STRATFORD, ONTARIO — It's not easy for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival to accommodate the beautiful mess. Its costs and budgets are massive, its theaters imposing — in its current configuration, Tanya Moiseiwitsch's famous Festival Theatre still has more than 1,800 seats — and the weight of auspicious history hangs heavy. Shows must run, in repertory, for up to four months and play well to the theater's passionate group of supporters, many of whom are retirees who journey here from Toronto, Detroit and, in their many thousands, from Chicago, taking in as many as eight different shows in a week, debating what they see fiercely in seminars and on the terraces of bed-and-breakfasts.
And, after this year, change is a-coming: Des McAnuff, the director of “Jersey Boys” and a fierce, intellectually potent populist, even when tasked with William Shakespeare, is exiting the job of artistic director. Replacing him is Antoni Cimolino, the former general director who grew up around the festival and whose directorial sensibility (to date, anyway) has been less abrasive and lyrical — depending on your point of view, it's either more in keeping with what this festival should be, or less exciting.
We can't yet judge Cimolino's artistic stamp on this festival (we'll start with that next year), but his current production in the mid-sized Tom Patterson Theatre, “Cymbeline,” is the best Cimolino production I've seen to date and a very moving and clear take on one of William Shakespeare's last plays. With its themes of family, mistakes, snap judgments, the wisdom of age and, ultimately, redemption, “Cymbeline” plays uncommonly well when simply told. It is, justifiably, one of the bigger hits of the summer, not least because of the pain you can read on the face of the great actor Geraint Wyn Davies, playing the titular English king. “Cymbeline,” like “Much Ado About Nothing,” rests on the idea of a malevolent someone poisoning a relationship by making one party believe the other has been unfaithful. In this production, you believe that manipulation utterly, because the villain of the piece, Tom McCamus' Iachimo, is so darn oily and persuasive.
Last year with “The Grapes of Wrath,” Cimolino's narrative sweep was hijacked by a rain machine; this year, his storytelling propels the show just as it should, accommodating intimacy and yet keeping these lives in constant motion, perennially subject to the consequences of their errors. If only Cimolino and his actors, especially the young performer Cara Ricketts, who plays Innogen, had dug deeper and leaned more heavily into the agonies of loss and the joys of rediscovery. The story is clearly told, but “Cymbeline” also demands that the audience feel more of the mud splattered by the wheel of fortune.
John Hirsch, the Hungarian-born artistic director of this very festival between 1981 and 1985, kicked up a lot of mud. He liked to aim it at meddling board members and lazy actors.
Hirsch is hardly a household name — outside of Stratford and high-end theater circles, anyway — so the idea of doing a one-man show about his life and times might seem quixotic. And, by any standards, the show in question, performed by Alon Nashman (and directed by Paul Thompson), is a messy affair that's as much about the actor's quest to know the subject as it is about the subject itself.
But “Hirsch,” as it turns out, is a hugely compelling 90 minutes. Hirsch hardly had a conventional directors' life: he was one of the only survivors from his village of 800 Jews and, left wandering alone, with his parents lost to the Holocaust, he headed to Canada to get as far away from trouble as possible.
From the agony of that youth came, of course, much of the fire in Hirsch's work, along with his intolerance for mediocrity. Nashman doesn't claim to understand his man — few did — or even know how to tell his story, really, but he and Thompson (also the co-author) are smart enough to zoom in on the bigger issue here. Hirsch, Nashman tells us, during one of the show's many sudden and awkward lapses into first person, was “an exotic.” Which is to say he was a gay Jew with demons. And Stratford — and, by extension, Canadian culture in general — has been locked for years in a kind of Cold War between the Anglophile traditionalists and, well, the various exotics who've knocked on the door from time and time and tried to gain a foothold. Hirsch had the right mix of passion, talent and anger to knock it down, but AIDS knocked him down in 1989. Such are the turns of life.
Conceptually, “Hirsch” is probably the biggest mess I've ever seen in Startford, which could be why I liked it so very much.
