Gideon's Blog

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

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Thursday, August 04, 2005
I keep sitting down to write something serious - I even made a list - and then wilting at the keyboard. It must be August. And instead of the big world, I find myself focusing on "the little world."

This past weekend my wife and I visited the Stratford Festival of Canada, as we do every year. I usually post reviews of the shows we see, though it appears that last year I failed to do so. Last year we took in Macbeth, Henry VIII, Cymbeline, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Noises Off and Guys and Dolls. The year before, we saw Agamemnon (by Aescylus), Electra (not Sophocles; Giradoux), Taming of the Shrew, Troilus and Cressida, The Birds (by Artistophanes), Pericles, Antony and Cleopatra, The King and I, Gigi and Present Laughter. You can read my reviews of *those* productions here and here. I can't account for my failure to post reviews last year; really, I'm ashamed.

As I've commented in the past, I'm worried about a couple of trends at Stratford, each the inevitable downside to what is fundamentally a positive development. Richard Monette, the Artistic Director, has put the Festival on a sound financial footing for the long term. Excellent. But he has done so by mortgaging the Festival to popular musicals (which bring in about 50% of the revenue from ticket sales) and by turning the Avon Theater (Stratford's second stage) into a boulevard house. A few years ago, Stratford mounted productions of Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Importance of Being Earnest at the Avon. I like Noises Off and Present Laughter as well as the next fellow, but they're not really in the same league. Monette also founded the Birmingham Classical Conservatory, to train young actors in Shakespeare performance, which is a very worthwhile endeavor, and crucial to ensuring the continuity of this theatrical tradition. But it also means that every year the Festival has a big crop of youngsters to cast, and they aren't always up to their roles. Last year's Midsummer Night's Dream was a showcase for the kids, and while they were certainly fine as the four lovers, Dana Green was far from regal as Titania, and the mechanicals, including Thom Marriott - whom I liked very much as Gower in Pericles and as York in the Henry VI plays - as the weaver, played their roles very shallowly. My memory of Brian Bedford's bottomless performance in the role made the contrast particularly painful.

So I came to this season a bit apprehensive. Happily, although I cannot say my fears are entirely allayed, two productions - As You Like It and The Tempest - greatly reassured me that the kids - and the Festival - are all right.

The two plays have a great deal in common. Both take place in realms of enchantment - the forst of Arden on the one hand; Prospero's island on the other. Both are relatively static; they begin with what look like plots, but quickly dissolve into a series of set-pieces. In both cases, the plots, such as they are, hinge on brotherly betrayal, and both ultimately are resolved when the betrayed brother refuses to take revenge, and the betrayer repents. Both also center around the trial and education of a male lover, so that he will prove worthy of marriage to his beloved. Neither, finally, has in any important sense anything to do with Monette's purported "theme" for this year's festival: "Saints and Sinners" - which is, I think, all to the good.

As You Like It was directed by Antoni Cimolino, a former actor from the Stratford company and for the last several years the Executive Director of the Festival. Cimolino directed a fine production of Twelfth Night several years ago, set (appropriately enough) in the Balkans, highlights of which were Peter Donaldson as Malvolio, William Hutt as Feste and Michael Therriault as Aguecheek. (We missed his more recent Love's Labors Lost, which was well-received.) As a director, his touch is light, his instincts somewhat sentimental; his productions are fun, well-paced, alive. This latest production was all of these.

Cimolino has set the play in the 1960s. Duke Senior and his retainers in exile are a bunch of longhairs who have turned on, tuned in and dropped out - all the way out to Arden. Barry MacGregor plays his birkenstocked Senior with calm geniality. His and his commune's welcome to Orlando and old Adam is moving and convincing, an exemplar of the '60s ethos of love and giving. Yes, that ethos never really was, and the '60s as such almost entirely a myth - but Arcadia was a myth, too, just an old one, and Cimolino has found a perfect mythic correspondence with this setting.

All the pieces fit together snugly. The usurping Duke's court is a decadent palace of Mod; Steven Sutcliffe plays his retainer Le Beau in a getup reminiscent of a cross between Gene Simmons and Andy Warhol. Oliver, Charles the wrestler and other young men of the court are played in the uniforms of military school cadets, while a number of Duke Senior's men purport to be disenchanted veterans. And Hymen, the god who blesses the multiple marriages which end the play, is portrayed by Bernard Hopkins a flower-garlanded avatar of the East (unfortunately without an appropriate accent).

And to top it off, Barenaked Ladies composed music for the show that perfectly suits both the lyrics Shakespeare wrote and the setting the director chose. We actually bought the soundtrack, we enjoyed it so much, which includes, as a bonus, a setting for the "If music be the food of love, play on" speech by Duke Orsino from Twelfth Night, which I assume they composed for inclusion in this show but which was not used.

