STRATFORD, Ontario — Des McAnuff, the artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, North America's largest and arguably most prestigious, classically based theater, has announced his intention to leave his post in 2013.
Personal decisions are always complex, and this may well be just a negotiating position. Still, McAnuff should think hard. The marriage of this famously populist and audacious directing talent with the institutional resources, technical prowess, training, craft and, yes, dignity of a long-established theater forged by Tyrone Guthrie and the great designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch, serves the art and the interests of both parties uncommonly well.
For evidence, you need only look at McAnuff's superb pair of productions at this year's festival, "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Twelfth Night," both of which are packed with audience-wowing thrills. You might expect goose bumps from a well-sung "Gethsemane," but McAnuff has also created a hip "Twelfth Night" that's so ebullient, funny and entertaining you don't want it to end. Not coincidentally, the dominant landscape for both of these productions is the one in which McAnuff feels most comfortable: rock 'n' roll.
"Jesus Christ Superstar"
"Superstar" has snagged all the buzz. Here's what's happening in the production that's headed in the fall to the La Jolla (Calif.) Playhouse and then, probably, to Broadway. McAnuff solves many of the inherent problems in this famous rock pastiche, first by putting a laserlike focus on the love-triangle of the central relationships among Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene. If two of the three are locked in an embrace — or merely a passionate conversation — the third wheel is constantly watching and emoting. Second, he's replaced the usual brooding, hairy, self-ameliorating, hippy-ish Jesus of most productions (including the London original and the 1973 movie) with a Christ who, frankly, owes more to Blue Man Group than some tie-dyed Ted Neeley, lost in the desert.
Paul Nolan's Jesus is needy and unusually interactive. Chilina Kennedy's Mary Magdalene is earnest but also desperate enough that you sense that, without Jesus, she'd be done for. And Josh Young's sexy, well-made-up Judas has a dangerous, if somewhat campy, air recalling the hero of the Broadway musical "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson." When Judas hangs himself, the 30 pieces of silver clatter loudly to the floor.
The famous "Superstar" score is respected, amped-up and uncommonly well-sung by a tightly focused ensemble. The whole show feels fresh, updated and — remarkably, for a piece that's more than 40 years old — on the edge. But the main sting of McAnuff's "Superstar" is in the tail.
For much of the 110 minutes, you admire the shrewd conceit but don't necessarily see any revelations. But then Nolan's very human and vulnerable Jesus is crucified: You are, strange as it may seem, totally taken by surprise by the abruptness of the act. The setting by Robert Brill (a designer ideally suited to this piece, because of his uncommon love of soaring vertical lines) explodes in a sea of moving texts, and you're left with the sense of a man done in by the weight of 2,000 years of cruel human history. It is an explosive last 10 minutes, and it should be enough to carry this "Superstar" as far as McAnuff wants it to go.
In its best moments, which are the comedic ones, McAnuff's "Twelfth Night" is a great time. The conceit here — unsurprising to longtime McAnuff watchers — is that Illyria represents the history of rock 'n' roll. Feste, played by the happily caustic Ben Carlson, is a rock singer whose band comes and goes, "Jersey Boys"-style, on little self-propelled islands. This freeing concept allows designer Debra Hanson to draw from an eclectic palette without breaking any rules. When Tom Rooney's moving, wound-tight Malvolio arrives in an massive ruff, it seems apt. But then so does Carlson's grungy attire. And at various other points, the show draws from what you might think of as a Sgt. Pepper aesthetic, replete with outsize shoulder-wear and primary colors (it recalls Cirque's du Soleil's "The Beatles LOVE" in Las Vegas).
McAnuff makes plenty of audacious staging choices — we see Toby Belch (Brian Dennehy) and his co-conspirators everywhere from the kitchen (a fridge flies in the air) to the golf course to the Russian baths. But without actors who can trip the text on their tongues, these things only take a director so far. At Stratford, these ideas can be realized by folks with the textual chops of Stephen Ouimette, Dennehy (who looks like he's taken a potion offering an elixir of youth) and, especially Rooney and Carlson, who both fire on all cylinders throughout. You hardly notice the lovers — Orsino is played by Mike Shara; Sara Topham is Olivia; Suzy Jane Hunt is Viola; Trent Pardy is Sebastian. That's not because they are bad — although McAnuff's blind spot in this crowd-pleaser is failing to sufficiently explore the price we pay for desire — but because the comedic scenes are not only hilarious, they're also filled with Michael Roth and McAnuff's toe-tapping melodies. "Play On" rings on in your head; you can hear departing audience members singing little snatches of old Bill's lyrics. We are at once titillated and made to feel like we're in safe hands (the Stones knew that trick). The crowd, natch, goes wild.
