Tuesday, July 09, 2002
Okay. The trading system is hung up; time for the promised theater reviews.
Last week, my wife and I spent the period from Canada day through Independence Day beyond the Niagara Escarpment, in the fertile fields of our neighbor to the north. We had a wonderful time, first touring the Niagara wine country (surprisingly good and an extremely good value; I'm not clear why they do not export to the U.S., but when they do, they will pose a credible challenge to New Zealand and South Africa) and then at the Stratford Festival. This is Stratford's 50th season, and they are celebrating: inaugurating a new theater (they now count four) and putting on seven Shakespeare productions (if you count Two Noble Kinsmen), including a King Lear featuring Christopher Plummer in the title role. We didn't see that last this time up; Lear hasn't opened yet, so we'll be back in October to see it and four other shows. But we did see: Henry VI (condensed from 3 plays to 2), Romeo & Juliet, All's Well that Ends Well, and the musical offering of the year, My Fair Lady. Here are my impressions:
HENRY VI: I don't think that anyone would call this series of plays good. Given that, they did a credible job with them. In general, the changes they made to the text (to fit 3 plays into 2) were sensible. They cleaned up the worst propaganda of the Joan scenes, clarified some confusing sequences, and broke the action at a logical point (the death of Suffolk). My main regret about the cuts is that they removed all of the comic relief. Two scenes in particular should have been retained: first, the scene where the Bishop of Winchester's men and the Duke of Glouster's men, having been enjoined against fighting with their swords by the Lord Mayor of London, take to throwing stones at one another in childish fury; second, the scene where Glouster exposes as fraudulent a beggar's miraculous claims. Both are amusing scenes, and provide some relief from unrelenting slaughter. But both also shed light on character, something rather thin on the ground in these plays - particularly the character of Humphrey of Glouster who, absent these sorts of scenes, comes off as something of a cypher, much praised by Henry and other characters of good repute but it's not clear for what. (Another, very minor objection: the director took the first line from Henry V to open the play, then wrote a bridge of a couple of lines to bring us up to the start of Henry VI. In that bridge, he misused the word "imagination" by according it a positive connotation, which is a modern and not Elizabethan usage. This made me wince right at the start; never a good way to begin.) The second play is the strongest of the three, apart from the appearance of Richard of Glouster at the end of part III, with the result that the two-play version was strongest in the latter half of the play Stratford titled "Henry VI: Revenge in France" and in the former half of the play they titled "Henry VI: Revolt in England." Highlights were: Thom Marriott as the Duke of York (a vigorous dolt who dies movingly), Seanna McKenna as Margaret of Anjou, who becomes the English Queen (a wicked but strong woman), and Jonathan Goad as Jack Cade and, less effectively, as the Duke of Suffolk (the former a breathtakingly violent peasant rebel, the latter a sneering snob of an aristocrat and the lover of Margaret). Ms. McKenna is a well-known quantity by this point; she played a marvelous Medea a couple of years ago, but Marriott and Goad are comers. Principal weaknesses were Michelle Giroux as Joan of Arc and Michael Therriault as King Henry. Ms. Giroux I have been disappointed with for several seasons now. She was marvelous as Lady Teazel in Sheridan's School for Scandal several years back, but she was a thoroughly inadequate Olivia last year and she is all wrong as Joan. As written, Joan is more warrior than maid, and turns out to be a witch (though this is softened somewhat in the production) but she should not under any circumstances be swishing and prancing around the stage like this was an episode of Buffy. What's particularly disappointing to me is that Ms. Giroux was quite moving as Lady Teazel, even though it is a comic role in a relatively light piece of work. But she plays broader and broader every year, and less and less appears able to get inside a character. Therriault had the harder task, as Henry VI is virtually unplayable. It's a really thankless role. Therriault's performance was a non-interpretation, a very straight rendition of Henry as a meek and mild King, but you don't remember him when he's off stage and he doesn't hold the stage when he is on. He had done far better with stronger roles in the past: Ariel, Aguecheek and one of the mechanicals in Dream. The set was supposed to be innovative - they set a bridge up on the long thrust Patterson stage to give it a second level - but I didn't think they made the best use of it. And what I was most perplexed by was the fight choreography. There seems to be a vogue for playing out big battles in slow motion, I suppose to make them more affecting. Kenneth Branaugh used this in his technique in his film of Henry V. I hate it. It's bathetic and boring. And having an enormous metal death figure wheel itself out onto the battlefield in the final scene of carnage almost made me laugh out loud, which would have been acutely embarrassing in such an intimate theater. Not all the effects were so weak, however; the death of Henry VI, thrown out of the tower to land with a splash of red (the lining of his tan robes suddenly exposed) was very good, and the burning of Joan was accomplished with rough alacrity. All in all, worth seeing because of the scarcity of productions of these plays, but not a deeply memorable production.
