AISLE SAY Stratford, Ontario
STRATFORD SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL,
ROMEO AND JULIET
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Des McAnuff
Featuring: Gareth Potter, Nikki
M. James, Evan Buliung,
Peter Donaldson, Gordon S. Miller, Lucy Peacock,
John Vickery, Sophia Walker
Through November 8th
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Peter Hinton
Featuring: Irene Poole, Evan
Buliung, Ben Carlson,
Adrienne Gould, Jeff Lillico, Stephen Ouimette
and Lucy Peacock
Through October 25th
THE MUSIC MAN
Book, Lyrics and Music by Meredith Willson
Story by Meredith Wilson and Franklin Lacey
Directed by Susan Schulman
Featuring: Jonathan Goad, Leah Oster, Eddie Glen,
Lee Mac Dougall, Fiona Reid
Through October 25th
by Eugene O'Neill
Starring Brian Dennehy and Joe Grifasi
Directed by Robert Falls
KRAPP'S LAST TAPE
by Sammuel Beckett
Starring Brian Dennehy
Directed by Jennifer Tarver
Through August 31st at the Studio Theatre
ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL
Featuring: Brian Dennehy, Martha Henry,
Juan Chioran, Jeff Lillico, Stephen Ouimette,
Tom Rooney and Daniela Vlaskalic.
Directed by Marti Maraden
Through August 23 at the Festival Theatre
THE TROJAN WOMEN
Featuring: Martha Henry, Sean Arbuckle,
Kelli Fox, David W. Keeley, Yanna McIntosh, Seana Mckenna,
Nora McLellan and Brad Rudy
Directed by Marti Maraden
Through October 5th at the Tom Patterson Theatre
Reviewed by Robin Breon
With fifteen productions running in four theatres, North America's largest repertory theatre is off to a roaring start under the new artistic leadership of Des McAnuff. Although his inaugural production of Romeo and Juliet toggles a bit awkwardly back and forth from contemporary Italy to 16th century Verona within the context of two multiracial households in conflict (both the Capulets and the Montagues are mixed race families in this production), all in all it's kudos for a very strong season. As the season approaches the half way mark, I offer six capsule reviews below.
The opening week reviews generally lauded Romeo and Juliet with the exception of the two leads, Gareth Potter and Nikki M. James who were considered weak and not up to their parts. I saw the show three weeks into the run and can only say that whatever tensions and stress that might have plagued these two young actors on opening night has now dissipated and with the resiliency that only youth can bring to a role (which probably included staying in rehearsal until they broke through to the material) they are now performing like a couple of well seasoned Shakespearean professionals. Their love scenes are passionate and believable and their ability to articulate the poetry of the piece was rewarded with shouts of bravo from an audience that finally gave up a standing ovation only when they came forward to take their bow.
There are many delightful and moving moments in this production with great work coming from actors in some of the smallest roles. But perhaps the most interesting element at play here in the history of R&Js over the years at Stratford is what McAnuff did with the role of Friar Laurence played by the redoubtable Peter Donaldson. If ever there is a part that is cut in order to advance the action of the play it is usually Friar Laurence. McAnuff not only didn't cut the lines but added to them by giving the Friar the opening Prologue as well as the final lines of the play usually spoken by Prince Escalus. In other words, Friar Laurence, for the first time in my experience with this play, is now a major role who acts as the moral authority of the community as well as the peace maker. The fact that all of his mighty effort ends in dark tragedy only adds to the poignancy of his final words that conclude the play. It is really a whole new reading of the role.
Evan Buliung's Mercutio, who goes up against Timonthy D. Stickney's Tybalt is an even match with both actors giving the maximum. Also John Vickery as Capulet takes an overbearing, misunderstanding father to new levels as does Sophia Walker as Lady Capulet who is especially moving during the scene at the conclusion of the first act in which she confronts the death of her kinsman, Tybalt.
Minor distractions included Lucy Peacock's Nurse which contained too many faked high pitched tremolos meant to signal worry and Steven Sutcliffe's Paris wasn't helped in his final (and most emotional) scene by being positioned on the arch several feet above Juliet's tomb tossing out rose pedals as obsequies.
Heidi Ettinger's baroque setting served the play well as it shifted effortlessly from bridge to balcony and from piazza to tomb accommodating the action and framing the story.
