Shakespeare and other Superstars at Stratford

One hundred-eight actors in a dozen plays over seven months: where else but at Ontario’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, the largest repertory theatre company in the world. Shakespeare is represented, of course (four plays), along with Moliere, born six years after the Bard’s death. Literary giant John Steinbeck and modern playwright Harold Pinter are familiar names, as are the musical-composing teams of Alan Jay Lerner/Frederick Loewe and Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice. I caught up with four quality productions this month.

What’s this? Shakespeare’s Richard III opened not with Richard’s “Now is the winter of our discontent…” soliloquy, but with a brief scene where King Edward IV, whom Richard is intent upon replacing, partying with courtiers. As they depart, laughing and joyful, Richard, in the person of Seana McKenna, enters and delivers the speech as richly and meaningfully as you’ll ever hear it.

In establishing context, that opening vignette might be helpful to R III virgins in attendance, although the play itself is clear sailing, and this production is especially audience-friendly. Ms. McKenna and a marvelous supporting cast, superbly helmed by director Miles Potter (McKenna’s husband), toss off the tale of the infamous villain as if it had been written last week.

Richard III is Shakespeare’s earliest-written great drama, following in time the three parts of Henry VI. The play belongs to Richard, who murders his way up the line of succession, including a King, his own brother and a Lord Chamberlain. (Richard’s infamy owes more to the play than to history; the cracking-good tale has come to define his image.)

If the casting of a woman as Richard is a gimmick, McKenna turns it into an inspired one. Richard has been described as Shakespeare’s most engagingly repellent character (Iago is hardly engaging), and the actor mines every nuance of both characteristics.

For an out-and-out villain, Richard’s a pretty funny guy. Like someone in a mock-violent cartoon, he gets a kick out of his own wickedness, sharing his murderous plans with the audience. But it’s not a cartoon, and about the time he adds his two pre-teen nephews, his most loyal supporter and his reluctant bride to his hit list, McKenna brings us up short and makes us feel a bit guilty that we – okay, I – had been more amused than appalled by him.

Ms. McKenna’s gender doesn’t exactly disappear into the role, but it becomes incidental to her powerful performance. She has no need to affect a baritone speaking voice or to assume masculine postures. Her own voice has a resonant timbre, and as for postures, Richard is “rudely stamped” and “deform’d.” With an immobile withered left arm, a hunched back and a pronounced limp, McKenna’s Richard is as physically corrupt as he is morally.

Besides the overall brilliance of the production, there are a dozen or more moments that reveal a creative marriage between actor and director. Richard making a finger puppet as he spies his shadow in the sun is one; him using his teeth to remove a ring from the finger of his one good hand is another. From “…the winter of our discontent” to “My Kingdom for a horse,” the pace never slackens, the drama never wanes, the performances – all of them – never falter.

Then there’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, a far cry from Richard III. For one thing, there’s nary a murder, unless you take “die laughing” literally. No one dies at the end or even loses a horse. Even the texts themselves contrast: R III is 98 percent in verse; Merry Wives is 90 percent prose.  (The Stratford folks are expert at both.)

Some similarities do exist. Both plays feature bigger-than-life protagonists. Richard dominates his play, and Falstaff is the largest figure, figuratively and literally, in Merry Wives. In a makeover of epic proportion, Geraint Wyn Davies transforms his fit, clean-shaven, agile self (see Camelot below) into the rotund, generously bearded, lumbering Falstaff. And there’s also a marriage of sorts. Here it’s between the playwright and director Frank Galanti, who injects circus-like hijinks into the proceedings without sacrificing a syllable of the verbal comedy.

Tradition has it that Queen Elizabeth, enamored of Falstaff from the Henry IV plays, asked Shakespeare for a play depicting the character in love. The playwright went Her Majesty one better, showing him in debt and wooing not one, but two potential patrons, married women of means who conspire to turn the tables on the would-be seducer. The result is a farcical delight.

Themes of snobbery and social-climbing thread through Merry Wives. One of the husbands is determined that his daughter “marry up” rather than to the penniless young man she loves (don’t worry, it is a comedy), and the quest for wealth influences much of the action. But it’s the comic figure of Falstaff, memorably played by Wyn Davies, that sticks in memory. The sight of the huge fellow escaping detection by stuffing himself in a laundry basket is the reverse of seeing clowns emerging from a VW Beetle. And twice as funny.

