Friday, June 23, 2006

Canadian Shakespeare Festival--2003

The highlights and lowlights of this season's Canadian Shakespeare Festival


I have seen many productions of Rogers and Hammerstein’s ‘THE KING AND I’. I have never seen a more sumptuous, gorgeous, effective version than that being presented this summer at the Statford Festival of Canada.

Rogers and Hammerstein laid the foundation for what is now dubbed “the book musical.” Starting in the 1950s they transformed what had been basically songs surrounded by meaningless dialogue into a concept of adding music to a story in order to develop the plot. Based on a true story, ‘THE KING AND I’ shows the clash between East and West and what happens when traditions are questioned and destroyed. This is a delightful musical with a definite purpose.

In all of their scripts the duo had a key song which highlighted their play’s message. In ‘THE KING AND I,’ “A Puzzlement” illustrates the frustration caused by the conflict between culture biases and the realities of a changing world.

The score includes such classics as, “Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello Young Lovers,” and “Something Wonderful.” This production showcases the enchanting “Shall We Dance?,” the powerful, “I Have Dreamed,” and the charming “Getting to Know You.” “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” is very creatively and effectively staged.

The cast is wonderful. Victor Talmade makes the role of the King his own. This is not a Yul Brenner caricature. Lucy Peacock has a strong singing voice and her Anna is visually correct and a flawless character. Helen Yu is ethnic perfect and sings powerfully as Lady Thiang. Anne Marie Ramos has a radiant voice and her Tuptim matches impeccably with Charles Zulay as Lun Tha. There is not a shallow performance in the entire cast. Even the little children have been honed to believability.

Few theatrical productions fall into the range of perfect. “THE KING AND I” at the Stratford Festival is as perfect as a theatrical production can be! Costume Designer Roger Kirk and Set Designer Debra Hanson have gone all out to assist Director Susan Schulman and choreographer Michael Lichtefeld to put together this rendition of the classic story. Their sets and costumes far outshine even the Broadway production. The show features fine acting, beautiful voices and a clear development of the authors’ theme with visually startling aesthetics. What more could any theatre-attender ask for?


Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe are two of the world’s most well-known musical theatre writers. Their central theme was to illuminate the perfect time, the perfect place and the perfect love story. Think ‘MY FAIR LADY’, ‘BRIGADON’ and ’ CAMELOT.’ Or, as did the Stratford Festival of Canada, think ‘GIGI.’

‘GIGI’ was developed in a different pattern than most musicals. It was born as a movie in 1958 and later became a staged show. The film went on to be named Best Picture of the Year, as well as being awarded eight other Academy Awards. The stage version opened on Broadway in 1973. It played only four months after mediocre reviews.

The story-line was adopted from a 1944 novella by Colette. It is a charming story set during the Belle Epoque period in France that follows the adventures of Gigi, a girl woman, her doting grandmother, and her plotting aunt. As with Eliza in ‘MY FAIR LADY’ Gigi is shaped into an idealized image for male approval. Each finds herself winning over a man who doesn’t want to be won over, but who falls under her spell.

Unlike most Lerner and Loewe scripts, few restagings of “GIGI” are done. Why it is not is a mystery. The show has an engaging story and contains wonderful music such as “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” “It’s a Bore,” “I Remember it Well,” and “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore.”

The production seemed to delight most of the audience. Unfortunately, much of the delight came due to misdirecting by Richard Monette. He took a charming story and made it into a farce. He lost the warmth because of all the gimmicks. Rather than letting the natural flow of the music and story prevail, he resorted to prat falls, over acting and affectations. A lovely pastiche became an over-layered cake. It was good to look at, but the true flavor was missing.

Highlights of the production were “The Night They Invented Champagne” and the winsome “I Remember It Well.” These, along with the wonderful costumes, visually appealing sets and fine orchestrations, aided the overall effect.

Jennifer Gould was a charming Gigi. Dan Chameroy has a very nice voice, but was directed into a one-dimensional interpretation of Gaston, Gigi’s eventual suitor. Patricia Collins was overly effected as Aunt Alicia, who teaches Gigi how to trap the right man. Domini Blythe was wonderful as Mamita, Gigi’s grandmother. James Blendick did a veneer version of Honore, the part played so stylishly by Maurice Chevalier in the movie. He displayed no true emotional involvement. What should have been charm turned out to be surface show.

Statford’s version of ‘GIGI’ will please many, even if it misses the original intent of the authors.


Critics have argued for years whether Shakespeare actually wrote ‘THE ADVENTURES OF PERICLES.’ It appears, because of the style and problematic text that Shakespeare probably had a collaborator on the project.

Whoever the author, the Stratford Festival of Canada does the scribe proud. This is a meticulous, visually glorious presentation. Every aspect of the complex play is purposeful. The supernatural visions, the arcane ceremonies, the use of a chorus are all there.

The story concerns the travels of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, as he seeks a bride, finds trouble, flees, becomes shipwrecked, marries the daughter of a king, has a child, attempts to return to Tyre, is caught in a storm, “loses”his wife, entrusts his baby daughter to a devious duo, wanders the seas, and finally finds total happiness.

Jonathan Goad is Pericles incarnate. His is a superb performance. Thom Marriott, as Gower, the narrator and chorus, captures the stage whenever he is present. Michael Therriault is delightful as the Boult. Karen Anceta is lovely as Thaisa, Pericles’s wife. Nazneen Contractor enraptures as Marian, daughter to Pericles and Thaisa.

