Variety on Canadian Festival stages: a Preview

[This article was written for Digital First Media’s Michigan newspapers, where it ran on Sunday May 13, with reviews to follow during the summer.]

Ontario’s Stratford and Shaw Festivals are celebrated as much for their diverse programs of classic and modern plays and musicals as for their productions of William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. Separate and distinct from one another, the companies nonetheless have much in common. Both surround their namesakes with a wide variety of other works, performed in repertory over a six-month season. The rep system affords theater-goers the opportunity to see several productions over a weekend or even two in a one-day short-hop. That format also lures the finest North American actors, who relish the challenge of appearing in, say, “Julius Caesar” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” on the same day. (To wit: Jonathan Goad will appear as Brutus at 2pm and as Atticus Finch at 8pm at Stratford on Wednesday August 8.)

Four Shakespeare plays anchor the 2018 Stratford Festival season, with “The Tempest” and “The Comedy of Errors” already open, and “Coriolanus” and “Julius Caesar” joining them in June and July, respectively. Building on their record of creative casting, “The Tempest” will star renowned Canadian actress Martha Henry as Prospero (Prospera), and Seana McKenna is playing the title role of Julius Caesar. (No stranger to ill-fated rulers, Ms. McKenna was an electrifying Richard III in 2011.)  “The Comedy of Errors” goes a step (or two) further, with the two sets of twins in Shakespeare’s zaniest comedy being one-each male and female as well as one-each Caucasian and Black. (Well, why not?) The war-torn “Coriolanus” sticks with Shakespeare’s gender-roles, while bringing its malicious politics into modern relevance.

Julius Caesar (Seana McKenna) and Brutus (Jonathan Goad) [Photo: Clay Stang]

(*Trivia: Only two of Shakespeare’s plays unfold over just one day in just one locale. Answer below.)

Stratford’s annual musicals rival Broadway in talent and production values. Expect no less from “The Music Man,” which runs to November 3. . Appealing to a younger demographic, “The Rocky Horror Show” is also in the rotation, including some late-night performances to accommodate diehard fans.

Professor Harold Hill (Daren A. Herbert) leading the River City Boys (and Girls) Band.

Serious drama is represented by Eugene O’Neill’s searing “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and the dramatization of Harper Lee’s iconic “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Oscar Wilde’s comedy-drama “An Ideal Husband,” about a truly honest politician (it is fiction, after all) is also on the bill, as is a new play about the Bronté sisters. An English translation of a warm-hearted Italian play, “Napoli Milionaria,” about World War II survivors, and a timely drama based on Milton’s “Paradise Lost” round out the season. Under Antoni Cimolino’s overall artistic direction, there is indeed ‘Something for Everyone’ at Stratford.

________________________________________________________

Variety also reigns at The Shaw Festival, nestled in Niagara-on-the-Lake, in Ontario’s wine region. Their namesake is represented by a Comedy Double-Bill and a traditional Lunchtime One-Act. Two of Shaw’s short plays about marriage, “How He Lied to Her Husband” and “The Man of Destiny,” are presented under the title “Of Marriage and Men” one of Shaw’s favorite – and wittiest – topics.

A Shaw one-act comedy, “O’Flaherty V. C.,” about an unusual war-recruitment effort, will play on select days at 11:30am. Its point, that a big war is not necessarily a great one, carries over into “Oh What a Lovely War,” one of the season’s two musicals. The other, “Grand Hotel,” weaves the stories of the staff and guests of the Grand Hotel into a sweeping choreographic vision. Adapted from a play that itself had a successful Broadway run, the musical ran over two years on Broadway. Already open at Shaw, it runs to mid-October.

For murder-mystery fans, Sherlock Holmes is on the case in “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” while “The Baroness and the Pig” marks the Shaw Festival debut of Canadian playwright Michael Mackenzie. (While “Baroness…” might seem like a children’s title, the play carries a Mature Content alert. Hmmm…) Also on an adult topic, Sarah Ruhl’s backstage romantic comedy “Stage Kiss” is about two bitter exes cast in a play as lovers. Juvenile audiences are encouraged to attend “The Magician’s Nephew,” a magical plunge into Narnia.

Members of the cast of “The Magician’s Nephew.” [Photo: David Cooper]

Tim Carroll’s second season as artistic director also includes “The Orchard (After Chekhov),” transposing the Russian playwright’s theme to a British Columbia setting; “Mythos,” three one-actor plays derived from Greek mythology; and, in a first for the Shaw, Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” (Stratford staged Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra” a few years ago.) And for those who plan way ahead, “A Christmas Carol” is on the horizon. The Charles Dickens classic will run November 14 – December 23.  “We don’t stop playing because we grow old,” said Shaw (who died in 1950 at 94), “we grow old because we stop playing.”

