Monday, August 27, 2012

Bad boys and books at Stratford

A recent day at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario showed that Captain Jack Sparrow wasn't the first pirate ill-suited for plundering and that age can sweeten, not diminish, acting brilliance.

The festival is celebrating - like Queen Elizabeth II - its 60th season, in this case of an unlikely quest to bring Shakespeare to Ontario farm country. Like the venerable monarch, it has weathered a few crises through the years, but is now world-renowned and much-loved.

I have only been visiting Stratford since 1986, which makes me a mere pup among those with memories of a large tent in 1953 and Alec Guinness as Richard III - "Now is the winter of our discontent …"

There was no Shakespeare on this particular visit, which featured Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance and Christopher Plummer's one-man show, A Word or Two.

As Pirates opens, we are backstage at a Victorian theater, behind the asbestos curtain and the stage scaffolding that's crowned by a clock with exposed gears. During the overture, the actors stretch; when the curtain rises, they stride forward, turn - and we are there. Director Ethan McSweeny and set designer Anna Louizos have primed us for fun.

At the beginning, Thomas the Pirate King (Sean Arbuckle) meets an unusual problem - his apprentice, Frederic (Kyle Blair), is about to turn 21 and once free of his indenture (apprentice obligation), intends to become a policeman and pursue his former companions.

As Thomas, Arbuckle's swash and buckle is delightfully mannered though not quite a foppish as Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow. These don't seem to be really tough pirates anyway, as they drink to Frederic's health with sherry. Also, he reminds them that, since they are all orphans and it is well-known they have a soft spot for other orphans, everyone they capture claims to be an orphan and goes scot-free.
Gabrielle Jones as Ruth, Kyle Blair as Frederic and Sean Arbuckle as Thomas, the Pirate King in  The Pirates of Penzance at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario 
Frederic, played by Blair with wide-eyed earnestness, leaves his faithful nurse Ruth (the wonderfully vigorous Gabrielle Jones) and goes in search of the female companionship he's never known, having sailed with the pirates since he was a boy. He finds a lovely girl, Mabel  (Amy Wallis), in among a plethora of sisters lovingly looked after by their father, pompous but endearing Major-General Stanley (C. David Johnson).

Penzance contains some of Gilbert and Sullivan's best-known songs. Johnson (a handsome man nearly unrecognizable under grey mutton chop whiskers, mustache and eyebrows) nimbly skips through "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General," with a verse interpolated that sings of Stratford's 60th.

I was surprised to realize that the tune "Hail, Hail the Gang's All Here" was originally in Pirates as part of the song "With Cat-Like Tread," where the pirates attempt to sneak up on a comical gang of policemen, making more noise than an army of cats. The song that stayed with me was the ravishingly beautiful love song, "Ah Leave Me Not to Pine."

All the voices in this Pirates are very strong, especially Willis' delicate soprano, with appropriate Victorian vibrato, and Blair's sturdy tenor. Paul Tazewell's costumes, layered intricacy channeling the steampunk modern Victorian ethic, are a marvel save for a misstep at the end featuring the girls in short wedding dresses. Marcos Santana's joy-filled choreography also deserves mention. McSweeny has created a Pirates for today, full of comic dash and wit, and we are the richer for it.

Riches of a literary sort are the subject of Christopher Plummer's homage to the books, plays and poetry that  have shaped his aesthetic, his dreams, his outlook on life. This 82-year-old master, who has played everything there is to play, from Hamlet to Prospero to a certain Sound of Music, was there at Stratford's start and is still going strong

Christopher Plummer
The set features a twisting stack of books, a couple of chairs and a lectern, but Plummer has memorized most of the material, as he had when I saw him last year in a program of excerpts from Henry V with music from the film played by the New York Philharmonic.

It is a charming and eclectic walk through a life in love with words, from his childhood in Montreal surrounded by women - his mother and aunts - to a great stage and screen career. Director Des McAnuff (also Stratford's outgoing artistic director) weaves in a bit of music and some video projections, but mostly the show is vintage Plummer. 

His boyhood companions were A.A. Milne and Lewis Carroll. The Bible surprised him, being "alive and rich in adventure" and containing such sensuous prose as the Song of Solomon -- "comfort me with apples."

Plummer has particular affection for poet W.H. Auden and recites with a southern accent Auden's version of Herod learning of the birth of Jesus. Just when I thought things were getting a little too campy, Plummer exclaimed, "Why am I doing this in a southern accent?" and getting a huge laugh, but the program also allowed him to show off his mastery of accents - American, British, Welsh, French.

The 90-minute show's energy seemed to flag a little around the one-hour point, though Plummer was never less than a charming host, companion and raconteur. His memories resonated with me, since I make sense of the world through words. My mother read to me and my brother, as Plummer's mother did to him.

The last words he gives to Emily Dickinson:

He ate and drank the precious words,
His spirit grew robust;
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was dust.
He danced along the dingy days,
And this bequest of wings
Was but a book. What liberty
A loosened spirit brings!

1 comment:

  1. Great review of "Pirates", I'd love to see that production!