Monday, June 30, 2008

Shrew Real Theatre

A review of The Taming of the Shrew from Gary Smith at the Hamilton Spectator:

"The last time Stratford did the Shrew it was all decked out like some spaghetti western.

"Complete with cowboy hats, sexy leg-defining chaps and gals in plunging necklines like Gunsmoke's Miss Kitty. It was pretty hot stuff.

"Well, fast forward to 2008, five years on in real time, thousands though in theatrical imagination, and The Taming of the Shrew is relocated in the taverns, courtyards and backstage environs of the Elizabethan theatre.

"Elizabeth I herself promenades throughout the proceedings, watching from a tiered platform, joining in to sing a song or two, raising her skirt slightly to tap a toe and generally committing herself to the merriment of this tale we now consider a tad politically incorrect.

"Director Peter Hinton, aided by that most quixotic of stage designers, Santo Loquasto, gives the entire production of Shakespeare's male-female relationship comedy a thrilling theatrical edge.

"We seem to be backstage somewhere, where the winches of stage machinery wait quietly, rolled scenic drops hang expectantly, ready to fall and take us to other times and places. A ghost light in fact, that symbol of a silent, waiting stage, casts eerie shadows of time suspended across the floor. We could be in any theatre resting between performances, waiting for lights to come full on and characters to storm the stage.

"Hinton has always been a theatrical sort of director and here he cleaves to the purpose of making us feel we are at a play that is itself about pretense and performance. In this way he perhaps relieves the play and his audience from being forced to make present-day moral judgments about Petruchio and his wooing of the wilful, and sometimes vicious, Katherina.

"It has become popular, of course, to make the distinction between a Katherina forced to succumb to a strong and dominating man and a woman who matches her male figure of sexual passion and persuasion in almost every way. However you look at it, these are battling combatants. Does Kate truly give in and give up at the end? Or does she know how to get her way, have her will and keep her man squarely on edge?

"Two exciting performances capture the fire and comedy at the centre of Shakespeare's play. Evan Buliung is a sexy, forceful Petruchio. He seems to wink at the chaos he creates around him and ensnares Kate's passion at every turn. For her part, Irene Poole makes great sense of the lady's indomitable spirit, launching to rage when necessary and a hot, seductive air when she thinks it will do her good.

"This is a pairing that keeps the play on an even keel. By the final fade out, you believe firmly these two are lovers, about to spend one fantastic night together. Roman candles are about to soar in the air. Passions are about to be unleashed.

"Allen Cole contributes some rambunctious and evocative music and the cast breaks into song and dance whenever proceedings permit.

"Of course, this is Katherina and Petruchio's play and Poole and Buliung carry it beautifully. But the supporting cast give the whole thing a wonderful ensemble feel.

"Jeff Lillico is a handsome Lucentio, Lucy Peacock in a gender-bending turn is a funny Grumio.

"Shrew is a fine example of what happens when a confident, imaginative director gets his hands on a play of great possibility. Then given two stars capable of pulling off his comic vision, he runs with it to a devastating and wildly funny conclusion."

Fuente Ovejuna Cast Triumphs

Colin Hunter (The Record) reviews Fuente Ovejuna:

"At first blush, the word 'tragicomedy' rings of an oxymoron -- a mashing together of two terms that couldn't be more different in meaning. How can a tragedy be funny or a comedy tragic?

"The answer is that real life is rarely so black and white, never so easily categorized.

"So when a great work of theatre imitates real life, it captures every dynamic of the human condition -- comedy, tragedy and all points in between.

"A great work of theatre is precisely what the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has created with Fuente Ovejuna, a tragicomedy in the truest sense.

"The play, which opened Friday at the Tom Patterson Theatre, is an emotionally exhausting journey that in quick succession delights, horrifies, enlightens, repulses and tickles the audience.

"Fuente Ovejuna is especially impressive because it is an underdog on Stratford's 2008 playbill -- an obscure, rarely performed historical play set in 15th century rural Spain. As such, it is bound to be a tough sell in Stratford, where Shakespeare and glitzy musicals carry the most box office freight.

"Spanish playwright Lope de Vega was a contemporary of Shakespeare's, and while not as canonized as the Bard, he was far more prolific. Lope is believed to have penned as many as 1,500 plays in his lifetime -- an output that justifiably earned him the nickname the 'Monster of Nature.'

"Fuente Ovejuna is regarded as one of Lope's best, and the Stratford production leaves little question as to why.

"On the sparse stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre, a 30-member cast -- guided by British director Laurence Boswell in his Stratford debut -- brings to life Lope's true tale of terror and revenge in a small town.

"The story unfolds in the impoverished village of Fuente Ovejuna, a real Spanish hamlet whose name means 'Sheep Fountain.' The town's name is both fitting and ironic, given the collective thinking that leads the townsfolk to a bloody conflict.

"The villagers are oppressed by a tyrannical military commander, Fernan Gomez de Guzman, whose brutal treatment of men and lecherous advances on women 'are ripping the heart right out' of the town.

"When Guzman crashes a wedding to abduct the bride-to-be as his own concubine, the enraged villagers conspire their revenge.

"On paper, the story sounds like a pure tragedy, but in execution the play is doubly affecting because it is punctuated with sudden bursts of wit, wordplay and even slapstick. Just as you're about to dab a teary eye, some gag inspires an unexpected belly laugh.

"In the hands of a lesser cast, such a play could wind up emotionally lopsided, erring either on the side of laughs or sobs. But anchored by masterful performances by Sara Topham, Scott Wentworth, James Blendick and others, this production delivers on all fronts.

"Topham is gut-wrenchingly powerful as Laurencia, the maiden who galvanizes her townsfolk to rise up against Guzman after he beats and rapes her. Blendick is the ideal choice as Laurencia's father -- a kind, gentle man who is pushed to violence in defence of his family and his town.

"And Wentworth is perfectly despicable as Guzman, the megalomaniacal tyrant. The character is evil, but in Wentworth's chilling portrayal he is also all-too-human.

"Fuente Ovejuna is no simple morality play; the protagonists are also vigilantes, the antagonist is their victim. It's a harrowing story that, in the exceedingly capable hands of the Stratford cast, inspires questions about loyalty, love, honour and justice.

"It's said there's a fine line between comedy and tragedy. Fuente Ovejuna deftly navigates both sides of that line without a single misstep."

Dennehy is "Dynamite"

Richard Ouzounian (Toronto Star) gives a perfect score to the double bill of Krapp's Last Tape and Hughie:

"When true greatness comes our way in the theatre, we have to pause and try to find the words to express it properly.

"That's the happy dilemma this critic finds himself in after the Saturday night opening of Hughie and Krapp's Last Tape at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

"Two very different plays by two giants of 20th-century theatre are linked by the common theme of grief and that the stupendous Brian Dennehy appears in both.

"Dennehy has performed in Hughie several times before, but Krapp's Last Tape marks his debut in the role and the combination of the two shows is sheer theatrical dynamite.

"Hughie is in many ways the simpler play of the two and may seem slight at first glance, but once viewed through the rear-view mirror of Krapp's Last Tape, it acquires a stunning retrospective power.

"One of the last works O'Neill ever wrote, Hughie is set in the lobby of a fleabag hotel in the New York theatre district, where – in Patrick Clark's starkly effective design – a clock dominates the action, reminding us of the one element we can't escape.

"The wonderfully understated Joe Grifasi plays the new desk clerk at the hotel, replacing the recently deceased Hughie of the title.

"With a slight uncertainty, in swaggers Brian Dennehy as Erie Smith, resident of the hotel, coming off of a five-day drunk he went on after Hughie died.

"Smith is a hollow man who's failed at everything he's tried, but he keeps the 'pipe dream' of success flickering in a corner of his heart.

"Hughie was Erie's enabler, to use the trendy modern term, the one who helped him think his fantasies could become reality. But this new desk clerk has a sphinx-like impassivity that neither confirms nor denies Erie's dreams.

