AISLE SAY, Ontario


Reviewed by Robin Breon

 by William Shakespeare

Directed by Antoni Cimolino

by William Shakespeare

Directed by Scott Wentworth

by Oliver Goldsmith

Directed by Martha Henry

by Frederich Durenmatt
Director and Dramaturge: Miles Potter

by William Shakespeare

Directed by Chris Abraham

There are some revelatory moments in Antoni CimolinoÕs current production of Hamlet, about the militant Dane who believes he must take up arms against the state or commit suicide as a way of dealing with life under a royal, usurping dictatorship filled with corruption and rot.

This Hamlet is driven by Jonathan GoadÕs intelligent interpretation of the conflicted prince. He is forced to break off the relationship with his beloved Ophelia because he knows early on that the whole thing is not going to end well. Goad plays Hamlet with the usual conviction that the role demands, but it is the compassion and empathy of this engaged Hamlet that is new and allows him to put his own stamp on the role. He feigns madness and pleads with Ophelia to flee to a nunnery. A crazy request that belies a heart breaking state of mind as he tries to get someone for whom he cares deeply out of harmÕs way and into a safer place.

Foremost in this latest SF rendering of the tale, I have never seen an Ophelia (Adrienne Gould) performed with such a huge emotional arch. Her performance provides a series of fluorescent bridges that connect pivotal scenes and draws the play onward to its final, tragic end. It is a powerful performance for the ages, and if any one actorÕs work in this production should be singled out as brilliant, original and historically noteworthy, I believe it is hers.

GouldÕs Ophelia adds startling moments of clarity such as in her mad scene when she literally screams: ÒMy brother will hear about this!Ó with such fury that I thought I never heard the line before - at least not this reading of it. Subtext: ÒIÕm going to tell my brother, Laertes, (played with equal force by Mike Shara) and boy is he gonna be pissed when he gets home!Ó

On average the Stratford Festival trots out a production of Hamlet about once every five or six seasons. After this one it would probably be wise to shuffle the play off stage for a while and give it a rest. I say this to preserve the FestivalÕs reputation and especially that of Antoni Cimolino, the SFÕs artistic director and the director of this remarkable production. With such strong supporting roles played by Seana McKenna (Gertrude), Geraint Wyn Davies (Claudius), Tim Campbell (Horatio), Tom Rooney (Polonius), Sarah Afful ( Player Queen), and Juan Chioran as the Player King, and equally strong technical support from Teresa Przbylski (design), Michael Walton (lighting) and Steven Page (composer), no one (Cimolino included) is going to top this benchmark of a Hamlet for a long time to come.

The Adventures of Pericles proves conclusively that Shakespeare at his hack writing worst still can come up with a script that is meritorious and stage worthy when compared with any of the stuff that we count today as historical drama or fictionalized epics. I include here tv shows like The Vikings, Game of Thrones, Wolf Hall and so on.

Evan Buliung is a great Pericles, the Prince of Tyre. At various times, he is rich and in command, poor exiled and hunted, in love and tragically deprived of love, has a daughter - loses a daughter, curses the gods, gives praise to the gods; its just one thing after another and Buliung moves everything along at a good clip with the help of excellent work from Sean Arbuckle (as Cleon), Deborah Hay (doubling as Thaisa and Marina), Marion Adler (Diana), Wayne Best (doubling as Antiochus and and Simonides), David Collins (Cerimon), Randy Hughson (the slimy Bolt) and E.B. Smith (doubling as Thaliard and Leonine, the two villains).

Lovers of the Bard really need not go to their variorum editions (that at times have assigned this play to the category of Òspurious and doubtful works by W. S.Ó) to read up on the playÕs meaning before they buy a ticket. One is likely to loose sight of the plot (which I am certainly not going to even think about summarizing here) early on when interacting with the text alone.

