AISLE SAY, ONTARIO: THE STRATFORD FESTIVAL

 

MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN

by Bertolt Brecht

Directed by Martha Henry

Starring Seana McKenna

Tom Patterson Theatre through September 21

www.stratfordfestival.ca

 

ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

by Lewis Carroll

Adapted for the stage by James Reaney

Directed by Jillian Keiley

Avon Theatre through October 12

www.stratfordfestival.ca

 

CRAZY FOR YOU

Music by George Gershwin with lyrics by Ira Gershwin

Book by Ken Ludwig

Directed and choreographed by Donna Feore

Starring Josh Franklin and Natalie Daradich

Festival Theatre through October 12

www.stratfordfestival.ca

 

ANTHONY AND CLEOPATRA

by William Shakespeare

Starring Yanna McIntosh and Geraint Wyn Davies

Directed by Gary Griffin

At the Festival Theatre August 3 through September 28

www.stratfordfestival.ca

 

A MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM a chamber play

by William Shakespeare

Directed by Peter Sellars

Featuring Sarah Afful, Trush Lindstrom, Mike Nadajewski and Dion Johnstone

Playing until September 20 at the Masonic Lodge in Stratford

www.stratfordfestival.ca

 

CHRISTINA, THE GIRL KING

by Michel Marc Bouchard

Directed by Vanessa Porteous

Set design by Michael Gianfrancesco

Starring Jenny Young

Studio Theatre

www.stratfordfestival.ca

 

THE BEAUX STRATAGEM

by George Farquhar

Directed by Antoni Cimolino

Featuring Mike Shara, Colm Feore, Bethany Jillard, Lucy Peacock, Scott Wentworth and Martha Henry

 

 

Reviewed by Robin Breon

 

Three late season openings at the Stratford Festival - Anthony and Cleopatra, Chistina the Girl King and The Beaux Stratagem) prompt this additional retrospective of the 2014 SF season.

 

The two classic plays in the 20th century that most profoundly correlate the relationship between war and capitalism that come into my mind immediately are George Bernard Shaws Major Barbara and Bertolt Brechts Mother Courage and Her Children. Shaws play features the unscrupulous, Andrew Undershaft, a powerful munitions manufacturer who quips: If God gave man the hand, let not man withhold the sword. War is his business. The scavenger Mother Courage, (a.k.a. Anna Firling) could have been in dialog with Undershaft when she proclaims: I wont let you spoil my war for me. Destroys the weak, does it? Well, what does peace do for em, huh? War feeds its people better.

 

Undershaft made millions from war profiteering, while placating his moral conscience with a large donation to his daughters work with the Salvation Army. Mother Courage made a pittance off of scavenging battlefields during Europes Thirty Year War while losing two sons and a daughter. But at the end of the day, both still place their bets on the masters of war, odds on favorites every time.

 

Martha Henrys direction of Brechts classic anti-way play is flawless. And in Seana McKenna she has a powerful Mother who can finagle anyone and everyone except fate. The production is all the stronger, to my mind, because Henry retains the epic construction in the play (which Brecht felt was central to his thesis) but eschews the alienation effect in favor of a more audience friendly approach. In the end, I think it brings home Brechts message even more powerfully, especially for a North American audience.

 

Canadian playwright James Reaneys (1926 - 2008) adaptation of Lewis Carrolls Alice Through the Looking Glass is a delightful journey into the surreal that is so artfully directed by Jillian Keiley that we forget it is a familiar classic. Whats old seems reformatted and absolutely new. All the old acquaintances are here (Jabberwocky, The Walrus and the Carpenter Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Humpty Dumpty, etc) but the lines and the characters seem like theyve been given a new lease on life - which they have.

 

Of course the credit for this visual and performance delight (which maintains Lewis Carrolls overall concept of a chess match) must also be extended to Bretta Gerecke (set design), Kimberly Purtell (lighting) and Dayna Tekatch (choreography) along with a marvelous ensemble that includes Trish Lindstrom (Alice), Sanjay Talwar and Mike Nadajewski (Tweedledee and Tweedledum), Cynthia Dale (Red Queen), and Brian Tree as Humpty Dumpty who could be reading the phonebook with that hugely entertaining droll deadpan of his - and this is just to name a few within the cast of twenty-one actors. The Stratford Festival has brought their A Team to the annual family entertainment show and clears the board. Check and checkmate.

 

When Crazy for You premiered on Broadway in 1992 it became the new gold standard for anyone contemplating a so called jukebox musical that transformed a previously published songbook into a full fledged piece of musical theatre. As such, it set the stage for Mama Mia (1999), Jersey Boys (2005) and numerous others that would follow.

 

Donna Feores current production appearing on the Festival stage at Stratford until mid October delivers all of the old razzamatazz and then some. Josh Franklin (as Bobby Child) and Natalie Daradich (Polly Baker) are the dynamic young leads that keep the sleepy desert town of Deadrock, Nevada, humming and I do mean humming. Because in the end, it is the music and the dance that carries this show.

 

Tap is of course the medium and, unlike Susan Stroman (Crazy for Yous original Broadway choreographer) who, at times veered into the territory of environmental performance groups like Stomp who were just coming on the scene in the early 90s, Feore sticks to the stuff she knows best: tap, tap, tap..... and more tap until you just dont see how these folks could have another kick-ball-change in them. Surely one of the most high energy performances I have ever witnessed with the sweat just pouring off of everyone by the end of the second act.

