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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Sunday, September 18, 2005
Okay, very, very delayed, here are the promised reviews from Canada. (If you'd like to read the reviews from our last trip, see here.)

On our way to Stratford, we stopped in Niagara-on-the-Lake for a couple of days, and took in one show: a production of Gypsy on their Festival Stage. Now, let me say at the outset that I was biased against this production because Shaw's Festival Stage just isn't anything like Stratford's. It's a plain old proscenium. It's a perfectly good proscenium. But after you've seen what Stratford can do with a musical on their Festival Stage, it's hard not to be disappointed.

That said, you can't do Gypsy without a curtain, so I guess even Stratford would put it on at the Avon.

The next problem: the show itself. This is, not to put to fine a point on it, an unpleasant show. Mama Rose is - or should be - terrifying. She should make your skin crawl. If she actually gets you caught up in her own enthusiasm, then she'll do more than any actress I've seen do the role has done; but at a minimum, she should terrify you. I'm not sure I like going to the theater for a night of being terrified.

And it's not just Mama. The show is a nasty piece of work, very Sondheimian. Not that everything Sondheimian is bad. There's Sweeney Todd, his masterpiece. There are wonderful things about A Little Night Music. I genuinely enjoyed the recent production of Pacific Overtures. The 1985 concert version of Follies can make me cry, and laugh out loud (particularly since it completely dispenses with that show's awful book). The lyrics to West Side Story are as delicious as the music and the choreography (this is another show who's book is best forgotten, though). But he's a nasty little man, there's no denying. From the beginning, we're meant to laugh at Rose and her little world. Back when her little act was good, it was bad. And the recurring joke about her inability to re-write the intro is just plain cruel. This is not just the story of a domineering stage mother. It's the story of a domineering stage mother who's an idiot. Why? Is it dramatically necessary that she completely blind to her own incompetance? By the time the show makes its big swerve at the end to get us to sympathize with Rose, "born to soon and got started too late" - well, it's too late.

(And, should you suspect it's impossible to do vaudeville numbers that aren't awful, leaving campy or cruel humor as the only approaches, remember Singin' In the Rain? Or remember Sondheim's own achievements in Follies?)

So why did we buy tickets for it? For the songs, silly.

And, unfortunately, that's where this production really disappointed. Mama Rose not only wasn't scary enough (oh, she was pushy enough, but she didn't terrify you, not even in her most terrible moment, when she sings, "Everything's Coming Up Roses") but she just didn't have the voice. I don't mean she didn't have Ethel Merman's voice; who does? But she didn't have Angela Lansbury's voice, or even Tyne Daly's. The rest of the cast was fine - Louise/Gypsy was quite strong, as was Herbie - but if Mama doesn't measure up then nothing else really matters.

I'm not sorry I saw the show, but I can't say I was particularly happy either. And in the end, I wondered whether this show can still be done well. Gypsy is in many ways a more interesting take on the all-devouring Mother than other, more hysterical products of the Freudian '50s and early '60s, but that trope doesn't particularly speak to us, now. Meanwhile, in our show-biz-saturated age, what seems bizarre is that Rose never gets her day in the sun - our media would be fascinated by such a monster, not desperate to shove her aside. And, finally, for us Louise's apotheosis as Gypsy Rose Lee has lost, well, basically all of its irony. We care about fame far more than talent, and there's no frisson at the idea of a stripper as a celebrity.

Well, someone should figure out how to do the show justice, if only for the songs.

So much for Niagara. When we went to Stratford in July, we took in what I would have to describe as a relatively unchallenging but generally highly enjoyable shows, and an encouraging series of productions. This trip, we made things a bit tougher on ourselves. And the result was, again, rewarding, if not generally as flat-out enjoyable.

The most impressive and important production we saw this trip was of Measure for Measure, directed by Leon Rubin. Now, we saw Rubin's production of Pericles a couple of years back, and we were extremely impressed. We also enjoyed his productions of the Henry VI plays. We were much less impressed by his production of A Midsummer Night's Dream last year. What these productions had in common was a certain simplicity of character and the predominance of spectacle. No one would describe Measure in those terms: it's a highly intellectual play, a strange and difficult play, the favorite of many (one of mine, too), but frequently for the wrong reasons. I was very interested to see what Rubin and his cast would do with it.

