Merry Wives of Windsor at The Stratford Festival – A Review

Merry Wives owes its existence, according to tradition, to Queen Elizabeth the First’s desire to see more of Falstaff, who had become an audience favorite in Shakespeare’s histories. Thank you, Queen Bess!

The play shows us Sir John Falstaff well past his military prime and plotting to ease his financial problems by making lascivious advances to two of the town’s respectable and well-off married women, Meg Page and Alice Ford. They quickly cotton to his absurd plan and conspire together to teach the old rascal a lesson. Complicating matters is Mr. Ford who becomes volcanically jealous when he catches wind of Falstaff’s wooing. In a subplot Mr. and Mrs. Page each want to marry their daughter, Anne, to different, but equally unsuitable men; Anne of course has ideas of her own.

Shakespeare deploys comic devices — narrow escapes, people hiding in closets and laundry baskets, ludicrous disguises — that are used in popular farces to this day. The plot culminates in a midnight meeting on Halloween in the deep woods where Falstaff thinks a threesome might be in the offing only to be terrified by the entire town disguised as goblins, fairies, and all manner of beasties. In the confusion, Anne Page’s unsuitable suitors are bamboozled and true love triumphs. Falstaff is humbled and order is restored.

Cimolino has transposed the play to the 1950s in a town that looks a lot like Stratford, right down to the Canada geese squawking as they fly overhead. This kind of reimagining has its pitfalls, but in this case it works remarkably well. He has also encouraged his cast to take the comic shtick to infinity and beyond. Cimolino has a gift for this sort of over-the-top comedy as he demonstrated in 2017’s enema-filled production of Moliere’s The Hypochondriac (a.k.a. The Imaginary Invalid). For the most part it succeeds in Merry Wives, but not always.

Geraint Wyn Davies is, not to put too fine a point on it, brilliant as Falstaff. He played the role in the Festival’s last mounting of the play in 2011 and he is even better this time around. Falstaff is a bundle, a very large bundle, of contradictions, self-delusional one moment, all too aware of his frailties the next. Wyn Davies conveys all this beautifully and with remarkable psychological realism given the absurdity of the situations. Designer Julie Fox has stuffed his costume with a massive gut and seldom has fat shaming been funnier. Cimolino has devised numerous ways to illustrate the challenges posed by Falstaff’s bulk, none funnier than when he winds up on his back in Mrs. Ford’s bed and cannot right himself.

Graham Abbey who was such a forceful presence as Aufidius in last year’s Coriolanus is here a nimble and manic farceur. The scene in which he leaps triumphantly on top of a massive clothes hamper believing he has captured Falstaff inside is one of the play’s highlights.

Wyn Davies and Abbey are reason enough to pay the price of admission, but there is other good acting on display. Brigit Wilson and Sophia Walker as Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford, respectively, are rock solid as the merry wives of the title. They must be the firm center around which all the madness swirls and they fill that role perfectly. Lucy Peacock, who played Mistress Ford in the 2011 production, does a deft turn as the go-between who sets much of the plot in motion.

There is solid work in supporting roles too. In the romantic subplot, Jamie Mac, one of Stratford’s most reliable comic actors, is delightfully goofy as the idiotic Slender, while Michael Spencer-Davis wrings every last laugh out of Slender’s aged relative, Justice Shallow. Mike Shara is charming in the small role of Fenton, who affects a beatnik-style beret to cover a massive mole on his forehead. Less successful is Gordon S. Miller’s shouted performance as the French Dr. Caius, Mrs. Page’s choice for her daughter’s hand. His body language is hysterically funny, which is just as well because his accent is impenetrable.

Julie Fox, who designed both sets and costumes, has done an admirable job of bringing 50s Stratford to life. Her perfectly detailed costumes run the gamut from proper middle class matrons and their straight-laced husbands, to butch bar owners (Shakespeare’s Host of the Garter is here a woman), to leather-clad greasers and what I assume is a Canadian version of a Teddy Boy (Randy Hughson as Pistol). The main set evokes a solidly middle-class Tudor-style home much like one you might pass while walking to the theatre. Jason Hand supplied the lighting. Berthold Carriere has written 50s-style songs with lyrics by the actress Marion Adler to serve as incidental music. If you didn’t read the program you might imagine the sound designer (Thomas Ryder Payne) had ransacked an old record collection.

The Stratford Festival distinguishes itself with a large company of actors who can speak Shakespeare’s sometimes tricky iambic pentameter with admirable clarity. Merry Wives of Windsor is almost entirely prose, which makes it all the more surprising that some performers, fortunately in lesser roles, fail to convey the meaning of most of their lines. This is the sort of thing that makes some people feel Shakespeare is “hard to understand” and may in turn explain why huge swaths of seats were empty at the performance I saw.

Henry VIII at The Stratford Festival – A Review

Henry VIII is one of Shakespeare’s last plays and one of the oddest. It would seem that the play was designed to compete with the growing popularity among the Globe’s monied clientele of court masques, elaborately staged pageants that featured rich costumes and ingenious special effects. Ironically, the attempt to mimic the court proved catastrophic. One special effect featured a cannon fired from atop the Globe. An ember fell on the thatched roof and the theatre burned to the ground.

Ideally, a new production would reflect that history (minus destroying the theatre, of course), with a large cast, magnificent costumes, elaborate effects, and a splendiferous set in the 1,200-seat Festival Theatre. Alas, director Martha Henry has to make do with the intimate confines of the Stratford Festival’s 250-seat Studio Theatre and a cast of just twenty-two, with considerable doubling. Despite these constraints, she does a remarkable job of creating a certain amount of spectacle. One can sympathize with the decision; Henry VIII is a little known Shakespeare that would not have the box office draw of a Shrew or a Romeo and Juliet. Even so, one can wish.

