AISLE SAY Stratford Ontario


Stratford Shakespeare Festival presents:

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Des McAnuff
Festival Theatre through October 31st

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Marti Maraden
Tom Patterson Theatre through September 25th

by J.M. Barrie
Directed by Tim Carroll
at the Avon Theatre through October 31st

Based on music and lyrics by Jacques Brel
English translation and additional material
by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman
Directed by Stafford Arima
Tom Patterson Theatre through September 25th

Reviewed by Robin Breon

Let’s begin with the eponym. The recent news reporting that William Shakespeare is alive and well and thriving once again in Stratford, Ontario, is welcome.

The second observation is that Des McAnuff’s flapper-era, jazz infused, anti-fascist, Dali-Dada driven production of As You Like It tries hard to succeed where others (except Shakespeare) failed, by reinventing the play as a musical, but, in the end, this production is a tad overwrought.

First the concept. McAnuff, as is his wont, puts the pedal to the metal, and careens down Quentin Tarantino Highway, eventually taking the Pulp Fascism exit. The bumpy ride to the Forest of Arden begins with menacing black shirted courtiers dressing the stage underneath a huge fasces that seems to be an emblematic hybrid of the spread eagle used by both the Italian and the German fascists (we thankfully are spared the swastika).

But do we then really need Duke Frederick (played by Tom Rooney) as a Hitler lookalike? I think we get the point. To further serve his purpose, McAnuff mysteriously conflates history and anachronistically superimposes the rise of European fascism unto the flapper era of the 1920s. Although this fictional referencing builds creative consistency into his overall concept once we journey to the Forest of Arden, the immodesty of this shopworn and shamelessly exploited trope collapses at the play’s conclusion when we are informed that the evil Duke has met a holy man who persuades him to give away his worldly possessions and take up a life of monastic contemplation.  History informs us that real fascists seldom retire so gently into that good night. Even Quentin Tarantino knows that.

The opening of the play continues to labor in order to make its point, with old Adam (Brian Tree) tasked with the heavy (and needlessly time consuming) lifting of filling a wheel barrel with coal before moving into the play as Shakespeare wrote it by allowing Orlando (Paul Nolan) to lay out the central argument; his familial disinheritance by his conniving brother, Oliver (Mike Shara), and his vow to overcome his impoverished circumstances. Nolan does his best but never quite overcomes the directorially imposed handicap of not being able to break out of the starting gate at a full gallop.

Given this environment, it is a bit difficult to imagine that Orlando could triumph over Charles (Dan Chameroy), Duke Frederick’s court wrestler, and prevail as easily as he does in a meekly choreographed fight scene that occurs at court. This is unfortunate because it is the build up to Rosalind and Celia’s banishment and the real beginning of the journey that is here divided into three acts.

Some (but not all) of this may be forgiven as we flee the fascist court and arrive in the Daliesque explosion of color and the liberated off the grid ambience that is the refuge provided by the Forest of Arden (kudos to scenic director Debra Hanson here). In what rightly should be credited as a truly inspired move, McAnuff commissioned Justin Ellington (cousin to the late great Duke) to invigorate the pastoral mood of the piece with period based jazz that fits neatly into the play and also underpins the politics of the piece counterpoising the tyranny of the court with the freedom of expression at play in the forest.

This strong musical connect also mines the rich lineage of SSF itself by recalling Duke Ellington’s association (and fondness) for the Festival beginning in 1956 when he played a concert date at the Festival Theatre and was so inspired by the vibes of the place that he later composed a suite entitled “Such Sweet Thunder”, calling it “a tone parallel to William Shakespeare.”  In 1963 Ellington composed the music for SSF’s production of Timon of Athens.  Add to this the overall musical direction of Michael Roth, and you combine a creative team with a production pedigree that is hard to beat.

Bernard Shaw once remarked that he believed it was impossible to be bad in the role of Rosalind. He might just as well have gone ahead and added in every other role in the play that has something of worth for every actor to search for, right down to the smallest part.  

Although Andrea Runge has not yet come into her own as a fully realized Rosalind, it’s still early in the run and I’m confident that this young actor will find her way. To suggest that she just needs to butch it up a bit more in the second act courting scene with Orlando where she is a woman disguised as a man coming on to her beau in a womanly way, might sound a bit reductive and simplistic on my part, but hey, I’m a critic not a director. Her cousin Celia (Cara Ricketts), provides strong support and their bond as sisters in struggle is totally believable and very sympathetically portrayed throughout.

Tom Rooney (doubling as the good Duke Senior) is warm and reliable while Ben Carlson is wonderfully droll as Touchstone. He really comes into his own when embracing (literally) the various colorful characters that Shakespeare has placed within his reach. When jamming with the foresters, Touchstone does a turn on string bass; combined with Randy Hughson as the old shepherd, Corin, they morph into an Abbott and Costello routine (my only comment here is that if you want to do stand up, then bring the actors downstage for pity’s sake); and in pursing his own romantic aspirations with the country girl, Audrey (an underplayed yet still very comic turn by Lucy Peacock), Carlson lifts the spirits every time he walks on stage.

