Seven Sentence Reviews: Stratford Festival 2016

September 6, 2016

The 2016 Stratford Festival, with shows running through October, provides great diversions for theatergoers. I visited during the first week in August. I promised a friend I would review the plays, so I’m belatedly doing that. (Why does it take me so long to write seven sentences?) Ratings are on a four-star system, but please recognize that anything at Stratford is far and away better than theater nearly anywhere else.

Breath of Kings: Rebellion and Redemption  [++++]

Previous productions I’ve attended: 1 (only Henry V)

Breath of Kings Redemption – On The Run 2016

Members of the company in Breath of Kings: Redemption. Photography by David Hou.

Graham Abbey edited this two-part mash-up of four Shakespeare Histories: Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II, and Henry V, and also starred as Henry IV. The resulting productions moved entertainingly through the plots and historical events at a fresh and lively pace. The shows also highlighted the streamlined story arcs of both Henry IV and his son, the ne’er-do-well turned hero Henry V (Araya Mengesha). This portion of English succession might be compared to the Biblical succession of Saul, David, and Solomon, with Henry V combining the immature qualities of Absalom with the wisdom of Solomon.

The laundry list of speaking parts in four plays was juggled agily by the talented cast and inventive costumers. Standouts were Tom Rooney as the insecure Richard II, an intense Johnathan Sousa as Hotspur, and is-it-typecasting-if-he’s-perfect Geraint Wyn Davies as Falstaff.

The stage itself helped to provide continuity through the two parts of the production co-directed by Mitchell Cushman and Weyni Mengesha: covered in a thick mulch that was worn down and shoved away during Rebellion to find stone underneath, the stage was cleared for Redemption to reveal “stones” (aptly likened to ice-blocks) that were tossed and tumbled during the French battle scenes to find more mulch underneath—the hidden meaning?…hmph I don’t know.

John Gabriel Borkman  [++++]

Previous productions I’ve attended: 0

John Gabriel Borkman – On The Run 2016
Lucy Peacock as Mrs. Gunhild Borkman in John Gabriel Borkman. Photography by David Hou.

After one has been to Stratford more than a few times, one becomes willing make great sacrifices to see Lucy Peacock, Seana McKenna and Scott Wentworth on stage together—even see an Ibsen play.

This risk came with a great reward: John Gabriel Borkman is an intense, mysterious, mesmerizing, and wonderfully entertaining precursor to toppled-titan stories like Citizen Kane. Tightlipped at the beginning, the play unfolds to show how Borkman was a would-be Rockefeller, living in a self-imposed mental prison of might-have-beens.

Peacock, McKenna and Wentworth are adept at playing the complex and flawed characters that populate JGB, imbuing clear meaning into the subtlest text and stage-business.

The play itself requires a small suspension of disbelief, that all of the conversations happening on stage would never have come up in the long history that the characters speak of having together. Ibsen wrote JGB in 1896, but with a modern ironic twist—the two female leads are strong, unique, and ahead of their time—while the male dialogue concerning women is almost laughably backward in comparison.

JGB’s title seems like a mouthful and difficult to remember going into the play; coming out you’ll never forget the name John Gabriel Borkman.

The Aeneid  [+++1/2]

Previous productions I’ve attended: 0

Aeneid – On The Run 2016

Monice Peter as Creusa and Gareth Potter as Aeneas in The Aeneid. Photography by David Hou.

This newly commissioned adaptation of The Aeneid recasts Virgil’s epic poem of Aeneas (Gareth Potter), ancestor of the Romans, as a refugee story in an alternate-reality reflection of the current crises in the Middle East.

The production faced some significant hurdles to bridge a story written millennia in the past to modern-day sensibilities, politics, and culture. To a large degree it succeeded through the talented cast and, disappointingly for some, through its use of contemporary dance to help tell the story.

At times fully immersed in today—a dance club too loud to hear a military attack, an immigration official trying to explain bureaucracy to a young mother, refugees washed up on a resort beach—the story maintained its continuity when traveling to the underworld to find Aeneas’s father.

Director Keira Loughran didn’t create The Aeneid as light entertainment to while away a few hours; it is a serious piece of social commentary that challenges the perspective and opinions of the audience. If one is willing to be challenged and think about the meaning of the play and the implications of that meaning in our modern world, then The Aeneid can be transformative. The Aeneid at Stratford is not the play you want to see at Stratford this year; it’s the play you should see.

Shakespeare in Love  [++++]

Previous productions I’ve attended: 0

Number of times I’ve seen the film: >10

Shakespeare in Love – On The Run 2016

Luke Humphrey (centre) as Will Shakespeare with members of the company in Shakespeare in Love. Photography by David Hou.

In the 1998 film’s DVD extras, it is noted the audience must believe the actor playing William Shakespeare is capable of actually writing the words of Shakespeare. Luke Humphrey succeeded on the whole in this, but was fighting an uphill battle against a script that undermined the idea at every turn, even adding Christopher Marlowe to the balcony scene with Viola de Lesseps in a quasi-Cyrano rewrite.

Director Decian Donnellan’s production used a bridge-like version of a three-tiered Elizabethan stage moving up-stage and down-stage to “move” the audience from backstage to the house effortlessly. Apparently Donnellan also envisioned the bridge as an elevated running track at a gym—Shannon Taylor‘s Viola spent several scenes doing sprint sets back and forth between her lines.

Besides Ms. Taylor’s cardio workout, the physical performance aspects were well done, including sword fights and dances that were impressively overlapped with prose conversations.

