Henry V at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

A couple of years ago, after several unsatisfactory experiences in a row, Emsworth vowed to attend no more Shakespeare productions directed by Stratford Festival Artistic Director Des McAnuff.  But when Henry V was announced for the 2012 season, an exception seemed to be called for.  How much of a muddle could McAnuff make of it?  The setting of Henry V is fixed firmly in England and France in 1415; what were the chances Mr. McAnuff would set it in a fascist country in 1930?  And if McAnuff ran amok with glitter and spectacle, as was inevitable, would it ruin a play like Henry V?  I didn’t see how it could, and went ahead to order an excellent pair of third-row tickets.

Aaron Krohn as King Henry V. The Stratford show does not use actual horses.

But poor acting will sink any play.  True, Mr. McAnuff didn’t mess with the setting of the play.  And visually it’s a success, from the elaborate period costumes to pageantry of the chorus parts to the cannon to the enormous British flag. The brawl in the tavern between the hot-tempered Pistol and Nim went off nicely, and the battle scenes were lively and cleverly choreographed. But none of this made up for the fact that King Henry is poorly cast and that long parts of the play are simply tedious.

One can say this of Aaron Krohn: with his compact figure, square jaw, and steely eyes, he looks very much the part of the 28-year-old king. He can be heard pretty well, and he has all his lines memorized.

But in all other respects his performance falls well short. The part of Henry V calls for an enormous range of expression, from the early moment when the king shows his steel by showing no mercy to traitors, to his ironic and meditative dialogues with his soldiers on the eve of battle, to the famous “band of brothers” speech, to his shocking order that the French prisoners be killed, to the wooing of the Princess Catherine. Mr. Krohn is a man of one voice — it matches his steely eyes — and he uses it on every occasion.

A good actor accompanies his lines with appropriate gestures; the Stratford Festival’s best actors convey as much with looks and body language as with words. But Mr. Krohn looks into the distance, and his arms fall limply at his side.

McAnuff

How much a director can be blamed for poor acting from a play’s lead actor, I cannot say, but nevertheless all of the worst acting performances we have seen at Stratford have been in plays directed by Mr. McAnuff.  Mr. Krohn’s expressionless speech on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt would not have inspired a pack of wolves to attack a stray lamb.

Did Mr. McAnuff, who seems to prefer doing things different in Shakespeare merely for the sake of being unconventional, tell his lead actor not to deliver a rousing speech, simply because that’s what other actors usually do?  In Act V, Scene 2, the Duke of Burgundy, a minor character, is given some of the best poetry in Henry V, lines that illuminate the playwright’s mature reflections on war and peace. Burgundy’s speech uses horticulture as an extended metaphor for a French nation in which peace and the blessings of peace have not been allowed to thrive:

And as our vineyards, fallows, meads and hedges,
Defective in their natures, grow to wildness,
Even so our houses and ourselves and children
Have lost, or do not learn for want of time,
The sciences that should become our country;
But grow like savages,–as soldiers will
That nothing do but meditate on blood,–
To swearing and stern looks, diffused attire
And every thing that seems unnatural.

Did Mr. McAnuff fail to notice that Xuan Fraser, as Burgundy, showed no evidence of understanding his lines? As Burgundy droned on, the Stratford audience zoned out. Did Mr. McAnuff fail to notice that the wooing scene between King Henry and Princess Catherine (Bethany Jillard), toward the end of the play, was dying a slow death, and that Mr. Krohn and Ms. Jillard seemed to be caught in a dialogue loop from which they could not escape?

It’s not all bad.  The tavern scenes, with Bardolph (Randy Hughson), Pistol (Tom Rooney), Nim, (Christopher Prentice), and the Hostess (Lucy Peacock) are lively and well-acted; Mr. Rooney is a treasure.  The scene in which Bardolph has been arrested for stealing a chalice from a chapel is rendered with feeling and suspense: will they really hang the reprobate?  I especially enjoyed Juan Chioran as Montjoy, the French king’s herald, and Ben Carlson as Fluellen, the Welsh captain in King Henry’s army.

