Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Is Stratford better than Broadway?, Part I

Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell.

My recent trip to the Stratford Festival confirmed what I'd already heard via the Web - new Artistic Director Des McAnuff had consolidated, and perhaps extended, the artistic achievements of his inaugural year (which had been been marked by the collapse of a short-lived artistic "triumvirate"). What I saw on Stratford's stages last summer led me to opine that of those three contenders, McAnuff seemed the best man for the top job - so I was happy to take this season as confirmation of that hunch. What's striking about the Festival now is its consistency - under the previous artistic director, Richard Monette, the company hit one or two out of the park, reliably, every year, but each season dropped a few bombs, too. But this time, as last, even the weakest production I saw (Phèdre) was intelligently, if misguidedly, produced, and the acting company struck me as stronger across the board than ever before (perhaps because McAnuff has skimmed some of the cream from the nearby Shaw Festival).

Of course perhaps I just missed the bombs this year (word was not good, I admit, on Macbeth), but the season boasted at least three proper smashes - Brian Bedford's The Importance of Being Earnest, Colm Feore's Cyrano de Bergerac, and an electrifying revival of West Side Story, all of which I caught; meanwhile friends who opted for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum over Cyrano (they were in the same time slot our weekend) proclaimed it a witty hoot (despite having lost its original lead, Stratford stalwart Bruce Dow). I also enjoyed an ambitious production of the more-rarely-done-than-you'd-think Julius Caesar, which proved flawed, but still worthy, as well as a lavish, inventive production of Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair that almost succeeded in putting the play's obscurities over. More mottled, but still intriguing, were a new production of Three Sisters (directed by Martha Henry) and a revival of Zastrozzi, an early work by Canadian playwright George F. Walker.

First, the hits. Brian Bedford's production of The Importance of Being Earnest (above), felt at times almost textually definitive, although its pace was perhaps too leisurely (and its Algernon was only adequate). Bedford not only directed but took the role of the imperious Lady Bracknell - he approached the part utterly seriously, however; his Bracknell was no dragon lady in drag, but instead proved a closely observed, delicately scaled skewering of Tory insanity. The rest of the cast was nearly as good, led by Ben Carlson's tormented Earnest/Jack and Sara Topham's breathlessly blank Gwendolen, who were themselves sometimes outshone by supporting players Sarah Dodd and Stephen Ouimette, who made the best Miss Prism and Reverend Chasuble I've ever seen. But what was striking was Bedford's consummate comprehension of every subtlety in the play - as evidenced by the superb set from Desmond Heeley, which neatly tied together a kind of Gorey-esque, end-of-empire morbidity with a strange sense of false spring. Bedford is of course widely known as one of our leading stage actors, but I don't think his accomplishments as a director have been lauded nearly enough. Over the years, Bedford has directed the best Lear and Othello I've been lucky enough to see, as well as the best Waiting for Godot, believe it or not, along with sterling versions of Coward's Private Lives and Present Laughter. So I'll say it out loud, just so someone somewhere has said it once: Brian Bedford is among the best directors working in America.

Another production which had a claim to the title "definitive" was Cyrano de Bergerac, featuring Colm Feore, a former Stratford leading man who left to make a name for himself in Hollywood. Feore didn't quite attain stardom, but did appear in several blockbusters, before notoriously stealing a New York production of Julius Caesar right out from under its under-trained American stars. At any rate, he has now returned (along with other Stratford stars like Geraint Wyn Davies and Christopher Plummer, who'll be back next summer for The Tempest), with the clout to pick his own projects, and he's chosen the perfect vehicle to showcase his strengths in Cyrano. Feore was never the most interior of actors, but his physical gifts are superb (and he needed them all in this three-hours-plus lead performance) - and he's been technically trained to a level that's almost unheard-of today. All this, plus the crafty intelligence of a born actor, and the thoughtful direction of Donna Feore (his wife!) led to a Cyrano that never devolved into grandstanding or ham, but grew steadily in emotional stature over the course of the play; by its finish, this cynical old critic was misty-eyed, and many in the house were weeping.

Colm Feore as Cyrano, with Tom Shara as Christian.

