Sex at The Shaw Festival – A Review

I have wanted to see the 1926 play Sex ever since, as a Mae West-besotted undergraduate, I first became aware of its existence. Mae wrote, produced, directed, and starred in it and went to the slammer because of it. Who wouldn’t want to see it? Thanks to Peter Hinton-Davis and The Shaw Festival my curiosity is finally satisfied.

Sex wasn’t what I expected. Is it ever? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) I mean the play, of course. Rather than a comedy romp like her later films, the play is an old-fashioned melodrama, filled with all the hoary conventions of the genre, and yet it holds up remarkably well. Very well, in fact. So much so that it’s surprising that it is only now getting its Canadian premiere.

The story behind the play is almost as delicious as the play itself. Roundly denounced by critics and assorted bluestockings when it debuted in New York, it ran for almost a year before the forces of decency managed to get it shut down and have the entire cast and production team dragged into court. Surprisingly, they were convicted (although most of the cast were given suspended sentences). Mae went to prison – on what is now Roosevelt Island, not Jefferson Market as the program would have you believe – where she was wined and dined by the warden. She was sentenced to ten days and served eight thanks to good behavior. It was a publicity gold mine. As West herself remarked, “I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”

The play tells the lurid tale of Margy LaMont (Diana Donnelly), a “woman of easy virtue” who is not only inured to the marginal life she leads but who takes a distinct pride in being so good at it. She shares digs in Montreal – Sin City in the Prohibition era – with Rocky Waldron (a perfectly cast Kristopher Bowman), a petty criminal who specializes in seducing wealthy American women who have come north for a walk on the wild side, drugging them, and robbing them blind.

Margy returns one night with her friend and frequent customer, Lieutenant Gregg (André Sills), an English naval officer, only to discover Rocky’s latest victim passed out and near death. They revive her, but when the police arrive she accuses Margy of being the perpetrator and pays off the cop to get her out of her predicament. Margy finds it wise to skip town.

In Trinidad she meets – and enchants – young Jimmy Stanton (Julia Course), the innocent scion of an immensely wealthy Connecticut family. Jimmy proposes marriage. Lieutenant Gregg has also sailed into port and he, too, has a marriage proposal, one tied to a new and respectable life in Australia. Margy chooses Jimmy and returns to his palatial family home to meet his parents. I won’t give away the payoff to the plot, but it’s a doozy.

West’s play is a fascinating companion piece to other, more polite plays of the period that have survived the test of time and are regularly revived. Her portrayal of the underworld, the existence of which polite society of the day refused to recognize, is unvarnished but sympathetic. In this world, sex is currency, power, and social mobility all rolled into one. And women control most of the supply, a supply for which there is an ample demand. In this respect, the play is strikingly up to date and has a great deal to say to the twenty-first century audience.

Hinton-Davis has given the piece a sturdy if perhaps not definitive production in the intimate Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre. As a director, he likes to add … let’s call them grace notes … between scenes. Some work better than others but all slow down the pace. In the current fashion, he gender-swaps a few roles and, in a surprising break with current orthodoxy, he actually lets men play women’s roles. Jonathan Tan makes a perfectly believable, waif-like street-walker, while the excellent Julia Course makes a perfectly unbelievable young man.

One of Hinton-Davis’ best conceits is the music that accompanies the play from well before the opening scene until well after the final curtain. It is eclectic and not always of the period, but it is seldom less than apt. Most of it is recorded but there are live renditions of songs by several cast members, including most memorably Katherine Gautier, Monice Peter, and Allegra Fulton. Kurt Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” song serves as an envoi as the audience leaves the theatre and it is just perfect. Ryan deSouza is the music director.

The cast is universally excellent with outstanding contributions from Ric Reid as both a corrupt Montreal cop and Jimmy’s father; Fiona Byrne as Jimmy’s mother, who has a dark secret; and Allegra Fulton (who is a smashing Amanda in The Glass Menagerie) doing a Carmen Miranda-esque rendition of “Rum and Coca-Cola” in the Trinidad sequence.