The play adapted and rewrote plot points to work onstage, but went out of its way to include some scenes, most notably a sweet, low-tech recreation of the rowboat scene. Perhaps necessarily, the Romeo and Juliet play-within-the-play was heavily overacted, unfortunately undercutting the mood of the closing scenes.

Macbeth  [+++1/2]

Previous productions I’ve attended: 2

Macbeth – On The Run 2016

Photography by David Hou.

Stratford’s artistic director, Antoni Cimolino, envisioned Macbeth in a medieval post-Roman empire forest—the society primitive, just above subsistence and appropriately rustic and superstitious. Cimolino often succeeds with minimalist productions, but this Macbeth is as dazzling as anything produced at Stratford.

The weird sisters (witches) scenes were gleefully chilling; Lanise Antoine Shelley‘s blind sister’s unnatural movements were especially effective. Macbeth’s return visit to the sisters is a masterful highlight fit for a horror movie.

Ian Lake, returned to Stratford after notable stints on stage and television, played against his previous leading man roles to deliver a brooding and delusional Macbeth. I’m unfamiliar with Krystin Pellerin‘s CBC work; I felt she succeeded well as the two-faced lady Macbeth.

Someone please inform Scott Wentworth (Banquo) that the Festival Theatre is large and he needs to speak something above a whisper in order to be heard—I don’t know why he does that sometimes.

A Chorus Line  [+++1/2]

Previous productions I’ve attended: 2

A Chorus Line – On The Run 2016

Members of the company in A Chorus Line. Photography by David Hou.

Revamped for the Festival Theatre’s thrust stage and performed in one act, this production of A Chorsus Line is true to the original which holds up better after 41 years than one might expect. It tells character stories that are at once unique and universal, addressing adolescence, insecurities, and body issues. The only aspect that felt particularly dated was how drastically societal views have changed regarding homosexuality and drag shows.

The show connects emotionally with the audience in nearly every number and every character, which is both wonderful and draining at the same time. Someone noted, quite rightly, how the success of all parts of this show points to the depth of talent available at Stratford.

Dayna Tietzen as Cassie, as near to a starring role as anyone in the cast gets, seemed genuine and sympathetic in the part, except somehow during The Music and the Mirror; a song that should be a tour de force seemed to sag in energy compared to the rest of the show.

A Chorus Line forces the audience to acknowledge—and in a way celebrate—that dancing on Broadway is a risky career choice; the show challenges us to get in touch with our curiosities and passions, asking everyone, “What do you do for love?”

As You Like It  [+++1/2]

Previous productions I’ve attended: 2

As You Like It – On The Run 2016

Cyrus Lane as Orlando and Petrina Bromley as Rosalind in As You Like It. Photography by David Hou.

Robin Hutton acted as the Hymen (MC, host, uber-narrator not included in Shakespeare’s script), who, along with stage musicians and some of the actors, created a 1980’s concert-party backdrop against and into which As You Like It was played.

Having splurged on a front row seat for this production, I was rewarded with a participatory audience experience modeled on Newfoundland “kitchen parties,” including forest branch and star props, bleating sheep noisemakers, campfire embers, and—for me—a few spoonfuls of ice cream at the bottom of a gallon bucket. 

Petrina Bromley and Trish Lindström were exuberantly youthful in their Madonna-wanna-be portrayals of Rosalind and Celia. Other characters were reimagined into 1980’s style personas, including Duke Frederick (Scott Wentworth) as a Wall Street big-shot complete with Donald Trump hair, Jaques (Seana McKenna) as a nature photographer, and Touchstone (Sanjay Talwar) taking fashion cues from Boy George.

Perusing the program later, I saw that the casual fun of As You Like It is not just a draw for the audience; some of the cast (and stars) from Shakespeare in Love took uncredited background roles in the show. At intermission, the person next to me asked, “Do you think it was this silly in Shakespeare’s day?” I never seem to have those answers on the spot, want to go back to her now and say, “I certainly hope so.”




October 7, 2015

Have you ever wondered how to do something with your life that makes use of everything you enjoy?

Have you ever thought that there would come a time when all of your scatterbrained interests and experiences would synthesize into one coherent idea or purpose?

That’s me all over.

And if it’s you, too, then you need to watch this TED Talk. I’m serious. Immediately. Click play.


Seven-Sentence Reviews: The Beaux’ Stratagem – Stratford Shakespeare Festival 2014

August 8, 2014


Previous productions I’ve attended: 0

2014 Publicity Images - THE BEAUX’ STRATAGEMOne might doubt that a 1707 provincial farce promoting legally accessible divorce in England would have much to offer a 21st century audience; but the 2014 Stratford production breathes delightful life into The Beaux’ Stratagem’s period plot-lines and characters.

Mike Shara and Colm Feore play penniless beaux scheming to win the affections and purses of country heiresses played by Bethany Jillard and Lucy Peacock. Notwithstanding some anachronistic phrases, the strong cast makes the dialogue reasonably understandable without any foreknowledge of the play.

Several supporting characters are marvelous—Martha Henry is terrific as Lady Bountiful, a doddering precursor to medicinal herbalists of today. Gordon Miller snaps up more than his share of laughs as the jittery manservant, Scrub. I’ve not previously seen Evan Buliung play so flamboyant a comic role as Count Bellair, a French prisoner of war with a, well, outrageous accent.

Antoni Cimolino’s joyful production also includes entertainment during the scene changes—extras sing short William Boyce-inspired tunes by Berthold Carrière.