STRATFORD. ONT. - The Stratford Shakespeare Festival crowns the artistic summer, the way a cake with candles crowns a birthday party.
One of my happiest times of any summer is the two or three days I get to spend enjoying the beautifully presented, entertaining and intellectually stimulating productions on the stages of Stratford.
Last week, I made my escape to examine the 2012 season of productions. In addition to the six plays I got to see, there were the wonderful restaurants, excellent shopping, including some of the greatest bookstores in the world for those who love and want to read about the arts, and the astounding Canadian gift for producing gardens which can engender any feeling from thrills to solace and everything in between.
The power and drama of medieval warfare are among the great strengths of the production of Shakespeare’s ‘‘Henry V,’’ now playing at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
This year is the festival's 60th consecutive season of presenting plays. The festival has grown in that short period of time from a two-play season performed in a circus-like tent for a period of several weeks to an institution with, now, five performance venues, housing 14 different productions and stretching from May to late October.
I'm sure when Tom Patterson, a citizen of Stratford who decided that a town with the same name as Shakespeare's birthplace ought to have a theatrical festival which featured his plays, people clucked their tongues and said he was mad, and nobody would drive for hours to see plays which were over 400 years old.
Indeed millions have made the journey, and most have left delighted. In fact, if you check the pavement on Provincial Route 8, the road which takes one to the east, leaving Stratford, I'm sure mine are not the only fingernail scratches, left by someone trying to prevent being taken away from all these riches.
This is the final season in the artistic directorship of Des McAnuff, who has been in charge for only four and one-third of the past five seasons, having begun as one member of a troika of directors, chosen to replace Richard Monette, who died in 2007. The three-way deal lasted only a few months, and then McAnuff became the sole director.
McAnuff was born the year the festival presented its first production, and has a long and successful history of directing rock 'n' roll-based musical shows. Indeed, he has been known to introduce rock music, even into Shakespeare's plays, when he directs them, some more successfully than others.
Only three of this season's plays have been Shakespeare's works, and it will be interesting to see whether the pendulum swings back toward the Bard of Avon, under the new director, Antoni Cimolino.
The festival's publicity materials trumpet that the 2012 season is built around the widest possible variety, ranging from the play ''Elektra,'' by ancient Greek playwright Sophocles, up to two world premieres, one of which was commissioned by Stratford. Whether your tastes run to declamation or to tap dance, there is sure to be plenty on the stage to lure you to Stratford before the season ends in late October.
Here is what I saw and what I thought about it.
THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE
The musical creations of Gilbert and Sullivan are a specific taste. People tend to either love them deeply or not to enjoy them at all.
What made this particular production notable for residents of our area is that it was directed by Ethan McSweeny, resident director of the Chautauqua Theater Company. Rollicking comedy has not been McSweeny's forte, yet he managed to bring home a production which was entertaining and exciting from top to bottom.
Gilbert and Sullivan, in their list of operettas, have managed to hold up British society of the late 19th century to a ridicule so powerful that it must have hurt, at times. Even today, some of the customs which are assailed say some things about elements of life which we take seriously, but which could use a laugh, to temper them and make them more reasonable.
The story of the show is that a band of pirates have been menacing shipping, off the coast of Cornwall, England's southwestern-most corner. Despite their gawdy attire and bold speech, they are indeed failures at piracy, because they refuse to prey upon enemies who are weaker than they are, and they notoriously refuse to harm anyone who is an orphan. Since that is known, everyone they attack claims to be an orphan, and therefore escapes.
The central character is one Frederick, a handsome young man - and coincidentally, a tenor - who has been indentured to the pirates up through his 21st birthday. Frederick falls in love at first sight with Mabel, one of the many daughters of Maj. Gen. Stanley, and plans, when he reaches his majority, to exterminate his former comrades to legitimize himself enough to wed Mabel.
Kyle Blair had the voice for the role, and the boyish face and figure to carry it off well.
So many times, since the show was revived some decades back, the dashing Pirate King has dominated the show, inspired by the scene-stealing bravado of Kevin Klein. Played at Stratford by Sean Arbuckle, this king had the voice, but stayed in the second row, so to speak. Arbuckle is a fine actor, who usually performs relatively minor roles. My only distinctive memory of him, despite having attended Stratford annually for decades, was the title role of ''Agamemnon.''
Amy Wallis was lovely as Mabel and tossed off the coloratura required with charm and what seemed like ease.
C. David Johnson seemed uncomfortable as the Major General, and didn't project his famed patter song. It's traditional to adapt the final verse of the work to the individual performing circumstances, although the listing of the past artistic directors of Stratford wasn't funny or charming.
Gabrielle Jones was powerful as Ruth, Frederick's nursemaid, who has accompanied him through his years as a pirate, and was very funny until she for no apparent reason suddenly morphed into Queen Victoria.
