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Stratford Festival: Where serious theatergoers have their fun

Chris Jones

August 2, 2013

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STRATFORD, Ontario — William Shakespeare, patron saint of the venerable Stratford Festival of Canada, is an unimpeachable source on most matters: love, leadership, the meaning of life. But when it came to the House of Tudor, his personal ethics policy took a dive. The Bard knew who was buttering his toast and thus, despite his fascination with matters historical, he was careful never to embarrass the dynasty with an unflattering dramatic reference. He did not even write directly about Elizabeth I until after the famous monarch was dead — and even then, in "Henry VIII," he gushed.

Being a German born a couple of hundred years later, Friedrich Schiller had no compunction about writing about Elizabeth's dithering, calculations and manipulations of Mary Queen of Scots, whom she eventually had killed in 1587. Perhaps that explains "Mary Stuart," directed by new festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino and starring the phenomenal Canadian actresses Lucy Peacock and Seana McKenna — it's the much-extended, tough-ticket hit of this year's festival. Stratford, where fans of classic drama come in large numbers to worship at its leading, four-stage, North American shrine, is, of course, one of the very few towns in the world where audiences would ever stand in line to see Schiller. But this production has multifarious pleasures, including Ben Carlson as the kind of Lord Burleigh who chews antacids every night and a spectacularly rich turn from Brian Dennehy, no less, as the been-there-done-that Earl of Shrewsbury.

At one point, McKenna's fabulously ambivalent Elizabeth, half a great queen, half a nasty politician, turns to the fearless Shrewsbury and says, in essence, "I now trust only you."

Dennehy, who is poured into his Elizabethan duds like a boxer in a miniskirt, needs just one turn of his big head on his thick neck to telegraph his view of the credibility of that particular remark.

The show, which feels like a more confident, fluid and generally adroit piece of direction from the newly ascended Cimolino than we've seen in past seasons, is full of such juicy moments. There are a few staging gimmicks (including the need to do part of one scene twice to create a flashy Act 1 close), which Cimolino will hopefully find he needs less and less in the future. But "Mary Stuart" is striking for the clarity of its storytelling (the unfussy adaptation by Peter Oswald is a big help), the constant intensity of its dramatic stakes and, especially, for the evenhanded excellence of the two Canadian divas (that seems a contradiction in terms, I know, but trust me) in the leading roles.

A third member of Canada's informal hall of fame of great living actresses, Martha Henry, is also treading the Stratford boards this summer, but she, alas, finds herself stuck in a slick, trite new Canadian play by John Murrell, "Taking Shakespeare," which feels like one of those contrived dramas written expressly to fill a slot in a Shakespeare festival. It's all about a troubled student and an aging professor at odds with the university administration. (It recalls "Educating Rita," and pretty much every play you ever saw about youngster students and oldster teachers first clashing and then eventually learning something useful from each other.) In director Diana Leblanc's milquetoast production, you don't believe this particular setup for a moment, whereas, by contrast, the clash of opposite personalities feels as fresh as could be in "Mary Stuart."

Schiller's underproduced and strikingly relevant play is a meditation on leadership, political rivalry and power grabbing — especially as those matters pertain to women leaders. And in this production, you feel like the life-and-death match here could easily go either way, just as you should.

Being all about tradition, Tevye and so on, "Fiddler on the Roof" is rarely a show that puts its focus on strong women. I initially resisted Donna Feore's production, which features a young woman in the title role (the rooftop violinist, not the milkman), which is a bizarre start for a show that's all about the strictures of religiosity and how they must bend (but not break) when they interact with a loving family. The issue is especially acute, as Feore initially seems not to want to deal with the implications of her more radical notions. In those early scenes, Scott Wentworth also seems to go for some easy laughs, one of Tevye's great traps. The Yente is shticky too, and I can't abide a shticky Yente.

But with its spectacular dances and a certain unstuffy informality — Canadians feel freer than Americans when it comes to this particular musical, which is no bad thing — Feore's "Fiddler" grows on you. There is a perfect Motel in Andre Morin (and I've seen many a Motel) and a trio of yearning, beautiful performances of Tevye's daughters (played by Jennifer Stewart, Jacquelyn French and Keely Hutton) that seem to imply Feore is exploring the notion of the women of Anatevka more than most. "Fiddler" is perhaps the greatest musical ever written, which you only understand when you are on about your fifth "Fiddler" of the year. No production is perfect, but this one has more than its share of out-of-the-ordinary moments, including Wentworth stepping up to the plate when he joins Kate Hennig's exquisite Golde to ask that age-old but ever-valid question, "Do You Love Me?" I had tears in my eyes. For sure, this is a year of women in Stratford.

If "Mary Stuart" is a battle of two pushy old celebrities, "Tommy" is about the rise of a pinball wizard to the dizzying heights of replay magnet and religious idol.

For the 2013 festival, former Stratford artistic director Des McAnuff has re-conceived his 20-year-old (!) original Broadway production for a technological age that even Pete Townshend could never have imagined. Stratford is quite abuzz with the size of the LED screen, the number of dimmers in play and other such bragging rights from the one artistic director in the history of Stratford who's at his best staging rock musicals.

Some local critics apparently found all the new technology excessive; it all worked just fine for me because it juiced up the storytelling and theatricality. McAnuff and his set designer, John Arnone, were able to preserve the retro patina. But the production, which likely will head back to Broadway given the investment from commercial producers, has other serious issues it needs to fix, beginning with the lead actor. Robert Markus is a young fellow with a bright future and a tough challenge — turning a deaf, dumb and blind kid into a charismatic rock star isn't easy. But neither Markus nor Kira Guloien, who plays Mrs. Walker, have the experience or gravitas to top this show, leaving the remarkable Paul Nolan, whose Cousin Kevin is masterfully creepy, to fill that void, along with Steve Ross, whose wicked Uncle Ernie is at once nervously tortured and relentlessly destructive. Much the same could be said of the superb Jeremy Kushnier, who plays Captain Walker with high notes of musical anxiety.