And McAnuff, no doubt correctly guessing that a good part of the play’s audience would not understand French, gave interest to the episode in the palace between Princess Catherine and her lady-in-waiting, Alice (Deborah Hay) by having the dialogue (all in French, as the playwright wrote it) take place during Catherine’s bath.  Any doubt as to whether the actress was actually bathing in the altogether was removed when the Princess stood, her back and backside to the audience, to be dried off.

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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.

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.

Macbeth at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Timothy D Stickney as Banquo

Timothy D. Stickney playing Banquo as a twentieth-century European general in Africa

Macbeth deals with historical figures in 11th-century Scotland, and they call it “the Scottish play.” So why would any director place its setting in central Africa, circa 1950? We knew there couldn’t be any good reason. But we figured something must have triggered director Des McAnuff’s thought process.

Colm Feore as Macbeth with Yanna McIntosh as Lady Macbeth

Colm Feore as Macbeth with Yanna McIntosh as Lady Macbeth

At first we thought this was another unfortunate case of clumsiness in dealing with a racially mixed cast. (The same director bungled this elementary task in 2008’s Romeo and Juliet, as we observed in this post a year ago.) Could McAnuff have thought that audiences would never “get” a Macbeth with black actors in key roles (Lady Macbeth, Banquo, Macduff, and Lady Macduff) unless it were set in Africa?

Anyway, that’s not our theory anymore. We think now that the seed was sown when McAnuff was watching the second season of the sadly short-lived Slings and Arrows television show, which we dug out of our stack of DVDs after we got back from our last visit of the year to Stratford, Ontario.

As many of Emsworth’s readers will know, this Canadian show, which ran for three seasons beginning in late 2003, chronicles three seasons in the history of the fictional New Burbage Shakespearean Festival, an Ontario repertory company that bears hilarious similarities to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The second season of Slings and Arrows deals mostly with the Festival’s production of Macbeth.  As the season begins, the Festival’s artistic director, Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), is being pressured to put Macbeth on the playbill for the upcoming season. Reluctant to do it, he talks it over with his friend Nahum (Rothaford Gray), a security guard at New Burbage who once directed theater himself in his native Nigeria:

Tennant: They want me to do Macbeth.
Nahum: Dammit!
Tennant: Why does that bother you?
Nahum: I do not like that play. It teaches us nothing.
Tennant: It teaches us about evil.
Nahum: No! It shows us evil. It’s a portrait of a psychopath. Where I come from in Nigeria, it is a familiar sight. I’ve had my fill of psychopaths.

Bingo! Nigeria! Macbeth reimagined as the rise and fall of a murderous, monomaniac, twentieth-century African dictator!

MacbethIt wasn’t a good idea, anymore than this sort of thing usually is. (For instance, we’ve talked to several people who were so distracted by the contemporary-ish costumes and machine guns in this year’s Julius Caesar at the Stratford Festival that they seemed not to have noticed how superbly acted that show was; they judged the show a failure based on how it looked.)  Post-colonial Africa had almost nothing in common with eleventh-century Scotland.  Did McAnuff seriously think it would help audiences understand this challenging play to have King Duncan hold a press conference (complete with an array of microphones and photographers with bulky flash cameras) to welcome Macbeth and Banquo back home? Or to have Macbeth’s armies fighting Malcolm’s on a battlefield with an army jeep and soldiers wielding automatic rifles?

And didn’t it occur to McAnuff that audiences would find it odd to hear Banquo’s assassins report to Macbeth that they’d cut his throat, when we’d just seen Banquo mugged and shot?

There was so much good acting in this year’s Macbeth at the Stratford Festival that it’s a shame the overall production wasn’t more satisfying. We found the unmodulated high pitch of the play wearing, not enervating. The sets, the props, the costumes, and the special effects were distracting and incoherent. We were given a series of memorable visual images, which is something, but telling the story of the play seemed to be the last thing on the director’s mind.

