Stratford Pearls Before Me

wearing my dress boots for the first in two years

I loved Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Hamlet-911, directed by Alisia Palmer on the Studio Theatre stage as the Stratford Festival. Even the steady rain this past Tuesday didn’t dampen our pleasure for this fast-paced, socially-conscious, deconstruction of Hamlet. I knew we were in for a theatrical roller-coaster with the initial ‘catcall’ as one of the cast started to warn the ladies and gentlemen to turn off their phones – the catcall was that not everyone in the audiences identifies as either & then the sincerity of the land acknowledgement was questioned by another ‘catcall.’ 

rain couldn’t dampen our enjoyment of the show

The ‘plot’ of the play & the play within the play, the dream within the play – are all irrelevant to the powerful messages about masculinity, alienation, suicide, electronic social isolation & sobriety that were delivered with humour & inventive staging.

Mike Shara as Guinness Menzies, playing Hamlet conveyed the smug entitlement of a popular TV actor cast as Hamlet – a production that casts his wife as his mother in the play – a clever reflection of the incestuous undertone of Hamlet & his mother. Confused? As 911 plays out on stage everything is logical & understandable.

Scott Wentworth as Rex Menzies, Guinness’s father, also the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father – gets a juicy monologue as he rages about the political-correctedness of colour & gender blind casting, amongst other things, while he lauds the founding of the festival in tents. He parodies the very sort of pompous Shakespearean actor he might be himself, off stage. Hilarious.

theatre too dark for a clear pic 😦

Equally as hilarious, but given too late stage time, was Sarah Dodd as Guinness’s mother. Her ‘he’s back, he’s gone’ was pitch perfect & also set us up for Guinness’s misunderstanding the she tells him ‘he’s gone’ when Rex dies.

Gordon Patrick White as the ghost of poor Yorick, echoed both the ghost of Christmas past & Lear’s Fool – he also seems to be the spirit of the Festival itself. Like the spirits in Christmas Carol he leads Guinness though events in his past to a moment of self-realization.

drama in the sky on our way home

The four, or is it five, minute fast-forward version of Hamlet was astounding & nearly brought the audience to its feet with applause. Brilliant piece of staging. Though it might help if one had seen a full performance of Hamlet before. But even if one hadn’t, the humour of this play is enough to entertain any audience.

The sheer joy of Hamlet-911’s theatricality was energizing & refreshing. The production was as much about ‘how to put on a play’ as it was about the plot & characters. It operated on so many layers of plot, stage craft, & the inability to communicate either f2f or online that I was amazed & delighted.

reviews of shows I’ve seen this past season:

Richard III

Dull In Denmark 

The Mister 

Rocky Horror 

All’s Well That Ends Well 

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A Meditation on Virginity

I very much enjoyed the Stratford Festival production of All’s Well That Ends Well at the Tom Patterson Theatre under the direction of Scott Wentworth. Curiously it was the third production we saw at the Festival this year that begins with a grave (Richard III & Hamlet) – a subtext?

In All’s Well it is the grave of Helen’s (Jessica B. Hill) father who has left her in the care of Countess of Rossillion (Seana McKenna). The Countess sees Helen as her own daughter to such a degree that she insists Helen call her mother – which might explain why her son Bertram (Jordin Hall) is repulsed at the thought of marrying his sister. The main plot of the play is how Helen manipulates Bertram into consummating & accepting their marriage.

The cast handles Shakespeare’s witty dialogue very well. The scenes between Seana & her sexton, André Sills crackle with playful energy & subtle sexual tension. It is their ‘relationship’ that, for me, holds the play together. In fact all of André’s scenes were great fun as he gave the sexton a real sexual magnetism that was a pointed contrast to Jordin’s nearly total lack of sexual energy – what did Helen find so appealing about him? I did feel a little sympathy for him as he surrendered to Helen’s manipulations. 

There was also great crackle in Parolles (Rylan Wilkie) meditation-on-virginity scenes with Helen & his exchanges with Lafew (Wayne Best). Parolles is this play’s Mavolio. A man who sees himself in a different light than anyone else sees him. Rylan plays him well & Parolles’ comeuppance is perhaps the play’s most comic scene. Even in defeat his ‘redemption’ shows him unbowed.

