Stratford Shakespeare Festival: 60 Years…and Counting

With an acting company of 100 and nearly that many behind-the-scenes support staff, Ontario’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival is the largest theatrical repertory company in the world. It’s also among the longest-lived, celebrating its 60th Anniversary Season in 2012.  Among the season’s 13 attractions are one of The Bard’s best known comedies, “Much Ado About Nothing,” and “Cymbeline,” one of his lesser-known late romances.  Also on the bill are revivals of two Award-winning musicals.  We caught up with those four in June.

Both Shakespeare plays contain dark undertones, with devious scoundrels inciting unwarranted jealousies, but they are also rich in humor and passion and both end with divided lovers happily re-united.  Happily also, Stratford aces both plays.

“Much Ado About Nothing” isn’t fanciful like “Midsummer Night’s Dream” or jokey like “Comedy of Errors.”  Those comedies have no real bad guys, no obstacles to happy endings other than coincidence and the characters’ own foibles.  “Much Ado,” less of a knee-slapper, is a meatier play.

Deborah Hay and Ben Carlson as Beatrice and Benedick in "Much Ado" (Photos: David Hou)

Shakespeare set the play in a Sicilian Governor’s household about 1600.  Stratford plunked it down in 1900 Brazil.  The move has little effect besides dictating set and costumes, both attractive enough.  After all, the play’s the thing, and never more so than in this Governor Leonato’s courtyard, where Prince Don Pedro and his half-brother Don John, whom the Prince recently defeated in battle, are among the guests. Also present are war heroes Claudio and Lord Benedick and, providing he-she symmetry, Leonato’s daughter Hero (yes, that’s Ms. Hero) and his adopted niece Beatrice.

Jealous of Claudio’s social position and his impending marriage to Hero, the embittered Don John hatches a plot to discredit the bride on her wedding day. It works, but after a wise clergyman’s counsel and the bumbling town constables wringing a confession from Don John’s henchmen, justice is served.

Hero and Claudio are sweet young things in the blush of first ardor, while Beatrice and Benedick are independent 30-somethings who can get along just fine without entanglements, thank you. Their cutting exchanges are Shakespeare’s triumph of verbal-wit warfare and while the central story revolves around Hero and Claudio’s circuitous route to happily-ever-after, the play has long “starred” Beatrice and Benedick, so much so that their names have served as an alternate title.

There’s no doubt that Beatrice and Benedick are meant for each other, but not before they overcome their aversion to the state of marriage.  “That a woman conceived me, I thank her,” says Benedick.  “But,” he reminds, “I will live a bachelor.”   And Beatrice would “rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.”  Yeah, right.

Stratford is blessed with the wonderful Deborah Hay and Ben Carlson, married in real life, as Beatrice and Benedick, whose relationship has been described as “playfully caustic.” Lesser actors have been known to overplay one or the other of those seemingly contradictory qualities, but not here.  The jabs inflict no lasting wounds; the jesting is not inane. One never doubts the mutual attraction even as barbs fly between them.

Director Newton and a near-perfect cast lend substantial weight to the story that goes on around Bea and Ben.  (Hero is set up by Don John to be accused, falsely, of an illicit relationship.)  The play is well acted up and down the line.  Bethany Jillard and Tyrone Savage are ideal young lovers; Gareth Potter’s Don John is just sinister enough for an otherwise romantic comedy; and James Blendick makes Leonato’s affection for his daughter and his anguish over her supposed transgression understandable sides of the paternal coin.  (Credit the production for finessing the disturbing scene where Claudio manhandles Hero; it happens here, but it comes across as more emotional than physical.)  The Constable Dogberry & Crew scenes drag – a result, strangely enough, of under-acting roles often over-played.

I’ve seen Ben Carlson previously as Hamlet and Touchstone (“As You Like It”).  There may be Shakespearean actors more lauded than he, but none is better at bringing the plays into today’s sensibilities. Not one inference or scrap of humor eludes him; he owns every turn of phrase. Headed by his Benedick and Hay’s Beatrice, this “Much Ado” is sublime.

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Some critics are scornful of Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” because of its convoluted, multi-peopled plot and its lapses into melodrama.  To them I would suggest a visit to Stratford, where the play’s characters are sharply delineated, the plot threads come together seamlessly and what might register as melodrama elsewhere instead amounts to a cracking-good, action-packed tale.

