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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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)