Richard III at the BAM Harvey Theater

We’ll probably never have a chance like this again. Within the space of a year and a half we were so fortunate as to catch three extraordinary and distinctly different productions of Richard III — most recently at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn, where the play was a showpiece for Kevin Spacey. We can report that Spacey is not only a highly accomplished classical actor, but also – no surprise – a natural-born entertainer.

The first Richard III that we saw was a August 2010 production at Shakespeare and Company, in Lenox, Massachusetts. As we noted in this post, the Lenox show seemed to us to be as much a set of varied dramatic pieces, each with its own unique entertainment value, than as a dramatized “story” – more of a “show” than what we have come to think a “play” should be. Elizabethan performances of Richard III may well have been much like this; the “quarto” edition of Richard III described the play as

The Tragedie of King Richard the third.
Conteining his treacherous Plots against his brother
Clarence: the pittifull murther of his innocent Ne-
phews: his tyrannical usurpation: with the
whole course of his detested life, and
most deserved death

This show at Lenox didn’t seem fragmented; each scene had oomph, and the total effect was intensely satisfying. Moreover, while Richard (an excellent John Douglas Thompson) necessarily had more of the spotlight than the other actors, this was emphatically an ensemble performance.

Then, in June 2011, we took in a second Richard III at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, in Stratford, Ontario, where we see most of our Shakespeare. Perhaps surprisingly, considering that Richard was played by a woman (Seana McKenna), the director took a much more traditional approach to the play. As we noted in this post, this production, with its clear narrative and controlled emotional arc, was a character study in self-destructive behavior.

Then, in early March, we were able to catch one of the final performances of Richard III at the BAM Harvey Theater, in Brooklyn, a production that served largely to showcase the talents of Kevin Spacey.  A lot of the time, television or movie stars are cast in Broadway plays simply as box-office attractions, irrespective of acting ability, but that was obviously not the case with the star of American Beauty, who is among other things co-director of the Old Vic, the London classical theater company that was a co-producer of the production at the BAM Harvey Theater.

To say that Mr. Spacey was a “ham” would be unfair, but he dominated every scene in which he appeared, including the ones in which he mostly just stood around. His prancing, mocking, leering, sweating (lots of sweat), and boasting were endlessly entertaining, and we were riveted by the spectacle of Richard’s becoming progressively unhinged by paranoia and the corruption of boundless power. Mr. Spacey often spoke directly to the audience, making us complicit in his misogyny and sociopathic ambition. His performance was all the more impressive because of the physical demands of playing Richard with a shoulder hump, a badly deformed leg, and a severe limp.

The rest of the large cast supported Spacey well, although not many supporting actors stood out. We particularly appreciated Annabel Scholey as Anne, the new widow whom Richard artfully persuades to marry him, and Haydn Gwynne as Queen Elizabeth, who wins the rhetorical battle with Richard over whether she should help him woo her daughter, but loses the war to Richard’s superior emotional strength.

Like way too many other productions of Shakespeare these days, this Richard III was set in “modern” times. The characters wore twentieth-century clothes and used electronic technology, and the crippled Richard wore a steel brace on his leg. Mr. Spacey accompanied the lines of Shakespeare with gestures and vocal expressions that are unmistakably part of today’s Brit-American culture (and which didn’t line up with the play’s 1920s setting). The show’s lavish use of blood and gore surely owed much to the gross-out violence we’ve gotten used to in our movies.

Yet even though horses have not been part of Western warfare for 100 years, Richard was still willing, at the play’s end, to trade his kingdom for a horse! My wife says she likes contemporary touches like Mr. Spacey’s in a Shakespeare production. But we still fail to see why a play about 15th-century historical figures should not be set in the 15th century.

These three productions each nailed Richard III, but for different reasons. If you value productions of Shakespeare that try to connect Shakespeare with contemporary culture (personally, we don’t much see the point), and if you enjoy bravura acting (we love it), the BAM’s Richard III, with Kevin Spacey, was the pick of the three.

