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A CurtainUp Feature
One Exhilarating Week at Canada’s 2007 Shaw and Stratford Festivals
With phographs by L. A. Saltzman
Plays Seen at the Shaw Festival
Plays Seen at the Stratford Festival
Chat with Shaw Festival Artistic Director
Eleven plays in seven days. . . wow! And that’s just half the number of plays being presented by The Shaw Festival and Stratford Festival (scheduled to change its name to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in November).
Both festivals are well known and respected for their lengthy and laudable seasons extending from April to November and both have mandates. At the Shaw, the emphasis is on the plays of George Bernard Shaw, those written by others during his lifetime, and more recently contemporary plays set in that time period. At Stratford, the plays of William Shakespeare understandably get top billing, although not to the neglect of plays by other playwrights. Theater lovers that make it their business to visit the two largest resident repertory companies in North America know that it is only a two and one half hour drive from one festival to the other in their very beautiful towns of Niagara-on-the-Lake and Stratford, Ontario.
At Stratford, I realize I might be considered out of my mind to forego King Lear staring Brian Bedford (who also directed), not to mention a peak at the other Shakespeare offerings: The Merchant of Venice, The Comedy of Errors, Othello, as well as seeking out the return engagement of the previously well-received one-woman play Shakespeare’s Will (about Anne Hathaway). Other high profile productions that had to do without my attendance but that could easily entice you this season, include Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, notable for being directed by Richard Monette who is retiring after 14 years as artistic director of the festival; a rousing (so they say) production of Oklahoma, as well as To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men and A Delicate Balance. I also couldn’t squeeze in the other return engagement of The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead, as performed by Festival favorite Lucy Peacock. Ms Peacock’s fine acting did not escape me, however, as she was stand-out among a strong cast in Pentecost (reviewed below). Choosing among the fourteen plays in repertory at four different theaters, I have no regrets for my choices, with only one turning out to be a disappointment.
At the Shaw, Saint Joan was directed by the Festival’s artistic director Jackie Maxwell (see interview at end of Shaw reviews) and will be the Festival’s first touring production (Philadelphia from October 30 to November 4 and then on to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in January). That Shavian perennial, as well as the less often revived The Philanderer had to step aside, however, for eight other plays chosen at my whim.
A highlight for my visit at the Shaw was attending a four-day seminar, "Contemporary Connection to the Mandate." Those who signed on got an opportunity to meet with the creative and collaborating teams of the current plays, including designers, directors, and actors. This included morning panels, discussions, questions and answers, followed by luncheon and a matinee. Post matinee seminars were also squeezed in plus an optional dinner before an evening performance. If you have yet to book your visit for the 15 year-old tradition, a fall lecture series is also being offered.
The pleasure of seeing so many fine plays produced with artistic integrity at both venues is always enhanced by seeing how many of the actors in these two large resident companies are engaged to perform in more than one play at a time, and often with only a break between a matinee and evening show. It took me a while to recognize the delightful actress Gabrielle Jones whom we had just seen singing and dancing in mad-cap style through Mack and Mabel as the same actress playing the role of an affected Russian countess in the new musical Tristan.
Plays Seen at the Shaw Festival Plays( http://www.shawfest.com/)
A Month in the Country, After Turgenev
It’s hard to figure out what exactly Irish playwright Brian Friel tried to inject into this torturously long (three hours) Russian play except to see Turgenev’s turgid self-absorbed characters in a less emotionally oppressive state. You could fool me. Look around the room at the Islayev estate (as serviceably evoked by designer Peter Hartwell) and you will see a languid, testy and temperamental group of people, each of whom would prefer to love and be loved by someone else. So what else is new under the czarist moon? And what else is there for Natalia (Fione Byrne), the lady of the house to do in the early 1840s, except to flirt, fuss, fidget and sashay around creating all kinds of romantic trouble under the nose of her clueless husband Arkady (Blair Williams). Byrne manipulates the family friend Michel (David Jansen), who loves her for no apparent good reason, and ingenuously dallies with Aleksey (Martin Happer), the young tutor who is also slightly enamored of Natalia’s ward Vera (Marla McLean). That Vera may end up getting betrothed to their neighbor, an old codger with money, is to be expected in this kind of melodramatic mush where even the servants get into the act of catch me if you can. Act II opens promisingly with a lovely and poignant romantic scene between Sharry Flett, as Natalya’s old maid companion and Ric Reid, as Doctor Ignaty. However, Tadeusz Bradecki directs the company as if none of it really mattered anyway. Well, we do kind of wonder and wait (between cat naps) to see if anyone is going to figure out that Natalia (as weakly and indecisively played by Byrne) is a compulsive schemer ("It’s the normal that’s deranging me.,")who should be spanked regularly with a gong (where is Noel Coward when we need him?) instead of forgiven by her husband in the final scene.