Rubin cast two actors whom I like very much for two parts for which I wasn't really sure they were suited. He cast Thom Marriott as the Duke, and Jonathan Goad as Angelo. I first saw Marriott playing York in the Henry VI plays, and again as Gower in Pericles, and in each case he did a phenomenal job. His Bottom in Dream was rather coarse, and compared poorly with Brian Bedford's performance in the role several years ago, but who wouldn't? And anyhow, the whole production was coarse, so I didn't really blame Marriott. But, I thought, he's very young to play the Duke, and he hadn't demonstrated - to me, anyway - either the charisma or the inscrutability of this very peculiar character. Goad, meanwhile, made a thrilling debut four years ago as Hotspur in Henry IV part 1, and delivered a flawless and heartbreaking performance in the title role of Pericles. He was also much weaker in Dream, mis-cast, I think, as Oberon, and as I mentioned earlier this summer he didn't quite get the hang of the male lead in Orpheus Descending either. Goad is an extremely engaging, natural, straightforward actor, with an honest, almost earnest manner to him. I wasn't sure he'd quite understand Angelo. Finally, the third key player in the drama - Isabella - was to be played by Dana Green, who I thought had made a thoroughly inadequate Titania in Dream but, once again, I was tempted to overlook this because so many actors I liked had performed below my expectations in that production. Still, I was nervous; Isabella is an incredibily tricky role, her psychosexual anxieties very much out of tune with, I suspect, most contemporary actresses.

As it happens, the actors - about whom I had concerns in spite of generally liking their work - all performed very well. But they performed well within the context of an interpretation of the play that didn't 100% convince me.

The director gave the play a contemporary setting, in an unspecified East European country, afflicted both with rampant decadence and a resurgent police-state. He also tacked on an "introductory" scene before the beginning of Shakespeare's play which was interesting and effective but which deeply colored the production. While the audience is still being seated, the actors begin to wander onto the stage, and to engage in bits of banter with each other and with the audience to let us know that we are at a nightclub and that the show will be starting soon. Some audience members get solicited for drugs or for sex. Then word goes around that the Duke will be in the crowd tonight - and shortly after that, he enters, takes his seat in a box somewhat removed from the audience, and the floor-show begins. A few minutes into the floor show, the place is raided by Angelo's goons, dressed in urban combat fatigues. The Duke flees, but only after being spotted by one of said goons.

Now, the next scene - the first scene in Shakespeare's play - finds the Duke explaining to his loyal aide Escalus that he needs to leave the country for a while. Later, the Duke explains to a friar the reason he left - and left the state in Angelo's hands. It seems that the country has grown decadent, with many "morals laws" going unenforced for fourteen years under his lax administration. He, the Duke, knows that the state needs reformation, but he cannot plausibly enforce laws that he had so long ignored - not without seeming tyrannous. Hence his elegant and convenient solution to rely on the puritanical Angelo to enforce these long-dormant laws. After people have begun to adjust to the new order, the Duke could return safely to a reformed state with his popularity intact.

In any production, this whole justification is likely to come off as self-serving, and also as insufficient. The Duke, the more one gets to know him, seems clearly to have a penchant for plotting, mischief-making and unbridled theatricality. One strongly senses that he doesn't leave for any particular reason so much as simply because he loves the idea of leaving and returning in disguise to see how things really are, and that he later intervenes to try to right a situation that is obviously spinning out of control - but does so without lifting his disguise - from the sheer pleasure of manipulating events from a place of concealment. He's a very weird character.

But that opening scene - which is very effective, theatrically - so undermines the Duke that his decisions no longer seem bizarre but simply the product of a weak character. Given that opening scene, he has ample reason for leaving - and for not throwing off his disguise at the first sign of real trouble in his plans. He's leaving because he's in danger of being blackmailed. His position is no longer tenable.

That scene also decisively answers one of the other interpretive questions that divide readers of the play: does Lucio know what he's talking about? Lucio, after all, tells the Duke (when the Duke is disguised as a friar) that the Duke was a real ladies' man, and understood the temptations of the flesh, and so would never have prosecuted people for fornication as Angelo does. The Duke is incensed by this characterization - but is it true? From the text, we can't say: it might be, or it might not. No doubt in this production: the Duke is guilty as the rest of them. And when the Duke later tests his loyal Escalus by asking him (when still disguised as a friar) his opinion of the Duke, and gets the loyal answer that the Duke was a selfless servant of the people who delighted only in others' happiness, we know that this is not quite true, and that what the Duke prizes in Escalus is not Escalus's honest knowledge of the Duke's character but his politic reticense about anything negative he might have heard.