One thing that sets this play apart from others in the canon is that the title character is not really at the center of the action. True, he is a powerful and often frightening presence throughout the play, but he is often offstage. Shakespeare turns his attention largely to the effect dynastic politics, not to mention Henry’s whims and ambitions, have on those around him.

Shakespeare brings to the foreground three characters whose privileged places in society were brought to ruin during Henry’s reign. The Duke of Buckingham was executed; Cardinal Wolsey was stripped of his offices and properties, and died in disgrace; Henry’s once and perhaps still beloved wife, Catherine of Aragon, was divorced so that Henry could marry Anne Bullen (or Boleyn) and sent into humiliating, if comfortable, house arrest. Each of them has a beautiful soliloquy in which they appeal to the audience’s sympathies (Catherine is also accorded a heart-rending death scene) and each of them is amazingly affecting, even Wolsey who has been depicted as the lowest form of Machiavel.

The original title of the play was All Is True. (It was subsequently demoted to a subtitle.) One can only assume that the contemporary audience had firm, and perhaps uniformly negative, opinions of all of these characters. Was Shakespeare offering “alternative facts” and suggesting with his title that historical truth is ultimately unknowable?

Shakespeare does not neglect to give Henry his own arc in the play, although it takes a good actor and director to make it manifest. We see him first as a cheerful sovereign obviously deeply in love with his wife but shaky on the details of governance (Taxes? What taxes?). By play’s end he has become more Machiavellian than Wolsey himself. The penultimate scene in the play in which he makes the newly appointed Archbishop Cranmer his golden boy and forces the entire council of state, who had to a man opposed Cranmer’s ascension, tow the new party line is chilling indeed.

Ultimately, any psychological verisimilitude falls away with the birth of Elizabeth and an outburst of patriotic pride that beggars the imagination. Could Henry, for whom producing a male heir was all-important, really have been that thrilled with the arrival of the future Queen Bess? One thinks not.

As mentioned earlier, director Henry does a good job of dealing with her limited resources and creates a suggestion of the pomp the piece demands, aided in no small measure by designer Francesca Callow’s increasingly colorful if often anachronistic costumes. I doubt Anne Bullen (Alexandra Lainfiesta) ever danced in a dress with two waist-to-floor slits, but who’s complaining?

For the most part, Ms. Henry keeps a firm hand on the rudder as she marshals an exemplary cast, making sure that the many historical figures, only a few of whom a modern audience is likely to remember, remain distinct. An unfortunate misstep occurs in a scene in which Cardinal Wolsey throws a party. Instead of showing the Cardinal’s real sin — his betrayal of his office in favor of ill-gotten wealth and wretched excess – she depicts the Cardinal as a kinky voluptuary complete with red silk pajamas and purple boa.

As King Henry, Jonathan Goad does a good job of showing us a king driven to ever more equivocal ethical decisions by the pressures of a rigidly patriarchal power structure. But the true star performance of the piece comes from Irene Poole as Catherine. Her confrontation with Wolsey is as startlingly powerful as her death scene is poignant; along the way she depicts beautifully the ironies and injustices of her position as the daughter of a king reduced to mere pawn.

The estimable Rod Beattie seems miscast as Wolsey. Initially he conveys little of the stature or evil the part demands. His line readings are often flat and he reminded me in turn of one of his Wingfield personas, then of an elderly Mr. Bean, and then of Wallace Shawn. Even so, in his scene after the king discovers his perfidy, he was quietly devastating.

Other solid work comes from Tim Campbell as Buckingham, although at the performance I saw he skipped the curtain call, which struck me as a breach of protocol. Festival stalwarts Wayne Best, Brad Hodder, Stephen Russell, Scott Wentworth, and Rylan Wilkie all lend excellent support.

All in all, this was as good a rendition of this intriguing play as one could expect given the obvious restraints. I only wish Ms. Henry had been given the Festival Theatre stage and the budget required to give us a real appreciation of what Shakespeare had in mind.

Some final observations: There seems to be some consensus that this play was a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, although some preeminent scholars disagree. The program gives the Bard sole credit and I am not inclined to argue with that. The bit of pseudo-Elizabethan doggerel, written by a cast member, that closed the show didn’t help.

Billy Elliot The Musical at The Stratford Festival – A Review

In Billy Elliot The Musical the Stratford Festival has another smash hit musical on its hands. The whoops of joy from young girls, the thunderous applause after every number, and the outpouring of love that accompanies the curtain calls are proof enough of that. And yet . . .

Billy Elliot, with book and lyrics by Lee Hall and music by Elton John, is set in the early 80s in England’s grim, industrial north. Maggie Thatcher is gleefully dismantling Clem Attlee’s welfare state, the coal miners are on strike, and Thatcher is slowly but surely grinding them to dust. Against this Dickensian backdrop a young lad from a coal mining family discovers ballet and the joy of dancing. Will his dream of a career in dance succeed against the opposition of a community, a culture, and a father who have no frame of reference for such ambition? I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to say that of course it does, with all the attendant happiness and tears that tales of this sort generate.

The musical is a somewhat uncomfortable blend of anti-Thatcherite agitprop and a sentimental tale of struggle and success against great odds. In director/choreographer Donna Feore’s epic production politics pales against sentiment, although it’s hard not to appreciate a show that devotes an entire number to bashing the Iron Lady (“Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher”). The story of the miners’ grueling and ultimately tragic strike provides a compelling backdrop but its dramatization struck me as clumsy and forced.

