Thursday, September 2, 2010

Shakespeare at Stratford

For the American theatre-lover, the Stratford Festival right now feels like some sort of theatrical Promised Land, just across Lake Erie, where huge casts (with live music!) perform complicated, challenging versions of the canon almost entirely free of the various strains of cant emanating from New York, Chicago, and the academy. None of the three Shakespeare productions I saw - As You Like It, The Tempest(at left), and The Winter's Tale - were among the very best I've seen the Festival do (all the greatest Shakespeare I've ever seen has been either in Britain or Canada). But all three kept me engaged with their ideas, emotion, and, to be honest, old-fashioned staging prowess - and I left seeing at least one of the plays (As You Like It) in a new light. I'm not sure how America lost its way, but after this and my recent trip to London, I'm beginning to wonder why, exactly, Americans have such a problem producing classical theatre.

Part of that problem, of course, is that in the States we think of classical theatre as "a problem." How are we going to save it? is the constant cry, which of course inevitably leads to surgical solutions which flirt with killing the patient.

Compare to Stratford, where over and over again, I was struck by how the actors - speaking lines that are literally four hundred years old - easily connected with the audience as if it were the most natural thing in the world. As if that connection were a simple thing - obvious, even.

I suppose the reasons for this miracle are myriad. In Canada, the connection between acting for the stage and acting for the screen was never severed, as it was here. The Canadian educational culture likewise hangs onto the rudder of tradition - kids still learn Shakespeare in Canada; I'll never forget watching The Taming of the Shrew with 1500 high schoolers in the Festival Theatre and realizing they were catching every joke, following every line.

And somehow Canadians aren't paralyzed the way Americans are in the cross-hairs of puritanism and prurience, and thus are more easy-going about the body (and their own humanity); in the Stratford A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, for example, the Roman statues sported hilariously huge schlongs, and I remember in a Molière production a decade ago, a woman nonchalantly breast-fed her baby in the background; bare bums, bare boobs, and full frontal have crossed Stratford stages, and in an earlier Tempest, Caliban even completed his self-humiliation (on the line "Come, kiss!") by burying his face in Stephano's butt. (The audience just went "Ewwww!" and the show went on.) Even this year, Touchstone groped Audrey (to her bemusement) in As You Like It, and various nookies were tickled in Dangerous Liaisons without anyone batting an eye; the evil Diane Paulus would have no sway over these people.

Of course a deeper factor at work is simple experience; Christopher Plummer, who essayed Prospero this season, tore through several Shakespearean leads at Stratford in the 60's. Ben Carlson, this year's Leontes, has already done Brutus and Hamlet; when Lucy Peacock galumphed onstage as Audrey, I suddenly realized I'd first seen her at Stratford in 1988, as Helena (she's been there most years since). Other veterans abounded, including Tony-winner Brent Carver (one of the few actors ever to triumph as Hamlet, Tevye, and the Pirate King), Martha Henry, the great Seana McKenna, Tom McCamus, John Vickery, and Geraint Wyn Davies, while a "new" (or at least "newish") generation - including Dion Johnstone, Sarah Topham, Yanna McIntosh, and Bruce Dow - began to take pride of place in leading (or larger) roles. That's another joy of attending Stratford, btw - unlike in the tiny, faux "repertory" company at the A.R.T., you can actually see actors arrive, mature, achieve greatness, and move on at Statford.

Ben Carlson sees the errors of his ways too late in The Winter's Tale.

But back to the productions themselves. All successfully integrated what you might call "mass appeal" with sophisticated insights. Marti Maraden's Winter's Tale was the most traditional of the three. Maraden didn't try to "solve" the play's central problem - how to explain the sudden, psychotic jealousy of its protagonist, Leontes - but instead focused on subtly tying together the tragic and comic touches of this famously experimental play into a tone that pretty much worked throughout (believe it or not). She was helped by strong performances from Yanna McIntosh as the victimized Hermione, Seana McKenna (of course) as a subtly funny Paulina, and a consummately wry turn from Tom Rooney as the thieving Autolycus. I didn't quite buy lead Ben Carlson (above) as the haunted, vulpine Leontes of the first half - but his repentance in the second half proved quite moving; this was one Winter's Tale in which the restoration of the hero's happiness felt truly earned.

