Twelfth Night at Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Des McAnuff is a wildly inventive director and much, perhaps too much, of that inventiveness is on display in his production Twelfth Night, which is wowing Stratford Shakespeare Festival audiences at the Festival Theatre.

Set against the backdrop of an enormous smashed mirror, McAnuff’s delirious Illyria is home to a mismatched menagerie of types and tropes that seem to have been stitched together from several plays and periods. By switching the first two scenes of the play, McAnuff seems to be alerting us from the beginning that this will not be your father’s Twelfth Night.

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Titus Andronicus at Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Titus Andronicus, once regarded as an embarrassment of Shakespeare’s formative years, is back in vogue. And indeed it doesn’t seem all that out of place in this age of “torture porn” films and the atrocities being performed around the world in the name of either freedom or religion, sometimes both.

Still, the rendition the play is being given at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Tom Patterson Theater this season will convince many that play should be returned to the shelf more or less permanently.

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Shakespeare’s Will at Stratford Shakespeare Festival

When she’s not playing Shakespeare’s Richard III this season at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Festival mainstay Seana McKenna is playing Shakespeare’s wife in Shakespeare’s Will, an intermissionless one-person non-play by Vern Thiessen presented in the vest-pocket Studio Theatre.

The conceit is that we are seeing Anne Hathaway Shakespeare just after she’s buried her husband Will. In a rambling monologue we learn a great deal about their unconventional relationship before she gets around to reading his will (the title’s a pun, get it?) which seems to upset her no end.

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Richard III at Stratford Shakespeare Festival

In the past, I have passed up chances to see such oddities as an all-female Taming of the Shrew and generally tend to view this sort of gender-bending casting political correctness run amok. But having seen Seana McKenna distinguish herself on several occasions at Stratford, I gave in and saw her turn as Richard III. I’m glad I did, although the production failed to live up to its promise.

First, it must be said that McKenna is a much more than adequate Richard. So much so that I and several companions were left wondering why, after demonstrating that this woman could take up one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains and make you forget her gender almost immediately, the director Miles Potter (who is also McKenna’s husband) didn’t ask more of her.

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The Misanthrope at Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Moliere probably suffers more than Shakespeare from the depredations of “adaptors.” Most of the time Shkespeare’s verse survives intact no matter how misguided the directorial conceit. But it is all too easy to discard Moliere’s complex and clever verse along with the original French.

Kudos to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival for presenting at the Festival Theatre a Misanthrope that, in Richard Wilbur’s deft translation, retains the joys of the original’s alexandrine verse, 12-syllable rhymed couplets that can try the skills of even the most accomplished classical actors.

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The Merry Wives of Windsor at Stratford Shakespeare Festival

If you are seeing the revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival you might want to bookend that experience with The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare’s great revenge comedy.

Being given a smashing production at the Festival Theatre under the taut direction of Frank Galati (who also adapted the Festival’s staggering production of Grapes of Wrath), Merry Wives is one of the jewels of the 2011 season.

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Hosanna at Stratford Shakespeare Festival

I was so captivated by Michel Tremblay’s For The Pleasure Of Seeing Her Again at the 2010 Stratford Shakespeare Festival that I looked forward to seeing Hosanna, a 1973 play that I gather helped establish his reputation as a major French-Canadian playwright.

It turns out I had seen it before. Not this play specifically, but many more like it that filled stages in New York and elsewhere during the late 60s and through the 70s.

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The Homecoming at Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Harold Pinter is a playwright of such profound idiosyncrasy that he has his very own adjective – Pinteresque. And if ever there was a Pinter play that deserves that soubriquet it’s The Homecoming, which is being given a top drawer, if somewhat flawed, revival by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival at their downtown Avon Theatre.

Teddy is returning to the drab working class London home of his youth. Since his unexplained departure he has acquired a PhD, an American academic career, and a wife. His father Max and brothers Lenny and Joey seem less than enthralled to see him back. Only his uncle Sam has a kind word for him. What follows from this sparse set up is a profoundly unsettling sequence of events bristling with casual cruelty and sexual degradation.

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Grapes of Wrath At Stratford Shakespeare Festival

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s brutal production of Grapes of Wrath, adapted from John Steinbeck’s classic novel by Frank Galati, has the visceral power of a Biblical text, with dirt poor migrant workers cast as Israelites, while drought and an uncaring, often hostile, government stand in for the plagues sent by a vengeful God.

The Job-like family at the center of this gut-wrenching epic are the Joads, “Okies” driven from the land by the Dust Bowl and lured westward by unscrupulous labor brokers and heartless farm owners to be held in near slavery on the constant verge of starvation.

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Stratford Shakespeare Festival

The small town of Stratford, Ontario, has charming 19th century homes and the river Avon runs through it. Get it? Stratford? Avon? What better place for a Shakespeare Festival?

That’s what Tom Patterson thought when in 1952 he convinced the town fathers to finance a trip to New York on a quixotic quest to convince Tyrone Guthrie to comes to the tiny burg to start one. To Guthrie’s eternal credit, he agreed and then convinced Alec Guinness to come over to launch the first season – in a tent, no less!
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