If what you value most is the language of the Bard and actors who can extract maximum meaning from a speech, the Richard III at Stratford takes the prize. Seana McKenna’s was the best acting performance of the three Richards – subtle, conniving, compelling, and complex.  She even looked the part more than either Kevin Spacey or John Douglas Thompson.

But the Richard III we’d most like to see again is the one we saw in Lenox. We felt that we’d experienced just what the playwright had in mind when, early in his career, he wrote these scenes in the life of Richard – a grand, exuberant pageant with verbal duels, rapier duels, laments, family quarrels, ghosts, shock talk, seductions, horror scenes, and buffoonery. The supporting cast in the Lenox show also succeeded best at fleshing out the distinctive personalities of each of the minor characters.

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.

Richard III at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Seana McKenna as Richard, Duke of Gloucester

(May 30, 2011) Don’t shy away from seeing Richard III at the Stratford Festival this year for fear that having a woman play the lead role will just be a novelty. Seana McKenna is as fine a Richard as you’ll ever see, a commanding, sometimes terrible presence. This play can seem disjointed, but this production makes it all into a compelling narrative.

Richard III is set in the 1480s, only a little over a hundred years before the play was first presented. Its hero, Richard, Duke of Gloucester bitterly resents everyone around him: his brother King Edward; Elizabeth, the Queen; his other brother Clarence, who stands ahead of him in line for the throne of England; and anyone else who is able to enjoy life the way his own deformed self cannot.

Richard makes up for his defects with cunning, an talent for dissembling, and a preternatural ability to get others to do his bidding.  His undoing is his paranoia and an ever-growing appetite for killing. As Richard, Seana McKenna delivers her lines with clarity, nuance, and depth of meaning, and her Richard is an intelligent, driven personality, a master manipulator with a special relish for irony. This role demonstrates once again why she ranks among the very best classical actors you’re likely ever to see on any stage.

Gareth Potter, as Richmond, dispatches Seana McKenna, as Richard III

There is very little in Ms. McKenna’s appearance to remind the audience that she is a woman. In a loose-fitting coat that hides her figure, makeup that hides her feminine features, and a wig with a bald spot on top, Ms. McKenna looks every bit a man (though not a very tall one). She’s even a credible sword-fighter. Her Richard also has the character’s traditional hunched shoulder and limp (political correctness be damned). Only her voice betrays her, but she exploits its low range well enough to convince audiences that Richard was merely a man with a high voice.

Indeed, it struck us that director Miles Potter purposely chose to downplay the circumstance that a woman was playing Richard.  The casting could, of course, have suggested any number of offbeat interpretations of the character, like the flamboyantly gay Richard that Richard Dreyfuss was called on to play in the movie comedy The Goodbye Girl. But only sparing notice is given to the actor’s gender. At two or three points, the script refers specifically to womanly qualities (as when Buckingham flatters Richard by referring to his “tenderness of heart/And gentle, kind, effeminate remorse” (Act III, Scene 6)); the actors emphasize the key words just enough to convey to the audience the inside joke. At any rate, Ms. McKenna plays Richard as a man, and not even a womanish man. As one might expect from a royal male, her Richard is an effortlessly natural commander of men and women alike. Overall, this was a very traditional Richard III, without transporting the play to a different time period or country, and without unconventional interpretations of characters or scenes — all of which we applaud. The director concentrated on doing Richard III well rather than doing it differently.

True, hearing Richard’s treble voice, our fancy couldn’t help speculating that a hormonal deficiency may have contributed to Richard’s shocking misogyny.  When he confesses to the audience in his opening speech that he wants “love’s majesty/To strut before a wanton ambling nymph” (Act I, Scene 1), is he telling us that his physical deformity extended to his sexual organs?  Did Richard hate women all the more because he was impotent?  Might this account for Richard’s singular determination to confuse, subjugate, humiliate, and drive Lady Anne (Bethany Jillard) to an early grave — Lady Anne, who “never yet one hour in his bed . . . enjoy’d the golden dew of sleep” (Act IV, Scene 1).

