The Stratford Festival: Shakespeare and More

Theater-goers who venture to Stratford, Ontario for the Shakespeare might want to check out the “supporting” plays and musicals as well. While both “The Tempest” and “The Comedy of Errors” bear witness to Stratford’s commitment to the Bard, several other plays, written and set in the 20th Century, are also worthy.

“The Tempest,” Shakespeare’s last solo-written play, is enhanced by magical stage effects, and “Comedy of Errors,” Shakespeare’s first-written comedy, is as knockabout funny as it should be. Both are marked by creative casting.

Prospero (Martha Henry) blessing the union of her daughter Miranda (Mamie Zwettler) and Ferdinand (Sebastien Heins) [Photos courtesy of Stratford Festival]

In “The Tempest,” legendary Canadian actress Martha Henry is Prospero, a male role often lately transposed to female. The former “Duchess” of Milan was marooned with her young daughter Miranda after being cast adrift in a coup by Prospero’s own brother. Twelve years later, Prospero, possessed of magical powers, creates the title storm that in turn strands her brother and his party on their island. The ensuing byplay involves the seafarers coping with their predicament and with Prospero’s indigenous, lizard-like slave Caliban. (“What have we here? a man or a fish?” asks an incredulous sailor.)

Prospero (Ms. Henry) and Caliban (Michael Blake)

The casting of a regular-appearing young man as Prospero’s attendant Ariel, “invisible to every eyeball else,” while well-enough acted by André Morin, fails to evoke the other-worldly sprite who offers “to fly…to ride on the curl’d clouds” for his mistress. And while Prospero facilitates most of the action, the love scenes between Miranda and Ferdinand, “the first [man] that e’er I sighed for,” and the comical interaction between Caliban (a scaly Michael Blake) and the sailors that get him drunk, are the highlights. Ms. Henry’s Stratford debut was as Miranda in 1962, and while she now relishes Prospero’s poetic passages, her grip on the parent-character’s commanding presence is less than firm. This is not a “Tempest” for the ages, but paced nicely by Stratford’s artistic director Antoni Cimolino, it has its moments.

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The Stratford Festival’s love affair with the American musical, established in recent years by marvelous productions of “Guys and Dolls,” “Fiddler” and “A Chorus Line,” continues with this year’s extraordinary “The Music Man.” Those shows all share a common factor: director-choreographer Donna Feore. Until now, I had not thought of “The Music Man” as a choreographer’s musical, but Ms. Feore’s dance-infused staging is a revelation, which is not to diminish the authorship (music, lyrics and book) of Meredith Willson, nor of the principal and ensemble cast of this splendid production.

Professor Harold Hill (Daren A. Herbert) getting set for “76 Trombones”

Winner of the 1958 Tony Award (over “West Side Story”), “The Music Man” unfolds on July 4, 1912 in River City, Iowa, where itinerant “Professor” Harold Hill (Daren A. Herbert) cons the citizens into buying instruments and uniforms for their youngsters by promising to form a marching band using his “Think System.” Town librarian Marian (Danielle Wade) is onto his scheme from the start…and into his heart by the end. His “Ya Got Trouble” and “Seventy-six Trombones” are dynamic and her “Goodnight My Someone” and “My White Knight” were never more appealing.

Airborne in River City

Ms. Feore’s choreography cannot be over-praised. The opening, “Iowa Stubborn,” is folksy and athletic at once; “Marian the Librarian” is full-out aerobic; and “(She’s My) Shipoopi” is a veritable hoedown. The score of “The Music Man” is glorious, especially via music director Franklin Brasz’s brassy 19-piece orchestra. You’ll leave humming the tunes…with a special spring in your step. (Spoiler alert: the Think System works!)

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So well-acted and directed is “To Kill a Mockingbird” that even those familiar  with Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize novel and the  Oscar-winning movie are held in suspense. The rabid dog in the street; facing down the KKK at the jail; Tom Robinson’s verdict: how will they play out?

Atticus Finch (Jonathan Goad) in court

In a small Alabama town in the 1930s, white lawyer Atticus Finch defends a black man accused of assaulting a white woman. While the outcome is pre-determined by the racial makeup, the theme centers on the effect of the widowed lawyer’s actions on his children. Jonathan Goad is a peerless Atticus, and Clara Poppy Kushner and Jacob Skiba, barely teens (if even that), are remarkable as daughter “Scout” and son Jem. Narrated in part by the adult Scout (Irene Poole, wonderful) and fearlessly directed by Nigel Shawn Williams, Christopher Sergel’s 1991 play closely follows the book and movie, yet it is as crisp and engrossing as if you’d never even heard of it.