"Grifasi is brilliant as he looks at this hollow braggart and with his cool, neutral eyes provides an MRI into his soul.

"By the end of an hour, Dennehy has blustered, charmed, crashed and burned. Nothing really happens, yet everything happens.

"We see a man who's lived on lies and finally realizes that maybe, just maybe, he better switch to the truth.

"Dennehy, with the guiding hand of his director, Robert Falls, has such texture as Erie that it looks effortless. It's not a showy performance, but it's a heartfelt one.

"He gives us small feelings the way only a big man can and at times is so disarmingly honest that you have to look away.

"On its own, it would be a fine piece of work, but then, after a 20-minute intermission, we catapult into the sublime.

"The minute Robert Thomson's merciless lights flick on the face of Dennehy as the haunted Krapp, you gasp in astonishment.

"It's the eyes of the damned that look out at you, all the easy bonhomie of the first play long forgotten.

"There are no tricks of makeup, but the profounder magic of an actor reaching deep, deep inside himself to create another person.

"Beckett's Krapp is 69 years old, living on bananas and memories of the past. He keeps playing the audio tapes he has made over the years and listening to them as they form a prison of despair he can't escape.

"It's a marvel to hear Dennehy's voice, perfectly capturing the sound of a man 30 years younger, when there was still hope and possibilities in his life.

"It's even more of a marvel to look into the death's head he wears today and watch him as he's forced to confront the man he used to be.

"Jennifer Tarver has directed with a rigorous hand. There is no gratuitous movement, no easy sentimentality. This is the thing itself, a man going 10 rounds with the person he was 30 years before.

"It's not pretty. It has no facile uplifting ending. And Dennehy is brave enough to simply lay his cards on the table, even though he knows he has a losing hand.
"A great actor at the service of two great playwrights. It doesn't get any better than that."

All's Too Well in All's Well

Richard Ouzounian (Toronto Star) gives All's Well That Ends Well two out of four stars:

"An interesting production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard opened at the Festival Theatre on Friday night. The only problem is that it was supposed to be Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well.

"Director Marti Maraden has always had a fondness for finding bittersweet melancholy in classic plays. Sometimes it works, but this time around the losses outweigh the gains.

"This is one of the Bard's so-called 'problem' comedies, where the bitterness of his worldview struggles against the conventional 'happy ending' format. It's a tart, somewhat unpleasant tale of a selfish young lord who casts aside the affections of the fine young woman who loves him, forcing her to go to outlandish means to win his hand.

"Maraden has moved her production from the Franco-Italian Renaissance axis where Shakespeare located it to some nebulous middle-European setting in 1889.

"Christina Poddubiuk's costumes are severely cut and elegantly presented, but they do nothing for the bed-hopping libidinous climate of the play. Director Maraden has obviously given orders to unsex the proceedings – even the jester Lavache, who has some of the raunchiest double entendres in the script, has been cut back by Maraden and played by Tom Rooney with such fey detachment that he's nothing more than wistful and vaguely consumptive to boot.

"Everyone in the play, in fact, seems to be ailing. The King of France is cured early on, thank God, so that Brian Dennehy can let loose with the vigour he does so well.

"But Martha Henry's Countess of Rossilion, instead of being a woman of stern command, is a frail ancient creature who keeps clutching her abdominal region and growing ever frailer, making you wonder how she gave birth to the lusty Bertram of Jeff Lillico some 20-odd years ago.

"Everything is so terminally 'nice,' right down to the Masterpiece Theatre music that Keith Thomas has provided, the edge and bite that give this bitter anti-romance its ultimate power are sadly missing.

"Bertram, for example, is supposed to have fallen in lust at first sight with a young Florentine named Diana, but she's costumed in head-to-toe concealment and played by Leah Oster with a coolness that makes her Marian the Librarian in The Music Man look sluttish by comparison.

"In the midst of all this Hallmark Card tastefulness, a few performances break through. Best of all is Juan Chioran as braggart Parolles. Chioran knows how to wrap his tongue around the most complex Shakespearean locution and deliver it with all its sting attached.

"He is the essence of every man whose vision of himself far exceeds reality, and the scene in which he is forced to confront that by his fellow soldiers is at once hilarious and heartbreaking.

"Daniela Vlaskalic's Helena is well-spoken but just too good to be true. This is a woman, after all, who is willing to swap places in bed to get the man she loves, yet Vlaskalic plays it as though it were a fundraising scheme for the local hospital.

"Lillico has the sense not to sentimentalize her love object, the vain and haughty Bertram, but since he alone is one of the few people playing the script honestly, it makes him look like twice the cad he is.

"There's also good work from Stephen Ouimette as the dust-dry Lafew and Fiona Reid as a meddlesome widow, but the rest sink into the overwhelming blandness."

Four Stars for Fuente

John Coulbourn (Sun Media) gives Fuente Ovejuna four out of five stars:

"It could be described in its way as a kitchen-sink drama, written in the days before there were kitchen sinks.

"The play is called Fuente Ovejuna and it was written by Lope de Vega, a Spanish contemporary of Shakespeare and it opened on the stage of the Stratford Festival's Tom Patterson Theatre Saturday, in a new translation by Britain's Laurence Boswell, who also directs.

"And it's an interesting bit of work, at least from a scholarly point of view, in that, unlike most of Shakespeare's history plays, it tells the story of great events, not from the top down, from the point of view of the kings and potentates, but rather from the bottom up, the more prosaic viewpoint of the common man instead.

"The play shares its name with a little town in Spain where, in the time of Ferdinand and Isabella, history tells us the local peasantry rose, en masse, and transformed their local overlord, an officer with a Spanish order of religious knights, into the Spanish equivalent of chopped liver.

"The reason for this rather un-neighbourly behaviour, it would seem, was not an early manifestation of the revolutions that would sweep Europe in later centuries, but rather a simple desire to put a stop to the depredations of a nobleman who was, in fact, anything but noble.

"Set in the village of title (which translates along the order of 'the spring of water for sheep'), Fuente Ovejuna introduces us to the story through the peasantry involved, first establishing a nascent romance between fair Laurencia (played by Sara Topham) -- daughter of the village elder (James Blendick) -- and the brave Frondoso (Jonathan Goad).

"It also introduces us to the evil Commander Guzman (Scott Wentworth in delicious villain mode) and his henchman, soldiers who spend their time either fighting against Ferdinand's and Isabella's forces or pillaging the countryside around Fuente Ovejuna and raping the women or bringing them home so their boss can do it for them.

"But when the commander encounters Laurencia and sets more than his cap for her, Frondoso intervenes, saving his sweetheart but unleashing the vengeance of the evil Gomez on the community -- a vengeance so terrible that the citizenry is forced finally to rise up to stop it.

"Stopping it comes at a price, however -- and when authorities arrive determined to exact that price, the villagers find a unique way to thwart them.

"Even in the hands of a friendly translator, which Boswell most certainly is, one is forced to conclude that Fuente Ovejuna is all but unstageable for a modern audience, filled as it is with dialogue more friendly to eye than ear, and freighted with enough dated melodrama to float an entire armada.

"But one is also forced to celebrate the fact that Boswell, in his role as director, fails to notice such flaws and manages to produce what proves to be an odd, but oddly compelling piece of theatre.

"In this, he has the full complicity of an excellent cast, with Severn Thompson, Nigel Shawn Williams, David W. Keeley, Stephen Russell, Geraint Wyn Davies, Seana McKenna and, most particularly a high-flying Robert Persichini teaming up in support of the superbly cast principals.

"Working on a simple but effective stage, designed by Peter Hartwell and lit by Michael J. Whitfield, Boswell has encouraged this fine cast to think their way through de Vega's tale as much as act their way through, using the choreography of Nicola Pantin and the music of Edward Henderson for both ornamentation and occasional dramatic camouflage.