The story of Billy’s awkward encounter with a dance class for girls led by the long-suffering Mrs. Wilkinson, the flowering of his natural gift for movement, and his journey to the Royal Ballet School works much, much better. That’s due largely to Lee Hall’s book, which is not surprising since he wrote the screenplay for the 2000 film on which the musical is based. It is lean and muscular with just the right blend of reality (including potty-mouthed, sexually precocious pre-teens), sentimentality (in the form of Billy’s dead mother who hovers like a guardian angel), and humor that arises from character and situation rather than from pasted-on jokes.

If only Hall’s lyrics were up to the standard of his book. Of course, Sir Elton’s music can’t have provided him with much inspiration. I haven’t been as bored with Elton John music since I saw his Aida on Broadway. He is much better working in the idiom of popular music, which makes “Deep Into The Ground,” described in the show as an old folk song, the best number in the musical. However, his music does rise to great heights in a beautiful dream ballet sequence. Oh, wait! That’s from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

This is the first time I have not been completely blown away by Donna Feore’s choreography. Of course, it’s hard to soar when you are held down by such an earthbound score. Her staging of the early scenes of strife at the mines involves a lot of marching around and posturing while Lee Hall tries to cram the word “solidarity” into a line of music that simply wasn’t meant to contain it.

Far better is the aforementioned dream ballet in which Billy dances with a vision of his older self (Colton Curtis). That number quite literally soars with a breathtaking interlude in which Billy swoops around the theater at balcony level thanks to a Cirque de Soleil-style rig. Feore has also found imaginative ways to make manifest Billy’s growing struggle to free his creative impulses (“Angry Dance”).

Michael Gianfrancesco’s industrial set and Michael Walton’s kinetic lighting are spot on, as are Dana Osborne’s period costumes. Jamie Nesbitt contributed some effective projections and Harry Christensen is credited a “flying director.”

Much of the considerable success of this production, however, comes down to the superb cast Feore has assembled and the touching performances she has drawn from them. Dan Chameroy, who wowed Stratford audiences as Frank-N-Furter in last season’s Rocky Horror Show, is absolutely heartbreaking as Billy’s beleaguered father. As Mrs. Wilkinson, the self-proclaimed second-rate dance teacher, Blythe Wilson turns in another brilliant performance, with a hard as nails façade that belies a warm and nurturing nature. Hysterical comic relief is provided by Marion Adler as Billy’s dotty grandma and sturdy support comes from Scott Beaudin as Billy’s brother and Steve Ross a miner and boxing instructor.

The youngsters in the cast fare well, too. Emerson Gamble is an utter delight as Billy’s unabashed, proto-gay friend, Michael, and Isabella Steubing scores in the small role of Mrs. Wilkinson’s smarty pants daughter.

The role of Billy is so demanding that most major productions double- or triple-cast it so as not to wear out the young actor the part demands. Here the entire burden falls on the shoulders of Nolen Dubuc, an 11-year-old from Vancouver, who appears in every show. In a nice touch of showbiz irony (if you can believe his agent), Dubuc was inspired to pursue a stage career when, at the age of 5, he saw Billy Elliott.

Although only a year or so into his career, Dubuc is already an accomplished singer and dancer. He may not yet be at the peak of his technical abilities but one thing is crystal clear – the kid’s a trouper. He throws himself into every song and dance number with gusto, while projecting an admirable verisimilitude in his spoken scenes; he is completely fearless as a high-flying acrobat; and his energy never flags even though he is onstage for most of the two-and-a-half-hour show. He really does carry the show.

I can’t remember a more explosive star bow at the Festival Theatre and for once the now ubiquitous standing ovation didn’t seem pro forma. Well done, sir. Bravo!

The Neverending Story at The Stratford Festival – A Review

From left: Andrew Robinson as Artax the Horse, Qasim Khan as Atreyu, Laura Condlln as Chancellor of the Ivory Tower and Roy Lewis as Cairon in The Neverending Story. Photography by Emily Cooper. Courtesy The Stratford Festival.

Hats off to the Schulich family, whose obviously generous donations fund the production of children’s theatre at the Stratford Festival! In the 2019 season their largesse is bringing us The Neverending Story, adapted by David S. Craig from German writer Michael Ende’s popular book, at the downtown Avon Theatre.

Ende’s tale has its enthusiasts. I am not one of them, but director Jillian Keiley turns an empty, all-black stage into such a colorful swirl of effects that I found myself swept along. The ingenious design is by Bretta Gerecke with pinpoint lighting provided by Leigh Ann Vardy. Brad Cook and James Retter Duncan handled puppetry direction and movement.

The story (which actually does have an ending) tells the tale of Bastian, a nerdy and bullied kid who loves reading. When fleeing the daily onslaught of his tormentors he ducks into an antiquarian bookshop and, on an impulse, steals a very special book. Confronted in the street by a mysterious but unmistakably evil grown-up, he sequesters himself in his school’s attic and starts reading.

Like The Horse and His Boy at the Shaw Festival, the story within The Neverending Story tells of a quest. This one is by the young boy, Atreyu, through the land of Fantastica, which is under siege by a mysterious something or other called The Nothing, to find a cure for the Childlike Empress who is wasting away. I found the convoluted plot and the odd assortment of creatures and villains in Fanastica hard to sort through, kinda like German philosophy. The 900 or so preteens who surrounded me in the theatre had no such problems; they were rapt and obviously deeply engaged. When Bastian announced he was going to skip school, a small voice two rows ahead of me called out, “Oh no, don’t do that!”

