Sept. 13--Sated as Santa Feans may be from classical music performances when summer turns to fall, we remain a little light in the drama department, even though our theater scene has charted an upward course in the most recent seasons. Many of us accordingly make theater going a focus of our travel, as I have done this month.
Among the festivals that exalt (mostly) classic theater, none in our hemisphere rivals the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario. That has been the institution's name since 2008. Prior to that, it was called the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, which reflected whose plays it was overwhelmingly dedicated to producing. The enterprise was founded by a journalist named Tom Patterson who watched the town wilt as local industries dried up in post-World War II Ontario. Desperate times called for desperate solutions, and Patterson convinced the town fathers to follow one of the wackiest courses imaginable: to capitalize on the town's name by founding a theater company that would promote the works of a certain playwright from a certain other Stratford. Fortunately, nobody involved had much inkling of what such an enterprise would entail -- if they had, they surely would not have proceeded -- and in their blissful naivete, they contacted the eminent British director Tyrone Guthrie. Somehow the stars were aligned just right. He signed on, giving the festival the clout it needed to mount its first two productions, in the summer of 1953, with Alec Guinness as the headline star. Now here we are, 60 years later.
Calling the Stratford Festival a festival is almost inaccurate. Its season runs from April through October, so really half a year; in Stratford, the festival is as likely to be in session as not. This is very convenient for Santa Feans, as it enables us to travel to get a theater fix before or after our own summer season. The city of Stratford (population roughly 31,000) is deeply invested in its dominant industry; you can stay at The Bard and Breakfast or get your hair cut at The Mane Stage or ... that sort of thing. You can enjoy an excellent dinner at 5:30 p.m. because that hour falls conveniently between your matinee and your evening performance. You can go to bookstores that are exhaustively stocked with play scripts and arcane literary volumes. And, most important, you can spend your afternoons and evenings sitting in the dark watching the drama unfold before you.
In certain of its essentials, the history of theater in Stratford parallels that of opera in Santa Fe: in the mid-1950s, a dreamer founds an artistic enterprise that, against many odds, grows to such national and even international prominence that it becomes an enduring part of the small city's lifeblood. One wonders if anyone has explored setting up sister-city status between the two, a relationship that might enrich both of these artistically enterprising communities through cultural exchange.
During its 2013 season, the four theaters at the festival have been bustling with 12 plays. Four are by Shakespeare -- Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and Measure for Measure -- and a fifth (which I regrettably missed) also involves him: a two-person play titled Taking Shakespeare (by John Murrell), in which an aging professor and a shiftless freshman find direction in their lives through a close reading of Othello. Of the others, my viewing tended toward dramatic classics -- Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Schiller's Mary Stuart, and Coward's Blithe Spirit, although for variety's sake I also took in a spirited and altogether enjoyable, even moving production of Fiddler on the Roof by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock (directed by Donna Feore). Musicals were inserted into Stratford's offerings some years ago over the objections of many purists, but by now they are important in the commercial mix and are given with careful attention to artistic quality. The Fiddler on the Roof performance I saw was a Wednesday matinee in the 1826-seat Festival Theatre; the place was absolutely packed, and the tour buses from Toronto and elsewhere arrived in long lines. (The summer's other musical offering is the rock opera Tommy, and although I did not see it, I assume from the amount of real estate allotted to Tommy-related merchandise in the gift shops that it was a magnet for many.)
A festival ought to offer productions that vary in their aims and points of view. It is inevitable that attendees will be drawn to some more than others thanks to the directorial stance as well as to the individual and ensemble performances. Of the four Shakespeare productions, the finest was The Merchant of Venice, directed by Antoni Cimolino, formerly the festival's general director but as of this season its artistic director. In a program essay, he wrote of his own family connection to the region of Venice and of the generation of his parents, who, in the 1930s, saw the devastating results of politically promoted anti-Semitism. He set Shakespeare's action in the Venice of that time, though with a light hand that in no way conflicted with the text. Outdoor scenes were mostly dominated by a street cafe, and the interiors sometimes involved a gramophone and radio. I did bristle with annoyance when the scene in which the young lovers Lorenzo and Jessica (Shylock's daughter) bask in the moonlight was interrupted by angry political speeches that momentarily blotted out the romantic music being broadcast on the radio. But annoyance was Cimolino's goal at that moment, and the emotions turned heart-rending when, not long after, the play concluded with Jessica being presented with her father's yarmulke. Shylock is bankrupt, broken, and defeated by the end of this play, but in this production we understood that his fate was still worse. But for that, it was The Merchant of Venice as we expect it, or rather, as we would dream of it.