"The end product is a simple story, told with heart, spirit and finally intelligence, a story that instead of pretending to greatness, finds its strength, its heart and its deep appeal in the simplicity in which it was born. "

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Fair Fuente Ovejuna

A review of Fuente Ovejuna from Globe and Mail theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck:

"For the second time this season, the Stratford Festival has opened a play about war in the Tom Patterson Theatre in which the central character isn't a Shakespearean king, but a group of ordinary citizens. Lope de Vega's Fuente Ovejuna is an intriguing and very entertaining contrast to Euripides' The Trojan Women. It's the first time the festival has mounted a Spanish Golden Age classic, and though it is a quirky, uneven production, it is hoped it will be the first of many.

"Based on real events in the 15th century, the play's collective protagonist is Fuente Ovejuna, a town claimed by both Portugal and Spain whose people rose up and killed their cruel overlord Fernan Gomez de Guzman (played by a cackling Scott Wentworth).

"As dramatized by Lope 40 years after the rebellion and newly translated by British director Laurence Boswell, Fuente Ovejuna seems like an atypical and idealized country town. The local preacher, we are told, quotes Plato in his sermons and plays the bassoon. The villagers, meanwhile, complain about 'information overload' – caused not by the Internet, but the arrival of the printing press.

"Sara Topham and Jonathan Goad have great chemistry playing two of town's perhaps too-good-natured souls, Laurencia and Frondosa, whose love story incites the action of the play. Laurencia refuses the commander's seductions leading him to attempt to rape her; she is saved by Frondosa, who threatens the tyrant with his own crossbow.

"Guzman vows revenge and interrupts their wedding, sentencing Frondosa to death, taking Laurencia off to be raped and beating her father, the mayor (James Blendick), on the back with his ceremonial staff.

"Lope's unusual mix of comedy and brutality can feel almost heretical to a modern, liberal audience unused to casual violence. For instance, when the fool-like Mengo (Robert Persichini) is whipped, his beaten state is used as fodder for humour as he repeatedly describes his mangled buttocks as raw salmon steaks.

"The tone becomes even more unsettling in the second half once Fuente Ovejuna's townspeople descend on the commander and his associates and joyously rip them to pieces with pitchforks and shovels. Are we to celebrate the acts of a bloodthirsty mob?

"The play's comic moments work surprising well in a production that often has the loose feel of a collective creation, but the horrific moments don't have much impact. Part of the reason is that Boswell has struggled to figure out how to stage crowd scenes on the long, skinny catwalk that is the Tom Patterson thrust stage. When Topham's Laurencia arrives, bloody and broken by Guzman's henchmen, to deliver a stirring monologue spurring on the men of the town to revenge, she is oddly not approached or touched by anyone including her father.

"Sometimes Boswell's direction is not just awkward but inadvertently comic. A fight in slow-motion ends up looking silly, while the decision to have crucial offstage dialogue boom like the voice of God through the sound system turns the off-stage torture of a 10-year-old into a giggle-inducing moment.

"This torture comes when the town's new Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella (Geraint Wyn Davies and Seana McKenna, in what are essentially cameos) send a judge to the town to investigate who is to blame for the insurrection; he puts everyone on the rack, literally, but the townspeople have been expecting this Spanish Inquisition and respond to every question with 'Fuente Ovejuna did it.'

"The political implications are ambiguous. Lope's portrait of an oppressed collectivity taking up arms is certainly meant to be inspiring, but Fuente Ovejuna's people aren't motivated by a desire for democracy, only for a more benevolent dictatorship. This isn't what we hope to happen to a society after a cruel overlord is overthrown. Yet our own modern hopes are equally naive. Think of the stirring television image of Saddam Hussein's statue toppling in Iraq, followed by the complicated aftermath.

"A window into a foreign time and culture neglected by most English-language classical theatres, Fuente Ovejuna's programming at Stratford is refreshing and, judging by the enthusiastic reception by the audience, quite welcome."

Split Decision on Krapp/Hughie

J. Kelly Nestruck reviews the double bill Krapp's Last Tape (four stars) and Hughie (two stars) for the Globe and Mail:

"Brian Dennehy may be a star, but he is not behaving like one at the Stratford Festival. You would have paid full price to see Al Pacino in Hughie in New York or Harold Pinter in Krapp's Last Tape in London, but here Dennehy performs both one-act plays as a double bill. It's a real bargain, allowing you to watch the two-time Tony winner play contrasting roles as a smooth-talker and a listener in the same night.

"Let's start with his best performance, though it comes second. In Krapp's Last Tape, Dennehy plays a man of 69 who sits down to dictate his annual audio diary to reel-to-reel tape recorder. Before he does so, however, he listens to an earlier spool recorded when he was 39.

"The younger Krapp has just had what he believes is an important revelation about life, but the older Krapp fast-forwards past all the 'stupid bastard's'' deluded bluster to his delicate description of the last night he spent with a lover, a breakup that took place in a boat. 'We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.'

"Watching Dennehy's Krapp relive, recoil from and regret his past, one will feel similarly moved by melancholy. Stratford's intimate Studio space allows one to see every emotion register across Dennehy's craggy face as he lets his normally jutting jaw sag and his broad shoulders slump; he is an engrossing listener, eloquent in his silence.

"With a script that is mostly stage directions and recorded dialogue, Krapp's Last Tape leaves little room for interpretation. Director Jennifer Tarver does an excellent job of simply getting out of Beckett's way, though you can tell there has been meticulous work behind the scenes. Robert Thomson captures the mood perfectly with his sharp, geometric lighting design. (My only quibble: Why does the older Krapp have a stronger Irish accent than the young one?)

"Although Krapp's Last Tape is Beckett's most naturalistic portrayal of man's battle with memory, when he wrote the play in 1958 it was actually science fiction. He had spied a tape recorder for the first time only that very year in a BBC studio; few had pondered what the technology would mean a lifetime later.

"The play's underlying questions about how technology shapes and influences how we remember are only more relevant today as young lives unspool online on blogs and Facebook. We're only beginning to think about what it will mean 40 years down the line when grandparents are able to Google their younger selves. Will they think they were 'stupid bastards' too? In the future, I think we will all feel like Krapp.

"From Dennehy's masterful Krapp, let's rewind to a craps player named Erie Smith in the O'Neill two-hander Hughie that starts off the evening. The two plays share the same year of premiere, Nobel-winning authors, an excess of stage directions and a similar theme of regret, so it's easy to see why they have been partnered.

"But Hughie, written in 1941 but staged only after O'Neill's death in 1958, is a minor work in which the Irish-American playwright adopts the streetwise patter of Damon Runyon to little effect.

"Erie, a self-aggrandizing small-time gambler, is returning to his hotel room after a several-day bender. He launched into the drinking spree after Hughie, the hotel's old night-desk clerk and his long-time sounding board, has died.

"Now there's a new desk clerk (Joe Grifasi), whose last name is the same as the deceased one.

"Erie seems to have lost his luck and sense of self with Hughie, who listened to and believed his big talk about gambling wins and the showgirls he had seduced. At least that's what Erie tells us; he's a self-confessed unreliable narrator, so it's entirely possible that Hughie saw through his guise (and dolls) and was just humoring him.

"O'Neill himself said that Hughie was 'written more to be read than staged' and Robert Falls, who also directed Dennehy in his Tony-winning Broadway performances in Death of a Salesman and Long Day's Journey Into Night, hasn't found a particularly engrossing way of staging it. The whole thing feels dramatically unfocused, a little too much like actually listening to a depressed drunk. The clock above the desk clerk remains at 4:20 a.m. – are we in purgatory or has it simply stuck? – and one begins to wish Krapp would come on and fast-forward this deflated windbag.

"Dennehy's Erie is believably pathetic, though his bright, even Hollywood teeth give away that he is an actor slumming.

"The show's primary treasure is Grifasi, who upstages the star as a hilariously hang-dog night clerk; the listener triumphs once more.

"The sound design by Richard Woodbury deserves a mention for its very realistic off-stage barking and a subway that rumbles over the audience.