While Cymbeline did exist, ruling Britain around the time of Christ, his reign is but the backdrop for a romantic saga of jealousy, betrayal, repentance and forgiveness.  The theme of wagering on a woman’s virtue didn’t originate with Shakespeare, but no writer before or since has framed it in quite so intriguing a form.

Geraint Wyn Davies as Cymbeline

King Cymbeline’s adopted son Posthumus is banished for marrying the King’s actual daughter Imogen who was supposed to marry Cloten, the son of his second-wife Queen, who favors that marriage in order to make her oafish son Cloten the eventual King.  (Things were way different then.)  In Italy, Posthumous is goaded into a wager with wily Iachimo, who scoffs at the chastity of women in general and who contends that he can seduce Imogen during a visit.

Visit her Iachimo does, and the maneuver by which he insinuates himself into Imogen’s bedchamber is the play’s signature scene, staged and acted here very boldly.  The scene between the stealthy Iachimo and the sleeping Imogen is an erotic doozy, and Iachimo is able to convince Posthumous that he succeeded, even though (spoiler alert!) no seduction occurred.

From there the play unfolds through setting up Imogen to be killed, an order ignored by the hit man; her masquerading as a young man and falling in with some fellows who turn out to be…well, we said it was convoluted.  And this is before a poisoning gone wrong, a beheading, a Roman invasion of Britain, an appearance by the god Jupiter, and finally, reconciliation and forgiveness all ‘round.

Director Antoni Cimolino has staged the play like a true adventure. Played on the Tom Patterson Theatre’s long rectangular stage with minimal scenery, the action never flags and the nearly three-hour running time (including intermission) zips by.  Scenes dovetail smoothly, with location and intent never in doubt.

From the leading players to the ‘extra’ courtiers and soldiers, the acting is outstanding.  As Imogen (originally Innogen, for innocent – changed by a careless transcriber), Cara Ricketts is the picture of purity, awake or asleep.  (Wouldn’t Imogen wake up during the bedchamber scene?  Shakespeare decreed that she does not, and I, for one, suspend disbelieve whenever he asks me to.)  Graham Abbey is a romantic Posthumous until his disillusion turns him heartbroken and then vengeful.  Iachimo is equal parts nasty and lustful, and Tom McManus is scary good in the role.

Some of Shakespeare’s bad guys are really funny (see Richard III); Mike Shara finds comedy-plus in the vulgar low-life Cloten, who, um, loses his head over Imogen.  And a hat-tip to director Cimolino and actor Geraint Wyn Davies for finding the humor in King Cymbeline.

It’s easy to chuckle at the excesses that characterize “Cymbeline,” but when the play is as well done as here, with emotional intensity, frequent splashes of humor, a rousing battle scene and that indelible bedchamber encounter, it adds up to a grand entertainment.  (You know a teenager who thinks Shakespeare is dull, difficult or old-fashioned?  Take him or her to this “Cymbeline.”)

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Perhaps you don’t agree with Julian Marsh, the theatrical director of the musical-within-the-musical “42nd Street,” when he declares ‘Musical Comedy’ to be the two most glorious words in the English language.  But even those who think ‘Perfect Game’ outranks them would be exhilarated by the buoyant musical on Stratford’s 1800-seat Festival Theatre stage.

Jennifer Rider-Shaw in "42nd Street."

The 1980 Tony-winning musical is a nostalgic take on the 1933 Busby Berkeley movie of the same name.  The cornball plot is retained.  Stage-struck chorus girl Peggy Sawyer (Jennifer Rider-Shaw) gets her big chance when the “Pretty Lady” leading lady breaks her ankle during the tryout run.  The director’s pep-talk to Peggy is way over-written, but the final sentence, “Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!” remains one of show business’s most revered clichés.  (You think it doesn’t happen? Just ask Shirley MacLaine, whose stardom began exactly that way.)

Story aside, the appeal of “42nd Street” lies in its song-and-dance riches set to a dozen tunes by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics).  “Young and Healthy” and “I Know Now” might not ring a bell, but musical theater buffs and folks of a certain age will recognize “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me,” “We’re in the Money,” the blockbuster “Lullaby of Broadway” and the title tune.

It’s the dancing that gives the show its legs.  The tone is set early, when the curtain pauses on its way up to reveal a chorus line of lower limbs, tap-dancing a complex rhythm in perfect unison.  From there it’s off and tapping for a delightful couple of hours.

