Tuesday, September 9, 2008

What I saw at Stratford

Okay, Labor Day has come and gone, I'm back from Fire Island (!), and it's time to put the nose to the old reviewing grindstone. First, there's some catch-up to do. I spent a long weekend at the Stratford Festival in August, attending seven plays in a row (that's actually not my personal record), and I've been meaning for weeks to put in a word about them.

This was an administratively unsteady year at the Festival - the first since the departure of longtime Artistic Director Richard Monette, whose tenure was marked by financial stability but artistic variability (for a sense of the pressures facing the Festival during the Monette years, check out the hilarious Canadian series Slings and Arrows). Without a clear heir apparent, the Festival attempted to divide the artistic directorship into a triumvirate, which promptly fell apart, with the usual finger-pointing, leaving one member, Des McAnuff, late of the La Jolla Playhouse and Broadway, basically in charge. But artistic chaos did not ensue; instead, there was a palpable "rallying 'round" this particular fabulous invalid - old stars returned, new ones were minted, and there was a sense of greater general commitment to artistic seriousness. True, rising gas prices (and the unwise decision to do only Shakespeare in the largest theatre) conspired against the box office, but this was still clearly the strongest Festival season in years.

Artistic Director McAnuff helmed the season's barnburner, Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, starring Stratford vet Christopher Plummer (at left, with Nikki M. James as Cleopatra). The production garnered raves, perhaps largely for the way McAnuff cleverly deployed a beautifully abstracted set (above right) in the giant Festival Theatre. Many were also thrilled to find that at 78, Plummer can still buckle some serious swash (a few readers may recall his magnetic movie debut in The Fall of the Roman Empire); his voice was in fine form, his timing (as always) was exquisite, and although he dodged one bit of derring-do (a leap from the top of the lighthouse at Alexandria!) he was confidently and charismatically physical throughout. But oddly he didn't utilize his age (he's a generation older than Caesar was when he met Cleopatra) to plumb any particular depths in the role (the central relationship of this early Shaw - which is hardly historically accurate - foreshadows the great romantic encounters between youth and age in Pygmalion, Heartbreak House, and other works). Meanwhile director McAnuff seemed happy to play many of Cleopatra's intrigues for easy laughs (even the murder of the slave Ftatateeta - here hammily embodied by Boston favorite Diane D'Aquila - didn't inspire him to sound any solemn notes). Still, McAnuff struck me as basically the right man for the job at Stratford - C & C was suffused with a warm brio and clever theatrical intelligence, and friends who caught his Romeo and Juliet (which I missed) found it one of the best they'd seen.

Still, there were deeper pleasures to be found elsewhere. Probably the best of the Festival was Love's Labour's Lost, directed by the great Michael Langham (whose all-but-definitive production at Stratford in the 80's remains one of the highlights of my playgoing life). Langham was sidelined by an injury during rehearsal, and Richard Monette stepped out of retirement to sub for him - but the production was clearly Langham's, and beautifully limned the veins of melancholia running through this arcanely witty bagatelle. Alas, the production boasted a solid, but not commanding, Berowne, and an even weaker Rosaline. But there was brilliant work all around this central pair: Peter Donaldson's Don Armado (above left, with 11-year-old Abigail Winter-Culliford as Moth), Alana Hawley's Princess of France, and Brian Tree's Costard were all superb, and John Vickery's Holofernes and Gareth Potter's Nathaniel were actually startling, they were so exquisitely funny (with material that has stumped many an actor before them). What always impresses me about LLL is that in it, Shakespeare first reveals himself as a brilliant critic of his own material (perhaps the most brilliant that ever lived, or will ever live); the final autumnal sequences operate as both a deconstruction and extrapolation of all that has come before - and Langham once again conducted this thematic symphony (he's done six productions of LLL) with amazing subtlety.

There was still more good news. Fuente Ovejuna, by Lope de Vega, is rarely seen, I suppose because of its casting requirements - there are about twenty featured roles, with plenty of village folk, knights, and courtiers milling about, too (see above); but it's such a crowd-pleasing potboiler that I wonder more productions aren't mounted anyway. Stratford did well by the play, in its first stab at classic Spanish drama (they brought in a specialist, Laurence Boswell, to direct), and the crowd clearly loved it. I felt the production occasionally tilted too far into melodrama (as the villainous Guzman, Festival veteran Scott Wentworth all but twirled his mustache), but was more often refreshingly direct and robust, with affecting turns from Jonathan Goad and especially Sara Topham (below right) as the young lovers at the center of the plot. Charles Isherwood of the Times complained of the lack of Shakespearean brocade in de Vega's voice, and he's quite right - textually, Fuente Ovejuna seems almost too simple and straightforward. But thematically and politically, it represents a startling leap, one that Shakespeare, for all his universality, never made. The drama follows the eventual uprising of Fuente Ovejuna (note the play is named after a village) against its cruel overlord, and makes explicit a dynamic of solidarity that wouldn't find expression again until Brecht, over three centuries later (although de Vega is inherently optimistic, while Brecht is anything but). De Vega's vision of sexual equality is even more startling; true, his play does obeisance to the standard tropes of virginity and purity, but its women are hardly obedient, and its central married couples behave with an affectionate harmony unknown in Shakespeare - in keeping with the embedded theme that love itself can be the most powerful political principle. It's an obvious future choice for the Huntington (although one prays the ART never goes near it) - and a double production, in both Spanish and English, a la the Apollinaire Theatre's open-air productions in Chelsea, would simply be the icing on the cake.

