Much Ado About Nothing

October 7, 2012

Other than reading on the page, my only experience with Much Ado is the Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson version, which made me a bit surprised, but still enraptured, with the…nervousness of Deborah Hay’s Beatrice. Hay and Ben Carlson were absolutely magical together as the quarreling, soon-to-be lovers, and at the end, the chemistry between the real-life couple was beautifully apparent.

Along with Hay and Carlson, Christopher Newton has come to Stratford from Shaw to direct, and I don’t know if I fancy myself an expert, but I thought one could tell from the look and feel of the play. It was a bit more stuffed-looking than the typical show at the Festival theatre (not even discounting last year’s Misanthrope!). A grand piano was tossed around the stage in almost every scene.

But the direction of the actors, and the acting, was superb. Juan Chioran and Gareth Potter were a regal and devious Don Pedro and Don John. Bethany Jillard was a very strong Hero, and Tyrone Savage made Claudio, someone I usually find too stupid for words, a bit smarter. But I suppose anyone looks dumb compared to Beatrice and Benedick.

Which made me more sad to recognize how much the play highlights the disenfranchisement of women, and perhaps this explains this Beatrice’s nervousness. When the crisis arises, even her wit can’t save her cousin. Claudio and Hero’s marriage, her shaming, and the eventual resolution are all matters worked out by the men, including the friar who comes up with a very familiar-sounding plot. Margaret is a tool to be used; Hero and Beatrice can only talk, and when it comes to something important, no one listens. Except Benedick, which makes them the most wonderful couple around.



September 23, 2012

It was exciting to see some new, Canadian work at the Festival, since we usually stick to the classics. I don’t know if time will make Wanderlust a classic, but it was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

The Klondike has always been one of the phases of Canadian history most fascinating to me, and Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee” was key to my first interest. Wanderlust is a new musical by Morris Panych and Marek Norman based on the life (but more the poems) of Robert Service.

The production was gorgeous. The bank’s teller windows, opaque in normal light, revealed the orchestra behind them when the play began. Images of great ships, mountain vistas, and snow seemed sprung from Services’ imagination, especially in the setpieces for The Shooting of Dan McGrew and the Cremation. And the staff of the bank helped the vision along in ingeniously choreographed ways.

Everyone in the cast was strong but I was thrilled by Tom Rooney’s central performance. Anyone who can evoke such tragedy and such comedy, almost simultaneously, is a foundation for the theatre. The show closed with Rooney/Service alone at the bank, at his desk plastered with postcards of northern landscapes, in the light of a window as snow began to fall. A gorgeous summing-up.

In the past I’ve been struck by how the experience of theatre can take a play that’s dull on the page and make it magical. But there seems to be a theme to my Stratford times this year, and between Beatrice and Benedick, Robert Service, and Christopher Plummer’s favourites, it’s all about the magic of the language on the page.

A Word or Two

August 31, 2012

This was an experience to cherish, not to write about, and I thank Mom for sharing it with me.

Christopher Plummer’s one-man show was more personal than either of us had expected. It weaves his autobiography together with the literature that has shaped his life. Funny moments, poignant moments, from a pair of old boy’s skates and an escape into French to a meditation on death. His mother’s, and his.

Left with lots of new, old poems and stories to read.

This was only going to be a review of the Stratford Festival’s amazing production, now on DVD, of Twelfth Night.  I didn’t see it live; chose two other fantastic productions instead. But now, even though they were great, I’m kicking myself for not seeing Des McAnuff’s comedy in person.

The word to describe it is joyful. Not without the touch of melancholy that always gives a Shakespearean production greater depth, especially thanks to Tom Rooney’s Malvolio. But sheer joy in the language, the comedy, the romance, the music!

It might be because I’m such a huge fan, and have been since his Shaw Festival days, but a lot of this joy radiates from Ben Carlson’s cranky but accommodating Feste.  The interplay between Feste, Maria, and Brian Dennehy’s Sir Toby Belch and Stephen Ouimette’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek is fantastic.