Most of the performances were very strong indeed. The three standouts were Graham Abbey as Jaques, Stephen Ouimette as Touchstone and Dion Johnstone as Orlando. Abbey was cast decidedly against type; he's a hale-fellow-well-met character, whose strongest performance I'd seen to date was as Henry V in the play of that name. Some time before the performance we saw of As You Like It, he broke his foot playing soccer; he was absent from the stage for some time, and had only just returned a few days before we saw him, still in his cast, clomping around on crutches. His Jaques is meant to be an angry Vietnam vet (another largely mythic character), and the crutches and limited mobility enormously enhanced the role. Jaques is a tough character to do right; his is emphatically not the voice of wisdom (the play is far wiser and less cynical than he) but one is meant to have sympathy for him, because Duke Senior does, and the Duke is the very spirit of wisdom and kindness. Abbey struck just the right note to keep our feelings about the character in balance. Last year Abbey was cast in two roles clearly intended to help him "grow" as an actor - he played the title roles in Macbeth and Henry VIII - and neither was entirely successful. I worried that he was getting in over his head, that he didn't have the inner range to play characters very far from his own nature. So I was quite relieved as well as pleased to see that he had a plausible and interesting Jaques in him.

Stephen Ouimette is the perfect actor to play Touchstone. His sense of humor is naturally rancid, and he takes to the cynical fop with gusto. Whenever he is on the stage, he steals it, which is entirely right and proper. And yet, contra Harold Bloom, Touchstone is not meant to be reprehensible. He is loved by Celia and Rosalind, and he loves them in return. His courtship of Audrey is certainly cynical, but we don't know that it's as cynical as he wants us to believe it is (we don't know, for instance, that he really plans to leave her immediately upon conquering her, even though that's what he tells Jaques). He's called Touchstone for a reason: his wit is meant to bring out the true nature of his interlocutors, and he brings out nothing foul in the shepherd Corin, or in Rosalind, or in Audrey, for that matter. Ouimette's Touchstone again strikes the perfect balance between scabrous cynicism and underlying basic good nature. Surprisingly, his performance is weakest in Touchstone's best speech, his discourse on "if" which Ouimette rather rushes through too fast for its force to be felt. This is Touchstone's one bit of true wisdom; it's a shame to miss it.

Dion Johnstone, meanwhile, is a relative newcomer to Stratford, a graduate of the Conservatory program, and a comer in my own opinion. He did a marvelous job last year as Iachimo in Cymbeline (an underrated production all around; in my view, it was one of the best things on in an uneven year) and is perfectly cast as the romantic hero of As You Like It. Johnstone captures just the right flavor of wronged nobility that is the essence of Orlando. He is a powerfully physical actor, and shines in the wrestling sequence, but he also projects an intelligence that not all Orlandos manifest. (Orlando always makes me think of Anna Russell's description of Siegfried: he's very strong . . . and he's very brave . . . and he's very stupid . . .)

Orlando's intelligence comes from Johnstone, but it's also a matter of relative strength, which brings me to Rosalind. Normally a review of As You Like It would revolve around Rosalind, the presiding intelligence of the play. She was played in this production by Sara Topham. Now, I've been a booster of Topham's since I saw her as Katherine in Henry V, a strong and fiesty performance that stayed true to the royalty of the character and the complexity of her position. I keep waiting to be similarly impressed by other performances of hers, and while many have been good none have quite measured up. I hope this isn't a case of inflated expectations, but I'd have to give the same verdict of her Rosalind: good, but doesn't quite measure up. She does fine at schoolgirlish first love, but she seems unaware of her own flashes of wisdom. "Men have died, from time to time, and the worms have eaten them, but not for love" - if you just toss off a line like that you really should be sent back to school, and unfortunately she does. The last As You Like It I saw at Stratford cast Lucy Peacock as Rosalind, and while she was decidedly too old for the part, she absolutely held the stage - too well, sometimes. One usually thinks of the Orlando-Rosalind match as somewhat out of balance, rather like Dorothea's match to Will Ladislaw; in this production, the balance almost goes the wrong way, with Orlando seeming the more serious and mature of the two. I hope this was a choice of Topham's rather than a limitation; I'm heartened by the fact that Celia, normally very much in Rosalind's shadow, continues to hold her own, and serve as a check on Rosalind's more impulsive impulses, all the way through the production - heartened, because it suggests that it may indeed be a choice, or at least something Sophie Goulet, who played Celia, understood was going on, and worked with. But for me, the verdict is still out on Topham. Perhaps it's not fair to compare her to Peacock, but she didn't measure up to Tara Rosling (another youngster) as Viola in Cimolino's Twelfth Night, and that is not an unreasonable comparison to make. I want to see her get out of her ingenue comfort zone.