Gary Griffin's "Camelot," another notable success at Stratford this summer, is a textbook example of the benefits of seeing classic musicals in a theater with the resources and tradition that one rarely sees in a Broadway environment. The Chicago-based Griffin is a director with a fine sense of how to stage the poignancy of passing a generational legacy. And so when Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's "Camelot" is enveloped in father figures and sons — be they Geraint Wyn Davies' richly wrought Arthur, Brent Carver's Merlyn (and Pellinore), Mike Nadajewski's jumpy Mordred or Jimmy Mallett's earnest Tom of Warwick — the show feels weighty and profoundly moving. Davies' magnificently articulated journey from the optimism of unity to the resigned melancholy of division (it's no wonder that politicians tend to empathize with this show and have long wanted to be identified with its central character) is especially beguiling in this production, which features costumes by Mara Blumenfeld with so much color and texture that their visual beauties positively leap from the stage. The terrain is less certain around Kaylee Harwood's sweet-voiced Guinevere and Jonathan Winsby's Lancelot. They are appealing and articulate performers, but you don't feel much of their pain. In this production, Arthur seems to carry it all. But that's not entirely a bad thing.
In many ways, "Titus Andronicus" is the un-"Camelot." If the musical is all about the struggle for optimism, Darko Tresnjak's cruel, contemporary, creative "Titus" is a cautionary but alienating meditation on the horrors that ensure result (and that always ensnare the innocent) when revenge begets ever yet more brutal revenge. It feels as if a moral fable for today's bickering Washington: Fail to compromise on that debt and you'll set in motion an ever-more dysfunctional cycle of recriminations. When it comes to making that point, and when it comes to shocking the eyes, this "Titus" certainly delivers. And it fully deserves the warnings about language and violence posted outside the theater. Yet here, too, you don't necessarily get the sense that anything costs these characters much: John Vickery's silver-tongued Titus has many pulpy pleasures, but he seems particularly invulnerable and inured to all that occurs. That's a reasonable choice to make with this most cold and difficult play, but it comes at a human price.
Miles Potter's "Richard III" was a much-anticipated production because it features the actress Seana McKenna in the hump-backed title role. McKenna doesn't have much truck with sexual ambivalence; she plays tricky Dicky as a man and, as interpretations of this role go, she emphasizes his reptilian side, which makes better sense of his motivations than the reasons for his moments of seductive success. McKenna is a formidable actress, and Potters' simply staged production has the virtue of clarity and cohesion. But it also feels at times like the show wants to avoid the elephant in the room, which it cannot. There's no reason that great classical actresses should not play the great Shakespearean men. One just wishes that Stratford had started with "Hamlet," "Macbeth," "Othello" or "King Lear," or some other figure of complexity, ambiguity and sympathy. Richard is an entirely different proposition. This show has not fully grasped what its choices might mean.
'The Grapes of Wrath'
John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," as adapted by Frank Galati and directed in Stratford by the festival's general director, Antoni Cimolino, has long served as a reminder that throughout the history of the republic, ordinary Americans frequently have been confronted by the combination of scarce resources and the greed of the well-to-do. Cimolino's production — a familiarly staged dust bowl mix of displaced folks and live musicians — has integrity, some insightful acting and intermittent collective power. But, alas, it seems to fall apart toward the end, when the episodic nature of the piece overwhelms the unity of the show and Cimolino seems to trap everyone behind a torrent of rain (sometimes, the Stratford resources are a dangerous temptation). Instead of the last moment of the milk of human kindness — as dispensed by Kennedy, fresh from "Superstar" — feeling like the culmination of all that has gone before, it feels like just another lurch in the ever-wobbly human condition. No wonder Jesus felt the weight of the world.
The Stratford Festival of Canada runs in repertory in Stratford, Ontario through Oct. 30. For more details visit stratfordfestival.ca or call 800-567-1600.Copyright © 2015, RedEye