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Seven-Sentence Reviews: Stratford Shakespeare Festival 2011

August 6, 2011

As I sat in restaurants and cafés in Stratford, Ontario last week—typing away on my phone or computer; reading programs and scripts—I often fancied myself as a theatre critic in the eyes of those around me.  So I decided I should be just that.

I attended seven plays in Stratford this year.  In deference to my two gentle readers—who probably won’t be going to Stratford—I’ll devote only seven sentences to each.  I should note that my ratings were skewed by my surroundings.  Any production in Stratford would be a welcome addition to most cities’ theatre scenes.

Titus Andronicus ++++

Previous productions I’ve attended: 0

John Vickery was superb in the title role, a victorious Roman general besieged by those he conquered.  The slave-made-empress Tamora (Claire Lautier) and her not-so-secret lover Aaron (Dion Johnstone) were mesmerizing in their pursuit of revenge and evil.

Additional stage-business suggested that Tamora dominated Emperor Saturnine (Sean Arbuckle) partially through alcohol, which helped to explain the emperor’s strange decisions.

With a costuming nod to Edward Scissorhands, Titus’ daughter Lavinia (Amanda Lisman) was effectively employed by this production to exact her own revenge on the assailants who had cut off her hands.

Darko Tresnjak’s staging of the opening scene created an appropriate intensity and motivation for all the gruesomeness to come.  The play, both the script and this production, reveled in the violence portrayed, daring the audience to abhor it and simultaneously laugh at the insanity of it.  We weren’t so much depressed or stunned at the end of the show as much as relieved that it was over and nothing worse could happen.

Camelot ++½+

Previous productions I’ve attended: 0

The first five minutes of Camelot promised a magical, epic story—a real hawk flew in from the balcony; a large celtic medallion rotated in the stage floor; the lighting sparkled; and Arthur grew from a boy to a man.  But I’ve not seen Camelot before—I didn’t know that the magic would end with Merlin’s death ten minutes into the show.

The leads were excellent—Lancelot (Jonathan Winsby) in particular, had a Grand Voice, reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast’s Gaston (whom Winsby has played).

The sets were sumptuously wrapped in jewel tones of sea green and gold with Celtic and French motifs; the rotating medallion element sat idle through most of the show, unfortunately.

Many of King Arthur’s speeches and sentiments seemed out of place in a musical; they struck me as propaganda for the United Nations.

Lerner and Loewe excelled at the character-driven musical—unfortunately Camelot is a plot-driven story.  Multiple songs that talked about the weather did not help to move things along.

The Grapes of Wrath ++++

Previous productions I’ve attended: 1

The Grapes of Wrath could have been overpowered by its scenery, with beautiful skies created through lighting, a swimmable river, and a thunderstorm.  Tom Joad (Evan Buliung) and Jim Casy (Tom McCamus) were key in keeping the impressive scenery in the background.

As hard as Randy Hughson tried to give Uncle John an Oklahoma accent, I still heard his lines in his Irish brogue.

Most of the costumes evoked hard work and poverty.  It was jarring to see one farm worker in a sweatshirt that appeared to be fresh off the rack from the department store.

Chilina Kennedy, a delight on any stage, was perhaps too sympathetic as Rose of Sharon.  The potency of the book’s final scene, for me, was predicated by Rose of Sharon’s whining, naive and irritating presence throughout the rest of the novel.

Jesus Christ Superstar ++++

Previous productions I’ve attended: 2

Everyone was raving about JCS in Stratford—rightfully so.  The Broadway-bound production has modern and energetic choreography, concert-style sets and (happily) focused on pitch and blend in the music rather than just volume alone.

Paul Nolan and Chilina Kennedy were marvelous as Jesus and Mary Magdalene, respectively, but the sensational Josh Young ran away with the show as the conflicted Judas.

The production did not sidestep portraying the crucifixion (as others have), although it did put a heavy Las Vegas-style slant to it.

A Times Square ticker wrapped underneath a stage catwalk to update the audience about times and places.  After Jesus died, the ticker began a succession of bible verses that expanded across the entire backdrop in waves—an affective addition to the show.

This production made the music more likable for me—not good, mind you—just likable.

Richard III ++++

Previous productions I’ve attended: 0

Casting Seana McKenna as Richard of Gloucester was not a stunt or a gimmick; she did not play up irony or femininity in Richard’s character.  No, Ms. McKenna embodied Richard III and all his delicious villainy in a virtuoso performance.

Julie Scott’s brilliant makeup for Richard was reminiscent of the Penguin (Danny DeVito) in the 1992 Batman Returns.  (Was Stratford honoring Tim Burton this season?)

Brendan Murray (whom I had seen as an immature Roman prince in Titus) showed professional versatility in his understudy parts during our performance.  Gareth Potter as the late-entering Richmond possessed the necessary stage presence to counter and compliment McKenna’s hypnotic Richard.

I suspected that the ghosts of Richard’s slain enemies would be well-used at the end of the show, and indeed they were—to chilling effect.

The Merry Wives of Windsor ++++

Previous productions I’ve attended: 0

I would recommend The Merry Wives of Windsor to anyone simply for the joy of watching Geraint Wyn Davies and Tom Rooney onstage.  Their portrayals of  Sir John Falstaff and Master Francis Ford were delightful and regularly stopped the show with their antics and laugh-lines.

Merry Wives is a fun and frivolous ensemble piece, mainly concerned with the hilarious exploits of Falstaff in his attempts to gain monetary and sexual satisfaction.  The ensemble was steadfast in making a merry production, with one—rather glaring—exception.

A famous Canadian TV actress was cast in a colorful role, one supposes to sell more tickets.  But she either had no energy for or no interest in playing the part—she arrived on stage, delivered her lines matter-of-factly and exited.  The audience noticed—even with other stand-out performances, a standing ovation was decidedly denied to the cast.

Twelfth Night +++ ½

Previous productions I’ve attended: 2

Des McAnuff (Big River, Jersey Boys) pulled out all the stops for this production of Twelfth Night.  The sets, costumes and staging were a mash-up of gaudy styles from Victorian to disco and included on-stage entertainments such as golf, tennis and a steam bath.  The many songs by Feste (Ben Carlson) were production numbers with eight to twelve band members, backup singers and concert lighting.

As big as the production itself was, nearly every actor on stage tried to steal the show.  Brian Dennehy (Sir Toby Belch), Tom Rooney (Malvolio), Stephen Ouimette (Sir Andrew Aguecheek) all gave knock-out performances.  Ben Carlson dazzled the audience as a musician, singer and actor.

The oddity, obviously, is that I’ve mentioned none of the leads, even though they were well played—indeed, it felt anticlimactic during the bows to honor the main characters last.

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