She sure is fun to look at, though.

I've dwelt so long on this one production because more than anything, this was the play that reassured me that the newcomers will come into their own, that Stratford's next generation has a meaningful number of promising talents, a faith that I'd always had but that last year's production of Dream shook, somewhat.

The Tempest only reassured me further. This production is very nearly an exact revival of the famous 1999 production of the play (also starring the incomparable William Hutt in the lead role); the changes are very few (mostly costuming) and largely favorable. I miss the gross phallus that adorned Peter Hutt's Caliban costume, but otherwise the costumes are only improved. Ariel's apotheosis as the harpy is spellbinding, and the masque is far more lavish (and elaborately choreographed) than I recall from the prior production. The Tempest demands spectacle, and I remember thinking in 1999 that Stratford hadn't really delivered on that score (though they emphatically had in terms of the performances). This time, I felt they did; the only place where the production really fell down, spectacle-wise, was, ironically, in the opening storm. Having seen Pericles on the Festival stage in 2003, I know just how impressive a storm Stratford's wizards can conjure when they wish, and I wish they had again. But otherwise, this is a beautiful, magical production, with effects by turns bold and understated in just the right proportion.

Of course, I could not help comparing this cast's performances to those of the prior production. In pretty much all cases, they held up quite well. Michael Therriault had been luminous as Ariel in 1999; Jacob James, a relatively new member of the cast, held his own as the sprite, never seeming campily fey but genuinely un-human while still benign. And he summoned the requisite force (albeit with the aid of artificial amplification) in the harpy scene. Caliban, meanwhile, was played with less of a leer and more of a snivel by Stephen Ouimette than had been the case with Peter Hutt. Both actors are highly accomplished, and both Calibans highly convincing; Hutt's was more in keeping with his costume, Ouimette's with the strong emphasis on forgiveness that dominates this production.

The young lovers provide another opportunity for up-and-comers to show where they are going, and while neither Jean-Michel LeGal nor Adrienne Gould impress to quite the degree that Graham Abbey and Claire Julien did six years ago, nonetheless they both did a perfectly creditable job. LeGal impressed last year as Garry in Noises Off, and Adrienne Gould was adorable a few years ago as Freddy in a stage adaptation of Robertson Davies' Tempest Tost, and the pair did a fine job as two more comical lovers, Silvius and Phoebe, in As You Like It this year; I'm eager to see what each does in the future. In smaller roles, Sean Arbuckle, who I had ambivalent feelings towards when he played Duke Orsino in Cimolino's production of Twelfth Night, has been growing on me steadily, with strong turns as Nick in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf among other roles. He does a finely malevolent job here as Antonio, Prospero's usurping brother. Barry MacGregor is perhaps too kindly from his first appearance to be a fully rounded Alonso, and Bernard Hopkins is a bit insufferable as Gonzalo, but then again, Gonzalo is insufferable. Brian Tree returns as Stephano, a part he was born to play, and Steven Sutcliffe's Trinculo was sufficiently close to his predecessor Tim Macdonald's turn in the role that I had to remind myself that they were not the same person.

But no one is coming to this play to see anyone but William Hutt. And he is luminous. I worried about him for the first couple of scenes, because, well, he's 85, and his voice and energy aren't what they used to be. But he was merely husbanding his energies. The production is absolutely shameless in using the audience's feelings for Hutt; he milks his own decision to forgive rather than seek vengeance (or even demand penance before forgiveness is offered - an important point, as he brother never does ask pardon, though Alonso does) for all it's worth. But this is all to the good. And I don't mean to suggest that there was nothing in Hutt's performance to make you think. His rendition of the "we are such things as dreams are made on" speech was revelatory: he made it into an almost Lear-like rage against the dying of the light, which was not how I'd ever read it and which jerked me to surprised attention in the theater, but it played perfectly and suited the text equally well. And that was not at all how he delivered the speech six years ago. Hutt is one of the greatest classical actors of his or any generation. It is a privilege to have seen him on the stage; I only wish I had seen him in everything he did in the time that I was conscious of his existence.

Apart from Shakespeare, we took in two other shows this past weekend. Orpheus Descending, at the Patterson Theater, was a mixed bag. On the one hand, it is always a pleasure to see Seanna McKenna, an actress of vast talent and great passion. As Lady Torrance, her comic timing is perfect, her rages coruscating, and her Italian accent adorable, if inexplicably somewhat Slavic. And the rest of the cast was also generally excellent: David Francis, as Jabe Torrance, looked authentically like death; Fiona Reid and Brigit Wilson were authentically catty; and Dana Green, whom I was so disappointed in when she played Titania, was luscious as bad girl Carol Cutrere. The staging was effective and convincing. There were really only two problems with the production: the male lead, and the play itself.