Chris Abraham's production of “The Matchmaker,” another solid hit here, could use more pace on occasion but it has one crucial quality above all: It feels far closer to Thornton Wilder's “Our Town” than to “Hello Dolly,” the musical made from “Matchmaker” that subsequently has eclipsed it in popularity.
Abraham's lively, free-wheeling, smart and very funny production features a raft of performances that feel much less pre-packaged than elsewhere in the festival: McCamus, Skye Brandon, Mike Shara, John Vickery and Seana McKenna are all exuberantly amusing in a show that delights in audiences and captures Wilder's fundamental belief in the vitality of the human spirit.
This was not a banner year for musicals, which are supposed to do the same. After last season's hit production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” McAnuff took a lot of the A list of Canadian musical talent to Broadway, and that took a toll. Indeed, one of the shows, a production of the 1967 musical “You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown” is a total disaster, a rarity in Stratford.
The problem is not, as some around here have said, the material; there is nothing wrong with Clark Gesner's songs, nor, of course, the vignettes based on Charles M. Schulz's beloved comic strip. The issue is that the director, Donna Feore, misses the tone of the show, which must be gentle, wry and, above all, truthful. Here it's encumbered with a video backdrop (presumably a consequence of misguided worries about relevance), a children's theater sensibility (a terrible idea when you want to appeal to families) and a group of young actors who play into the cloying and overwrought archetypes of young kids (and one dog) when, in fact, the kids are actually doing the complete opposite, which is to say they are all desperately trying to act like adults. Snoopy, one of pop culture's triumphant nerds, is retooled as a kind of smug hipster, which is about as far from what works as Charlie Brown is from nirvana with that little red-headed girl.
Both “42nd Street” (directed by Gary Griffin) and “Pirates of Penzance” (directed by Ethan McSweeny) are much better than that, although neither are fully satisfying. The main issue with “42nd Street,” one of the great dance shows that needs spectacular tap numbers to compensate for its stiff book, is that Griffin didn't figure out a way on the Festival Theatre's thrust to deliver such moments. It's strange: His brilliant “West Side Story” in the same theater two years ago had no such problems. But “42nd Street” is a different beast; its dance numbers remain in a performance context, and, in this challenging instance, they don't pop as they should. And none of the principals are especially likable. Jennifer Rider-Shaw, who plays Peggy Sawyer, is chirpy and pleasant enough but insufficiently complex. There's no sexual tension between Rider-Shaw and Sean Arbuckle, who plays Julian Marsh, the tough director (and “Smash” prototype). And yet you don't root for Sawyer to land with the leading juvenile, Billy Lawlor, either. That's because Kyle Blair has a fine voice and an assertive personality but not much vulnerability. He doesn't seem to need Peggy, and thus she has nowhere firm to land.
McSweeny's “Pirates” comes with a fancy framing device — we're watching a theater troop put on this famous Gilbert and Sullivan operetta — that takes a lot of work but never quite pays off. Certainly, McSweeny's generally enjoyable show (which features Arbuckle and Blair again) is bursting with ideas and potential amusements. But you don't feel that these two men have enough to lose to make you root for their happiness or salvation. The show, which is very well sung and imaginative, is neatly wrapped with a bow. But that means you can't access its messy satirical insides, which need to spill out for the really big fun to start.
If you're going
A quick guide to shows at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival:
“Henry V”: Don't miss
“A Word or Two”: Don't miss
“Cymbeline”: Well worth seeing
“Hirsch”: A mess, but don't miss (and tickets are tight)
“You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown”: Skip at all costs
“42nd Street”: You'll see better
“The Pirates of Penzance”: Fair
“The Matchmaker”: Well worth seeing
Reviews of Christopher Plummer's “A Word or Two” and Des McAnuff's “Henry V” are also posted on Theater Loop. For more information on the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, visit stratfordfestival.ca or call 1-800-567-1600. Performances run through Oct. 28.
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