Brent Carver as Jacques pops right out of As You Like It.

Des McAnuff's almost-overstuffed production of As You Like It, by way of contrast, took a strikingly new perspective on its text: McAnuff seemed to approach the play not as a roundelay of romantic engagements but rather as a study in disengagement. Indeed, the avatar of the production was not Rosalind at all, but rather Brent Carver's Jacques, who at one point popped right out of the set design (above) as if to impress on us his importance. And Carver was an unusual Jacques, to boot - hardly dyspeptic or even particularly depressed, he was instead an utterly disinterested intellectual, as well as a dead ringer for René Magritte's famous Son of Man (at left - that apple made an appearance in the production, too).

At first I resisted this conceptual gambit, I admit - Magritte's imagery makes for rather a chill Forest of Arden - but it grew on me as the play progressed; for Magritte, that great questioner of all appearances (including, of course, the appearance of love) is not so far in spirit from the questioning spirit animating almost everyone in the play at some point. If McAnuff had managed to somehow conjure a real tension between his vision for Jacques and Shakespeare's vision of Rosalind, he might have come up with an As You Like It for the history books. But alas, he had a bright, clever, but somewhat mechanical Rosalind in Andrea Runge, and if no one in Arden is believably in love, there's not much to really question, is there. Still, there was good character work around the edges of the show, not just from Carver but also from Lucy Peacock (a definitive Audrey, frankly), Cara Ricketts (a mischievous Celia) and Randy Hughson (a delightfully droll Corin). And the design team had clearly gone into overdrive on this one, producing one striking image after another (below).

A cold, but beautiful, Forest of Arden in As You Like It.

Finally, there was the production that probably was responsible for bringing the crowds back to Stratford this year (the weekend I attended, virtually everything was sold out): The Tempest, starring the eighty-year-old Christopher Plummer as Prospero. And I'm here to report that, yes, Mr. Plummer is still a consummate stage magician, although on the night I attended he was clearly husbanding his energies for his big moments (which including a memorable "Ye elves of hills" and a quietly heartbreaking "Please you, draw near"). Elsewhere, a deft touch was consistently in evidence - his was a crustily witty Prospero, and one designed to make light of the role's latterday revision into colonial oppressor, even though director McAnuff seemed most interested in the political aspects of the play (his Miranda, Trish Lindstrom, was a kind of sturdy, knockabout utopian).

This dodging of political correctness was all the more unusual in that McAnuff had cast an African-American, Dion Johnstone (one of a rising number of actors of color at Stratford these days) as Caliban (right), and an Asian woman, Julyana Soelyistyo, as Ariel (at top). These choices didn't seem to translate into an aesthetic of identity politics, however - as they would almost inevitably in America. Instead, Johnstone's Caliban was depicted not as sentimental colonial victim but as something close to Shakespeare's terrible vision - a flawed creature both power-hungry and yet eager to serve somebody as slave. (Today we often forget that Caliban has no vision of "freedom," as Ariel does; he simply wants to trade Prospero for Stephano.) Johnstone was close to an ideal Caliban, I thought, and while Soelyisto was hardly a musical Ariel, she was a dazzling acrobatic one; her opening gambit - "swimming" some thirty feet straight down from the top of the Festival Theatre to the stage, to retrieve Prospero's magic book from the ocean floor - was one stage image I will always remember.

Other moments of literal magic dotted the show (although the design was otherwise almost too restrained), but there were gaps in the acting among the courtiers that held the production back from greatness. And while Bruce Dow made a rather originally simpering - and obviously gay - Trinculo, Geraint Wyn Davies offered only a solid, rather than an inspired, Stephano (he didn't seem quite sure how to play off Dow, who therefore simply chewed the scenery, albeit with consummate skill). Still, this was a Tempest of uncommon clarity and depth - in which McAnuff delineated cleanly and beautifully the recurrent motif of power struggle that serves as the spine of this exquisitely meditative play. I'm not sure when I'll see its like again.