In short, from that very first scene we know we are in a "weak-Duke" version of Measure. And I'm not sure how I feel about that choice. On the one hand, I am very resistant to Christian interpretations of the play as an allegory, with the Duke as Christ, Isabella as the human soul, and Lucio as a rather paltry Satan. The strongest version of this allegorical reading that I've read is by Northrop Frye, and he makes the case for the Duke as a benevolent deity as best as it can be made, but I didn't find it convincing. But much as I resist an allegorical interpretation of the play, I cannot escape the feeling that the Duke himself thinks he's playing out an allegory of some kind. And that requires him to be a much stranger, and more powerful, character than the weak Duke we see here.

That said, Thom Marriott did an excellent job with the Duke as interpreted. He was far from instrutable, but certainly charismatic, and very effectively demonstrated the Duke's strong inclination to theatricality certainly at the expense of prudence and even of sense. His proposal to Isabella at the end is handled beautifully - it comes completely out of the blue, and you sense the Duke knows that it's going to seem strange to everyone that he should propose to this poor, distraught woman who has, anyone would agree, had a very hard day, but he does it anyway because he can't resist the grand gesture.

Dana Green I worried about initially; she did not seem like the kind of woman who was eager to join a convent, and the stricter the better. (She also didn't dress like such a woman.) I wonder how many modern young actresses can get inside a character as sexually warped as Isabella is. "Repression" must be a mere scare-word to them, something incomprehensible and obviously bad, not a powerful strategy to deal with terror. In any event, she got stronger as the play went on, and strongest in that glorious and mad final act. She was convincing when she argued for Angelo's life, and convincing in her bewildered reaction to the Duke's proposal, and that redeems the weakness in her earlier scenes.

Jonathan Goad, finally, made a very surprising and, while interesting, I think ultimately unsuccessful choice in his portrayal of Angelo. Angelo is, like Isabella, a study in repression. He should be a powerfully magnetic personality, with a great deal of sexual energy that has been ruthlessly crushed by sheer will. There should be considerable sexual tension in the scenes with Isabella, as they both recognize a kindred spirit in the other. But this is not at all how Goad played the role. Rather, he conceived of Angelo as a kind of sexually immature personality - not someone with a lot of repressed sexuality but someone who never really developed sexually, who is awakening relatively late to the fact that he has a sexual nature, and simply doesn't know what to do with it. Goad said himself in a talk we attended after we saw the show that he thought Angelo was basically harmless, but had no idea how to relate to women. Now, this is not a completely crazy way to play Angelo, and it certainly makes his ultimate redemption easier to take. But it's also hard to square with Angelo's own decision to have Claudio executed even after his corrupt agreement with Isabella. That's a pretty evil act, no two ways about it, and calling Angelo "sexually immature" doesn't negate the evil. If I were sure that Goad could have played Angelo the way I've always conceived him, then I'd be more impressed by his choice simply for being a surprise. But I suspect that Goad is just to nice a guy to really get inside this twisted fellow.

On the whole, I'm very glad I saw the production. It was certainly a theatrical success, even if many of the choices the director made were not ones I would necessarily have done. And how often do you get to see Measure performed?

I'll be briefer with the remaining shows. We saw a production of a stage adaptation of Dosoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Now, Karamazov is a strange play to choose to adapt for the stage, because it basically uses the scaffolding of a family melodrama to explore some very heavy ideas about the human condition. When you cut and dramatize to make it work for the stage, what you're left with is basically the melodrama scaffolding with a bit of philosophy thrown in unconvincingly. Fortunately, simply as melodrama the play works very well. The author, Jason Sherman, chose to turn Smerdyakov's ghost into a narrator character, which certainly changes the thrust of the work for me but which worked very well theatrically. Also effective, though I assume this was the choice of the director, Richard Rose, was the device of keeping the entire cast on stage at all times, functioning periodically as a kind of chorus.

The cast as a whole was quite fine, Jonathan Goad was perfectly cast as the earthy, volatile but basically good-hearted eldest son, Dmitry, Dana Green similarly so as the voluptuous and doubtfully loyal Grushenka, and Michelle Giroux was exquisite as that nasty piece of work, Dmitry's fiancee, Katerina. But the best performances were delivered by Shane Carty as Ivan and Scott Wentworth as the patriarch of the family, Fyodor Karamazov. Carty's courtroom scene actually made me laugh out loud, and Wentworth absolutely dominated the stage every time he was on it. The only really weak performance came from Peter van Gestel as Alyosha, the youngest Karamazov, but I'm not sure how much one can do with such a character.

One wonders why precisely the Festival chose to adapt this novel (rather than, say, doing an actual Russian play - it's not like there's a shortage), but having made that decision I'd have to say they came out better than anyone would have had reason to expect.