Another directorial feat at Stratford this summer comes with Peter Hinton's interesting and uncompromising take on The Taming of the Shrew. His historicist approach helps us understand the play in a larger context. The opening scene shows a woman in a dunking chair being disciplined for some perceived crime against the local community; the subjugation of women and the origination of water boarding. Gender bended casting and the use of Elizabethan songs of the period with resonating lyrics ("My husband's got no courage in him") that could easily be interpreted as incipient feminism, continually reminds the audience of what women were facing when they interacted with men. All of this better prepares us for the end of the play when Katherina explicates her grand rationale for the women of her generation: "So you want to live with a man? Well here are the ground rules me dears." The great historic compromise —whether you like or loathe that final speech — exists to this day for many women throughout our world.
Irene Poole is a physically challenged Kate who walks with a limp ("Why does the world report that Kate doth limp?" Petruchio asks rhetorically). She is a straightforward, no-nonsense Kate as any Kate there ever was. She gives as good as she gets and therein attests a peculiar sense of equality that belies the ostensibly male supremacist character of the text. We almost feel a bit sorry for Evan Buliung's Petruchio. Despite his roistering and posturing one just has the feeling that this Kate will continue to run the household.
Some of Hinton's innovations notwithstanding (the injection of Queen Elizabeth I—played by Barbara Fulton—as observant in the place of Christopher Sly really doesn't work, but then again Shakespeare's awkward set-up has always been problematic as well), the real strength of this production is the strong use of the ensemble that constantly reinforces, contextualizes and interprets the play even as it lets Shakespeare alone to do his thing—this is no small task. Great work from a strong cast of players including Randy Hughson, Adrienne Gould, Jeff Lillico, Stephen Quimette, Lucy Peacock, Ben Carlson, Juan Chioran, Patrick McManus, and Victor Ertmanis makes this Shrew well worth seeing.
What is it that compels us to keep coming back to The Music Man whenever and wherever it is produced, giving real meaning to the phrase timeless classic? Well there is of course the music; those bouncy, catchy tunes and lyrics by Meredith Willson that infected us so many years ago, and for which there apparently is no known cure. And then, of course, there is that fascinating rogue, Professor Harold Hill.
The traveling con artist has always been a staple of American literature. Herman Melville developed the theme in his 1857 novel The Confidence Man. Mark Twain introduced us to those two traveling grifters, the Duke and the King in Huckleberry Finn. Hucksters, snake oil salesman, riverboat gamblers and out of town jaspers ready to flim-flam the gullible rubes in all those small towns that dot the Midwest is part of America's literary heritage.
But Harold Hill is a con man who deep down has a good heart. And when he falls hard for the local librarian—well, therein lies the story for a great musical.
Suffice it to say, the multi-talented (who knew he was a song and dance man?) Jonathan Goad is a terrific Harold Hill and Leah Oster is an effervescent and seemingly effortless Marian Paroo, the stewardess of the River City library. And even as the real people of Iowa (whose crops really did "just happen to die" this year) go through some tough times, one doesn't feel for a moment that this sweet bit of musical theatre looks down upon or belittles them in any way at all. On the contrary, the hanky factor is in evidence big time during this production because it rings out so authentically.
Harold Hill's "think system" fails me in trying to come up with enough superlatives to praise the show and the cast. Let me just say that, along with Susan H. Schulman's fine direction there is also the terpsichorean delights created by Michael Lichtefeld, who takes a number like "Marian the Librarian" and elevates it to a major chorus showcase right when things might have started to flag toward the end of the first act. The set design by Patrick Clark is an absolutely inspired choice, going with miniature set pieces like the kind people buy for under the Christmas tree to replicate turn of the century mid-America. During the chase scene in Act 2, the buildings and streetways move across the stage right along with the actors revealing them one minute and hiding them the next. Lovely collaboration here between choreographer and set designer.
Berthold Carriere leads the 17 member pit band admirably so that by the time young Kolton Stewart takes his cue to come forward for a snare solo to start off the curtain call—well I do confess the tears were just rolling down my cheeks as they were on many others such is the power of The Music Man.
Coda: In the original Broadway production that opened in 1957, the cast featured a real barbershop quartet that was named The Buffalo Bills. They had won a national contest of competing quartets and were one of the best in the country at that time. Laird Mackintosh, Shawn Wright, Jonathan Monro and Marcus Nance (as The Quartet) just nailed those wonderful four part a cappella harmonies beautifully, as if they'd been singing together for years. And on a final note, here's hoping they do.
When a star on the order of Brian Dennehy's stature agrees to play at Stratford, the first question the artistic team asks is, what do we have for him? The choice of Sammuel Becket's Krapp's Last Tape combined with Hughie, the seldom seen one-acter by Eugene O'Neill represents a clever combo that makes sense thematically while at the same giving Dennehy a broad canvass and a colorful palette that results in two lovely portraits—one in the school of abstract expressionism and the other in social realism.