As the program states, “Pericles challenges not only the creativity of directors and actors, but also the openness and imagination of contemporary audiences.” Leon Rubin, the director, succeeded admirably. The actors are consistently superb. Designer John Pennoyer has given the production a visual grandeur seen on few stages. The Stratford Festival of Canada version of ‘THE ADVENTURES OF PERICLES,, is an absolute, must see production!


Shakespeare’s ‘ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA’ has been dubbed by some scholars as “probably the greatest play in the English language...the most comprehensive and universal of Shakespeare’s tragedies.” It may well be, but the production at the Stratford Festival of Canada was anything but great.

This is not an easy play to stage. It contains 42 scenes shifting to numerous settings, from Italy to Egypt, from land to sea. The play’s sprawling structure places a burden on the director and cast, causing the focus to be entirely on the performances to keep us on course. Director Martha Henry keeps us on course. The play is not difficult to follow. Unfortunately, she has failed to texture the performances. The pace is too slow, the separation of characters not clear, and the full-bodiedness of the play lost. The dramatic action, instead of being grand, grinds along.

The story concerns a period in history following the assassination of Julius Caesar when Rome was ruled by a triumvirate consisting of Octavius Caesar, Lepidus and Mark Antony. Conflict ensues when Mark Antony takes up with Cleopatra, the voluptuous queen of Egypt. A truce, followed by betrayal, battles, and subterfuge leads to the ultimate destruction of both Mark Antony and Cleopatra.

The acting is uneven. Peter Donaldson, as Mark Antony, lacks the needed charisma. He shouts and pouts, but fails to convince of his great leadership. Diana D’Aquila’s Cleopatra is less than a grand and powerful woman. Paul Dunn’s Caesar is a whining, non-heroic wimp. Wayne Best is right on character as Enobarbus. Tim Askew delighted in the small role as the messenger, who becomes Cleopatra’s foil when he reports Antony’s marriage of convenience to Octavius Caesar’s sister.

The production of ‘ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA’ is less than entrancing. Audience members were overheard using phrases like, “dull” and “boring” to describe their experience.


‘THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME’ is a play about outcasts. Quasimodo was abandoned as an infant on the steps of Notre Dame. He is hideously deformed but saved from drowning and then raised by Archdeacon Frollo, himself a depraved man. Quasimodo becomes the cathedral’s bell ringer and is made deaf by his constant contact with the loud pealing. Esmeralda is beautiful, but a member of a despised group of gypsies. Gringoire is a misguided.poet. Their paths all cross when Frollo tries to act upon his lust for Esmeralda. She is saved by Gringoire, who falls in love with her. She is later accused of killing him, but is again saved, this time by Quasimodo. A surprising revelation and tragedy mark the conclusion of this tale of misguided love and the lack of compassion for the outsiders of the world.

Victor Hugo’s ‘HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME’ is a sprawling novel. It was made into a moderately successful animated film. Unfortunately, it doesn’t translate to stage very well, at least not in its production at the Statford Festival of Canada. Whether it is playwright Rick Whelan’s inability to write a smoothly transitioned play with a meaningful flow of lines and action, or director Dennis Garnhum’s uninspired and static directing, the production just doesn’t work. Even scenic designer Alexander Dodge’s set doesn’t help. It is visually ponderous and cumbersome.

None of the performers fared completely well. Peter van Gestel, standing in for Nicolas Van Burek, who normally plays Quasimodo, was basically fine, but lacked the physical grotesque disformaty needed to bring about the revulsion feigned by the acting company at the sight of the hunchback. Stephen Russell’s Frollo, lacked the needed depth of villainy. Dan Chameroy made an acceptable Gringoire, but did not truly convince of his undying love for Esmeralda. Jennifer Gould looks the role of Esmeralda but, at times, loses the characterization.

Word on the streets of Stratford is that the play has been universally ill-received. It’s too bad, for there is a fine tale here to tell.


One of the problems facing any director of Shakespeare’s ‘THE TAMING OF THE SHREW’ is how to handle the ending of the play. If interpreted one way, it pleases the women’s liberation viewers. Played the other, it could bring feminist wrath. As director Miles Potter states in his program notes, “I trust Shakesepare. I no longer feel the need to filter what he is doing at the end of the play.”

What’s the fuss? The story-line of Shrew centers on the loves and wills of two women of Padua. Biancha is demure and popular. Kate is sharp-tongued and ill-tempered. We observe as each is wooed and wed. In the traditional version Kate is tamed and becomes obedient to her husband. Some modern interpretations have Kate saying the closing lines with satirical undercurrent, thus allowing the audience to believe that she has not changed and, in truth, has tamed her man.

Whatever your political views, it will be hard not to fall in love with this production. Almost everything works. The setting, which has been transformed from ancient Italy to the American west, enhances the understanding. The added music, the wonderful costumes, the fun sets, and the enhanced character interpretations all work!

Seana McKenna sparkles as Kate, the hellcat who is transformed into a tamed tiger. Deborah Hay’s Bianca is cute though a little overacted. At times her voice becames shrieking and grating. Graham Abbey is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful as Kate’s husband Petruchio. His is a purposeful and well-developed character. Though sometimes hard to understand, Wayne Best’s Grumio, Petruchio’s sidekick, becomes a delightful Gabby Hayes sound-and-look-alike.

Director Potter has woven a wonderful tale. This is one of the season’s highlight shows.

SUMMARY JUDGEMENT OF THE SEASON, SO FAR: In general, so far, this is an excellent season for the Stratford Festival of Canada. Four out of the six productions reviewed were positive, three of those rated raves. That’s better odds than that of most production companies.