ROMEO AND JULIET: On the whole, they did a wonderful job with this almost unplayable classic. The work is so straightjacketed by our expectations that it's very hard to put on without the director, the actors or both doing deliberate violence to the text in an effort to escape. The production was set in Renaissance Florence, the set very simple, in blood and gold tones, and the costuming lavish. All this worked wonderfully. (Tybalt was even done up in tiger stripes, and with his whiskers trimmed in a catlike cut.) The strongest performance was from Wayne Best as Mercutio. I am very fond of Best, who has played Leontes in Winter's Tale and Fluellen in Henry V, both excellent performances. His Mercutio is a Loki-like figure of dark comedy; he wears a devil's red mask in the ball scene and seems to still be wearing it for the rest of the production. Best makes the most of the role's extremely filthy humor, but there is an undercurrent of desperation that comes out in the Queen Mab speech that I had not been expecting, and that I appreciated. Among other things, it deepens the bond between him and Romeo, and thereby makes Romeo's hastily-sought revenge more acceptable to the audience, and Romeo a more tragic figure than might otherwise be the case. Three shows Stratford has not done recently are Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, and Measure for Measure, and I would happily cast Best as Iago, Enobarbus or Antonio in each respectively. Romeo was played very effectively and humorously by Graham Abbey (an actor they are clearly grooming for stardom). Abbey was magnificent as Henry V last year, and never more so than in the difficult wooing scene (which Kenneth Branaugh did so utterly wrongly in his movie), and that scene echoes creepily here, particularly in his confrontation with Paris in the tomb. Abbey's Romeo is more mature in his comradely affections than is typical, I think, and seems less the impetuous youth that Friar Lawrence assumes, but he is something of an ironic actor, and while this deepens him in his scenes of distraught in Friar Lawrence's cell, it somewhat undermines him in his love scenes, where his underlying humor raises his profile to the diminishment of his love and, indeed, the partial eclipse of Juliet. To her I must give a mixed review. Only in the nightingale/lark scene did Claire Jullien as Juliet manifest the depth and clarity of feeling that is the bright torch that Romeo can only follow. Ms. Jullien was generally quite solid, but in two other scenes I think she failed to clear the admittedly high hurdle that Juliet sets: in the balcony scene (where she is lovely but does not impress us as something beyond Romeo's possible prior experience) and after receiving the Nurse's advice to marry Paris (where she recovers her composure too quickly after receiving the shock that the Nurse, on whom she has relied til now, is in fact incapable of understanding her depth of feeling, and would whore her out to placate her boss). The supporting cast is very strong: Julia Donovan and Scott Wentworth are a powerful and, indeed, frightening pair as the Capulets, Lally Cadeau is appropriately pragmatic (in the lowest sense of the word) as the Nurse, and Benvolio and Tybalt are memorably played by Caleb Marshall and Nicholas van Burek, from each of whom I expect to see fine things in the future. A production very worth seeing.
ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL: Everyone will go to see R&J even if the production is mediocre. But if they know anything about the play, you'll have to convince them to come see All's Well even if the production is excellent. The play is horribly problematic for a contemporary audience, and I have to believe it would have been so to the Elizabethans as well. Bertram is an absolutely unredeemable character. All his crimes - his rejection of Helena's love, his snobbery, his callous wooing and forgetting of Diana, his abandonment of his mother and his insubordination to his King - all are excusable on the grounds of youth, stupidity and having been spoiled by his mother. But any man who, confronted with Diana in front of the King, would abuse her and lie unrepentant after the lie was fully exposed; well, let's just say impeachment is too good for him. Had Shakespeare rewritten that final scene so that Bertram repented when faced with his faults, this would have been a far lesser but far more comprehensible play. But as it is, we are left with a Bertram without virtue, and his acceptance of Helena upon her "resurrection" wholly unconvincing. So how do you play Helena? How do you make her interesting and, maybe, sympathetic without diminishing her into a case history of a "woman who loves to much"? Lucy Peacock, a wonderful actress whose Portia last year I much admired, decided that Helena is a strong woman in spite of herself and is, ultimately, right about Bertram - perhaps he is not worthy yet, but he will be. Both these choices are, I think, deeply wrong. Helena is an incredibly strong-willed woman from the first, and making her fragile in her loneliness is precisely the sort of diminishment that derails the play. Strong-willed doesn't do it; she is nothing but will. Her initial winning of Bertram is best read as fantasy: the fantasy of the lonely bokish girl of how she will win the quarterback's affection. But Helena's fantasy, played out in life, fails for the obvious reason: the quarterback is hardly likely to consent to being reduced to a trophy. And so Helena, through shear will, forces the rest of the plot to come to a conclusion in her favor. She is another director figure, like the Duke of Measure for Measure, or Hamlet, or Prospero. But where the Duke's manipulations are notable mostly for their consistent failure (where, were he unmasked he could simply execute his will without artifice), and where Hamlet and Prospero operate from a position of smooth command, Helena's every move is forced. She cannot woo Bertram and so she wins him through humiliation. It is ugly to watch her work, and Ms. Peacock, in an effort to make Helena more sympathetic, tries to duck recognition of her relentless and remorseless nature, and in so doing leaves us far less interested in her. The other roles are very well played; Domini Blythe is strong as always as Bertram's mother, the Countess of Rossillion, and Bertram is better played than the bastard deserves by David Snelgrove. William Hutt is of course masterful as the King of France, and Tim MacDonald makes a lively Parolles. I'm not particularly fond of Parolles as a character; until he is reduced to penury he is little more than a straw dog to be kicked, with none of the grandeur of, say, Malvolio, or the vitality of Falstaff. You can't possibly imagine taking Parolles part, and he seems to exist mainly as prima facie evidence of his friend Bertram's utter lack of judgement. But MacDonald does a decent job with him, not making him more than he is. Diana is played effectively by Sara Topham, who was a very strong Katherine of France in Henry V last year, but it's not much of a role. I mention her mostly because I expect to see a great deal of her, and I am watching to see if she has a Desdemona or an Olivia in her. But none of this matters when Helena is done wrong. I look forward to Ms. Peacock's performance as Regan later this season. She needs to stop doing good girls and get wicked. I would recommend this show only to real Shakespeare fans; it has its rewards, but it will be hard going for those who do not know the play and come not to judge but to experience only.
MY FAIR LADY: One of the three of four greatest American musicals, it is very hard to disappoint an audience with My Fair Lady unless you are determined to do so. This production was a joy, and disappointed only in that I was primed for a revelation and did not receive one. The set was beautiful, but restrained; there were no subtly impressive effects like the placement of the dancers far upstage in the ball scene in last year's Sound of Music, nor anything like the impressive and inventive set for Man of La Mancha in 1998 (such a wonderful production that it almost redeemed a truly execrable show). The choreography was lively, but there were no gasps of wonder at either artistry or athleticism. The strongest point was Colm Fiore as Higgins; he played him vigorously and adolescently, banishing the ghost of Rex Harrison for the duration of the performance (though the exorcism did not last much beyond the theater lobby; Harrison's is a powerful spirit). Pickering was very well played if not so well sung by Barry MacGregor and Freddy was played as the perfect moron by Laird Mackintosh. But Cynthia Dale was something of a disappointment. I fear she was perfectly cast as Maria von Trapp; she has that heart of soggy mush, and does not capture Eliza's fierceness. If Julie Andrews' voice seemed always to resist being forced down crooked Cockney lanes, Ms. Dale's seems incapable of registering real anger; Ms. Andrews seemed always a star, even in the gutter; Ms. Dale always a Diva, which is something rather worse. I'm being overly critical; she was still lovely, and a very strong singer, and did a good job with the comic scene at Ascot. But whereas last year I thought that she had perhaps exceeded Ms. Andrews in her portrayal of Maria, this year she seems a rather less hardy flower the original Eliza. Nonetheless, worth seeing and lots of fun.
I note, looking back over the above, that I am very tough on the women, particularly younger ones: Joan, Juliet, Helena and Eliza came in for the lions share of criticism. So perhaps one should take my opinions with something of a grain of salt.