There is an enormous amount of beautifully performed, comic business. The cast is attractive. The singing is outstanding, for the most part. I would expect that one would enjoy the production, although I think it's going to be hard for the purists. The production continues through Oct. 27.
''Cymbeline'' is one of Shakespeare's most humane creations. It is a history about the days when the Romans first were invading the island of Great Britain.
The title character is the native king of Britain. We promptly are told that he had two sons who have been kidnapped, leaving him only with one daughter, Innogen. At the opening, she has defied her father and married Posthumus, while her father has been determined that she will marry Cloten, the son of Cymbeline's queen, who was a widow with children when he married her.
The king exiles his son-in-law, who foolishly agrees to a bet with an Italian adventurer named Iachimo that Innogen will remain faithful to him and pure, despite his enforced absence. The Italian comes to Britain and succeeds in hiding in Innogen's bedroom, thus learning private things about her, without her knowledge. He returns and claims to have won the bet, destroying Posthumus's confidence in his wife.
Meanwhile, Cymbeline's pressure on Innogen to divorce her husband and marry Cloten has driven her to flee from the court. She flees to Wales, dressed as a boy, where she is accepted as a friend by two sons of a shepherd, who naturally turn out to be her stolen brothers.
The rare thing about this play is that the truth comes out in the end, and everyone displays generosity, patience and kindness in dealing with everyone else. Justice prevails, and the spirit of generosity is warmly and universally embraced.
Garaint Wyn Davies portrays a powerful king, yet is believable when he bows to a truth, beyond his control.
Cara Ricketts is a strong, yet feminine Innogen, impossible not to focus upon, whenever she is on stage.
Graham Abbey who had a run of leads at Stratford, some years ago, was very welcome in return as a manly and beautifully spoken Postumus.
St. Catherine's native Mike Shara, extremely handsome, yet cursed with a high-pitched voice which limits his effectiveness as a leading man, found a perfect role as the oafish Cloten.
The production was staged by the incoming artistic director of the festival, Antoni Cimolino, and successfully combined beauty and energy. Because the plot is not thrilling, some may not enjoy the production, but this was probably as effective a production of this play as could be imagined.
The popular Broadway musical ''42nd Street'' is easy to be deceived by. Because it's set in 1930, shortly after the stock market crash, it's easy to believe it was created back then. Instead, it came together in 1980, combining popular favorite tunes from the 1930s with original music and lyrics by Harry Warren and Al Dubin. The script was created by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble.
It is the classic story of the talented young singer/dancer who takes the bus to New York City with 40 cents in her purse and wins the lead in a Broadway hit, when the star of the show stumbles and breaks her ankle the day before opening night.
Director Gary Griffin has envisioned the show as a period piece, whose success is propelled by the gorgeous costumes of Kimberly Catton. Chorus girls in the 1930s didn't just portray friends of the heroine, nor residents of the town. They wore huge feathered headdresses and elaborate jewelry, and they strutted around the stage, for no other reason than to tantalize the audience with their beauty.
Ironically, the men in this production sang and danced very well, yet seemed more mature than one usually sees in a chorus, while the women were a feast for the eyes in every way.
The return of Cynthia Dale, who famously played a number of big leads, then was invited not to return to Stratford when Richard Monette died, is big news to lovers of the festival. This time, she plays the fading showgirl whose misstep leads to the ingenue getting the lead, and her presence was so powerful, her singing and dancing was so good, no one was surprised when she was given the final bow at the end of the show.
Jennifer Rider-Shaw was very talented as the kid from Allentown, who wins the lead, but she seemed too made-up, too sophisticated for the new kid in town.
Kyle Blair was once again the fresh-faced male ingenue, and Sean Arbuckle was extremely talented as a singer and actor, yet seemed understated as the director who is responsible for the dollars of the investors and the careers of the performers.
I don't know if you need to go to Stratford to see a really good production of ''42nd Street,'' but it you do go there, you will see a really good production.
Thornton Wilder was disappointed by the reception of his play ''The Merchant of Yonkers,'' so he spent much of the year 1955 at Stratford, converting that play into ''The Matchmaker.'' In December of that year, it was a major hit on Broadway, directed by then-Stratford artistic director Tyrone Gutherie.
Then, just nine years later, a producer named David Merrick would oversee another reversion of the plot, this time adding singing and dancing, and calling it ''Hello, Dolly.''
Wilder's message is about the danger of allowing wealth to be sucked up by individuals who don't use it, and cheerfully are willing to allow others to starve. Curiously, he has hidden his message so well in light comedy that many audience members don't even get a hint that it's there.