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“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is hardly uplifting, but what a chunk of Theatre! Eugene O’Neill’s barely-fictionalized autobiographical play clocks in at three and a half hours, but the journey into his family’s souls is worth taking, especially as acted here. O’Neill led a tortured life, wracked with guilt over his mother having become a morphine addict as a result of his difficult birth.

Completed in 1945 and released by his widow three years after his death in 1953 (contrary to his 25-year decree), O’Neill’s fourth Pulitzer-winner covers one day and night in 1912.  Miserly and hard-drinking James Tyrone rules his family with a tight fist. His wife Mary is going mad from her addiction and elder son Jamie is an alcoholic. Younger son Edmund (O’Neill’s alter ego) has been diagnosed with consumption, an affliction his parents minimize. (“…a summer cold,” his mother insists.)

Scott Wentworth and Seana McKenna as James and Mary Tyrone

Sensitively directed by Miles Potter in Stratford’s intimate Studio Theatre, civility and pretense are stripped away until the tormented family stands exposed. It is penetratingly acted by Scott Wentworth as father James, Gordon S. Miller (Jamie), Charlie Gallant (Edmund), Amy Keating as household maid Cathleen, and by Seana McKenna, whose superb performance as Mary Tyrone is devastating. Together, they dig down to reveal what makes the Tyrone/O’Neill family tick. Or fail to tick.

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Kinky, raunchy and bawdy pretty much describes “The Rocky Horror Show,” and while some theatergoers’ tolerance for boldness might be tested, Stratford’s extravagant revival of the 1973 musical is great good fun. For devotees of the ’75 cult movie, it is nirvana. Slipping from G-rated “Music Man” to this R-rated affair as smoothly as she might from heels to flats, director-choreographer Donna Feore pulls out all the stops.

“Rocky Horror” in all its slendor

Naïve newlyweds Brad and Janet become stranded in an old castle with a household of Transylvanian weirdos. Their host, Frank-n-Furter, a sexually charged transvestite, creates Rocky, a hunky boytoy in a silvery Speedo. A dozen infectious rock numbers follow, plus scads of risqué one-liners, and various couplings, portrayed with little regard for modesty. Sparked by a small-but-LOUD electronic band (plus a “Drum Kit” guy) and a cast that’s obviously having a ball, it is a veritable perpetual motion machine.

Just as at “Rocky Horror” screenings, audience members, many in black patent leather and fishnet stockings, call out responses to the characters and dance at their seats. To ease inhibitions, the theater’s lobby bar is open before, during and after the show. (Helped me get into it.)  People who have never seen the play or movie are said to be “Rocky Horror” virgins. If that’s you, and you get to Stratford, catch this whiz of a show. What are you saving it for?

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In a tribute to diversity, “The Comedy of Errors” covers every LGBTT gender classification. As if Shakespeare’s zany tale of double twin-sets in mistaken-identity situations were not confounding enough, two of those characters, written male, are played by women as women disguised as men. (Told you it was confusing.)

A penniless merchant is about to be sentenced to death when his woeful tale of his missing wife, their twin sons (both named Antipholus) and the sons’ twin servants (both named Dromio) moves the leather-clad Duke of Ephesus to grant him time to raise 1,000 ducats ransom.

The Dromios, just pulling your leg in “The Comedy of Errors”

The whole entourage turns up, and after it is established that no one can differentiate between the twins (because Shakespeare says they can’t), there follows a tangled web among the Antipholuses, the Dromios, a wife, one sister-in law, a kitchen wench, an Abbess, a jeweler,  one unlikely courtesan, and a squad of Keystone Kops. Amidst the mayhem, all those gender-identifications emerge.

One wonders what Shakespeare would make of it. After all, his women were played by men. “Doth it worketh?” he might query. “Yea verily, Will. Thy ‘Comedy’ lacketh not for laughs.”

 Stratford’s season, which runs through October, also includes Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” and “Julius Caesar,” Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband,” new works based on “Paradise Lost” and the Bronte sisters, and the comedy “Napoli Milionaria!” Schedule, pricing, directions and general information: 800-567-1600 or at www.stratfordfestival.ca (Note: The $$ exchange rate greatly favors the U.S., making Ontario a travel bargain.)

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“Half Time” hip-hop at Paper Mill Playhouse: Never Fresher

You’ll know how “Half Time” ends about five minutes in. So what; getting there is the fun part. And “Half Time” is fun. Its premise is simple enough (even to a fault, but anyway): a fictional New Jersey NBA team, the Cougars, is auditioning for a senior-citizen cheerleading squad. The catch, besides the minimum-age-60 requirement, is that their cheerleader routines will be performed to hip-hop rap accompaniment, movements and all.

