Frame Your Mind to Mirth and Merriment

STRATFORD, ON—I’ve never seen a Taming of the Shrew that is quite so, well, shrewish.  Deborah Hay, playing Katherina, rages around the stage, her hair mushrooming in all sorts of directions, her shrieking voice piercing clear through the Festival Theatre.  It is a shocking, audacious performance, as this comedy has troubled critics, audiences, and actors for some time—what to do with the central relationship, in which Petruchio (Ben Carlson) gradually abuses his wife into submission, or with Kate’s infamous, forty-line monologue, in which she advises her fellow wives to “place your hands below your husband’s foot”?  Director Chris Abraham and his cast have come up with an ingenious solution: play it straight, read it literally, and so long as the production is overflowing with mirth and good intentions, the audience will accept it. Continue reading “Frame Your Mind to Mirth and Merriment”


All the Children Are Insane

STRATFORD, ON—There is a clean, bare, and muted look to Daniel Brooks’ modernized staging of Oedipus Rex.  The cast dresses in simple, businesslike attire.  Oedipus (Gord Rand) himself often sits at a simple metal desk.  The stage is flanked by unoccupied watchtowers and floodlights.  The chorus, rather than speaking their lines in unison, take turns at the microphone, offering smoky, jazz-club readings. Continue reading “All the Children Are Insane”

Death Is Not the End

STRATFORD, ON—Casting is key in the Stratford Festival’s Pericles this season.  The play, after all, is concerned with cycles, with births and deaths and rebirths, with inverted repetitions.  Thus, E.B. Smith plays Thaliard and Leonine, the first a failed assassin of Pericles (Evan Buliung), the second of his daughter Marina (Deborah Hay).  Wayne Best, in turn, appears as the apparently kind but secretly incestuous father King Antiochus and the apparently antagonistic but secretly benevolent father King Simonides.  Ms. Hay, for her part, takes the lion’s share by tripling up on roles, playing not only the aforementioned Marina but also Antiochus’ daughter, unnamed in the text, as well as Simonides’ daughter (and Pericles’ wife) Thaisa.  Convoluted in explanation but clear in execution, this gives Pericles a dreamlike if not a literal logic, imbuing this most mysterious and psychologically impenetrable of Shakespeare’s plays with the atmosphere of a fairy tale. Continue reading “Death Is Not the End”

And It Felt Like a Kiss

STRATFORD, ON—Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel is a Frankenstein’s monster of a musical, part American Tragedy, part Dog Day Afternoon, and part Christmas Carol.  For the first two-thirds, it is a fairly conventional story about Billy Bigelow (Jonathan Winsby), a carousel barker who seduces the “queer” millworker Julie Jordan (Alexis Gordon).  Their marriage quickly devolves into restlessness and abuse.  When Julie gets pregnant, Billy decides to pull off a quickie heist that would enable them to provide for their daughter.  Then, out of nowhere, his suicide leads to an about-face in the afterlife, and Billy spends the remaining third of the show trying—as a ghost—to convince his teenaged daughter, Louise (Jacqueline Burtney), to avoid making the same mistakes that doomed him. Continue reading “And It Felt Like a Kiss”

Basking in Open Day

STRATFORD, ON—Before the premiere of his second and final play, She Stoops to Conquer, Oliver Goldsmith wrote “A Comparison between Laughing and Sentimental Comedy.”  In this short essay, he appeals to Aristotle in arguing that a comedy is “a picture of the frailties of the lower part of mankind, to distinguish it from tragedy, which is an exhibition of the misfortunes of the great.”  He continues, “When tragedy exhibits to us some great man fallen from his height, and struggling with want and adversity, we feel his situation in the same manner as we suppose he himself must feel, and our pity is increased in proportion to the height from whence he fell.  On the contrary, we do not so strongly sympathize with one born in humbler circumstances, and encountering accidental distress.”  This is all a way of condemning what Goldsmith calls the “sentimental comedy,” in which these two genres are mixed into a “bastard tragedy,” and “folly, instead of being ridiculed, is commended, and the comedy aims at touching our passions without the power of being truly pathetic.”  He ends, rather apocalyptically, by warning, “Humor at present seems to be departing from the stage.” Continue reading “Basking in Open Day”

Valanced Faces

STRATFORD, ON—Apparently Jonathan Goad takes Hamlet at his word when he says he will “put an antic disposition on.”  His performance is full of hopping and howling; he walks backwards like a crab and suckles at Claudius’ (Geraint Wyn Davies) breast like a feeding baby.  It certainly isn’t the way I read Hamlet—and yet, it works better than one might expect: barbed comments are transformed into passive aggressive chuckles, so that the prince can even share a laugh with Polonius (an hysterically pretentious Tom Rooney), even if the latter does so with unease. Continue reading “Valanced Faces”

Pinning Down a Cloud

STRATFORD, ON—Christopher Plummer famously claimed that working with Julie Andrews on The Sound of Music was like “being hit over the head with a big Valentine’s Day card, every day.”  Perhaps, though, the experience of performing in the musical and seeing the musical are not the same.  Disneyland, after all, is a very different place for a child than it is for a member of the staff.  Granted, its approach to history is lackadaisical at best, its sense of ethics uncompromisingly uncomplicated: the Nazis lingering in the wings are so throughly inhuman they work more as symbols of evil than they do as characters.  And Rogers and Hammerstein do test one’s limits for the saccharine: their songs find the time for roses, kittens, snowflakes, and—let us not forget—drops of golden sun. Continue reading “Pinning Down a Cloud”