We preview the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s 2012 season

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario) will be celebrating its 60th season by cutting its Shakespeare offerings down to three plays, plus a version of Macbeth using characters from The Simpsons. Overall, it’s a disappointing 2012 playbill. Still, in order of interest, these are the shows that interest us the most:

1. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (at the Festival Theater)

Much Ado About Nothing figures to be the best Shakespeare of the season. Ben Carlson, one of the finest classical actors we’ve seen anywhere, will play Benedict, and his wife Deborah Hay will appear as Beatrice. Since he’s been at Stratford, Mr. Carlson’s been as good as they get as Hamlet, Brutus, Leontes, Touchstone, and Alceste (in last season’s The Misanthrope). The question is whether Ms. Hay can match him in Shakespeare. At the Shaw Festival she stood out as a comic actress, but she was also terrific three years in a more nuanced role in Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance (see this Emsworth post).

If you haven’t noticed, Shakespeare’s five most popular comedies are in a rotation of sorts at the Stratford Festival; it’s comforting to know that it won’t be long before you can see one of your favorites. We’ve had

The Taming of the Shrew (2003)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2004)
As You Like It (2005)
Twelfth Night (2006)
Much Ado About Nothing (2006)

The Taming of the Shrew (2008)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2009)
As You Like It (2010)
Twelfth Night (2011)

It was therefore predictable that Much Ado About Nothing, which is indeed a favorite of ours, would be on the marquee in 2012. It will be directed by former Shaw Festival Artistic Director Christopher Newton, who has said the play will be set in Brazil.

2. Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (at the Tom Patterson Theater)

We’ve tried and failed several times to read Cymbeline, but it’s always seemed too hard to follow. So we’re hoping this show will bring to life a Shakespeare play that hasn’t worked for us in print. Stratford productions have done this for us before — we’re thinking especially of Troilus and Cressida (2003) and Two Gentleman of Verona (2010).

We don’t claim to understand Cymbeline‘s plot, which is the complicated story of a young woman who marries against her father’s will. Geraint Wyn Davies will play the title role, and Cara Ricketts will play his daughter Imogen. Despite its uncomfortable seats, the Tom Patterson Theatre is still our favorite place to see Shakespeare.

3. 42nd Street (at the Festival Theater)

We were startled to realize that 42nd Street was not from the golden age of Broadway musicals. We’d seen the ’30s movie and assumed wrongly that it was based on a musical play. In fact, 42nd Street wasn’t staged until 1980; it won the Tony as best musical play in 1981.

The story of 42nd Street is a show about a show, with cliches that were endlessly recycled in old movie musicals; a chorus girl, Peggy Sawyer, is canned for messing up, but is rehired to take the place of an injured star. Interestingly, the Stratford Festival has yet to announce who will play Peggy Sawyer. [1-23-12 update: it’s been announced that Jennifer Rider-Shaw, a young singer who was part of the company in Jesus Christ Superstar last year, has been given the part.] But long-time Stratford favorite Cynthia Dale will be returning to play Dorothy Brock, the injured leading lady whom Peggy Sawyer replaces. Gary Griffin, who directed the phenomenal West Side Story at Stratford three years ago, will be in charge.

The show uses one of Emsworth’s all-time top-ten favorite pop songs, “I Only Have Eyes for You.” This tune was not in the 1933 movie, but was instead written by the same songwriting team of Harry Warren and Al Dubin for another show, Dames, a year later. Other songs in 42nd Street include “Lullabye of Broadway” (which wasn’t in the 1933 movie either) and “You’re Getting to Be A Habit With Me.” June 2012 update: “I Only Have Eyes for You” wasn’t used in the show after all! But the show as a whole was dazzling entertainment.

4. Electra (by Sophocles, at the Tom Patterson Theater)

Another shot at classical Greek tragedy! We have shamefully little experience either seeing or reading the ancient Greek poets. Three years ago at Stratford we did see a play by Euripedes, The Trojan Women, which like Electra was written about 400 years before the birth of Christ, but we didn’t know what to make of it and didn’t feel confident enough to blog about it. We still find it mind-boggling to think that these dramas have been preserved for 2500 years.