Sounds far-fetched, right? But hold on; the musical, at Paper Mill Playhouse through July 1, was inspired by Dori Berinstein’s documentary “Gotta Dance,” about auditions in 2006 for the New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets first-ever senior NBA hip-hop squad. Twelve women and one man actually became The NETSationals. If that baker’s dozen had included the equals of Georgia Engel, Lilias White, Donna McKechnie and André De Shields, the Nets might have been gone to the NBA Finals.

The “Half Time” Hip-Hop Cheerleaders

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A Grand Ol’ (Checkhovian) Opry in New Jersey: “Songbird”

Country music has never appealed to me. I might leave it on a rental car pre-set, but would never seek it out. If, however, it was all as flavorful as Lauren Pritchard’s music and lyrics for “Songbird,” I could become a fan. Her score is original in more ways than one. Titles like “Black Widow Woman,” “Whiskey Lullabies,” “Highway Fantasy” and a dozen more attest to its honky-tonk bona fides, but that DNA is enhanced by undertones of both rock and jazz.  Coupled with Michael Kimmel’s affecting book (and a nudge from a Century-plus-ago playwright), “Songbird” is a rare blend of foot-stomping rhythms and heart-tugging emotions, that Two River Theater Company is serving up with style.

“Songbird” is based, subtly and effectively, on Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” an 1896 play you need not have seen or read (or even heard of) in order to appreciate this multi-faceted  hoedown derivative.

Felicia Finley, center, and the cast of “Songbird” [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

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Welcome Aboard “A View from the Bridge” in Brooklyn Harbor

Playwright Arthur Miller maintained a lasting interest in his own plays, frequently popping in to productions unannounced. (I once spotted him at a performance of “Death of a Salesman” in New Jersey.)

Miller’s 1955 “A View from the Bridge” was inspired by a tale told to him by a Brooklyn water-front worker who had known the protagonist’s real-life prototype. The play was poorly received originally, but “while watching a performance,” Miller later wrote, “I saw my own involvement…suddenly the play seemed to be mine and not merely a story I had heard,” and he set about revising it. The result was – and remains – a stirring portrayal of a man’s psychological dilemma and the effect it has on his close and extended families. The fine Brave New World Repertory Theatre production is faithful to the playwright’s image and intent.

Catherine (Maggie Horan), left, Eddie (Rich O’Brien) and Beatrice (Claire Beckman) [Photos: Doug Barron]

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Theatrical Alchemy: A Henry James Novella into an Off-Broadway Dance Play

Henry James’s 1903 novella “The Beast in the Jungle” is a melancholy treatise on unrealized romance and thwarted passion that unfolds in James’s characteristically elaborate prose. The same-titled theater piece inspired by the story is essentially a ballet, with intermittent narration and some spare-dialogue passages. Portrayed in flashback, it fleshes out some scenes and locations that are only alluded to in the book and adds developments and even characters that aren’t in there at all. There is also an overlay of sensuality that James scrupulously avoided.

Notwithstanding the story alterations, the overall mood is comparable. A cheery mood it is not, but as devised and staged at the Vineyard Theatre, the Dance Play is an immersive 100 minutes. With an original score by John Kander  (“Chicago” and “Cabaret” with late lyricist Fred Ebb), a book by David Thompson (“Scottsboro Boys,” Steel Pier”) and direction and choreography by five-time Tony Award-winner Susan Stroman (“The Producers” et al), it could hardly be any less. Featuring world-renowned prima ballerina Irina Dvorovenko, superstar Broadway dancer Tony Yazbeck and an outstanding six-woman corps de ballet, this “Beast” should sooth – or at least divert – the staunchest James defender.

Tony Yazbeck with the “Beast in the Jungle” Corps de Ballet [Photos: Carol Rosegg]

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Moliere’s Comic Romp (with an edge): “Tartuffe” at Shakespeare of NJ

Last weekend I saw a play about a man who lies about pretty much everything. Despite claiming to be a stand-up guy – ardently religious even – he’d con you out of your socks given half a chance, and hit on your wife, groping her inappropriately (there’s another kind?) when your back is turned.

Sounds like a recently-written play about some politician or other high-profile hypocrite, right? Nope; it is the 350-year old “Tartuffe,” by French playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, aka Molière, and despite its unsavory title character, it is damn funny. Especially as being performed at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.

Sarah Nicole Deaver, left, Vicroria Mack and Mark Hawkins in “Tartuffe” [Photos: Jerry Dalia]

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