by William Shakespeare
Directed by Des McAnuff|
Starring: Colm Feore and Yanna McIntosh
Featuring Geraint Wyn Davies and John Vickery
Festival Theatre through October 31st

Cyrano de Bergerac

by Edmond Rostand
Translated and adapted by Anthony Burgess
Directed by Donna Feore
Starring Colm Feore
featuring Amanda Lisman, Mike Shara and John Vickery
Festival Theatre through November 1st
Telephone 1-800-567-1600

Reviewed by Robin Breon

There are some new cultural elements at play in the current Stratford Shakespeare Festival season which includes more people of color than have ever before been seen in a Shakespearean production on the Festival mainstage and more French than has ever before been spoken on the Festival mainstage.

On the opening night of Macbeth,  artistic director Des McAnuff took the stage to address the audience prior to the start of the show. Said McAnuff: "Tonight's production employs what is called 'non-traditional casting' -- a term that means, among other things, that 'ethnically diverse' actors get to play Shakespearean roles other than Othello. This to me is a fundamental requirement of any theatre that presumes to call itself a leader in the Canada of the 21st century."

The very fact that he thought he needed to address this point so openly and directly is interesting in that his colleague down the road in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Jackie Maxwell (artistic director of the Shaw Festival) was engaged in a somewhat defensive Facebook dialog with Toronto playwright/actor Andrew Moodie over the past several months over the Shaw Festival's insensitivity to get with the 21st century program (i.e. more opportunities within the classical genre for actors whose skin color is not white).

Almost as if to emphasize this opening salvo further the house darkened and the show opened with the ear splitting blast of a grenade launcher and the crackle of AK-47s as McAnuff's post-colonial take on Shakespeare's tale of naked political ambition gone terribly wrong began its challenging assault on audience and critics alike.

The modern weaponry and camouflage uniforms indicated a contemporary conflict for sure. The use of what might more appropriately be called "color blind casting" (which resulted in a far more racially diverse cast than is normally seen at the SSF) only heightened the believability of what was certainly a non-traditional approach to this Macbeth.

McAnuff (who took on Mark Twain's novel, Huckleberry Finn, and turned it into a successful piece of musical theatre when school boards across North America were pulling it off library shelves in the 1980s) is politically sophisticated enough to understand that race does not break down easily or neatly in post-colonial struggles and appropriately we see people of colour on both sides of the issues in Macbeth. Effective staging devices such as press conferences are used to announce military victories and the formation of new alliances. The violence that unfolds on stage is disturbing rather than risible -- and it is seen to have serious consequences.

This of course does not go down easily with everyone. Although the reviews have been mixed, I believe this production is the most compelling, visceral and well-acted piece of Shakespeare the Festival has mounted in quite some time.

In an age where criminality in high places is so often referred to as "irresponsibility" and has no consequences, Colm Feore presents a Macbeth that is not only consequential but oddly heroic -- as if he actually believes that his evil is necessary and should be rewarded. Lady Macbeth is here played by Yanna McIntosh as a constantly watchful woman on the brink of a partnership in gaining state power. She manifests her psychosis more as neurotic insomniac rather than somnambulant.  

I first saw Ms. McIntosh on stage almost a decade ago when I encountered her in the play, Belle, at the Factory Theatre in Toronto directed by Ken Gass. I wrote then (in Aisle Say) that "with McIntosh we are in the presence of a major, major talent who is only in need of more challenging roles to give her the growth and development she needs to enjoy a successful career as an actor." She is now receiving those opportunities and the SSF is enriched by her presence in the company.

But Shakespeare is never one to leave well enough alone and let the leading characters carry the plot and the play. In Macbeth the role of Malcolm is critical as the second half of the play rests on his shoulders. In Gareth Potter we have a believable, honest politician who, unlike Governor Sanford of South Carolina, knows very well that he is going to have a problem maintaining any kind of a monogamous relationship if he proceeds into the spotlight of public life and actually expresses his apprehensions to his political handlers. Amazing.

All of the smaller roles only enhance the dynamism of the overall production and the seasoned actors that McAnuff uses judiciously are well chosen. Tom Rooney as the Porter, Dion Johnstone's Macduff , Sophia Walker's Lady Macduff with Kolton Stewart as their son - to name a few.

And as if it's not enough for Colm Feore to carry on this tour de force, he suits up again the next day to do battle with pettiness, stupidity, and prejudice in all its forms as the philosopher/soldier -- he of the protruding proboscis -- Cyrano de Bergerac. Is there any play more willing and any character more able to act as the chief propagandist of the sublime anywhere in theatre literature? If there is, please let me know about it.

Although Edmond Rostand's play (which premiered in 1897) employs 34 actors often doubling in over 70 characters to tell its simple story on a grand scale, the actual core of the plot involves a love triangle between Cyrano, the lovely Roxane (Amanda Lisman) and her tongue-tied would-be lover, Christian (Mike Shara). The success or failure of any production rests on these three roles.

Mr. Feore is certainly up to the task. He assayed the role fifteen years ago in a SSF production and his skills have only aged like a fine bottle of Chardonnay. The unselfconscious bilingual approach to the production integrated by director Donna Feore is relatively seamless throughout and refreshing in a country that officially proclaims two national tongues.

After 10 seasons at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Mike Shara has moved down the road and landed nicely in the role of Christian, the young, poetically challenged soldier who is prompted by Cyrano in his wooing of Roxane. Shara's underplayed but palpable anxiety in the love scenes adroitly shifts focus like a well played three banked billiard shot.

Only at the play's conclusion does Lisman's Roxane let us down a bit with the final realization that -- two decades after Christian's death on the battlefield - -she recognizes the sacrifice that Cyrano has been making for her all these years. It should be one of those frisson inducing moments that lets us know that she knows. Why it fails to appear, I'm not sure. Certainly the final death scene belongs to Cyrano alone and nothing should stand in the way of that -- but it seems like a missed opportunity.

Production credits should also be given for the fine moving set pieces and wagons, etc, designed by the ever resourceful Santo Loquasto as well as the lighting design by Alan Brodie which all mesh flawlessly, especially in the run up to the battle scenes.

Donna Feore's direction keeps the pace up when acceleration is needed and slows appropriately when the poetry of love needs to prevail. Given the play's length, the opening business with the young actor being introduced to the stage seems a bit gratuitous and probably could be cut in the interest of time.

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