In 2010 fanfares still reminded theater-goers at the Festival Theater in Stratford that a show was about to begin
It was a decent 2010 season at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, though not a great one. As chronicled in this blog, we saw only one truly memorable show (a marvelously acted The Winter’s Tale) and only two that we could rate as solidly entertaining (Kiss Me, Kate and Two Gentlemen From Verona). Three were disappointing in various respects (The Tempest, Peter Pan, and Dangerous Liaisons), and As You Like It) was an outright stinker. We know they hardly ever do this — but The Winter’s Tale was so good that we can only hope that the management will consider reviving the production in 2012. We’d see it again in a heartbeat.
We had fun pointing out how political correctness sucked some of the joy out of Peter Pan (see this post), and we wouldn’t have missed Christopher Plummer as Prospero (see this one). Mr. Plummer isn’t scheduled to be back at Stratford in 2011. But if he returns in 2012 we’d love to see him as the Duke in Measure for Measure. We were reading the play recently and could hear, in our mind’s ear, Mr. Plummer’s rich baritone delivering the Duke’s lines. Update (12-13-10): We saw that Mr. Plummer told a Toronto drama critic recently that last summer’s Prospero would be his last Shakespeare role, because there weren’t any more age-appropriate roles he hadn’t done. We hope he changes his mind.
There will still be four Shakespeare plays on the 2011 playbill, but we figure to be skipping a couple of them. Here’s what we like best on the 2011 menu, which also includes the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar and and the classic musical Camelot. In order of interest, more or less:
Molière’s The Misanthrope (at the Festival Theater)
We’ve been interested in French drama since our college course in French literature, but unfortunately we’ve never seen much of it. So Molière’s The Misanthrope is a top priority for us as we order tickets this week, especially with Brian Bedford directing and acting. Update: Bedford won’t be directing the play after all, because his The Importance of Being Earnest, which originated at Stratford in 2009, is still running on Broadway, but he will still be acting in The Misanthrope. David Grindley is now announced as the director.
By reputation Bedford is the world’s foremost English-speaking interpreter of Molière, but we’ve seen him only in other roles till now. He’ll be 76 years old during the 2011 season; his character in The Misanthrope (Oronte) is at least half his age. But we saw Bedford pull off the same sort of thing a few years ago when he played the lead in Private Lives. Ben Carlson, who was brilliant as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale in 2010, will play Alceste. Kelli Fox, another favorite of ours, is shuttling back to Stratford from the Shaw Festival to fill a supporting role. This 1666 play is a satire of French high society.
Update 2 (7-8-11): We just saw that Mr. Bedford won’t be appearing in The Misanthrope either because of a medical issue. That’s disappointing. The estimable Peter Hutt will take his place. We’ve enjoyed Hutt’s work over the years at both the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival.
Hey! When is the Stratford Festival going to offer a play by Victor Hugo? We’d jump at the chance to see Ruy Blas or Hernani.
Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar (at the Avon Theater)
We heard a fair amount of casual grousing in Stratford last summer about how the Festival was going to the dogs with shows like Evita – not simply musicals (bad enough!) but rock operas! Personally, we don’t have a problem with rock musicals per se, though a lot of them, including Evita, don’t amount to much. They’ll run out of worthy rock musicals a lot quicker than they’ll run out of classic American musicals.
the classic album cover
Jesus Christ Superstar is another story. We’ve loved this rock musical account of the last days of Jesus’ life (told from the perspective of Judas, our Lord’s betrayer) since our high school years, when the two-disc LP first came out and the buzz started. We listened to it incessantly and played and sang the tunes over and over – “I Don’t Know How to Love Him, “Everything’s Alright,” “Superstar,” and the Tchaikovsky-esque “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say).” This music hasn’t gotten stale over the last 40 years.
But this will be our first chance to hear it/see it live. Paul Nolan and Chilina Kennedy, the stars of 2009’s remarkable West Side Story in Stratford, will sing the parts of Jesus and Mary Magdalene; Josh Young, whom we don’t know, will channel Judas. Des McAnuff will be directing. We expect good things.
Richard III (by William Shakespeare, at the Tom Patterson Theater)
In this Richard III, the lead role will be played by Seana McKenna. As a general rule, we’re not keen on “non-traditional” casting, but we fully expect Richard III to be the best Shakespeare in Stratford next summer. It’s the loosely historical story of how the hunchback Richard, Duke of Gloucester, schemes and murders his way onto the throne of England. We learned recently that there are still people in Great Britain who insist vehemently that this play is a gross libel on Richard and that he wasn’t the monster of Shakespeare’s play.
Ms. McKenna is at the peak of her powers; we loved her last summer in The Winter’s Tale. As for Richard’s being played by a woman — well, Richard is not a very manly man; he seems interested in women mainly to humiliate them and to blight their lives. An sexually ambiguous Richard may be just the ticket. The rest of the cast is strong: Martha Henry, Peter Donaldson, Martha Henry, Sean Arbuckle, and Yanna McIntosh.
The Merry Wives of Windsor (by William Shakespeare, at the Festival Theater)
This is a Shakespeare play we hadn’t even read until a year or so ago, figuring that it was only a minor work. Maybe it is, but after seeing The Gentlemen of Verona transformed into a first-class piece of entertainment last summer, The Merry Wives of Windsor is one we’ll see.
