The Misanthrope at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Sara Topham as Célimène and Ben Carlson as Alceste

(August 2011) Looking around the nearly full Festival Theater just before the play was to begin, we wondered how many folks had bought their tickets for The Misanthrope especially to see Stratford Festival icon Brian Bedford direct and act. Could a seventeenth-century French playwright really have such an impressive fan base? Mr. Bedford was unfortunately a scratch, unable to direct because his The Importance of Being Earnest was still running on Broadway, then unable to perform because of medical issues.

We wouldn’t say that Mr. Bedford wasn’t missed, but this offering of Molière’s 350-year-old comedy was just fine without him.  Molière’s own productions couldn’t have been much more entertaining.  What struck Emsworth was that some in the audience were tickled by certain lines, and some by others.  From the beginning of the play to its end, pockets of half-suppressed laughter were continually erupting in random parts of the theater.

The cast of The Misanthrope

The play is a satire on the society of Molière’s time (although the set and the costumes suggest the mid-1700s, a hundred years after Molière).  The play’s hero, Alceste (Ben Carlson) has lost his patience with his friends because they flatter an acquaintance to his face, then savage him behind his back. “How else are people to behave?” his friend Philinte wonders. Alceste’s sanctimonious reply:

I’d have them be sincere, and never part
With any word that isn’t from the heart.

Alceste declares misanthropically that he wants to go off to live in the wilderness where he’ll be alone and won’t have to endure the hypocrisy anymore.

We see the sort of thing that riles Alceste early in the play when one of his friends, Oronte (Peter Hutt, in the supporting role Brian Bedford would have played), asks Alceste for an “honest” critique of a dreadful love sonnet that he has penned.  Knowing that Oronte merely wants to be flattered, Alceste demurs, but when Oronte insists, Alceste pulls no punches.  This scene alone is worth the price of admission; Ben Carlson is masterful and outrageously funny.

The set for The Misanthrope represented a Parisian salon with panel paintings in the style of François Boucher (1703-1770). This Boucher is from a set of salon paintings in the Frick Collection (New York City) entitled The Four Seasons (Spring)

The play is set in the heavily patronized Paris salon of Célimène (Sara Topham), a young widow with whom Alceste is in love.  Alceste is unfortunately handicapped as a lover by his inability to keep from scolding Célimène for her flirtatiousness and for her biting character sketches of absent acquaintances.  Not to be missed are the verbal fireworks between Célimène and her moralistic “friend” and rival Arsinoé (the indispensable Kelli Fox). Célimène goads her older rival:

When all one’s charms are gone, it is, I’m sure,
Good strategy to be devout and pure.

By the second half of the play, we realized that what initially seemed a fairly simple storyline (much talk, seemingly little action) was in fact multi-layered and complex; this is a very cleverly plotted play. Will Célimène’s romance with Alceste be undone by her two-faced behavior, and if so, who will be mated with whom? The outcome is in doubt to the end.

The catfight between Célimène and Arsinoé, and the social milieu of malicious gossip, brought to mind scenes in Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women, which we saw at the Shaw Festival last summer.  Luce’s 1936 play surely owes much to The Misanthrope.

One notices right away that the dialogue of The Misanthrope is in rhymed verse. Director David Grindley chose Richard Wilbur’s acclaimed 60-year-old translation, which still sounds fresh. What skill it must take not merely to translate rhymed French poetry into English, but to translate it into rhymed English poetry! It took us a few minutes to adjust to the verse; once you catch the first several rhymes, you start to listen for them, but soon you realize that you’re missing the meaning by concentrating on the wrong thing.

Ben Carlson as Alceste

Rhymed verse makes demands on performers as well. Some of them — notably Ben Carlson, Peter Hutt, and especially Kelli Fox, handle Molière’s/Wilbur’s poetry effortlessly, letting the rhymes peek out and take you by surprise, instead of pounding you over the head with them.  It’s the same technique that they’d use for delivering Shakespeare, where an actor needs ever so gently to convey the rhythm of the blank verse, without indulging in overt pauses at the end of the lines.

Not all the actors fare so well, especially Sara Topham, whose unsubtle, sing-song delivery of Célimène’s lines reminded me a little of an eighth-grader reciting Longfellow. Trent Pardy’s Acaste (another suitor for Célimène’s attentions) was little better.  Truth be told, we’re not sold on Sara Topham, although her star seems to be high at Stratford these days.  She looks very well, but she still hasn’t learned how to vary her delivery or to project her voice without straining; by the end of our show it wasn’t pretty.

