The Crucible at The Stratford Festival – A Review

Powered by three amazing star performances, Arthur Miller’s searing drama, The Crucible, is receiving a towering production in the Stratford Festival’s Avon Theatre under the direction of actor Jonathan Goad.

The Crucible is set during the Salem, Massachusetts, witch trials of the late seventeenth century and the plot hews closely to the historical facts. But no one who saw the original production in 1953 could fail to see the parallels between the play and the contemporary witch hunt being pursued by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in Washington, DC. Just in case, Miller included narration (absent from the Stratford version) that connected the dots for them. It was the dawn of the Cold War and with Russia having joined the nuclear club, the “Red Scare” was in full bloom.

American intellectuals, especially writers, were being hauled before the HUAC to confess their past leftist leanings and “name names” of others they knew to have been once members of the Communist Party. Those named and those who refused to cooperate had their careers destroyed. It is said that Miller began work on The Crucible after his good friend, the film director, Elia Kazan, told him that he would indeed name names in his appearance before the committee. A few years after The Crucible opened, Miller’s life imitated his art. He was called before the committee, refused to name names, and was convicted of contempt, fined, and blacklisted.

In the play, John Proctor, a hardscrabble farmer, is caught up in the hysteria surrounding witchcraft in Salem. The Reverend Parris, a dour Harvard-trained churchman, sees a group of girls dancing in the woods with the Barbadian slave Tituba. The girls claim they were merely dancing, not engaging in any satanic behavior. In fact, at the instigation of their ringleader, Abigail Williams, a former servant in the Proctor household, they were attempting to put a curse on Proctor’s wife Elizabeth. It seems that Abigail and Proctor had had a brief affair, of which Proctor quickly repented. Elizabeth Proctor knew of the affair and banished Abigail from the house. Abigail believes Proctor still has feelings for her and hopes to win him back.

Rev. Parris summons Rev. Hale, a young churchman wise in the ways of the occult, to investigate and things quickly spiral out of control. As accusations of witchcraft mount, Deputy Governor Danforth, a fire-breathing religious extremist, arrives to rid Massachusetts, which was essentially a theocratic state, of this evil. Miller paints a vivid and terrifying picture of a society gone mad and in Danforth he has created a villain of mythic proportions.

Goad’s direction of a uniformly superb cast creates a level of tension and terror that becomes almost unbearable as the play progresses inexorably to its tragic end. Tim Campbell is the very model of the rock-hard frontiersman who may not be particularly devout but who has an unerring sense of right and wrong. His struggle to stay true to himself while protecting his wife is heart-rending. As his wife, Shannon Taylor provides a portrait of a love that survives the greatest possible strain.

However, it is Wayne Best’s terrifying portrait of Danforth that provides the thematic center of the play and offers the clearest warning of the dangers of religious fanaticism. Best has done yeoman’s service for the Festival for many seasons, typically taking on secondary roles. It is gratifying to see him in a role that showcases his manifest talents so brilliantly. His Danforth may be the single best performance of the Stratford season.

Solid support comes from Rylan Wilkie as Hale, who comes to realize that there is no substance to the many charges of witchcraft and pleads to stem the bloodletting. Scott Wentworth is equally good in showing how Rev. Parris unravels as the witch madness comes ever closer to home, leaving him bankrupt and subject to death threats.

Like Shakespeare, Miller had an ability to create small roles that allow good actors to create fully rounded characters and make a mark on the audience. Ijeoma Emesowum as Tituba, John Dolan as Giles Corey, and Maria Vacratsis as Rebecca Nurse make the most of the opportunity given them. And a word must be said of the director’s nine-year-old daughter, Aviva Goad, who is quite scary as Rev. Parris’ daughter Betty, who may or may not be bewitched.

The performances are so strong that it’s easy to overlook the physical production, but Michael Gianfrancesco (sets and costumes) and Bonnie Beecher (lights) have provided a stripped down and functional environment that brings the acting front and center.

The Crucible is Miller’s most-produced play. I’ve seen a few of those productions but never one as powerful and emotionally shattering at this one.

The Crucible continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 25, 2019. If there’s any justice in this world, it will be extended.

