STRATFORD, Ontario—The Stratford Shakespeare Festival was in perilous shape organizationally and artistically earlier this millennium. But Des McEnuff, in just his second season as sole artistic director, has righted the festival ship. Based on the quality of what I saw over six performances this summer, happy days are back again in Ontario. Of the half dozen productions I attended, two were memorable, two were very good, and two were deeply flawed, but at least worth seeing. That assays out to a considerably higher rating than the festival earned in any previous season this decade. The 2010 festival is presenting 12 plays and musicals, though several are available for comparatively short runs. The core of the festival, as usual, is the Bard, with four plays by Shakespeare on the bill—all comedies, with no tragedies or histories. Keeping an eye on box office popularity during these difficult economic times, Stratford is staging two hit Broadway musicals and a hit off-Broadway revue. To reach the broadest possible audience, the festival is reviving James Barrie’s “Peter Pan” as the author wrote the story before Broadway and Walt Disney got their hands on it. The gem of the festival is “The Tempest.” No surprise there. Not only is the romance one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, but the festival brings back Christopher Plummer to take on the role of the magician Prospero. Plummer delivers a magical performance that serves as the centerpiece for McAnuff’s brilliant staging.
There is a special emotional resonance in Plummer’s appearance. Just as Prospero at the end of the play bids farewell to his career as a powerful magician, Plummer, at
the age of 80, likely is giving his final performances at Stratford. I saw his Cyrano de Bergerac back in 1963 and it remains the highlight of my 51 consecutive years at the festival. Plummer’s
Prospero is rich in wit, intelligence, and poignancy. But this production is more than a star turn. McEnuff etches each of the play’s many characters—lovers, buffoons, villains—with clarity and
insight. The monster Caliban, possibly the most fascinating Shakespeare character not named Hamlet, is brought to life in all the character’s complexity in Dion Johnstone’s interpretation. Even those
usually intolerable clowns Trinculo and Stephano emerge as credible comic creations.
The luminary of the production after Plummer is a tiny gamin named Julyana Soelistyo, an Indonesian-born American actress and the finest Ariel I’ve ever seen. As the mischievous spirit, Soelistyo is funny, charming, athletic, and in a supernatural way, supremely human. And visually she is a visual knockout, with her blue and silver makeup and skintight costume. The two Broadway musicals are “Evita” and “Kiss Me, Kate,” and they are studies in how a director can triumph or fumble an assignment. “Evita” is probably the season’s toughest ticket. Chicagoland theatergoers won’t be surprised that director Gary Griffin has elevated this show into something special. We’ve seen Griffin’s genius displayed at the Marriott Theatre for years.
For four decades, “Evita” has been encased in the iconic staging devised by director Harold Prince, a staging so innovative that he’s gotten more credit for the musical’s hit status than creators Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.
Griffin risks much in carving out his own interpretation of “Evita,” with scarcely a single Harold Prince set piece surviving. In one famous scene, Prince gathered Argentina’s military leaders for a game of musical chairs, each general successively eliminated until only Juan Peron is left standing. Griffin revises the scene into a high stakes poker game. Same result. Peron wins. Is Griffin’s scene better or just different? No matter. It works. Under Griffin’s guidance Chilina Kennedy delivers a remarkable portrait of Eva Peron, a young woman driven by ambition, class hatred, street smarts, and a messiah complex to become Argentina’s most adored personality, and the country’s ruin. At Stratford, Eva Peron is more than an icy blonde who sings “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” She’s complex, fascinating, and maybe even a little sympathetic for spectators willing to excuse her sexual politics, manipulation, greed, and ego. “The Tempest” and “Evita” are the class of the festival, but there are rewards elsewhere. McEnuff dusts off the familiar romantic comedy “As You Like It,” giving the play a fresh look and sensibility. “As You Lie It” contrasts the evils of the royal court with joys of the rural life in the Forest of Arden. McEnuff sets the play in the 1920’s. The court is a brutal fascist tyranny while Arden is a Garden of Eden in abstraction, its appearance inspired by the surrealist art movement of the 1920’s, especially the Belgian painter Rene Magritte. The heart of the play centers on the love affair between Rosalind and Orlando. Rosalind is one of Shakespeare’s greatest