 

The beautifully choreographed drunken hangover mirror scene with Franklin and Tom Rooney (playing the Ziegfeld-like character, Bela Zangler) is just ballet-like in its precision and alone is worth the price of admission. There are many other delights that could be called out but this will have to do. Suffice it to say, that between this show and King Lear, the Feores are keeping the Festival Theatre filled to capacity this season.

 

There is a photograph of Yanna McIntosh as Cleopatra in the Stratford production program that shows the Egyptian queen in a posture of luxurious repose with the facial expression of a mature seductress.  There is much to be read into her gaze but unfortunately not so much in her performance. Whether the cause is a lack of attraction to her Anthony, here played in statesman-like fashion by Geraint Wyn Davies, or just the difficulties inherent in this problematic and not all that often produced play is difficult to discern. Probably a combination of both.

 

G.B. Shaw was apparently so disturbed by the quality of the script that he swore he could write a better one and he did with Caesar and Cleopatra which was first staged in 1901. Compounding matters with A&C, is the direction of Gary Griffin, which adds nothing to the play and sometimes gets in its way.

 

As I say, the play has disturbed and defeated many over the years, and here in the Tom Patterson Theatre in 2014 is no exception. But kudos to the S.F. for taking on the tougher, less produced plays. Ive been waiting years for them to make a run at Troilus and Cressida which I think is one of the bards great plays with huge contemporary relevancy around the question of war. But these plays are certainly not without their challenges as the Festival will soon find out next season when it takes on some of the apocryphal (or spurious and doubtful works as some variorum editions call them) from the Shakespeare canon.

 

Peter Sellars take on A Midsummer Nights Dream (a chamber play) might be likened to a master class in theatre improvisation. Four top rated professionals are given an opportunity to work with a world renowned director on a new version of Shakespeares most perfect comedy. The actors assemble for their first rehearsal and the process begins. The director tells the actor, I know this speech reads very funny as text and is normally played for laughs, but I want you to try it as if you were a very frustrated and alienated lover who has just been unfairly treated and is planning a violent revenge.

 

And so it goes, as the four actors create a play out of text that is familiar yet foreign. It is something that we have never seen or heard before and to understand what the play is about, we must listen to speeches that we thought we knew but never have heard quite like this.

 

Sarah Afful, Dion Johnstone, Trish Lindstrom and Mike Nadajewski are the gifted actors working with the master director and they excel in the exercise in a multiplicity or roles. The play will certainly not be everybodys cup of tea and so I will leave it to the ticket buying public and the unseen hand of the market place to determine whether or not the eighty bucks a a pop proves to be a worthwhile investment.

 

Playwright Michel Marc Bouchard has given theatre goers great pleasure over the years with works like The Madonna Painter and The Coronation Voyage as standouts. His works are nicely framed and often intellectually engaging. Christina, the Girl King is right up there with his best work to date.

 

Already the subject of numerous books, films, operas and plays, Queen Christina of Sweden was queen regnant in the 17th century. This bio-play portrays the final period of her reign before abdicating the throne at the age of 22. From an early age, she dressed like a man, engaged in a long-time same sex relationship with her lover, Ebba Sparre, (who was a member of her court) and took on the most passionate debates of her time whether intellectual or artistic. She was a lover of the theatre and a patron of the arts and, as the setting of Bouchards play portrays, a student of the philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes who moved to Stockholm at the end of his life to tutor Christina.

 

Having written and directed a bio-play once myself (based on the life of 19th century African American Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge) I can readily attest they are fraught with problems. When the playwright admires the subject, there is the possibility of erring on the side of hagiography. When the playwright detests the subject (e.g. horrible dictators of history), their is potential for superficial characterization with no redeeming qualities or moral insights. Its a puzzlement and my sympathies are with the playwright.

 

We are fortunate here that Jenny Young is such a compelling Christina who engages in  her passion for a woman with the same zeal that she takes on the raging debate of Catholics versus Protestants and the emerging ideas of the Enlightenment. In fact, these dueling dialectics only come into visual conflict once when director Vanessa Porteous mistages a parallel action scene that has Christina and la belle Ebba in silent flagrante delicto while Descartes (John Kirkpatrick) provides philosophical exegesis on the advancement of science. Now I ask you - who do you think commands the audience attention in this scene?

 

My only other quibble with this production is the set. Michael Gianfrancesco is one of my favorite designers and Ive seen his work in a number of very different, and often challenging venues. Although the Studio Theatre is Stratfords smallest stage, that doesnt mean design needs to be sacrificed and here it looks like Gianfrancesco just wasnt given much to do. When Christina departed her castle for life in exile in 1654 (in male disguise traveling as Count Dohna for security reasons), she took down off her castle walls dozens of paintings, tapestries, statuary, books and other decorative arts that left the place sorely depleted. It would have been fun to see a replication of this environment rather than the bare walls of drab black and gray shadows that no Christina we know would have tolerated for a minute.

 

With a record breaking season at the box office, artistic director Antoni Cimolino can now sit back and relax a bit with his late season capper of The Beaux Stratagem now up and running in the Festival Theatre. Beyond Cimolinos note perfect pacing and overall direction of the production there are a number of additional reasons to see this show and Id like to name them here: Mike Shara, Colm Feore, Bethany Jillard, Lucy Peacock, Scott Wentworth, Martha Henry, Michael Blake, Evan Buliung, David Collins, Victor Ertmanis, Sara Farb, Xuan Fraser, Brad Hodder, Robert King, Josue Laboucane, Gordon S. Miller, Chick Reid, Tara Rosling, Michael Spencer-Davis, Karl Ang, Thomas Olajide, Laura Schutt, Natalie Daradich, Alexandra Herzog, Bethany Kovarik, Derek Moran and Mike Tracz.

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