In the Mae West role, Diana Donnelly faces the challenge of replacing the irreplaceable. Both she and the director wisely avoid the trap of trying to make her a Mae West impersonator. Her Margy is slender and slutty with a voice that could cut glass. She acquits herself admirably, but I kept wishing the role was filled (if that’s the right word) by someone a bit more zaftig and blowsy with more of the take no prisoners swagger that was Mae West’s trademark.

But why am I looking this gift horse in the mouth? Sex is a theatrical rarity and this revival long overdue. Who knows when you’ll have a chance to see another production? Come up and see it sometime!

Sex runs through October 13, 2019.

The Shaw Festival

www.shawfest.com

(800) 511-7429

(905) 468-2172

The Glass Menagerie at The Shaw Festival – A Review

The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee William’s 1944 memory play (and the one that established him as a major playwright) is receiving a thrilling production at The Shaw Festival. Directed by Hungarian director László Bérczes in the intimate Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, it features four nearly flawless performances that may convince you that this is the best rendition of this classic that you’ve ever seen.

In Depression-era St. Louis, the Wingfield family lives a hard-scrabble life in a cramped apartment. Amanda, a single mother from the deep South, long ago abandoned by a “charming” husband, frets over making ends meet and what will become of her children. Tom, the elder, who narrates the play wants to be a writer, but he works a low-paying job in a warehouse and disappears at night, supposedly to go the movies. Laura, the painfully shy younger daughter, has a deformed leg and a slight limp. She has dropped out of a business school and seldom leaves the flat, except to run errands for her mother. Instead, she plays obsessively with her collection of petite glass animals, the menagerie of the title.

Amanda recalls happier times at her home, Blue Mountain, when she was young and gay and never at a loss for “gentlemen callers.” The main action of the play revolves around her effort to get Tom to invite a coworker to dinner so Laura might find her own gentleman caller. It goes well. Until it doesn’t.

Thanks to Williams’ lilting prose and keen command of character, the play still packs an emotional wallop in our more cynical time, despite Tom’s warning that the play will be “sentimental.”

Bérczes’ fellow Hungarian Balázs Cziegler has done wonders with the narrow confines of the Studio’s in-the-round playing space by making it even narrower, and creating a claustrophobic warren of small rooms, highlighting the pressure of the tight quarters in which the Wingfields exist so uncomfortably.

Amanda Wingfield is a role usually associated with great ladies of the theatre and Allegra Fulton, making her Shaw debut, can feel right at home with the stars who have preceded her. Her Amanda never lapses into a caricature of the faded southern belle, an ever-present temptation with this role. Nor does she make the mistake of turning Amanda into a crazy person. While her Amanda is certainly over-dramatic and even self-delusional at times, Fulton never lets us forget that here is a strong woman doing her level best to keep her family afloat in trying times with ever diminishing prospects.

André Sills, who was a towering Coriolanus last season at the Stratford Festival, brings out the seething anger, born of frustration, that eats away at Tom, while Julia Course makes a touching Laura. Finally, Jonathan Tan hits just the right note as Jim, the gentleman caller, who all too briefly offers a ray of hope for Laura.

I had my quibbles. André Sills is such a force of nature and his outbursts of anger so genuinely terrifying that his performance, as finely observed as it is, occasionally tends to distort the shape of play. Hanne Loosen has made some odd choices of costume. I found it impossible to believe that Amanda would let Laura dress as shabbily as Loosen has and Tom’s never-changing outfit seemed far too modern. On the other hand, the embarrassingly dated dress that Amanda wears to greet Laura’s gentleman caller is perfect. The program credits two voice and dialect coaches yet, while Amanda was believable as a transplant from the deep South, Tom and Laura’s very different accents had little to do with St. Louis.