Eventually, perhaps inevitably, Bastian is drawn into the action of the story, the characters start speaking to him, and he is the one who saves the Childlike Empress by giving her a new name. Why that works, I have no idea, but Ende’s overarching message about the joy and wonder of reading comes through loud and clear. The characters in the books we read do enter into our world and remain with us forever, so in a very important way their stories never end.

Jake Runekles is terrific as Bastian, as is Qasim Khan as Atreyu. There are impressive turns in small roles by Ijeoma Emesowum as the evil Maya and Mamie Zwettler as the adorable Childlike Empress. Sean Arbuckle distinguishes himself in multiple roles, most hilariously as the puppet master behind the diminutive Urgl and Engywook.

The rest of the cast, which includes actors who have played major roles on the Festival stage, are largely invisible, clad all in black in the fashion of Bunraku puppeteers so their bodies are seldom if ever visible. So many and varied are the effects they produce that it is hard to believe they are created by such a small company.

If you are an adult without a small child in tow you might want to give this show a pass. But if you have any interest in puppeteering specifically or theatre magic in general you just might want to take a peek.

Nathan The Wise at The Stratford Festival – A Review

The set for Nathan The Wise.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1779 play Nathan The Wise (translated and adapted by Edward Kemp), now playing in the Festival’s Studio Theatre, is one of the literary gems of the early Enlightenment. Lessing applied humanist logic, as opposed to blind superstition, to the problem (still with us today) of religious tolerance and the lack thereof. The effect was illuminating and for many of Lessing’s contemporaries devastating. It still packs a wallop.

Set in twelfth century Jerusalem during the Third Crusade and the reign of the relatively tolerant Sultan Saladin, the play centers around the relationships among Saladin, a captured Knight Templar whom he has pardoned because of his uncanny resemblance to the sultan’s dead elder brother, and Nathan, a wealthy Jewish merchant who is respected by the entire city for his moral rectitude and perspicacity, not to mention the kind of wealth that can help a sultan out of a financial crunch.

Nathan returns from a successful business trip to be informed by Daya, the Christian woman who manages his household, that his daughter, Rachel, has been rescued from a fire by the freed Templar. A romance ensues, posing the first of a number of ethical and moral crises Nathan must face.

The crucial moment in the play occurs when the sultan summons Nathan and challenges him to say which of the three great monotheistic religions is the true one. Nathan responds with an ingenious parable that, in essence, says “Who can tell?” We must all live our lives to the highest standards of the religion that has been bequeathed to us.

The Templar, disquieted by his love for a Jewish girl, learns from Daya that in fact Nathan’s daughter is actually the child of a Christian who entrusted her to Nathan’s care when he faced certain death. When the Templar seeks the advice of the Christian patriarch of Jerusalem, the response is horrific: The Jew must die.

The play’s action moves on to something of a happy ending, one that has echoed down the ages in dramatic literature, even in tales chronicling events in a galaxy far, far away. But behind, and overarching, the plot is the theme of ambivalence in the face of religious dogma and the truth so eloquently expressed by Rodney King in the waning days of the twentieth century – Can’t we all just get along?

Birgit Schreyer Duarte has mounted an intelligent and largely effective production. Teresa Przybylski’s abstract set stands in for ancient Jerusalem while the costumes evoke a more modern Middle East; the omnipresence of armed soldiers reminds us that even in this period of relative tolerance, tensions remain and danger lurks.

My major quibble with the production is the miscasting of the very talented Diane Flacks in the central role of Nathan. Ms. Schreyer Duarte says in her Director’s Notes that “we hope to inspire curiosity about how wisdom relates to our ideas of gender: what do we expect from women versus men as leaders? What do we consider ‘wise’ in women versus in men …?” That’s a subject worth exploring, certainly, as playwright Kate Hennig is doing to great effect in Mother’s Daughter, also playing at the Studio.

But Ms. Flacks is asked to play Nathan as a man, complete with a scruffy beard that makes her look more like a Yeshiva boy than a venerable greybeard who has sired and lost seven sons in a Crusader attack that left him penniless; when we meet him in the play, he has rebuilt his business and is once again wealthy. The curiosity inspired in me was how could this part be more effectively cast.

That being said, Ms. Flacks delivers an intelligent and persuasive reading of the role that is true to the text and that serves the text, which has nothing to do with gender roles. Once I summoned my willful suspension of disbelief and put aside my reservations I was able to become absorbed in the production and enjoy its considerable virtues.

Ms. Schreyer Duarte is working with a predominantly young cast, many of whom are making their Festival debuts. They all give good account of themselves, even when they are not quite right, mostly too young, for their parts. Perhaps Ms. Schreyer Duarte had her hands tied when it came to casting. But I couldn’t help thinking that this season’s Festival company contains a number of artists of considerable stature who could have made this powerful play, under the direction of this director, one of the Festival’s major achievements of the last several years.

Mother’s Daughter at The Stratford Festival – A Review

Shannon Taylor as Mary and Irene Poole as Catalina. Source: The Stratford Festival

Unless you hold a cum laude degree in English History you will be well advised to arrive at the Stratford Festival’s Studio Theatre early so you can pore over the program notes for Kate Hennig’s Mother’s Daughter.

Pay special attention to the two-page Tudor Timeline. Those of us laboring under the misapprehension that the royal line of succession went from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I will be surprised to find that between Henry and Queen Bess there was not only another king, Henry’s only son Edward (VI) but two other queens. One of them ruled England for just 9 days.

Mother’s Daughter is the third in a trilogy in which Hennig explores the trials, tribulations, and occasional triumphs of the women in Henry VIII’s extended family. The others, which also premiered at Stratford, are The Last Wife and The Virgin Trial.

