Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Stratford Festival 2013: Four Plays in Three Days

Othello | On the Stage | Stratford Festival

Othello, 8:00 p.m. Thu 22 Aug 2013, Avon Theatre
An Intimate Journey Into Despair

This production of Othello was simple and intimate. Shakespeare's story of ambition, love, and jealousy comes to life in the capable hands of director Chris Abraham with Dion Johnstone as Othello, Bethany Jillard as Desdemona, and Graham Abbey as Iago who puts the action into motion by planting the seeds of jealousy in Othello's brain and arranging the fall of anyone who might stand in the way of his ambition. This production was not about raging jealousy but about intimate despair so profound that it has crowded out any possibility of seeing the truth.

The staging is lovely in its utter simplicity. A rotating raked stage serves to make the transitions from one scene and setting to the next, along with images projected as shadows and windows that open in the wall. The translucent curtains that surround Desdemona's bed partly obstruct the view as Othello kills her, which both serves to buffer the graphic violence and reminds the audience that Othello is not seeing the whole picture. A shifting tilted platform, revolving feelings, shadows of doubt, and unexpected windows, and obstructions that allow one to see and yet not see clearly, echo the thematic elements within this play. Well done.

Tommy | On the Stage

Tommy, 2:00 p.m. Fri 23 Aug 2013, Avon Theatre
See Me, Feel Me

I have to say it: Peter Townshend's lyrics suck. Tommy isn't much of a story and the lyrics are pretty much bereft of poetry, poignancy, wit, or social commentary. So what is left? Great staging. Director Des McAnuff (loved his Twelfth Night in 2011) and set designer John Arnone make brilliant use of projected scenery to replace what would once have been painted backdrops. It wasn't gimmicky, it was excellent use of imagery and symbolism to give a feel for the spirit of times in which the story unfolds. I particularly liked the use of the black and white camera images that are projected as Tommy is being interviewed on television. As to the plot line and universal message: Don't commit murder in front of your children; don't leave them with funny uncles; and don't bestow messianic adoration on random prodigies.
I saw it but didn't feel it.

Fiddler on the Roof | On the Stage

Fiddler on the Roof, 2:00 p.m. Sat 24 Aug 2013, Festival Theatre

This story of how tradition, modern values, political forces, culture, religion, familial love and loyalty clash and resolve remains as relevant and as universal now as it ever was. The music is engaging, the lyrics are both playful and poignant. Fiddler on the Roof is a masterpiece of musical theatre and this rollicking production has plenty of life and exuberance.

On the downside, all of the performers in the mature adult roles appear to be too young. The fake beards aren't convincing enough. Scott Wentworth as Tevye is very good but lacks a certain gravitas. Kate Hennig as Golde doesn't bring quite enough weight to the role. Maybe she was saving her strength in this matinée performance, because she was excellent in the evening as the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet (see below). Hat's off to dancers Matt Alfano, Matthew Armet, Galen Johnson, and Julius Sermonia, who also appeared in Tommy. The versatile dance crew handled the different styles brilliantly.

For all the joking and playfulness, the message is serious at heart. As the characters leave the town of Anatevka at the end of the play, there is a sense of hope that their optimism and fortitude will allow them to start their lives anew. There is also a sense of foreboding, borne out by history, that they will never return to their home town and their way of life is over. The story of Fiddler on the Roof is as classic as it is modern and this production had plenty of heart.

Romeo and Juliet | On the Stage

Romeo and Juliet, 8:00 p.m. Sat 24 Aug 2013, Festival Theatre

Director Tim Carroll and set designer Douglas Paraschuk have recreated a vision of how the Elizabethan theatre looked for this period production (reproduction) of Romeo and Juliet. The wooden stage with its balconies looks just like the model of The Globe Theatre that I remember seeing in high school. The musicians who provided the accompaniment to the performance were playing in the balcony as the audience began to take their seats. The performance began with an added prologue, written in verse à la Shakespeare, explaining that the house lights would be kept on to recreate the afternoon light in which the show would have been performed at an outdoor theatre in Shakespeare's time. Costuming was period-perfect.

Nowadays the main obstacle in performing Shakespeare is how to make it accessible to the modern audience. This production was no exception. It is language-dense. There is a lot of talking to explain who everyone is and to set the stage for the conflict to come. When all of the characters are dressed in similar style clothing and colour palate, it doesn't help. Characters such as Mercutio and the Nurse engage in a lot wordplay and the characters to whom they are speaking laugh and respond with glee, but my modern ears missed the jokes. It took a good 15 minutes to warm up to the production in that sense.

Once I had my ears suitably pointed back in time, I began to really enjoy the performances. Sara Topham as Juliet was beautifully smitten and not too sappy. Daniel Briere as Romeo conveyed the intensity of single-minded teenage pursuit. Kudos to Kate Hennig as Nurse, the single strongest character portrayal on the stage. I was delighted to see Antoine Yared in the cast, having been a fan of his work with Montreal's Repercussion Theatre. He plays Juliet's parent-sanctioned suitor Paris. It isn't much of a role, and he discharged it fairly woodenly, which was disappointing in consideration of the dynamic actor that I know him to be.
Romeo and Juliet remains a beautiful piece of theatre but it is a challenge for the modern audience.


A Midsummer Night's Dream, Repercussion Theatre, Thu 25 July 2013, Pine Beach Park, Dorval

For comparison's sake, A Midsummer Night's Dream, this year's Shakespeare-in-the-Park production by Montreal's Repercussion Theatre had all the elements of living, relevant theatre. What Repercussion Theatre lacks in budget and slickness it makes up for in energy and commitment to the roles. The outdoor setting, to which people bring picnics, lawn chairs, dogs and children, provides a sense of community. Repercussion Theatre's A Midsummer Night's Dream is a wild romp in the woods that lends itself to outdoor theatre in a way that Othello's private emotional turmoil and introspection might not. And try as Stratford may to recreate the experience of Elizabethan theatre with its production of Romeo and Juliet, it is hard to overcome the distance that is created by the awareness of the formal theatre setting.

Repercussion Theatre stays true to the purpose of bringing the theatre to the people and performing Shakespeare in a way that makes it as relevant now as it was when it was written. This group continues to impress me.

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