In a way, Electra is a sequel to The Trojan Women. In the latter play, the Greek king Agamemnon and his men have burned Troy and carried off their women. In Electra, the Greeks are back home after the Trojan wars, but Agamemnon and his new Trojan concubine Cassandra have been murdered by his wife Clytemnestra (as predicted by Cassandra in The Trojan Women). Agamemnon’s daughter Electra is unhappy about the murder of her father, and she and her twin brother Orestes set about to revenge their father by slaying their mother. Good times!

In the plays of Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw, and Arthur Miller — that is, in modern theater — the characters have more or less realistic conversations with one another. There was none of that in The Trojan Women, which consisted mostly of protracted laments by angry women, plus speeches by the gods. There probably won’t be any snappy repartee in Electra either. But it’s a different genre; we’ve gathered that ancient Greek tragedy is as different from modern theater as modern theater is from opera.

5. The Matchmaker (by Thornton Wilder, at the Festival Theatre)

Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams wrote novels too, but nobody reads them. Thornton Wilder is on the short list of writers who have been as successful writing stories and novels as they have writing plays. In fact, we just read and enjoyed Wilder’s late novel The Eighth Day this fall.

Everyone knows and loves Wilder’s Our Town, but The Matchmaker, which we enjoyed about ten years ago at the Shaw Festival, is every bit as entertaining, and funnier. This is the play on which the musical Hello, Dolly! was based. The wonderful Seana McKenna will play the matchmaker, Dolly Levi.

6. Henry V (by William Shakespeare, at the Festival Theatre)

Emsworth ungraciously announced a year ago that he did not intend to buy any more tickets for Shakespeare plays directed by Stratford Artistic Director Des McAnuff. Faithful to that vow, we boycotted the McAnuff-directed Twelfth Night last summer, even though it’s one of our very favorite Shakespeare plays (see this list), and even though it was apparently popular with Stratford audiences. We were told by reliable friends that we did well to skip it. We don’t doubt that Mr. McAnuff sincerely loves Shakespeare, but he clearly doesn’t have faith that a Shakespeare play can stand on its own without gimmicks like the sixties-style rock songs that (report has it) repeatedly interrupted the story of Twelfth Night last summer.

But what could Mr. McAnuff possibly do to ruin Henry V? It’s a play about a historical English king, set unambiguously in a definite time and place in history. So surely he won’t re-imagine it as a fascist fable (as he did with As You Like It a couple of years ago) or set it in Africa (as he did with the Scottish play, Macbeth, a year before that). Fortunately, our vows are not as inviolable as Lear’s, which he “durst never” break (King Lear, Act I, Scene 1). We’ve never seen Henry V on stage, and we badly want to.

It’s disappointing that Ben Carlson wasn’t cast as Henry V. Mr. Carlson is of suitable age for the role now, but he won’t be the next time the Stratford Festival mounts Henry V, in another ten years or so. The part has been given instead to Aaron Krohn; Mr. Carlson will be relegated to the minor role of of the Welshman, Fluellen. Lucy Peacock will adorn the role of the Hostess; we’ll be glad to see Tom Rooney as Pistol.

7. A Word or Two (readings/recitations by Christopher Plummer, at the Avon Theater)

A year ago we expressed the hope that Christopher Plummer would return to Stratford in 2012 to play the Duke in Measure for Measure. Mr. Plummer is indeed coming back to Stratford, but to give a solo program of readings and recitations. It’ll run for only a month, from late July to late August.

No doubt these readings will be memorable. But we are seriously put off by the fact that tickets for this one-man show will be about 30 percent more expensive than tickets for, say, Henry V, which will have castles full of courtiers and battlefields full of armies.

8. The Pirates of Penzance (operetta by Gilbert & Sullivan, at the Avon Theatre)

Wonderful tunes, clever lyrics. The Pirates of Penzance is the farcical story of a young man whose nurse accidentally apprentices him to a band of pirates, to whom he is bound until his 21st birthday. But Frederic was born on February 29, so unfortunately he won’t hit 21 for a while. It’s all very entertaining, but we’ve come to think of Gilbert & Sullivan as community theater material and aren’t likely to add this show to our bundle of tickets.

9. You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (musical play based on Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts, at the Avon Theatre)

Surely they jest.