The opener is the O'Neill piece with Dennehy as Erie Smith, the habitue of a flea-bit hotel who rails against the odds of his old friend, Hughie, the night clerk, dying so suddenly and leaving him without the only sounding board that he had in his isolated, inebriate existence. Joe Grifasi plays the Night Clerk who has now replaced the deceased Hughie and it must be said, his performance is a lesson to behold on the craft of reacting as the other, equally important half of acting.
In Krapp's Last Tape, Dennehy continues along life's journey (here taking direction from Jennifer Tarver) with the loquacious street talker of the first act replaced by the exacting silence of Krapp's final judgment on his 69th birthday regarding the worthiness of existence which is to say, in the end, not worth much at all. Mr. Dennehy himself has just become a septuagenarian. Has this added to his extraordinary insight and perception on the various roads not taken and his ability to demonstrate the art of acting so persuasively? Longevity may have its merits—it certainly doesn't get any better than this.
As the King of France in All's Well That Ends Well over at the Festival Theatre, Mr. Dennehy faces an uphill battle in the rather lethargic production directed by Marti Maraden. Perhaps in an effort to get things moving a bit, he is far too hale and hearty at the beginning of the first act when those around him seem somewhat anemic. It should, of course be the other way around.
The situation isn't remedied until Juan Chioran begins to steal the show as the military buffoon, Parolles, and in this vein is given ample support by Tom Rooney as Lavache and Stephen Ouimette as Lafew while Jeff Lillico and Daniela Vlaskalic do as best they can in the thankless task of trying to make sense out of the historically "problematic" roles of Bertram and Helena respectively. What helps this production enormously are strong actors in all of the supporting roles including Martha Henry as the Countess of Rosillion, Ben Carlson as First Lord Dumaine, Randy Hughson as a very funny Interpreter, and Victor Ertmanis as Duke of Florence.
All this gets us back to Beckett of course as we approach the absurdist ending of All's Well That Ends Well which brings back King Dennehy in fine form to resolve all of this nonsense. In a wonderful cadenza like flourish he puts a cap on the proceedings which might be better titled All's Well That Ends About The Best It Can Under The Circumstances.
In The Trojan Women by Euripides, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival gives us an opportunity to sample the Greek classics which is always a welcome opportunity. For two reasons: first, the Greeks really lay it out there with regard to war and peace and all of those conflicts that plague the planet still. And second, they provide hefty roles for women—lots of women. The Greek classical plays we know the best—The Baachae, Media, Antigone, Lysistrata, Iphigeneia—all center on conflict and the plight of women.
Since we see the plays so seldom in the major repertory theatres, the first decision a director must make is in regard to interpretive style. Do you go with the masks in order to give the illusion of the ancient Greek amphitheatre? How do you handle the chorus? Do you try to make it contemporary? Director Marti Maraden made the right choices in my view by portraying the gods as military leaders. Poseideon is played by David W. Keeley as an admiral in the Greek navy and Athena (Nora McLellan) is of equal rank.
The vanquished women of Troy are led by Hecuba (Martha Henry) in more traditional dress. Maraden wisely dispenses with masks and personalizes the chorus by distributing some lines of the text to individuals and others to the group. All of this is enhanced by movement and choreography by Wendy Gorling and original music composed by Marc Desormeaux.
Martha Henry is valiant as Hecuba as she leads the women in defiance while at the same time preparing them for the inevitability of a life in slavery under the Spartans. Yanna McIntosh is equally defiant as Helen of Troy who caused the whole mess but who had her reasons for doing so (stuff happens, you know?). And Kelly Fox as Cassandra is mesmerizing as a woman who hears the voices of the gods and has been driven mad by the consequences of their actions. To sustain madness on the stage is not unlike the challenge of acting drunkenness (think Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)—and Fox rises admirably to the challenge.
In the midst of all of these virtuoso performances comes Seana McKenna as Andromache, wife of the slain hero, Hector. McKenna portrays that most brutal realization of all of wars casualties—the children. Her child is literally ripped from her arms and taken to be thrown from atop of a high turret to its death. Therein lies the heart wrenching fate of every child killed by a landmine, a bombing raid, a suicide bomber or a cross-fire of armed combatants. And it is the grief that only a mother can know.
All of these searing emotions are tied together by the impeccable work of the chorus which includes Trish Lindstrom, Jane Spidell, Tessa Alves, Joyce Campion, Naomi Costain, Kelly-Ann Evans, Lesley Ewen, and Severn Thompson.