"Not a great play and only a decent performance from Dennehy, but when you view it as a prelude to a magnificent Krapp's Last Tape, it just seems like bonus material."

Fuente Ovejuna Worth the Trip

Richard Ouzounian (Toronto Star) gives Fuente Ovejuna three out of four stars:

"If the Stratford Shakespeare Festival had done nothing else to make us grateful this season – and believe me, they've done plenty already – the introduction of playwright Lope de Vega and his superb work, Fuente Ovejuna, would be enough to earn our thanks.

"An admirable, if not perfect, production of the play opened Friday afternoon at the Tom Patterson Theatre and I can safely call it obligatory viewing for anyone who truly loves the theatre.

"It's shocking that de Vega, one of the world's greatest playwrights, should have taken more than 50 years to get to Stratford, but that's been his fate outside of the Spanish-speaking world.

"His plays, mostly written in the early years of the 17th century, are Shakespearean in their richness and depth.

"Fuente Ovejuna is a rich, seething saga about the evil Guzmán, who holds a small town (Fuente Ovejuna) in terror, raping and murdering the population as he sees fit.

"One day, he goes too far and the tale of what happens next is heart-stopping in its excitement and spine-chilling in its terror.

"Laurence Boswell has adapted and directed the play and his linguistic rendering of the de Vega text is rich, vivid and contemporary without becoming too anachronistic.

"But as a director, Boswell lets down the side a bit. There are two distinct styles of acting going on here and, in fact, this is a watershed production for Stratford. You see the old, dusty rhetoric that James Blendick, Brad Rudy and Stephen Russell try out in stark relief to the realistic – yet poetic – speech of the rest of the cast.

"Poor Scott Wentworth is caught in the middle. He plays the villainous Guzmán and the minute I saw him recycling his De Niro-meets-Pacino performance, I knew he hadn't been well directed. He's capable of much better than we get here.

"Jonathan Goad is a real yet dashing hero and Sara Topham a brilliant heroine, delivering a radical rabble-rousing speech with such brilliance that you wonder when they're going to let her play Antigone.

"There is fine work also from Robert Persichini as a dumb sweet peasant, Severn Thompson as a blazing firebrand and Nigel Shawn Williams as the voice of reason.

"Geraint Wyn Davies and Seana McKenna are almost wasted in the small roles of Ferdinand and Isabella, but the fact that these parts can be cast so well is one of the joys of Stratford.

"However, Peter Hartwell's costumes are musical comedy-clean and lacking in the texture of the script.

"Also, for a play where so many people get maimed and tortured, Evil Dead does much better in the gore department.

"But in compensation, you get some glorious music from Edward Henderson and a supporting cast who give 105 per cent.

"This may not be the best Fuente Ovejuna possible, but it has lots of stunning moments and it's definitely more than worth a visit.

"Yet another reason to go to Stratford this summer."

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Stratford Credits in 2008-9 CanStage Season

Compiled by CBC:

"Donna Feore, the director who brought critically acclaimed shows such as Oklahoma! and Oliver! to the stage in Stratford, will helm the Canadian Stage production of It's a Wonderful Life next November.

"Feore, a 16-year veteran of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, will be making her CanStage debut with It's a Wonderful Life, a stage adaptation of Frank Capra's popular film.

"CanStage announced Feore as director of the play, part of the 2008-2009 season, on Tuesday.

"It also announced Seana McKenna will star in Doubt, the New York hit and Pulitzer Prize winner that is one of the high points of CanStage's next season.

"Marti Maraden, former co-artistic director at Stratford, has previously been announced as director of Doubt, which is about suspected sexual abuse at a Catholic school.

"McKenna played in the Canadian Stage production The Clean House this spring and has been seen in Toronto in Lucy, Boy Gets Girl and Wit.

"She won Dora Awards for Orpheus Descending and Saint Joan, and a Genie for film The Hanging Garden.

"She is currently appearing in the Stratford Festival productions The Trojan Women and Fuente Ovejuna."

Monday, June 23, 2008

Will Dennehy Sell Out?

Kathy Rumleski for Sun Media:

"He meanders on stage with a wrinkled suit and a stagger in his step.

"This loud, vexatious characters is not somebody you could stand long. The man behind the mask, though, is the draw.

"American film and stage icon Brian Dennehy couldn't have picked a better time to make his Stratford Shakespeare Festival debut, along with his friend and comrade Joe Grifasi, who lends quite a bit of star power of his own.

"A Canadian dollar that these days hovers at par, climbing gas prices and concerns about border wait times have seemingly conspired to drive down attendance at the festival, which relies on Americans purchasing tickets besides the Canadian attendance.

"Sales have decreased from last year at the repertory theatre, despite production after production receiving praise from the critics.

"The packed Studio Theatre crowd in this preview hangs on Dennehy's every word in Hughie, where he shares the stage with Grifasi, a quiet night clerk -- and then in his one-man presentation of Krapp's Last Tape on the same bill.

"'I think everybody's here to see Brian,' one woman says. 'Not so much the show.'

"Dennehy and Grifasi are perplexed that people wouldn't flock to this 'extraordinary' institution.

"'There is no place like this anywhere in the world,' Dennehy says, mentioning the wonderful support system in place, which includes voice and movement coaches and access to dramaturges (to provide historical and social context for texts).

"'The lighting people, the sound people . . . they have the most extraordinary costume setup I've ever seen. I've worked in a lot of big Broadway productions [Death of a Salesman and Long Day's Journey Into Night to name the two which garnered him Tony awards] and I've never seen anything like this. The ambitions are extraordinary.'

"Grifasi, 64, who first met Dennehy, 69, in 1978 and has worked with him numerous times in film (F/X, Presumed Innocent), TV (Jack Reed) and on stage, including doing Hughie two other times in Chicago and Providence, calls it an 'actor's spa.'

"He signed on for coaching in the Alexander technique, which empowers the actor to become aware of the physical habits that impede performance and improve breathing and vocal production to allow fuller emotional expression.

"In the 1960s when Grifasi wanted to become a stage actor, he'd travel from Buffalo, his hometown, to Stratford to see performances.

"'I saw my first great theatre here. It changed my life.'

"He made his escape from Buffalo after being inspired by festival productions, determined to act.
"It was Christopher Plummer who brought Dennehy to Stratford to work and Dennehy who brought Grifasi here.

"Plummer and Dennehy worked together in New York a year ago in Inherit the Wind.

"'Chris said something to (Stratford artistic director Des McAnuff) about me and Des said something to me about it and we figured out what we could do,' Dennehy says.

"He enjoys the combination of Samuel Beckett and Eugene O'Neill and he's challenged by their scripts.

"'One thing I learned . . . is that a great play never stops revealing itself to you. In many ways it's harder to do it the second or third time because you find it very difficult to satisfy yourself.'

"Grifasi said Canadians seem to enjoy the language of the two plays. 'There's an ear for this stuff here. There's a lot going on out there.'

"As the pair settle in for their interview, Grifasi looks comfortable in jeans, sneakers and a golf shirt and his appearance, including his warm face, make others relax.

"Dennehy, who appears to have lost weight even since opening night on May 26, is somewhat strained. He has taken off the crumpled suit and is wearing a pink dress shirt, beige shorts and ball cap.

"'It's busy. You get here as an actor and you're going, six, five days a week,' Dennehy says. 'Typically for American actors, you're working on one show at a time. In rep you don't do this. In my case, I have three. The (double bill) is difficult enough, especially with two playwrights as extraordinary as O'Neill and Beckett.

"'Then you have the most demanding of all -- Shakespeare. I don't have that much experience, hardly any, doing Shakespeare, so I'm trying to catch up.'

"He referred to himself as the worst basketball player on the team in the cast of All's Well That Ends Well, in which he plays the King of France.

"In the similar way that Dennehy's character Erie Smith needs Hughie the night clerk, Dennehy clearly likes having Grifasi, whom he calls Joey, around.