Alceste was the second on-stage misanthrope we’d encountered within a month; there’s another at the Shaw Festival this summer in My Fair Lady. Neither Henry Higgins (the central character in My Fair Lady, based on Shaw’s Pygmalion) nor Molière’s Alceste is willing to make himself agreeable to others. Alceste justifies himself on the ground that he alone is honest and sincere; Henry Higgins does not bother to justify himself at all.

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Dangerous Liaisons at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Seana McKenna as La Marquise de Merteuil and Tom McCamus as Le Vicomte de Valmont

It’s easy enough to comment on the shows that knocked your socks off or the ones you wasted your time on.  What’s harder are the ones in the middle, like this year’s production of Christopher Hampton’s Dangerous Liaisons at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The acting is all right, sometimes very good, and the story keeps your attention, in a morbid sort of way. But if we hadn’t seen it . . . ? No great loss. 

McManus and Topham as seducer and seducee

Dangerous Liaisons is a tale of two rotten people — the Vicomte de Valmont (Tom McCamus) and the Marquise de Merteuil (Seana McKenna) — behaving very badly. It’s set in the aristocratic salons of decadent Paris around 1785. To start off the nastiness, the Marquise challenges Valmont, a rake and an old flame, to debauch Cécile (Bethany Jillard), a naïve virgin fresh out of convent school; if he does, the Marquise will reward him with sex.  Valmont takes up the challenge but becomes sidetracked with a personal project, which is to seduce Madame de Tourvel (Sara Topham), a pious and unusually virtuous young wife.  In between times, Valmont spends time in bed with a voluptuous courtesan (Martha Farrell). 

Bethany Jillard

In short, the plot is not unlike that of a soft-core porn movie, with a lead “actor” who beds one woman after another.  The play has other stereotypical elements of the genre as well, including a religious young woman who must be liberated from her inhibitions and a hint of same-sex attraction (the Marquise tells Valmont that she’d thought of seducing Cécile herself). And a bit of rough stuff; Cécile does not surrender her body to Valmont voluntarily (but she likes it well itself that in short order she turns into a nymphomaniac). There are simulated sex acts (under the covers; there’s no nudity), and the double entendres never stop. The play is so unrelenting in its focus on sex that its prurient interest is gone by the second act — though you keep watching, much as as you might keep eating candies long after you’ve had enough. 

Playwright Christopher Hampton

Of course, this play isn’t porn; it’s about the misuse of sex in the service of selfishness — in a sense, a morality play. The lives of these libertines revolve around sex, but not for its own sake; they use it to bolster their egos, to punish enemies, and to move up the social ladder.  If they enjoy sex, it’s only incidental to their power games, which, in the end, destroy them. 

But the seductions become, frankly, tiresome.  Presumably the playwright intended that dramatic tension would rise as the characters become increasingly tangled in their own deadly webs. That just didn’t happen for us. 

McCamus and McKenna

Tom McCamus is convincing as the decadent French aristocrat Valmont, who lies shamelessly to women and destroys their lives merely to enhance his reputation for “impossible” sexual conquests. Some of his lines, and those of Seana McKenna as the Marquise, remind you of Oscar Wilde’s cynical aphorisms, but they’re much darker. 

We hadn’t been aware that playwright Christopher Hampton’s resume includes the book for Sunset Boulevard, one of the few musicals of the last 30 years that Emsworth has really cared for.

Peter Pan at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

The Stratford Festival’s Peter Pan is not a stage version of the Disney movie, nor is it the dreadful musical play version that schools often do. It’s the original.

Two minutes before showtime, the only empty seat in the Avon Theater was right in front of us.  A woman explained to us that when her little son saw the gauze screen veiling the stage, he remembered a movie that had scared him, began crying, and had to be taken out.  The boy never did see the splendid sets or costumes or any of the wonderfully choreographed action of Peter Pan in person; he watched it all on the lobby monitor with his grandmother.