The Glass Menagerie continues through October 12, 2019

The Shaw Festival
www.shawfest.com
(800) 511-7429
(905) 468-2172

Jumbo At The Blyth Festival – A Review

Few people associate P. T. Barnum with southern Ontario. Yet one of the most traumatic events of his storied career occurred in St Thomas, a city not far from the shores of Lake Erie. There, in 1885, during a Canadian tour, his circus’s prize African elephant, Jumbo, was killed by an unscheduled freight train as he was being led to the boxcar in which he traveled. The Blyth Festival is now telling the tale of Jumbo’s death and its immediate aftermath in an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful play by Sean Dixon titled, appropriately enough, Jumbo.

The play is an uncomfortable mixture of styles and moods. The first act introduces us to the members of Barnum’s traveling circus, all actual historical figures, and to the history of Jumbo, purchased from the London zoo when he was quite young and no one knew how large he would eventually become. Dixon uses short, fragmented scenes to give us a sense of the razzle-dazzle of the circus and the colorful characters who inhabit that world. This is an approach that other Blyth productions have used quite effectively. Unfortunately, few in the cast possess the requisite circus skills to make any of this truly compelling. Only the Spanish acrobat, Juan Caicedo (Mark Segal), who does a Cirque-du-Soleil-like aerial turn in the tight space between stage and audience, impresses.

Director Gil Garratt hasn’t helped matters by using placards set on easels at the sides of the stage to indicate the geographical location of the many scenes. It adds an old-fashioned, period flavor to the proceedings, but having an actor change the signs, first one, then the other, slows the pace to a molasses-like crawl. Then, too, there are gaps between short scenes you could drive the proverbial truck through. A little tightening would go a long way.

Of course, the center of Act One is Jumbo and both playwright and performers do a good job of making him a real presence and a believable character. The best parts of the show are scenes in which we come to appreciate the bond between beast and keeper and the almost loving relationship that grows between Jumbo and the bearded lady of the circus (Lucy Meanwell).

Act One ends with Jumbo’s fatal accident which Garratt has staged very effectively. Deprived of Jumbo’s charismatic presence, Act Two suffers as it struggles to find the right tone, lurching from straight drama, to commedia dell’arte comedy, to a sort of expressive dance, and back to straight drama. When the play shambled to a close, few in the audience seemed to be aware that it had, in fact, ended.

There are some good performances. The aforementioned Mark Segal as the aerialist Caicedo is physically compelling, although his Spanish accent was often impenetrable; he also is effective in Act Two as a local butcher ready to hack Jumbo to pieces. Tony Munch is touching as Jumbo’s devoted keeper and Michael McManus is a standout as “The Armless Wonder.” Peter Bailey gives an animated and ingratiating performance as an African-American veteran of the war between the states, although his function in the play was something of a mystery to me.

The indisputable star, however, is Jumbo, or rather the enormous and ingenious life-sized puppet Gemma James-Smith has created to represent him. Almost literally a thing of rags and patches, her creation is remarkably life-like and believable thanks to some exquisite puppetry. Kurtis Leon Baker, who also plays other roles, does a masterful job of manipulating the large head and ears, while Tony Munch unobtrusively brings Jumbo’s trunk to life. When Jumbo turns his sad, soulful eyes to the audience he almost seems to be saying, “Why can’t I be in a better play?”

[Photo: The cast of Jumbo by Terry Manzo, © 2019 courtesy of The Blyth Festival.]

Jumbo plays through August 10, 2019

The Blyth Festival
423 Queen Street
Blyth, ON N0M 1H0
(877) 862-5984
https://blythfestival.com/

The Writer At FirstOntario PAC – A Review

Norm Foster, Canada’s most prolific and most produced playwright, is known primarily for light comedies that often have a tinge of sadness running just beneath the surface, as was the case with Jonas and Barry In The Home, which I saw last year.

The Writer, his latest play now having its world premiere at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catherines, reverses that formula. It’s a nicely observed character study of a father-son relationship with occasional flashes of humor. It also contains a clever plot twist that makes it something of a mystery play.

Donald Wellner (Guy Bannerman) is living in a barely furnished bachelor flat. His wife has turned him out and his daughter has turned her back on him because it has come to light that he has been paying the rent of an English actress for 33 years, seemingly prima facie evidence of an illicit affair. His son Blake arrives to check up on his father and try to understand the mystery behind the breakup. It’s a tough knot to unravel.