There are a lot of characters in Richard III, and although we’ve read the play several times, we still have trouble keeping track of the complicated fourteenth-century family trees of the House of York (Richard’s people) and the House of Lancaster (Richmond’s people). It says something for Shakespeare’s audiences that the playwright could assume that they would know who all these fifteenth-century personages were. Fortunately, one need not know much of it to get the gist of the play. Its interest doesn’t depend on placing the characters in the right faction, but lies instead in the emotional trajectory of Richard’s downfall.

Ms. McKenna is supported by a strong cast, including a remarkable trio of veteran Stratford Festival actresses: Martha Henry as the vindictive Queen Margaret, Roberta Maxwell as Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, and Yanna McIntosh as the highly political wife of King Edward. We especially enjoyed Nigel Bennett as the badly miscalculating Hastings and Wayne Best as the disappointed Duke of Buckingham. Not so satisfactory, though, was Bethany Jillard’s Lady Anne, who delivered her lines loudly and clearly but with little expression.

When the powers at the Stratford Festival put Richard III in the Tom Patterson Theatre, they may have been afraid that one of Shakespeare’s “history” plays wouldn’t attract enough patrons to fill one of the larger theatres. We think they miscalculated, because this show is bound to have full houses every night by the end of the season, just from word of mouth, as A Winter’s Tale did in 2010. (There were only a handful of empty seats at the early preview performance we saw.) At any rate, we were glad to see Richard III in the Tom Patterson, because we still think there’s no better venue anywhere for Shakespeare.

For ourselves, we wish the history plays were performed more often at Stratford. It’s been too long since Richard II, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V were done. We have no inside information, but we fearlessly predict that Henry V will be on the Stratford Festival’s menu for 2012, that it will be in the Festival Theatre, and that Ben Carlson will be addressing the troops on St. Crispin’s Day. [Update (6-6-11): We were right: The Stratford Festival announced its 2012 season over the weekend, and they will indeed be doing Henry V in the Festival Theatre. Casting isn’t set yet.] [Further update (11-1-11): We were wrong: Aaron Krohn will play the title role. Carlson will play Fluellen.]

This is the second time we’ve seen a major Shakespearean male character played by a woman; a few years ago another of our favorite actresses, Kelli Fox, who will appear in The Misanthrope at the Stratford Festival later this year, played Hamlet very ably in a production at Geva Theatre here in Rochester, New York several years ago. On this blog Emsworth has carped from time to time about how “nontraditional” casting can distract and detract from a play (here’s what we said about it in connection with the Shaw Festival’s current production of Shaw’s Candida). But ordinarily, when it’s done with Shakespeare, we’re not likely to care one way or the other. Shakespeare’s world was indeed multi-racial, as Othello and The Merchant of Venice show. And we know that in Elizabethan times the female roles were played by men; it’s not much of a stretch for a male role to be played by a woman.

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.

The Winter’s Tale at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Yanna McIntosh and Ben Carlson as Hermione and Leontes

This one’s really good, too good to miss. The Stratford Festival’s 2010 presentation of The Winter’s Tale is wonderful theater, full of warmth and humor, beautifully acted — and refreshingly free from distractions. It’s so intelligently and lovingly directed that we’re nearly convinced this supposedly “minor” Shakespeare play is in fact one of the Bard’s masterpieces.

Just from reading the play — and we had not seen it on stage until now — you might think The Winter’s Tale has a convoluted story, too many improbable turns, and too many characters. In this show, though, the tale unfolds naturally and the improbabilities are passed off with easy good humor.

It’s the story of Leontes, king of Sicilia (Ben Carlson), who becomes insanely jealous when his pregnant wife Hermione (Yanna McIntosh) has unexpected success in persuading his best-friend-for-life Polixenes, king of Bohemia (Dan Chameroy), to prolong a visit. Hermione is shattered by his accusations of infidelity and gives premature birth to a baby girl. Polixenes flees for his life.

In a memorable scene in which tension alternates with tenderness, Hermione’s fearless friend Paulina (Seana McKenna) brings the little girl to Leontes in order to bring him to his senses, but he rejects the baby as a bastard and orders Paulina’s husband Antigonus (Randy Hughson) to take the baby out into the wilds and abandon her. Too late to save Hermione, who (apparently) dies of grief, Leontes realizes his folly.

Cara Rickets and Ian Lake as Perdita (pronounced to our surprise with the accent on the first syllable) and Florizel

Meanwhile, in Bohemia, the abandoned baby, Perdita (Cara Rickets) survives, is found and adopted by a shepherd (Brian Tree), and grows up to become, seventeen years later, mistress of a sheep-shearing festival that is visited by Polixenes in disguise. Back in Sicilia, in a mesmerizing and melodramatic climax that left few dry eyes in our audience, things come right again.

We were already fond of The Winter’s Tale for its gorgeous poetry and memorable characters (especially Paulina and Autolycus). But the one thing that kept it off our list of favorite Shakespeare plays (see this post) is that we couldn’t figure out why its characters behave the way they do:

Why would such trifling evidence make a well-regarded king like Leontes suddenly conclude that his affectionate and pregnant wife Hermione was canoodling with Polixenes?

And if the tender-hearted Antigonus is brave enough to defy Leontes when he orders that Hermione’s newborn infant be burned, why does he then meekly agree instead to leave the baby to the mercies of the wolves and vultures?

And if Hermione is not really dead, why does she punish herself by keeping herself a prisoner for sixteen years, especially after Leontes has come to his senses and repented?

And is there any good explanation for the Jekyll-and-Hyde act Polixenes puts on at the sheep-shearing festival? What kind of heel would go in disguise to the festival, have a friendly talk with Perdita and her adopted father, then turn on them, accuse them of plotting to ensnare the prince, and threaten to hang them all?

It seems to Leontes that Hermione (Yanna McIntosh) has gotten too friendly with Polixenes (Dan Chameroy). Given the large cast, it was helpful of the designer to clothe the Sicilians in grays and the Bohemians in bright colors.

We always worry that a director, faced with plot problems like these, will contrive solutions and impose them on her audience. Would director Marti Maraden try, for example, to explain Leontes’s extreme jealousy by suggesting a same-sex attraction to Polixenes? (After all, Polixenes tells Hermione early in the play that when he and Leontes were boys, they were “pretty lordlings” who thought, like Peter Pan, “to be boy eternal” and who “knew not the doctrine of ill-doing.”)  Interpretations of classic plays involving sexual identity issues seem, sadly, to be in vogue these days.

But solutions like that are never satisfactory (nor did the playwright ever see Peter Pan). Fortunately, Ms. Maraden has wisely chosen to simply to tell the Bard’s story, with no attempts to hide or explain away its unlikely twists. The result couldn’t be better.

Ms. Maraden does not attempt, for example, the impossible task of suggesting how Hermione, who dies at the end of the second act, can be alive at the play’s end. And so when Seana McKenna (as Paulina) announces to Leontes that Hermione is dead, her passion and bitter anger convince us that it is so. And when, in the final scene, a living Hermione tells her daughter Perdita that she’d been hoping to see her someday, we are equally convinced of that.

Tom Rooney as Autolycus

There’s marvelous acting from the whole ensemble, even for such minor characters as Hermione’s jailer (Skye Brandon) and Emilia (Ginette Mohr). Not surprisingly, Tom Rooney is mesmerizing as the crowd-pleasing song-peddler and pickpocket Autolycus.

Seana McKenna

But the standout performances are from Ben Carlson, as Leontes, and Seana McKenna, who, as Paulina, sets a standard for “speaking truth to power” that no one is likely to match on stage or off. We hope never to be the target of such a savage, pitiless summary of our shortcomings as the one Paulina delivers to Leontes.

In this show we witness a battle for the heart of Leontes, fought by Paulina, Camillo (Sean Arbuckle), and other members of his court, who defend Hermione’s virtue with hard logic. In Mr. Carlson’s portrayal, Leontes stakes everything on his conviction that Hermione has cuckolded him. But on how firm a foundation is he standing? We see Leontes begin to doubt himself:

If I mistake
In those foundations which I build upon,
The centre is not big enough to bear
A schoolboy’s top.