Jonathan Goad is one of my favorite young actors on the Stratford stage. He did a bang-up job as Hotspur in Henry IV part i, was riveting as Jack Cade in the Henry VI plays (Stratford re-cut the three plays into two, so I can't recall which play he was in), and was heartbreakingly powerful as the title role in Pericles. Here, though, he's a bit lost. The decadent languor of planet Williams doesn't come naturally to him, and so, casting about for some way to inhabit Valentine Xavier, decides to play him as if he were a character in a Sam Shepard play instead. This is more congenial to Goad, but it is fatal to the play, and to any semblance of chemistry between him and McKenna's Lady Torrance, of which there is none. Scott Wentworth makes a brief appearance as David Cutrere, Lady's old lover, and the chemistry between Wentworth and McKenna in that brief scene is absolutely electrifying - as it should be - but it only throws into sharp relief how few sparks are flying between the two leads, who are each doing their own thing, and doing it well, but not really with each other.

But the big problem with this production is simply the text. Orpheus is over-written, over-conceived, emotionally implausible and frankly ludicrous. The play flopped twice in Williams' lifetime - in an earlier version at the very beginning of his career and in this version towards the end - and however much affection the author had for the piece (and he clearly had much) it's just not any good. Williams at his best wrote gorgeous poetry and gave honest voice to profound longings. At his worst, he wrote self-indulgent fantasy that has given license to his followers - guys like Tony Kushner and Peter Hinton - to do their worst in turn.

Stratford has two plays by Williams up currently: Orpheus at the Patterson and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Avon. They can take a break now. Williams is canonical, no question. But so are Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Gogol, Pushkin, Calderon, Ionesco, O'Neill, Stoppard, Wedekind, Wilder, Eliot, Lorca, Beckett, Synge, etc. Richard Monette has done a real service trying to bring more French drama (beyond Moliere) to the Stratford stage, putting on plays by Anouilh and Sartre and Giradoux; I hope he continues to range beyond the overly familiar, overly produced and overly praised parts of the canon.

Finally, Hello, Dolly! What can I say? We were trying to decide what the fourth play would be for this particular trip; we were deciding between Cat and Dolly. Not having ever seen the musical, we rented the movie. I had no idea that it was a horror film. Recoiling, we had planned to see Cat, when we were warned away by others. So at the last minute we decided to see Dolly after all. The show may be atrocious, but surely it would be fun to see the folks at Stratford going through the motions.

Well, fun it was. Lucy Peacock was at the top of her form in the title role. Peter Donaldson was appropriately nasty as Horace Vandergelder, yet there was a manifest chemistry between him and Peacock that just as manifestly eluded Streisand and Matthau in the film. All the supporting roles were well-sung and well-danced. The stage was gorgeous. The dances were gorgeous. Even the orchestra was gorgeous. (Actually, you can't see the orchestra on the Festival stage, but you know.) And when the $25,000 rail car rolls onstage to take our heroes from Yonkers to the big city, my wife was moved to whisper in my ear, "hello, trolley!" Like I said: fun.

But for all the fun, this is a pretty stupid show with, I'm sorry to say it, no really good songs. Is this really the best Stratford can do, musical-wise? They haven't put on Candide in decades. We're seeing Gypsy in Niagara-on-the-Lake later this month when we return to Canada; Stratford hasn't done it in forever, if ever. I don't think they've ever done Show Boat. It's been years since they did The Music Man or Carousel or Sweeny Todd. They no longer do Gilbert and Sullivan shows at all because, in the words of Richard Monette, "they're dead." Well, it's not like he doesn't have a point, but how much virtue is there is catering to the sort of audience that wants to see Dolly or Gigi or Camelot while disdaining the poor Savoyards who - however hopelessly fey they might be - at least love shows with wit and music. There's got to be something more to Stratford's musical "mission" than keeping the till full, and I want to know what it is.

I don't want to end on a negative note. Nothing we saw this trip made us wonder, "why on earth did they do that?" which is usually our reaction to something or other (1999's production of Dracula, say, or 2003's production of The Birds). Every production was of very high quality, well-conceived, and generally excellently performed. And while in this visit we took in mostly "safe" offerings, Stratford is taking chances this season; when we return later this month, we're seeing The Lark, by Jean Anouilh; an adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov; Measure for Measure; and Marlowe's Edward II - none of which is exactly a big crowd-pleaser. Overall, this season has given me real encouragement, a greater feeling of optimism than I had after last season.

But that only leaves me wanting more.