The senior Wellner, we learn, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, A Kind Heart, which has made him very wealthy, despite the fact that he has never had another play produced in the 35 years since its premiere. When the play was running in the West End, he became close to a beautiful actress in the cast, but he insists that nothing untoward happened, just a deep and abiding friendship. Why then has he been paying her rent all these years? “It’s complicated” is the best he can manage.

It soon becomes apparent that a marital blowup is not Donald’s only problem. He is becoming forgetful. In fact, he is slowly, inexorably declining into dementia. Dead center stage, serving as a metaphor for the creative void in Donald’s life since the success of A Kind Heart, is a manual typewriter with a single piece of paper on which he is writing his latest play. He never gets past page 10.

In eight scenes, over the course of eight years, Foster masterfully details the ravages and cruel ironies of the disease. As he becomes increasingly disoriented, for example, Donald’s Scrabble skills remain razor sharp while his memory of what happened this morning has vanished.

His son Blake (Jamie Williams) is a model of the devoted child who perseveres with kindness in the face of his father’s casual micro-aggressions. Blake is a travel writer, a successful one apparently, but his father can never bring himself to admit that his son is a writer at all. Blake is single and therefore must be gay, despite his claims to the contrary.

Throughout the play the question of the English actress and the “complicated” relationship resurfaces. In the final scenes, as dementia chips away at Donald’s normal reticence, the truth comes out and helps explain Donald’s 35 years of non-productivity. Foster’s dialog is lean and muscular, devoid of ornament. This can give the illusion that he is merely sketching in his characters, but the economy works wonders in propelling the piece to its conclusion.

Bannerman, a 30-year veteran of the Shaw Festival, is quite brilliant in delineating the small steps that take Donald from gruff old man to a blank state. Williams is equally impressive as his long-suffering son. Director Patricia Vanstone has done a lovely job of orchestrating these performances into a moving duet. The Writer is Foster’s sixtieth play and he makes it seem like he’s just hitting his stride. Peter Hartwell, who also did costumes, has contributed an elegantly simple set that moves from bachelor pad to nursing home seamlessly. Chris Malkowski has lit it with discretion.

This production is part of The Foster Festival, now in its fourth season, and devoted exclusively to the work of Canada’s greatest comic playwright. The Writer has closed but the Festival continues with Hilda’s Yard (July 10 – 26, 2019), and Beside Myself, a musical (July 31 – August 17, 2019).

The Festival’s home, at least for now, is an ultra-modern performance space, one of several in the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre. The seats are super-comfortable and the sightlines excellent. I hope the Festival continues to prosper. It would be wonderful if it blossomed into a multi-venue event that would showcase not just Foster’s work but that of other Canadian playwrights. From what I’ve been able to sample, there seems to be a treasure trove of impressive Canadian work going back decades.

Cakewalk at The Blyth Festival – A Review

The mission of the Blyth Festival in tiny Blyth, Ontario, is to produce new Canadian work on rural themes. That might seem a tough nut to crack, but they’ve been at it successfully for 45 years now and the quality of the plays I’ve seen has been remarkable.

Not everything they produce is new. They regularly remount productions from earlier years that have stood the test of time. A case in point is Cakewalk, a very funny, old-fashioned, family-friendly comedy by Colleen Curran from 1984. It was Ms. Curran’s first professionally produced play and it is a remarkably solid piece for a tyro playwright.

Director Kelli Fox has wisely chosen not to update the play. A medley of pop hits from the era (courtesy of sound designer Verne Good) ushers us back to 1984 at the Canada Day celebration of a small Ontario town. The setting is a basement room where five of the fifteen contestants in the best cake competition will be sequestered awaiting the call for the judging.

