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!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Children of all ages

Is there anyone whose heart doesn't beat a little faster upon hearing the classic circus ringmaster greeting -- "Ladies and gentlemen, and children of all ages!"

Circus is perhaps the most distinctive form of theater, where story lies at the service of movement and the outcome is always known but always fresh - an uplifting sense of wonder and delight. Circus resembles the non-narrative drama of a magic act, exploring danger and the fear of death but - one hopes - brings us all home safely with a huge sigh of relief.

Circus Renaissance travels the Netherlands and recently pitched its one-ring red tent, trailers and animals in a neighborhood of Amsterdam for a week. One of the performers, 15-year-old Michael Betrian is a friend of a friend of my daughter Flo, so we set out for Amsterdam during a trip to the Netherlands to meet him and see his show.

Michael Betrian, center, with young friends
A remarkably poised and handsome young man, compact in the way of gymnasts, greeted us in costume - neat black pants and nifty short jacket with gold braid decorations and buttons - showed us around the yard and introduced his boss, the circus manager and ringmaster. His swashbuckling outfit - gold and black striped pants tucked into boots and big white shirt - completed an impression made by his over-six-foot height, iron grey hair and commanding manner.

Solange and the circus boss
In a minute, we were inside the tent, where maybe 50 people were scattered among 600-odd seats and which was a sauna on this hot afternoon, and the eternal "The Circus Song" began over the loudspeakers.

The strongman balanced a 100-kilo anvil on his forehead.

The tightrope man, walking about 20 feet off the ground, hopped through hoops, jumped rope and rode a unicycle. He lay back on an upholstered chair, balanced a ladder on his feet and a female acrobat climbed it to perform various balancing poses at the top. (I could only imagine how hot it was up there and felt for the performers in their long velvet pants, shirts and jackets.)

The pirate couple and their bird act
There was no trapeze act - difficult in the one-ring format - but some of my favorites were small, intimate acts that you wouldn't necessarily see in the three-ring Ringling Bros. extravaganzas. A couple dressed in pirate costume had six beautifully-trained parakeets, adorably fluttering from their crossed-swords perch to a table, perky and ready to go down a little slide and move balls along a track like the cheerful professionals they were.

The clown on stilts, his puppet and the pretty lady
A clown on stilts had a human marionette whose movements coordinated with his "master's" string-pulling. They had a little story. The master maneuvered the "marionette" so the puppet could present a flower to a lovely lady. When the master put the puppet back in his box, the marionette cut his strings and ran off with the lady. Enchanting!

(There were a number of families with small children at this 3 p.m. show and one boy near us paid less attention to the ring than he did to running up and down the aisle steps. Flo's comment: "Give a kid a circus and he'll play with the stairs.")

At intermission, we went across the yard to the refreshment tent, where the balance man was selling fiber-optic light wands and the strongman was serving frites. I had to tell them how much I liked their performances and they nodded. I felt for them.

After intermission, Michael Betrian was introduced by the ringmaster as the youngest performer, who is "away from his mother." He bounded out to a fast soundtrack, juggling hourglass-shaped diabolos using two handles connected by a rope. With an acrobat's intensity, he joyfully made the diabolos dance and fly. Although his rope got a little tangled at one point and a couple of soaring diabolos hit the sawdust, you could see that Michael's act will only get better and better and his speed was truly amazing. From what age has this young man been practicing?

Michael Betrian and his flying diabolos
The portly animal trainer efficiently put six beautiful tigers - including a white one - through their paces. They looked healthy and well-cared-for, but the single elephant to me looked a little sad or possibly I am anthropomorphizing.

The elephant
The most surprising animal act for me was six trained cows, who moved in unison, danced a little (I am really not kidding) and struck a pose with their hooves on a small ledge. (I had noticed the cows in the yard and wondered why the circus traveled with their own milk machines.)

There were lovely female acrobats, including one who used a huge fabric sail, and a quick change artist named Rama who took about five seconds to emerge from a little booth in a new costume.

I mused on the hard nature of this work - two shows a day with a day or two off - the need to maintain intense concentration and training, the close quarters. We met Michael afterwards and he explained that he travels with the circus in the summer while during the school year he lives with his parents in Neimegen and joins the circus on weekends. I am in awe of such discipline. Flo made a short video of Michael saying hello to his Dutch friend in the U.S., then he had to go to supper.

Flo, Sem and I walked down the road, heading toward a dinner at a cool cafe called the Walvis (whale), but Michael had another show to do.