The staging was simple, effective & the cast rolled pedestals, beds & baggage trollies on & off stage without disrupting the flow of the play. I particularly loved the military costumes with their gaudy epaulets, elaborate strings of gold & rows of shiny medals. Of course Parolles’ uniform had the most fringe. Smoke billowing out of suitcases was a fun dramatic visual. Highly recommended.

reviews of shows I’ve seen this past season:

Richard III

Dull In Denmark 

The Mister 

Rocky Horror 

Hey! You can give me $$$ to defray blog fees & see more shows
sweet, eh? paypal.me/TOpoet

Don’t Skip The Miser

 

To commemorate Molière’s 400th birthday the Stratford Festival presented The Miser in a new modern version by Ranjit Bolt directed by Antoni Cimolino with Colm Feore as Harper, & Lucy Peacock as Fay (the matchmaker). 

Life imitated art at this production of The Miser on Tues Aug 16 – the house ambient sound was of a thunderstorm – when I exited the Festival Theatre after the show, there was a real thunderstorm. The show itself was excellent in this new adaptation of the Molière. It has been updated to today – full of texting & references to ghosting, memes, FBI raids & Toronto centric shops, Skip The Dishes delivery, the dismay of living in Scarborough.

The rather knotty plot of coincidence, misunderstandings & deliberate misinformation is well delineated – no one, but the characters, is confused by the various threads of subplots & withheld information. It also answers that burning question of what to do if your windowed father is determined to marry the girl he doesn’t know you want to marry.

One key to the play, that I didn’t fully recognize until after the performance, was the influence of Commedia dell’arte on Molière that echoed through this production with the older wealthy man, perky maid (or matchmaker), high-class hopeless lovers etc. Harper’s 2nd act lavender silk top & tails with bellbottoms quickly turn him into a Pierrot . You’ll have to see this excellent production to track down all the Commedia parallels.

The show moves quickly, the cast is energized by the wordplay of the text & Colm seems happy to step out of Richard III into someone lighter. Lucy Peacock relished the opportunity to wear slutty modern wear & her glittery heels deserved a bow of their own. An actress friend of mine once told me she didn’t really feel a character until she had the right shoes. Lucy had the right shoes for sure.

They text is amusing, has several laughs but it isn’t punchline laughter & makes fun of serious theatre, greed, & endlessly big reveal denouements of the ‘Luke I am your Father’ type. I also appreciated an ending in which the principle character doesn’t learn any important life lessons as he is reunited happily with the love of his life – a suitcase full of cash. Highly recommend.

Richard III

Dull In Denmark 

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Dull In Denmark

 

Took another Stratford day-trip Wednesday to see Hamlet. First the good news – we had lunch at the re-located Features & were happy with the bright, spacious location. Same menu (on new a menu folder). Same staff. Best part, the washrooms are no longer down a slippery flight of rickety stairs into a dark low-ceilinged basement.

Now for the bad news, something was dull in the state of Denmark & it is hard to know where to begin. Perhaps it was the long pandemic delay that gave them too much time to simmer this production – a simmer that turned it into flavourless Hamlet.

The opening was promising with funeral organ music & the dead king in a glass coffin already on stage. Guards were contemporized into a dark suited security detail – earplug communicators etc. The ghost work was nicely handled. But after Hamlet ‘swears,’ I got sleepy & missed some things, including the To Be soliloquy. A sure sign of how dull the performances & staging where. I perked up when the travelling players finally arrived. 

from a past production

Overall it was, to me, an uninspired production, though the staging had some good elements. The use of the balcony mirrors & projections was interesting, as was hidden body mic on Ophelia. The costumes were street wear – as if the cast had arrived late & rushed on stage without changing out of their street clothes. I can’t even remember what Hamlet wore. Costumes should help define the characters & so everyone here was defined as nobodies. Laertes in sweatpants? How regal.

from a past production

Amaka Umeh in the lead works hard, saws the air at every possible moment but never found a character. The King lacked any sense of threat. Ophelia lacked wispiness & seemed more peeved than heart-broken. None of the principles felt that invested in their characters, none of them seemed to be enjoying being on stage.

In the end we were left with a dull silence.