Both Festivals run mid-April to late October and both offer comprehensive brochure booklets with performance schedules, maps, transportation and lodging info and more.  Request Stratford’s by phone: 800-567-1600 or online at www.stratfordfestival.ca   For The Shaw booklet: 800-511-7429 or at www.shawfest.com 

(*Trivia answer: “The Tempest” and “A Comedy of Errors,” both on Stratford’s 2018 schedule.)

Blog, Canadian Theatre

Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke” revived off-Broadway

Tennessee Williams’ women tend not to fare very well. Blanche Dubois is led away by kind strangers, and Amanda and Laura Wingfield are stuck with each other after being twice abandoned. “Summer and Smoke”’s Alma Winemiller might be the most tragic of all, because she is aware of her downfall even as it proceeds. One could say she is even complicit. Not wantonly or defiantly, but still…she’s more aware of her choices than those others.

Blanche’s spirit does haunt Alma. “Streetcar” was written in 1947 and set contemporaneously in New Orleans; “Summer and Smoke,” was written a year later and unfolds between 1900 and 1916 in (fictional) Glorious Hill, Mississippi. In a way, Alma is sequel and prequel in one.

Marin Ireland and Nathan Darrow [Photos: Carol Rosegg]

Continue reading

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Five Irish sisters and a Chinese family on New Jersey stages

Playwright Bran Friel has been called “the Irish Chekhov.” (Friel died in 2015 at 86.)  Like the plays of that century-earlier Russian author, Friel’s are character-driven rather than story-driven, with an emphasis on family relationships. Friel’s best-known, “Dancing at Lughnasa,” is no exception. Centering as it does on five Irish sisters, the 1992 Tony and Olivier Award-winning play recalls Chekhov in more than just the number of sisters. “Lughnasa” is lighter than Chekhovian in tone, but no less sparing of realities that challenge and in some cases overwhelm the characters.

“Dancing at Lughnasa” bares the souls of the five unmarried Mundy sisters in County Donegal in the summer of 1936, filtered through the memory of Michael (Harry Smith) the grown “love child” of one of the sisters. Michael’s narration weaves through the play, introducing some segments, clarifying others and revealing heart-rending developments in a disconcertingly casual manner that nonetheless adds emotional heft.

Playing the Mundy sisters of Donegal (from left): Mandy Siegfried, Mylinda Hull, Megan Byrne, Meredith Garretson, Christa Scott-Reed

Kate (Megan Byrne), the eldest and default matriarch, teaches school; unsettled Agnes (Christa Scott-Reed) and the sweet, childlike youngest, Rose (Mandy Siegfried), hand-knit gloves for sale in the town. Together with deeply yearning Maggie (Mylinda Hull) and Michael’s unsettled mother Chris (Meredith Garretson), they care for their brother Jack (Michael Cumpsty), a Jesuit returned from a twenty-five year ministry in a Ugandan leper colony. There’s also Michael at age seven, unseen even as addressed by the others, and voiced by Smith from off to the side. (The Friel-mandated device works perfectly.)

Michael Cumpsty and Christa Scott-Reed [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

The Two River cast, which also includes Cillian O’Sullivan as Chris’s itinerant paramour and Michael’s father, functions as a unit. On designer Tobin Ost’s finely detailed set and aided by Jason Lyons’ mood-enhancing lighting, Jessica Stone’s sensitive direction shifts and isolates emphasis among the sisters in sync with the playwright.

Cillian O’Sullivan and Meredith Garretson

While we see enacted much of what Michael is remembering, it is almost as if it were our own memories playing out. The actual events, the particular sisters, are not our recollections, but Friel’s play affirms that some memories “owe nothing to fact” and that often, “atmosphere is more real than incident, and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory.”

“Dancing at Lughnasa” is an atmospheric play that blends reality and illusion. Two River’s exceptional production will linger in memory.

         Through May 13 at Two River Theater, Red Bank NJ. Performances Wed at 1pm and 7pm; Thurs and Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 3pm. Tickets ($40-$70): 732-345-1400 or at www.tworivertheater.org


If good intentions were all, “Issei, He Say (or the Myth of the First)” would win a Pulitzer Prize. Chloé Hung’s play (her second written), world-premiering at New Jersey Repertory Company, is a discourse on an admittedly sore topic, but one deserving of more nuanced treatment than the play offers.

That topic is the internment of Japanese people during World War II, despite their long-established residence and even citizenship in – wait for it – Canada. (Long aware of that odious history in the United States, I had not known of it north of the border.)