Leontes is furious with Paulina for telling him that “the root of his opinion” is “rotten as ever oak or stone was sound,” and he blusters that his own convictions are enough for him:

I am satisfied and need no more
Than what I know

But Paulina is right; when he hears that Hermione is dead, Leontes realizes that he has been standing on air. The king’s internal struggle is what we all feel when we find ourselves believing something that can’t be reconciled with what we know. Like Leontes, we dare not acknowledge the possibility that we might not be standing on solid ground.

An 1836 imagining of Autolycus by British artist Charles Robert Leslie

With The Winter’s Tale you don’t hear “famous lines” every minute or two as you do with, say, Macbeth. But there are marvelous flights of rhetoric in The Winter’s Tale, and this cast makes them memorable. We won’t quickly forget the paranoia on the face of Mr. Carlson as Leontes indicts his queen for allegedly playing footsie with Polixenes in a speech that, ironically, removes any remaining doubt that there is “nothing” to Leontes’s suspicions:

Leontes: Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career
Of laughing with a sigh?–a note infallible
Of breaking honesty–horsing foot on foot?
. . . Is this nothing?
Why, then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing;
The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing;
My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing.
Camillo: Good my lord, be cured

Seana McKenna, as Paulina, calls Leontes to account in a no less powerful “nothing” speech of her own:

That thou betray’dst Polixenes,’twas nothing;
That did but show thee, of a fool, inconstant
And damnable ingrateful . . . .

This Winter’s Tale is easily among the best Shakespeare we’ve ever seen.

We wonder if anyone else noticed, among the modest props, the basin of translucent spears at the corner of the stage in the final scene. With a start, we realized, at the same moment as our daughter, seated right behind us, that they looked exactly like the life-restoring crystals in Superman’s “fortress of solitude” — just the thing to remind us that Hermione too had retreated to a solitary refuge.  We like the designer’s sense of humor.

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.

Jean Racine’s Phèdre at the Stratford Festival

Before we saw Jean Racine’s Phèdre at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival a couple of weeks ago, we thought the play might give us some clues to the lyrics of one of the oddest pop hits of the 1960s.

Nancy and LeeIt was early 1968 when “Some Velvet Morning” was on the radio, a modest top-30 hit for  Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood (whose better-known duet was “Jackson” (“We got married in a fever . . . hotter than a pepper-sprout”)).   The recording begins with Lee singing these lyrics to a slow rock beat:

Some velvet morning when I’m straight
I’m gonna open up your gate
And maybe tell you ’bout Phèdre
and how she gave me life

Abruptly, as if part of a second recording had been spliced in, Nancy begins singing an entirely unrelated melody in a waltz tempo:

Flowers growing on the hill, dragonflies and daffodils
Learn from us very much, look at us but do not touch
Phèdre is my name

Unfortunately, as we learned in Stratford, nothing in Racine’s play sheds any light whatsoever on the apparently drug-induced lyrics of “Some Velvet Morning.”

Jean Racine

Phèdre’s story clearly has staying power. The Phèdre we saw in Stratford was a 2009 translation (by one Timberlake Wertenbaker) of Racine’s 1677 play, which was of course originally written in French, which was a retelling of the story of Phèdre and her stepson Hippolytus in a prize-winning play written by the Greek dramatist Euripides in 428 B.C., which was based on an even older Greek myth. We found the 2009 show in Stratford, which took a little over an hour and a half, without an intermission, strangely compelling.

PhdreThe plot revolves around an unaccountable and dishonorable lust that Phèdre (Seana McKenna), the wife of Greek king Theseus (Tom McCamus), has conceived for her stepson Hippolytus (Jonathan Goad). She confesses her passion first to her old nurse Oenone (Roberta Maxwell), then to her stepson himself. Hippolytus is astonished and appalled; Phèdre becomes suicidal.