The central role of Shylock was supposed to have been undertaken by the very eminent Brian Bedford, but a health issue forced his withdrawal while the piece was in rehearsals, and he was replaced by Scott Wentworth, who proved magnificent in the part. As it happens, Wentworth was already portraying Tevye, the father in Fiddler on the Roof who must balance the traditions of his community and the advancing social forces that envelop his village and his family. The actor carried through the season shouldering the roles of both these beleaguered Jewish fathers, and although both were essentially "true to type" they were deeply realized in different ways. His Tevye was involving but understated, his doleful eyes telegraphing from the first glimpse that he was world-weary but through it all grown wise. He seemed to accept with equanimity the singing and dancing Anatevkans who swirled around him, but on the whole it seemed that he would have been content to live a less challenging life. As Shylock, he was hungry to seize the opportunity for revenge against the Christians who had so relentlessly abused him, to channel his simmering bitterness into retaliation that was at once delicious and revolting. Michelle Giroux tendered an entirely winning interpretation of Portia, commanding and dignified, smoky of voice and trenchant of wit, sultry in a way that seemed quite right for a rich heiress of the interwar period. The production also captured the sense of Venice as a geographical crossroads, doubtless more notable in Shakespeare's time than in the 1930s, but so be it. Wentworth's Shylock stopped short of caricature, yet there was never any doubt about his Jewish identity and the pride with which he wrapped himself in it. The Prince of Aragon, one of the courtiers who arrives seeking Portia's hand, got a workout from Antoine Yared, who adopted an accent that placed some of Shakespeare's syllables distant from the realm of his pronunciation. Cimolino's direction extended to subtle details. A wrenching moment, for example, came at the end of a scene in Act 2, when the Prince of Morocco has failed in his suit for Portia. He is portrayed by a black actor, Michael Blake; Portia's sidekick, Nerissa (the very appealing Sophia Walker), is also black. Portia is glad to be rid of the Prince, and, looking down her nose, she comments to Nerissa, "Let all of his complexion choose me so." Nerissa has no verbal response, but she appears at that moment profoundly hurt, a reaction Portia seems not to notice. Anti-Semitism is famously an engine of The Merchant of Venice, but this smart and sensitive production manages to enlarge the topic to a larger context of racism through such deft touches as this.
Romeo and Juliet, as directed by Tim Carroll, provoked considerable debate, but I found it beautifully crafted and intellectually stimulating. Carroll has been affiliated with Shakespeare's Globe theater in London, and there he became involved in restoring period practices -- the theatrical equivalent of the historically informed performance movement in musical interpretation. Even if we moderns cannot lay certain claim to "authenticity" when it comes to recovering ancient ways, we can nonetheless be pretty sure about quite a lot, and it does no harm to occasionally integrate some of these concepts into new realizations of old plays. In this case, the Festival Theatre was approached much as a Shakespearean stage would have been, with the play being given in daylight; here that translated into a single basic lighting cue. There were no set changes, and most characters' costumes remained the same throughout. Pretty much all the responsibility for the production was therefore invested in the performers. (Here Carroll drew the line on historicity and at least allowed a mixed-sex cast.) This was not the most strongly cast R & J a theater goer will ever see, and Romeo in particular (Daniel Briere) was rather a cipher -- not objectionable but hardly an adolescent with hormones a-pumping. Juliet (Sara Topham) made up for it in good part, conveying a sense of youthful romantic awakening. The play was the center of the event, to be sure, but the evening also included aspects of a variety show, with musicians playing a few numbers and members of the cast dancing Elizabethan dances -- very nicely, in every case. At the beginning of the second half, the entire cast assembled to sing a choral rendition of Arcadelt's famous madrigal "Il bianco e dolce cigno," most creditably. In all, this added up to a stimulating and thought-provoking approach, one that conveyed the play responsibly while shedding original light on the very nature of Shakespeare's theatrical aims and goals.
