Sampling the summer theater festivals of Ontario is an intoxicating pleasure, like tasting the vintage fruit of the region's renowned vineyards. There's no language barrier, the beauty of the facilities is only surpassed by the quaint villages wherein they stand, and the exchange rate between American and Canadian dollars is license to steal. This year's lineup is particularly tempting. The Stratford Festival of Canada and the Shaw Festival, at Niagara-on-the-Lake, were going full throttle late in May; then a new event, the Magnetic North Theatre Festival, sprang up in Ottawa, celebrating contemporary Canadian stage works in the capital city.
I saw over half of the shows at Stratford and at the Shaw. With so much already on my plate, I scrapped plans to see three of the 11 pieces showcased in Ottawa between June 11 and 21. That left me with more energy for shopping and sightseeing. Particularly at the Shaw, which is a scant 35 minutes from Niagara Falls -- even in the thick of Sunday traffic -- you don't want to neglect the landscape.
On July 13, it will be exactly 50 years since Alec Guinness, under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie, launched a new chapter in Canadian stage history by uttering the first words of Richard III: "Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this son of York." At its inception, Stratford was an exclusively Shakespearean festival with a six-week season designed to bring tourist dollars into a town that had been economically crippled by the withdrawal of the railroad industry. Today, Stratford has expanded beyond Shakespeare and the glorious summer, running from early April through November 9 and claiming to be the largest theater festival in North America. With four fine performing spaces capable of cranking out two different shows a day, Stratford offers a wide repertoire -- 16 shows this year, ranging from the grim Agamemnon to the bubbly Gigi.
In its second year of operation, the intimate, 260-seat Studio Theatre is home to a special "House of Atreus Series" -- sort of an Oresteia with a French twist. Beginning the cycle with Ted Hughes' translation of Aeschylus, the series skips merrily ahead to Jean Giraudoux's Electra and Jean-Paul Sartre's The Flies. (Sartre's No Exit is also on the Stratford bill this year, playing at the Tom Patterson Theatre.) Meanwhile, Broadway habitués will feel right at home in the mid-sized 1093-seat proscenium Avon Theatre, remodeled to coincide with the opening of the adjoining Studio Theatre during Stratford's 50th season in 2002. Gigi, the most charming production at Stratford this year, is also the slickest, utilizing a velvety turntable to whisk us from scene to scene and animated projections on the painted scrim to recall the cinematic origins of this Lerner & Loewe bonbon.
As Gigi, Jennifer Gould leaps the chasm between girlish ebullience and budding womanly grace. It's impossible to believe that such a sprite could ever have become a cold, calculating courtesan but, at any rate, the ultra-discreet script barely grazes that possibility, so one can take children to this show without fear. Patricia Collins regally commands each scene in which she appears as Gigi's Aunt Alicia with her hilariously decadent rectitude, and Domini Blythe's Mamita had me thinking that Hermione Gingold's was overrated. The garrulous James Blendick as Honoré is not quite as successful in exorcising the ghost of Maurice Chevalier, but Dan Chameroy's Gaston is a revelation. Stripped of a French accent, the misogyny of "She's Not Thinking of Me" and the capitulation of "Gigi" closely mirror the agonies of Henry Higgins under the spell of Eliza, and Chameroy doesn't shy away from the comedy.
There are also revelations in the new, homegrown adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Rick Whalen. Unlike the seminal 1939 movie version, Whalen hasn't tinkered with Victor Hugo's ending and even goes so far as to reference the French novelist's intro. We get more of Phoebus and his fiancée Fleur-de-Lys here. Esmeralda's embittered mama is restored to the story; the gypsy's enchanted goat gets more of the spotlight; and the tortured soul of Frolio, archdeacon of Notre Dame, is bought back into focus. To get through Hugo's labyrinthine plot, Whalen has a bunch of innocuous Parisians shouldering a heavy load of the narrative chores. Set designer Alexander Dodge doesn't deal with scene changes nearly as gracefully and his palette rarely transcends a drab monastic gray.