—The Court Theater (to October 5)
The French farce and playwright George Feydeau go together like a brioche and café au lait, but one still doesn’t expect to see the author running around as a character in one of his own plays. But Feydeau (played with ebullient brio by Lorne Kennedy) flits about the riotously sex propelled action that takes place mostly in a discreet little Paris hotel of ill repute. He is on hand to mock and to provide bon mots as the concierge and philosophical observer in Morris Panych’s free-wheeling and super zany adaptation that he also directed at warp speed. It is ripe with the promise of hanky-panky and rife with the performances of expert farceurs. This adaptation is also notable for au courant jokes about being over medicated and its optical illusions re the 12 hotel doors of diminishing size in the perspective-challenged set (a visual joke in itself) by Ken MacDonald. The convoluted plot takes place in the office of a nutty sex therapist and in the hotel noted for its frequent arrivals and departures. The sexual silliness begins with the therapist (Patrick Galligan, a hoot en travestie) who can’t control his lust for his patient’s wife whose husband and a theater critic can’t bring himself to have sex with her because she isn’t "four stars." Add the horny pilot who can’t get it up because he swallowed the wrong pill, four lusty Russian stewardesses, one of whom likes women, the therapist’s irate and suspicious wife, their bizarre son and his flame and throw them into the hotel rooms and corridors in their underwear, and you’ve got all that you need to keep you laughing.
— Festival Theater (through October 7)
Mack and Mabel
Let’s just agree that Jerry Herman’s score is wonderful. Let’s also agree that no one it seems is ever going to get Michael Stewart’s ambitious but diffused book to work. That is unless they realize that the story about the legendary king of the silent screen Mack Sennett and his intimate and tempestuous relationship with his ill-fated star Mabel Normand is A TRAGIC ONE and deserving of a proper telling. It still remains compelling though it rightly resists all attempts to lighten it up, including this crummy revision by Stewart’s sister Francine Pascal. The other main problem is that any attempt to re-create the frantic and frenetic style of Sennett’s film comedies on stage is doomed simply by the limitation imposed upon them by being live. Molly Smith’s generally lumbering direction only emphasizes that unfortunate reality during those ineffectual scenes. Try as one might, you simply cannot duplicate on stage what has been preserved on celluloid. And don’t even ask how unfunny and pathetic the pie-in-your-face scene is. On the plus side, the talented but cocaine-addicted Mabel is given emotional depth by Glynis Ranney, who loves the womanizing undependable Mack, as played and sung sturdily by Benedict Campbell). One has to admire the zest that Gabrielle Jones, as Lottie, puts into the big ensemble number "Tap Your Troubles Away. ," However, Baayork Lee’s choreography is mostly unexciting. The show’s design by William Schmuck is blah, but not the sound of the 13-piece orchestra. There still remains a slight pulse, however faint, in this musical that can be felt in Mable’s heartbreaking "Time Heals Everything. ,"
—The Festival Theater (through October 28)
Summer and Smoke
Although it is less revered than A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the plaintive lyricism and substantive emotional textures that holds Summer and Smoke together become more lustrous and penetrating with the passing of time. It is a wonderful choice to serve as the first Tennessee Williams play to be presented here and a terrific primer for the rest of the canon that will hopefully follow in time. Nicole Underhay’s gorgeous performance makes it easy for us to succumb to the yearnings of Alma Winemiller, the sexually repressed spinster daughter of a minister in her romantic pursuit of her next door neighbor Dr. John Buchanan Jr. (Jeff Meadows), a disconsolate yet roguish alcoholic. Under Neil Munro’s sensitive direction, Underhay reveals a vulnerable sensuality in her almost humorously reckless attempt to seduce him. Meadows doesn’t fit the typical comely wastrel image, but is credible as the self-hating and immaturely rebellious man who could conceivably attract the needy and nurturing Alma. This play is also a must for those who want to feel the essence of the incomparable Williams The supporting cast is fine, as is the delicate setting by Peter Harwell. —
Royal George Theater (through 10/27)
The Cassilis Engagement