The performance we saw got off to a poor start. We could hear only a little of the dialogue in the stage-setting opening scenes, in which many of the play’s principal characters are introduced.

Now, in some Shakespeare plays — Julius Caesar and Richard III, for instance — the playwright helped audiences keep track of who’s who on stage by having the characters repeatedly address each other by name. Unfortunately, he did very little of that in Macbeth, in which help would have been especially welcome because of the play’s large cast of characters. It is therefore all the more important that a director of Macbeth ensure that the opening scenes are not only lively, but audible. But in this show most of the actors in the first scene (after the witches) failed to project well enough for us to hear — and we weren’t far from the stage. Sometimes the problem with audibility was due to the background music, which was a lot like a movie score. Did McAnuff think that would make the play feel more comfortable for theater-goers who are more used to watching motion pictures?

MacbethAt any rate, it was a great relief when Macbeth (Colm Feore) and Banquo (Timothy D. Stickney) appeared on stage. Both have strong, expressive voices, good diction, and the indispensable ability to make Elizabethan English heard and understood in the too-big Festival Theater.  (The talented Feore also had a wonderful role in the second season of Slings and Arrows — but not as Macbeth; he plays a wacked-out marketing consultant hired to “re-brand” the financially struggling New Burbage Festival.)

Macbeth

Tom Rooney as the Porter

rooThey were by no means the only actors we especially appreciated. Tom Rooney was wonderful in his brief appearance as the Macbeths’ porter; now we understand, for the first time, why this comic philosopher’s scene belongs in the play.  Also strong were Geraint Wyn Davies (Duncan in the play; he played an actor playing Macbeth in the second season of Slings and Arrows), Gareth Potter (a much better Malcolm than he was a Romeo a year ago), and John Vickery (Ross), who had the challenging task of breaking the news to Macduff (Dion Johnstone) that his family had been slaughtered.

For all that, the narrative power of the play just wasn’t there. We’ve commented before on the Othello we saw in Chicago a couple of years ago (directed by Marti Maraden, who is, thankfully, returning to Stratford in 2010 to direct The Winter’s Tale). Simply reading the text of Othello, we always found it hard to understand how the noble Moor could so quickly become so morbidly suspicious as to believe Colm Feore as Macbeth that his new wife was doing him dirty. On stage, however, his transformation was absolutely convincing, to the credit of both the director and Derrick Lee Weeden, who played Othello.

We’ve had a similar problem wih Macbeth.  Reading the play, we find it hard to understand how Duncan’s trusted general could so suddenly be overcome by ambition that he would embark on a series of savage murders to achieve what the witches had already pronounced as his destiny. (We don’t buy the notion that a soldier like Macbeth is such a “killing machine” that murdering friends in cold blood isn’t much different from what he does on the battlefield.) We hoped this Macbeth would show us how, but it didn’t.

P. G. Wodehouse quoted from Shakespeare more than any other poet, and (we think) from Macbeth more than from any other work of Shakespeare.  See this post.  Other posts from Emsworth about shows he saw during the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:

Jean Racine’s classic French drama on the ancient Greek tale of Phèdre (see this post)

Anton Chekhov’s wonderful The Three Sisters (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)

Emsworth’s list of his own ten favorite Shakespeare plays (see this post).

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

Julius Caesar at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (a review)

Julius Caesar

The historical Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar is close to the top of the list of our favorite Shakespeare plays, but we’d never seen it performed until last weekend. The show at the Stratford Festival was tight, tense, and immensely satisfying, and we saw more in the characters of Brutus, Cassius, and Caesar than we ever knew was there.

We suppose there’s no danger of giving away the plot. The folks at Stratford evidently think people know the story, too; they left the usual plot summary out of the program. (We renew our complaint that the cost-cutters at Stratford are printing this year’s programs on cheap paper stock in an odd-sized (8 1/2 by 10 3/4) format that doesn’t fit our collection of programs.)

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Julius Caesar is one of the plays reflected by relief sculptures along the outside of the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C.

