Sunday, July 13, 2008

Shaw, Shakespeare, Canada!

Shaw Festival
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada
Performances April 1-November 2, 2008

Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Stratford, Canada
Performances April 23-November 9, 2008

Ben Carlson in Stratford Hamlet (photo: David Hou)
New York is certainly not devoid of theater in the hot months -- there are Off-Broadway openings, Fringe festivals, Shakespeare etc. in Central Park, and a now-annual July offering from Encores! -- out-of-town festivals are the definition of summer theater. And the best destinations are located north of the border, in Canada: the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, less than a half-hour’s drive from Niagara Falls; and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, which calls the eponymous city in central Ontario its home.

Usually, it’s stating the obvious to say that the Shaw Festival showcases plays by Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, but this summer, it’s pretty much the “In Addition to Shaw” Festival, since he is only represented by Mrs. Warren’s Profession and Getting Married. Among the other productions this summer are several musicals, including Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music and Follies (the latter in a concert version), plus the Bernstein-Comden-Green charmer Wonderful Town. So far, I've been able to catch two straight plays at the fest: The Little Foxes and An Inspector Calls.

Lillian Hellman’s most famous play, The Little Foxes is a frightfully dark, gothic horror comedy about monstrous Regina Giddens and her equally conniving brothers. Dramatically uneven and soapy, which liabilities director Eda Holmes is unable to overcome, the play is nevertheless a great vehicle for the right actress. While Laurie Paton doesn’t have the horribleness of Tallulah Bankhead or Bette Davis, she puts her own stamp on a difficult role.

J.B. Priestley’s mystery An Inspector Calls was given a monumental production in a mid-'90s revival that first played in London and then came to Broadway. Jim Mezon's new staging smartly concentrates on the characters, transforming the play into a sort of chamber thriller brought to compelling life by an excellent cast led by the superb Benedict Campbell -- so good in last summer’s Shaw production of the unfairly neglected musical Mack and Mabel -- as the stoic inspector.

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is located on the Avon River in a charming Canadian town. This summer, in addition to Shakespeare, the festival runs the gamut from musicals (Cabaret) and classical Greek theater (The Trojan Woman) to one-man shows (There Reigns Love with Simon Callow). The two productions I saw demonstrate the astonishing versatility of the festival's repertory company, along with the new blood injected into the 50-year-old institution by new artistic director Des McAnuff, who is directing Romeo and Juliet and Caesar and Cleopatra here.

Meredith Willson’s The Music Man is the ultimate feel-good musical, including such classic songs as the marching-band standard “76 Trombones” and the ultimate love ballad, “Till There Was You.” Susan H. Schulman’s engaging production is a slice of authentic Americana, even if the venue is in Canada. Along with a stellar supporting cast and Michael Lichtefeld’s inventive choreography, The Music Man is blessed with two wonderfully appealing leads: Jonathan Goad makes a charming charlatan as Harold Hill, and charismatic newcomer Leah Oster easily matches him as librarian Marion Paroo. Reminiscent of a younger Laura Linney, Oster deserves to be on Broadway.

Adrian Noble’s direction of Hamlet has its oddities; there is onstage piano accompaniment for Ophelia's songs in her made scene, and a billiard table is dragged on for the pivotal scene between Claudius and Laertes. But, unlike the recent Central Park production, Noble juggles with the play rather than sabotaging it -- and he has better actors at his disposal. Adrienne Gould is a homely, heartbreaking Ophelia; James Blendick a towering spectre of a ghost; Scott Wentworth an intense Claudius; and Maria Ricossa a splendid, queenly Gertrude.

At the center is of the production is the terrific Ben Carlson: He speaks the title character's poetry with equal music and muscle, and he's a convincingly confused, willful, tentative protagonist. Only when Noble calls on him to become overexcited and he rushes his lines does Carlson’s characterization lose its focus. But, overall, he acquits himself beautifully -- as does Noble and the festival itself, which has added “Shakespeare” to its title this year.

What this portends is anyone’s guess, but a repertory company filled with the likes of Christopher Plummer (starring in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra) and Brian Dennehy (heading a double bill of O’Neill’s Hughie and Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, not to mention playing the King of France in All’s Well That Ends Well) may be a hint at what’s to come in succeeding summers.

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