This was a shame, we thought afterward, because this was just the sort of Peter Pan that a fainthearted child could safely enjoy.  The Darling children’s father (Sanjay Talwar), lampooned and patronized by his wife and children, is neither formidable nor fearsome.  The pirates are lovably cartoonish, and the bumbling, benign Captain Hook (Tom McCamus) won’t inspire nightmares.

As for Neverland’s savage Indians — wait, this Peter Pan doesn’t have any Indians!  — merely playful, posing, sexy “Amazons”.  We’ll have more to say in a later post about this alarming capitulation to the tyranny of political correctness.  (Here it is.)

J. M. Barrie

In short, even though this Peter Pan is still a ripping children’s adventure tale, it’s painted in broad strokes and scrubbed of whatever might either offend or stimulate. And it betrays the influence of decades of Disney and Pixar cartoon features. An essay in the program reminded us that Peter Pan topped one drama scholar’s list of the finest English language plays of the twentieth century.  (Emsworth, who is devoted to J. M. Barrie’s novels as well as to his plays, would rank it nearly as high.)  But this production does not suggest nearly enough of the psychological complexity of this dark play — too little of what puts Peter Pan in the ranks of plays like PygmalionDeath of a Salesman, and Fences.

At the Shaw Festival in 2000 we were fortunate to see a Peter Pan that did, indeed, mine the riches of James M. Barrie’s play, a show that is among our most memorable theater experiences.  We will remember the Stratford Festival’s Peter Pan, on the other hand, mostly because it was our eldest grandson’s very first play.

Boy and swan along the banks of the Stratford-on-Avon

Our excursion to Stratford, Ontario with this seven-year-old was a great success.  He tolerated the long drive and back with admirable patience, had fun trying to feed the swans along the river, was mesmerized by the play, and thrilled at the swordfights and the crocodile. And he never ran out of questions.  Were these real pirates?  Is Captain Hook really dead?  Does the man write a different play every night?  (In this production there’s a narrator — not J. M. Barrie’s idea, but intended to represent him — who sits at a table to the side of the stage writing the play, which unfolds in his imagination before our eyes.)

Michael Therriault as Irving Berlin in the 2009 Broadway musical “Tin Pan Alley Rag”

There’s still a lot to enjoy in this show, including plenty of clever sight gags and fine acting from the entire large cast.  Michael Therriault bucks the tradition of casting a slender woman as Peter Pan; he is lithe and acrobatic, vain and cocky, with a strong stage presence.  Our grandson noticed right away, though, that Mr. Therriault doesn’t look much like a boy.  We had to agree; in fact, the 36-year-old actor is a good deal closer to his grandpa’s age than to his. We also noticed that the diminutive figure of Michael, the youngest of the Darling children (played by Stacie Steadman), was not very boyish.

We thought Sanjay Talwar was a riot as Mr. Darling and that the ensemble work of the Lost Boys was immensely entertaining.  Sara Topham was an excellent Wendy — although the way she delivered some of her lines gave me flashbacks to The Importance of Being Ernest, in which Ms. Topham played Gwendolen Fairfax last year in Stratford (see Emsworth’s thoughts on that worthy show).

Sara Topham last season as Gwendolyn Fairfax

J. M. Barrie’s original 1904 stage play has no part for a narrator, but this show does (James Kirriemuir, who, unlike the other actors, is miked for sound). The narration is, at least, still the playwright’s prose, for the most part, taken either from his detailed stage directions, which help make the original play a joy to read, or from Peter and Wendy, the tremendously popular novelization of the play that Barrie himself wrote five years later.  Still, we felt there was too much of it.

Why a narrator at all?  We suppose Brit director Tim Carroll saw it as a device for speaking directly to the patrons; at one point the narrator invited us to chime in on which of several episodes in Neverland they’d like to see played.

But Peter Pan already includes the most famous bit of audience participation in modern theater: the moment when, with the fairy Tinkerbelle’s life hanging in the balance, Peter Pan asks the children in the audience to clap if they believe in fairies.  We thought having Mr. Barrie address the audience detracted from the thrill and uniqueness of the “save Tinkerbelle” moment.

We missed the play’s final coda (Mr. Barrie wrote it but regarded as optional) in which Peter returns to take Wendy back to Neverland for “spring cleaning” after she has grown up and has a daughter of her own.  But this wistful, sentimental scene did not belong, perhaps, in a production like this.

