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A CurtainUp Review

Stratford Sends Two Classics to New York
The Miser and Much Ado About Nothing

By Allan Wallach

Taking note of Canada's two cultural traditions, Richard Monette, artistic director of the Stratford Theater of Ontario, has devoted the company's inaugural season at New York's City Center to the greatest classical English writer and the greatest classical French writer. In his stagings, Shakespeare outclasses Molière.

Monette's direction of Much Ado About Nothing is airy and graceful, taking advantage of the ragtime rhythms and light hearts of well-to-do people in 1920s Sicily, where this version of the play takes place. But his slapstick, anything-for-a-laugh production of Molière's The Miser makes it a one-note satire in which the single note is struck too insistently.

Much Ado resembles somewhat a celebrated New York Shakespeare Festival production of some years ago in which director A.J. Antoon set the comedy in the nostalgia-drenched period of the Spanish-American War. The Stratford production doesn't climb to that rarified level, largely because the skirmish of wit between Beatrice and Benedick loses some of its luster. Monette has made these warring lovers people in late middle age, which would work splendidly if they were equally matched. But while Brian Bedford's Benedick is amusingly fussy and self-absorbed, Martha Henry's Beatrice is more rancorous than witty, and the merry war loses its balance.

Still, there's a lot to enjoy in the production, especially in the shimmering scenic design of Guido Tondino and the mood-deepening music of Berthold Carrière. They create an atmosphere that helps us believe in the swift romance between Hero and Claudio and makes us willing to suspend disbelief in the transparent plot of the "plain-dealing villain" Don John that disrupts their nuptials.

The things that always sparkle in Much Ado retain their fizz in this production. The highlight is the scene in which Benedick is set up to "overhear" three of the men discussing what they claim is Beatrice's love for him. The fun is heightened when Bedford's hand, clutching an outstretched newspaper, tremble at the news, and when William Hutt, as Leonato, grows progressively drunk with each refill of his martini glass. There's laughter, too, in the English-mangling of Dogberry, the constable, nicely played by Stephen Ouimette.

It would have taken similar ingenuity to restore the sheen to The Miser, Molière's hard-edged caricature of a man who not only hoards his money but values it above everything, even the well-being of the people closest to him. The play, uncharacteristically written in prose, gets it comic thrust from the way his miserliness tangles up various romances-his son's, his daughter's, and his own--and there's not much room left for wit. We quickly get the point that when greed is the driving motive, you're left hugging your money.

Monette makes this amiable enough, using a fluid English adaptation by Miles Malleson, and he generates some laughter with a lot of old-time shtick. But for me at least, it was a long time between laughs.

Hutt, who's celebrating his 50th year in the theater, plays Harpagon with a blunt-spoken country cunning that works well against the mannered posturing of the people around him. The brightest moment come toward the end, when Harpagon, discovering that someone has stolen the fortune he's buried in his garden, wildly accuses everyone in sight, including the audience. The opening-night audience at City Center seemed happy to be part of the plot.

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Richard Monette
Set design: Guido Tondino
Costume design: Ann Curtis
Lighting design: Michael J. Whitfield
Composer: Berthold Carrière
Choreographer: Valerie Moore
With William Hutt (Leonato), Jennifer Gould (Hero), Martha Henry (Beatrice), Joseph Shaw (Antonio), James Blendick (Don Pedro), Tom McCamus (Don John), Brian Bedford (Benedick), Tim MacDonald (Claudio), Stephen Ouimette (Dogberry).

By Molière
Directed by Richard Monette
Set and costume design: Mérédith Caron
Lighting design: Michael J. Whitfield
Composer: Berthold Carrière
With William Hutt (Harpagon), Michelle Giroux (Elise), Michael Therriault (Cléante), David Glass (Valère), Victoria Adilman (Mariane), Richard Curnock (La Flèche), Joseph Shaw (Master Simon and Seigneur Anselm), Martha Henry (Frosine), Brian Tree (Jacques).

Produced by the Stratford Festival of Ontario, Canada
Playing in repertory at City Center through November 29
Reviewed 11/15 and 11/17/98 by Allan Wallach

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