Thursday, September 4, 2008

Stratford and Shaw, Part 2

Caesar and Cleopatra
Written by Bernard Shaw
Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Canada
Performances from August 7 to November 8, 2008

Mrs. Warren’s Profession
Written by Bernard Shaw
The President
Written by Ferenc Molnár, translated by Morwyn Brebner
Wonderful Town
Book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, music by Leonard Bernstein
Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada
Performances from April 1 to November 1, 2008

Plummer and James in
Caesar and Cleopatra
(photo: David Hou)
A second trip to the Canadian theatrical idylls of Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake yielded even greater theatrical riches, as I saw a trio of terrific shows at the Shaw Festival and a production for the ages at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival–again reconfirming that these fests are the standard by which all others are measured.

Des McAnuff–current artistic director at Stratford–has staged a Caesar and Cleopatra so delectable that it beats the Shaw Festival at its own game. Indeed, Stratford rarely stages Shaw plays, and Shaw never stages Shakespeare–but stepping on toes turned out to be the right decision this time. McAnuff takes this exploration of the complex relationship between the Roman ruler and Egyptian queen and wrings every last drop of hilarity, wit, irony and psychological penetrancy out of one of Shaw’s most lacerating–and endlessly entertaining–plays.

The elegant trappings–Paul Tazewell’s colorful costumes, Robert Brill’s inventive sets, Robert Thomson’s effective lighting, Jim Neil’s brilliant sound effects and Rick Fox’s Eastern-influenced music–are the most breathtaking I’ve yet seen at Stratford’s Festival Theatre. As a side note, it’s the lack of thrust-stage theaters on Broadway that may prevent this extraordinary production from coming to New York, unless McAnuff can modify his most unique directorial touches or
Lincoln Center Theater can be persuaded to move South Pacific, the latter of which is unlikely.

And what performances! The splendid supporting cast is led by Peter Donaldson’s humorous but wise Rufio, Caesar’s lieutenant; Steven Sutcliffe’s sidesplitting servant Britannus, Shaw’s devastating caricature of an Englishman; and Timothy D. Stickney’s dead-on Pothinus, the haughty guardian of 10-year-old Egyptian king–and Cleopatra’s brother–Ptomley.

The leads are enacted with comic, dramatic, and histrionic perfection by two enormously talented actors whose own careers parallel their characters of the teenaged queen and the old general. Nikki M. James brings youthful exuberance to Cleopatra, making her a wholly believable 16-year-old girl transformed, bit by unnoticeable bit, into a smart, striking woman. Her infectious giggles and joyous leaping about the stage remain in character throughout, until the final farewell scene with her mentor when she displays the maturity she’s learned.

Then there’s the great Christopher Plummer, an incomparably commanding Caesar. This theater legend so effortlessly nails the varied ingredients that make up Shaw’s most fully-realized male character that he never seems acting: Shaw’s quotable dialogue pours out of him as if he were making it up on the spot. What’s most magical about this Caesar and Cleopatra is these two actors’ remarkable chemistry: they’ve obviously been prodding each other to their (and our) evident delight.

One of Shaw’s running gags is the Romans’ mispronunciation of the name of Cleopatra’s nurse, “Ftatateeta”: at the performance I attended, Plummer blurts out a most absurdly awful mangling of that name, James dissolves in laughter, and Plummer points at her and yells, “You laughed!” Of course, she laughs even harder, and the resulting explosion of audience applause is one of many genuinely and blissful moments in a production that deserves the abused adjective “sublime.”

If the Shaw Festival’s three productions that I saw didn’t elevate themselves to the heavenly heights of Caesar and Cleopatra, they are each estimable in their own right, beginning with one of only two Shaw plays at his namesake festival this season. Staged by the festival’s artistic director Jackie Maxwell, Mrs. Warren’s Profession–Shaw’s second play, written in 1893 after his stint as a drama critic–remains a fresh, funny character study with a unique perspective on the strangely symbiotic relationship between a young woman and her mother in Victorian England after Vivie discovers that her mother’s unknown “profession” all these years has been as prostitute and brothel manager. Though no longer shocking, Mrs. Warren’s Profession has Shavian wit in abundance, and Maxwell gets pitch-perfect portrayals from her cast, led by Mary Haney as Mrs. Kitty Warren and Moya O’Connell as the self-reliant daughter.

This season’s lunch-time offering is an adaptation of Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár’s Egy, kettö, három–One, Two, Three, but retitled The President by translator Morwyn Brebner. This hour-long comedy has slamming doors, but its comic intelligence is so high that simply calling it a farce is, well, farcical. The plot–a captain of industry has an hour to change his beloved ward’s husband from a Communist frog into a capitalist prince–is merely an excuse for inspired silliness captured with precision by director Blair Williams, whose cast literally runs like a well-oiled machine: standouts are Lorne Kennedy in the lead, astonishing in his ability to turn his mouth on and off as he spouts streams of words like raging torrents; and Chilina Kennedy as the sex-kittenish heroine, who channels Marilyn Monroe—and adds a great deal of smarts of her own.

Finally, there’s the delightful Comden-Green-Bernstein musical, Wonderful Town, directed by Roger Hodgman. Anybody with memories of the original starring Rosalind Russell or the Broadway revival with the delectable Donna Murphy will not be swayed by this competent but uninspired staging: the talented Lisa Horner plays Ruth–the more level-headed of two sisters who move to New York City from Ohio–as a hard-bitten, unsympathetic shrew; and Jane Johanson’s choreography is lacking, especially when compared to Kathleen Marshall’s in the Murphy-led revival.

Still, there is much to enjoy: Thom Marriott nails his big number, “Pass the Football,” Jay Turvey is a heartfelt Bob Baker (even believably falling for Ruth) and Chilina Kennedy again shows true versatility as the younger–and blonder–sister Eileen, showing off classic moves and a big voice to boot. And there’s also that wonderful Bernstein score crammed with lesser-known gems “Ohio,” “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man” and “The Wrong-Note Rag.”

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