Phdre

Roberta Maxwell as Oenone

But Hippolytus has his own issues; he has imprudently fallen in love with Aricia (Claire Lautier), the imprisoned daughter of a king overthrown by Hippolytus’s father Theseus. Theseus had been missing in action for months, and (in the first act) it is reported that he is dead, but to everyone’s surprise, Theseus reappears. At the urging of Oenone, Phèdre lets Oenone tells her husband a pre-emptive lie; she says that Hippolytus tried to rape her.  Hippolytus is reluctant to tell his father the full truth, because that would involve revealing his passion for Aricia, so he does not accuse his stepmother. Theseus impetuously calls upon the god Neptune to punish Hippolytus. 

Phèdre isn’t much like theater we’re used to, from King Lear to The Cherry Orchard to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Still, it’s not as dramatically different from them as our first experience with ancient Greek drama a year ago, which left Emsworth so bemused that he never did post his thoughts on the Stratford Festival’s production of another play by Euripedes, The Trojan Women (written 415 B.C.). The Trojan Women consisted mostly of woe-is-us speeches by the women of Troy after the Greeks had burned their city and slaughtered their husbands, and it struck us as practically a different art form from European and American plays over the last 400 years.

Racine’s Phèdre has much more of what would strike us as a conventional story line than The Trojan Women. But it’s still a very different sort of drama. We’re used to reasonably realistic dialogue. But in Phèdre the characters don’t so much converse as make speeches to one another. And the characters simply aren’t people like us. We are made to understood that these characters — who are direct descendants of gods! — have passions and dreams that are far more intense, more noble (or ignoble), and more tragic than anything we could possibly experience. We can’t identify with them on a human level as we can, for example, with another semi-mythological member of royalty, Shakespeare’s Lear.

Phdre

Hippolytus (Jonathan Goad) and Théramène (Sean Arbuckle)

We thought the very finest performances in this show were by Roberta Maxwell, as Phèdre’s subtle, Machievellian nurse Oenone, and by Sean Arbuckle, as Hippolytus’s tutor and friend, Théramène. Arbuckle’s long, riveting narrative of the dramatic death by Hippolytus made us feel that we’d actually seen the monster rising from the sea to terrify Hippolytus’s horses.

We were less enamoured of the performance of Jonathan Goad, whose face bore the same smirk throughout the play, and who, especially in his late speeches, had an annoying tendency to pause, for no particular reason, two or three words into each sentence.

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

The Scottish play, set in Africa! Shakespeare’s Macbeth at this post.

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

The hilarious musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at this post

The Ben Jonson play Bartholomew Fair (see this post)

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (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)

Oscar Wilde’s 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)

What to see at the Stratford Festival in 2009

We scanned the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s announcement of its 2009 season with interest. If its 2008 lineup lost a lot of money, as was reported, will the 2009 lineup do better? (See my recent post on the artistic director debacle at the Stratford Festival and what it wrought.)

For Emsworth’s take on the shows the Stratford Festival has just announced for its 2010 season, which include Peter Pan, the musical Evita, and Christopher Plummer in The Tempest, see this post.

More selfishly, how many of the 2009 shows will Emsworth personally want to trek all the way to Stratford, Ontario from Rochester, New York to see? Let us compare this year’s lineup with next year’s (my matchups are arbitrary) and judge:

Hamlet (2008) vs. Macbeth (2009) (both at the Festival Theater)

At the box office, it should be a draw. Hamlet is the world’s best known and most popular play, and Ben Carlson gives a strong performance. (See my review of 2008’s Hamlet.) But Macbeth isn’t nearly as long (or as demanding on audiences), and it has witches, Banquo’s ghost (will we see him, or not?), and moving forests. According to the Stratford Festival, Colm Feore has been cast as Macbeth and Yanna McIntosh as Lady Macbeth. Geraint Wyn Davies will be Duncan; Gareth Potter will play Malcolm; and Sophia Walker will play Lady Macduff.