Hennig is more interested in “interrogating” (can we declare a theatrical moratorium on that word?) the themes and personalities of the Tudor era than in historical accuracy, another reason for boning up on your history. The costumes are largely contemporary as is the electric set (both by Lorenzo Savoini) and the language is decidedly so. I seriously doubt anyone in the Tudor era used the phrase “crawling up the ass of the patriarchy.”

In this play the focus is on Queen Mary (a commanding Shannon Taylor) who reigned for about four years before dying childless, whereupon Elizabeth ascended to the throne. This is “Bloody Mary,” not to be confused with the better remembered Mary Queen of Scots. There’s that pesky history again.

A constant presence in Mary’s troubled life is the shade of her mother Catalina – better known to posterity as Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife. Henry, eager for a male heir, arranged to have that marriage annulled so he could marry Anne Boleyn, who shortly gave birth to Elizabeth. The annulment precipitated Henry’s break with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England. Are we following so far?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Catalina (an impressive Irene Poole) has some “issues” with the way she was treated and in the interest of perpetuating her own bloodline she relentlessly presses Mary to consolidate her power in the time-honored way of monarchs everywhere – by killing everyone who might challenge her right to the throne, starting with her cousin Jane Grey (Andrea Rankin) and her half-sister Elizabeth (Jessica B. Hill), while she searches for a suitable husband with whom to produce an heir.

But Mary vacillates, at first thinking that clemency will win over her enemies. A complicating factor is that Mary clings to the old religion, while Jane and Elizabeth have embraced Protestantism. She pleads with Jane to convert to no avail.

In Hennig’s version, Mary emerges as a less than resolute ruler. She hems and haws and continues to take an inordinate amount of guff from her counselor Simon (a quietly forceful Gordon Patrick White) long after her father would have said “Off with his head!”

Eventually, she gets with the program, doubles down on reinstating Catholicism, and starts reprisals against her enemies (there’s a reason she’s known to history as “Bloody Mary”). Jane Grey is beheaded and Elizabeth seems to be on shaky ground. There are heated arguments between Mary and Elizabeth and among Mary and the shades of her mother and Anne Boleyn (Ms. Hill again). The double casting is a bit confusing at first, but Hennig is making the point that both Mary and Elizabeth are their mother’s daughter.

Although her death is not depicted in the play, Mary eventually succumbed to an unknown illness, which in this production looks an awful lot like a virulent form of stomach cancer, before her marriage to Philip of Spain (also not depicted) can produce issue.

Hennig’s play is a heady brew of themes – religious absolutism versus religious tolerance, compassion versus ruthlessness, sisterly love versus the imperatives of power, the struggle of these women to impose their own vision of what the monarchy should be while navigating a culture that devalues them.

I suspect many will find it talky and hard to follow and truth be told Hennig doesn’t make it easy. What will be crystal clear however are the powerful performances director Alan Dilworth has elicited from his cast. Poole, Rankin, Hill, and White are all excellent, and with this production Shannon Taylor, who is onstage for the play’s entire two hours, takes her place as one of the Festival’s great leading ladies.

Perhaps someday we will be able to see all three plays within a short period of time, perhaps in repertory, staged with a unified visual aesthetic, with the same actresses appearing in the roles that repeat. That would be a theatrical event worth traveling for. Now that Hennig has become the associate artistic director of the Shaw Festival, perhaps this is an honor they will accord her.

Little Shop of Horrors at the Stratford Festival – A Review

Gabi Epstein as Audrey and André Morin as Seymour Krelborn in Little Shop of Horrors. Photography by Chris Young.

Let’s cut to the chase — Donna Feore is a genius.

The director/choreographer, who is known for her pyrotechnic and acrobatic dance numbers and spot-on visual flair, has taken on Little Shop of Horrors, something of a chamber rock musical, if you will, that was originally created in 1982 for the smaller stages and budgets of Off-Off-Broadway and now holds forth on the Stratford Festival’s Avon stage. But if her canvas is small the effects she achieves are monumental.

Little Shop tells the tale of Seymour Krelborn (Andre Morin), a painfully shy orphan raised in Dickensian fashion by Mr. Mushnik (Steve Ross) in a florist shop on Skid Row. Seymour pines for Audrey, the shop’s other employee, although she has eyes only for Orin Scrivello (Dan Chameroy), a sadistic dentist who beats her regularly, like a gong.

One day, Seymour comes into possession of an extraterrestrial plant, a sort of Venus flytrap that he soon discovers has a taste for human blood. The plant, which Seymour dubs Audrey II, thrives on a diet of Seymour’s blood, squeezed out of cuts that multiply as fast as the plant grows. The plant first attracts customers, then fame and fortune for Seymour and the shop, but it’s growing appetite forces Seymour to make some unpleasant moral choices.

So in addition to being a fun homage to the clichés of drive-in B-movie sci-fi and 50s-style doo-wop and R&B, Little Shop is a morality tale that asks the ever-pertinent question “What price fame?”

It’s fitting then that the show uses a sort of Greek chorus to frame the story and comment on the action. Vanessa Sears, Starr Domingue, and Camille Eanga-Selenge are nothing short of brilliant as Ronette, Crystal, and Chiffon, whose names pay homage to three famous black girl groups of the 50s and 60s.

The opening number, the show’s title song, stops just short of being a literal show stopper. Not only are these three women gorgeous, with voices to match, but Feore has created for them a version of the synchronized movement of those bygone girl groups that is rhapsodic. It’s as if she has taken a simple ditty and transformed it into a symphony. If that number doesn’t hook you, there’s something wrong with you.

