‘The Best Brothers’ and ‘Hirsch’ at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival 2012

I am fond of saying there is a Poutine Curtain that prevents Canadian culture from penetrating south of the border. So

"The Best Brothers" and "Hirsch" are playing at the Studio Theatre.

one of the pleasures of visiting the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is the chance to see the work of Canadian playwrights who otherwise might have gone unnoticed. Most often, these plays are presented in the small black box space of the Studio Theatre.

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‘Much Ado About Nothing’ at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival 2012

Beatrice and Benedick are the fun couple of the Shakespeare canon. As seemingly incompatible as oil and water they are nonetheless fated for each other and the pathetic fallacy of their inevitable coming together, engineered with a clever trick by their friends, is what makes them so indelible in our memories and makes Much Ado a perennial favorite.

It’s a special treat when we get to see the parts played by a real-life married couple and in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s delightful production at the Festival Theatre the couple in question is Deborah Hay and Ben Carlson, both Festival stalwarts. It’s an interesting choice.

Perhaps because neither of them are in, shall we say, the first bloom of youth, director Christopher Newton seems to have chosen to emphasize their age. So Beatrice becomes a sort of old-maid-in-training, all flutters and dithery indecision. I found it a bit distracting, especially since Ms. Hay is more than capable of turning in a far more sophisticated portrait.

Still, one can’t fault her comic timing and a pratfall on the curving staircase that dominates Santo Loquasto’s set is sheer brilliance. Once I got past my initial misgivings, I found her performance quite enjoyable.

Ben Carlson gave his usual solid performance, but the fact that it seemed barely indistinguishable from the one he gave in last season’s Misanthrope was vaguely disconcerting. His delivery tends to be precise and emphatic giving his sparring with Beatrice something of a donnish quality.

If one can quibble with the central performances, the rest of the cast is above reproach. As the young lovers torn asunder by a vicious slander, Hero and Claudio, Bethany Jillard and Tyrone Savage are near ideal. Savage even makes Claudio almost sympathetic, a feat many feel is impossible. Juan Chioran as Don Pedro and James Blendick as Leonato are impeccable and, under Newton’s deft direction, they turn the scene in which they make an eavesdropping Benedick believe Beatrice is madly in love with him into comic bliss. And Timothy D. Stickney manages to stand out in the small role of Friar Francis.

For reasons that remain opaque to me, Newton chose to set his production in early twentieth century Brazil, but at least it doesn’t distract from the goings on and it allowed Loquasto to create some spiffing military uniforms.

This production of Much Ado may not be the best the Festival ever mounts but for now ‘twill serve.

Much Ado About Nothing continues at the Festival Theatre though October 27, 2012.
For more information visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.

‘A Word Or Two’ at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival 2012

By his own admission, Christopher Plummer was quite the heartbreaker in his youth. Today, just shy of his 83rd birthday, he’s still at it. At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Avon Theatre he is sweeping audiences off their feet and leaving them begging for more as he strolls jauntily into the night.

A Word Or Two is a one-man show that Plummer has been doing for some time in aid of various fundraisers and charity events. I never saw any of its earlier incarnations but it seems safe to say that under the gentle guidance of director Des McAnuff it has reached its ideal form. [Read more...]

‘The Matchmaker’ at Stratford Shakespeare Festival 2012

The Matchmaker is playing at the Festival Theatre through October 27.

Thornton Wilder’s farce The Matchmaker is perhaps best known, to the extent it is known at all these days, as the progenitor of the musical smash Hello Dolly. It would be nice if the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s current production changes all that.

Here is a production that is every bit as worthy of a New York transfer as the Stratford musicals that usually make the trip. That might not make much sense to the money people, but New York audiences would be grateful and American theatre might rediscover one of its great treasures.
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‘Henry V’ at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival 2012

Festival Theatre

I suppose there’s no escaping that Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film version of Henry V is the Henry of our age, even twenty odd years later. So any new production, let alone one that carries the imprimatur of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, has to be prepared for comparisons to a masterpiece. Leaving the Festival Theatre after Des McAnuff’s new production, I heard several such comparisons, none of them favorable.

In a way, that’s unfair because McAnuff has presented a thoughtful and well thought through rendition of the play, one that emphasizes the hell in war rather than the glory. For starters, he has not shied away from including Henry’s blood-curdling threat to the townspeople of Harfleur or the grisly slaughter of his French prisoners to free more men for the battlefield, details that are often excised from more jingoistic productions. [Read more...]

‘Wanderlust’ at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival 2012

Robert Service is Canada’s most famous poet and one of the most financially successful bards of all time. His tall tales and sentimental verse of the Yukon territory, penned at the turn of the last century, didn’t win many critical kudos from the literati, but regular folks were drawn to their steady rhythms and accessible messages and made Service very rich. [Read more...]