10. MacHomer at the Studio Theatre)

Homer Simpson and family do Macbeth. Here’s more evidence that the management at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival doesn’t have faith in its core product. This show will play only during May, while the schools are still in session and English teachers are still bringing their students to Stratford. After all, why should the kids have to suffer through Much Ado About Nothing? Give ’em something they’ll understand! And something that’ll make ’em laugh!

Other shows: Hirsch (by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson, in the Studio Theatre); The Best Brothers (by Daniel MacIvor, in the Studio Theatre); Wanderlust (by Morris Panych, in the Tom Patterson Theatre)

The play called Hirsch is about John Hirsch, who was Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival for five years about 30 years ago. We’re not uninterested in the history of the Stratford Festival (see this post), but this seems a stretch.

The Best Brothers is a world premiere by a Canadian playwright, described as the story of a couple of brothers coming to grips with the death of their mother.

Wanderlust is a new musical play written by the Canadian playwright and director Morris Panych. It’s advertised as based on the poems of Canadian poet Robert W. Service. Like Jack London, Service wrote a good deal about the gold rush in Alaska and the Yukon in the early 20th century, and that’s what this story is about. Tom Rooney will take the role of the poet.

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We preview the Stratford Festival’s 2011 season

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:

Moliere

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.

The Tempest at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

William Hutt as Prospero in the 2005 Stratford Festival production; the poster hangs in our study

Before we get to this year’s Tempest [summer 2010], we hark back to Stratford, Ontario in August 2005, where we saw what turned out to be one of the last stage performances of the late William Hutt. We remember it well. 

Late in the first act of The Tempest, Mr. Hutt, as Prospero, had thoroughly captivated his daughter Miranda (and the rest of us) with the story of how he had been supplanted as Duke of Milan by his treacherous brother Antonio and how Prospero and Miranda had been exiled to their Mediterranean island. Then, after charming Miranda into sleep, Prospero summoned the spirit Ariel to report on the seastorm she had conjured up to bring Antonio and his traveling companions to the island.

Christopher Plummer as Prospero in the Stratford Festival's 2010 production

Emsworth’s companion five years ago was his son; the night before, we had seen Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  We were riveted by Mr. Hutt’s performance. With his musical voice and expressive, perfectly timed pauses, he made Elizabethan English seem as easy to understand as Dr. Seuss.

Unfortunately, our son, still a college student, was suffering from a summer cold. We armed him with cough suppressants. But when Mr. Hutt took one of his trademark pauses, in the course of reminding the ungrateful Ariel how she had been liberated from the hag Sycorax, the breathless silence in the Festival Theatre was broken with a loud cough from the third row, stage left.

Mr. Hutt seemed not to hear or notice, and we waited for him to go on. But the 85-year old actor kept holding his pose. The pause lengthened; audience members began to glance at one another. After half a minute, we heard a low female voice say a few words from under the front of the stage. Mr. Hutt took a breath, changed his pose, and delivered the line he had been given by his prompter. The performance resumed.

Our son was of course mortified; his cough had made an acting legend forget his lines. But the glitch made Mr. Hutt’s stunning performance all the more memorable.

Prospero (Christopher Plummer) and his affectionate daughter Miranda (Trish Lindström)

This year’s portrayal of the marooned magician-duke by Christopher Plummer, who at 80 is younger by five years than Mr. Hutt was, is every bit as fine as Mr. Hutt’s. Every phrase from Mr. Plummer hits its mark; he delivers Shakespeare with intense clarity. Mr. Plummer’s Prospero seems earthier and more irrascible, a ruler who wields near-absolute power with utter confidence. Mr. Hutt’s Prospero, if we remember it rightly, was more lyrical.

But The Tempest is not nearly — we know this is heresy — the best Shakespeare at the Stratford Festival this year.  The Winter’s Tale is more thoroughly satisfying and more entertaining (see our thoughts on it at this post), a judgment informally confirmed by various other theater-goers we met at random in Stratford. (We haven’t yet seen As You Like It.) When Mr. Plummer was on stage, we were spellbound, but he is off-stage for good parts of the play, and those parts didn’t match up.