McAnuff, who is working here with his original choreographer, Wayne Cilento, knows (as he knew in 1993) how to translate one of the first concept albums to the stage; much of this newer staging (although elements are repeated) is thrilling indeed and Townshend's music is cranked up and unfettered. But although it's partly an actor issue, the show hits trouble as soon as Tommy's mom gets mad, which feels arbitrary, continues as Tommy breaks the mirror, which feels unmotivated, and stays in the weeds as Tommy ascends to glory.

Overall, his persona feels very Justin Bieber-esque, which is a legitimate notion in the town of that immature star's birth. But Tommy is supposed to inspire worshippers, and if the show is to have stakes, it needs his rise to be meteoric in an otherworldly sense that goes beyond being a young rock star of the moment. I think McAnuff could fix all that. In many ways, it's a pleasure to experience "Tommy" again.

If you are looking for sheer, unadulterated pleasure at Stratford this year, "Blithe Spirit" is your show. Brian Bedford, who directed the production (he was also going to appear, but ill health intruded), knew Noel Coward personally, and few of his generation now remain to direct Coward's comedies with such a wickedly accurate eye — and such a cleareyed understanding that English comedy of this era was all about sexual panic. Carlson, the leading man of Stratford and, lucky for us, a frequent visitor to Chicago, finds himself in the middle of the erotically charged forces of Michelle Giroux and Sara Topham, both of whom have a great deal of fun with Coward's none-too-subtle implications of the possibilities of the menage à trois, with McKenna again overachieving as the wacky medium who somehow gives a lucky, or perhaps not, man both of his complicated wives at once.

Few are as confused, of course, as those tramps Vladimir and Estragon, the heroes of "Waiting for Godot," here played, respectively, by Tom Rooney and Stephen Ouimette in a new production directed by Jennifer Tarver. Dennehy flails his remarkably willing body all over the stage as Pozzo; Randy Hughson essays Lucky.

Samuel Beckett's absurdist masterpiece is no easy play, and Tarver's production, although smart and creative, struggles with maintaining the stakes surrounding He Who Does Not Come. I wrote down in my notes at one point "how badly do they need to see him?" — which I think sums up my main issues with this production, classy as it feels.

The pleasures of the play, of course, come from enjoying what V and E do to pass the time and so it goes here (Rooney and Ouimette are both a great deal of fun and demonstrably in denial), but I say you really have to see and feel the white of the tramps' eyes in this particularly difficult drama, and this Stratford 2013 portrait of waiting for Godot, for death, for meaning, maybe for a plane at O'Hare, only burrows so deep.

Actually, you see more pain in the eyes of Peacock's Mary Stuart, a monarch who only partly convinces herself that you can win by being put to death. Such are the things the gentle theatergoers in Stratford think about, when they're not eating all that really good stuff from those neighboring Ontario farms.

cjones5@tribune.com

The shows in brief

For a full schedule of dates and shows for the 2013 Stratford Festival, visit stratfordfestival.ca or call 800-567-1600.

“Blithe Spirit”: A near-perfect rendition of this classic Noel Coward comedy, replete with lush costumes, delicious comic performances and retro theatricality.

“Fiddler on the Roof”: Director Donna Feore's production breaks a few of the usual “Fiddler” rules, but the young performers in its cast soar and you sense a heightened interest in the women of Anatevka. (Through Oct. 20)

“Mary Stuart”: A juicy treat for fans of well-spoken historical drama, this is a rare chance to enjoy two of the finest living Canadian actresses (Lucy Peacock and Seana McKenna) in equally matched roles. And there's Brian Dennehy as a bonus. (Through Oct. 11)

“Taking Shakespeare”: Audiences are enjoying watching Martha Henry, another Stratford treasure, but this is a contrived and predictable drama from John Murrell that seems mostly designed to fit into a perceived market for small-cast plays vaguely to do with Shakespeare. (Through Sept. 22)

“Tommy”: Des McAnuff's revival of his own 1993 Broadway production is well sung and told and is spectacular throughout, but the show goes adrift in the second act when a charismatic idol fails to materialize. (Through Oct. 19)

“Waiting for Godot”: Director Jennifer Tarver's production is a tad cool to the touch and leaves some of the play's more emotional themes unexplored, but there is a typically exquisite performance to enjoy from Stephen Ouimette. (Through Sept. 26)

Other major productions later this season include “The Merchant of Venice” and “Othello.” “Measure for Measure” and “Romeo and Juliet” are also playing this summer.

Getting there

Stratford, Ontario, is about an eight-hour drive from Chicago, crossing the border at Sarnia, Ontario. There are nonstop flights from Chicago O'Hare to Toronto (Pearson International Airport is about 80-90 minutes away), Kitchener/Waterloo Regional and London, Ontario (the latter two are within a cab ride). New this year is a shuttle bus from Toronto to Stratford that connects easily with flights on Porter Airlines from Chicago Midway to Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport.

Staying there

Serviceable and affordable rooms can be found without hassle at the Arden Park Hotel (552 Ontario St.; 519-275-2936), and bigger, more convenient, above-the-tavern rooms can be rented at Bentley's (99 Ontario St.; 519-271-1121). Restaurants featuring local cuisine abound, such as the high-end Bijou Restaurant (105 Erie St., 519-273-5000). If you like to overhear backstage gossip, head to either Foster's (111 Downie St.; 519-271-1119) or Down the Street (30 Ontario St.; 519-273-5886) after your evening show.