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Richard III

 

They wouldn’t let me try it on 😦

We were eager to this Festival production of Richard III at the new Tom Patterson Theatre. A fitting choice as Richard was one of the productions featured in the first season of Stratford in 1953. It starred Alec Guinness as Richard. I thoroughly enjoyed the preview production of Ricard iii I saw earlier this week. All I know of Richard is the myth that Shakespeare’s play solidified. A myth that centres around the death of the princes in the tower. From the play one gets the idea that the years of his reign were spent solely in conflict about his right to rule while denying any knowledge off what happed to the princes.

Director Antoni Cimolino has given this  production has an amazing opening scene that gives Richard a stunning entrance. Inventive & intuitive it took my breath away. You’ll have to see it for yourself as I’m not giving it away here. Unfortunately his first monologue ‘Now is the winter’ was marred by a cell phone ringing :-(. 

I wonder that this isn’t considered one of  Shakespeare’s problem plays with the endless assortment of characters – so many one really needs a cheat sheet app to keep track of who is whose sister, wife, window, mother, grandmother, which lord is on which side. At least in this production the women were dressed differently enough one could tell them apart, but the lords & underlings wore such similarly styled & dull colour clothes & hair they were interchangeable. 

Colm Feore is excellent as the sly, manipulative Richard; André Sills is a formidable Buckingham (how long before he does Falstaff?). Lucy Peacock as Elizabeth steals every scene she is in, even with Feore. Her scene with Seana McKenna (Margaret),

 Diana Leblanc (Duchess of something) is a stand out as each truest out-do the other in their hatred of Richard. Another great scene was Richard’s ‘seduction’ of Lady Anne (Jessica B. Hill) was a fine example of gaslighting & victim-blaming ‘it’s your fault I killed your husband – you are so beautiful I had no choice’ 

The finale was puzzling as the cast morphed into modern dress for a funeral. I’m not sure who the funeral was for: Richard? A dynamic production I’d recommend to anyone, even more so to anyone who knows the historical context & can tell a mother from a daughter.

I did try this one on
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Stratford July Day Trip

sky over 401 as we set out
tarts galore at The Shakespeare Pie Shop
sky over The Shakespeare Pie Shop
dining a la fresco at Features
new Tom Patterson
other side of the new Tom Patterson
another view of the new Tom Patterson
paddleboats on the Avon

for more about the trip & more photos see Stratford Protocol  https://topoet.ca/2020/07/24/stratford-protocol/ 

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sweet, eh? paypal.me/TOpoet

“Abject Object”

Over the years I have seen nearly all Shakespeare’s plays. Thankfully Stratford Festival presents one of the infrequently produced ones every year or so. This year it is Henry VIII, which we saw at the intimate Studio Theatre. A play with the largest cast list done in the smallest theatre presented a challenge for director Martha Henry, which she met with ease.

This was a preview production but most of the performances were excellent. Irene Poole as Queen Katherine was strong, her death scene was compelling – cutting the appearance of the spirit apparitions allowed the scene even greater emotional resonance. Kim Horsman as Duchess of Norfolk was great fun. Jonathan Goad as Henry was boyish, regal and made the king so appealing one almost forgives his treatment of women. The supporting players were good, Scott Wentworth as the Duke of Norfolk was particularly strong.

Thanks to the series The Tudors I was able to sort out the political web that was being spun for Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn but I’m not sure how anyone unfamiliar with the actual history would have fared with the religious & political intrigues that run though the play. But the play is also an emotional look at the disintegration of a marriage regardless of the political context.

The staging was simple, the costumes were detailed, though there were more sequins than one would have expected at that time 🙂 The ending bows were cleverly  choreographed. Highly recommended.

 

My only quibble is with an audience member, in my row, two seats to my right who felt it was perfectly fine to use his smartphone to check messages & text replies two different times, while the show was in progress. I guess I should be grateful he didn’t start a whispered conversation on it. 

 

 

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“Brave Spirits Indeed”

I have seen several productions of The Tempest – some at Stratford, some on TV, at least one Shakespeare in the Park, plus a few film adaptations. The last one I saw starred Christopher Plumber at the Festival. So the play holds little surprise – the pleasure is in the telling.

