Sunday, August 08, 2010

Stratford 2010 - The Shaw Festival

We added a side trip this year to Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario, and our first visit to the Shaw Festival. It's been going on for almost fifty years, and we've always talked about it, so we finally made our way from Stratford to NOTL -- about a three-hour drive -- and went to see Shaw's 1904 play John Bull's Other Island.

The town itself is very charming, with its Victorian-style homes and shops, more of a New England flavor than the Midwestern ambiance of Stratford's cornfields. It is also very popular; that is to say, the sidewalks were packed with tourists from all over, including, I'm sure, those making sidetrips from seeing Niagara Falls or weekenders from Toronto. We stayed at the Prince of Wales Hotel, smack dab in the middle of all of the tourism. It's a charming place, rambling over several buildings on the main street, and the rooms are lovely in that genially overstuffed Victorian way.

We had dinner at a very highly recommended Italian restaurant -- Ristorante Giardino -- and then went to the play at the Court Theatre, one of several venues for the festival, and the original space for the festival. The name is true to the place; the theatre is on the second floor of the city's old courthouse. It's a black-box space, three-quarters thrust, with room for about three hundred in the audience.

The play itself was new to me. I've seen or read most of Shaw's best-known works, but this comedy, written in 1904 at the urging of William Butler Yeats, was one I'd never read or seen. Frankly, I don't know why; it's funny, touching, and as is the case with most of Shaw's plays, loaded with political commentary and insight. His views of the relationship between England and Ireland are sharp and pointed; his characters -- both the English and the Irish -- are fully drawn, and in doing so, he manages to explode stereotypes and exploit them as well.

The plot is fairly straightforward. Two civil engineers from England come to Ireland to see about transforming a small village into a tourist resort, replete with a golf course and a hotel (a nod to NOTL?). Tom Broadbent (Benedict Campbell) is a typical English businessman of the time; exceedingly polite and an easy mark for the doubting and deliberate Irish hosts. He is accompanied by Larry Doyle (Graeme Somerville), his business partner, and an Irishman from the town they're going to develop. Naturally Mr. Doyle is torn between his roots, his ambitions, and his feelings -- pride mixed with shame -- about his family and his homeland. Along the way, in typical Shaw fashion, we get comic scenes and political lectures about the struggle for Ireland's identity, and Shaw, being an Irishman who himself moved to London, much like Larry Doyle, makes the outcome a true question. And it is amazing how prescient he would be about the resolution and the revolution in Ireland years before came to be. More than a hundred years later, it's still a question.

Labels: , ,

Friday, August 06, 2010

Stratford 2010 - Evita

Day 3

Evita has been called a rock opera or, in the terms used here at Stratford, an "electric musical." But if we're going to go by the strict definition of what an opera is, then there's no need for an adjective. It's an opera in that it is all sung with only a few lines of spoken dialogue, and it certainly requires the talents of trained voices. That it uses contemporary musical forms -- or at least contemporary to the time it was written in 1976 -- doesn't disqualify it as an opera any more than the use of jazz does Porgy and Bess or Spanish folk music does in Carmen. (By the way, one of the other similarities Evita has with Carmen is that both of the composers were foreigners writing about other lands and cultures; Bizet was a Frenchman writing about Spanish workers, and Andrew Lloyd Weber is an Englishman writing about an Argentinian power couple.) So it's an opera. And I usually hate operas.

I have sat through several of them and despised them for their convoluted plots, the imponderable language, and the exaggerated characters and vocalizations. But Evita puts it in a different perspective. The plot line is straightforward, there are five major roles, no subplots, the music is both well done and appropriate for both the time and the action. Chilina Kennedy was brilliant as Evita, as was Juan Chioran as Juan Peron. Josh Young, who sang Che, the narrator/commentator, was excellent as well, bringing just the right touch of cynicism to a character that stands in for the people of Argentina and the outside world watching the pageantry of forced enthusiasm for a dictator.

The theme of Evita is, as director Gary Griffin put it in his director's note, "...our need for icons. Why do we worship people like Eva Perón – or, more recently, Princess Diana and Michael Jackson? What is it about us (for we create our icons as much as they fashion themselves) that causes us to invest so deeply in people we know only as public figures?" It's probably a search for something in common with them; after all, the biggest sellers in the magazine racks are the People magazines or the National Enquirers when they show us pictures of celebrities without the make-up and the glitz; when we see Brad Pitt shopping at the grocery store. Evita and the story behind it is that on a scale that touched millions of lives in real ways in a real place in our living memory. And it provides a cautionary tale for our own political celebrities: how soon will someone come up with a version of "Don't Cry For Me, Wasilla"?

Labels: , ,

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Stratford 2010 - Dangerous Liaisons and The Tempest

Day 2

Every once in a while, just to prove they're like any other theatre company, Stratford will produce a clunker. I've seen lousy productions here, such as the 1973 Othello with an actor playing the title role whose accent was so thick that he was virtually unintelligible, and in the early 1980's they did Miss Julie by August Stridberg that set my teeth on edge. This year it is Dangerous Liaisons by Christopher Hampton.

