The Stratford Festival

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Antonio Cimolino
Starring Colm Feore
Festival Theatre through October 10

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Tim Carroll
Starring Tom McCamus
Tom Patterson Theatre through September 20

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Chris Abraham
Festival Theatre through October 11

Reviewed by Robin Breon

Although Shakespeare has been removed in name from the Festival (it used to be the Stratford Shakespeare Festival but now is called simply the Stratford Festival after the small town in Ontario where it abides), it is still Shakespeare and the classical canon at the core of the FestivalÕs mandate that is its strength. So let us start there - with two Kings and some Queens.

In the annals of male Shakespearean performance in the English speaking world, every once in a great while the earth moves and a new champion emerges. It does not occur often because the barre is set so high, and it is not an easy stretch. Thus, it is in every generation there are those who will remember their favorite actors in the classic roles. In England, the bardolators remember GielgudÕs King Lear and compare it to OlivierÕs or Scofield or Beale.

Likewise for the epicenter of Shakespeare in performance in North America. Stratford Festival regulars remember William HuttÕs portrayal and compare it to Brian BedfordÕs and Christopher PlummerÕs.

Now there is Colm Feore playing Lear and the barre has been raised once again. In watching FeoreÕs approach to the role on the mainstage of the Festival Theatre, I couldnÕt help comparing him to the great Estonian actor, Juri Jarvet who played Lear in the 1971 Russian film directed by Grigori Kozintsev. With a score by Dmitri Shostakovich, it is perhaps the worldÕs greatest rendering of the play ever committed to film.

Director Antoni CimolinoÕs production of King Lear restores the essence of the play and makes it real for a contemporary audience. And not a minute too soon because his emphasis on social justice values, and the human elements within the play point to Shakespeare as a fellow traveler in the 21st century, something that is so often missing in  contemporary performance.

CimolinoÕs idea is that, with striking prescience and almost eerie accuracy, Shakespeare describes the characteristics of our age with regard to wicked problems like war, political division, poverty, the challenges of age and the rivalries of duplicitous siblings. The boomer generation immediately recognizes their own parents in LearÕs struggle with what is clearly the early stages of dementia or AlzheimerÕs disease. His willfulness and emotional outbursts, his paranoia and irrational pronouncements are of increasing concern to his daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia as well as others who attend his court.

In the midst of this interpretation, a harsh light is focussed on the old regent. So much so that the concerns of his three daughters almost sound reasonable. I say this because so often Goneril (Maev Beatty) and Regan (Lilsa Repo-Martel) are portrayed unsympathetically (for many good reasons) while Cordelia (Sara Farb) is too often beatified. Here Cordelia simply states her truth and that is, she will not patronize her father by pretending to love him any more or less than she does. While her two sisters indulge in hyperbolic accolades, she intuits that he is beginning to mentally slip away and that his request to his three daughters, i.e. to profess how much they love him, is not based on anything but ego. In most productions, we sympathize with Cordelia but wonder if she isnÕt a bit too abrupt with her father. Here she is the first to correctly signal that there is a problem.

Later in the play, a vicious argument erupts between Goneril and Regan when Lear announces he is coming to live with them. They both protest the intrusion, and kvetch that having to house and feed the KingÕs retinue (which includes 100 knights) is completely unreasonable. This is the first time in my lifetime of watching this play, that I agreed with them! They werenÕt acting like ingrates or spiteful siblings. They almost sounded like rational and somewhat caring human beings who were simply not looking forward to the prospect of having a castle full of rowdy, drunken knights moving into the wing down the hall. Goneril and ReganÕs vehement protests now make complete sense because we all understand that what is really needed here is a good assisted living facility for the irascible old man. As the complexities of the situation escalate and get entirely out of control, the tragedy of it all makes much more sense.

Stephen Ouimette (Fool), Jonathan Goad (Kent), Scott Wentworth (Gloucester), Evan Buliung (Edgar), Brad Hodder (Edmund), Michael Blake (Albany), and Mike Shara (Cornwall) provide the infrastructure that girds this very tall King Lear at the Stratford Festival.

If you feel insecure because you canÕt quite remember what ShakespeareÕs King John is about, donÕt worry. It is one of the least frequently produced plays of the entire canon and was not even done during ShakespeareÕs lifetime. The first recorded production was not until more than a century after his death.

But King JohnÕs backstory is well known in popular culture. All you really need to understand is that the rascally, pimple faced bumbler, John (played by Nigel Terry in The Lion in Winter) was the favorite of Peter OÕToole (King Henry II) who thought he should succeed him on the throne, while Katherine Hepburn (who played Eleanor of Aquitaine) favored Richard the Lionheart (Anthony Hopkins). I mean, come on, Richard the Lionheart for pityÕs sake. So then, in another movie, when John does take the throne he is the one who gives Errol Flynn (Robin Hood) such a hard time by sicking the Sheriff of Nottingham on him while Richard the L. was off on a Crusade. Things got so bad that the English barons finally had to put the King in his place by imposing the Magna Carta. That about says it all right there.