It is also Scott WentworthÕs careful use of the chorus and the larger ensemble that moves the pacing of the story forward. Although some of the actors doubling in roles become a bit confusing for the audience, in the end, this seldom produced play (the first time the SF has had a run at it) keeps our attention, miraculously fosters believability and wins over our hearts. That, I believe, is what the enterprise is all about.

DonÕt miss the opportunity to see WentworthÕs skillfully directed production and you will see the story unfold as it is meant to be - one rip snorting tale.

Last seasonÕs Beaux Stratagem by George Farquhar, first produced in 1707, was a big hit with Stratford audiences. So if you liked that bit of Restoration comedy, you will love Oliver GoldsmithÕs She Stoops to Conquer. Joseph Ziegler (who plays the beset Mr. Richard Hardcastle) is being heralded on his return to Stratford after an absence of thirty years. The homecoming is well deserved and speaks to a period when a number of young and upcoming talents were either not invited back or decided to pursue a different road. Whatever the reason, StratfordÕs loss was TorontoÕs gain as the formation of Soulpepper Theatre (of which Ziegler and the recently deceased and lamented Robin Phillips were founding members) was the result of it all.

Martha HenryÕs trustworthy direction follows a well lit avenue - just trust in the playwrightÕs material and you canÕt go wrong. Oliver Goldsmith has provided excellent sign posts for this tale of two suitors - Brad Hodder and Tyrone Savage respectively as Young Charles Marlow and George Hastings, who travel from the city into the country in search of a mate. Suffice to say, we arrive at our final destination with much satisfaction.

Credit for this successful journey must also go to HenryÕs careful attention to the minor but pivotal characters who ride sidecar through the playÕs several subplots. Andre Morin, Gareth Potter and Paul Rowe reminded me a bit of Larry and his brother Darryl and his other brother Darryl in the old Bob Newhart Show tv series, as they sight gaged their way through the roles of servants trying to figure out what to do with their hands while waiting on their betters. Likewise, Lally Cadeau is wonderful as Pimple, maidservant to Maev BeatyÕs effervescent Miss Kate Hardcastle. Also, the comic paring of Sara Farb and Karack Osborn as Miss Constance Neville and Tony Lumpkin are great fun to watch.

In style, Restoration comedy is best played seriously. The preposterous nature of the plot, its misdirection and switched identities, provides the humor for characters who are caught up in all the tom foolery. It is only Lucy PeacockÕs performance that fails in this regard. Her over-the-top caterwauling and in-joke winks to the audience (ÒarenÕt we all just having such a wonderful timeÓ kind of thing) tends to hog the spotlight a bit too much at the expense of her fellow players.

But Stratford audiences clearly love the classic comedies of the Restoration period as exemplified by the work of Goldsmith this season and Farquhar last. Now can anyone say, Richard Brinsley Sheridan?

The Physicists by the Swiss playwright Frederich Friedrich Durrenmatt (translated for the SF by Birgit Schreyer Duarte and adapted by playwright/actor Michael Healey) is one of the early plays out there in the international repertoire that makes us think seriously about the relationship of science and society post Second World War (BrechtÕs Life of Galileo and Michael FraynÕs Copenhagen also come to mind). The strength of DurrenmattÕs prescient piece is that it was first produced in 1962 and spoke directly (albeit through the popular form of a murder mystery) to the real threat of nuclear holocaust.

The principal characters in The Physicists share two major commonalities; all three are expert in physics and all three live in a hospital for the mentally ill. Herbert Georg Beutler (aka Isaac Newton, played by Graham Abbey) spouts on about his discovery of gravity; Ernst Heinrich Ernesti (aka Albert Einstein), played by Mike Nadajewski is the moral conscience of the play as he puts the blame on science itself for creating the nuclear bomb. Geraint Wyn Davies, in a definitive performance as Johann Wilhelm Mobius, believes he channels the words and wisdom of the ancient biblical King Solomon. They are all overseen by Fraulein Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd (Seana McKenna) who plays a kind of evil, humpbacked, club footed, female version of Dr. Strangelove.