"They take jabs at each other back and forth, back and forth, almost like its rehearsed they've done it so often -- mostly on this day about Joe's nose. Dennehy has Grifasi to do some of the talking in an interview; takes the load off.

"After his work day is done, Dennehy calls Grifasi on his cell phone to find out where he is. Grifasi is on his way home to the place he rents in Stratford, which has a garden. 'My first garden,' he says proudly, adding that it's an old-fashioned Italian vegetable garden like the one his father, who died this year, had.

"Besides their love of acting, their many projects together, their working-class and Catholic backgrounds, the men both served their country -- and if that doesn't create a bond, nothing will.

"'We got talking one day. He was a marine, I was in the army. We had both served on the same island, almost overlapping. A little Pacific island called Okinawa and it's ironic that we were both there,' Grifasi relates the little story, that comes out of nowhere in a conversation, but seems to fit, nevertheless.

"It's a privilege to watch them on and off the stage. If you get the chance to do one or the other or both -- 'cause it's hard for them to hide in Stratford and neither wants to -- take it.

"'People should come,' Dennehy says."

Krapp's Last Tape and Hughie open together June 28 at the Studio Theatre and run through August 31.

Brian Dennehy also appears in All's Well That Ends Well (June 27-August 23) at the Festival Theatre.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Brian Dennehy Prepares for Opening Weekend

An interview with Brian Dennehy, from Richard Ouzounian at the Toronto Star:

"'When you walk with giants, you learn how to take bigger steps.'

"That's how Brian Dennehy modestly explains his legendary Tony Award-winning performances in Death of a Salesman and Long Day's Journey Into Night, giving the credit to authors Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill.

"But the big steps of Dennehy's past are about to become positively huge, as he soon adds two more theatrical giants to his repertoire and revisits a third.

"In the space of two days next weekend at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Dennehy will open as the King in Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well as well as a double bill of Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape and Eugene O'Neill's Hughie.

"It's a bill that would tax a man half his age, but Dennehy – who turns 70 on July 9 – is relishing the assignment. 'I've never done repertory theatre before in my life and it's certainly a challenge,' says Dennehy, unwinding in a Toronto bistro. 'But I love the Stratford Festival and everything about it. What a f---ing amazing place full of f---ing amazing people!'

"Bursts of blue language are not uncommon with Dennehy. He's a big, burly Irishman of a certain generation who grew up on Long Island and spent time with the Marines.

"But he's not as burly as he used to be, thanks to the Lap Band weight reduction surgery he underwent after a frightening bout of hypertension drove him out of Death of a Salesman for a few days in 1999.

"'This machine is all I've got,' he says, slapping the area around his heart. 'I've gotta take care of it.'

"That's another reason his hard-drinking days are long behind him and the Diet Coke he sips at is his beverage of choice nowadays.

"'Yeah, I drank a lot,' he says without affectation or drama. '"It was fun and then it wasn't fun any more. So I quit.'

"But Dennehy is aware of the legacy of drink and how it haunts many Irishmen, including his beloved author O'Neill.

"'He was one of those classic Irish alcoholics who got pissed off because he couldn't drink any more and that drove a lot of his work.'

"Hughie, for example, is a 1941 one-act play about Erie Smith, 'a small-fry gambler and horse-player' who is just coming off a five-day bender that he went on after Hughie, his favourite desk clerk at the crummy hotel he stays at, suddenly died.

"'His whole life has been an abject series of petty failures,' says Dennehy, 'but he always turns them into imaginary triumphs. It's a play about grief and so is Krapp's Last Tape.' A sunny grin spreads over Dennehy's face. 'Now I have a word to bridge the two plays.'

"Dennehy has performed Hughie several times before, always to great acclaim, and he calls it 'a series of conventional, if interesting, problems for the actor.'

"But Beckett, whose stygian nightmarish world Dennehy is entering for the first time, is something totally different.

"'I remember sitting with (actor) Patrick Magee in a bar someplace in New York many years ago,' Dennehy recalls. 'Magee was the first actor to ever portray Krapp and we were both in our cups and talking about the play. "Very dark," Paddy kept saying, "the play is very dark."'

"Dennehy snorts. 'Jesus, I should have listened to him.'

"Krapp's Last Tape finds a bitter old man on his 69th birthday, sitting alone and listening to tapes he has made over the years that allow him to review the wreckage of his life.

"'It's profoundly difficult,' admits Dennehy, 'which is as it should be, because it's a f---ing impossible part.

"'I feel like I've gotten a long way down the road in the last couple of weeks, but I don't know if it's the right road and there's no map available.'

"He is finding Stratford director Jennifer Tarver a real asset. 'I like balancing her fresh, new perspective against my pain-in-the-ass old-fart perspective.'

"But, in the end, Dennehy keeps coming back to the problem of what he calls 'the Beckett darkness.'

"When asked to compare it, for example, to the darkness found in O'Neill, he broods for a few seconds.

"'They both have a skull in their plays,' Dennehy theorizes, 'and the O'Neill skull grins . . . but the Beckett skull laughs out loud.'

"And then there's his third role: the King of France in Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well, which is being performed on the giant Festival stage as opposed to the intimacy of the Studio Theatre where Hughie and Krapp's Last Tape are presented.

"How is he finding that experience? 'I use the image of a horse on ice,' he chuckles, 'because I feel like I'm slipping and sliding around. I'm faking, but I'm surrounded by people who know what they're doing, like Martha (Henry), (Stephen) Ouimette, (Juan) Chioran and (Tom) Rooney.

"'With those people on stage, I cover my ass and my bets.'

"Then there's another, purely technical issue. 'On the first day of rehearsal,' he relates, 'I said to (director) Marti Maraden, "You've got the big Brian Dennehy problem. I block out the sun."

"'"That won't be a problem," she said sweetly.'

"Dennehy laughs so loudly he chokes on his Diet Coke. When he has recovered, he continues.

"'Now, suddenly, it's getting to be, "Brian, when you say that line, move this way, and when you say the next line, move the other way." And I said "You mean like over toward Cleveland?"

"'The other night, I was wearing one of those orange golfing shirts and I'm sure I looked like a Wal-Mart store up there.'

"Despite his enthusiasm and apparent vigour, it must still be a strain for a 70-year-old man to perform three demanding plays in one day.

"'Something I learned a long time ago: Physical fatigue is the actor's friend. You don't want to go too far with that, but the great doctor is always the audience.

"'There are two counter-intuitive processes that take place in acting: stripping a lot of s--t away and assembling all kinds of things to hide behind.

"'When you're tired, you can't assemble those elaborate barricades between you and the audience and it's amazing how many great performances come out of that inability to protect yourself.'

"When looking at the big picture, Dennehy thinks of himself as a combination of his father and grandfather.

"'My father had a good sense of humour about a lot of things, including life, which I think I inherited. And he was devoted to the job he was doing (as an Associated Press wire-man). I'm like that, too.

"'But my grandfather was a crapshooter. When he was 12, he left Ireland on his own and moved to America on his own.

"'I'm a crapshooter, too. Give me a ticket and I'll be there. I don't see that changing any time soon, but time has a way of making those choices for you.'

"But for now, with three giant authors to increase his stride and the Stratford machine buzzing happily behind him, Dennehy concludes, 'I can't think of a place I'd rather be.

"'The great thing about an audience is that you walk out there in the dark, the lights go up and you gotta just shut up and do it. They paid their f---ing money and you better deliver. And the next night you gotta do it again.

"'This ain't a movie where you do it five times and they pick the best one. This is ultimately you and them and the words.

"'There's something primitive and satisfying about that. It's being alive and being a communicator on cue.'"

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Bringing Success Home

Choreographer Sergio Trujillo (at Stratford: 1999's West Side Story and 2000's The Sound of Music) may be mentioned in the latest article about Jersey Boys, but director Des McAnuff is once again the focus.