So with all this in mind, I highly recommend seeing Tom McCamus as the haughty and somewhat juvenile King John square off against the equally arrogant and hapless Philip, King of France (imperturbably played by Peter Hutt). McCamus is onstage literally throughout the play and adds layer upon layer to his character making it a very compelling performance in a role seldom seen. Add to this excellent supporting work from the likes of Patricia Collins (Queen Eleanor), Jennifer Mogbock (Blanche of Spain), Seana McKenna (Constance), Andrew Lawrie (Prince Henry), Wayne Best (Hubert), Graham Abbey (Philip, the bastard), Noah Jalava (Arthur), and Brian Tree as Cardinal Pandulph. E. B. Smith doubles avec facilitˇ as Melun and Chatillon.

Thankfully, director Tim Carroll has spared us most of the hokum he refers to as Ņoriginal practicesÓ. This is the invented ideology currently in practice at ShakepeareÕs Globe in London that labors with an aesthetic purporting to bring us closer to the BardÕs work by using an all male cast with various value add ons like being able to see the actors change into their doublet and hose during performance (presumably to assure us that they do it one leg at a time with the aid of dressers).

In King John, Mr. Carroll has limited his approach to using a candle lit stage rather than actual stage lighting in the Tom Patterson theatre and allowed the very talented women of the Stratford Festival to act in his play. Of course, William Shakespeare himself used the most advanced stage technology he could get his hands on during his lifetime of producing at the original Globe theatre and IÕm convinced that if he could be reincarnated as theatre critic to comment on Mr. CarrollÕs work he would laud the performances here while condemning the set and lighting design (or more precisely, the lack thereof).

Before the curtain went up on Chris AbrahamÕs gay, campy romp production of A Midsummer NightÕs Dream, I overheard two ushers in the theatre discussing the comments made by a school teacher from the midwest U.S. who had attended a preview performance with a group of high school students on a field trip. She swore she would never return to Stratford again after seeing this show. Serendiptitously, the people of Ontario have just elected their first woman premiere who also just happens to be a lesbian. So it would seem that the high school teacher from the American midwest can tolerate a play about a man who is turned into an ass but if he becomes attracted to  one that is off limits for the youth. Excuse me while I scratch my head a bit.

Although AbrahamÕs take on the Dream does not push the sexuality nearly as much as Diane Paulus did in her adaptation of the same play entitled The Donkey Show, it does offer a heavily gender bended version with plenty of improvisational dialog and some interpolated 80s new wave pop songs. The opening is framed around a contemporary gay wedding at which the two men being married are feted with a backyard production of ShakespeareÕs play. To summarize the transformed casting elements: Egeus is a hearing impaired father (Michael Spencer-Davis) who signs his discontent with daughter HermiaÕs (Bethany Jillard) infatuation with Lysander (here played by an androgynous looking Tara Rosling demanding her rights as a gay woman to marry her lover). Oberon and Titania are played by Evan Buliung and Jonathan Goad who alternate as Titania from one performance to the next. Puck is also played by a woman, the actor Chick Reid who also plays against type in that she is older than the norm for the role. Peter Quince, the stage manager of the Athenian workers who are writing a play for Theseus and Hippolyta is also a woman (Lally Cadeau). The fairies are a group  of hip looking youngsters including one quite adorable girl who plays the Changeling Boy here changed to Child (Charlie Rose Neis).

The play certainly has its moments, especially in the first act. But the conceit wears thin and by the end, the improvisational dialog seriously undermines the play-within-a-play sequence because we are already in a play within a play from the very start. Consequently, Stephen Ouimette (Bottom), Karl Ang (Snug), Keith Dinicol (Snout), Victor Ertmanis (Flute) and Brad Hodder (Starveling), all have to push much harder to get the laughs they usually get without even trying.

All this is unfortunate because had Abraham only read ShakespeareÕs play a bit more closely he would have found a way in for his concept neatly provided by the playwright. The wedding between Theseus and Hippolyta could easily have been changed to Theseus and Hippolytus at the beginning. This would not only have allowed the gay friendly concept to stand firmly (and proudly) from beginning to end but it would also have allowed Abraham to correct his most egregious error in casting. That is not to have allowed the under used Maev Beaty to play Titania. It really should have been her role and it was heartbreaking not to see her be alllowed to play it in this production.

This Dream has been lauded by some critics and condemned by others. Richard Ouzounian, the critic for the Toronto Star, gave it only 1/2 a star, the lowest ranking I have ever seen him give. Not to be outdone, J. Kelly Nestruck (writing in the Globe and Mail) awarded it a rare four stars (out of four). Robert Cushman, who writes for the National Post, has suggested that it should be graded somewhere in between. The whole thing has created quite a buzz and IÕm all for that.

However, to my mind, gender bended casting within the Shakespearean canon should really concentrate on opening up casting opportunities for women, not men. It is the very talented women of the Stratford Festival who have been denied the training and performance opportunities embedded in assaying the great roles of Shakespeare on the main Festival Stage. An all woman cast should be considered as appropriate as an all male  cast. Perhaps then we can begin to directly address gender related issues in the performing arts while providing equal opportunity employment that will truly Ņrestore amends.Ó

Taken as a whole, the Stratford Festival has come out swinging in the early part of their season on the Shakespearean side of the ledger. Stimulating theatre, especially for younger audiences, and that is exactly the direction the SF needs to go.

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