Contrasting Shakespeares and classic Steinbeck novel on Stratford stages

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s showpiece production of Twelfth Night takes the opening line and runs with it. Fortunately, it’s not Out damn spot!  It’s If music be the food of love, play on, and what unfolds from that opening is indeed a feast of comedy, romance and…music.

Every conceivable kind of music, from classical to country, has been incorporated into Shakespeare, and never more artfully than here. Newly composed, by Michael Roth and director Des McAnuff, and played on and around the stage by a smooth eight-piece orchestra, some of the pieces are jazz, some pop rock, some new-agey, and all very easy listening. Shakespeare’s words provide the ‘lyrics’ to some of the music, and some is instrumental – and I do mean instrumental: the eight musicians play twenty different instruments in the course of the show. (One musician plays ten of ‘em!)

In the intricately crafted story of misdirected and unrequited loves, Orsino pines for Olivia, who falls for his messenger Cesario, who is really Viola in male disguise and who digs Orsino. Into the mix plops Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother who was presumed lost at sea and who completes the romantic pairings.

As Viola/Cesario, Andrea Runge is as alluring a twosome as ever one actor inhabited. (She’s had some practice. Last season’s Rosalind/Ganymede in As You Like It was an equally impressive duo.) And while Viola and Sebastian being mistaken for one another is a stretch, Ms. Runge and Trent Pardy, as her twin, actually look very much alike, adding to the play’s charms. Suspension of disbelief has never been easier.

Three "Telfth Night" rascals are played by Brian Dennehy, left, Ben Carlson and Stephen Ouimette

In a co-plot, a quartet of rascals conspire to humiliate Olivia’s pompous steward Malvolio. As Sir Toby Belch, the robust ringleader, Brian Dennehy is the marquee name, but the comic laurels go to Stephen Ouimette as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. His bag of tricks is bottomless. Malvolio is one of the most complex roles in any Shakespeare comedy; Tom Rooney captures both his absurdity and his eventual menace brilliantly.

Not technically a musical, the production is greatly enhanced by the compositions. They foster a relaxation that eases one into the many delights of the play. “It’s like we’re in a lounge,” my companion said. Echo that.

If Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s most produced plays, Titus Andronicus, his earliest-written tragedy, is among the least, due partly to the fact that it is without doubt the bloodiest play he wrote. It is so gruesome, in fact, that for centuries scholars were reluctant to credit it to The Bard. Ironically, from its first recorded performance in 1594, the “revenge tragedy” was an immediate hit. (Some tastes never change.)

The human sacrifice of a captured Goth soldier by Roman General Titus Andronicus sparks a horrific cycle of revenge, set in motion by Tamora, that soldier’s mother, who becomes Queen. A consummate conniver, she presents a regal face to the world, while her true intent is revealed in the whispered “I’ll find a day to massacre them all.” It is more than an idle threat.

Amanda Lisman, left, John Vickery, Dion Johnstone and Claire Lautier in "Titus"

While the play explores the universal concepts of scheming and corruption that pave the way to political power, it is the unrelenting violence that grips audiences. Early on, Titus kills his own son for blocking his way – for blocking his way!  Everyday murder is the least of it; the vicious violation and mutilation of Titus’s daughter Lavinia by Tamora’s two sons takes savagery to an unimaginable level, and the revenge enacted against those sons and their mother further tests the limits.

Whatever one’s tolerance for the above (and more), be advised that Stratford has mounted a magnificent Titus. The play is superbly acted, especially by John Vickery, strong and unyielding in the title role, and by Claire Lautier, oozing malevolence as Tamora. In Amanda Lisman’s sensitive playing, Lavinia, sweet and trusting before the ordeal that renders her mute and worse, is heartbreaking. Aaron the Moor, Tamora’s illicit lover, is evil incarnate; Dion Johnstone makes him downright scary.

The production’s stars include director and set designer Darko Tresnjak, lighting designer Itai Erdal and sound designer Lindsay Jones. The most unspeakably brutal acts are suggested by an ingenious blend of staging with lighting and sound effects. They are not actually depicted on stage, but afterward you’d swear you saw every detail.

The final scene is astounding. In forty-plus years of theatergoing I have never seen violence portrayed so vividly and, yes, as artistically as in the last few minutes of this Titus Andronicus. The whole thing is harrowing, but it is Shakespeare after all, and here, a brilliant work of stagecraft.


Perhaps reading The Grapes of Wrath before seeing the play was a mistake. Frank Galati’s well-intentioned adaptation of John Steinbeck’s magnificent novel captures little of the emotional punch that had me dabbing my eyes every fifteen pages or so. Granted, transferring a revered literary classic from page to stage is a daunting challenge, but in opting for plot-outline form, this adaptation emerges as a walking, talking Cliffs Notes…with a lot left out.

Steinbeck’s epic narrative is the definitive tale of deprivation during the Great Depression. It describes the tribulations of thousands of Midwesterners who were displaced during the 1930s and, in alternating chapters, it zeros in on one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, who are driven off their homestead.

A scene from "The Grapes of Wrath"

The first half of the novel gets the Joads across 2,000 miles to the ‘promised land’ of California. The play does it in a half-dozen scenes separated by twangy musical narrations. A musician-narrator fills in story gaps, but at the cost of continuity.

The Dust Bowl that devastated the arid Midwest doesn’t register, nor does the ever-present debilitating hunger. That hunger, the heat and the dust that rises off the novel’s pages into the reader’s nostrils are not evoked by the play or the players. And certainly not by a fiddle trio.  (There is one speech about a death from starvation, but the many scenes that involve cooking counteract the effect.)

The four-scene second act is truer to the novel. The sorry California Hooverville, one of many tent-and-cardboard settlements named for the then-President, is realistic enough, and the Joads’ brief stay in a well-appointed government-run camp is a welcome respite. The labor protest that descends into violence during a peach-picking scam is vividly portrayed.

The final scene, with the “Okies” combating unrelenting flood waters, is a mini-play in itself. As if saving all their resources for the end, director Antoni Cimolino and designer John Arnone have their frenzied actors up to their necks, literally, in rising water, while in the background, Steinbeck’s symbolic cycle of life is portrayed in semi-darkness and agonizing reality. It’s a gripping finale to an uneven play.

Some of you will have seen the John Ford movie, with Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. As highly regarded as that 1940 movie still is, it distorts the novel, even inventing a relatively hopeful ending by placing the comfortable Government camp scene at the end. The play at least follows the book’s sequence, however sketchily, up to and including the staging of Steinbeck’s once-controversial, quasi-religious grace note at the very end.

For the real impact, however, read the book.

Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Ontario. “Twelfth Night” and “Grapes of Wrath” run to October 28; “Titus Andronicus” to September 24. Previously reviewed “Camelot” and “Merry Wives of Windsor” run into October, as do Pinter’s “The Homecoming” and Moliere’s “The Misanthrope.” “Jesus Christ Superstar” has been extended to November 6 prior to a run in San Diego and a probable move to Broadway.



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