And Howard Ashman (book and lyrics) and Alan Menken (music) are just getting started. It’s not surprising that this show made their reputation or that Disney snapped them up to create a string of successful scores for its animated classics.

It can be argued that the real star of Little Shop of Horrors is Audrey II and the effects wizards at the Festival have created something (several somethings actually since Audrey II keeps growing) that is simply dazzling. It’s altogether fitting that that the four puppeteers and the voice (Matthew G. Brown) that bring Audrey II to life are prominently featured in the curtain calls.

The human performers are no slouches either. Gabi Epstein, making a smashing Festival debut, has a voice that lifts the roof off the Avon, and her squeaky, little-girl New York accent is dead on. Andre Morin keeps adding to his range as an actor with his poignant and ultimately heroic Seymour, and Steve Ross adds yet another jewel to his crown as one of the Festival’s indispensable company members.

Dan Chameroy is one of those protean performers who make going to see live theatre worthwhile. His smarmy, leather-clad dentist is hysterical, but he is every bit as impressive when he plays, in rapid succession, all of the agents, impresarios, fame merchants, and hangers-on who want to hitch their wagons to Seymour’s rising star.

Everything about Little Shop is nigh on perfect. The fever dream of a deteriorating New York created by Michael Gianfrancesco (sets), Dana Osborne (costumes), Michael Walton (lights), and especially Jamie Nesbitt (projections) brought me back to the mean streets I trod in the 70s.

Finally, a tip of the hat to performers who would go unsung in a lesser production. It’s a testament to either the dedication of Stratford’s actors or Donna Feore’s ability to get great performers to appear in small roles that she has enlisted Marcus Nance and Blythe Wilson to play a wino and a bag lady. They prove the point that there are no small roles.

It’s unlikely that Little Shop will match the record set by last season’s Rocky Horror Show, but expect this one to be extended well into the Fall.

The Shaw Festival 2019, Part I

shaw festival 2019
The first four plays to open in Shaw’s 2019 season

The first four plays of The Shaw Festival’s 2019 season have opened and they’re a mixed bag. Here they are in descending order of my personal preference.

Rope

At the risk of the proverbial apples to oranges comparisons, perhaps the best of the bunch is Rope, a 1929 British melodrama by Patrick Hamilton, which is remembered today largely because of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film adaptation. Produced with admirable fidelity to the period, it is perfectly at home in the cozy Royal George theatre.

Rope is an almost unbelievably dated and creaky vehicle, one of many that once filled stages in the English-speaking world, but a game cast under the taut direction of director Jani Lauzon avoids all the pitfalls and delivers an enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

The scene is a Mayfair flat occupied by two Oxford undergraduates who have just murdered the son of one of their professors and stashed his corpse in a chest in their living room. Now they are about to host a dinner party whose guests include their victim’s father.

Why? Oh, the usual Nietzschean enthusiasm that infects privileged college students. (See also Crime and Punishment, and Leopold and Loeb.) In 1929, the material was no doubt considered ever so transgressive, before the term was invented. Then it was put across with large slatherings of melodramatic excess as evidenced by the photographs from the original production in the Shaw program.

Lauzon allows none of that and the performances, while heightened just enough to let us know that we should not take all this too, too seriously, never lapse into caricature.

Kelly Wong and Travis Seetoo are excellent as the perps, but the show belongs to Michael Therriault as one of the boys’ former teachers, whose whimsical façade masks a keen analytical mind. Therriault is a gifted performer who frequently suffers the misfortune of being miscast at Shaw. It’s nice to see him in a role that he can fully inhabit.

The Horse and His Boy

Like the Stratford Festival, Shaw likes to include at least one show each season that will appeal to children. These aren’t throwaway productions either, but often lavish extravaganzas that have no doubt been responsible for creating more than a few life-long theatre-going habits.

At Shaw, under artistic director Tim Carroll’s leadership, this mission to “hook’em while they’re young” has recently taken the form of adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels. This season’s The Horse and His Boy (following last year’s The Magician’s Nephew) is the latest installment and it’s an utter delight.

C.S. Lewis is famous as a Christian apologist and the Narnia tales preach the Christian message in the guise of children’s fantasy. I confess that I found the mythology of this adaptation a little fuzzy to follow, but then I find Christian mythology itself rather befuddling. What requires no explication are the themes and tropes that have characterized this sort of story since Homer first started improvising. And here they are well served by all concerned.

Anna Chatterton, whose play “Within The Glass” is destined to become a modern Canadian classic, has provided a sprightly adaptation with the by now de rigueur nods to current feminist orthodoxy. Christine Brubaker’s brisk direction keeps the action moving and uses every inch of Jennifer Goodman’s imaginative sets and costumes and the Festival Theatre’s large stage. It also helps that the juvenile leads, Madelyn Kriese and Matt Nethersole are altogether delightful.

In drama schools, young actors often have exercises in which they pretend to be wild animals; most of them are all too eager to put such childish things behind them as they seek their fortunes on the wicked stage. So it’s a pleasure to see talented performers, some of them well into middle age, unselfconsciously return to their roots.

Brigadoon

The big, blowout musical of the season is getting a lavish production on the Festival stage thanks to Pam Johnson’s set, Kevin Lamotte’s lighting, and Corwin Ferguson’s ingenious projections. If you have fond memories of Brigadoon and its music, you won’t be disappointed.

Matt Nethersole as Charlie and Travis Seetoo as Harry Beaton reveal themselves to be accomplished dancers and Alexis Gordon, late of the Stratford Festival, brings her lyrical soprano voice to the role of Fiona.