Stephen Russell is superb as Frolio and Jennifer Gould's Esmeralda is remarkable transformation from her Gigi -- sensuous, sentimental, and pitifully doomed. Peter Van Gestel replaced Nicolas Van Burek as Quasimodo for the matinee I attended, delivering a compelling characterization of the hunchbacked bell-ringer without the fearful presence I would have liked. The fight scenes were an embarrassment, but for this I blame fight director John Stead more than the understudy; Stead's handiwork in The Adventures of Pericles is hardly any better. The expanded gallery of minor characters restores much of the novel's texture to this effort, and the ensemble is superb.
I began an enchanting day at the 1824-seat Festival Theatre with a magical production of Shakespeare's Pericles, flamboyantly renamed The Adventures of Pericles and presented in flamboyant, Far Eastern design. Warriors parade across the stage wearing costumes that conjure the conquering Tartar and Mongol hordes, colored armor shining like "Transformer" gladiator toys. Attending the story as it meandered through six kingdoms with its long separations and reunions, I realized that this is the most medieval of Shakespeare's plays -- more like the works of Chaucer and Boccaccio or the Arabian Nights tales than The Tempest, Cymbeline, or Troilus and Cressida.
There are vile villains and villainesses in Pericles. There are pure women who suffer patiently until they are reclaimed after long years. All surround Pericles, the prince of Tyre, who suffers all and is ennobled by his sufferings. In the title role, Jonathan Goad seems to improve as he goes along, measuring his words more and more effectively as the wandering prince ages and acquires wisdom. Thom Marriott is haunting as the sardonic narrator Gower, looking buff in pale body paint and wearing little more than a diaper. His final exit through a trap door, with an ocean of silk following him, is spellbinding.
The joy that the prince feels in reuniting with wife and child had a poignant resonance. Going to a distant place like Stratford to see a seldom-produced drama like Pericles, I found the joy of discovery enhanced by the length of the journey. But if you want to sample the Festival Theatre and Stratford at their best, check out the magnificent revival of The King and I. For this production, the entire stage is inlaid with red, black, and gold lacquer. Huge pillars topped by gleaming statues flank the stage, a royal archway with palatial doors between them. The costumes are as eye-popping as the Bangkok palace. And where's the orchestra? Presumably, they're above that archway; but I never saw the conductor or a single TV monitor, and I never figured out how the singers were getting their cues.
Yet Debra Hanson's set, Roger Kirk's costumes, and musical director Berthold Carriere's wizardry aren't the chief wonders here. What's rarer and more precious is the attitude. Under Susan Schulman's direction, Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I is treated with the reverence and devotion of a theater classic -- this as compared to the many Broadway and touring productions nowadays that aim to divert in the manner of theme parks, devaluing the essential power of the music, the story, and the stars. Lucy Peacock isn't the most charismatic singer I've heard, but her Anna is fabulous because she captures perfectly the British governess's personality. Victor Talmadge owns the role of the King without straining to be mighty or imperial, and the littlest of his many children are adorable without straining to be cute. Simply put, this is how a musical should be written and produced.
With an eccentric, fiercely radical, devilishly witty Irish icon as its standard bearer, the Shaw Festival seems to have taken a quirkier, more intellectually rigorous path than the Stratford in carving out its mission. Launched in 1962, the Shaw initially paralleled its elder cousin by devoting itself exclusively to the works of GBS. While the Stratford exploded its original boundaries, the Shaw has merely expanded them, keeping its original name.