The Festival wasn't solid gold (it never is), and this time both Hamlet and All's Well That Ends Well proved disappointing - Hamlet particularly so in that it starred Ben Carlson, an actor who's done sterling work at the Shaw Festival and in Chicago. As the great Dane, however, Carlson was always emotionally charged, but grew monotonously childish as the evening wore on, and he didn't even attempt the mature equipoise that should mark the final act. And around Carlson the acting was highly variable - Gertrude and Horatio were outright bad, and Claudius sometimes inaudible; only Geraint Wyn Davies, as an affectionate, if addled, Polonius, was memorable. Big-name director Noble, for his part, seemed too distracted by his intriguing meta-theatrical design to actually pull the production together. All's Well, alas, was even more of a drag, although director Marti Maraden's work did sparkle with some brilliant literary insights - indeed, All's Well aficionados might want to catch the production simply to see how Maraden makes Lavatch, Shakespeare's least funny clown, work thematically as the center of the piece.

Well, so much for them. The last two productions I caught were both grim and gripping. Stratford did a truly astonishing Medea a few years back, with the great Seana McKenna in the title role, and I had hopes that the Festival's The Trojan Women (again with McKenna) might prove as riveting. That, alas, was not to be (the play is hardly Medea, after all) but the production was always compelling, and sometimes truly harrowing. As Andromache, McKenna entered (at left) with memorable gravitas, and endured the murder of her son with expert understatement; meanwhile, as Cassandra, Kelli Fox (sister to Michael J. Fox) took exactly the opposite tack, to nearly as absorbing effect. But young Yanna McIntosh stole the show from both of them as a coiled, vulpine Helen, who cleverly argues her way from execution back into her husband's bed.

My final stop was the double bill of Eugene O'Neill's Hughie and Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape (one of the few theatrical evenings that could be considered more depressing than The Trojan Women), both essayed by the redoubtable Brian Dennehy. The juxtaposition of the plays was somewhat illuminating (both deal with issues of personal illusion), but clearly the main event here was Dennehy's performance(s). In Hughie, a vignette about a high-rolling blowhard who lost his will to live with the death of his favorite audience, the eponymous night clerk Hughie, Dennehy essentially offered a variant on his usual hearty, overbearing self. Still, he did accurately delineate the arc of the character's decline as he desperately sought something of the same solace from Hughie's replacement, Joe Grifasi (who actually upstaged Mr. Dennehy with a consummate minimalism), and even hinted at a weird sense of vampirism in the seemingly upbeat ending.

It was as Krapp (at right), however, that Dennehy triumphed. His physical transformation was complete - the character's decrepitude was worked out in every detail. Beyond that, however, the actor put an unusually horrifying spiritual stamp on the role: this Krapp wasn't just despairing, he was damned (indeed, a faint gasp rose from the audience on his first appearance, in which Dennehy deployed a truly disturbing 1000-yard stare). To my mind, the play's famous opening shenanigans with the banana peels were here overdone (this nod to Buster Keaton should, I think, operate as a mere preamble), but once Krapp settled into listening to his younger self on tape, the production turned suddenly harrowing. It was interesting, in fact, to compare Dennehy with Alvin Epstein, who has a kind of lock on local Beckett performance. Where Epstein is elfin and ethereal, Dennehy was utterly physical; in this Krapp, we weren't lost in existential memory - this was simply a guy with a tape recorder, and that was it: only the results were somehow more crushing and less academically mournful than Epstein usually is. I couldn't help but wonder if Dennehy - who played at the Calderwood not so long ago - could be tempted to bring this double bill to Boston. It might give the locals a sense of the kind of challenging intellectual theatre we still don't get enough of.


  1. I am insanely jealous!

    As a note, Boston audiences can make an extended trip to New Haven this fall to see Hughie with Dennehy.

    The Long Wharf is producing it from October 8th-November 9th. Alas, Krapp's Last Tape is not on the bill.

    Maybe Mr. Dubois could start flexing his muscles? :)

  2. I don't see why Krapp/Hughie wouldn't be viable commercially in the Calderwood (at Stratford, Dennehy completely sold out a 400-seat theatre for a month), and I'm afraid that kind of evening is much more like what I think the facility should be offering than "Ennio" or Carrie Fisher. Another thing that a visit to Stratford reminds one of is that neither the Huntington nor the ART has really brought the best directing talent to town. Michael Langham (late of Juilliard), Adrian Noble (late of the RSC), Des McAnuff - these are the best directors alive. I've sometimes wondered if Nicholas Martin and Robert Woodruff didn't subconsciously keep their directorial short lists a little - well short of their own respective talent. At Stratford right now that's not the case.

  3. I've been reading that there is every possibility that the Hughie/Krapp's Last Tape combo could be coming to NYC at some point in the next year or two. Dennehy is supposed to be in the Falls revival of Desire Under the Elms though (at the Goodman and then on Broadway) so you have to wonder a little about the timing.

    I wish I could make it out to Stratford at some point- I've been getting to Shake & Co the last few years and was going to try for Glimmerglass this year but my ludicrously complex schedule just wouldn't allow it- I was lucky actually to be able to get down and see the stuff I did in NYC over the summer.