Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2003
A day late, but not a dollar short (it's still free!) - here are the promised theater reviews from our family trip to Stratford, Ontario.

First, let me tell you a very brief bit about the Stratford Festival. The Festival was the brainchild of Tom Patterson, a son of Stratford who himself knew nothing about the theater but had a vision that the declining south Ontario industrial town of his birth could be reborn as a haven for great classical theater. He was unable to convince Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy to come north to help him build his dream, but he was able to convince the great director Tyrone Guthrie to come over from Ireland and serve as the first artistic director of the Stratford Festival. They held their first season in a tent in a field in 1953, mounting two shows - Richard III, with Alec Guiness in the title role, and All's Well That Ends Well. Guthrie's theater pioneered a number of innovations, most notably the revival of the thrust stage of the original Festival Theater. Stratford now boasts 4 theaters: the Festival, the Avon (a proscenium house, recently renovated), the Patterson (named for the founder, a spare and very dramatic oblong thrust stage) and the newest addition, the Studio (a small house reserved for more daring or experimental fare, its stage is modelled on the Festival stage, but in miniature). This year, the first of the Festival's second half-century, Stratford is mounting 16 shows, including 5 Shakespeare plays, 2 ancient Greek pieces, 2 modern musicals, and 7 modern or contemporary plays, including 2 reworkings of Greek drama and 2 Canadian plays.

Statford is a very rare thing anywhere: a big-budget repertory company whose mandate is centered on the classics, particularly Shakespeare. Stratford is not a museum of classicism, but neither does it float on the whims of fashion, dumbing down its product rather than educating its audience. (I don't want to oversell the place: they do run a musical or two each year as a "cash cow" to subsidize the rest of the season,and they have gotten more commercial in other ways over time, but there's still no comparison to, say, what has happened to New York theater.) It's a real repertory company; while they do periodically bring in outside actors for particular roles, the overwhelming majority of the performances are by the company. Stratford has nurtured major classical performers like William Hutt and Brian Bedford, and helped launch the careers of actors as different as Christopher Plummer and William Shatner. The Festival operates a conservatory for classical theater training, many of the most promising graduates of which have gone on to become important parts of the Stratford company. Stratford is also notable for its minimal dependence on government assistance. 80% of its budget comes from ticket sales and concessions, and another 15% from private fundraising. Only 4% comes from government grants (the 1% remainder comes from their endowment). The place is in no wise perfect, but it is among the best we have of its kind.

So: how good are this year's plays? We saw 5 shows last week, including only one Shakespeare. We'll be going back in September to see 5 more, including 3 Shakespeare. As I did last year, I'll organize my reviews by play.

The first production we saw, in the Studio Theater, was a production of Aeschylus's Agamemnon, in a translation by Ted Hughes. Now, the Ted Hughes is not the most faithful translation of the play. He takes considerable poetic license in order to make the text more modern, accessible and actable. This has its pros and cons. The text certainly is playable, and the give and take with the chorus feels much more natural and less formal. But the spirit of the play is given just a bit of an antiwar twist - much as, say, Kenneth Branagh did to Shakespeare's Henry V (and, as in that instance, with ample justification from the text). Far more significant from the audience's perspective, Hughes expands the first part of the play, when the chorus is talking mostly to itself. This is just barely short of deadly; as has been noted before, the play really comes alive when Clytemnestra takes the stage, so delaying her entrance does no service to the drama. But once she does appear, the play revives remarkably quickly, and the second hour is riveting. The performances were uniformly excellent, Sean Arbuckle ferociously regal as Agamemnon, Sara Topham creepy as Cassandra (though it is a hopeless part, really), Scott Wentworth oleaginous as Aegisthus. But special mention must be made of Karen Robinson as Clytemnestra, a newcomer to Stratford who fully inhabits a towering role. I have never understood why Aeschylus and Euripides are reckoned misogynists; if anyone deserves that title, it is Sophocles, whose virtuous Antigone is almost wholly without interest, while Aeschylus and Euripides have the enormous villains Clytemnestra and Medea to their credit. Clytemnestra is as powerful a figure as Macbeth (not his Lady: that role is played by her lover, Aegisthus, who skulks in the background while Clytemnestra herself does the bloody deed) and Robinson is utterly convincing as a murderess and regicide capable of restraining from vengeance the entire angry populace of Argos with her tongue (it is a bit unfortunate that Robinson chooses to recall Lady M. by prominently washing her hands).

