Sunday, June 18, 2006

Stratford Festival of Canada, 2006 review

Stratford Festival not up to its expected excellence

The Stratford Festival of Canada, in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, is considered to be one of the best repertory companies. In past years, I have never left the venue without seeing several outstanding productions.
This year, of the five productions I saw, none was outstanding, two were good (‘THE BLONDE, THE BRUNETTE AND THE VENGEFUL REDHEAD’ and ‘HENRY IV PART I’). One, (‘OLIVER’), which was an audience pleaser, was a lesser production than I had expected. Several others (‘MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING’ and ‘CORIOLANUS’) were sub-par. The latter two were surprising, as they are Shakespeare scripts which Stratford specializes in and should be finely staged.

To be fair, I didn’t see all of the shows offered. Canadian friends, whose evaluations I trust, saw ‘HARLEM DUET’ and were very impressed, and “enjoyed” ‘SOUTH PACIFIC.’ Local reviewer Tony Brown of the Plain Dealer, who I met while at the Festival, saw ‘DUCHESS OF MALFI’ and commented favorably on the creative staging. Additional shows, which will open later this summer include, ‘’TWELFTH NIGHT,’ ‘DON JUAN,’ ‘GHOSTS,’ ‘FANNY KIMBLE,’ and ‘THE LIAR.’


Australian playwright Robert Hewett’s ‘THE BLONDE, THE BRUNETTE AND THE VENGEFUL REDHEAD’ is a one-women show. The actress must portray 7 uniquely different characters aided only by costume and wigs changes. The persons range from a revenge driven woman, to a young boy, to a cheating husband, to an elderly lady.

In order for the play to work, an outstanding actress must take on the role. Fortunately, Stratford has such an actress in the person of Lucy Peacock. Peacock is nothing short of outstanding in clearly developing each of the characters.

The story, which is a little preposterous and unhinged in parts, concerns a suburban housewife whose husband leaves her for another woman. Rhonda, the wronged wife, turns her angst against a woman who she perceives is her husband’s mistress. Unfortunately, through a series of quirky events, she attacks and kills the wrong person. The story is woven together so that we hear from the husband, a neighbor, the jilted woman’s best friend, the murdered woman, her lesbian partner and their son, as well as the woman herself.

Anyone who appreciates superior acting should enjoy this production.


‘HENRY THE IV, PART I’ is one of Shakespeare’s historical plays. Richard II has been overthrown by King Henry IV. He faces a rebellion. His son, Prince Hal, is more playboy then heir-apparent, much to Richard’s dismay. In cahoots with Falstaff, an overweight scoundrel, Hal sows his wild oats until it becomes time for him to act as a leader in a battle to keep the throne. We see, in his growth into manhood, that Prince Hal, who eventually becomes Henry V, has the potential for greatness.

The play has many delightful moments as well as many dramatic ones. Unfortunately, Richard Monette’s direction is inconsistent. Oft-times the play soars. At other points it drags.

David Snelgrove makes for a good Prince Hall. He is both physically and performance believable. James Blendick is delightful as Sir John Falstaff. Adam O’Byrne, is nicely caustic as Henry Percy. On the other hand, Scott Wentworth does not clearly develop a believable King Henry IV and some of the other characters are often hard to understand and fail to create clear characterizations.

The costumes and the music, which was specifically written for the production, are excellent.

In spite of the strength of some of the parts, as a whole, ‘HENRY THE IV, PART I’ is not a quality production.


On June 30, 1960 I had one of my most memorable theatrical experiences when, while visiting London, England, I saw the world premiere performance of Lionel Bart’s ‘OLIVER!’ I screamed and applauded at curtain call after curtain call for the performances of Ron Moody (Fagan), Georgia Brown (Nancy) and David Jones (Artful Dodger) who went on to fame as one of the pop group, The Monkees.

The musical is based on Charles Dickens’ ‘OLIVER TWIST.’ It is the story of a boy who, along with other castoffs, endures the miseries of the orphanages of England. In the case of Oliver, however, as happens in all good musical comedies, he is saved by a wealthy man who turns out to be his grandfather. Filled with such wonderful songs as “Who Will Buy?,” “Consider Yourself at Home,” “Where Is Love” and such show stoppers as “I’ll Do Anything” and “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two,” audiences leave the show humming the score.

Because of my amazing first-nighter experience, I hold productions of ‘OLIVER!’ to a high standard. Though an obvious audience pleaser, as witnessed by shrieks of joy and a standing ovation, I did not think the Stratford production, under the choreographic and directing lead of Donna Feore, is as good a production as should be done at the Stratford Festival.

On the positive side, Blythe Wilson was excellent as Nancy. Her rendition of “As Long As He Needs Me” was powerful. Brad Rudy was a menacing Bill Sikes. Mary Ellen Mahoney was a delightful Widow Corney and Bruce Dow was fun as Mr. Bumble. The vocal chorus was excellent, as was the orchestra.