The two Americans who stumble on this highland Shangri-la are both excellent. George Krissa as Tommy Albright will be unrecognizable to those who saw him as Rocky in last season’s Rocky Horror Show at Stratford, and Mike Nadajewski, another Stratford stalwart, is terrific as his sidekick; he’s rapidly becoming Canada’s answer to Alan Alda.

Lest you think that you will be seeing a faithful revival of the 1947 original, allow me to disabuse you of that notion. It seems that no company can touch a “classic” these days without mucking about with it in some way. Here the changes (the “revised book” is credited to Brian Hill) make no big difference. Mr. Lundie becomes Mistress Lundie; no one will complain about that except perhaps for the male company member who will grumble over his beer, “I shoulda been playing that part!” More consequentially, to my way of thinking, the witches who served the fairy-tale nature of the story so well have been replaced by genocidal British troops.

As I say, no lasting harm is caused by these changes but still, shouldn’t a preeminent “classical” repertory company have more reverence for the original text?

Getting Married

If you are looking for a good reason for mucking about with the original text of a classic, you’ll find it in George Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married, which graces the Royal George. For starters you could cut out half an hour.

The play is (rightly) considered minor Shaw and is seldom produced, although this is the Shaw Festival’s fifth try. What is that old saying about doing the same thing over and over expecting different results? Now that the “original mandate” has been thrown out the window there seems to be little cause for reviving plays best forgotten.

The play is a potpourri of pithy points on the subject of marriage and divorce and is about as effective as that last bit of alliteration. Shaw seems to have started with a laundry list of ideas and then couldn’t bring himself to throw any of them out.

Tanja Jacobs’ rudderless direction doesn’t help. Seasoned Shavian performers are left hanging as the arguments run into and over each other and the tone shifts bewilderingly. Mrs. Collins’ scene in Act II, although nicely played by the always alluring Marla McLean, seemed like something from another play.

The production did such a poor job of holding my attention that I found myself pondering the use of regional accents at Shaw. Most of the Shaw plays I can remember seeing here (there may be exceptions) use standard Canadian accents, as does The Horse and His Boy, but Rope employs plummy Oxbridge accents and Brigadoon uses various simulations of Scottish brogues. I wonder how these decisions get made.

All in all, this first round of plays provided a rewarding weekend of cramming in four shows. The Grill on King once again fed us well and the bar at the Prince of Wales Hotel provides just the right atmosphere for those long post-theatre discussions.

The Shaw Festival
Tickets from $33 to $190
(800) 511-7429
www.shawfest.com

Grill on King
233 King Street, just off Queen.
(905) 468-7222
www.grillonking.ca

Prince of Wales Hotel
6 Picton St, corner of King
(905) 468-3246
www.vintage-hotels.com/princeofwales/

Glory at Drayton Entertainment — A Review

glory
(Source: Drayton Etertainment)

As an American visitor to Canada and an inveterate theatergoer, I take great pleasure in seeing plays and visiting theaters that few visitors manage to discover. In the process, I often see plays that don’t seem to have any real equivalents south of the border. (No, not that border!)

A case in point is Glory, a joyous depiction of the early days of women’s hockey in Canada by Tracey Power, who also doubles as choreographer. I caught the show, presented by Drayton Entertainment, in its waning days at the Hamilton Family Theatre in Cambridge, Ontario, about an hour’s drive from Stratford.

The play, which began its life at the Western Canada Theatre in Alberta, tells the true story of the Preston Rivulettes, a team of plucky young women who refused to believe that “women don’t play hockey” and who went on to regional and then national acclaim in the 1930s.

Power based her play on the lives of actual Rivulettes and their coach using their real names (the pronunciation of the surnames of the Schmuck sisters and coach Fach provides one of the show’s many laugh lines).

The basic story is predictable enough, verging on cliché – initial skepticism on the part of their reluctant coach, predictable struggles against tough odds, tension among teammates. But Power stirs in themes of Canadian anti-Semitism in the lead up to World War II. There’s a lesbian crush that is so understated that I suspect many audience members never notice, but it’s beautifully done and I found it most touching.

Yes, it can get a bit preachy at times, but Power, along with her engaging cast, brings such freshness to the tale that only the most determinedly critical will find fault.

James MacDonald (who directed a splendid Julius Caesar at the Stratford Festival in 2009) works wonders with his cast of five and Power more than earns her choreographer credit with the imaginative way in which she sketches in the agonies and ecstasies of fast-paced hockey games.

It’s hard to single out actors here so I’ll just list them: Kate Dion-Richard, Katie Ryerson, Advah Soudack, Andrew Wheeler, and Morgan Yamada.

Although Glory has closed in Cambridge, it can still be seen at other Drayton Entertainment venues. It will be at the Huron Country Playhouse II in Grand Bend, Ontario, from June 12 to June 22; at the King’s Wharf Theatre in Penetanguishene, Ontario, from June 26 to July 6; and at the Drayton Festival Theatre in Drayton, Ontario, from July 10 to July 20.

Drayton Entertainment
(855) 372-9866
www.draytonentertainment.com

The Penelopiad – A Review

Spriet Stage Grand Theatre

The Spriet Stage at London’s Grand Theatre (Source: Tourism London)

Blame The Handmaid’s Tale.

With the popularity of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian tale of a toxic patriarchy there is a temptation to view all her work as feminist screed. Never mind that Atwood herself rejects that label, the zeitgeist will not be denied.

It is to director Megan Follows’ credit that she only occasionally succumbs to that temptation in her earnest and uneven production of Ms. Atwood’s The Penelopiad at the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario.