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The Front Page at The Stratford Festival – A Review

In 1928, The Front Page was a huge Broadway hit for the legendary writing team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Set in the Press Room of a Chicago courthouse, it tells the story of how rapacious newspaper editor Walter Burns tries to retain the services of his star reporter, Hildy Johnson, who perversely has decided to get married and go to New York to work in advertising. All this against the background of the unfolding story of the pending execution of the hapless Earl Williams, accused of the murder of a black cop on the eve of an election in which the corrupt Chicago political machine desperately needs the black vote. Hildy’s plans are sabotaged when Williams mysteriously escapes and the Chicago police department goes nuts trying to find him. Needless to say, it’s a comedy.

The play is a sprawling ensemble piece (the current production boasts a cast of 23).  That may be why it is seldom revived, but it makes it an ideal choice for the Festival Theatre’s thrust stage. In addition to the colorful assortment of hack reporters, including one given to fastidiousness and poetry, there is the corrupt mayor and the incompetent buffoon of a sheriff; the condemned man, Earl Williams, and Mollie Malone, the shopworn prostitute who has befriended him; Hildy’s betrothed and her starchy mother; and a Runyonesque criminal whom Burns uses to do the dirty work.

Most people today are familiar with the story thanks to the rollicking 1940 film adaptation, His Girl Friday (on which Hecht collaborated). The film starred Cary Grant as Burns and Rosalind Russell as a gender-swapped Hildy. The current Stratford Festival production is an adaptation by Michael Healey of the original stage play in which the genders are switched once again. This time around, Hildy Johnson reverts to his male persona, while Walter Burns becomes Penelope “Cookie” Burns, Walter’s widow.

Healey has also brought the racial dynamics into the foreground. According to the program notes, the character of Alderman Willoughby, a black politician, that was eliminated before the original play opened, has been “reconstructed” in the present version. It works well as Abernathy turns up the pressure on the mayor by threatening another race riot if Earl Williams isn’t executed on schedule. There is also a black reporter in the Press Room who maintains his dignity amidst the casual racism of his peers (and, yes, the n-word is spoken).

Those who tremble when they hear that a great classic play has been “updated” or “adapted” (I am one of them) can relax. The sturdy bones of the story are intact and Healy proves himself to be a comic writer with whom Hecht and MacArthur would have been happy to get drunk. The plot remains a magnificent Rube Goldberg device that, once set in motion, careens wildly and improbably to its conclusion.

The play has been given a perfect period feel by set designer Lorenzo Savoini and costume designer Dana Osborne. Kimberly Purtell’s lighting and John Gzowski’s sound design are appropriately unobtrusive.

Of course, material like this can fall flat unless it is carried off by an impeccable cast and that is where this production, under the astute eye of actor-turned-director Graham Abbey, excels. (Abbey, not so incidentally, is delivering a star turn as Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor this season.)

Although Hildy Johnson is considered the co-lead in the play, and Stratford veteran Ben Carlson is rock solid in the role, Hildy is pretty much the straight man in the play, the fixed center around which the comedy swirls. The real star part belongs to Cookie Burns and Maev Beaty is nothing short of incandescent in the role. Hers is easily the funniest performance at Stratford this season, and she has some stiff competition. Her flat Chicago accent is as impeccable as her comic timing. Her takes and asides are mini master classes in the art of comedy. In fact, the only thing wrong with Beaty’s performance is that it doesn’t begin until the second act.

What makes the play and this production a total joy are the performances of the featured players. As Mollie Malone, Sarah Dodd is heartbreaking, while Johnathan Sousa brings an original take to the small role of the condemned man. Mike Shara hams it up shamelessly (and perfectly) as the bumbling sheriff while Juan Chioran is majestically slimy as the dressed-to-the-nines mayor. Michael Blake is impeccable as the flashy crook Diamond Louis; he is an actor who seems to be able to change voices as easily as he changes costumes. Amelia Sargisson and Rosemary Dunsmore are perfect as, respectively, Hildy’s fiancée and her mother. Of the gang of reporters, Michael Spencer-Davis is first among equals as the prissy Bensinger.

The Front Page is a solid hit for the Festival, one which I can wholeheartedly recommend.

The Front Page  will play in repertory at the Festival Theatre through October 25, 2109.

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Birds of a Kind at the Stratford Festival – A Review

This season, the Stratford Festival’s Studio Theatre is home to two plays set in the Holy Land, both of them dealing with issues if identity and religious tolerance. They also share most of the same actors, so seeing them both makes for an instructive exercise. Nathan the Wise was written in the eighteenth century and set during the Crusades, while Birds of a Kind is a 2017 play set in the troubled present. Nathan is the better play, but Birds is by far the better production.