From James Bradshaw at the Globe and Mail:

"McAnuff, artistic director of the Stratford Festival (the last remaining member of its leadership triumvirate that imploded in spectacular fashion in March), said he was surprised it took this long to bring Jersey Boys to his hometown.

"'We started at [California's] La Jolla Playhouse in the summer of 2004, and audiences were literally standing up during the acts, which never happens. Ever. We were suspicious that we had a tiger by the tail, and because we were both Toronto boys, we started talking about Toronto immediately,' he said.

"The Toronto Centre seemed an attractive venue to McAnuff and the partnership with Dan came about through talks conducted by McAnuff's producer, Michael David.

"Rick Elice, who co-wrote Jersey Boys with Marshall Brickman, has high praise for McAnuff and said the initial search for a director was brief.

"'I worked for Des as an actor back in 1982 when he was this freakishly talented, very strange Canadian boy who came to New York and was going to make his name. And so when we got to the point where we wanted to talk to a director, there was no list. It was Des. Des was the only guy who could have done this show, and he is absolutely at the top of his form,' Elice said.

"And though Elice said he considers Toronto a great theatre city, he hinted strongly that it was largely due to McAnuff that the show made it there. 'Des, of course, wanted this to be a real event here. And we'd walk through fire for him, which is why we're here,' he said.

"McAnuff's commitment to direct Jersey Boys in the midst of a full Stratford season has prompted talk that he is stretching himself too thin. When he signed on with the festival, the artistic directorship was shared three ways; now he fills the post alone. He is candid about the strain he will be under but insists he can weather the storm.

"'The key is just being willing to work seven days a week and 12 hours a day. I have a great team at Stratford that's evolving; you don't do this by yourself. I dare say Stratford wanted artistic directors who had outside careers, and this was a conscious decision of the board of governors. They thought this would be a good thing for the Stratford Festival. So hopefully I don't burn out,' he said.

Jersey Boys opens at the Toronto Centre for the Arts on August 21.

Romeo and Juliet, which McAnuff directed for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, runs until November 8.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Smattering of Reviews

Othello: The Tragedy of the Moor airs Sunday at 9pm on CBC. Check out what the critics are saying:

"The classic story of Othello is followed to a tee and traditionalists will not be disappointed. Yet the scenes are sharp and fast-moving — enough to enchant the unfamiliar. And even though the lines follow an old-school delivery, it isn’t hard to follow along once you decipher the 'thous' and 'thines.'

"Delivering a brilliant performance as the title character, Rota also executive-produced the project, which is his first-ever experience with Shakespeare.

"'I thought it was just such a huge bloody mountain to climb. I was going to leave it to people who knew better about it,'” he muses. 'Look at me — I’m in my late 40s and I’ve just done some Shakespeare.'

"Six months ago, Rota would have written Shakespeare off as 'mental.' Now, when asked if he would ever consider doing the real thing — act in a Shakespearian play — he says he would jump at the chance.

"It is hard to imagine the scheming-yet-lovable Yasir on Little Mosque or the elusive Morris O’Brian on 24 taking up the ominous role of Othello. But Rota’s deep, soothing voice and heart-wrenching scenes will leave you sympathetic and angry, not to mention mesmerized.

"Even more brilliant is Deslippe’s performance as the power-driven Iago, who will stop at nothing to wreak revenge on the unsuspecting Cassio for his recent promotion by the Moor. The perfect villain, Deslippe plays with the viewer’s emotions; he delivers soliloquies to the camera that invoke sympathy and then toys with the others’ fates with such chilling detachment that before you’re aware, you have a boiling bubble of hate in the pit of your stomach.

"Topping off the stellar trio is Horne and her performance as the love-driven Desdemona. Horne plays the part with interlaced innocence and charm, but the real enchantment is the conviction in her eyes — something a restricted theatrical version would never let the viewer experience.

"'We’ve made what I hope people view as a very healthy hybrid of stage and TV,' Rota explains. 'It’s a return for the CBC to a mandate that they haven’t really pursued in the last little while. I’m hoping that we’ll get a strong audience because it’s the perfect thing for this network.'"

-- Amber Dowling, TV Guide

"Rota usually projects a humorous self-awareness that should be all wrong for Othello, but turns out to be all right. He establishes authority without effort ('put up your bright swords') and seems very sure both of himself and of his love.

"Iago has to work very hard to crack that shell; some clever adaptation (by Matthew Edison and director Zaib Shaikh) makes it seem a longer, more varied and gradual process than it is in the theatre. The temptation takes place over a buffet-lunch; when the dam is burst, Othello finds an outlet in hacking away at a joint of meat.

"A terrible logic, unfounded but unstoppable, takes over the two scenes in which he abuses his wife as a whore. His last speech is left intact; in fact we hear it twice, at beginning and end. (The play is a flashback.) And with it we reach greatness. Rota lays out the facts of the case calmly, sanely, tormentedly; it seems he'll go quietly. And when he whips out his knife and kills himself, it's total shock. It's a long time since I've seen an Othello, on stage or screen, as good as this."

"The cast includes a posse of Stratford Festival veterans -- Graham Abbey, Peter Donaldson, Jonathan Goad-- who can colour and personalize the verse at any volume; Abbey is the best Cassio I have ever seen."

-- Robert Cushman, National Post

"'I wanted a challenge, and man, did I get one,' says Rota, who is best known for roles in the TV series La Femme Nikita, the superspy drama 24, and Little Mosque.

"'I plunged myself into Othello with great abandon,' he continues. 'The first day on set, I was going on about how the text was so wonderful, how it holds your emotions . . . and Peter Donaldson [a Stratford Shakespeare Festival veteran who plays Brabantio] was looking at me like, 'welcome to the party, pal - we've been here for years.'

"'I was nervous, to tell you the truth,' Rota adds, who got into acting relatively late in life, at age 30. "As an actor, you have an imposter syndrome at the best of times.'"

"Aurora, Ont.-born Christine Horne (The Stone Angel) plays Desdemona. Several Stratford Festival alumni are cast, including Deslippe (who plays Iago), Donaldson, Graham Abbey (Cassio) and Nazneen Contractor (Bianca).

"The writers also did not contemporize the language, remaining true to Shakespeare's words. Rota says he learned to speak Shakespearean English by listening to CDs in his car on a five-day road trip to Toronto from his home in Los Angeles.

"'We started rehearsals in the middle of January and when I started to mouth the words I thought I was doing a god-awful job,' Rota says. 'But with the help of fabulous actors like Contractor, I learned to make the words mine. That took a bit of doing since I have no formal training in it. But in the end, I took my own course.'"

-- Gayle MacDonald, The Globe and Mail

Friday, June 13, 2008

Othello on CBC Radio Tonight

Zaib Shaik's Othello: The Tragedy of the Moor will be broadcast on CBC Radio One tonight at 7:30pm.

The made-for-television adaptation stars Stratford Shakespeare Festival veterans Graham Abbey, Emma Campbell, Nazneen Contractor, Jonathan Goad, and Peter Donaldson.

It will premiere on CBC Television at 9pm Sunday.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Stratford Stars in Othello Sunday

Othello: The Tragedy of the Moor premieres on CBC Television this Sunday, June 15, at 9pm. It will also be broadcast on CBC Radio One this Friday, June 13, at 7:30pm.

Director Zaib Shaik co-wrote the script with Matthew Edison.

The cast includes:

CARLO ROTA -- Othello

It will, of course, be difficult to stand Jonathan Goad playing a third-string character after seeing his Iago last season, but we'll watch it nonetheless. And then go see The Music Man.

Donnelly Dramatist Dead at 81

Marti Maraden, Martha Henry, and David Ferry mourn the loss of playwright James Reaney, 81, Thursday in the Stratford Beacon Herald:

"James Reaney, a national literary icon who stayed close to his southwestern Ontario roots during a celebrated 50-year career as a playwright, poet and professor, has died.

"The former South Easthope resident and longtime Londoner died last night in London, Ont., following a long illness. He was 81.

