Stratford Shakespeare Festival tops summer theater season

August 24, 2009

This summer's Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario is the strongest in years. I went up for the proverbial busman's holiday for a theater critic--7 shows in 5 days--and here are the results: Julius Caesar at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival Julius Caesar:‚ a beautifully clean production of one of Shakespeare's many "Don't kill the king" dramas. Ben Carlson, last seen by Chicago audiences as Hamlet in Chicago Shakespeare, plays Brutus with a fine balance of self-regard and self-doubt, and director James MacDonald emphasizes the parallels between Caesar and Brutus. Each has a wife whom he adores and who adores him and whose excellent advice he nonetheless ignores; each believes that he's a special case whose evil deeds are redeemed simply by the fact of his doing them; each refers to himself in the third person! Those parallels make clear Shakespeare's point: stay with the evils we know rather than fly to those we know not. (Whoops, wrong don't-kill-the-king play.) The production is gorgeously costumed in a cross between Imperial Roman and contemporary dress, for which I was grateful: it spared me the mental discipline necessary to drown out thoughts of Animal House and Toga! Toga! (through October 31) We made it an all-Roman day with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The show is practically indestructible, and Festival veteran Stephen Ouimette (at various times a brilliant Hamlet and a riotous Sir Andrew Aguecheek) is an extraordinary Hysterium; but the Pseudolus played the part frantically, as if hoping he could move fast enough that you wouldn't notice he's not Zero Mostel. Director Des McAnuff was no help, punching jokes about boobs that would have landed just fine without assistance. But everyone else was terrific--the two sweet-voiced ingenues, the three supporting characters (especially Brian Tree as Erronius--his very walk cracked up the audience), so a splendid time was had by all. And another play-goer reported that Pseudolus' understudy was excellent, so maybe you'll get lucky. In any case you'll have fun. (through November 1) I dragged a very unwilling ass to Three Sisters, never having been a Chekhov fan and having spent the Steppenwolf production of the play forcibly restraining myself from jumping up and yelling, "Will you GO to Moscow already? I'll pay the bus fare!" But this was absolute perfection. Under the direction of Martha Henry (herself a fine actress, who played Olga in the 1976 Stratford production), every line in this seemingly redundant play is earned: we see exactly what the characters are doing or trying to communicate by repeating themselves about nothing. Tom McCamus gives a wonderfully balanced portrayal Vershinin, the married officer who toys with the sisters while pretending that he's helplessly trapped: whatever the character believes about himself at that moment, we believe right along with him. And all three women are superb. It's an astonishing production, one that made me understand the play for the first time. Ever. (through October 3) That night: Macbeth, with Colm Feore. ("I really mean it! Don't kill the king!") Again director Des McAnuff's hand could be felt a bit too much. His concept (setting the play in contemporary generic Africa, an all-too-common shorthand for "random violent kleptocracy") added nothing in particular to the play and actually raised irrelevant questions about what proved to be standard color-blind casting of a black Lady Macbeth opposite a white Macbeth. The couple's passion was very evident, and Feore led us in a measured manner through all the stages of Macbeth's downfall, but the production suffered by comparison with the brisk clarity of Julius Caesar. ("I really mean it, now! Don't kill the king!") Workmanlike, though apparently considered very "controversial" (a damning term among the polite Canadians) because actors shot guns instead of sword-fighting. (through October 31) Feore also appeared as Cyrano de Bergerac, directed by his wife. Though he's perfect in the role, as romantic and tragic and swashbuckling and nasal as one could wish, I left at intermission. The Anthony Burgess translation is a poor substitute for the more familiar "Then as I end the refrain, thrust home!", and second-rate language just isn't worth listening to in the midst of a week of Shakespeare and Chekhov and Wilde. And the concept, which opened the action in a theater we're apparently observing from backstage, made me feel like I never saw anything but the actors' backs. Cyrano's unhappy ending is only worthwhile if you enjoy the ride, and I was just gritting my teeth and hanging on. (through November 1) The Importance of Being Earnest if another indestructible play, and Brian Bedford resisted his usual scenery-chewing tendencies to offer up a very dry, very funny Lady Bracknell, so thoroughly inhabited that it didn't even seem like a drag performance. But Ben Carlson, so fine in drama, doesn't have natural comic cops (or at least they weren't brought out by the director--Brian Bedford, who perhaps didn't want competition on the stage), so his Jack was more studied than scintillating. The comic moments are left to the women--the real women, I mean, Sara Topham as Gwendolen and Andrea Runge as Cecily. Their cat-fight is a joy to behold. (through October 30) Perhaps the individual reviews sound less enthusiastic than the introduction might have led you to expect, but really: two A-pluses (Caesar and Three Sisters); one A (Earnest); two A-minuses (Forum and Macbeth) and one B (Cyrano). Not a bad haul--and then came closing night, and an A-plus-plus. West Side Story, directed by Chicagoan Gary Griffin (who directed Passion and Pacific Overtures at Chicago Shakespeare), was magnificent. It's a brutal show because you need superb singers and superb dancers to handle the Bernstein and Robbins material, respectively. Griffin cast it beautifully and directed it with wit, speed and passion. He made one puzzling directorial choice--to introduce a child into the proceedings and have the child instead of the lovers sing "Somewhere"--but it didn't interfere with the sheer pleasure of watching a masterwork being done masterly. (through October 31) I can scarcely remember when Stratford has been this good (and I've been going for 30-plus years). Maybe it's the result of spreading around the directing chores more than in the past; maybe the festival's slightly reduced season meant that each piece got more and better attention; maybe the moon is just in the seventh house. But get up to Stratford this summer if you can ("summer" a term of art meaning "sometime before Halloween"). If you've always meant to, if you've always promised yourself you would--this is the summer to keep that promise.
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