Martha Henry and Amanda Plummer in The Lark
(Photo © David Hou)
Martha Henry and Amanda Plummer in The Lark
(Photo © David Hou)
Stratford, Ontario is my kind of town. Located about two hours west of Toronto, it's a picturesque locale with some interesting shops, great restaurants, and even better theater. There are 14 major shows running in repertory in four different theaters as part of this year's Stratford Festival, which began in April and runs through November 6.

By far the most exhilarating production I saw during a recent rainy weekend was Lillian Hellman's adaptation of Jean Anouilh's The Lark. First produced in 1953, the play is in part a commentary on the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. To make that link clearer, costume designer Dana Osborne has outfitted the cast in 1940s period clothing, including Nazi uniforms for the English soldiers. This is not as heavy-handed a choice as you might think, and it gives added resonance to certain lines in the text. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg serves the play first and foremost, bringing it to vibrant theatrical life.

Lindsay-Hogg has coaxed superb performances from the entire cast. Amanda Plummer stars as Joan of Arc, radiating both determination and innocence; her often beatific expression makes it believable that she has talked to angels. Plummer doesn't shy away from the grittier aspects of the script, either; as Joan speaks of the need to remain in man's clothing while in prison to better ward off the advances of the guards, her testimony is moving and heartfelt.

Graham Abbey, a Stratford regular who memorably played Prince Hal/Henry V a few years ago, delivers another fine performance as the English general Warwick, who has come to Joan's trial to make certain that she dies. His depiction of the war-weary soldier is nicely layered, with hard edges as well as unexpected compassion. Brian Tree is hilarious as Robert de Beaudricourt, the officer whom Joan first visits in her campaign to save the French from the English invaders. Steven Sutcliffe scores as the puerile dauphin Charles, who is much more intelligent and crafty than he first appears. Bernard Hopkins excels as Cauchon, the presiding Bishop at Joan's ecclesiastic trial; and Martha Henry delivers a captivating, understated performance as the Inquisitor who hands down judgment upon Joan.

The Stratford Festival began in 1953. William Hutt, one of the actors from that inaugural season, has announced his retirement following this year's production of The Tempest. Hutt plays Prospero with a sly sense of humor; he exudes warm indulgence in the character's interactions with daughter Miranda, excellently portrayed by the vibrant Adrienne Gold. Unfortunately, the rest of the production, directed by Stratford Festival artistic director Richard Monette, is not at the high level of its lead actors.

On the positive side, Ian Deakin and Sean Arbuckle as Sebastian and Antonio are a well-matched pair of villains and have a good comic rapport with each other. Jacob James is a striking Ariel and Jean-Michel LeGal is comically endearing as Ferdinand. However, some of the other supporting players -- including several whom I loved in The Lark -- do less than satisfactory work here. Bernard Hopkins drones on as Gonzalo, failing to bring any depth to the part. Steven Sutcliffe is a dull Trinculo and Brian Tree is only marginally better as Stephano, so their subplot seems very tedious.

Monette's production takes no real risks, and the director seems at a loss as to what to do with Caliban. Historically, the character has been portrayed as villainous and/or animalistic. Recent years have seen Caliban reclaimed as an angry yet noble man oppressed by a colonial relationship with Prospero. It's unclear what interpretation this production is shooting for: Designer Mérédith Caron has outfitted Stephen Oimette in a curious get-up that "blackens" the white actor's skin (although this may simply be meant as dirt), and Oimette sports dreadlocks. Aside from this, there do not seem to be any racial undertones intended, and the actor's take on the role is curiously undistinguished. Still, the production is worth catching for Hutt's performance; the veteran deservedly drew a standing ovation at the performance I attended, and he'll be sorely missed in future Stratford seasons.