So to review, here’s the story. Around 40 B.C., Julius Caesar (Geraint Wyn Davies) has defeated his rival Pompey and has become virtual dictator of Rome. Jealous of Caesar, a number of Roman senators, led by Cassius (Tom Rooney), are plotting regime change. The conspirators realize, however, that without the support of the widely respected, high-minded Brutus (Ben Carlson), they are sure to be villified for taking Caesar down. Cassius persuades Brutus that, for the good of Rome, Caesar must die.

Julius Caesar

If Julius Caesar (Geraint Wyn Davis, center) had only read the letter being offered to him, he would have learned of the plot against his life.

On the Ides of March, Cassius, Brutus, and other Roman senators stab Caesar to death. Against the advice of Cassius, Brutus unwisely permits Caesar’s protege, Mark Antony (Jonathan Goad) to speak at Caesar’s funeral. Antony’s oration inflames the Romans against the conspirators. Mobs riot in the streets, and a civil war breaks out, in which Brutus and Cassius are uneasy allies. It all ends with a final battle at Phillippi.

Julius Caesar

Tom Rooney as Cassius, lean and hungry

As well as we know the play, we still felt the suspense keenly. Would Brutus yield to Cassius’s flattery and join the conspirators? Would Caesar be warned in time? Would the conspirators take Cassius’s advice and assassinate Mark Antony as well?

Domestic tension, as well: would Brutus ever tell his distraught wife Portia (Cara Ricketts) what’s going on?  Would Caesar heed the soothsayer and stay home on the Ides of March, as his wife Calpurnia pleads? Our own wife, who is not politically minded, thought the moral of the play was that husbands should listen to their wives.

We couldn’t have asked for a better cast for our first Julius Caesar on stage.   Geraint Wyn Davies has only a few scenes, but he is positively masterful as a ruler who has begun to believe that he is, indeed, god-like; no wonder Brutus could be persuaded that such a Caesar needed to be stopped. Best of all was Tom Rooney, with his bright-eyed intensity, steely sense of purpose, and ramrod stature. We knew without Caesar’s telling us that Cassius had “a lean and hungry look.”

Julius Caesar

Ben Carlson (Brutus) and Tom Rooney (Cassius)

Ben Carlson speaks the language of Shakespeare naturally, conversationally, and with effortless diction.  He and Rooney are well paired; the best parts of this Julius Caesar were Brutus’s scenes with Cassius.  The famous “quarrel” scene was just short of perfection (we dissected the quarrel in this recent post); it fell short only in that we felt that Brutus would, for maximum impact, have told Cassius to his face that he had “an itching palm.”  Instead, Carlson delivered the accusation in an offhanded manner as he poured a drink across the stage from Cassius.

Until last weekend, we never fully appreciated the emotional power of the “I am sick of many griefs” scene later in Act IV, Scene 3, in which we (and Cassius) learn of Portia’s suicide. Carlson, Rooney, and Kevin Blanchard (as Messala) play this scene with delicacy and humanity.

We were a little disappointed, however, in Jonathan Goad’s Mark Antony. We have seen Goad described as Stratford’s Johnny Depp, and indeed Goad’s what-me-worry? approach to the part reminded us of the hero of Pirates of the Caribbean. But it didn’t suit here, with the Roman empire at stake. Surely no confrontation in Julius Caesar should bristle more than the scene immediately after the death of Caesar, when Mark Antony comes face to face with the conspirators. But this Antony seemed more annoyed than angry with the conspirators; he hardly seemed to fear for his life. The scene slowed the play’s momentum.

And Antony’s “This was the noblest Roman of them all” monologue, after the death of Brutus, also fell flat.  It ends, of course, with Antony’s pronouncement on Brutus: “This was a man!”  The line needs to be delivered portentously, with equal emphasis on “this” and “man”.  But Goad accented only the first word: “THIS was a man.” It sounded more like a throwaway line.