"'It’s a very sad loss for Canadian poetry and theatre,' said Ron Dodson, Stratford resident and former drama teacher at Stratford Central Secondary School.

"Mr. Dodson knew Mr. Reaney over a period of 40 years and was a student of Mr. Reaney’s when he was at university.

"'My major impression was of his incredible creativity and how he was able to translate that into a product that was very, very accessible and yet made people think.'

"The retired teacher especially recalled Mr. Reaney’s play King Whistle! which was commissioned for the centennial of Central secondary and performed at the Avon Theatre in 1979.

"It was referred to as 'a love letter to Stratford,' said Mr. Dodson.

"'Jamie was one of two mentors I had who made it possible for me to have a career in teaching,' he added. 'I’m really sad to see him pass away.'

"Marti Maraden, a frequent director at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival who directed Mr. Reaney’s play Alice Through The Looking Glass in 1994, said one of her treasured recollections is of the playwright taking her on a tour of his childhood residence near Stratford.

"'He had an amazingly varied and extraordinary career,' she said. 'He was one of the most significant voices in the real beginning of Canadian theatre.'

"Mr. Reaney had a wonderful sense of visual theatre, she added, and 'words were living creatures to him.'

"Festival actor David Ferry acted in Mr. Reaney’s Donnelly trilogy and has written a thesis on the playwright. He cited the poet’s incredible range of interests and achievements.

"'His mind was gigantic in terms of its piercing insights into so many areas,' he said, noting that Mr. Reaney wrote about geography and philosophy and history, created a theatre company, and had his own press and publication that carried stories from some of Canada’s leading writers.

"'It was a peaceful end to a great life,' his son, journalist James Reaney of London, Ont., said. 'We know that he will be remembered and his contributions to Canadian culture will be valued.'

"Born and raised on a farm in South Easthope in 1926, Mr. Reaney was an acclaimed poet, playwright, author, opera librettist and University of Western Ontario English professor.
He won three Governor General’s Awards for poetry and drama, and a 1974 Chalmers Award for best Canadian play.

"'He was so great,' said Nancy Poole, a former Museum London director who met Mr. Reaney at UWO.

"'He was a gentleman, an intellectual, an artistic giant in the Canadian scene.'

"Mr. Reaney won his first Governor General’s Award in 1949 at age 23 for a collection of poetry, The Red Heart.

"In 1960, he began teaching at UWO and started publishing Alphabet, a semi-annual periodical devoted 'to the iconography of the imagination.'

"In 1966 he founded the Listener’s Workshop and began working with child and adult actors in choral ensemble works. Mr. Reaney, whose play Colours in the Dark premiered in Stratford in 1967, received the Order of Canada in 1975.

"His best known dramatic work may be a trilogy of plays about the 1880 massacre of the Donnelly family in Lucan.

"He was 10 when his stepfather told him the stirring story, stoking an interest that would lead him to write the three plays that not only dramatized the legend, but arguably also brought it into focus historically.

"The [Donnelly] trilogy is among a handful of Canadian works listed among the 1,000 most significant plays of all time by the Oxford Dictionary of Plays.

"He was also an amateur painter and pianist whose works were exhibited in London and Toronto.

"Mr. Reaney enjoyed such respect that even small details of his life inspired artisans, said Martha Henry, Stratford Shakespeare Festival actor and director.

"Ms. Henry, who acted in two Reaney plays, recalled a tour last summer of his childhood home near Stratford

"'It was amazing,' she said. 'We went up into the attic where he used to write. He’s an icon. A complete original.'

"The playwright and poet is survived by his wife, poet Colleen Thibaudeau, two children, including a daughter in Vancouver, two grand-daughters and two siblings, one of them a sister Wilma McCaig, 70, who still lives in the family farmhouse."

"Ms. McCaig said the family is planning a memorial service for early next month."

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

It's Webcast Wednesday!

Join the webcast at 11:30 this morning for a live discussion of Fuente Ovejuna with Director of Literary Services David Prosser and actors Scott Wentworth (Commander Guzman) and Robert Persichini (Mengo).

Plus, get the female perspective on the topic ("love, lust, and revenge") in a pre-recorded interview with Sarah Topham (Laurencia) and Severn Thompson (Pascuala).

Ask a question in advance.

Monday, June 9, 2008

"A Hamlet You've Never Seen Before"

A review of Hamlet from Gary Smith at the Hamilton Spectator:

"In a lifetime, you might see one or two thrilling Hamlets. They're just about that scarce.

"Fortunately for me, I've collided with four. Richard Burton, mellifluous and moody, in the 1964 modern dress version at O'Keefe Centre. Ian McKellan, young, brooding and sexy, as the Great Dane at the Cambridge Theatre, London, in 1969. Ralph Fiennes, dark and poetic, masculine and modern in 2003 at New York's Belasco Theatre.

"And now number four. Ben Carlson, a visceral, vital Hamlet who makes a mock of Shakespeare's lines about indecision and vacillation. There is no timidity here.

"Carlson rattles through director Adrian Noble's dark and elegant production of this problem play without ever giving in to imitation. This is a Hamlet you've never seen before. He's wild with Ophelia, self-mocking with himself, vicious with his uncle and loathing, yet loving, of his confused and desperate mother.

"Noble has directed the play without any big surprises in terms of style and staging. Setting the play in some Edwardian landscape, he allows his actors to act. There are no cute gimmicks. In eschewing the handsome Tanya Moiseiwitsch stage at Stratford, Noble has allowed designer Santo Loquasto to invent a dark and frightening void that exists beyond two dominating doors or panels. These portals open and close impressively, revealing devastating characters who impinge on the mourning state of Denmark.

"The costumes are elegant and simple, revealing a touch of royalty and style. Never is there a sense of design overshadowing the play. Always the physical elements complement the drama on stage.

"Tasteful is a word that comes instantly to mind. Taste is something revealed, too, in Noble's clean, uncluttered direction. Every word is spoken clearly. Every gesture is intelligently made. Every visual motif evocative and riveting.

"Noble is the sort of director who doesn't need to plant a play in present day to force us to understand its relevance. Here, he matches period and mood brilliantly.

"Adrienne Gould is a revelation as Ophelia. Moving from sweet, youthful love to dark, brooding madness, she's a visceral being who can touch the heart and disturb the spirit. Gould has never been better.

"Geraint Wyn Davies is a different Polonius. Instead of a fussy old fool he comes across as a loving father bedevilled by the tragedies of life.

"Scott Wentworth gives Claudius a brooding sexuality, something that makes you understand why Gertrude is taken with his vain appearance and strength.

"Maria Ricossa plays Gertrude as a beautiful, rather brainless trophy wife and it works.

"There are times when sadness clouds her swollen eyes. When she looks at her son and realizes his pain, we can feel her heart break.

"See Hamlet if you want to be part of a new wave at Stratford. Hopefully, this moving look at one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies signals a return to productions that rely on text and imagination, not some notion of radical thinking without basis."

Friday, June 6, 2008

"Terrific" Cabaret

Robyn Godfrey (Stratford Gazette) reviews Cabaret:

"From the very first glimpse of the set you realize this is not your grandmother’s musical. Broken windows, crumbling stone, rusted iron stairs – the set designed by Douglas Paraschuk looks like a tetanus infection waiting to happen. Yet the characters that live in this seedy world do so – for a while – to the fullest, grabbing at love and life where they can. No wonder Cliff becomes seduced by this life.

"The audience can share his enthusiasm – director Amanda Dehnert brings to life a production that is tantalizing, comical, seductive, horrific and sad – all in a good way. It has two hearts, Bruce Dow as the Emcee and Sean Arbuckle as Cliff Bradshaw.

"The Emcee and his company lure Cliff into their world, and watch as his own story unfolds. As Cliff becomes aware of the political situation in Germany, he also becomes aware of the watchful Emcee, and this development is fascinating to view from the floor.