Measure for Measure and Othello were limited by the imagination and scope of their directors (Martha Henry and Chris Abraham respectively) and the capabilities of some of their central cast members. Othello was the better of the two, handsome to behold in abstracted, brilliantly lit sets dominated by the color red -- as in blood or a handkerchief ornamented with a strawberry motif. But since Iago (Graham Abbey) seemed at most a minor-league villain, and since he and Othello (Dion Johnstone) displayed only the most surface camaraderie, the play seemed just a relentless turn of the screw rather than a gripping personal drama. In Othello, moreover, one wants to hear serious voices -- sonorous, resounding, expressive voices. Instead, we mostly got shouting. Waiting for Godot (directed by Jennifer Tarver) also failed to grip. Estragon and Vladimir (Stephen Ouimette and Tom Rooney) allowed surprisingly little humor to creep into their waiting, and although the estimable Brian Dennehy made a gruff romp of Pozzo and Randy Hughson as Lucky was stunning in his Act 1 outburst, it did not add up to a memorable Godot.
Great productions arrived with Mary Stuart (also directed by Cimolino) and Blithe Spirit (which Bedford had directed before his illness). Both were cast very strongly with actors of stature, including many with longstanding ties to the festival. Schiller's play was rendered as a titanic collision of monarchs, as portrayed by Lucy Peacock (Mary) and Seana McKenna (Elizabeth), appearing respectively in their 26th and 22nd Stratford seasons. The former bowed in morbid woe but, when it counted, braced herself with pride, and ultimately she won the moral battle. The latter was utterly captivating, garbed in stunning Elizabethan regalia, entering dancing with her courtiers, but by the end repulsing onlookers with her deceitful politics. And such courtiers she had, with the likes of Dennehy as the exhausted Earl of Shrewsbury, who eventually has had enough of her, and the dependably splendid Geraint Wyn Davies, who was smarmy and reptilian as Elizabeth's traitorous love interest the Earl of Leicester. These were actors who could fill a theater even with a mere mezzo forte and who could dazzle the farthest corner with a passing glance. Word got out fast about this one, and Mary Stuart had to be extended four times to accommodate audience demand. (Also extended this summer were Fiddler on the Roof, Waiting for Godot, Measure for Measure, and Taking Shakespeare.)
So, too, did Blithe Spirit triumph with a full volley of dramatic talent, with McKenna as the odd Madame Arcati, conjuring up the return of Elvira, the departed wife of Charles Condomine. Elvira is portrayed by Giroux, now indeed a 1930s lady of leisure -- and she wreaks hilarious havoc in the Condomine household, and particularly on Charles (Ben Carlson) and his current wife, Ruth (Topham). Played at the Avon Theatre, the festival's proscenium house, within a lavish and lovely country-home set, it was a delicious celebration of witty banter and tightly coordinated farce, marvelous in individual performances as well as in ensemble spirit. Coward's play is an evergreen for good reason, and it positively sparkled in its outing at Stratford. But enchanting in its own right is the pleasure of re-encountering fine actors in markedly different roles from one day to the next -- McKenna as Mary Stuart and Madame Arcati, Giroux as Portia and Elvira, Topham as Ruth and Juliet, Dennehy as Shrewsbury and Pozzo. The play's the thing, of course, but great acting brings pleasures on its own, and it is heartening to know that so much of it awaits us just a day distant.
For information about the Stratford Festival, visit www.stratfordfestival.ca. The current season continues through Oct. 27. The 2014 season will include 12 plays, all touching on the subject of madness. Among the offerings will be five Shakespeare productions: two separate, very different takes on "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (one by Chris Abraham, the other by Peter Sellars), "King Lear" (directed by Antoni Cimolino), "King John" (directed by Tim Carroll), and "Antony and Cleopatra" (directed by Gary Griffin). Among other offerings are Brecht's "Mother Courage," Coward's "Hay Fever," Farquhar's "The Beaux' Stratagem" (directed by Cimolino), "Crazy for You" (by George and Ira Gershwin), and "Man of La Mancha" (by Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion).
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