Twelfth Night is full of music, the food of love!  And McAnuff added even more, including a song based on Marlowe’s “Passionate Shepherd” and Raleigh’s “Nymph’s Reply”.  Even with all the beautiful music (a showstopping “Come Away, Death”, performed by Carlson alone), the most fun was Carlson, Dennehy and Ouimette turning “Hold Thy Peace” into a 50s rock song. Just thinking about the song and the scene puts a smile on my face.

Which brings me to what this post turned into: thoughts on the beauty of theatre and the important times my family’s had, thanks to Stratford.

We’d been before now and again, but my mother made a point of taking us in 2002, to see Christopher Plummer as King Lear. It was a breathtaking, heart-rending, production, and we made a beautiful day of it, picnicking along the river and spending time as a family. When we got home, we got the message that my mother’s sister had passed away; and for me, admittedly a niece rather than a sister, the grief we saw enacted on the stage that day, in retrospect, reflected our own.

Since then we’ve gone at least yearly, and usually a few times a year. I’ve shared trips with my whole family, my whole family and some friends, just my husband, just my brother, and last year, I got to take a friend to her very first play (she’s a concert goer, not a playgoer, but I think she’s convinced!). There have been a couple years where we’ve dealt with the rain, but usually it’s a gorgeous summer or fall day, offering time to spend with loved ones, and time to ponder the magic the Festival shares with all of us.

My mother-in-law, whom we lost in 2010, was a lover of musical theatre. My husband and I got to take our moms to a few productions, and so whenever I see a fantastic play like Twelfth Night, I wish I could share it with her. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack, and it gives me opportunity to think of her, and have that joyful feeling. In a couple weeks I’m having that first-time theatre-goer friend over, and we’ll watch the play and share in the fun.

I am so thankful for all these moments.

Favourite Public Performance

November 5, 2011

Again, I want to be able to chose about 5 favourites. Hands down, for me, favourite musical live performance: Dec. 2009, Chantal Kreviazuk at Massey Hall.

Theatre…ask to see my theatre journal sometime. Years ago my mother decided to begin taking us annually to Stratford. This tradition began with seeing Christopher Plummer in King Lear, which was incredible. One of the first times I’ve cried at the theatre, but certainly not the last. We saw William Hutt’s farewell performance in The Tempest. I have to mention their Of Mice and Men with Graham Greene, because it proved to me that being with hundreds of people in a theatre can still be a more intimate experience than watching a movie at home by yourself.  This year we saw their Broadway-bound Jesus Christ Superstar.

But let’s say, for purposes here, that my favourite public performance was one of my most recent: I had a spare ticket for the Festival’s The Misanthrope, and I got to take along a friend to her first play there!  It was a perfect day, a Stratford day, as we’ve come to call them having such good luck so much of the time, and sharing it with her led me to see it through her eyes and appreciate it even more.


The Misanthrope

September 26, 2011

This play was a gem! And sadly under-attended. I think part of it might be a great number of misconceptions about the play–that it would be stuffy, or silly (or, as the ladies behind us suggested, that it was written in the 17th century, about the 18th century[??]). And there are stuffy and silly characters, at least at first. But the verse is so well-constructed (adapted for English by Richard Wilbur) and here, so well-delivered, that even the stuffiest and silliest characters (except perhaps Kelli Fox’s devilishly good Arsinoe) have an admirable depth of feeling.

Philinte and Eliante, the second couple in the play, feel too good to be true, but Juan Chioran and Martha Farrell imbue them with a reality and a gravity. Sarah Topham as Celemine broke my heart, first when we see her pain at having caused her lover pain, and then when she has to refuse him to stay in the society she (I think reasonably) loves.

Ben Carlson has adapted very strongly to comedy and is brilliant here, leaving us with the play’s conundrum: is the misanthrope a hero, or a fool?