In his first-ever theatrical role, Tyler Pearse, has a fine singing voice and the innocent look for the lead role of Oliver, but fails give the character any dimension. His expressionless face, and uncertain stage presence, lessened the effect of the character. (Yes, he is only 10 and this is his virgin role, but his performance must be evaluated against others who have played Oliver and his falls short of many.) Scott Beaudin has a nice singing voice and moves well, but didn’t have the pizzazz needed for the role of the Artful Dodger.

The acceptable choreography was often not well executed. The biggest disappointment, however, was the performance of Colm Feore as Fagin. One of Canada’s best known actors, his interpretation of the cunning rogue just didn’t’ have the dimension needed for the multi-faceted character. The always delightful “Reviewing the Situation” fell flat.


‘CORNIOLANUS,’ which was the last tragedy written by Shakespeare, is another of his plays that illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of heroes. In this case, Caius Martius is a successful warrior, but an individual who can’t put aside his high personal and ethical standards and understand that not all can live by his ideals. As a result of his perceived arrogance, and because of the fear of church leaders that his rise to power will diminish their influence, crowds of commoners, who were at first loyal followers, are persuaded through treachery to turn on Martius. Underlying the political issues is the role of family, especially the roles of son and father, which, again, is a common Shakespeare topic (think Hamlet and his father). In the end, as happens in all of the Bard’s tragedies, the fatal flaw of the hero turns out to the be the cause of his final destruction.

Many, including writer T. S. Elliot, consider ‘CORIOLANUS’ to be Shakespeare’s greatest achievement.

The Stratford production is visually spectacular. Burning fires, metal statues, meaningful musical bridges, period correct costumes and well conceived supporting props and scenery help create the right mood. Unfortunately, some of the performances do not support the technical efforts.

Director Antoni Cimolino has sacrificed effect for affect. Shouting substitutes for meaning. Overacting and feigned characterizations buried many of Shakespeare’s ideas.

Unfortunately, Colm Feore, as he did in his portrayal of Fagin in ‘OLIVER!,’ misses the mark as Coriolanus. He shouts his way through the first act making many of his speeches unintelligible. He creates no empathy for the character so, when he is threatened by the deceitful church leaders, we care little for him or about him. The screaming creates an illusion of someone out of control. This is not a man out of control. This is a man of deep conviction. He knows he is right and therefore dedicates himself to his personal cause. If only Feore had taken the lead of Graham Abbey, who, as Tulus Aufidus, Coriolanus’s near warrior equal, underplayed his role, thus creating a person who is real rather than an overacted image.

The second and third acts of the play were much better than the first as Feore ceased screaming and became more intelligible and developed a somewhat more believable character.

Paul Soles, in the key role of Meneius, was unbelievable in his role. On the other hand, Martha Henry, as Martius’s mother, was excellent as were Don Carrier and Bernard Hopkins as the conniving church leaders.


‘MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING’ is one of Shakespeare’s most oft-done comedies. Having some of the same caustic dialogue as “TAMING OF THE SHREW,’ the play centers on the battle of the sexes as Beatrice and Benedick wage a merry war of words and insults as they move toward their inevitable mating.

An underlying subplot is one of supposed betrayal as the beautiful Hero is accused of having an affair by Claudio, her betrothed, because of rumors thrust forward by a shunned suitor. The entire conflict comes to a happy ending when the bumbling Malaprop-speaking Constable Dogberry, and his merry band of keystone cops, accidentally foil the plot against Hero.

The Stratford Festival’s production is acceptable, but not what it should be. There is some shallow acting, the pace is quite slow and some of the delight of the script is missing. On the other hand, the costumes are beautiful and the musical interludes are fine.

Robert Persichini is delightful as Dogberry. He beautifully bumbles through his lines. Diane D’Aquila is quite humorous as Hero’s maid. Though they are very acceptable, Lucy Peacock (Beatrice) and Peter Donaldson (Benedick) aren’t as sharp-tongued as they could be so that their accepting their joined destiny doesn’t bring about the fully delightful wrap-up that might be expected.

Part of the problem with the staging may have been caused by the departure of the show’s original director, Stephen Quimette, to be replaced by Marti Maraden. The change of directors may have caused the lack of a unified concept.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: All in all, from the productions I saw, I would have to declare that this is not a stellar year for the Stratford Festival. There are just too many weak productions to balance off the several good ones.

If I was going to the Stratford Festival later this summer or fall, and I enjoyed superb acting, I’d see Lucy Peacock’s performance in ‘THE BLONDE, THE BRUNETTE AND THE VENGEFUL REDHEAD. In spite of its weaknesses, ‘OLIVER’ will entertain most viewers. If you decide to do a Shakespeare, the production of ‘MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING’ should entertain all except the most sophisticated theatre-goer..