Monday, August 16, 2010

Stratford and Shaw Festivals, Summer 2010

The Tempest
Written by William Shakespeare
Kiss Me, Kate
Music & lyrics by Cole Porter, book by Sam and Bella Spewack
(The Tempest through September 12; Kiss Me, Kate through October 30)
Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Canada

John Bull’s Other Island
Written by Bernard Shaw
The Doctor’s Dilemma
Written by Bernard Shaw
(John Bull's Other Island through October 9; The Doctor's Dilemma through October 30)
Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada

Summer in Canada has much to recommend it, notably more bearable weather than hot, sticky New York. But Canada’s best are its theater festivals at Niagara-on-the-Lake and Stratford, as excellent actors and inventive directors combine for top-notch productions of great plays by Shakespeare, Shaw and others—with a musical or two thrown in.

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival gives preeminence to the greatest playwright in English (or any other language). And this summer’s star is our greatest living classical actor in English: Christopher Plummer unforgettably plays Prospero in The Tempest, and if Des McAnuff’s visually dazzling, sometimes too-clever staging doesn’t always let Shakespeare’s final masterpiece breathe, it at least lets Plummer—who enacted a monumental Caesar in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra on the same stage two summers ago—to crown a storied stage career.

Now a spry 80 years old, Plummer uses his lifetime of experience to plumb the depths of Shakespeare’s deposed duke turned magician on a magical isle with his teenaged daughter Miranda, orchestrating the play’s events to happen in his favor with the help of the sprite Ariel. If McAnuff’s staging drags during the usual overdone comic scenes featuring a drunken Trinculo and Stephano with the monstrous Caliban, there’s ample compensatory theatrical razzle-dazzle, including an enchanting opening image of Ariel descending to snatch Prospero’s magic book.

The cast is not nearly on Plummer’s level, with Peter Hutt’s dull Alonso and Julyana Soelistyo’s disastrous Ariel on the lowest rung. But Plummer controls the stage throughout, whether reacting angrily as he recounts his banishment to Miranda or playfully aiding her courtship with Prince Ferdinand: here’s an actor in complete command of his resources and who, like his character, relies on them to do his stage magic. Plummer has the rare ability to speak Shakespeare’s lines so trippingly off the tongue as to sound like everyday speech. And his final speech to the audience is as unbearably moving as only a great actor can make it.

Also at Stratford is Cole Porter’s classic musical Kiss Me Kate, based on Shakespeare’s early comedy The Taming of the Shrew. Happily, there’s little of director John Doyle's penchant for ruining musical theater works from Company to Peter Grimes. Porter’s songs, of course, are killers—“Wunderbar,” “So in Love,” “I Hate Men” and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” for starters—as are the women, led by firecracker Chilina Kennedy, who came from the Shaw Festival to become a star at Stratford with a booming voice and charm to spare. Likewise, there’s Monique Lund, a fabulously-talented comedienne with an operatic voice. Their leading men aren’t as memorable, but no matter: Kiss Me Kate is a keeper.

The Shaw Festival’s two namesake plays this summer are rarely done in New York. Christopher Newton has staged John Bull’s Other Island as if it was a fairy tale. That’s not far off the mark: Shaw’s beguiling (if dated) comic drama is about an Englishman who goes to Ireland for the first time with his Irish business partner and falls for the charms of the Emerald Isle—including the Irishman’s former gal. Newton wittily uses British and Irish music by Vaughan Williams, Arnold and Harty, and his actors—led by Shaw vet Benedict Campbell, typically debonair as the Englishman—lead the way to a frolicsome, if ultimately frivolous, 2-1/2 hours in the theater.

Uneasy laughs are plentiful in The Doctor's Dilemma, Shaw’s prescient black comedy about a doctor who must choose between two very different sick men to partake in a miraculous new treatment: a great artist who’s an awful human being or an elderly doctor as honest and humane as they come. Morris Panych’s production is hampered by the large Festival Theatre stage, which dwarfs the drawing-room intimacy of Shaw's philosophizing, and his “ironic” use of the Rolling Stones songs “Under My Thumb” and “You Can't Always get What You Want,” which smothers the beginning and end of each act. But the performances are top-notch, particularly Patrick Galligan as the perplexed physician and Michael Ball as his esteemed yet crusty colleague.
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