STRATFORD FESTIVAL OF CANADA-REVIEWS

A PERFECT HOLIDAY: SIX DAYS/ NINE PLAYS

The Stratford Festival
The Stratford Festival

AT THE 2009 STRATFORD FESTIVAL OF CANADA


by Beverly Friend

FESTIVAL THEATRE

Modern adaptation of an Elizabethan stage with

1,824 seats (1,060 in the orchestra, 760 in the balcony),

No spectator more than 65 feet from the

famous thrust stage.

Macbeth (May 23 – Oct. 31)

West Side Story (April 11-May 29- Oct. 31)

Cyrano de Bergerac (to Nov. 1)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Aug. 7-Oct. 30)

AVON THEATRE

Former vaudeville house, later movie theater,

extensively renovated in 2000, seats 1,093.

The Importance of Being Earnest (May 9- Oct 30)

Julius Caesar (May 23-Oct. 31)

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (June 11-Nov. 1)

TOM PATTERSON THEATRE

Used for workshops and performances of new Canadian plays and contemporary plays from abroad, for experimental productions of classical theatre,

with  a modular stage; seating capacity 487

Three Sisters (May 9-Oct. 3)

Bartholomew Fair (May 27-Oct. 2)

Ever Yours, Oscar (June 19-Aug. 19)

Phedre (Aug. 6-Oct. 3)

STUDIO THEATRE

260-  seat, intimate  exploration space for new, experimental,

and rarely produced works

The Trespassers (July 26-Oct. 4)

Rice Boy Aug. (11-Oct. 3)

Zastrozzi Aug (12-Oct. 3)

Stratford, Ontario is the home of the largest classical repertory theatre in North America and draws audiences of more than 600,000 each year. In this – their 57th season — the Festival features 14 productions on four stages.

THE BEST

Colm Feore may not be well-known name in the U.S., even though he now plays Henry Taylor in the successful TV series 24, but he is certainly a renown and celebrated actor in Canada. In his 16th season at the Festival, he takes on two complex, challenging roles and nails them both. While reparatory theater features actors in multiple roles, this often means taking a lead role in one play with smaller roles in other productions.  Not for Feore. He is the star of two blockbusters.

First, there is his performance as Cyrano de Bergerac – a dazzling repeat of his accomplishment 15 years ago. While I didn’t see the earlier production, Feore couldn’t have been any better in his youth than he is now in his maturity. Directed by his wife, Donna Feore, Colm is nothing if not colorful in this vivid role – swashbuckling, reciting caustic lines (in both French and English – sometime a bit too much French for an American), and winning the hearts of both the audience, and the lovely (if misguided) Roxane (lovely Amanda Lisman).

As good as he is in as Cyrano, he is even better as the murderous, haunted Macbeth.  It is a more thoughtful and cerebral role than that of Cyrano– certainly more tortured – and we feel every visceral moment with him. Feore is well matched by Yanna McIntosh as a Lady Macbeth who nearly steals the show in her fast-paced, hand-scrubbing, sleepwalking scene

The casts’ sterling performance and director Des McAnuff’s unique vision clearly make this the outstanding drama of the season. The production is set in a mythic, mid-20th century African nation because McAnuff was drawn to the many parallels between the violence, barbarism and rivalries of medieval Scotland and the struggles of colonial Africa as assassinations and anarchy led to weak kings following strong ones — and visa versa. History continually repeats itself.  The result of his near-contemporary vision – stripping away the trappings of royalty (velvet cloaks, golden crowns, and the like) — gives the play a pointed immediacy.

This is Stratford’s ninth production of Macbeth (beginning in 1962) and is McAnuff’s second (the first in 1983). McAnuff is the Festival’s Artistic Director, following the death of Richard Monette, and he may be best known as the Tony-Award-winning director of Jersey Boys.

YEAR OF THE DIRECTOR

Speaking of directors, kudos must also go to Chicago’s own Gary Griffin for his extraordinary production of West Side Story. To quote perceptive Canadian critic Richard Ouzounian, “Those of us who are lucky enough to travel to the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre have been singing the praises of director Gary Griffin for years. Now the citizens of Ontario can see what makes his work so special: clarity of vision, depth of emotion and style of execution.”

In a post-show discussion, the actors praised Griffin for his concentration on the text, and told how he had trained them to focus on listening to each other, including one night in a darkened theater where they all sat holding votive candles and related the story in their own words.

Griffin is to be especially commended for the skill with which he uses the Festival’s large, thrust stage. In addition, of course he has a fine cast to work with – including the heated chemistry between Maria (Chilina Kennedy) and Tony (Paul Nolan). In his directorial notes, Griffin states, “The biggest challenge in directing West Side Story today is to preserve the audacity of the experiment that it represented when it first came out.” He achieves his goal.

This 57th season is really a tribute to the art of directors.  Brian Bedford, not only takes on the highly comic role of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Ernest, and directs the play, but he also directs and stars in  a fascinating companion piece: Ever Yours, Oscar. The result of this one-man show based on a pertinent selection of Wilde’s poignant letters is a remarkable insight into the playwright’s far too brief life with its painful trials, scandals and tribulations.  The description of his years in prison is haunting and unforgettable, and Bedford holds the audience spellbound for the hour and a quarter performance.

A delightful, fast-paced comedy, Earnest has been performed five times in the past 34 years, while this is only the second time the Festival has mounted Ever Yours, which Bedford originally performed as a reading in 2000.

