The biggest surprise at Stratford this year is a completely focused and heartbreaking revival of Shakespeare's convoluted fairy tale Cymbeline, which is playing in the relatively intimate Tom Patterson Theatre, where actors can easily address the audience. Indeed, after an especially striking prologue -- where King Cymbeline (an impassioned Geraint Wyn Davies) wakes up from a nightmare screaming his daughter Imogen's name -- you know that this will be an emotionally charged production.
As Imogen, Cara Ricketts is first seen in a wildly despairing mode as her father casts out her lover, Posthumus (Graham Abbey). However, she manages to assertively hold her own against her clueless stepbrother Cloten (a rowdy Mike Shara) and the rascally villain Iachimo (a smooth and crisp-voiced Tom McCamus).
After two and a half hours of engaging drama, Antoni Cimolino's production ends with confrontational fight choreography, an awe-inspiring special effect where the god Jupiter materializes on a giant eagle that is flapping its wings, and a final scene of dramatic revelations that proves to be unexpectedly funny and emotionally effusive.
It's hard to tell just why director Christopher Newton chose to set his production of Shakespeare's comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, in South America of the early 1900s. Nevertheless, this is a delightfully festive production that more than captures all the play's humor and romance
Deborah Hay and Ben Carlson are terrific as the witty and warring duo Beatrice and Benedict. With her wily and wild expressions, Hay more than exemplifies the play's merry spirit. On the other hand, Carlson begins the play in a tired and casual mode, seemingly exasperated by Beatrice, only to clown it up once he believes that Beatrice may have romantic feelings for him.
Sadly, Santo Loquasto's set design of a wealthy Brazilian estate, which is marked mainly by a winding staircase along with palm trees and lanterns, looks awkwardly incomplete since it is combined with pitch-black steps and walls in the background.
Donna Feore's highly enjoyable production of You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown -- based on the 1999 Broadway revival -- may seem like an odd choice for the Festival, but it provides an alternative for families eager to give their children a first taste of Stratford's offerings.
What really distinguishes this staging, at the Avon Theatre, is Sean Nieuwenhuis' incredible video design, which depicts everything from clouds to dialogue bubbles. As featured on the back wall of Michael Gianfrancesco's rainbow-tinged set design, scene transitions occur seamlessly and you often feel as if you are watching Saturday morning cartoons.
Ken James Stewart makes for an endearing Charlie Brown, combining the character's brave optimism with the torments of his everyday life, and Erica Peck gives an especially well-sung performance as Lucy that offers both R&B riffing with high soprano notes.
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