Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Stratford at its peak

When a play production fires on all cylinders, it can be likened to any kind of moving masterpiece that inspires wonder - say, a finely-tuned Porsche racing car going 175 mph.

The Stratford Festival's current offering of The Beaux' Stratagem is just such a complete piece of theatrical joy that you want to savor the experience even as you're enjoying it. In fact, the gentleman from Connecticut sitting next to me was back for a second time.

George Farquhar's 1707 script is the first Restoration comedy produced at Stratford since 1995 and the description refers to the return of Charles II to the British throne in 1660 and the re-opening of the theaters after the Puritan reign.

The story begins with the classic device - a stranger rides into town. Only this time, they're two strangers - London gentlemen named Archer (Colm Feore) and Aimwell (Mike Shara) (nearly all the names are puns) who've blown through their fortunes down to the last £200 and desperately need to find rich wives. "There is no scandal like rags, nor any crime so shameful as poverty," says Archer. The two have hit the road alternating the roles of master and servant. The alternative? Go sign up with the Duke of Marlborough's men and fight the French.

Colm Feore as Archer
Photos/Michael Cooper
More suited to the boudoir than the battlefield, they find a pair of lovely ladies, sweet Dorinda (Bethany Jillard) and her sister-in-law Mrs. Sullen (Lucy Peacock), unhappily married to the drunken Squire Sullen (Scott Wentworth). The household also includes the dotty Lady Bountiful (Martha Henry), someone we'd describe as a naturopath today, obsessed with healing herbs.

The gents take up residence at an inn run by the scheming Boniface (Robert King), with his whip-smart daughter Cherry (Sara Farb). An actual gang of highwaymen in league with Boniface arrives to rob Lady Bountiful's household and comic chaos ensues.

One of the many triumphs of this production is director Antoni Cimolino's sure hand with both the rapid wit of the script, the genuine sweet heart at its core and the physical comedy of the situations.

Lady Bountiful attempts to heal Aimwell.
The performances, scene changes and music (by Stratford Director of Music Emeritus Berthold Carriere) crackle with speed and energy.

Patrick Clark's clever set design, with elements carried on and off by the cast, beautifully alternates between inn and estate.

Among the standout scenes: Feore smoothly wooing an amused Peacock as they regard the mansion's gallery of paintings.

As both play director and the festival's artistic director, Cimolino has attracted a cast of all-stars. Feore and Shara are coolly charming rogues, until their hearts are really touched by love. Jillard gives Dorinda some real spine and Peacock radiantly communicates Mrs. Sullen's desires and regrets.

For the great Martha Henry, there are no small parts. Whether she is brandishing a large cucumber or entering prepared to fight the housebreakers clad in half a suit of armor and waving a giant sword, the entire audience is helpless with laughter.

In the wonderful scene in the photo above, Aimwell (on chaise) has faked a fit in order to get access to Dorinda (at right) as Mrs. Sullen (left) and Archer (center) look on, and Lady Bountiful practically pumps his arm off as part of her healing arts.
Scott Wentworth as Squire Sullen

Giving credit to the depth of this cast, Scott Wentworth makes Squire Sullen both repellent and subtly sympathetic since he, too, is trapped in a marriage he hates. Evan Buliung as Count Bellair (there's a company of French officers under house arrest at the inn - of course) creates a ridiculously funny comic accent without offensiveness.

Gordon S. Miller's Scrub, servant to the Bountiful household, is a genuine riot of obsequiousness and anxiety. Actors who have had lead roles in other Stratford productions - Chick Reid and Tara Rosling - here make their marks in the minor roles of a countrywoman and a gipsy. Michael Spencer-Davis' fraud of a clergyman, Foigard, makes the most of a variety of accents as the character unconvincingly takes on several nationalities.

At this Sunday matinee, my friend from Connecticut, his wife and I remarked on the number of empty seats - perhaps one-fourth of the auditorium - that were evident on what one would think would be a popular day and time.