As promised, Emsworth’s thoughts on the Stratford Festival’s thoroughly disgraceful capitulation to political correctness — a Peter Pan without Tiger Lily, the Indian princess! — are at this post.

More broadly, Emsworth’s pre-season thoughts on the entire lineup of shows at the Stratford Festival in 2010 are at this post.

The Importance of Being Earnest at the Stratford Festival (a review)

The evening we were in Stratford, Ontario to see The Importance of Being Earnest, the audience laughed so much that the actors must have wondered, on the few times when a line did not get audible chuckles, if perhaps they’d blown their lines. This is a fine production of what we think is the funniest play ever written.

Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell2

No such thing as excess: Brian Bedford in Lady Bracknell's third-act costume

Brian Bedford directs this show and also plays Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell. This is not the leading role, but you wouldn’t know it from the round of applause Bedford got for his first-act entrance, when he flounced into the London flat of Algernon Moncrieff (Mike Shara). Bedford got another round when he returned in the third act in another over-the-top costume.  In drag or out, Bedford still has the most enthusiastic following of any actor at either Stratford or Niagara-on-the-Lake. And of course no one can deliver Oscar Wilde’s immortal lines better than he.

Yet it must be said that Bedford’s voice in this show was not nearly as strong as that of the other actors. That wasn’t apparent when we last saw him as King Lear a couple of years ago. He’s not a young man. Perhaps his physical infirmities — one hears of back problems — are finally affecting his performances.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Shara and Carlson

Bedford was given an especially strong cast, beginning with Mike Shara as Algernon and Ben Carlson as Jack Worthing. (We can’t help noting with some alarm the regularity with which the Shaw Festival’s best actors desert to Stratford; we last saw Mike Shara hamming it up in Shaw’s Arms and the Man a couple of years ago.) We especially enjoyed Robert Persichini in his brief appearance as Algernon’s manservant Lane and Stephen Ouimette as Rev. Canon Chasuble.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Ben Carlson remedies his failure to propose to Sara Topham

The only problematical performance, as we saw it, was by Sara Topham as Gwendolen Fairfax. We remember with appreciation Ms. Topham’s Laura several years ago in The Glass Menagerie. As Gwendolen, however, she affected a high-pitched, sing-song voice that eventually grated rather than entertained. Properly understood, Gwendolen is a strong character (she is, after all, Lady Bracknell’s daughter), not an airhead.

The candy-house sets — three elaborate, completely different sets for each of the three acts — certainly caught our eye. The second act’s country house scene 100_7850reminded us of an impressionist painting by Childe Hassam that we saw earlier this spring. The wife of our bosom didn’t like the sets, but we did.

According to the Stratford Festival’s website, The Importance of Being Earnest is a “critique of love, sex and social hypocrisy that remains stingingly pertinent even today.” This is rank nonsense; why do they say such things? This play isn’t relevant; it’s frivolous; that’s its appeal, and that’s why we wanted to see it again.

Naturally, we hoped to find things in the play we’d never noticed before, and we did.  Like Gwendolen’s line: “Once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not?  And I don’t like that.  It makes men so very attractive.”  How, in 1895, did Oscar Wilde get away with a line like that?  By putting it in the mouth of a female character, we suppose.

Nothing about this production changed our view that Oscar Wilde, and The Importance of Being Earnest in particular, must have made an early and lasting impression on P. G. Wodehouse, as discussed in this Emsworth post.   The plots of Wodehouse’s stories and his stock characters clearly owe a lot to this Wilde play.  Wodehouse even used the name “Bunbury” in one of his novels.  See the post!

However, we have an objection to register. No doubt to save money, this year the Stratford Festival is printing its programs on cheap paper stock, and the new programs are nearly twice as large as they used to be.

Doesn’t the management know that Stratford patrons save their programs from year to year? Our collection of Stratford and Shaw programs goes back years. These larger, mismatched programs don’t fit in the pile. Not only that, the programs were apparently prepared before any of the play’s costumes were ready, so the programs have no pictures of the cast in character. As visual records of the play for patrons, what good are they?

Other posts from Emsworth about shows in the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:

Anton Chekhov’s wonderful The Three Sisters (see this post)

The musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (see this post)

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see this post)

Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (see this post)

The folly of suggesting that Shakespeare should be “translated” for modern audiences (see this post)

The marvelous quarrels in Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)

The musical West Side Story (see this post)