Will we see the 2009 show? Maybe. Macbeth isn’t very high on our list of favorite Shakespeare plays, but we’d like to see Colm Feore as Macbeth. We hesitate when we see that Des McAnuff is directing 2009’s Macbeth; he made a mess of 2008’s Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet (2008) vs. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2009) (both at the Festival Theater)

The 2009 show should be more attractive to audiences. Both plays appeal to the romantically inclined, but people will expect, and will probably get, crowd-pleasing Lion King-style special effects from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And it’s bound to be better than the 2008 Romeo and Juliet production, which was a dud. See my review. Geraint Wyn Davies has been cast as Bottom and Tom Rooney as Puck (that’s something to anticipate!). Dion Johnstone will be Titania; Sophia Walker will be Hermia; Gareth Potter will be Lysander.

Will we see the 2009 show? We hope so. It’s not our favorite Shakespeare comedy because we don’t get its jokes soon enough to laugh in real time. But we’re ready to give it a chance.

The Taming of the Shrew (2008 at the Festival Theater) vs. Julius Caesar (2009 at the Avon Theater)

The 2009 show will be a better draw. A lot of people know Julius Caesar from school. And it’s better crafted than The Taming of the Shrew, which some people may avoid because they see it as misogynist.  (They shouldn’t miss the Shrew, though — see my review.)  A first-rate cast for Julius Caesar has been announced: the 2008 season’s Hamlet, Ben Carlson, will be Brutus, Jonathan Goad will be Mark Antony, and Tom Rooney, whom we especially liked this year in All’s Well That Ends Well, will be Cassius. Geraint Wyn Davies will be assassinated.

Will I see the 2009 show? For sure. I love Julius Caesar, and I’ve never seen it on stage. But if there’s one Shakespeare play that ought to be at the larger Festival Theater, it’s Julius Caesar.

Update: See Emsworth’s July 2009 review of Julius Caesar at this post.

christopher-plummer-as-cyrano

Christopher Plummer as Cyrano in a 1962 show

All’s Well That Ends Well (2008) vs. Cyrano de Bergerac (by Edmond Rostand) (2009) (both at the Festival Theater)

No clear audience favorite. There have been enough different versions of the Cyrano story over the years that audiences will come, especially to see Colm Feore as Cyrano. But will they come in large enough numbers to fill the Festival Theater?

As for me, my level of interest in Cyrano just isn’t that high. (We liked this year’s All’s Well That Ends Well. See my review.)

Love’s Labour’s Lost (2008) vs. Bartholomew Fair (by Ben Jonson) (2009) (both at the Tom Patterson Theater)

In probable popularity, an edge to 2008. The general public doesn’t know either play, but Shakespeare has more fans than Ben Jonson, and this year’s Love’s Labour’s Lost is a delight.

Will we see Bartholomew Fair? We hope so. Undeterred by an eye-glazing Edward II several years ago, we’d like to try another Elizabethan playwright.

Fuenta Ovejuna (2008) vs. The Three Sisters (2009) (both at the Tom Patterson Theater)

Martha Henry

The 2009 show will draw more. Theater-goers who only want to see “cheerful” plays will steer away from Chekhov. But they’ll see Chekhov before they’ll buy tickets for a 400-year-old Spanish drama they never heard of.

Will we see the 2009 show? Maybe. We saw a remarkably fine production of The Three Sisters at the Shaw Festival several years ago and look forward to seeing the play again sometime. But it may be too soon. It’s been announced that Adrienne Gould, Irene Poole, and Lucy Peacock (as Masha) will appear as the sisters — a promising trio. Kelli Fox, another of our favorites from her days at the Shaw Festival, will play Natasha. Martha Henry will apparently not be acting, just directing. Update (August 2009): In fact, Adrienne Gould is not part of the Stratford company in 2009 after all; Dalal Badr was cast as Irena.

Caesar and Cleopatra (2008) vs. The Importance of Being Earnest (2009) (both at the Avon Theater)

brian-bedford1

Bedford

In probable popularity, an edge to 2009. Sure, Christopher Plummer is a great draw, but who’d want to miss Brian Bedford in drag? Stratford Festival patrons love Oscar Wilde.