If Feore is to be hailed for his depictions of Cyrano and Macbeth and Bedford is delicious as Lady Bracknell and sober and reflective in presenting Wilde’s letters, another actor must be commended for a real contrast in portrayals. In Three Sisters, Lucy Peacock, in her 22nd season with the Festival, gives a sensitive vision of Masha, trapped in an unhappy marriage, and equally trapped with her sisters Olga and Irina (Irene Poole and Dalal Badr) in an isolated country town far from the intellectual and emotional stimulus of Moscow. Directed by the highly skilled Martha Henry, Chekhov’s poignant Three Sisters has been performed twice before at the Festival.  As slim and sedate as Peacock is as Masha, she becomes the direct opposite as the hideously gross and overweight Ursula the Pig Woman in Bartholomew Fair, (complete with cellulite-riddled thighs).  Her depiction is the highlight of that play.

While Macbeth and Julius Caesar currently represent the works of William Shakespeare at the Festival – another name also resonates. That is Stephan Sondheim, lyricist for West Side Story (set to the memorable music of Leonard Bernstein) and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, where he wrote both words and music and which marked his Broadway debut in 1962. This hilarious, brilliant production, in its premiere at the festival, stars Bruce Dow as the central comic figure – Pseudolus – a slave who manipulates the unlikely lovers around him in return for the promise of his freedom.  He was Officer Krupke in West Side Story and Kennedy, the lovely brunette Maria of that play, now plays the dim blond, virginal Philia, in this one. The talent is dazzling. Kudos to Des McAnuff, director of Macbeth – who also directed Funny Thing — once again gracing this year’s showcase of superb directors.

LEAST SUCCESSFUL

Bartholomew Fair, (directed by General Director of the Festival Anthony Cimolino) and Julius Caesar (directed by James MacDonald) are probably the least successful of this year’s offerings. While it may be intellectually interesting to present a play by Ben Jonson, one of Shakespeare/s contemporaries, this is a very fragmented story and difficult to follow.  A Puritan family spends a day at a local fair filled with ruffians, pickpockets, and all manner of underworld characters. Supposedly a kaleidoscope, it becomes more of a mishmash. This satire on excess becomes just too excessive, perhaps too 16th century for modern taste.  This is the first time the Festival has mounted this work.

Julius Caesar, on the other hand, certainly has a message for contemporary audiences – the nature and corrosive attributes of power and ambition. Act One is brilliant as Brutus (Ben Carlson) is persuaded to put the needs of the country over the love of his ruler (Geraint Wyn Davies). However, the second act simply dissolves into dull battles between political factions. The costuming is also strange – combining Roman togas and modern dress in odd ways. This is the 7th mounting of the play since 1955.

UPCOMING:

Five additional plays will open in late July and early August.

At the Festival Theatre, Dion Johnstone, who was Macduff in Macbeth and Octavius Caesar in Julius Caesar will become Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Yanna McIntosh, who played Calphurnia in Julius Caesar and so brilliant depicted Lady Macbeth will now take on the role of Titania, while Wyn Davies, who played Julius Caesar and Duncan in Macbeth, now becomes the comic bumpkin, Bottom. David Grindley directs the production, which is in its tenth appearance at the Festival.

At Tom Patterson Theatre, Phedre, a 1677 play by Racine (in a new translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker) will offer a drama closer to Greek than Shakespearean tragedy. Directed by Carey Perloff, this is only the second time this play has appeared at Stratford. In 1990, Brian Bedford directed the production.

Three new pieces will open at the Studio — an intimate theatre devoted to the presentation of original — often-experimental — works. The Trespassers, written and directed by Morris Panych relates the tale of 15-year-old Lowell and his unconventional grandfather. Rice Boy, by Sunil Kuruvilla deals with the summer of 1975 when 12-year old Tommy returns with his father to his parents’ native India, and shifting gears, Zastrozzi by George P. Walker deals with “the master criminal of all Europe” in a story of seduction and betrayal.

STRATFORD OFFERS STILL MORE

The Stratford Festival season runs from April to November and includes many additional activities which complement the plays:

Table Talk – a buffet lunch or dinner in the Festival Theatre’s marquee followed by a talk on one of the season’s productions ($35)

Stageside Chats– 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Wednesday and Friday morning discussions in the Tom Patterson Theatre (free)

Talking Theatre -9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Thursday morning discussions in the Tom Patterson Theatre on the themes and aspects of current productions (free)

Post-Performance Discussions – Friday evening question and answer sessions with cast members in the Festival Theatre (free)

Webcast Wednesdays – Meet and chat online with cast members. For more information and a list of specific topics,  see stratfordshakespearefestival.com/live

Tours of the Festival Theatre backstage, the Costume Warehouse, and the surrounding gardens. (Each tour is $8, $6 for seniors and students.)

Ticket prices for the plays ranges from $25 to $100 depending on day, date, theatre and special discounts for seniors and students. (All prices cited are in Canadian currency.)

For further information, call 1- 800-567-1600 or visit http://www.stratfordshakespearefestival.com

In addition,  a CHICAGO ASSOCIATES WEEKEND is scheduled for August 21 and 22. For further information, call Jennifer Daniels at 312-957-0204 or write jdaniels@visientpartners.com

Stage and Page Travel also leads various summer tours to Stratford, often including the Shaw Festival at Niagara on the Lake. For information, contact Irene Kogan at 847-256-3257.