My favorite Shakespeare character is in this play. Caliban, the true outsider. A creature with human foibles but abused and/or found repulsive by all humans. I’ve frequently found Ariel irritating as opposed to delightful.

Over all this is a solid production with some wonderful over-the-top moments in Act 2. Martha Henry is a fine Prospero – though I would have liked a bit more bitterness, as opposed to the simmering anger but it is good to see her take on the character. There is real chemistry between Mamie Zwettler and André Sills as the young lovers Miranda and Sebastian. 

André Morin as Ariel give a good performance – perhaps the tree bark costume grounded him as one of the earth spirits. An apt costume for a spirit freed from a tree. Michael Blake as Caliban, costumed with barnacles, clearly a sea spirit, is strong but comes across more pissed off than vengeful. As with Prospero I would have liked less amiability – they are too likable 🙂 

The rest of the cast gives nicely detailed performances & as always the reliable stalwarts Stephen Ouimette & Tom McCamus are fun as Trinculo & Stephano – there is always bring great comic chemistry between the two of them.

The colonizing subtext of the play has become more troubling over time – much like Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn it is becoming more politically charged & I wonder how soon it’ll be before The Tempest gets banned. But that’s another blog post. It is still a fun production & well worth seeing.

ps – Some of my focus was distracted repeatedly by a member of the audience who had no hesitation in taking out their cell phone to take pictures of the action on stage – I missed the moment of the entrance of the Harpy with the turning on of their camera screen to get some shots. When they started to do this yet again someone nearer to them leaned over to stop them. At least the photo taker didn’t start to share their pics on social media during the show. How considerate.

Other summer reviews:

Long Day’s Journey Into Night: “a ghost haunting the past” https://wp.me/p1RtxU-30f 

Coriolanus: “My rage is gone” https://wp.me/p1RtxU-31K 

The King and I: The King and My Memories https://wp.me/p1RtxU-31Y

Julius Caesar: Honourable Women https://wp.me/p1RtxU-33T

The Hound of the Baskervilles: Entertainment Afoot

https://wp.me/p1RtxU-34I

Honourable Women

Where to start with this so-so Stratford Festival production of Julius Caesar? This early play, not regarded as one of Shakespeare’s better pieces, isn’t improved any by the casting of women in the lead roles. I was hoping there would be some layered resonance on the current discussion about gender & representation but if there is it was under too many layers. An arrogant & ambitious ruler meets a bad end. Assassins pay the price of their actions. 

Seana McKenna does not portray Caesar as being particularly arrogant or ambitious. She handles the role well but seems merely content to give the lines a well enunciated delivery. Michelle Giroux as Mark Antony invests the character with urgency & emotional connection. She handles the slyly manipulative “lend me your ears” speech very well. Now this a character with ambitions. Also good was Jonathan Goad as Marcus Brutus. 

Director Scott Wentworth does able work with the ‘rabble’ crowd scenes so they have good energy & theatricality – I really enjoy the opening of Act 2 with the rabble scattered throughout the theatre. Slow motion battle scenes & Gregorian chant didn’t work for me. I did like the hand washing nod to McBeth though.

When men play women, cross-dressing or doing drag, they are judged by how well they pass as women, so it is fair to do the same for when women play men. Seana is the most successful on surface appearance, Michelle is okay, Irene Poole as Cassius could pass as a teenage boy not as an adult male. Other women cast as men in the production are more androgynous than masculine. 

 

I was happy to see Julius Caesar and this is a solid production. I also appreciated the casting of women in men’s roles – this sort of gender play, only reversed, was the law in Shakespeare’s time. Maybe it’s time for a really tradition production where men play all the roles. Scott Wentworth would make a brilliant Lady McBeth.

PS: No one says: “Great Caesar’s ghost.” Also, I could not get that classic Canadian comedy moment “Julie, don’t go!  Julie, don’t go!  But he wouldn’t listen!” out of my mind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rR_5h8CzRcI

Other summer reviews:

Long Day’s Journey Into Night: “a ghost haunting the past” https://wp.me/p1RtxU-30f 

Coriolanus: “My rage is gone” https://wp.me/p1RtxU-31K 

The King and I: The King and My Memories https://wp.me/p1RtxU-31Y 

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