Susan Gilmour goes Into the Woods
(Photo © David Hou)
Susan Gilmour goes Into the Woods
(Photo © David Hou)
While the plays of Shakespeare and other classical works are the festival's forte, it also presents an assortment of contemporary plays and musicals, such as Into the Woods -- one of my all-time favorites. James Lapine's witty and intelligent book deconstructs some of our most beloved childhood fairy tales, daring to ask disturbing questions about the morality of our heroes' actions and examining what happens after "happily ever after." The book is perfectly matched by Stephen Sondheim's brilliant music and clever lyrics. Directed by Peter Hinton, the Stratford show succeeds for the most part, though some of the casting is less than ideal.

Dany Lyne's expressionistic set incorporates a forest of solid black trees and gigantic red leaves, creating a striking visual picture reminiscent of designs by Robert Wilson. Lyne's costumes are rendered primarily in black, white, and red with the notable exception of the witch's Act I outfit, which is green and adorned with vegetables, including an oversized asparagus stalk as her wand. The costume aligns the character with the garden she tends so carefully and adds a disturbing element to her description of the baker's father plundering her vegetables: "He was robbing me / Raping me / Rooting through my rutabaga / Raiding my arugula and / Ripping up the rampion."

Unfortunately, Susan Gilmour is uneven as the Witch. She doesn't have the breath support to get her through her first number, with its quick tempo, and she plays the role too broadly throughout. On the other hand, Bruce Dow is a revelation as the Baker. Possessed of a terrific tenor voice, he brings a great richness of emotion to his songs -- particularly the Act II duet "No More," sung with the Mysterious Man (Peter Donaldson).

The remainder of the cast runs the gamut in terms of ability. Kyle Blair acquits himself well as Jack, and Dayna Tekatch is a fine if somewhat bland Cinderella. Jennifer Waiser is amusing as Little Red Riding Hood, but Amy Walsh does not quite capture the insanity of Rapunzel. Thom Allison, who usually portrays the Wolf and Cinderella's Prince, was absent the night I attended the show; I saw his understudy, Lawrence Haegert, instead. With his boyish face, Haegert brought a youthful insolence to the prince that fit the part, but he didn't seem quite comfortable in wolf's clothing. Laird Mackintosh goes way over the top as Rapunzel's prince; he almost single-handedly ruins the two princes' duet "Agony" by prancing around and indicating every emotion. Still, the musical itself is so good that it remains enjoyable even in an imperfect production.

Similarly, a full staging of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II is a rare treat and is worthwhile despite some flaws in execution. Directed by Richard Monette, the production stars the handsome David Snelgrove in the title role. He effectively portrays the king's petulance and his reckless desire for his male lover, Piers Gaveston (Jamie Robinson). Snelgrove is also fine in the quieter, more reflective moments that Edward experiences toward the play's end; but in between, when called upon to demonstrate the depths of his passion for the fallen Gaveston, he wallows in melodramatic excess.

As Gaveston, Robinson has a confident and sexy swagger but does not reveal much of anything going on behind the pretty façade. Still, the production fully embraces the queer sexuality of its primary couple, and Robinson's and Snelgrove's scenes together are often quite steamy. Scott Wentworth does a fine job as Mortimer, Edward's nemesis. Michelle Giroux is sharp as Edward's neglected queen, Isabella. Glen Davis II effectively conveys Edmund's conflicted loyalties, which cause him to shift allegiances at several crucial junctures.

The production's pacing is slack at times, making the three-act evening a lengthy one. Fight director John Stead has choreographed a few slow-motion sequences that fail to convey either the bloodiness of the conflict or the passions behind the fighting. Michael Gianfrancesco's scenic design is spare, utilizing only a few small set pieces and wall decorations to transform the black box stage. His costumes, on the other hand, are sumptuous, combining a period look with some modern touches; Isabelle's red and gold ensemble, first seen in Act II, is particularly memorable.

So is the Stratford Festival as a whole. It features one of the finest repertory ensembles in North America and always produces some outstanding work. Whether you're a first-time visitor or a returning devotée, there's plenty here to enjoy.