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 staring 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.


Like Riding a Bike

June 5, 2014

People like to say that one never forgets how to ride a bike.

People lie.

Skipping the back story, I was invited to go bike riding this past Sunday. I liked the idea. Indianapolis has a rapidly growing bike culture that I have yet to participate in.


Two recent phenomena in town made the evening bike ride appealing. First is the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. This network of downtown pedestrian and bike paths connects various shopping, dining, and cultural destinations. The second is the Indiana Pacers Bikeshare program. One can rent a bike from any of several stations downtown, ride it locally, and return it to any of the other stations.

As it happened, the bike ride plans fell through. But I wanted to try out the bikeshare anyway, just to see if I could make it work. So I put on my exercise clothes, drove myself downtown, parked my car, and walked to a bikeshare station. The program must be off to a good start, there was only one bike available.

I passed the intelligence test of the computer that rented the bike to me. I pulled it off the station with great satisfaction.


Only then did it occur to me that I was standing in a public place with a bicycle. I haven’t ridden a bike since I learned to drive a car. That was four presidencies ago.I straddled it like a pro. I could stand there holding it all day. I successfully adjusted the seat for my height.I seemed to recall that I was supposed to start by pushing the pedal and lifting myself off the ground, simultaneously. More easily remembered than done.I did not, as you may suspect, fall on my face. Or any other body part for that matter. I rolled the bike in a small arc before I hopped off again and thought, How the hell did I think I was going to do this with other people?

I thanked my stars that I was alone. I made a toddler-esque loop around a parking lot, pumping my arms like mad and locking my knees. Somehow that seemed backwards.

My pride wouldn’t let me stay in the parking lot. As luck would have it, I found a straight, underused section of bike trail adjacent to the interstate. I made a few laps back and forth to tame my flailing limbs. With that warm up, I screwed my courage to the sticking place and ventured onto the Cultural Trail amid the pedestrians, vehicles and other targets.

I enjoyed exploring downtown without my car. One misses so many details by driving — plants, sounds, houses, stores and entire streets wash by. I found art installations, balcony gardens and lots of other bikers. I discovered that the Cultural Trail runs down a quaint alley underneath the raunchy gift shop attached to a gay bar. Who knew?

I might apologize to you for my long break from blogging. I’m actually still in the midst of my other projects. But I’d like to get back to writing. It’s cathartic for me, even if it’s a chore for you. In rereading some of my older posts, I found I can be rather depressing. I do apologize for that.

I suppose blogging counts among the things that are as memorable as riding a bike. But I always have trouble making time to write. Judging from my wobbly sea-legs after gracelessly dismounting the bike, I not sure how soon I’ll get back to either riding or writing.




February 11, 2013

As I mentioned, I’ve been busy with things other than writing since 2012.  I wanted to report that I have some results you can all visit online.

One word of warning.  You’ll find work attributed to Douglas Walker rather than Craig Stevenson.  Well, one of us is an alias.  If you don’t know which one, I’m not telling.

The first is the Mass Setting I wrote.  It’s online at ChristTheKingMass.com.  I’m planning to upload the sheet music as PDF files that other musicians can download if they would like.  I’ll get there at some point.

The other project is at HewToons.com.  In a previous post, I mentioned my inability to simply have a hobby.  Every time I try a hobby I transmute it into an attempt to start a second career.  So I’m at it again, this time with a comic strip.  As with most things in life, one doesn’t realize how difficult something is until one tries it.  It seems relatively simple to outline a few frames, write some jokes and draw some simple people.  Only after I started into the project did I discover the billions of nuances that come with the territory.

Please feel free to enjoy some of my non-Rubicon efforts, if you like.  I appreciate your interest and time.


Seven Sentence Reviews: Les Misérables, The Movie Musical

February 10, 2013


Number of times I saw it in the movie theater: 3

Number of times I have seen the stage show: 10

Number of times I’ve read the unabridged novel: 1

The translation of Les Misérables the musical from stage to screen retained roughly seventy percent of the theatrical material and made tweaks and additions to bring the film closer to the novel. The film clearly intended to inspire tears rather than goosebumps and was a complete success on that front.

Ann Hathaway’s honest and vulnerable performance of I Dreamed a Dream is the best chance the film has of becoming iconic in either live theater or cinematic realms. The film had many highlights, including A Heart Full of Love (which I traditionally disdain), Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, and an unsung but tear-jerking moment between the rigid policeman Javert and street urchin Gavroche.

Among the singing talents on display, Russel Crowe’s was the furthest off the mark—so much so that Javert’s impact on the plot seemed diminished, despite revamped and riveting orchestrations behind his signature song, Stars.

I saw Les Misérables in the movie theater three times because I wanted to remember it on the big screen and hear it in surround sound. I didn’t go see it four times because frequent close up shots and understated singing provoked an offhanded, but ultimately damning remark: the film does not beg to be seen in a movie theater—a television will capture its scope just as well.


What I Did on Summer Vacation

September 3, 2012

I’ve been on a hiatus, obviously.

I’m still crossing my Rubicon.  I’ve just been writing other things lately.

I was informally commissioned last year to compose a Mass for my parish.  If you’re not Catholic (i.e. headed for hell) “composing a Mass” means that I set some of the weekly Mass prayers to music.  Theoretically, that music coordinates together as a suite.

I enjoy composing music—creating new melodies and playing them with ad libbed accompaniment for myself.  I’ll play in a stream of consciousness, or toy around with melodies or harmonies I’ve already written.  Adding constraints to the process—existing lyrics that must be incorporated or limits on singable ranges—somehow paradoxically makes the process easier for me.  An English writing analogy might be limiting a post to one hundred words, or writing a short story without using the letter “T.”  I’m more engaged when solving a complex problem than I am writing with no constraints at all.

Notating music, on the other hand, is a royal pain in the patooty.  I’m glad I was writing Rubicon before I started notating my Mass.  Blog posting has made me practice editing, adjusting layouts and polishing my output for public consumption.  In writing, the author strives to lead the reader to an idea through words, punctuation and paragraphs.  In music notation, the composer attempts to recreate his performance through another performer by handing him or her a sheet of paper.  Music notation, for me, has a lot more room for error than just writing words.  As an amateur hack musician, I don’t know exactly what I’ve written until I play it.  And I often don’t play what I’ve written, I play what’s in my head.

So I’ve been writing, rewriting, printing drafts and red-lining all summer long.  The project is almost complete.  My blog photographer Michelle Codarmaz-Booth created a fantastic cover for me.  When the Mass is finished, I plan to offer it for free online.  I’ve tried sending music to publishers before.  My submissions had no result, other than pummeling my frail ego. Like most industries—writing, art, engineering, etc.—music publishing is not about talent or ability. It’s about who you know and nearly limitless perseverance.

When the Mass is finished, I’m still going to be busy in musician mode. I’m playing for a cousin’s wedding in October.  I generally play weddings for our family.  I’m very opinionated about it.  But that’s another blog post.  After that I have yet another mixed media project that will limit my blogging output.

So, although I’m not producing many blog posts, I should have some nearly tangible alternatives to show you soon.