Curran has assembled an assortment of characters that opens up great comic possibilities. For starters, there’s Vivien Leigh Cleary (Rachel Jones), a nun, somewhat uncertain in her vocation, who has come to the competition in mufti, feeling that appearing in her habit might draw unwanted attention and asking her best friend to keep her “secret identity” secret.  That friend, Martha (Rebecca Auerbach), runs a new-fangled healthy food restaurant called Heaven on Earth with her draft-dodging American husband; she is eager to have kids but despairs of ever being able to conceive. Ruby (Catherine Fitch), the wife of a tow truck operator who has set a goal of towing every car in town, shows up in her Cub Scout den mother uniform, convinced it will win the judges’ sympathy. Augusta (Caroline Gillis) has decided to enter the three-tiered cake she has created for next day’s wedding of her daughter, Tiffany (Lucy Hill), who is most definitely not amused. Finally there is Taylor, a painfully inept but ever so sweet archaeologist who is the sole man to enter a cake in the competition. He’s single and looking for love. No extra points for guessing who he falls for.

The plot careens along its zany course as Ruby, desperate to win, begins sabotaging other contestants’ cakes, attempts to get Martha disqualified, and finally makes cakes mysteriously disappear. Meanwhile, Augusta is determined to keep the wedding cake from the grasp of daughter Tiffany who is equally determined to claim it lest the surprise on her wedding day be spoiled. Of course, Taylor and Vivien fall hopelessly in love the moment they set eyes on one another, a totally unbelievable moment that the actors and director manage to make utterly believable.

The cast, many of them longtime Blyth veterans, is terrific. Catherine Fitch, who I love every time I rewatch Slings and Arrows, makes a delightfully bitchy villain of Ruby. Caroline Gillis (Slings and Arrows again) is spot on as the mother saddled with an impossible daughter and Lucy Hill as that daughter is a delicious bit of overwrought crumpet. Rebecca Auerbach creates an utterly sympathetic Martha. Rachel Jones does a masterful job of tiptoeing through the minefield of playing a nun in the throes of first love; she is utterly charming and very funny. Nathan Howe, who was so enjoyable as an amiable doofus in last season’s Wing Night at the Boot, is just as engaging and loveable this time around. At play’s end we feel genuinely pleased that he and Leigh have found one another.

Is Cakewalk perfect? Of course not, but in a way that’s beside the point. There is so much good humor and heartfelt humanity in this piece that minor flaws become part of its charm. This is the sort of play that audiences love but that hoity-toity New York critics would hate; it’s New York’s loss. Sure, Director Fox might have dialed back some of the performances, but there are times when, as Mick Jagger so sagely observed, too much is never enough. As designer, Laura Gardner, works wonders with what is obviously a limited budget, the bulk of which must have gone into Tiffany’s deliriously tacky wedding gown.

The Blyth Festival is one of Ontario’s best-kept secrets, at least for American visitors. I would urge my compatriots who are heading anywhere near the Canadian shores of Lake Huron to seek out this gem. And if you need further encouragement, the smashing Cowbell Brewery and restaurant is on the edge of town.

Cakewalk plays through August 10, 2019

(Illustration courtesy of The Blyth Festival.)

Blyth Festival
423 Queen Street
Blyth, ON N0M 1H0
(877) 862-5984
https://blythfestival.com/

Private Lives at The Stratford Festival – A Review

Vodka and vermouth, brandy and Bénédictine, champagne and kyr, none of them are more intoxicating or will make you giddier than the combination of Lucy Peacock and Geraint Wyn Davies in the right comic roles. Elyot and Amanda Chase, the not so gay divorcés of Noel Coward’s 1931 confection Private Lives, are just such roles and Carey Perloff’s production at the Stratford Festival’s Avon Theatre allows us to drink our fill.

Elyot and Amanda are exemplary avatars of the English upper classes with no want of money, no apparent professions, and no purpose in life except to gratify the whim of the moment while carrying themselves as if they were characters in a Noel Coward play, which as a matter of fact they are. Five years divorced and newly married to others, they find themselves on their honeymoons in adjoining rooms with equally adjoining balconies in a posh Deauville hotel. When they discover this inconvenient truth the shock of recognition soon changes to the realization that they were, after all, meant for each other and they unceremoniously desert their new spouses, Victor and Sybil, to live in sin in Amanda’s Paris pied a terre. (Although, as Elyot helpfully points out, in the eyes of Catholics they are still married.)