Still, Goad delivered one of the play’s most thrilling moments with his “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech. For this scene, director James MacDonald resourcefully embedded members of the cast in the audience, they made us feel part of the dangerous mob ourselves. The effect was electric. We had always assumed that Antony began his speech when the noise of the crowd died down. But Goad made us understand that “lend me your ears” (which he was obliged to shout over the din) was uttered in order to get the mob to shut up and listen.

From the supporting cast, we especially enjoyed the performances of Michael Spencer-Davis (as Casca), Cara Ricketts (as Portia), John Innes (as Cicero), and Dion Johnstone (as Octavius Caesar). Skye Brandon was superb as the unfortunate Cinna the poet, whose appearance and rapid demise (the finest cameo role of any play we can think of) seemed even more shocking than the assassination of Caesar himself.

The costumes and the props did not, frankly, make sense. The most that can be said for them is that we didn’t find them terribly distracting. In the first act, the Romans all wore snazzy suits and colorful ensembles (including some very short skirts) that vaguely reminded us of the Berlin street scenes, circa 1914, of Ernest Kirchner. In the second act, the officers in Mark Antony’s camp wore twentieth-century military uniforms; those in Cassius’s and Brutus’s camp wore baseball caps. And the soldiers all carried semi-automatic rifles. We missed the point of these “modern” touches.  We know exactly the time period in which this particular play takes place; it wasn’t the early 20th century.

Ben Carlson deserves credit for remaining unflustered under trying circumstances. During one of his early scenes, quite close to the stage, an extremely loud cellphone went off and played a long passage from Mozart’s C major piano sonata, K. 545. The owner had trouble getting it under control. Carlson never batted an eye as we all finally heard the belltones of a cellphone being turned off.

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)

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)

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)

All’s Well That Ends Well at the Stratford Festival (a review)

The Countess of Rossillion (Martha Henry) and Lafew (Stephen Ouimette)

By good fortune Emsworth had the opportunity to see a production of Othello last winter at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater directed by Marti Maraden. Her intelligent, text-focused approach to Shakespeare left me looking forward to more of her work in Stratford later in the year. We were not disappointed in All’s Well That End’s Well.

We would think that All’s Well presents even more challenges for a director than Othello, because the play itself has such serious internal problems that they can only be glossed over, never resolved. Moreover, while the story of Othello is familiar to many theater-goers, All’s Well That Ends Well is not well known, nor is its plot particularly memorable. With such a play, a director cannot take for granted that the audience will understand anything that is not clearly explained.

In key ways, the plot of All’s Well That Ends Well is simply unbelievable. The story begins with Bertram (Jeff Lillico), the only son of the widow Countess of Rossillion (Martha Henry), leaving home, summoned to join the court of the King of France (Brian Dennehy), who is dying. Among the tears shed at his parting are those of Helena (Daniela Vlaskalic), a pretty and accomplished young woman who has been living as the ward of the Countess since the recent death of her father, an eminent physician.

Helena (Danila Vlaskalic) and Bertram (Jeff Lillico)

Helena (Danila Vlaskalic) and Bertram (Jeff Lillico)

Helena cries because she has fallen hopelessly in love with Bertram — hopelessly, because Bertram has no interest in her and because their different stations in life make a match impossible in any case.

But why should she love Bertram? At the outset, we learn from Helena’s own mouth (in a soliloquy) that the attraction is physical. We are sure of that when, immediately afterward, she initiates a comic exchange with Bertram’s servant Parolles (Juan Chioran) about the merits of virginity.

But as the play unfolds, Bertram shows himself to be contemptible and unmanly. Pressured by the king to marry Helena (who has healed the king with a prescription inherited from her father), Bertram insults Helena and then pretends to give in to the King’s wishes while making secret plans to escape the marriage. Later in the play, having fled to Italy as a soldier to avoid sleeping with his bride (!), he tries to seduce Diana (Leah Oster) a respectable young virgin of Florence, then, to save his own skin, defames her as a whore.