As for us, we thought the production of The Importance of Being Earnest at the Shaw Festival several years ago couldn’t be improved upon. But we love the play and can’t see it too often. And Bedford slays us.

The Trojan Women (2008 at the Avon Theater) vs. Phedre (by Racine) (2009 at the Tom Patterson Theater)

Jean Racine

The 2009 show may do better. Classical plays have narrow appeal. But one would also guess that interest from French-speaking Canadians would make the Racine play a better draw. And an impressive cast for Phedre has been announced by the Stratford Festival: Seana McKenna as Phedre, and also Tom McCamus, the scrumptious Adrienne Gould, the erstwhile Music Man Jonathan Goad, and Sean Arbuckle. Veteran actress Roberta Maxwell will return to Stratford to play Oenone.

We most definitely want to see Phedre. Our interest in the French classics was whetted long ago by a college course in French literature (in translation), and we are sorry we’ve missed other promising opportunities to see plays by the French master dramatists.

The Music Man (2008 at the Avon Theater) vs. West Side Story (2009 at the Festival Theater)

Two equally popular shows. The Music Man was great, as I reported in this post. But more tickets will be sold for West Side Story in the larger Festival Theater.

We must confess West Side Story leaves us cold, as mentioned in an earlier post praising Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, which is playing at the Shaw Festival this year. But the wife of our bosom is anxious to see it.

Cabaret (2008) vs. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (2009) (both at the Avon Theater)

The 2009 musical won’t outdraw Cabaret. We love Sondheim’s A Funny Thing, but Cabaret has been hot on Broadway, in Toronto, and on the movie screen for the last ten years.

We want to see the 2009 show. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a hilariously funny musical with a great score. And we’ll need something lighter after a heavy dose of the classics.

Brian Bedford as King Lear

There Reigns Love (2008) vs. Ever Yours, Oscar (2009) (both at the Tom Patterson Theater)

In probable popularity, an edge to 2009. The combination of Oscar Wilde and Brian Bedford will pull them in.

Will we see the 2009 show? Somehow, we find we don’t go to see performances made up of readings.

Hughie/Krapp’s Last Tape (2008) vs. The Trespassers (by Morris Panych) (2009)

Palmer Park (2008) vs. Zastrozzi (by George Walker) (2009)

Moby Dick (2008) vs. Rice Boy (by Sunil Kuruvilla) (2009) (all at the Studio Theater)

In probable popularity, an edge to 2008. People know and like Brian Dennehy (Hughie/Krapp’s Last Tape), and everyone’s heard of Melville’s novel. It may be that the three Canadian playwrights scheduled for 2009 have constituencies in Canada, but Americans in general don’t know them.

Will we see any of the 2009 shows at the Studio Theater? Probably not. If so, it might be the Panych play. We’ve seen his work as a director at the Shaw Festival. The Stratford Festival’s affirmative action program for Canadian playwrights is fine, but the Festival should understand that its numerous American patrons don’t care whether a playwright is Canadian or not.

Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson

Frankly, looking at the 2009 season as a whole, we don’t see why the management at the Stratford Festival would expect a bigger box office than in 2008. It’s a smart financial decision to put a big musical back in the Festival Theater. And personally, we’re glad to have a chance to see Racine and Ben Jonson. But besides the Shakespeare plays, the only straight play that seems likely to draw full houses is The Importance of Being Earnest.

And we’re disappointed that only three Shakespeare plays will be presented in 2009 — a bit ironic, now that they’ve changed the name to the Stratford “Shakespeare” Festival. We wanted a history play this year, like Richard II or Henry V, and are not mollified by the Festival’s explanation that the two musicals have roots in Shakespeare. That’s weak.

And we’re seriously disappointed that no Shakespeare play is scheduled for 2008 in the Tom Patterson Theater, which is where we like our Shakespeare best.

AUGUST 2009: Emsworth has now seen a number of the shows in the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season and offers the following thoughts about them:

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

The Ben Jonson play Bartholomew Fair (see this post)

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (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)

Oscar Wilde’s 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)