Their rekindled marital idyll soon returns to the bickering of old, the bickering turns to screaming, and the screaming turns to physical combat. Enter Victor and Sybil, who have tracked down their errant spouses. Elyot and Amanda have once again decided to go their separate ways, but by the end of Act III, Coward has delightfully turned the tables, with Elyot and Amanda once again reunited in their loving antipathy and Victor and Sybil at each others’ throats. It seems inevitable that they, too, are meant for each other.

Private Lives may have something to say about “patriarchy” and “misogyny,” although I doubt either word crossed Coward’s mind when he was writing this elegant bit of pure entertainment. Deep down in its private life Private Lives is as light and airy as the profiteroles served in that posh French hotel. It reminds me somewhat of Oscar Wilde in its insistence on the importance of not being earnest.

Of course, it is now hard to pass a day without hearing the words patriarchy or misogyny at least once and some of the current zeitgeist inevitably finds its way into Perloff’s production. It is doubtful Noel Coward, who played Elyot in the original production, delivered the line “I’d like to chop off your head with a meat axe” with the venom Wyn Davies summons up. But then we live in coarser times.

One of the play’s funniest moments occurs when Elyot says, “It doesn’t suit women to be promiscuous” and Amanda replies dryly, “It doesn’t suit men for women to be promiscuous.” It’s as funny today as it was in 1931 and it earns a round of applause. What is probably even funnier today than it was way back then is Elyot’s next line: “How modern.”

So, yes, this is not your parent’s or grandparent’s Private Lives, but it will do quite nicely for our 2019 reality. Curmudgeons may grumble that some of Coward’s lighter than air wit has been lost or that the leads are too old for their parts or that the sets (by Ken MacDonald) are not Deco enough, or that color-blind casting has no place in Coward. To them I say simply, “Don’t quibble, Sybil.” Sit back and enjoy.

If Geraint Wyn Davies is too old for Elyot (Coward was 32 when he played it; Wyn Davies is 30 years older) it can be said that, first, he does not look his age and second neither the actors nor the director have tried to fool us into thinking that Elyot and Amanda are thirtysomethings. If anything, Wyn Davies and Peacock add a note of poignancy that would have been absent if younger players had taken the parts.

Wyn Davies seems to have taken his cue from Elyot’s line that we should all live our lives like overgrown babies and it works beautifully. When he plays the coquette with Amanda he does so with the sly acknowledgement that he must look slightly ridiculous at his age and, as always, his timing is impeccable.

Lucy Peacock, whose age chivalry prevents me from mentioning, is a perfect foil for Wyn Davies and a gifted comedienne in her own right. Her series of reactions when she spots Elyot in the mirror of her compact is a master class in comic acting.

As the new and soon to be discarded spouses Mike Shara and Sophia Walker are delightful. Shara, who has been away from the Stratford Festival far too long, is especially effective as the prim and proper British gent who has fallen for and seeks to “protect” his older wife.

Perloff has directed with a light hand, that is to say deftly. She wisely allows her actors to play to their strengths and has resisted any temptation to lard on “social significance” where none is intended.Private Lives is one of the highlights of what has so far proven to be an uneven Stratford season. By all means add it to your list of must-sees

Othello at The Stratford Festival – A Review

Shakespeare’s Othello is, of course, a tragedy. The tragedy in the current modern dress production of the play at the Festival Theatre is that some fine actors suffer under the misdirection of director Nigel Shawn Williams.

Williams seemingly has never seen a dramatic moment he didn’t want to underline, then underline again. This has worked for him in past productions when used with restraint, notably in last season’s To Kill A Mockingbird, but here emphasis becomes excess. He has bookended the play proper with dramatic tableaux. Before the play begins we see Iago surrounded by black hooded figures dancing frenetically in place to loud hip-hop music as Othello and Desdemona are wed in the background. At play’s end, three female members of the Venetian armed forces drop their weapons and blubber like paid mourners at a Greek funeral. These interpolations are as screamingly obvious as they are unnecessary.

