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Six Shows to See at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Reviews of The Matchmaker, 42nd Street, Henry V, Cymbeline, Much Ado About Nothing, and You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

Seana McKenna in The Matchmaker
(© Cylla von Tiedemann)
Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival is one of the theater world's most important destinations, and this season, it is presenting an ambitious assortment of 14 productions, including classical musicals and plays, contemporary Canadian dramas, a new one-man show written and performed by Tony and Oscar winner Christopher Plummer, and, of course, a few works by Shakespeare. Here is a report on six of the Festival's current offerings.

Although Thornton Wilder wrote his quick-witted comedy The Matchmaker while in residence at Stratford and under the tutelage of its first artistic director Tyrone Guthrie, this timeless, vigorously entertaining play is only now making its debut at the festival in Chris Abraham's lively production.

Those familiar only with its musical version Hello, Dolly!, might be surprised by just how many ingenious lines never made it into the musical -- or that two key supporting characters from The Matchmaker were entirely excised from it. And for those who think they will miss those great Jerry Herman songs, there's a small compensation: the show is framed with actors singing "The Sidewalks of New York."

Most importantly, the cast has nailed the fast-paced delivery necessary for a farce. As the matchmaker herself, Dolly Levi, Seana McKenna is a busybody full of pep, while Tom McCamus brings a blustering personality to the aging and foolish store owner Horace Vandegelder, who gets caught in Dolly's irresistible trap.

Gary Griffin, who has directed The Color Purple and The Apple Tree on Broadway, has regularly staged large-scale revivals of classic musicals at Stratford. So it's no surprise he's chosen to tackle the tap-dance spectacle 42nd Street, which chronicles the rise of young Peggy Sawyer (played by Jennifer Rider-Shaw) from anonymous chorine to overnight musical comedy sensation.

Unfortunately, Stratford's Festival Theatre has a large thrust stage (similar to Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre), which forces choreographer Alex Sanchez to devise dance routines that involve lots of circular movements and lack the controlled, eye-popping effect you might find on a proscenium stage. And compared with the musical's sumptuous 2001 Broadway revival, the scenery is limited and the cast looks pretty small. One also wonders why Griffin cut the bittersweet act two opener "Every Situation Has a Sunny Side."

These issues aside, however, this lively production provides a great dose of fun and proves to be very well-acted all-around. Sean Arbuckle gives a very convincing performance as director Julian Marsh, adding details which hint that he may have once been a dancer in the chorus himself, while Cynthia Dale manages to both convey leading lady Dorothy Brock's diva attitude as well as a sensitive fragility to concerns that she is not up to the challenge of carrying a big Broadway musical.

Aaron Krohn
in Henry V
(© David Hou)
Tony Award winner Des McAnuff ends his run as Stratford's artistic director with a visually spectacular revival of the Bard's war drama Henry V. During the opening "O for a muse of fire" speech, the cast simply sits around on the stage in contemporary clothing; but pretty soon, they reappear in period costumes (by Paul Tazewell) in a decidedly medieval setting. Meanwhile, Robert Brill's set, which looks as if it came out of Man of La Mancha, is dominated by a huge drawbridge operated by rope.

In depicting King Henry's crusade to conquer France, productions of Henry V tend to either be patriotic and upbeat (as in the 1944 Laurence Olivier film) or dark and ominous, like McAnuff's production. He presents an atmosphere of violent butchery and warfare with pounding drums, trumpet flourishes, stark lighting, clanking armor, and very graphic fight sequences. The first act ends with the drunkard Bardolph swinging mid-air from a noose. Not surprisingly, many of the comic scenes do not come off as well as they might.

Aaron Krohn gives an unsympathetic but impressively intense performance as King Henry that anchors this aggressively theatrical staging. The boyish actor portrays Henry rather like a strutting playboy who is full of bombast and cockiness, and it works.

Next page: Cymbeline, Much Ado About Nothing, and You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown
Simon Bracken and Graham Abbey
in Cymbeline
(© David Hou)
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.

A scene from You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown
(© Cylla von Tiedemann)
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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