Bertram is thoroughly detestable — but Helena persists in wanting him for a husband. After living in the same household with them, how could she have failed to see his character? And once his behavior becomes known all over Europe, how could she still want him? There is no explanation for Helena’s steadfastness in pursuit of Bertram. 

Equally hard to believe is that everyone in the play except Bertram seems to know that his foppish friend and follower Parolles is a braggart and a coward. Bertram may be a cad, but he hardly seems a fool. Why does it take an elaborate practical joke on Parolles to convince Bertram that he has an unworthy friend?

Tom Rooney as Lavache

Tom Rooney as Lavache

Yet Marti Maraden’s perfectly-paced production of All’s Well That Ends Well holds together beautifully despite the play’s improbabilities. Wherever the Bard touches on one of his themes throughout the play, Maraden helps us draw the dots. For example, Helena and Parolles introduce the themes of virginity and procreation early in the play; the clown Lavache (Tom Rooney) develops them in strangely profound comic speeches; and Diana brings them full circle in a late scene.

Most of all, this is a play about our universal experience of grief, loss, and resignation, climaxed by the Countess’s lament:

My heart is heavy, and mine age is weak;
Grief would have tears, and sorrow bids me speak.

(Act III, Scene 5). It would be easy for a director to waste energy trying to make too much of the weak storyline, at the expense of the play’s poetry.  Not so here.

Juan Chioran as Parolles

We loved the hilarious (and almost cruel) scene in which the blindfolded Parolles is unmasked as a liar and a fraud. But this show has a number of outstanding performances.  The tireless Ben Carlson (who played an energetic Hamlet later the same day that we saw All’s Well That Ends Well) brings the most out of his supporting role as the First Lord Dumaine.  Fiona Reid, as the Widow Capilet, and Michelle Fisk, as Mariana, are both delightful.

It goes without saying that the lovely and gracious Martha Henry, the veteran Stratford actress, is perfectly cast as the Countess of Rossillion.  What I will remember most about this show, however, is the wonderful, tender performance of Tom Rooney as the comic philosopher Lavache.

Unfortunately, there are weak performances as well. The most disappointing is that of Daniela Vlaskalic as Helena.  She declaims her lines in an unnatural, almost sing-song manner, having failed to learn from Martha Henry how to project her voice in a large theater without sacrificing expression and meaning. The most jarring performance is that of Leah Oster, who inexplicably brings to All’s Well That Ends Well the same midwestern drawl that she apparently uses as Marian the Librarian in The Music Man, also part of the Stratford Festival’s 2008 season. And I could not help feeling that Brian Dennehy, as the King of France, was saving his energy for something else.

According to the program notes, this production of All’s Well That Ends Well (probably written around 1602) is set in 1889 (the opening scene is set in a railroad station).  As is usual with the deplorable practice of setting Shakespeare plays in different time periods, this led to distracting incongruities.

I was able to overlook the historical fact that, in 1889, it had been a hundred years since there had been a French king. But I had more difficulty with Helena and her “holy pilgrimage.” According to Shakespeare’s text (Act III, Scene 5), Helena has come to Florence in disguise, pretending to be a pilgrim to a saint’s shrine. (Her real purpose in Florence is to pursue her husband and obtain her marital rights).

Students of European social history can correct me, but it is my sense that the practice of undertaking long pilgrimages on foot to religious shrines died out long before 1889. And if Ms. Vlaskalic as Helena was supposed to be wearing a “pilgrim” disguise in these scenes, I could not make it out.  Once again, the “modern” setting served only to muddle the plot.

Emsworth reviews the Stratford Festival’s 2008 production of Hamlet in this post.

Emsworth gripes about the recent leadership debacle at the Stratford Festival, which resulted last winter in Des McAnuff’s becoming the sole artistic director of the Festival, in this post.

Other Emsworth posts include reviews of shows in the Shaw Festival’s 2008 season, including Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married (see this post), Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (see this post), Leonard Bernstein’s musical Wonderful Town (see this post), and J. B. Priestley’s The Inspector Calls (see this post).