Had he let it go at that perhaps I could have forgiven him, but with the assistance of designer Denyse Karn (sets, lights, projections) he constantly comments on — and detracts from — the drama on stage. Karn’s set is a series of blank walls on which white on black drawings are projected. At first, simple architectural sketches outline doors quite effectively. As the play unfolds and Iago begins to elaborate his evil plans the walls are filled with abstract eruptions of clouds, blood oozing downwards, shattered glass, and cracks. It’s as if Williams doesn’t think Shakespeare is doing a good enough job and that only with a little help will the audience “get it.” Not only do these busy projections fail to illuminate the text, they distract from what the actor is doing downstage. They also have the cumulative effect of looking cheap, which I’m guessing they aren’t.

Another major disappointment is Gordon S. Miller, a fine actor who began his Stratford career as a wonderfully comic presence and has lately graduated to major dramatic roles. Alas, his Iago is unfocused and hampered by poor diction, which garbles words and ill serves the poetry. This is the sort of thing that a decent speech department at a drama school can correct and I am surprised the Festival’s staff of vocal coaches didn’t provide more assistance. Adding to his woes the lighting frequently leaves the bottom half of his face in shadow.

Over the years I have realized that if an actor is doing something amiss on a Stratford stage the director is at fault. Williams seems to have decided that Iago is evil incarnate, which is fair enough and the default reading of the role. Yet he allows Miller to occasionally lapse into comedic phrasing that undercuts the evil and gets laughs when a shudder would be more appropriate. It sometimes seems that instead of embracing the evil in Iago the actor is sending up Shakespeare’s character. What should be a tense journey as Iago ascends to greater and greater villainy until the bloody denouement becomes a bumpy road. This is not to say that Miller’s portrayal is without its strengths; he has some fine moments, which make the shortfall all the more unfortunate.

Amelia Sargisson was absolutely delightful as Eve in last season’s Paradise Lost. It may be that she is too inexperienced to tackle Desdemona, but she gets little assistance from Williams and Karn. This Desdemona is more like the bouncy thirteen-year-old Midwestern president of some pop star’s fan club than the elegant, well-born, intelligent, and self-possessed young woman Shakespeare describes. Her costumes are for the most part tacky and down-market, hardly befitting the “most exquisite lady” she is supposed to be.

Williams and Karn have also done the actress a major disservice by having her play her death scene in skin-tight, almost sheer panties. The Stratford Festival has made a laudable point of making sure its actresses are respected and protected in their costuming. An “intimacy coach” was enlisted for the recent production of Bakkhai and Donna Feore spoke eloquently about how she ensured that the strippers in Guys and Dolls were able to convey the smuttiness of their profession without being literally exposed. By contrast, the scantily clad Desdemona thrashing about on her deathbed is borderline pornographic.

Fortunately, and against considerable odds, Michael Blake is an exemplary Othello. He brings out the character’s natural intelligence as well as the martial derring-do that first attracted Desdemona to him and he speaks Shakespeare’s poetry with admirable clarity. Most importantly, he shows us clearly the many small steps the character takes in moving from calm assurance of his wife’s love to a jealousy that tears him apart. Had the other major characters achieved his level of performance this would have been an Othello for the ages, in spite of Williams’ over-emphatic direction.

Good work, too, comes from Laura Condlin as Emilia, Iago’s wife, who is here depicted as a sort of military attendant to Othello’s wife. Johnathan Sousa deftly conveys Cassio’s seemingly contradictory devotion to duty along with his weakness for alcohol and penchant for whoring. Michelle Giroux portrays the Duke as a Duchess with no damage done, except to the iambic pentameter. Juan Chioran, Michael Spencer-Davis, and Randy Hughson are reliably sturdy in smaller roles.

Williams deploys a relatively small cast (two fewer than the Festival’s last staging of the play), a third of them women, most of whom portray lineless soldiers. But male or female, Williams’ troops betray an almost amusing lack of familiarity with weaponry and military bearing.

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!