In fact, after intermission, the pace seemed to lag and the play seemed to lose energy. This was especially so in the scenes involving Antonio (John Vickery), Alonso (Peter Hutt), and the other shipwrecked noblemen. The most engaging of the minor characters in the play ought to be Gonzalo (James Blendick), the old counselor who ensured that Prospero was provided with his beloved books to accompany him in his exile. But although the playwright meant us to understand that Gonzalo (like Polonius in Hamlet) is a tedious talker, he surely intended that the character would in fact endear rather than bore.

The scenes with Trinculo (Bruce Dow) and Stephano (Geraint Wyn Davies) were lively and entertaining, as these actors have superb comic timing and were at the top of their game. Jarringly, however, Mr. Dow chose, or was directed, to play Alonso’s jester as a lisping, limp-wristed queen. We couldn’t imagine why.

Ariel (Julyana Soelistyo) with Prospero (Mr. Plummer)

The special effects were excellent, especially those involving Ariel, played by Julyana Soelistyo, a tiny, seriously talented acrobat and actress who seemed to be in the air more than on the stage. But it seemed out of character for Prospero to be performing cheap magic tricks — the Duke of Milan wasn’t that kind of magician. And we couldn’t help thinking, not for the first time after seeing a Shakespeare play directed by Des McAnuff, that he was counting on gimmicks to keep his audiences interested.

Aside from Mr. Plummer’s Prospero, the character who grabbed our attention was Dion Johnstone’s Caliban, who glided around the set on four limbs with unhuman, fluid ease, much as we had always imagined Tolkien’s Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

In fact, we came to think that Caliban was a literary ancestor of Gollum.  Just as Caliban whined about the island that Prospero had “stolen” from him, Gollum whined obsessively about the ring that Bilbo Baggins had “stolen” from him. And when we saw how devoted Caliban was to his new master, Stephano, and how much he disliked and resented Stephano’s companion, Trinculo, we remembered exactly the same dynamic between Gollum, his “master” Frodo, and Sam Gamgee (whom Gollum despised) during their trek to Mordor.

We were bemused to see that they’re making a new Hollywood version of The Tempest that will star Helen Mirren as Prospera.

We preview the Stratford Festival’s 2010 season

The 36-year-old Michael Therriault, who once played Ariel in The Tempest, will play Peter Pan at Stratford in 2010

Life is too busy and money too scarce for us to drive all the way to Stratford, Ontario to see a disappointing show; we’ve got to be selective. The eight shows we saw in 2009 were mostly worth it; Julius Caesar and the musicals A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and West Side Story were memorable. But Bartholomew Fair and Macbeth left us fidgeting and annoyed, respectively, and made us feel we might have given them a miss.

Happily, for the 2010 season, the powers at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (here’s its website) have decreed that there will once more be four Shakespeare plays on the playbill (there were only three in 2009) out of a total of 12 shows. Here’s what we think of the menu, which also includes Kiss Me Kate, Evita, and J. M. Barrie’s original Peter Pan:

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (at the Tom Patterson Theater)

This is the 2010 Stratford show we’re looking to most. It’s the story of Leontes, a Sicilian king who becomes violently jealous of his wife Hermione’s friendship with his friend Polixenes.

Ben Carlson

The Winter’s Tale should have a lot going for it. Marti Maraden was one of the main victims of the Stratford’s ill-conceived and short-lived experiment in having three co-artistic directors a couple of years ago, but she apparently holds no grudges and is coming back to direct this play. We like her Shakespeare better than anyone’s. Ben Carlson, a first-rate Shakespeare actor (Hamlet in 2008, Brutus in 2009), will play Leontes. Tom Rooney’s first two seasons at the Stratford have made him one of our favorite actors; he will play the philosopher-peddler Autolycus, just as in 2009 he played the philosophical Porter in Macbeth. Yanna McIntosh will, thankfully, take the place of the worst actress we’ve ever seen in a Shakespeare play, Nikki James, who was originally scheduled to play Hermione.

In one scene, the playwright directs that the character Antigonus, sent by Leontes to Bohemia to abandon Hermione’s (and his) baby to the cruel elements, should “exit, pursued by a bear.” Back in 1600, coming up with a suitable live bear for a show couldn’t have been very hard, since the drama theaters were also used for bear-baiting exhibitions. Fortunately, Ontario practically swarms with bears, so getting one should be a cinch. Should make for a lively show.