romantic heroines, an intelligent and vivacious young woman really over-qualified for a comparative dim bulb like the handsome Orlando. But the heart has its reasons in Shakespeare. Andrea Runge (Rosalind) and Paul Nolan (Orlando) are ingratiating as the young lovers, but they can’t quite elevate their characters to great comic heights. The major joys of the production reside with key supporting roles, notably Ben Carlson as Touchstone and Brent Carver as Jaques. Chicagoland audiences will fondly remember Carlson for his work with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. In “As You Like It,” Carlson’s Touchstone is droll, genially sarcastic, and humorous—a nattily dressed transplanted court fool who insists on wooing and wedding the country bumpkin Audrey. It’s a commanding performance in a comedy jammed with colorful characters competing for the audience’s attention. Carver’s performance as Jaques is the dazzler of the production. Instead of the misanthrope raging against mankind’s frailties, Carver’s Jaques is a human (and humane) observer of the social scene, a gentle man at peace with himself and his worldview. Carver wears a black suit and resembles one of Magritte’s bowler-hatted men with their heads in the clouds. Carver also distinguishes himself in the fine revival of “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.” The revue was a huge hit starting in the late 1960’s in New York City, Chicago, and elsewhere but doesn’t get much play on modern stages.
Brel was a Belgian balladeer who wrote in the French cabaret tradition, composing love songs, mostly rueful, as well as songs about loneliness and melancholy and growing old. Most Stratford audiences likely will be seeing the show for the first time and, if so, they are in for a revelation. Four performers, including Carver, present Brel’s dramatic mini arias with passion and humor, from the stirring “Amsterdam” and “Marieke” to the jaunty “Mathilde.” There is a freshness to the music that raises the standard “And then he wrote…” composer revue to new heights. One of the rewards of seeing multiple shows at Stratford is the opportunity to witness an actor in sharply contrasting roles in a short period of time, sometimes in a few hours from a matinee and an evening performance. I saw Chilina Kennedy perform brilliantly in the evening as Eva Peron but had to watch disconsolately as she played the ingénue Lois Lane as a screeching bimbo in a matinee performance of “Kiss Me, Kate.” It probably wasn’t Kennedy’s fault. British director John Doyle relentlessly dumbs down this sophisticated Cole Porter classic. The story is based on Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” and arguably improves on the original. It’s also one of the better backstage shows in the American theater. Unfortunately, Doyle steers his skilled company into impersonating second-rate actors, enveloping them in a morass of mugging, pratfalls, and slapstick. There is something off-putting about watching talented performers try to look untalented. Sometimes it works, as in “Noises Off,” but here it only diminishes Porter’s masterpiece. There is an interpolation of “From This Moment On” from a later Porter musical. It’s a fine song, but wrong in the comic context of its scene. And the show just fades away at the end rather than concluding with a rousing production number.
Still, the company, led by Juan Chioran (Fred Graham) and Monique Lund (Lilli Vanessi), preserves some of the greatness of Porter’s words and music. It’s often frustrating to watch, but this production still is worth seeing for that superb score. “Peter Pan” is a children’s show, in spite of the festival program’s attempts to endow it with adult profundity. The production offers some terrific special effects, including the best aerial work I’ve ever seen outside the circus. I attended a matinee awash with children in the audience, many much too young to be in any theater. But the kids mostly behaved themselves, a tribute to the narrative power of Barrie’s fantasy about a boy who refuses to grow up. But great stage effects notwithstanding, I thought much of the play was boring, especially the scenes with the Lost Boys. For some reason, Tiger Lily and her tribe of Indians are altered into bikini-clad Amazons (political correctness rearing its ugly head?). Tom McCamus is a gleefully ruthless Captain Hook, but there are too many dead spots. However, the production does the festival scenery shop proud.
For general information about festival events and accommodations or to purchase tickets, call 1-800 567 1600 or visit www.stratfordshakespearefestival.com . The festival runs through the end of October.
The ratings for the six shows are:
The Tempest – four stars
Evita – four stars
As You Like It – 3 1/2 stars
Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris –3 1/2stars
Peter Pan – 3 stars
Kiss Me Kate 2 1/2 stars
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