St. John Hankin (1869 – 1909) is no Harley Granville-Barker (1877 – 1946), but like Barker, his English contemporary, he is no less deserving of the recent interest in his plays both at the Shaw Festival and in New York. Much less prolific than the more theatrically innovative Barker, the sickly and unhappy Hankin wrote only five plays before his death by suicide. Hankin’s regained status began when his play The Return of the Prodigal was produced at the Shaw and also became one of the delights of the past New York season when the Mint Theater produced it ( review). He is once again validated at the Shaw by a classy production of The Cassilis Engagement. Although it is a play of considerably lesser impact than Prodigal. . . it is no less witty in its observations of British high society. In it, we follow the careful steps that a concerned mother takes to insure the happiness of her impetuous son. Goldie Semple is grand as Mrs. Cassilis who devises a deftly non-combative plan to end her son Geoffrey’s (David Leyshon) unacceptable engagement to the lower class Ethel Borridge (played with winningly common assurance by Trish Lindstrom). Our pleasure is in watching Mrs. Cassilis do this in the most subtle of ways and means. It is no mean feat, however, considering the indomitable position taken by Ethel’s coarsely grained mother Mrs. Borridge, as played for all its overbearing and comical worth by the scene-stealing Marey Hanley. With finesse is the way to best describe Christopher Newton’s direction that also gives a witty life to the servants during scene changes. Consummate taste and elegance applies to William Schumuck’s creamy décor and costumes.
—Court House Theatre (to October 5)
If the excellence of this production under the direction of Neil Munro is any indication, we should petition for a full season of plays by Somerset Maugham. The Circle ranks alongside the finest comedies of manners, including those of Sheridan and Congreve. In spite of its outward appearance as another sentimental drawing room comedy, there exists within it a keen sense of morality and warmth towards its characters that gives it a substantial lead over the more frequently revived polemics of The Constant Wife. This delightful staging is out to prove that the play is no drawing room relic despite its consigned frivolity and gently romantic intrigues. The story needn’t concern you, in that it includes a lot of chatter about who is staying for luncheon, who is ruining a game of bridge, and when is that adventurer going to get to play his set of tennis with the already married. . . get the picture? However, the cast that includes Moya O’Connell, David Jansen, Wendy Thatcher, Michael Ball and David Schurmann and Gray Powell, is here to remind us that there is, indeed, a new generation of actors waiting to uphold the tradition of stylish acting. Brava to designer Christina Poddubiuk for her gracious setting and elegant costumes.
—Royal George Theater (through 10/28)
The Kiltartan Comedies
What is one to do before lunch and a matinee? Why go to a very short play, or in this case two short plays (ringing up at 11:30 AM and ringing down at 12:30), by Lady Augusta Gregory, famed as the co-founder of Ireland’s Abbey Theater and whom Shaw called, "The Greatest Living Irishwoman." In the more politically driven The Rising of the Moon, a sergeant (Douglas E. Hughes) keeps watch on a quay in a seaside town that is the only escape route that could be used by an escaped Irish freedom fighter (Patrick McManus). When the two confront each other, the question is whether the sergeant is tempted by the 100 pounds reward or whether the “terrorist” will prevail upon the sergeant’s sense of duty and patriotism and get him to possibly look the other way and support the rebellion. As keenly directed by Micheline Chevrier, it’s a trifle, but well acted with the dense Irish lilt easier to comprehend than it is in the second yet funnier play Spreading the News. The shenanigans in this one involve the gossip being spread about by hard-of-hearing fruit peddler Mrs.Tarpey (a winning comical portrayal by Mary Haney) who misunderstands enough of what she thinks she hears to alarm an entire village that a murder has been committed and that the prime suspect is the soon to be accused and maligned Bartley Fallon (Guy Bannerman). After a short chat with Mrs. Tarpey, Bartley had simply gone off with a pitchfork in his hand to see his friend. He returns later to hear the villagers’ accusations and listen to the admonition of a moronic police officer. . .before all is forgiven and business and gossiping to go on as usual.