I was more impressed with her performance after seeing the second production of our trip. Rather than play the entirety of the Oresteia, Stratford made the decision to stage Aeschylus's Agamemnon but follow it with modern versions of the latter two plays: Jean Giradoux's Electra and Jean Paul Sartre's The Flies. The cycle certainly does not lack for modern versions, and I am glad that they put on a version with which I was unfamiliar (and equally glad that they did not stage Eugene O'Neill's monstrosity). Giradoux's play is in the spirit of Euripides' Electra, who set out to explode Aeschylus's myth in a series of plays (going so far in his Iphigenia to assert that her murder by Agamemnon - which is Clytemnestra's own justification for murdering her husband in turn - never took place!), particularly in the character of Electra, who is singularly charmless, hateful and morose. Her hatred of her mother, we are given to know by Giradoux, antedates any knowledge of her mother's crime - indeed, antedates the crime itself. Euripides wanted to see whether we the audience would still vote for the call of justice even if its herald was wholly unsympathetic, and Giradoux strives for much the same; his own audacity is to make Aegisthus a hero of sorts, blessed with a vision of himself as savior of Argos against foreign invaders, if only Electra will anoint him king (she won't), while diminishing Clytemnestra into a hand-wringing haute-bourgeois matron whining that her children don't love her. He thus reverses Aeschylus's own main achievement, the building up of Clytemnestra into a sympathetic man-eater and the reduction of Aegisthus to a cowardly half-man. The play and the production had the opposite problem of Agamemnon. The play starts sprightly and fun, Aegisthus attempting to marry Electra off to a bumbling but sweet gardener (another Euripidean joke) and being interrupted by a farcical cuckolded Assistant Chief Justice, a wandering beggar (who may or may not be a god), and three incipiently pubescent and insistently naughty Furies. But it declines in the second half as Electra is reunited with her brother and tediously confronts her mother, and Aegisthus, in dialogues that hover somewhere between therapy and late-night philosophy bull-session (well ok, better than that, but still rather tedious). Sara Topham is luscious as Agatha, the young wife of the elderly Justice; she was wonderful two years ago as Katherine of France in Henry V, and I do believe she is ready to play Desdemona, hopfully soon. Scott Wentworth is masterful as Aegisthus, smooth and confident but with just that hint of calculation that lets you know he is a usurper. Wentworth has been playing mostly small roles lately; I would like to see him as Claudius or, even better, the Duke of Measure for Measure (which Stratford is due to stage in the next year or so). Sarah Dodd is insufferable as Electra, which gets the character exactly right, and it is painful to watch Karen Robinson caged in this role after seeing her cut loose in Agamemnon, but again, her choices are excellent. My one quibble is with Dion Johnstone who is nothing much as Orestes.

The Studio is a very intimate theater, and it is wonderful to be able to get so close to actors of this quality. I am curious what will play there in the future, and I am encouraged by what they are doing so far. Hopefully it will not be an excuse to lower standards on the Festival stage, as has happened to a number of major off-Broadway houses that opened second stages for more "experimental" work.

The following day began with candy: Brian Bedford directing and starring in Noel Coward's Present Laughter. This is not so much a play as an excuse for Coward to put an amusing version of his life on display, in the character of Garry Essendine, icon of the stage, aging but still a magnet for love-struck youngsters like Daphne Stillington (played by Michelle Giroux) and lunatic failed writers like Roland Maule (played by Tim MacDonald). Bedford is almost flying on autopilot here; he knew Coward when and shares many personal attributes (though Bedford is by far the more accomplished actor; Coward was, rather, a "star") and he could do this role sleepwalking. He doesn't, but it does still seem all a bit too easy for him. I saw Bedford last on Broadway, as Orgon, a performance that was an absolute revelation (he was far less interesting as Tartuffe a few years ago at Stratford), and he was equally magnificent as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream and as Sir Peter Teazle in School for Scandal, both in Stratford. Bedford did a splendid job last year in another Coward piece, Private Lives, a piece with a bit more plot and more spark than this. But it's still a pleasure to watch him work. The greatest compliment I can give Bedford in respect of this particular production though is on his direction. Essendine is unquestionably the star, but Bedford in no way monopolizes the stage, and Seanna McKenna (as his long-suffering secretary), Patricia Collins (as his Swedish spiritualist housekeeper), Tim MacDonald and especially Domini Blithe (as his estranged wife) turn in sparkling performances that nearly eclipse his. But of course, even if they do, they still revolve around him.