Jesus Christ Superstar is a musical about the last seven days of Christ. To say that the story, adapted loosely from the Book of Matthew, has staying power, is a bad joke; saying the same about the 40-year old rock ‘n roll score is meaningful praise.

In two compact acts, Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics) bring Christ from the meadows where he preached, through the temple where he purged, to the Last Supper where he offered the first communion and to the cross where he made the ultimate sacrifice. As staged by Artistic Director Des McAnuff, Stratford’s Superstar balances the through-sung story with the still-hip songs. Believe in the sanctity or not, the use of vernacular and flamboyancy while sidestepping blasphemy is an accomplishment.

Jesus is the title character, but then so is Othello, and, like Iago, Judas steals the show. (In fairness, I saw the Jesus understudy, who was well prepared and quite good.) And for Superstar veterans who, like me, have tired of watching Judas strike poses and shriek his lyrics as if fronting a hard-rock band, I have good news: It doesn’t hafta’ be that way.

Josh Young looks, acts and sings Judas very well indeed. His dark, brooding manner is just right for the disciple who acts out of conscience and is later conscience-stricken. The show portrays Mary Magdelene’s emotional attachment to Jesus without crossing lines of propriety. She expresses her feelings in the show’s breakout hit “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” sung movingly here by Chilina Kennedy.

One needn’t be devout – or even a believer – to enjoy this satisfying Superstar. The all-round excellent cast includes Brent Carver as the unyielding Pontius Pilate; Bruce Dow as an outrageously campy Herod; and Marcus Nance, whose bass tones send bodily vibrations into the auditorium. The Lloyd Webber/Rice songs “What’s the Buzz,” “Hosanna,” “Superstar” and that hit ballad are their own religious experience.

The musical Camelot has come to be associated with the JFK Presidency. When the show opened on Broadway, one month after the 1960 election, a feeling of well being was enveloping the country. The election of the youngest President ever, with a glamorous wife and two young children, signaled a new national energy. That positivism is indeed reflected in Camelot’s early scenes.

The JFK presidency ended in less than euphoria; the show, a mere fiction to be sure, does as well. While the Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music) score of Camelot covers a wide romantic spectrum, the show ends up a rather cheerless affair. Despite its ‘downer’ resolution, the show has been an audience-pleaser for 50 years. Stratford’s straightforward production is no exception. It will likely fill most of the flagship Festival Theatre’s 1800 seats through October.

Camelot is a retelling of the legend of King Arthur and the chivalrous Knights of the Round Table. The major theme is the romantic triangle involving noble Arthur, his errant Queen Guenevere and the trusted Sir Lancelot, that brings about the tragic downfall of Arthur’s kingdom.

Stratford’s creative team succeeds in keeping the spirits up. The bright front half of the play takes us from the meet-cute of Arthur (Geraint Wyn Davies in non-Falstaff mode) and Guenevere (lovely Kaylee Harwood), through the entrance of Lancelot (Jonathan Winsby), and up to the joust scene, where Lance and Ginnie hook up – emotionally, that is.

Along the way we’re treated to Davies’s “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight,” Harwood’s “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood;” and Winsby’s impressive intro as Lancelot, “C’est Moi.”

The gloomier aspect of the second act is de-emphasized. “Fie On Goodness,” for example, is here an upbeat second-act curtain raiser, rather than the Knights’ ominous threat later in the act. And if there are two more exquisite ballads than “If Ever I Would Leave You” and “I Loved You Once in Silence,” I’ve yet to hear them.

A teacher’s note in the program says that no one knows for sure if a real-life King Arthur ever existed. Doubting it has never occurred to this writer, nor, I suspect, to anyone else who has ever welled up at Arthur’s instructions to a young lad at the end of the play. “Don’t let it be forgot,” he sings, “That once there was a spot / For one brief shining moment / That was known as Camelot.” Not believe? You’re kidding, right?

“Richard III” runs through Sept. 25; “Merry Wives” to Oct. 14; “Superstar” and “Camelot” to Oct. 30. Later this summer we’ll cover “Twelfth Night,” “Titus Andronicus” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” Other attractions include Moliere’s “The Misanthrope” and Pinter’s “The Homecoming.” For a brochure with complete schedule as well as area attractions: 1-800-567-1600 or online at


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