The play still has much to offer us although personally I think DurrenmattÕs other popular success, The Visit, gives a contemporary audience more to consider as a modern morality play. Dramaturgy aside, the production is ably directed by Miles Potter, and certainly fits within this yearÕs intellectual thesis at the SF which explores plays examining moments of discovery.

Saving ShakespeareÕs The Taming of the Shrew until last in this review of five productions currently on exhibit at the Stratford Festival is not because I think of it as being on the bottom rung of the ladder, thereby adding insult to injury to those who view the play as problematic.

On the contrary, there is much to admire in director Chris AbrahamÕs production which broadcasts a sensibility that stays with you longer than any of the shows mentioned above and as such deserves some thought and consideration in the final paragraphs of a retrospective that usually begins, ÒIn conclusion...Ó

First let me say that IÕm not one of those folks who believes that the anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice or the sexism in The Taming of the Shrew renders the texts un-produceable for the contemporary stage. On the contrary, IÕve seen very compelling productions of both plays in very diverse environments over the years and believe strongly that they can be produced with much modern relevancy.

Chris AbrahamÕs Taming of the Shrew begins with a very creative hook of a beginning and - except for one major misstep - almost ascends to greatness.

Shakespeare is always teaching his audience how to woo. LoverÕs wooing in the woods outside of Athens in A Midsummer NightÕs Dream, Rosalind teaching Orlando how to woo in the Forest of Arden, Benedict and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, the various hook ups in Loves LabourÕs Lost, and so it goes. But never was there such a rough and tumble love-match tussle of wooing as is provided in The Taming of the Shrew.

There have been a number of famous acting couples who have taken on the roles of Katharina and Petruchio over the years and I believe audiences see the play more sympathetically when this is the case. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne enjoyed success with Shrew on Broadway in 1935 and subsequently toured across North America. This touring production became the basis for Cole PorterÕs musical, Kiss Me Kate. Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy were on deck at LondonÕs Old Vic in the 1950s for a production of Shrew that was to be financed by the NBC radio network but funding never materialized. And Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton acquitted themselves famously in Franco ZeffirelliÕs 1967 film version of the play. In the SFÕs production, Ben Carlson and Deborah Hay are the off-stage partnered and onstage sparring P and K, who may not have the international fame or tax bracket status as the aforementioned stars, but who certainly do not lack at all in the talent department.

Excellent supporting roles (see actors mentioned above on the title page) provide for a seamless ensemble in this production. Julie Fox (design) and Kimberly Purtell (lighting) provide welcome subtlety and restraint in the technical area while George MeanwellÕs concertina, lute, mandolin and cello doubling (quadrupling?) provides needed harmony in the midst of all the discord.

This all takes us up to that final, troubling speech in which Kate must give her advice to the women in the audience and appear to submit to the male supremacy, oppressive patriarchy and in-your-face sexism of the age in which she lives.

Now I donÕt believe anyone in the Festival Theatre on the night I saw the show, thought for one second that our hero, Katharina, (an indomitable performance delivered here by Deborah Hay) was going to do any such thing. But that is what the text says. So what does a director do with the text as Shakespeare wrote it? Scholars, critics and essayists have been pondering this question ever since the play was first produced.

Unfortunately, director Chris Abraham, who messed mightily (and quite successfully) with the opening of the show, does nothing at the playÕs conclusion where it needs it the most.

My colleague, Laura Cudworth, theatre critic for the town of StratfordÕs own Beacon Herald, said it very well. After complimenting Abraham for contemporizing the playÕs opening, saying it Òshowed promise for an innovative treatment of a tricky play,Ó concludes her review by observing: ÒAbrahamÕs clever intro featured a joke about treating ShakespeareÕs works with irreverence. In the case of this play, perhaps its irreverence that is most needed. The showÕs beginning was inventive and surprising; it would have been brilliant had it ended in the same way.Ó

My sentiments exactly.

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