The only Shakespeare production we saw this trip was The Taming of the Shew at the Festival Theater. I am ambivalent about this play - not for feminist reasons (I think the courtship of Kate by Petruchio is entirely convincing, and that's all that matters) but because apart from their sparring there is very little to hold the attention. The Bianca plot is both boring and nonsensical, and while the latter would certainly be forgiven, the former may not be. The director, Miles Potter, chose an Old West setting as a means of distancing the drama emotionally (his alternative to the Christopher Sly frame) and placing it in a plausibly sexist environment, and it's a reasonable choice but one that Potter overplays. Graham Abbey, Stratford's main leading man among the younger cast (two years ago he played Hal in both parts of Henry IV and in Henry V, a sequence Stratford dubbed "the making of a king," and one wondered whether they meant Hal or Abbey) strides onto the stage as Petruchio, played as the rough-hewn son of an outlaw, followed by his grossly hammy, gibbering sidekick, Grumio (played by Wayne Best). The contrast between their performances is the story of this production. Best over-acts terribly, and is entirely in keeping with much of the production, which strains after laughs whether or not they are consonant with the mood of a particular scene. The western theme serves the drama very well generally, but the director repeatedly chose to make jokes of the setting that cut against the text rather than working with it. Thus, when Petruchio returns to his home with Kate for the first time, his gang of outlaws is waiting to cut his throat, but they are instantly intimidated into servile obedience. The whole scene is illogical, and it plays strangely against the wooing, because Kate is never menaced by Petruchio (any time he makes her suffer, he suffers along with her), and if she is then the whole play is horrible. Thankfully, she is not. McKenna plays Kate entirely straight. From the first, she sees that Petruchio is something different - that, however strange he may seem, he intends to woo her, something no man ever did before, and this disorients her. By the end of the play, she seems to take his teaching to heart; she is not only learning how to manage him, lovable lunatic that he is, but to have bought into his lunatic worldview. This is a surprising choice for the director to make, but it works. Abbey, meanwhile, plays his own role straight as well: he is rough, even dangerous - but not to Kate. He is more mad than madcap, and while she is not threatened by him, we are, a little. It is an interesting choice, and the production is worth seeing if only to see these two accomplished actors play off each other. For the rest, while there are good performances (by Paul Soles, as Baptista, and Jonathan Goad, as Tranio - with a marvelously ridiculous Mexican accent - in particular), they are more than overmatched by poorer ones (Best, as noted, and also Donald Carrier and Les Carlson as Bianca's wooers Hortensio and Vincentio) and by over-broad directorial choices.

Finally, and again at the Festival theater, we saw the production that ate all the money this year: The King and I. I think this is a fine musical, and the King a masterful creation. The money is well-spent: there's a line in Robertson Davies' novel, The Lyre of Orpheus (set in Stratford) that Canadians like to applaud the set, and they do, and in this instance for good reason. This is one musical where you are supposed to leave the theater humming the set. That said, the singing is fine, though only inspired in one instance: Helen Yu as the King's number one wife, Lady Thiang lifts the whole production to another plane, musically and emotionally, with Something Wonderful. Victor Talmadge has clearly figured out that the King is his meal ticket for life, or at least as long as he can dance, and he does a fine job. Lucy Peacock is a radiant scepter with a steel core as Anna. But the whole production is surprisingly willing to condescend to the King, to take Anna's line that while by civilized standards the King isn't much of a success, he tried really hard and this redeems him. I think this is unfair to the musical and to the character of the King. The King, after all, is entirely aware of the stakes for his country; he knows that he could not stand against the British should they choose to depose him, and he is quite intelligently trying to navigate the difficult minefields of his international scene. His efforts to maintain his dignity in the face of Anna's condescension are rightly played as comedy, but we ought not to forget that the stakes for him really are very high: Anna could, with the right message to the right people, take away his kingdom. The King and I makes an interesting pairing with The Taming of the Shrew, since Anna is, of course, on a mission to civilize - tame - the country and King of Siam, though in a rather different way than Petruchio tames Kate. But while McKenna and Abbey make one believe in their fantastical courtship, Peacock and Talmadge do not similarly convince the audience of the depth of their mutual affection. Peacock has played a number of famed controlling female roles - Portia from The Merchant of Venice, Rosalind from As You Like It, Helena from All's Well that Ends Well - and Anna is another, but the danger with these roles is that, like Kate, she begins to repel those she intends, on some level, to seduce. This is not a problem for Portia, and certainly not for Helena; this difficulty is part of their characters. But it is a bit of a problem for Anna, who needs to seduce us, and the King, and have her faith in her own superiority a bit more convincingly shaken. In any event, apart from the principals the cast is reasonably fine; Tuptim is a bit limp, but Lady Thiang is, as noted, magnificent; the kids are adorable, and the set pieces extravagant and effective.

On the whole, I suppose I was a bit disappointed by this trip. While there was nothing that made me wonder "what on earth were they thinking" - and I have thought that at times in the past - there was also no production that said, "this one is to remember." But perhaps I will have better luck in September, when we return to see Aristophanes' The Birds, Shakespeare's Pericles, Troilus and Cressida and Antony and Cleopatra, and another bit of candy - Gigi. Stay tuned!