The festival has twice extended King Lear, also starring Feore, but there should be an equal rush for tickets to The Beaux' Stratagem, which, let's face it, has a lot more laughs. Go see it now.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The delights of summer theater

A leisurely trip along country roads ... Shakespeare amid rustling leaves ... sundresses and sandals ... a pre-show picnic -- these are just a few of the special qualities of summer theater, where atmosphere and environment are as much part of the experience as what's onstage.

So far this summer, theater appointments have included John Lithgow in King Lear at the Public Theatre's Shakespeare in the Park (Central Park, Manhattan). As one who has experienced Christopher Plummer's and William Hutt's towering interpretations of the role at Canada's Stratford Festival, I felt that, for me, it was a tall order from the beginning for Lithgow to compete.
John Lithgow as King Lear

He's a terrific actor, no question, with classical training. I've seen him achieve greatness in modern roles, most recently in The Columnist on Broadway, and in person, he comes across as an essentially nice, decent man. This Lear began in a relaxed mood as Dad decides to give each of his three daughters a third of his kingdom and retire to a life of hunting and fun with his knights.

As the play progresses and this act proves to be a tragic mistake, Lithgow ably mines the pathos and pitiable nature of Lear's fall into madness and then his comprehension of the true nature of love.

However, the fall becomes most breathtaking from an authoritative, kingly height. Both Hutt and Plummer's monarchs began the play firmly in control, with a very sharp edge. I can still hear Plummer's voice chiding Cordelia, who refuses to suck up to Dad like her two sisters - "Nothing will come from 'nothing.'" In that one sentence, he was saying, "Watch it, kid, you sure you want to say that?" Dangerous - and thrilling.
In this Lear, amidst the pleasures of green Central Park ... less danger, less thrill.

*   *   *

Green pleasures abound in the lake district of Ontario north of Toronto called (for obvious reasons) "cottage country." Theater was slow to grow in Canada as the country built up a decent population base, really only coming to maturity with Stratford's founding in 1953, but before that there was (and still is) a lively tradition of local summer theater.

I travelled to Bala, Ontario, a small town on Lake Muskoka about 120 miles north of Toronto, to narrate two staged play readings as part of the Actors Colony Theatre festival, recently revived under Artistic Producer Eva Moore and continuing a tradition that began in Bala with the first straw hat theater season in Canada in 1934.

The two plays, Skin Deep by Trish West and Swing Dance by Lynda Martens, were winners in the Writers' Springboard playwriting competition, where I've been one of the judges for several years.
Skin Deep

Swing Dance

They're both fine plays, deserving of full productions, and my job as narrator was simply to read appropriate stage directions, filling in the spaces that would be obvious in a fully-staged version.

The casts were uniformly excellent, under the direction of Rand Houghton for Skin Deep and Annette Procunier for Swing Dance. The photos above are from different productions, but cast members for Skin Deep were Peter Shipston, Andrea Vander Kooij, Isabelle Ellis and Robyn MacDonald. Swing Dance featured Frank Johnston, Kay Valentine, Rand Houghton and Dalene Flannigan.  

I was struck, again, by the power of theater, since each director and cast had taken such care with their readings, scheduling rehearsals, bringing props and costume accessories, creating sound effects, even in Rand's case, bringing two lights and stands. 

Why? The audiences were appreciative, but small - about 20 people each time. We were all drawn there by the power of a compelling story, well told. In Skin Deep, a mother copes with cancer, its physical changes and its effect on her family. In the heartfelt comedy Swing Dance, a long-married couple reassess their relationship after the husband retires.

Those 20 people were riveted and some eyes were moist as Rachel faced her fears. The next night, they laughed as Walter tried to revive his spirit through the unaccustomed activities of yoga and drumming and Vicky seeks a new career. 

The weather may be warm and it may be "straw hat," but it's real theater.