The play concerns a wealthy grain merchant in Yonkers, New York named Horace Vandergelder. Being widowed and without family, except for a wide-eyed young niece named Ermengarde, Horace decides he is going to marry again, and he hired a matchmaker named Dolly Levi to find him a bride. Naturally, she decides that she herself is the ideal candidate.
While Horace is in New York City, hoping to meet his future wife, his two oppressed and miserable young clerks decide to close the store and go into the city themselves in hopes of adventure - maybe even to kiss a girl for the first time.
There is almost a classic farce as the principals almost bump into one another in the city, and doors slam at the exact instant when someone enters through a different door. The play is staged with perhaps a touch too much corn, but nevertheless a comic wisdom by Chris Abraham.
Tom McCamus was inspired as the penurious Vandergelder. Indeed if the program didn't say it was McCamus under the bushy sideburns and wild white hair, I would not have guessed it.
Festival stalwart Seana McKenna avoided overplaying the eccentricities of the title character, making her Dolly more charming and less overwhelming. It was a fine interpretation.
Mike Shara returned, this time as the miser's chief clerk, playing a bumptious and callow youth with great charm. Josh Epstein was very funny as the younger clerk.
Nora McLellan was a riot as the over-the-top Miss Flora, who was supposed to keep young Ermengarde from eloping with an artist, but who loved adventure and scandal too much to be of any use as a chaperone.
It's a fun play, and the settings and costumes are gorgeous. The actors are talented and put all their energy into the performance. Will you have fun? I would be very surprised if you didn't. Will you miss the familiar music? Probably. Will you like the message? Perhaps.
Shakespeare's history plays are by far his most difficult to stage. Shakespeare wrote under an absolute monarch who didn't hesitate to cut the hands off writers who she felt didn't support her cause.
He wrote for an audience who probably had a good memory of what had happened in history, and who would be unhappy if something were left out.
Of his eight plays dealing with the great Civil War of England, called The War of the Roses, ''Henry V'' has become something of an iconic view of English history. Laurence Olivier was paid by Churchill to produce a film of the play, to rally Englishmen to stand fast against Hitler, when England fought alone against the Nazi menace, during World War II, for example.
Des McAnuff has chosen the play as his farewell to the festival's artistic directorship, and he stages the words of the play, but couldn't seem to quite grasp the message.
The plot is very complex. Henry V became king at an early age. His father, Henry IV had overthrown his cousin, Richard II, and stolen the crown. Young Henry had spent his youth drinking, gambling and hanging around with a boisterous old lecher named Falstaff, earning a reputation as a wastrel.
Now that his father has died, Henry has stepped up and become a powerful ruler and a successful general, but many who know his history continue to underestimate him. The heir to the French throne, for example, sends him a chest full of tennis balls with a message saying, in effect, ''Here, I understand you lack these.''
The play begins when a meeting of bishops decide that they should distract young Henry from his thoughts of taking away church-held lands, by reminding him that his great grandfather, King Edward III, had claimed to be the King of France, as well as England, and encouraging the young king to invade and conquer the larger kingdom of France.
The play flows on. The costuming and settings are brilliant, being the creations of Paul Tazewell and Robert Brill. The fight scenes were positively stunning, courtesy of Steve Rankin.
Young Aaron Krohn was a handsome King Henry, but lacked the magnetism to represent a national idol. Gareth Potter, usually a powerful actor, was saddled with a girlish giggle and became a forgettable foe for Henry, rather than a dangerous one, as the French heir to the throne.
The whole production was beautiful to see, and played through pretty much the entire script, but when the lights came up and the audience was leaving, I heard a number of people asking what, exactly, had just taken place.
If you've seen a number of productions of this play and want to add another to compare to the others, it's well worth the watching, but if this is your first introduction to the play, you might make a better choice.
A WORD OR TWO
If you revere the written word and respect the history of the performing arts, Christopher Plummer's one-man production ''A Word or Two,'' is a must-see. If you're not already won over, it may not have the power to win you.
Plummer is well in his 80s. He is probably best known as the actor who played Captain Von Trapp in the landmark musical film ''The Sound of Music,'' although his career has included everything from the classics to edgy modern plays and films.
In this production, the aging actor strides around a beautiful set, created by Robert Brill, telling us a hint of his life story, complete with the literature which influenced his life at the periods which he describes.
The second directing job of the season for McAnuff was no doubt a struggle to shape the memory and behavior of a man in his 80s, to balance and produce a flow. Nearly two hours of lines seemed to strain the actor's memory, and at times he seemed to be distressed. ''Why did I just do that with a Southern accent?'' he asked at one point, although he moved so smoothly through the situation that I'm sure many assumed it was a deliberate line.
There were no awkward pauses, and the reading of the literature was brilliant. To share a life of thought and feeling with a man of Plummer's accomplishment is a rare honor, and I'm thrilled to have been there, but if the concept doesn't speak to your life, you would have trouble sharing the feeling.