their way.

The Grapes of Wrath continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 29th. It is a truly “epic win” for the Festival.
Members of the cast. Photo: D. Hou

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Review: Wondrous, Wistful Camelot

Camelot company. Photo: D. Hou
Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Frederick Loewe
Original production directed and staged by Moss Hart
Based on “The Once and Future King” by T.H. White
Directed by Gary Griffin, Music Direction by Rick Fox
Designed by Debra Hansen
Featuring Geraint Wyn Davies, Kaylee Harwood, Jonathan Winsby and Brent Carver

The story: Based on the last two books of The Once and Future King, (being taken from Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur), a nervous King Arthur awaits the arrival of Guenevere, his arranged bride. He is surprised to learn that she is as nervous as he, and their mutual uncertainty forms a bond that sees them through the creation of the chivalrous code of the Round Table and an idyllic time of great peace. Bonds of peace and love are tested, bent and finally cracked, however, under the weight of an impossible love between Guenevere and the knight Lancelot du Lac, whom Arthur loves like a brother, and Mordred, the illegitimate son of Arthur, intent on destroying the virtues embodied by the Knights of the Round Table.

Might for right, not might means right. Peacemaking, not warmaking. Quests for honour, not money or lands. Civilly hearing all sides of an issue before coming to a consensus decision. Sounds idyllic, no? Welcome to Camelot, where peace reigns - for three hours per performance. On a blue-green-gold stage designed by Debra Hansen that looks like an antiqued jewelry box or Book of Kells, King Arthur, Merlin, Guenevere and Lancelot live once more according to codes of chivalry, fairies swirl about an invisible castle in a golden forest, men can be transformed into birds - often in song and dance. Who wouldn’t like to dwell in this fairy-story for a spell?

Lucky then, are the actors who get to live in Camelot for the next several months. Lucky are the audiences who watch them bring these ancient tales back to life. Newcomer Kaylee Harwood possesses a wonderfully expressive voice which communicates Guenevere’s fear, love and feistiness, and her duet with Geraint Wyn Davies is beautifully moderated so not to overwhelm his softer vocals. Ms. Harwood’s Guenevere is not the frivolous queen of previous incarnations. Instead she is much more a stateswoman, a partner for Arthur. Directors Gary Griffin and Rick Fox made the decision to cut one Guenevere’s songs, the scheming “Follow Me”, which adds to this effect. As a result, her instant dislike of Lancelot is based less on his arrogance than her perception that Lancelot will impose on Arthur with his own ideals.

Jonathan Winsby as Lancelot. Photo D. Hou
 The character of Lancelot is drawn differently in this production as well – gone is the cheesy, arrogant ham, and newcomer Jonathan Winsby’s Lancelot is innocently pious, pulled to Arthur’s court and the Round Table because he truly believes in its principles. Mr. Winsby tries hard to show how much he loves Guenevere, but the attraction between his Lancelot and Ms. Harwood’s Guenevere is rarely palpable, even in the romantically rendered “If Ever Shall I Leave You”.

Geraint Wyn Davies as Arthur. Photo: D. Hou
Instead, most of the chemistry within the triangle is generated Geraint Wyn Davies as Arthur, the uncertain king so desperate to do good and leave a legacy of peace. Mr. Wyn Davies’ pipes may not be as strong as his co-stars’ but it is his depth as an actor that carries this production. The weight he brings to the story sells not only the love Arthur feels for both Guenevere and Lancelot, but also the ideals of the Round Table. His monologue is passionate and heroic – in a time when there are so few larger-than life heroes to believe in, Mr. Wyn Davies makes us believe that Camelot, and peace, is actually possible, if only a few more people believed.

Other performances of note were Mike Nadajewski’s snaky, Glaswegian-accented Mordred, and Brent Carver’s utterly charming King Pellinore, the aging, rusty knight reminiscent of Don Quixote, as well as his brief, enigmatic and wistful turn as Merlin. Actually, for such an enchanting legend, there was very little use of magical devices, save for Merlin rising to the rafters as the nymph Nimue (a stunning Monique Lund) calls him away forever, and the use of a live falcon at the very beginning of the show, meant to represent the boy Arthur (Merlin would routinely turn him into various animals). Inside sources tell me that the falcon was not supposed to land in the magnificent tree at the centre of the stage, but perhaps she was more familiar with the story than anyone realized – Arthur’s favourite hiding spot was always that tree.

A show built to entertain the entire family, Camelot continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 30th, 2011.

Kaylee Harwood, Geraint Wyn Davies. Photo: D. Hou

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