—Court House Theater (through October 6)
This is a world premiere at a festival not known for its world premieres. It is an ambitious dramatic musical developed at the Shaw Festival. The composing collaborators — Shaw’s music director Paul Sportelli and actor-writer Jay Turvey — got their inspiration from the tragically sentimental story Tristan by Thomas Mann. On first hearing, the score is sturdily harmonic and even fitfully beautiful in keeping with the Wagnerian conceit, shades of his unrelated opera Tristan and Isolde. The music and libretto are filtered into the somewhat mawkish and predictable love and death story set in 1903 in a sanatorium for the wealthy in the German Alps (creatively envisioned to occupy a very small space by designer Judith Bowden). It involves a tender romance between the already married, but slowly dying, musically gifted Gabrielle (Glynis Ranney, who also gets a raw deal as Mabel in Mack and Mabel), and the melancholy but inspiring writer Spinell (Jeff Madden). Their love blooms despite the presence of the humorously idiosyncratic patients and the restrictive rules set down by the well-intentioned Dr. Leander (Graeme Somerville) and his devoted nurse (Patty Jamieson). Spinell inspires Gabrielle to play a piano arrangement of Wagner’s "Liebestodt,". The more she plays, the weaker and sicker she gets much to the chagrin of her stiff-necked autocratic husband (Mark Uhre), who pays the bill and visits the retreat on occasion. The Blue Spruce Quartet expertly plays the score that everyone sings quite well. The end is expectedly sad (altitude and rest were the only cure for tuberculosis at the time). But just think about how times have changed and how so few have died playing the Liebestodt since.
—The Court House (through October 6)
Plays Seen At the Stratford Festival ( www.stratfordfestival.ca)
My One and Only
What a treat to revisit this almost forgotten bit of early 1980s musical comedy fluff devised by Peter Stone and Timothy S. Mayer from the vintage George and Ira Gershwin song book. Even if fond memories of its Broadway stars Tommy Tune and Twiggy linger on, Laird Mackintosh, as the wholesome and limber aviator with his heart set on being the first to fly across the Atlantic and Cynthia Dale, as the English Channel swimmer and aquacade star who loses her heart to the flyer, are a charming pair as well as terrific singers and dancers. Amidst a good-looking chorus of 1920s flappers and tappers, they romance and breakup and makeup, under the spirited direction (also choreographer) of Michael Lichtefeld. Besides a score that includes "Strike Up the Band," "Kickin’ the Clouds Away," "S’wonderful," and "Nice Work If You Can Get It.," other highlights are a hilariously wacky undersea ballet and the colorfully modernist sets designed by Douglas Parschuck. Just plain S’Marvelous.
—At the Avon Theater to October 28.
This is an emotionally intense and dynamic drama by David Edgar that revolves around the politicized madness that obfuscates the value and importance of a possible masterpiece. It is a fresco found on an abandoned Eastern European church wall that has the potential to change art history. As excitingly staged by Mladen Kiselov, the play begins intriguingly as a Balkanese curator (Lucy Peacock) attempts to convince an art historian (John Keonsgen) that her recent discovery (although it appears to be in the exact style of Renaissance painter Giotto) was really painted much earlier by an Arab sojourner. Their finding does not go unnoticed by the local and foreign politicos, delegates from the Orthodox and Catholic sects, as well as an American-Jewish art historian (Jonathan Goat), all of whom begin to stake a claim in its future based on their own self-serving evaluation and validation. The aesthetic issues take a back seat when they are taken as hostages within the church by a group of armed and desperate refugees from different countries seeking to cross the border. Part of the play’s tension comes from hearing the characters speak in their own languages, but often forced to communicate through threats and violence. While under siege from the local police, they grapple with the issues of freedom and truth. Plot twists and fine acting by a large cast help you forget you have just spent three hours in the grip of suspense.
—At the Studio Theater to September 21.
Derek Walcott’s Caribbean-ized deconstruction of Homer’s 8th century epic poem, about Odysseus’ twenty year event-filled journey back home to his faithful wife Penelope at the end of the Trojan War, was originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1992. It has since popped up here and there, once even in the Caribbean. Adhering to the classical tradition, the play’s text is spoken in rhythmic and metered phrases although defined by the patois of the Islands. The action adheres to Odysseus’s mythical/fantastical adventures, but is cluttered with inscrutable business, and performed with more energy than conviction by a cast required to play multiple roles. This was a tedious three-hour journey and one that is virtually impossible to follow without knowledge of the story.
— Studio Theater (through 09/28)
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