Beginning in early April and running through November, the Shaw concentrates on the work of GBS, his contemporaries, and plays dealing with the birth and essence of modernity. The festival claims to be the second largest event of its kind in North America, but not insistently. It has grown to encompass three theaters in a strictly zoned village where you can find every festival offering, plus a profusion of fetching shops and two ritzy hotels, by strolling along Queen Street. Walk a few blocks away from the main drag and, in clear weather, you can see the Toronto skyline across Lake Ontario. Hop in your car -- or rent a bike -- and you can make a quick excursion to Niagara Falls, rated by Oscar Wilde as "the second great disappointment in American marriage." Outside, the Court House Theatre is gray and dignified. Inside the festival's original theater space, there's a pleasant 327-seat layout surrounding a thrust stage, though the productions aren't served up with the same technical sizzle you'll find in Stratford. Here's where you'll find the prime cuts at the Shaw and the most intimate presentations.
Widowers' Houses, Shaw's first play, is surprisingly well-crafted; it has an absorbing plot, well-rounded characters, and a provocative inversion of what would normally be considered a "happy ending." Jim Mezon delivers a riveting performance as Sartorius, a demonic slumlord who keeps rentals reasonable for the poor by neglecting their upkeep and maintaining inhuman living conditions. Lisa Norton is nicely neurotic as the capitalist's pampered daughter and Dylan Trowbridge is passionately corruptible as Dr. Harry Trench, the would-be idealist who falls in love with her. Patrick Galligan as Trench's fastidious mentor and Peter Millard as Sartorius's opportunistic lackey, Lickcheese, are excellent.
Sadly, the production of On the 20th Century at the Royal George Theatre is an embarrassment. Large chunks of this Comden & Green musical are supposed to occur in adjoining sleeper cars of a luxury train, but Yvonne Sauriol's impoverished set design requires the actors to mime the walls and doors of the rooms! The thousands of spectators who've never seen this musical before won't comprehend what's going on. To put it bluntly, this is second-rate summer stock: small stage, small theater, and small budget, with the show hammed up for an audience that's presumed not to know any better.
You'll get a smoother ride at the George in the unit-set staging of Blood Relations. Canadian playwright Sharon Pollock has crafted an interesting reprise of the sensational Lizzie Borden murder case, retold years after the fact by Lizzie during an encounter with her girlfriend (an actress) at the Fall River, Massachusetts family home that the woman allegedly killed for. It would be over-praising Blood Relations to say that it's shocking or profound, but Pollack keeps us engrossed with her research and her convincing portrait of the tensions and personalities in the Borden household. Eda Holmes directs with a sure hand, designer William Schmuck displays an unerring feel for the period, and the well-chosen cast members are festival headliners.
In fact, five of the seven actors who wowed me at a Saturday matinee performance of Blood Relations greeted me in bravura fashion that same evening at the big Festival Theatre in GBS's Misalliance. The production's design and direction, by Peter Hartwell and Neil Munro (respectively), bordered on the perverse. While it's often said that Shaw's characters are nothing more than the playwright's mouthpieces (cf. the famed Hirschfeld drawing inspired by My Fair Lady), that concept is here taken to the extreme. Pointing up Shaw's subtitle, "A Debate in One Sitting," Hartwell places two lecterns in front of the imposing bookcases of John Tarleton's Surrey home. At odd moments, Munro sends his actors to these lecterns, where they begin to read their lines from the script! What's more, Hartwell has literally scribbled all over his parchment-hued set design, flooding the stage with meaningless calligraphy. The Shaw Festival is the last place you'd expect to find such sacrilege.
Somehow, the actors triumph over adversity. Having thrilled us as the actress in Blood Relations, Laurie Paton seduces us as GBS's leather-clad daredevil. The smoldering menace of Jane Perry as Lizzie in the matinee was shed that evening for the effervescent caprice of Tarleton's beguiling daughter. No less remarkable were the transformations of Sharry Flett, Lorne Kennedy, and Michael Ball as they crossed the Atlantic from New England to Surrey during their dinner break. Although an overreaching director has labored to reduce his players to the level of Shavian marionettes, these artful actors trump him with their versatility.
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Jonathon Goad and Nazneen Contractor in The Adventures of Pericles
Jennifer Gould as Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Lucy Peacock and Victor Talmadge in The King and I
Dylan Trowbridge and Patrick Galligan in Widowers’ Houses
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