The Penelopiad, which began life as a novella, retells the final events of Homer’s Odyssey. Narrated conversationally by Penelope from her eternal home in Hades it uses her twelve maids as a sort of Greek chorus to comment on the tale using a variety of poetic and prose forms. It’s easy to see why someone thought this Canadian best-seller lent itself to the stage. The theatrical version, produced under the aegis of the Canadian National Theatre, and featuring an all-female cast, premiered in 2007 and was revived in a critically acclaimed production, starring Ms. Follows as Penelope, in 2012.

The current incarnation, which breaks with tradition by casting a man as Odysseus, employs a great deal of theatrical imagination yet remains stubbornly bound to the page, perhaps not surprising since the text is lifted directly from the novella.

In crafting her version, Ms. Atwood was puzzled by the killing of Penelope’s maids in the original myth. Telemachus, told by his loyal nursemaid Eurycleia that they had dishonored the house by consorting with the suitors, unceremoniously strings them up to avenge the family honor. That may have been par for the course in ancient Greece but it seems a bit excessive to modern eyes. After all, weren’t the maids victims of those nasty suitors?

In creating her own alternative myth (to borrow a turn of phrase from Kellyanne Conway), Ms. Atwood is too great an artist to fall back on an evil-patriarchy-oppressed-women cliche. While not as flawed as Odysseus – in the flaw department Odysseus is a hard act to follow – Penelope is no feminist poster child. For starters, she is gnawed by jealousy over Helen’s much greater beauty and the incessant male attention it brings her. So much for sisterhood. Far from rebelling against her inferior position in the Ithacan hierarchy, she is by her own account a loyal and devoted wife who manages the household as best she can given the restraints imposed upon her. The only other major female character is no paragon of virtue either; the slave Eurycleia pointedly usurps Penelope’s role as mother to raise and pamper Telemachus and she is instrumental in getting him to hang the maids.

Most interestingly, ms. Atwood invents a backstory for the maids’ involvement with the suitors. Penelope enlists them as a sort of KGB-style dirty tricks brigade, encouraging them to consort with the suitors and badmouth her to them so as to gather valuable intelligence. In this she mirrors Odysseus’ reputation as a cunning trickster and she’s quite pleased with herself. For their parts, the maids seem to relish their role, at least initially. Of course, as we know, it all comes a cropper. When Penelope wakes from a drugged sleep (courtesy of the duplicitous Eurycleia) to discover her maids have been hanged she is devastated. Penelope is her own Greek tragedy, a heroine whose hubris, though well-intentioned, brings on unforeseen and hideous consequences.

The production works best visually and some of the stage pictures are stunning. Set designer Charlotte Dean and lighting designer Bonnie Beecher have created an evocative vision of Hades, looking something like a sub-basement of a destroyed high rise, a drab and somber place with no torture but no creature comforts either. Jamie Nesbitt’s projections add eerie touches and Deanna H. Choi’s incidental music is evocative. Dana Osborne’s costumes have their moments but she was unable to solve the problem of having Penelope’s maids take on a kaleidoscopic array of other roles.

Penelope’s tale is told quite well, as you would expect with the protean Seana McKenna in the role, but seldom truly dramatized. As Penelope tells us her story, Ms. Follows uses her game cast to illustrate and occasionally act out events. The results vary widely. Some scenes and moments are quite arresting: the rape of the maids by the suitors and their ensuing hanging, Penelope’s never-ending grey wedding dress that becomes both a shroud and a tablecloth, the industrial platform that becomes the wedding bed.
Too often, though, the choices are banal or just plain silly: Odysseus going off to Troy in a football helmet, Telemachus toting a skateboard. Some choices are odd. Why is Helen depicted as an Odissi dancer (aside from the fact that the actress does it very well)? I was reminded of the Kama Sutra sculptures from the Khajuraho Temples of India.

Most problematical are the musical numbers that feature the maids’ commentary. Atwood wrote them in a variety of verse forms that Ms. Choi’s music and Philippa Domville’s choreography attempt to bring to life. Unfortunately, the effect is to transport us to the high school musical rather than ancient Greece. These interludes are often crowd pleasers but they obscure rather than illuminate the effect they had on the page.

There are some standouts in the cast. Ellora Patnaik makes an arresting Helen and Praneet Akilla is a sprightly Odysseus although he is too often called upon to play the fool. And Tess Benger is wonderfully effective as a spoiled teenage boy as Telemachus, however you might quibble with that choice.

This is something of a farewell performance for Ms. McKenna, who has announced a one-year sabbatical in which she will travel the world. She commands the stage but I couldn’t help feeling that Ms. Follows failed to challenge her star to find more in the character. Perhaps there are no greater depths to be plumbed; Ms. Atwood’s Penelope is resolutely non-heroic. Still, for Seana McKenna it seemed a bit like she was phoning it in.

A Restaurant Tip

Garlic’s of London is just a few steps from the Grand Theatre and has been my go-to choice for pre-theater dinner. The garlic-accented menu is terrific, with the garlic fettuccine a standout. There is a sensible wine list with more than the usual number of wines by the glass; I have learned to trust the server’s suggestion.

481 Richmond Street
London, ON
519-432-4092

A Parking Tip

By all means avoid the Precise ParkLink lot on Dufferin Avenue. Their insane automated payment system, which many people find impossible to decipher, means it can take more than 45 minutes to get out of the lot.

The Penelopiad
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with one intermission
through February 9, 2019
Tickets $30 – $86
The Grand Theatre
471 Richmond Street
London, ON
519-672-8800