Wajdi Mouawad’s Birds of a Kind (translated from the French by Linda Gaboriau) is the result of a commission from Stratford’s artistic director, Antoni Cimolino, who also directs this production. The play is inspired by Natalie Zemon Davis’ book Trickster Travels about al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan, a sixteenth century Moroccan diplomat captured by Christian pirates who, impressed by his obvious erudition, presented him to Pope Leo X as a sort of trophy. He converted to Christianity and became known as Leo Africanus. He went on to write a number of scholarly works including what would become the standard work on Africa until the age of modern exploration. Eventually, he returned to the Maghreb and was lost to history.

Mouawad’s play is not about al-Wazzan himself (although he appears as a dream character). Taking its inspiration from a tale told by al-Wazzan about a bird who is able to live both with its own kind and in the sea with the fishes, moving between the two realms at will, the play asks whether people who exist across a seemingly unbridgeable ethnic, religious, and political divide can coexist. Is it possible to move from one of these worlds to the other as easily as birds fly over walls built out of fear and hatred? Or to exist in both? The answer would seem to be no.

Eitan is a young man studying genetics in New York. His parents, Norah and David, live in Berlin. Norah, is a German Jew; David was born in Israel, came to Berlin as a teen, and now considers himself German. His grandfather, Etgar, is a Holocaust survivor who emigrated to Israel where he married Leah (whose origins are unclear). Wahida is a Moroccan student writing her PhD thesis on al-Wazzan. Eitan and Wahida meet cute in the library at Columbia University and fall in love. Eitan’s parents, David and Norah, are less than enthused by this development (Wahida’s parents are both dead). Eitan’s grandfather Etgar, now estranged from his wife Leah, feels that love is love and is more supportive. After an explosive confrontation at a seder dinner, Eitan is convinced he can’t be related to people like this and, in one of the play’s least plausible devices, spirits away the silverware to do a little DNA analysis.

The tests show that while Eitan is indeed David and Norah’s son, Etgar is not David’s father. With Wahida in tow, Eitan travels to Israel to confront his grandmother and unravel the mystery. Thanks to a terrorist bombing that sends Eitan, comatose, to the hospital, the entire family is reunited in Jerusalem. Wahida, meanwhile, is confronted with the unpleasant reality of being a Muslim in an uneasy Israel. Eventually, the mystery is solved with devastating consequences.

Mouawad has created a gallery of wonderfully vivid characters, each with their own distinct voice, and director Cimolino has elicited terrific performances from all of them. As noted, most of the cast members also appear in Nathan the Wise, but to much less effect. What a difference a great director can make!

Much of the play is given to passionate speechifying by the main characters and while the writing is very good indeed, almost poetic in places, the play is often in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own earnestness. One of Mouawad’s more successful conceits is to have characters speak in Hebrew, German, and Arabic at times; it might seem a bit arch, but thanks to projected subtitles it works beautifully.

Birds of a Kind may prove to be one of the more controversial productions Stratford has ever mounted. Mouawad does not paint a particularly flattering portrait of modern day Israel. One character goes into an extended anti-Arab rant that is chilling in its resemblance to both Nazi rhetoric and the bloviations of present-day “nationalists.” While the politics of the play, such as they are, reflect the consensus of what is loosely considered “the left” in the West, I can see that doctrinaire Zionists, who feel that any criticism of Israel is tantamount to antisemitism, might take offense. Time will tell.

What is less in dispute is the quality of the physical production that Cimolino has given the play. It is the best I can remember seeing in The Studio, a space that imposes definite restrictions on designers. Francesca Callow’s ingenious set, which cleverly includes a perfect place on which to project the translations of the play’s many languages, solves all the problems the space creates, and the simple device that opens the play is magical. Michael Walton’s lighting, Adam Harendorf’s sound design, and Jamie Nesbitt’s projections work together to create one stunning effect after another.

I hesitate to single out individual actors because they are all so good, but I was especially impressed by Sarah Orenstein’s fiery Norah, Alon Nashman’s tortured David, and Jakob Ehman’s effusive Eitan. I hope the Festival will find leading roles for Orenstein in future seasons and that both Nashman and Ehman will be invited back.

Birds of a Kind is not easy theatre — it runs just over three hours for starters — but it will reward the thoughtful theatregoer, especially if seen together with Nathan the Wise. If only Stratford had a good Middle Eastern restaurant where we could gather over meze and mint tea to discuss it all.

Birds of a Kind continues in repertory at the Stratford Festival through October 13, 2019.

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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!

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.