’42nd Street’ at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival 2012

42nd Street is one of 14 productions featured at this year's Stratford Shakespeare Festival, which runs through Oct. 29.

Perhaps the highlight of the “naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty” revival of 42ndStreet at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Festival Theatre is the first appearance of beloved leading lady Cynthia Dale since Des McAnuff took over as artistic director. (Cue the conspiracy theorists.) [Read more...]

‘Pirates of Penzance’ at Stratford Shakespeare Festival (2012)

As part of the 2012 Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Pirates of Penzance is playing at the Avon Theatre until October 27.

Gilbert and Sullivan, once Stratford Festival regulars, are back! And the delightful production of Pirates of Penzance at the Avon Theatre makes you wonder what took them so long.

Pirates tells the unbelievably silly tale of Frederic a young man with a pathological sense of duty who, thanks to a mix up on the part of his nursemaid was apprenticed to a pirate instead of to a pilot. Having fulfilled his commitment to learn the pirate trade, he has now come of age and is determine to do what every right-thinking Englishman would do and wipe the pirate scourge from Britain’s shores.

Not that this band of pirates is particularly fearsome. They are notoriously soft of heart, refusing for example to take advantage of orphans. Word has gotten around and thus everyone they accost claims to be parentless leaving them rather bereft of booty.

When they happen upon a bevy of girls who are all the wards of Major General Stanley the attraction is as mutual as it is instantaneous. The fact that a middle-aged man had managed to amass such a superfluity of nubile wards might make a modern observer wonder what the old dog was up to but never mind, G & S wrote in a simpler age.

From this wisp of plot, Gilbert and Sullivan extracted an entire evening’s worth of unabashed silliness and fun and, naturally, all ends happily thanks to a plot device every bit as goofy as the basic premise.

American director Ethan McSweeney has set the play in a nineteenth century playhouse as seen from back stage and he and his energetic cast make the most of the theatre within a theatre’s wooden scaffolding and stage machinery.

As Frederic, Kyle Blair is pretty much perfect. With his golden hair, baby-faced good looks and clarion tenor, when the chorus of wards sings of “his beauty” it makes perfect sense. He’s sort of a Victorian Justin Bieber. Equally dishy, but appealing to a slightly different taste, is Sean Arbuckle as the dashing but just too sweet-to-be evil Pirate King, who swashbuckles with the best of them and wears his black and gold pirate duds with panache. As Mabel, the gooey bauble of a maiden who falls for Frederic (and vice versa), Amy Wallis has the vocal chops to make the most of the warbling solos Sullivan gives her and the dewy eyes to match.

There has been some carping from Festival regulars about this production, most of which seem to revolve around the fact that it wasn’t directed by the beloved Brian Macdonald, whose Festival productions of Gilbert and Sullivan in the 1980s have become legendary. The G & S expert with whom I saw the show pointed out that while the Broadway vocal styles employed here were very good indeed, Sullivan’s music benefits from a more operatic approach. And the cameo appearance by Queen Victoria at play’s end is a modern interpolation that does not appear in the original and would have been scandalous if it had.

But those who can enter the Avon without preconceived notions of what they should see will find nothing to complain about. Indeed, I suspect that theatergoers coming to Gilbert and Sullivan afresh will leave the Avon looking forward to the Festival’s next foray into to G & S repertoire, which let us hope will not be too long in coming.

Pirates of Penzance continue through October 27, 2012, at the Avon Theatre.
For more information: www.stratfordfestival.ca.

‘Cymbeline’ at Stratford Shakespeare Festival (2012)

Cymbeline is being performed at the Tom Patterson Theatre as part of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

If you’ve never seen Shakespeare’s Cymbeline there’s a good reason for that. The play is devilishly difficult to do. Start with a large, sprawling cast filled with roles that would challenge even the best actors. Then add a complex, intricate and, to modern tastes, sometimes ludicrous plot. Top it all off with some daunting stage effects (the script calls for a severed head followed closely by the torso from which it was lopped and a deus ex machine that’s a real doozy) and you begin to understand why most theatre companies and directors shy away from this “problem” play as it is sometimes labeled. [Read more...]

Stratford Shakespeare Festival 2011

I was told the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, has been suffering the effects of the world-wide downturn. Receipts are down by a third, I heard, and Americans, who once flocked there, are staying away in droves, they said, now that the once lowly loonie (or Canadian dollar) is worth about ten percent more than the once almighty U.S. greenback.

Well you couldn’t prove it by what I saw on a visit to the 2011 edition of this showcase of dramatic art that has been going strong since 1952.

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