It is the stage version of the novel Les liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos that has been filmed several times, including a version in 1988 with John Malkovich and Glenn Close, and a hip 90's version called Cruel Intentions with Ryan Phillippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Whatever. What I saw today was a thoroughly unlikable production of a thoroughly unlikable play about thoroughly unlikable people. Even the glorious Martha Henry and the occasional flashes of humor from Tom McCamus as Valmont couldn't save this cold and jarring production. The settings on the Festival stage were a mixture of Rococo furniture and what appeared to be clear Lucite chairs in the Rococo style but see-through. I'm not sure whether this was done for effect or to give the audience a clearer view of the action. (They've been able to use non-transparent furniture on the thrust stage for as long as I've been going there without any ill effect.) The music was also a combination of period-style pieces interjected with what could only be called Queen on crack with harpsichords.

The plot revolves around a couple of bored rich French aristocrats on the eve of the French Revolution making bets that involve sexual conquest and deception. It includes rape, sexual assault, subjugation, denigration, and driving people to madness for sport. At the end when they are held accountable, the regret is less about realizing they did wrong then it does about preserving their good name, and while the epilogue hints at the doom that lies in wait for all the aristocracy of France in 1785, it's overly dramatic and therefore silly.

I'm sure there is some reason the good people of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival chose this work, and I'm sure they thought they could do a production that makes the point about how cruel the rich can be. This wasn't it.


On the other hand, tonight's production of The Tempest was what made me fall in love with theatre in general and what keeps me coming back to Stratford year after year. Starring Christopher Plummer as Prospero, it had all the ingredients that make the Stratford festival what it has always been for me: a stunning production with all the joy and staging that make you forget you're sitting in a theatre, acting that is so natural that it makes the poetry come alive. Even the rather cookie-cutter roles of Ferdinand and Miranda, the young lovers, were played to full effect by Gareth Potter and Trish Lindström. Ariel, the sprite, was magically done by Julyana Soelistyo to the degree that she was, in many ways, the soul of the play and on equal footing with the power and presence of Mr. Plummer. Caliban, the half-human slave of Prospero, becomes a sympathetic figure in the portrayal by Dion Johnstone, and the comic relief parts of Stephano (Geraint Wyn Davies) and Trinculo (Bruce Dow) were wonderfully done. The bad guys -- Prospero's brother and usurper and his fellow conspirators -- were done with the touch of evil that is required of such roles, but unlike previous productions where they are treated as pawns of Prospero, there was some depth and even some softness in their plight of being stranded by the storm that Prospero called forth to bring them to him for his vengeance.

Christopher Plummer had some mighty large shoes to fill. The last man to play the role of Prospero on the Festival Stage was William Hutt in his farewell performance in 2005. I saw that performance and thought it was masterful, but Mr. Plummer more than adequately honored both the role and the memory of Mr. Hutt. Bringing his own touch to the role and playing Prospero as a father to Miranda that had touches of a dad in it (the scene where he blesses the engagement of Ferdinand and Miranda has Dad-meets-Boyfriend all over it) proves -- again -- that Mr. Plummer is an actor that not just plays the role but takes the character to his heart in a way that few actors truly do. Rather than dominate the stage, he knows his part and his place as one of the ensemble.

Thanks to this production, The Tempest is becoming one of my favorite Shakespeare plays.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Stratford 2010 - Jacques Brel...

The name of the show -- Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris -- is sadly incorrect. The Flemish songwriter died in 1978. But that doesn't mean his works are gone, and the song cycle that was put together by Mort Shulman and Eric Blau when the title was true is still alive and doing very well at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

The original format -- two men, two women, and a small orchestra -- hasn't been changed since the first time it was staged in 1968 and it is still effective. The direction of Stafford Arima and the powerful voices of Jewelle Blackman, Brent Carver, Michael Nadajewski, and Robin Hutton (subbing for Nathalie Nadon) handled the music and the lyrics very well. The musical direction by Laura Burton, using new orchestrations by Rick Fox, were impeccable. The stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre, which is a converted curling rink, served the staging well; Brel is a production best served in an intimate venue, and since Stratford is a long way from Greenwich Village, this was as good a place as any to do it.

There is no through-line or plot to the song cycle; each one stands on its own. But the overall theme of Brel's songs -- cynical, poignant, and often dripping with acidic commentary on life and love -- combine to give you a somewhat sardonic look at life through his eyes. But just when you think he's dug the scalpel in, he pulls you in another direction; giddy, distraught, mocking, and sometimes cruel. But just when you think you've seen his life through the haze of cigarette smoke in a boozy nightclub on the Left Bank, the final song, "If We Only Have Love," is an anthem to uplifting hope and promise. Gotcha.

Labels: , ,