There are only so many tap steps, but there are infinite combinations, and Ms. Rider-Shaw seemingly does ‘em all, including backwards.  The Leslie Caron look-alike is surrounded by 15 real-life Peggy (and Pete) Sawyers, all of whom hoof Alex Sanchez’s choreography as if born to it.

As the injured leading lady, Cynthia Dale is as stunning a singer as a looker.  “Shadow Waltz” is haunting and “About a Quarter to Nine” sums up the life of a stage star.  Sean Arbuckle is a disturbingly overbearing Julian Marsh, nasty even, an assumed choice of director Gary Griffin, whose otherwise smooth handling of the large cast is exemplary.

Since much of the action takes place on an actual stage, the scanty scenery can be forgiven.  (Dancers tapping on and off with tables and chairs for a restaurant scene is a nifty touch.)  But although the primarily black-and-white costumes do evoke the 1930s, the whole enterprise could use some color.

Two more contributors to the show’s success, one on-stage and one off, must be mentioned: musical director Michael Barber’s 15-piece band gets the show off the ground (literally – they’re in plain sight on a raised platform) with a hip overture and doesn’t let up until after the final tap-fest. The off-stage credit is for a certain Miss Julie, who, Rider-Shaw notes in her program bio, “taught me how to tap.”  Thank you, Miss Julie.

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The year that “42nd Street” won Tony Awards for Best Musical and Choreographer (Gower Champion, whose death hours before the opening was announced by producer David Merrick at the curtain call), “The Pirates of Penzance” won for Best Revival, Director and Actor.  Stratford’s “Pirates” is an acceptable diversion, but hardly an award winner.

The original story line of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1879 Savoy Opera “The Pirates of Penzance” is pretty silly by modern standards, so satirizing it isn’t criminal. In what amounts to a take-off, “Pirates” retains the bare skull and crossbones of the original.  The result is a mindlessly amusing frolic.

Frederic (Kyle Blair) was accidentally apprenticed to pirates (his nursemaid mis-heard “boat pilots”) until his 21st birthday.  Now 21, he wants out of the buccaneer life after falling in love with Mabel (Amy Wallis), one of the daughters of the “very model of a modern Major General.”  But wait – it turns out that Frederic was born on February 29.  Although he has lived 21 years he has had only five actual birthdays.  His sense of duty, a satirical point of the play, binds him to the pirates until 1940!  (It’s 1879; do the math.)  Ahh, but it gives nothing away to reveal that there’s a happy ending, with the pirate crew coupled-up with the General’s daughters.

Joe Papp’s 1980 New York Shakespeare Festival production, which starred Kevin Kline and rock stars Rex Smith and Linda Ronstadt, remains the G & S update against which all others must be measured. It was a tongue-in-cheek goof on the original, smartened up with modern orchestrations, caricatured performances and an overall campy approach.

Stratford director Ethan McSweeny and company give it a good try, but the result is more slapstick than satire.  To be sure, there are laughs – some in the script (Nursemaid: “The words ‘pirate’ and ‘pilot’ were so much alike.”  Frederic: “They still are.”) and some manufactured (policemen in kilts bending over to reveal the Union Jack on their underpants), but except for the Pirate King (Sean Arbuckle), a flashy role that lends itself to satire, the others either play it relatively straight (Frederic and Mabel) or for juvenile comedy (the police ensemble).

Musically, the show passes muster.  Blair and Wallis sing sweetly; choral work is robust; and the songs are interesting just for being Gilbert and Sullivan’s.  Musical director Franklin Brasz’s unusually large orchestra (some 20 pieces) does them justice.

C. David Johnson is the very model of a Major-General in appearance, but he and the show are ill-served by the substitution of a list of the Stratford Festival’s former artistic directors for the lyrics in the diction-challenging “Modern Major General” patter song.  Deliberately exaggerated comedy is serious business.  The new-and-improved “Pirates of Penzance” is supposed to be an inside joke about the show itself, but singing about Artistic Director Des McAnuff et al is catering to your own giggles – save it for the cast party.

“Much Ado,” “42nd Street” and “Pirates” run through October;  “Cymbeline” through September.  Also on the bill are Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” “The Matchmaker,” “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” several new plays and “A Word or Two,” the highly anticipated career retrospective written and performed by Christopher Plummer, playing July 25 – August 26.  We’ll be covering that one and a few others in August.  Complete season brochures are available by calling 800-567-1600 or online at    


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