The cast will have several of the Stratford Festival’s best, including Tom Rooney, Tom McCamus, Janet Wright, and Lucy Peacock. Geraint Wyn Davies will play Falstaff, the fat, lecherous knight who is trying to get into the sack with two married women at once, but who is blockheaded enough to send the same love letter to both.
Camelot (by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, at the Festival Theatre)
The musical Camelot is based on one of our all-time favorite novels, T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, a whimsical retelling of the legends of Arthur, Gwenevere, Lancelot, and the rest of the gang at Camelot. We’ve never thought Camelot had an especially memorable score, compared to shows like South Pacific or My Fair Lady, but three hours in Camelot can be special. Geraint Wyn Davies will play the cuckolded king, Brent Carver the magician Merlin.
John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (at the Avon Theatre)
Emsworth has a long-standing prejudice against theatrical and cinematic adaptations of classic novels. As readers, we form our own mental pictures of the scenes and characters of a novel. Why let a play or a movie forever displace those images with someone else’s?
Nevertheless, Frank Galati’s 1988 adaptation of Steinbeck’s 1939 novel won a Tony, the wife of our bosom loves Steinbeck’s book, and one of our favorite actors, Evan Buliung, will play Tom Joad. (We have just remembered that the wife went happily to see the last Steinbeck adaptation at Stratford (Of Mice and Men) while we saw something else.) It’s the story of the Joad family and their struggles to make it during the Great Depression.
Titus Andronicus (by William Shakespeare, at the Tom Patterson Theatre)
We’ve read Titus Andronicus, and we’re just not inspired to see this convoluted story about the succession to the Roman throne, a mind-numbing tale of mayhem, rape, cannibalism, and murder. We’re curious as to how they’ll accomplish the special effects – there’s some really nasty stuff to be staged. But Titus Andronicus simply doesn’t strike us as a very good play. The experts say good parts of it were written by someone other than the Bard.
Not all Shakespeare plays are equally worthy. If we see this show, the main reason will be that we’d like eventually to brag that we’ve seen the entire Shakespeare canon. John Vickery will play the title role.
The Homecoming (by Harold Pinter, at the Avon Theater)
You’d almost have to say that nastiness will be a running theme at Stratford in 2011. Titus Andronicus is all blood and carnage, Richard III is a story of sociopathic, bloody cruelty, Jesus Christ Superstar ends with a brutal whipping and a crucifixion, and Harold Pinter’s 1964 Tony-award-winning play may be the most disquieting of all. The Homecoming is even more trying to the nerves than Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which came out around the same time. It’s about what happens in a lower-class North London family when the oldest son, Teddy, brings his slutty wife Ruth home to meet his father and brothers.
The play is violent from its realistic beginning to its surreal end, mostly verbal violence. These people use words to hurt. We happened to see the 2008 revival in New York City and thought it was an extraordinary play, but still don’t feel braced enough to see it again. (Another Pinter play, we’d probably spring for.) The Homecoming is not for the squeamish, any more than Titus Andronicus. The Stratford’s cast includes Stephen Ouimette, Brian Dennehy, and Cara Ricketts.
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (at the Festival Theater)
Twelfth Night is one of our very favorite Shakespeare plays (in this post we made a list), and it would be our top priority for 2011 if it weren’t being directed by Stratford Festival Artistic Director Des McAnuff. As we announced after seeing the McAnuff-directed As You Like It in September (see this post), we’re going to pass on Shakespeare plays directed by McAnuff for the foreseeable future. No one can say we didn’t give them a fair trial: we also suffered through his Romeo and Juliet in 2008 and squirmed through his Macbeth in 2009. Directing Shakespeare is simply not where McAnuff’s considerable talents lie.
They’ve done this play in Stratford a lot. Since 1953 only A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been played there as often as Twelfth Night; this will be the eleventh production since 1953. On average it comes up every five years, so if we miss this one . . . . It’s a shame, though, especially considering the talent in the 2011 cast, which includes Stephen Ouimette, Tom Rooney, Ben Carlson, and Brian Dennehy.
The rest: Shakespeare’s Will (by Vern Thiessen, in the Studio Theatre); Hosanna (by Michael Tremblay, in the Studio Theatre); The Little Years (by John Mighton, also in the Studio Theatre)
The talented Seana McKenna will also be playing Anne Hathaway in Shakespeare’s Will, a one-woman play about how William Shakespeare’s wife felt about being left his second-best bed in his last will and testament, together with other reflections on what it was like to be the great poet’s wife. Unfortunately, we’re hung up on the premise. We doubt that Anne Hathaway’s husband actually wrote the plays and sonnets that have come down to us under his name (see this post).
But we’re intrigued by Hosanna, the play with which long-time Stratford Festival artistic director Richard Monette made his mark as an actor, and just might manage to see it. There will be a cast of two: Hosanna, a transvestite, will be played by Gareth Potter, and Hosanna’s partner Cuirette will be played by Oliver Becker.
The small, almost claustrophobic Studio Theatre will host a third play in 2011. The Little Years was written by John Mighton, a Canadian playwright who also has a Ph. D. in mathematics. The play, set in the 1950s, is about a teenage girl who’s interested in physics.
We observed a year ago that the 2010 playbill consisted of mostly contemporary works, other than the Shakespeare plays and Peter Pan. This will be true in 2011 too: except for the Shakespeare plays and Molière’s The Misanthrope, every show on the schedule was written after 1960.