At the Studio Theater, Stratford's smallest stage, we saw a production of Edward II, by Kit Marlowe. Frankly, this is not a very good play. The writing is nothing to speak of; there's no poetry, but worse, the author seems to think there is some, and gives his characters repetitive speeches expressing their rather shallow feelings with rather shallow metaphors. The plot is pretty repetitive, too. Edward II clearly had an influence on Shakespeare's own Richard II, an infinitely better play. I can't see a really good reason ever to perform the former given the existence of the latter. The bad reason that comes to mind is that Marlowe provides the opportunity for homoerotic goings-on on stage. I stress that the opportunity is there in the play; the relationship between Edward and Galveston is plainly erotic, and there's no reason not to show it. But if that might make the play fun for some actors and directors, it doesn't make the play good.

The actors did the best they could with the thing, and generally did a quite good job. Wentworth and Giroux were again excellent as the King's arch-enemy and his wife, and James Blendick did a splendid cameo as the assassin Lightborn, assigned the task of Edward's murder. David Snelgrove, whom I liked very much as Troilus in Troilus and Cressida and as Bertram in All's Well that Ends Well, struck me as less-distinguished here, but since the character is written so shallowly I don't really blame him. The only notably weak performance was by Jamie Robinson as Gaveston. He played Gaveston exactly the way he played Achilles in Troilus and Cressida: as a pouty gay gym rat. After two such performances, he has left me unconvinced that he is, in fact, acting.

Richard Monette's production of Troilus and Cressida a couple of years ago was, I thought and still think, truly masterful, a surprise treat of that season. But I wondered at the time if he understood that his aggressively decadent read on that play makes a rather anti-hedonistic point (inasmuch as plays make points, but you know what I mean). After watching the Trojans carry on orgiastically, and go on to lose their one noble character, Hector, and then watch Pandarus degenerate into a seething syphalitic mass, one can only conclude that this hedonism thing really doesn't work out in the end. Yet I was sure Monette didn't intend to make precisely that point. Now he's directed Edward II, and again the audience is drawn to conclude from the goings-on that, really, monarchs ought not to get attached to boy-toy favorites. Does Monette have any idea how this stuff plays?

Finally, we saw a production of The Lark, by Jean Anouilh, adapted by Lillian Hellman, with Amanda Plummer in the title role. This is a very effective piece of theater, and everything about this production clicks. The director chose to make the subtext part of the text, setting the play in France in 1944, with the Englishman Warwick in an S.S. uniform. Given that the play is really about occupied France of that era, and not about Joan per se, the transposition is frankly an improvement. The director also made the highly controversial choice not to make use of Stratford's famous stage; he turns it very nearly into a proscenium, eliminating the balcony, putting a wall upstage and sticking to a highly linear blocking. But it works, and that's all that matters.

Plummer is ideally cast, of course. I'm sure she hears voices in private life all the time. Several Stratford character actors turn in pitch-perfect performances in key scenes, notably Brian Tree as the hilariously clueless Robert de Beaudricourt and Barry MacGregor as Captain La Hire. Graham Abbey is cold as ice as Warwick, and makes excellent use of a soccer injury (he clomps around with two canes; another reviewer aptly described him as looking like a giant spider). And Steve Sutcliffe is sublime as the Dauphin, a spoilt and petulant boy who's plainly smarter than everyone around him and equally plainly lacks the character to lead a scout troop, much less a nation. Finally, an old Stratford hand, Bernard Hopkins, turns in a superb performance as Cauchon, the priest most determined to save Joan's life. It's one of the best, most convincing things I've seen Hopkins do. (Martha Henry is also strong as the Inquisitor, but the role is so clearly written as an Idea rather than a Character that she inevitably comes up against the limits of the text, and so makes much less of an impression than Hopkins.)

The major flaw in the play is Joan's decision to recant her recantation and be burned at the stake. Howsoever true, in essence, it might be to the facts (something of which we cannot possibly have any idea), to have Joan choose death essentially because recantation made her life meaningless is, frankly, an apologia for suicide on existentialist grounds. And I'm not buying. Fortunately, the play rescues itself dramatically by swerving back, after Joan's immolation on stage (technically, under the stage), to her "best day" - the day of the Dauphin's coronation. Which is marvelously done, and lets you leave the theater feeling basically good.

Is this a great play? No. But it's a lot better than Shaw's entry in the Joan sweepstakes. And it was certainly a powerful night of theater, and an excellent way for us to end the season.