The play’s POV is that of thirteen-year-old Lucy Chu (Christina Liang), whose family (Kathleen Kwan and Fenton Li play her parents) had emigrated from China to a Toronto suburb – not, the point is made, to that city’s Chinatown. Their Japanese next-door neighbor, Mr. Yamamoto (Stan Egi) had been interned during the war. (The time-set seems earlier than its designated 1969.)

          Christina Liang (in window), Stan Igi (foreground), Kathleen Kwan and Fenton Li [Photo: SuzAnne Barabas]

         The first act establishes schoolgirl Lucy’s assimilation, her mother’s attempts at same and her father’s hostility toward the congenial neighbor. But for dad’s intransigence, it is, in fact, a rather endearing forty minutes, with Lucy and mom getting on very well with Mr. Y in their shared front yard (rendered perfectly by designer Jessica Parks).

Alas, the second act (also forty minutes) devolves into a formula sermon: establish the problem (well-founded resentment); take a side; state your case (twice maybe); and seque to a sentimental wrap-up.

No one would suggest that separating families and shoving people into virtual prisons based on their ethnicity is anything but barbaric. Well- acted by all four and directed smoothly by Lisa James (references more to first-act than second) “Issei, He Say” makes that point – loud, clear and in ABC fashion.

Through May 20 at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Performances Thurs and Fri at 8pm; Sat at 3 and 8; Sun at 2pm. Tickets ($46): 732-229-3166 or at www.njrep.org

Blog

NJ Community group has a successful go at “Much Ado About Nothing”

When I commented to Holmdel Theatre Company’s  “Much Ado About Nothing” producer that I did not recognize any cast names (except hers) from prior community productions, she explained that many of the ‘usual suspects’ shun Shakespeare auditions. Rehearsal periods are usually longer by a week or more, as well as by hours, and memorization can be a tough go for people with families and day-jobs. It’s not that they’re scared of the material, just leery of the commitment.

Conversely, some candidates show up because it is Shakespeare.  While mostly New Jersey based, a majority of the cast (of 17) are Holmdel first-timers. Others are area high school students, a talent source that the Company accesses regularly (to their credit). “Much Ado About Nothing” is not the easiest Shakespearean comedy to bring off successfully. It’s not fanciful like “Midsummer Night’s Dream” or joked-up like “A Comedy of Errors.”  Unlike those, “Much Ado” doesn’t wear its comedy on its sleeve. It has an unrepentant villain and serious obstacles to its happy ending.

The cast of Holmdel Theatre Company’s “Much Ado About Nothing”

Continue reading

Blog

Don’t get shut out at the gate: put your money on “The Sting”

What do you look for in a musical? Songs and singers that make you glad you have ears? Multi-style choreography and dancers adept at every one of them? How ‘bout a plot that freezes your attention through every scene.  And finally, a charismatic leading man heading up a cast that seems to be enjoying their work as much as you are enjoying them at it.  ‘If only,’ you say? Well “The Sting” is that musical. (And Harry Connick, Jr. is that star.)

The adaptation of the 1973 Oscar-winning movie is World Premiering at Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, New Jersey through April 29, and anyone that doubts it is headed for Broadway is reminded that ”Newsies,” “The Bronx Tale” and “Bandstand,” among others, began at Paper Mill. In gambling lingo, “The Sting” is a lock to make that leap.

And gambling lingo is more than appropriate. For those who have not seen “The Sting,” in a cinema or on TCM, it is set in 1936 Chicago, where two con men are putting a “sting” on NYC high-roller Doyle Lonnegan after he has one of their pals killed. The flick was – and remains – notable for the performances of Paul Newman and Robert Redford and for the use of Scott Joplin’s ragtime music in setting the scenes. There is, in fact, an overall musical sensibility to the movie. What took so long?

Harry Connick, Jr., center, in the faux betting parlor where The Sting unfolds.

Continue reading

Blog

Some other Damon Runyon guys and dolls in “Three Wise Guys”

I am sitting in Jersey Mike’s eating a mini number seven sub when I hear that Stephanie “Stormy” Clifford is suing Donald “Grab ‘Em” Trump.

That sentence is in the present tense, but you can tell it was in the past, right? Context makes it clear, but it is deceptive; writing in the “historical present” does not come easy. Every sentence is a challenge. No writer ever mastered that voice better than did Damon Runyon, to great effect and with absolute clarity. The form takes on a sort of formality, with virtually all dialogue in complete sentences and a near-total absence of contractions (nary a don’t for do not). The argot is known, in fact, as Runyonesque.

Born in 1884, Runyon was a transplanted Kansan who became a sportswriter (for the New York American) after serving in the Spanish-American war, and then a First World War correspondent and columnist for Hearst. He also wrote poetry and in assorted prose forms before zeroing in on the short story. He died in 1946.

Continue reading

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway