Friday, August 12, 2011

Stratford 2011 - Politically Incorrect

As a part of my annual pilgrimage to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, I put on my theatre scholar's cap to review the plays we're seeing.

Honesty may be the best policy, but it doesn't always work in politics and in affairs of the heart. At least that seems to be the point in Molière's brilliant and stylishly-produced comedy The Misanthrope at Stratford.

The story centers around Alceste, a man who has vowed to speak frankly about his opinions, foregoing the niceties of 18th century Paris society where politeness and social amenities are the Rule. It gets him into trouble with his friends as well as the woman he loves, and even when his honesty is put to the test both in court and in winning his love, he has to pay a price.

The timelessness of the play doesn't hurt, either. Today we seem to be awash in people offering their unvarnished opinions of everything, from (ahem) bloggers to the cult of personalities that develop around the folks on cable TV who claim to speak their mind and damn the consequences. Everyone from Glenn Beck to Rush Limbaugh to Keith Olbermann to presidential candidates hold forth and frequently get in trouble for their candor. And, as Molière proves in this play, it often becomes less about the moment of truth than it does about the person speaking it. Rather than "listen to what I'm saying," it becomes "listen to ME!" And when honesty becomes secondary to personality, both lose.

The production at Stratford is beautiful in all respects. The Festival stage is a gilded wedding cake of a Paris home at the hands of designer John Lee Beatty, and the costumes, by Robin Fraser Paye, are equally stunning. The translation is by Richard Wilbur, done in rhyming couplets, and it captures both the voice and the taste of the era in its wit and charm, and it is deftly directed by David Grindley.

The performances are all stand-out, including Ben Carlson as Alceste and Sarah Topham as Célimène, his love interest and exact opposite when it comes to social decorum. The pace is quick, the staging choreographed beautifully, and the points of the story are rapier-like, not cudgeled. Stratford may be renown for its productions of Shakespeare, but they know how to do comedy of manners as well.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Stratford 2011 - Falstaff 2.0

As a part of my annual pilgrimage to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, I put on my theatre scholar's cap to review the plays we're seeing.

Each year that we come to Stratford, we make an effort to see something we've never seen before. That's the case with Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor; it was a new one for me.

Legend has it that Queen Elizabeth commanded that Shakespeare write a play about Sir John Falstaff in love. According to scholarship, that's not exactly true, but it's a nice little legend, and it explains how a character from Henry IV can show up in England some 200 years after his death in Henry V. In this play, Falstaff has been rebooted from the hard-drinking rowdy confidante of Prince Hal to become a broke and dissipated sot without much of a touch of Harry in the night. The only connection between the two Falstaffs is the name. In this case, Falstaff is not so much in love as he is in lust and looking for money, and since both desires can lead a man to foolishness, the women he has set his sights on use him as their foil.

This play also serves as an outlier in Shakespeare's canon. It is the only play of his that takes place in Elizabethan England, in sync with Shakespeare's own life. The characters aren't named Antonio or Romeo, there's no magic spells or ancient curses to be fought or heeded, and the plot isn't based on a recycled story or rewrought history of English kings and dynasties (although it does contain elements of stories by translated by William Painter). It is, in many ways, a precursor to the comedies that would come along a hundred years later, after the time of Cromwell when public theatre was banned, and the stage was being restored and influenced by the Renaissance making its way to England from the continent. If you didn't know it was Shakespeare, you would think you were seeing something by such writers as William Wycherly or John Dryden.

The plot is not all that different than a lot of Shakespeare's previous comedies; there's mistaken identity, disguises, attempts at adultery, and strong women who pretend to be at the mercy of the menfolk but are really the ones in charge. Of course there are young lovers who are determined to marry against their parents' wishes, and of course it all ends happily, even if there are some loose ends left untied. (I guess even Shakespeare struggled with finding a good ending.)

The production on the Festival stage under the able direction of Frank Galanti is thoroughly enjoyable. Laura Condlin as Mistress Page and Lucy Peacock as Mistress Ford, are the nominal merry wives, and they have a great deal of fun. The plotting husbands are played to the hilt by Tom McCamus as Master Page and Tom Rooney as Master Ford. Geraint Wyn Davies hams it up well as Sir John Falstaff, who is treated more like the butt of jokes rather than the driver of the plot; he's painted almost like Malvolio in Twelfth Night and even has a couple of goofy companions to round out the company. The thankless roles of the young lovers, Fenton and Miss Ann Page, are played with winsome charm by Trent Pardy and Andrea Runge, but as in most of Shakespeare's comedies, they don't get to have as much fun as the rest of the intriguers.

This is not your Henry's Falstaff, but he's still a basketful of laughs.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Stratford 2011 - Harold Pinter's Comic Stylings

As a part of my annual pilgrimage to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, I put on my theatre scholar's cap to review the plays we're seeing.

I remember sitting through numerous graduate school seminars in theatre where we plumbed the depths of every line in a Harold Pinter play, trying to come up with the inner meanings of his long pauses and seemingly disconnected simple phrases. The plots were deceptively simple, we thought, because there had to be something more. How else could Pinter achieve the total heaviosity that we were told was there?

Even after working on two different productions of The Birthday Party, one under the direction of Emily Mann at the University of Minnesota, I was sure that there was some greater depth to Pinter's work than what we saw on the surface; maybe I had not achieved the elusive level of understanding, and all I saw was just the inane conversation between people I didn't care about. But all the wise and insightful articles and critiques of his work hinted that there was much, much more. And so I sought it out.

Well, I finally figured it out yesterday at the hands of a truly great production of The Homecoming here at Stratford: Harold Pinter was a comic genius. Not in the fashion of the Marx Brothers or Mel Brooks, but in crafting characters and situations that really are truly comic. Instead of being menacing, Brian Dennehy gives Max, the patriarch of his dysfunctional collection of sons and brothers, a blustery tone in an almost Homer Simpson way that lets you appreciate his ineffectualness. His in-home sons Lenny and Joey are echoes of their father; Lenny, the seething and conniving pimp, and Joey, the muscular, inarticulate, slightly goofy boxer who lives for the moment. All of them are perfect for playing off each other.

As in all Pinter plays, there is a menacing intruder who disrupts the flow. In this case it's the arrival of Max's son Teddy, a professor of philosophy who lives in the U.S, and his wife Ruth, who immediately sizes up the family dynamic and plays each of the men like a fine Stradivarius. It's all done in a claustrophobic set of a dingy home in London that cries out for more room, even after long-ago attempts to make the space bigger.

This production doesn't play for the broad laughs; director Jennifer Tarver and her cast knew just the right touches to bring about the laughter -- both broad and nervous -- in this production. The casting is perfect, and Mr. Dennehy, who has a presence on stage that is both vulnerable and menacing in everything I've seen him in, is the quintessential English working class dad. Stephen Ouimette is always a delight to watch for his understated archness, and Cara Ricketts as Ruth is just plain fascinating. Kudos also to Ian Lake as Joey and Mike Shara as the seemingly dense Teddy, the professor who appears to not know what is happening right under his nose, but really does get it.

I suppose it's rather Pinteresque that I learned more about Pinter's work in two hours yesterday than I did in all those seminars way back in grad school. Who knew?

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