Canadian Theatre Festivals – August 2010

Glorious autumn weather is not the only reason to visit Ontario in September and October. Stratford’s art shows and culinary events continue (the “Slow Food Market” sounds intriguing), while Niagara-on-the-Lake’s wineries are even tastier when the air is crisp. And both those towns’ renowned Theatre Festivals run through October.

Fall at the Stratford Shakespeare and the (George Bernard) Shaw Festivals include shows that opened in July and August as well as holdovers from April and May. On a recent visit to both venues, my second of 2010, there was much to admire.

At Stratford, “As You Like It” and an adaptation of the 1780s novel “Dangerous Liaisons” are exceptional, while at the Shaw, that playwright’s “The Doctor’s Dilemma” is outstanding. And if you think “Harvey,” Mary Chase’s 66-year old comedy about an invisible rabbit, is stale, you’re gnawing on the wrong carrot.

Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” is a journey from darkness into light, never more so than at Stratford. Set in the 1920s, an evil Duke, who has overthrown a righteous Duke, his own brother, is guarded by storm troopers. Considering his nasty henchmen, evil Duke’s subsequent banishment of righteous Duke’s daughter Rosalind is no surprise.

Rosalind, traveling as a male youth (for safety) and accompanied by her cousin Celia and the court jester Touchstone, heads for the Forest of Arden, where righteous Duke-dad is encamped.

The figurative dawn breaks in Arden and a delicious romantic comedy lights the way to a bright and happy ending, complete with dance and song and everyone appropriately coupled up.

The acting is first-rate throughout. As the enigmatic philosophizing Jacques, Brent Carver finds many layers in the Seven Ages speech (“All the world’s a stage…”), and Touchstone proves to be a wise fool indeed as played by Ben Carlson.

The big news here, though, is Andrea Runge. The role of Rosalind is in a virtual tie with Cleopatra for the largest female role in all of Shakespeare. Whether dressed primly in a young-girl outfit or neatly tucked into a dapper man’s vested suit, stylishly turned out in a silken white wedding dress or even, in one scene, wrapped in a towel, Runge is as luminous a Rosalind as you’ll ever see. A scant two years out of Stratford’s Conservatory for Classical Theatre, she makes the role her own.

Guided by Stratford’s Artistic Director Des McAnuff, the joys of this “As You Like It” spill out into the audience. It’s a total delight.

“Two Gentlemen of Verona,” Shakespeare’s first play, is short on subtlety, and its comedy is in-your-face, characteristics it shares with 1920s vaudeville and film comedies. So plopping “Two Gents” onto the Orpheum Circuit stage and into a Mack Sennett movie is a natural.

In the play, one young man dumps his long time squeeze when he gets eyes for his buddy’s new flame. Here, the gals are actresses and the guys are stage door Johnnies. Enhancements to Shakespeare (?) include a farcically-acted scene from “Othello,” a girly duet on “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and a Keystone Kops chase. Amusing to a certain extent, but barely.

Two other Stratford offerings are polar opposites. “Peter Pan,” reviewed last month, is perfect pre-teen entertainment, while “Dangerous Liaisons” is most definitely R-rated.

In Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the scandalous 19th Century novel, sex is more than a game to a pair of pre-revolutionary French aristocrats. It’s a sport, a challenge, and sometimes a weapon.

The two, former lovers themselves, plot the seduction of two women: a virginal young girl who becomes a more-than-willing participant and a respectable married woman who succumbs to oily charms and false protestations of love. On a set that, while spare, suggests opulence, costumed gorgeously and acted in a style both formal and accessible, “Liaisons” is a tale of revenge and debauchery with devastating consequences.

A Canadian University Professor described the play as “infused with dramatic irony and savage humour.” This production wrings every drop of both qualities from it. Plus – prudes take note – it’s damn sexy.

“As You Like It,” “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Peter Pan” run through Oct. 31; “Two Gents” closes Sept. 19. Previously reviewed musicals “Kiss Me, Kate” and “Evita” run through Nov. 6 and “The Tempest” (Christopher Plummer) closes Sept. 12. For complete schedule brochure: 800-567-1600 or at

At The Shaw: “The Doctor’s Dilemma” opens with four physicians – a wise retiree and three out-and-out quacks – celebrating the knighthood of their doctor-colleague Sir Colenso Ridgeon, who soon faces a quandary: whether to treat a promising young artist or an older physician-friend, both suffering from tuberculosis. For the purposes of Shaw’s 1906 play, there’s only enough medication for one.

The ailing artist has unlimited potential, a rotten personality – and an alluring wife. The other patient is a self-effacing gentleman of low potential, but high character.

What fascinates in “Dilemma,” besides Shaw’s masterful blending of smart word-wit with medical theory (now obsolete, of course), is how the balance shifts. The unmarried Dr. Ridgeon (another Patrick Galligan triumph) is influenced back and forth by art appreciation, alluring-wife appreciation, disgust at the artist’s personal behavior and loyalty to a valued friend.

The eventual choice and its aftermath, unrevealed here, is not the expected tidy resolution. The engrossing and highly amusing play is superbly acted and neatly directed by Morris Panych, himself a prolific playwright.

Shaw was a proponent of nationalized health care, which England adopted a few years before his death at age 94 in 1950. Canada followed suit in stages over the 1960s. In the United States, as we know all to well, the debate continues.

The Shaw-authored “John Bull’s Other Island” is less rewarding. It’s a repetitious discourse on one of his favorite topics: English v. Irish values and temperament.

The three-act play is about a pair of English land developers whose design for a remote Irish countryside will forever alter its charm. Usually incisive and witty, here Shaw rambles. Uncharacteristically, even the jokes are lame. On whether or not to carry a firearm: “Might be just as well…we’re going to Ireland.”

The presence of a princess and a magical tower might lead you to assume a good-guys-win ending. Uh-uh. Apparently, mortgages in excess of value, leading to forced sale or foreclosure, existed a Century ago. Yes, there’s relevance to today, but “John Bull” is a long, slow trek, and at its conclusion, the black hats win. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

As they did last season with “Born Yesterday,” the Shaw has given an old play a refreshing new production. “Harvey,” Mary Chase’s 1940s comedy, emerges with its rabbit ears held high.

Elwood P. Dowd’s best friend and constant companion is a six-foot tall imaginary rabbit. Harvey is visible to Elwood, but not to his sister, to his niece or to several mental-health professionals.

The plot revolves around efforts to institutionalize Elwood, who might be the sanest one of the bunch – certainly the most charming. Social embarrassment, psychological misdiagnosis and farcical mayhem ensue. In the hands of the comically skilled cast, directed by Joseph Ziegler, every laugh-line hits its mark.

The key to Elwood is simplicity, and no actor has ever achieved more by doing less than Peter Kranz does here. Unwaveringly calm and collected, Kranz creates a reality that transcends the senses. If you don’t see Harvey by play’s end, it’s your problem, not his.

“Mother said in life you have to be smart or pleasant,” says Elwood. “I was smart for 40 years. I recommend pleasant.” Well, I recommend “Harvey”. This overgrown bunny emits a positive glow that you carry inside when you leave the theater. With any luck, some of it sticks.

Harvey” runs through Nov. 14; “The Doctors Dilemma” and the previously reviewed and recommended “Ideal Husband” to Oct 31. The comedy “The Women,” the musical “One Touch of Venus” and “John Bull” close Oct. 9. For complete schedule brochure: 800-511-SHAW or at


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