Victor Ertmanis is underused as the clergyman, Oliver Martext, and would have been far better employed as the usurper, Duke Frederick, rather than having Rooney double as the good and the bad Duke.

But at the end of the day, it is Brent Carver’s performance as Jaques that autographs the production and McAnuff’s approach to it. Carver’s sensitive portrayal of the philosopher-critic in exile evokes a young Walter Benjamin in a dark suit and bowler hat who just might have been present at the picnic in this surrealist forest while he held forth with his own jazz inspired riffs on life and the drama and all the men and women of this world who are merely players, each with an entrance and an ineluctable exit. 

Of the two Shakespeares that I’ve seen so far in the current season, The Winter’s Tale is, to my mind, the greater achievement. The fact that SSF opened the season with a successful staging of one of the most popular comedies in the canon is one thing, but the accomplishment displayed in The Winter’s Tale by director Marti Maraden’s fine staging and impeccable casting is the more challenging project of the two. It is also a play that we don’t get to see as often, having received only four previous productions at the Festival since 1958.

It takes Othello at least half the play to work himself into a jealous rage. It takes Ben Carlson, as King Leontes, about half a minute to let his overly active imagination run away with him and mistake the friendly disposition of his Queen, Hermione (Yanna McIntosh) toward his boyhood friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia (played by Dan Chameroy) as the surefire evidence of an adulterous affair that has resulted in Hermione’s obvious pregnancy. The ramifications of Leontes’ actions - spread over time and geography - are finally resolved by the next generation of youth who are reunited by a miraculous resurrection at the play’s conclusion.

A play like this is where one of the world’s great classical theatre companies gets to show its mettle. Ben Carlson plays rage, remorse and redemption with equal amounts of passion while Yanna McIntosh in the trial scene is unflinching, courageous yet humble in her own defense against the baseless and paranoid accusations of her husband who persists even as the oracle at Delphi confirms Hermione’s innocence. This wholly convincing scene made me wonder what Ms. McIntosh might be able to do with Saint Joan some day.

Tom Rooney, as the thief and all around roué, Autolycus, fleshes out a character that is impossible to dislike. He steals the second half of the show as deftly as he picks the pockets of the villagers in Bohemia. And Randy Hughson as the ill fated lord to Leontes, Antigonus, not only gets to “exit pursued by a bear” but later returns in Act II as the spirit of Time (in a lilting flying sequence that even incorporates a cartwheel) to advance the play’s action 16 years toward its revivifying conclusion.

Seana McKenna as Paulina (the wife of Antigonus) is perfectly cast as the woman who speaks truth to power at the beginning and end of the play as well as securing the future for Florizel (Ian Lake) and Perdida (Cara Ricketts) the young lovers whose hopeful, abiding faith in one another is the antidote to the tragedy set in motion by Leontes.

Brian Tree and Mike Shara show you what happens in a first rate repertory company when strong actors are assigned to smaller roles (Old Shepherd and Young Shepherd) – sheer delight with performances that pick up the pace and heighten the action rather than slowing it down. Likewise with Andrea Runge and Alana Hawley as Mopsa and Dorcas respectively.

John Pennoyer’s costume design seems to have taken the Asia Minor theory of scholarly dramaturgy as to just what geographic area was encompassed by the ancient land of Bohemia which is the setting for much of the play. As the jury still seems out on this question, I’m willing to go with him on this – it certainly does make for plenty of cloth and color for Louise Guinand to bathe in a spectacular rainbow of light.

I saw my first professional production of Peter Pan in 1968 as a university student on one of those cheap, tightly organized “see Europe in 10 days” tours that took me to London, Amsterdam and Paris. The group was slated to spend the afternoon at the British Museum but I cut them lose to take in a matinee in the West End that starred Alastair Sim in the role of Captain Hook. I mention this because anyone who has attended the theatre for any amount of time will generally remember their first production of Peter Pan. J.M. Barrie’s classic play has stood the test of time since it was first produced in 1904 overcoming Freudian readings, ethnocultural stereotyping and all manner of adaptations for film and stage including the current, creative post-structuralist opening of the text being seen at SSF.

Traditionally, the role of Peter has gone to some great women of the stage including Eva Le Gallienne and Mary Martin to name a few. But for this production, director Tim Carroll has cast Michael Therriault as the boy who never grew up. Therriault is a curious, vibrant and sometimes brooding Peter who imbues the role with the kind of athleticism that lets us know from the first moment he boxes with his shadow, that he will make a fine adversary for Captain James Hook.

Carroll takes a few more interesting liberties by injecting J.M Barrie himself (actor Tom McCamus doubling as Hook and Barrie with the help of a third unnamed double) as narrator throughout the play in order to inject more exposition and to slyly explain a few of the appropriate cultural choices that the director made including substituting a group of fierce Amazon women (Mary Antonini, Barbara Fulton, Bethany Jillard, and Stephanie Roth) in place of the stereotyped native Indians in the Never Land scenes. For the most part it works. Although the kids tend to tune out during these sequences, the adults perk up their ears a bit to hear the rationalizations for one draft of the script as opposed to another.

Wendy (Sara Topham), John (Paul Dunn), Michael (Stacie Steadman) and Mr. and Mrs. Darling (Sanjay Talwar and Laura Condlln) with their steadfast (anthropomorphic) sheepdog, Nana (Jay T. Schramek) hold down hearth and home with all of the warmth and love required while Hook, Smee (Sean Cullen) and the rest of the pirates provide the high jinks on the high seas with masterful villainy. The Lost Boys of Never Land (Shane Carty, Ari Weinberg, Cyrus Lane, Bruce Godfrey, Trent Pardy and Richard Lee) do dutiful battle with the pirates and remind us that it’s important to be kind to your mother.

The set design by Carolyn M. Smith lit by designer Kevin Fraser, had all of the high ceilings, 19th century moldings and cornices that composed the bedroom scene quite nicely as it overlooked the city through windows that open wide and let in much more than just a good view. Upon arrival in Never Land, our first sight of the The Jolly Roger pirate ship was stunning and a real crowd pleaser. My only technical disappointment here is with the surprisingly stilted and conservative Flying by Foy which really didn’t uplift the flying scenes in the way they should be. In fact, the flying apparatus used in The Winter’s Tale over at the Tom Patterson Theatre was far more exciting and robust in its application than the constricting cables used here.

I found it culturally interesting that in this Peter Pan of 2010, in response to Peter’s rhetorical plea to the children in the audience: “do you believe in fairies?” about half of the little dusters present answered with a resounding “No!” I’m puzzled as to whether or not this was due to the kids being raised by atheists or orthodox fundamentalists. At one point, I thought the precocious little bugger sitting next to me was about to call the question and ask for a vote from the clearly divided assembly. It was only after Mr. Therriault straightened his posture slightly (perhaps to reinforce his position as chair of the proceedings) and, with a wink and a nod as Peter, re-worded the motion a bit that the feisty crowd decided to let the show go on. A good thing too, because by this time Tinkerbell’s batteries were beginning to burn a bit low.

Although Hook’s final climactic demise in the jaws of a huge crocodile (I’m not sure if there was an actor inside the beast or not) could have been staged with better sight lines, the overall deployment of over 35 actors and musicians does great justice to the script and the story with production values that only a large company with resources at their disposal can fulfill.

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris may well be the first jukebox musical that began the genre coming as it did in 1968, a full 10 years before Ain’t Misbehavin’. These broadly proclamatory songs (Marathon, Le Moribond, Amersterdam, Carousel, If We Only Have Love/Quand on n’a que l’amour, etc.) are celebrations of life, love, loss, death and all the other stuff songwriters have been writing about since popular music began. One can just hear the tunes being belted by Brel himself in the clubs of Paris and Marseilles with their story telling qualities and crescendo building climaxes that you know must have had to work hard to compete against the smoking, drinking, noisy habitués of the bistros and cabarets where they were first sung.

Although Brent Carver has a long history as an interpreter of Jacques Brel, there are no leads in this show. He is joined by Jewelle Blackman, Mike Nadajewski and Nathalie Nadon who all give as good as they get with this evenly divided, bi-lingual material that allows everyone to shine.

The only problem with the show (and this is a minor quibble) is the overly disciplined direction by Stafford Arima who seems to think he should choreograph every move and every little turn that the actors make. By the time the guitar player and the violin player join the actors on the stage in a patterned series of steps and turns, it all becomes a bit too orchestrated with a flashing sign that reads “look at the clever hand of the director here” rather than the raucous, rebellious, zigzagging, life affirming passion that is at the core of Brel.

But all and all, a hugely satisfying week of openings at the SSF (one of their strongest in some years) with the eagerly awaited combo of McAnuff and Christopher Plummer’s production of The Tempest yet to come.

Return to Home Page

  • Road (National) Tour Review Index
  • New York City & Environs Theatre Review Index
  • Berkshire, Massachusetts Theatre Review Index
  • Boston Area Theatre Review Index
  • Florida Theatre Review Index
  • Minneapolis/St. Paul (Twin Cities) Theatre Review Index
  • Philadelphia & Environs Theatre Review Index
  • San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Review Index
  • Seattle Area Theatre Review Index
  • Toronto, Ontario (Canada) Index