James M. Barrie

Peter Pan (by James M. Barrie, at the Avon Theater)

This is not, repeat not, a musical play, and it won’t be much like the treacly, annoying thing with Mary Martin that you’ve seen on television. It’s J. M. Barrie’s original stage play, first performed in 1904, and it’s one of the finest plays in the English language. At Stratford in 2010, the androgynous Peter Pan will be be played by Michael Therriault.

With Peter Pan, the Stratford Festival is trying to tap the kids’ market. But when we first saw the play at the Shaw Festival a few years ago, we found that Peter Pan was a dark, decidedly adult play, apt to scare the bejeezus out of the average five-year-old. Then again, maybe today’s five-year-olds, weaned on Darth Vader and Spiderman, can take it.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest (at the Festival Theater)

Christopher Plummer, who be 80 years old next summer, is coming back to Stratford to play Prospero. Surely there’s no finer Shakespeare actor in the world; Mr. Plummer’s King Lear at Stratford seven years ago was hands down the most breath-taking theater experience we’ve ever had. We were mesmerized by the zillions of great theater anecdotes in Mr. Plummer’s recent autobiography, In Spite of Myself (see Emsworth’s review at this post).

So even though it was only five years ago that we saw the late William Hutt in a marvelous performance of The Tempest at Stratford, we wouldn’t think of missing the 2010 show, though we do wish someone besides Des McAnuff were directing it. Folks will need to get their tickets for The Tempest early; the show is only running from June 11 through September 12, and at a relaxed schedule designed no doubt to keep Mr. Plummer from wearing out. Don’t plan to save money at a preview performance; the Stratford Festival is charging full price for every single performance of The Tempest.

Cole Porter, no doubt in the process of composing songs for Kiss Me, Kate

Kiss Me, Kate (music by Cole Porter, at the Festival Theater)

Another opening, another show. We love the songs of Cole Porter, and the plot of Kiss Me, Kate might have been written by P. G. Wodehouse himself, so this classic musical is tempting. Like so many musicals, it’s a show business story, and it has a play within a play: one of the characters, Fred Graham, is directing a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, starring Fred’s ex-wife Lilli as Katherine the shrew. Real-life actress Chilina Kennedy will play Fred’s girlfriend Lois Lane. Our favorite songs: “Always True to You in My Fashion,” “Why Can’t You Behave,” and “So In Love.”

Dangerous Liaisons (by Christopher Hampton, at the Festival Theater)

This is the racy play on which the 1988 movie, starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer, was based; you probably saw it. It takes us back to eighteenth-century France, when the amoral, idle nobility amused themselves by playing humiliating practical jokes on one another. Tom McCamus and Seana McKenna will play the jaded aristocrats whose game is to bring about the deflowering of a young girl and the fall from virtue of a married woman. Martha Henry will also be in the cast.

Shakespeare’s As You Like It (at the Festival Theater)

This would be among our top choices at Stratford for 2010 if it weren’t for our fear that the Stratford Festival’s Artistic Director, Des McAnuff, who has designated himself to direct it, will spoil the play with distracting gimmicks. (We have the same fear for The Tempest, but trust that Christopher Plummer will keep his director focused on the story of the play.) We have now seen two deeply unsatisfactory Shakespeare plays directed by Mr. McAnuff: 2008’s Romeo and Juliet and 2009’s Macbeth, and we are not alone in thinking that this is not where Mr. McAnuff’s talents lie. Couldn’t he have taken on Kiss Me, Kate instead? This is sheer stubbornness.

Tom Rooney

But As You Like It seemingly has a foolproof cast, with Paul Nolan (star of 2009’s West Side Story) as Orlando, Tom Rooney in the dual roles of the good duke and the bad duke, Ben Carlson and Lucy Peacock as the unenthusiastic fiancées Touchstone and Audrey, and Brent Carver as Jacques. How badly could the play be spoiled?

Evita (by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, at the Avon Theater)

This is not our favorite Rice-Webber show; indeed, we have only lukewarm enthusiasm for Andrew Lloyd Webber shows after Jesus Christ Superstar. But Evita should pack them in, as did West Side Story in 2009. And as the very first rock-style musical presented at the Stratford Festival, it’ll presumably draw a younger audience.

Not a bad marketing move, considering that the Stratford Festival depends so heavily now on revenues from its high-priced musicals. Evita will be directed by Gary Griffin, who did practically everything right with West Side Story, and it will star Chilina Kennedy, who was dazzling as Maria in West Side Story and is now clearly Stratford’s diva of choice. Ms. Kennedy will play the charismatic wife of Argentinian dictator Juan Peron, and everyone will sing along with “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (at the Tom Patterson Theatre)

This is yet another musical show — but one more in the nature of a revue, with commentary from the performers, than a play. Brent Carver will be the lead troubadour, singing the songs of the late Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel, who wrote his songs in French.

We know a few Jacques Brel songs that were translated into English and became hits in the late 1960s and early 1970s, like “If You Go Away” and “Seasons in the Sun.” But most of the songs in the show won’t be familiar to us. Will there be English subtitles? We’re probably not adventurous enough to find out.

Shakespeare’s The Two Gentleman of Verona (at the Studio Theatre)

Emsworth has never paid much attention to this early Shakespeare play, let alone seen it performed, but a recent reading has whetted his interest. It’s the story of two pals, Valentine and Proteus, and their women; no sooner has Proteus successfully courted one named Julia than he leaves for Milan, where he promptly forgets her and falls in love with a duke’s daughter, Silvia, who falls in love instead with Valentine even though the duke intends her for someone else. The plot will seem familiar to hardcore fans of P. G. Wodehouse, who stole it for his 1931 comic novel Big Money.

In 2009, instead of a fourth Shakespeare play, the Stratford Festival put on Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, which had a large cast and a lot of fancy original props. It couldn’t have been cheap to mount. The Two Gentlemen of Verona will be more economically performed at the small Studio Theatre space, where the audience surrounds the stage. There will be only a short window of opportunity to see this play; it will run for less than two months (from July 30 to September 19, 2010).

For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again (by Michel Tremblay, at the Tom Patterson Theatre)

In its 2009 season, the Shaw Festival offered Michel Tremblay’s Albertine in Five Times; in 2010, the Stratford Festival will put on Tremblay’s well-received 1998 play For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, a comedy based on the gay French-Canadian playwright’s relationship with his mother.

Lucy Peacock will play Nana (the mother character); Tom Rooney will be the Narrator (presumably a stand-in for Tremblay himself). This play will run for only two months, from July 27 to September 26, 2010.

Do Not Go Gentle (by Leon Pownall, in the Studio Theatre)

A one-man show starring Geraint Wyn Davies could be really good; our appreciation for Mr. Wyn Davies grows year by year. He will play Dylan Thomas soliloquizing about his life and how he rates as a poet compared to William Shakespeare.

This very show actually just opened on Broadway! (We write as of December 8, 2009.) It won’t appear at Stratford, though, till July 2, 2010, where it will run through August 22.

King of Thieves (by George F. Walker, in the Studio Theatre)

This play is actually a musical — another one! — but the Stratford Festival evidently doesn’t dare to risk putting this world-premiere piece in one of its larger theaters. Wonder what Mr. Walker thinks of that! The show is a new take on old material, a tale of a couple of crooks (Mac, to be played by Evan Buliung, and his father-in-law Peachum, to be played by Sean Cullen).

George F. Walker

Its source is John Gay’s 1720 ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera (whose characters included Macheath and Polly Peachum), but most of us are more familiar with Bertolt Brecht’s and Kurt Weill’s 1928 The Threepenny Opera. Those were both set in London; Walker’s version is set in New York City in 1928.

This is the second year in a row that the Stratford Festival has put on a work by Walker; we didn’t see last year’s Zastrozzi. A few years back, we saw Walker’s straight play Nothing Sacred at the Shaw Festival, but it didn’t make a lasting impression.

From its press releases, we gather that the Stratford Festival will have avoided losing money during 2009 on the strength of having had two extraordinarily popular musical shows. By offering Peter Pan and Christopher Plummer in The Tempest on top of Evita and Kiss Me, Kate, management has probably taken its best shot at increasing the number of sold-out shows in 2010.

We can’t help noticing that there’s nothing on the 2010 playbill even remotely comparable to the Ben Jonson, Racine, and Chekhov plays that were seen in 2009. In fact, aside from the Shakespeare plays and Peter Pan, the Stratford is offering mostly contemporary shows. The Stratford Festival will be that much less of a “classical” repertory theater company in 2010.

Christopher Plummer writes In Spite of Myself

christopher-plummer-in-spite-of-myself4Literature it’s not, but what a read! Christopher Plummer has written a memoir of his life on the stage, on the movie set, and in the bedroom. We were riveted by every page of stage gossip and titillating reminiscences.

In Spite of Myself reads in Mr. Plummer’s own voice; there’s no trace of a ghost-writer. He begins with his childhood in Montreal, where his mother read him the Just So Stories and The Wind and the Willows (just what Emsworth read to his own children!) and the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock (introduced to Emsworth by his favorite college professor). She also took him to the theater (his first play: J. M. Barrie’s Mary Rose, another of our favorites).

diana-barrymorePlummer studied piano but was upstaged by a more talented high school classmate, Oscar Peterson. Still underage, he began to hang out at Montreal nightclubs, where he met an alcoholic Diana Barrymore, who asked her to escort him to a posh after-dinner party. As Plummer remembers it,

I boldly sat down at the piano, hoping to accompany Diana in a French song or two. She winked at me and took up the cue. As was her custom, she had decked herself out in a daringly revealing low-cut dress. In the middle of a song in order to emphasize a phrase, she made a sweeping theatrical gesture, miles over the top, when suddenly, not just one but two glorious breasts popped out in full view and stayed out for the rest of the number.

That’s on page 49; this 650-page book is full of juicy bits like this.

And his amours! For the most part, Plummer names names. By his account, he has enjoyed the favors of scores of beautiful women (besides his three wives) over his long life.

His show-business stories (not all of which involve him personally) are marvelous. One that tickled our fancy has to do with the composer-pianist Percy Grainger, whom Plummer saw in Montreal as a teenager:

The Australian, Percy Grainger, came to town very often — declined hotels and insisted on sleeping on his piano in a studio at Steinway Hall. He was most eccentric and would play only two encores: “The Man I Love,” as if Grieg had written it, and his own “Country Gardens.”

plummer-and-andrews1For the most part, Plummer’s gossip is good-humored; several accounts of nasty behavior by show business colleagues omit names. One is left in awe of the sheer numbers of distinguished actors, directors, playwrights, and producers, from Noel Coward and David Selznick to Katharine Hepburn and Julie Andrews, that Plummer has known during his career.

And there’s plenty in this book about the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario), which is clearly close duke-ellington-such-sweet-thunder-stratford-dedicationto Plummer’s heart, as well as about Plummer’s work in England and on Broadway. Did you know that Duke Ellington dedicated his 1957 album Such Sweet Thunder to the Stratford Festival? Plummer met Ellington when the composer, doing research for his album, was in Stratford monitoring a rehearsal of Hamlet.  The dedication’s right there on the front cover.

One does not have to believe all of Plummer’s stories to enjoy them. (Did Grainger really sleep on his piano?) At one point Plummer tells of a Montreal music critic who fell asleep, missed a performance by Horowitz, wrote a glowing review of a performance he did not hear, and only discovered afterward that the maestro had become ill and did not play. Over the years we have heard other versions of such a story, with different performances and critics; no doubt Plummer thinks he is telling the original.

Another tale that tested our credulity involved an affair between the young Plummer and a married actress. According to Plummer, he and the lady were making love on a chair in a dressing room when the lady’s husband walked in and engaged them in casual conversation. Supposedly, the husband never suspected what was happening, because the lovers’ lower limbs were fully covered by the woman’s long, full gown. It’s clear that’s how Plummer remembers the incident. But it’s hard to believe it happened quite that way.

We expect that it is because Emsworth has raved for years about Plummer’s performance as Lear at the Stratford Festival in 2002 that one of our daughters knew to snap up a copy of In Spite of Myself plummer-as-lear-with-company1for our Christmas stocking. In fact, Plummer’s King Lear remains the high point of our theater-going career. Plummer’s ribald, swaggering king seemed to us exactly what the Bard had in mind. And with Plummer, the language barrier simply disappeared; he rendered Shakespeare’s immortal lines so naturally that he might have been speaking twenty-first century American.