August 15, 2011

If Grapes of Wrath was too big a story for the Avon, Jesus Christ Superstar was made for the stage, and this was far and away the best production I’ve seen (Andrew Lloyd Webber has said it’s the best-acted he’s seen, which is very impressive).

We were all thrilled by the set, lighting, and costume design. A point of discussion afterwards was having Judas in blue (his blue suit during “Jesus Christ Superstar”, together with Josh Young’s delivery, was fantastic!). We assumed that since this story shows Judas as trying to be faithful to the cause he thinks he knows, that his blue was for fidelity.

Paul Nolan and Chilina Kennedy were both very strong as Jesus and Mary Magdelene. Brent Carver (Pilate) and Bruce Dow (Herod) made huge impact in very short time.

Niagara boy Lee Siegel played Simon Zealotes–what a joy to hear that big voice again!

The whole production: incredible well-designed, well-acted, well-sung. Astonishing to see in person.

August 15, 2011

A few weeks ago we went to see Grapes of Wrath at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, which has been getting good reviews this season. We all agreed–an excellent production and some very good acting (especially from Janet Wright as Ma and Tom McCamus as Casy), but somehow some of the truth got wrung out of the story when it got shrunk to 2.5 hours. It means less if you don’t feel the length and breadth of what the Joads do. And I found it led to many of the characters working more as types than as people. Very good to see, but less to feel.

This Rough Magic

August 8, 2010

We saw the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s production of The Tempest this past weekend, and, as always, it was beautiful and thought-provoking.

I think what struck me most was that, for a play that is often made to be “about” something (a farewell from Shakespeare, colonialism, etc. etc.), this production didn’t make itself about anything other than a damn good production of The Tempest.  Ariel and Caliban were both magical and terrible. Gareth Potter was Ferdinand, and a fine change from the common shortcomings of the Festival’s young men. In his 7th season, I’d hope he’d be!

William Hutt told a story about his first year at the festival, when he got on stage, thought he’d be Shakespearean, and proceeded to bellow every line. Tony Guthrie, he said, took him aside and said, “You’re too loud, too loud, too loud.” The difference between the experienced and inexperienced actors, to me, always comes out in such things. When Christopher Plummer speaks, it’s as though Prospero is saying those things just as he thinks them. Miranda was especially loud and Hutt-Shakespearean in her first scenes, but Plummer was a calming influence on her as they continued together. It was a lovely thing to see.

And then, Plummer did a book signing. Mom and I have had his book since it came out, and I thought about bringing it along, but then didn’t think there would be an opportunity (some grade 9 classmates and I once waited outside the stage door for Jonathan Crombie–Gilbert Blythe–till someone came and got us and told us our bus was leaving…Crombie-less). So without having brought or bought a book I had to wait till the end of the line. He was still gracious enough to sign a program for both my mother and I. I would have explained the situation but they were moving quickly and I thought I’d tell him how much we’ve appreciated his work, and for how long, rather than saying, “I promise I have a copy at home!”

A Public Tragedy

August 2, 2009

A very good production, one of the best plays, and one of the worst audiences I’ve ever been in.

But even two phones ringing, people flashing lights, and lots of coughs and people coming and going couldn’t distract from Shakespeare’s excellent public tragedy, Julius Caesar.

A tragedy about the downfall of ambition and the horrors of the mob. But one that depends on personal relationships: Caesar and Calpurnia, Caesar and Brutus, Brutus and Portia (a strong character and strong actor, robbed by how few scenes she’s in and by the phone ringing throughout the main one), Brutus and Cassius.

And what a Brutus and Cassius! Ben Carlson and Tom Rooney (last year’s Hamlet and Horatio) broke my heart each time they spoke. Noble and troubled, lean and hungry. “You have done that you should be sorry for!”

The production was quite good, largely on the strength of the performances. It does seem, to a slight extent, that this year’s productions have traded emotional impact for visual impact; but very good nonetheless.