The rest of the Cyrano cast was solid, but only occasionally sparkling (although the reliable John Vickery was a standout), but Feore was matched by a truly smashing physical production, which came complete with pyrotechnics, convincing swordplay, full moons of course, and even autumn leaves drifting down into the crowd. It was the kind of old-fashioned, satisfying spectacle that lets its audience out into the night in a happy buzz of romantic amazement - and utterly eclipsed the last Cyrano I saw, with Derek Jacobi in New York.

The dance at the gym from West Side Story.

But then "better than New York" was what you also heard about another show, Gary Griffin's restaging of West Side Story. (The same comparison was whispered a few years ago about Stratford's South Pacific, too, but this time the murmur has grown to a chorus.) To be honest, Griffin, of the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, has embellished West Side with a few unwanted accoutrements: having a young, modern-day boy wander through the proceedings to warble "Somewhere" like some second coming of the promised Obama-child, for instance, was a little dumb, and a little much. But generally Griffin colored energetically within the spectacular lines of the great original, and choreographer Sergio Trujillo expertly retooled Jerome Robbins's famous choreography for the Festival's thrust stage. And the cast all but tore through the material, dancing and singing its heart out, led by Paul Nolan's amazingly athletic Tony (his hand-over-hand up Maria's balcony was a hoot), Chilina Kennedy's refreshingly earthy, at times even knockabout, Maria, and Jennifer Rias's happily snappy Anita. West Side Story is rarely revived because of its intense demands - Bernstein at times pulls his vocal lines up into operatic territory, while Robbins pushes the dancing past the brink of ballet - and yet the pay-off when a production is firing on all cylinders is intense, and immense; it is probably the single most exciting musical ever written, and Stratford more than delivered its inherent thrill.

The climax of Bartholomew Fair.

Meanwhile, on its smaller Tom Patterson Stage, the Festival was mounting a piece nearly as challenging: what may be the North American premiere of Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair, a sprawling Jacobean hootenanny that cynically casts a large cast of Puritans into the labyrinth of the eponymous fair, a notoriously debauched public spectacle in Jonson's day. Unsurprisingly for this particular playwright, everyone pursues their particular "humour" (or obsession), which results in adventures that reveal (or confirm, in the case of the earthier types) their true natures (Justice Overdo, played by Tom McCamus, at left, receives a particularly brutal comeuppance).

What's unusual for Jonson, however, is how in the end he forgives his many hypocrites and fools; Bartholomew Fair may be cruel, but the playwright skips his usual final damnations for a surprisingly touching moment of (unlikely) community, that reads as his own sleazebag version of a Shakespearean comic climax: the humiliated Justice Overdo, at last converted to an appreciation that he is, in the end, mere "flesh and blood," invites the bawds, pimps and whores to dinner at his home (!), an invitation which is enthusiastically accepted.

This proved a hearty dénouement to what was admittedly a brilliant production, the best version of any Jonson play I've seen. Director Antoni Cimolino (who also administers the Festival) poured resources into the project, and cast many of the company's leading actors in key roles (backed by up-and-coming youngsters from the Birmingham Conservatory). The results were studded with brilliant performances (from Lucy Peacock, Juan Chioran, Cliff Saunders, Kelli Fox), and Cimolino's stagings and musical interludes were clever, apt, and fearless (I won't soon forget Peacock, locked in a grotesque fat suit, spreading her legs and fanning her privates - likewise the jar of communal urine that gets tossed about onstage is seared into my memory).

Still, despite just about the best production it could ever hope to receive, the play eventually seemed to be grinding on, as in my opinion Jonson always does. The trouble is that he's such a schoolmarm - a dirty-minded schoolmarm, true, but a schoolmarm nonetheless, and one locked in a "humour" as intense as that of any of his characters. And despite the final pseudo-Shakespearean flourish, the play is nothing like those of the Bard, who is continually opening up new perspectives on his characters and even his plots - while Jonson relentlessly drives home, through a zillion variations, a single anti-moral we long ago figured out for ourselves (it's telling that he wraps the proceedings with a caustic puppet-show; that's what he's been writing all along). So while I had to admire this virtuosic production, I have to admit I was happy when Bartholomew Fair finally folded for the night.

Tomorrow: the more problematic Stratford productions.

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