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.

No comments:

Post a Comment