"But the audience is not protected behind the fourth wall for this show. An actor swings out over the front rows, Kit Kat dancers appear in the aisles, the Emcee speaks directly to us and when Nazi sympathizers suddenly rise out of the audience to join in a grotesque parody of the formerly sweet ballad 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me' in their loud, harsh voices, we become as trapped and helpless as the characters on stage.

"It is a heart-thumping moment: only Cliff acts to kill the lights with a sharp clang, plunging all of us into darkness and stunned silence.

"The performances are as dazzling as the direction. Known for his jollier roles, Bruce Dow evolves his version of the Emcee from a cheekily sinister imp into a sort of chorus, and then into a sort of muse, intent on drawing Cliff nearer to fulfilling both their needs, to remember and write about the life of the Cabaret.

"Sean Arbuckle paints Cliff as a perceptive and realistic optimist, and is movingly expressive when he sings 'Don’t Go'. Trish Lindström brings the appropriate joie de vivre to the appealingly selfish Sally Bowles, and shows a hard, glittering defiance in the title number as she makes her self-destructive choice.

"Nora McClellan and Frank Moore are unforgettable as they bring wistful tenderness to their roles as the pragmatic Fräulein Schneider and the Jewish Herr Shultz who refuses to comprehend the growing danger that the Nazis represent.

"With its gritty costumes and memorable music, this production of Cabaret is terrific in both senses of the word, it evokes the terror of the era but superbly so. Every second is nail-bitingly tense or sad and there isn’t a single moment when you can really relax.

"Parents considering bringing their children or teens should be prepared to answer questions afterward – the play contains themes important to our collective history and memory, but they are explored a very dark and sometimes explicit manner. "

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Stratford Looks Better Than Shaw

From Richard Ouzounian at the Toronto Star:

"Each of our two major theatre festivals – Stratford and Shaw – has by now launched 50 per cent of their seasonal programming, making it a good time to take stock of things.

"The bottom line? This year, Stratford is offering its most exciting season in recent history, while over at Niagara-on-the-Lake it's just more of the same old – maybe even a little more so than usual.

"The simple fact is that, in this era of high fuel prices, lengthy border crossings and shrinking vacation budgets, you've got to do something spectacular to draw tourists to these theatrical destinations.

"Stratford seems to have found the right stuff to do it, but things in Niagara are looking increasingly problematic.

"Last season was Jackie Maxwell's fifth at the Shaw, replacing Christopher Newton after the latter had provided 23 years of prosperity and quality programming.

"Maxwell immediately ran into trouble. Although she could try to point to the SARS crisis as the major reason for declining audiences, that's not enough to explain the multi-million-dollar deficits she incurred in her first two seasons.

"No, the trouble was – and still is – her programming of the flagship Festival Theatre, which is the money engine driving the company.

"It doesn't matter that shows on the smaller stages like Rutherford and Son and Floyd Collins were huge critical hits.

"What's more to the point is that audiences stayed away in droves from Canadian plays like The Coronation Voyage and Nothing Sacred.

"In fact, the sole year in the past five during which Maxwell achieved a modest five-figure surplus from audience attendance (rather than fundraising) was when she introduced a mainstage musical in 2005 with Gypsy.

"But the following season, even though High Society was a huge audience favourite (despite universally appalling notices) the major reason for the festival's only near-million-dollar surplus in Maxwell's tenure was a 15 per cent increase in fundraising activity.

"Last year, the musical was Mack and Mabel, which failed to draw a crowd, and the deficit was close to $1 million again.

"This year? Maxwell opened with a drably cast, poorly staged, strangely directed version of An Inspector Calls that is not going to generate any excitement at the box office.

"The musical Wonderful Town got amiable reviews from most critics, but it, too, won't light any revenue fires. And the final show of the mainstage trifecta won't bow until July 18 when Maxwell's production of Mrs. Warren's Profession has its debut.

"It could be brilliant, but without any box office stars in the cast, I'm willing to predict it will face an uphill audience climb as well.

"Any trace of real invention seems to have vanished from the current programming. Remember those years when Shaw provided us with must-see shows like Cavalcade, Cyrano de Bergerac or The Women?

"Also, some of Maxwell's best actors (Ben Carlson, Evan Buliung, Trish Lindstrom, Mike Shara, Nicole Underhay) have defected to Stratford, television or other theatres.

"Well, as the beleaguered parson shouts out to the heavens in John Ford's Drums Along the Mohawk, 'Ammunition's getting mighty low, Lord!'

"Up in Perth County, there is considerably more buzz going on. Despite the nightmare events of mid-March when two-thirds of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's artistic directorate resigned, things have been chugging along nicely.

"Even when the shows haven't completely succeeded (like Romeo and Juliet or Cabaret), the productions have displayed the kind of enthusiasm and new ideas that are the lifeblood of theatre. And any week that can boast three triumphs like Hamlet, The Music Man and The Trojan Women has certainly earned my admiration.

"Even though Michael Langham's Love's Labour's Lost was a boringly mistaken proof that what might have worked in 1961 was not so hot in 2008 and Peter Hinton's The Taming of the Shrew looked more like a graduate student's thesis than an actual production, the overall feeling was still high.

"So far this season, Stratford has contented itself with showcasing Canadian stars and I doubt anyone, anywhere, will get better reviews this summer than Ben Carlson, Jonathan Goad and Seana McKenna have earned so far in Hamlet, The Music Man and The Trojan Women.

"To stir up audience interest further, Brian Dennehy opens three shows in late June, while August brings Christopher Plummer back to home ice. There's also an exciting work by Lope de Vega, two new Canadian plays and Simon Callow in his one-man show about Shakespeare's sonnets.

"Think star power like that doesn't matter? The owner of one of Stratford's most prestigious restaurants told me that from the first preview of Plummer's Caesar and Cleopatra to the end of the season, he's almost fully booked.

"Let's make it clear. I'm not saying that every show being done at Shaw is bad and every one being staged at Stratford is good.

"But the new regime of Antoni Cimolino and Des McAnuff at Stratford is already looking like the start of a very promising theatre company.

"While over at Maxwell's House, the only thing stronger than the scent emanating from Niagara-on-the-Lake's fudge shoppes is the Eau de Masterpiece Theatre floating off its stages."

Love's Labour's Lost Unappreciated

Sun Media theatre critic John Coulbourne gives Love's Labours Lost 3 out of 5 stars:

"There are a number of reasons to see the Stratford Festival production of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost during its run in the Tom Patterson Theatre, where it opened last weekend.

"Sadly, pure entertainment value would be way down on the list -- a fact certain to disappoint those who were so thrilled that the erstwhile artistic director of the festival was finally making a return, directing a play on which he had built an impressive reputation.

"But while it would be unfair and certainly incorrect to suggest that time has passed the 88-year-old artist by, it passes nonetheless -- and after an unfortunate accident made it impossible for him to be on hand for the start of rehearsals (Richard Monette, another past artistic director, stepped in), Michael Langham was faced upon his arrival with not only a largely inexperienced cast drawn from the Festival's Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre, but with a foreshortened rehearsal period as well.

"He was also faced with what often has been dismissed as one of Shakespeare's minor works, despite the success of his earlier productions of the work.

"Set in the court of the King of Navarre (played by Trent Pardy), it tells the tale of what happens when that King and three of his gentlemen take a pledge of chastity in favour of higher learning at the same time as the Princess of France (Alana Hawley) decides to drop by, three of her lovely ladies in tow.

"There's a sub-plot or two thrown in, with a young milkmaid (Stacie Steadman) catching the attention of both an amourous groom (veteran Brian Tree) and the King's foolishly pedantic friend (Peter Donaldson), whose young assistant (Melanie Keller) comes close to stealing the show. There's also a skit that foreshadows the Midsummer Night's Dream's play-within-a-play without ever attaining its charm. Tree, Donaldson and a few other seasoned actors have been recruited to add polish to what is, first and foremost, a showcase for students of the Birmingham Conservatory.

"And while it demonstrates that under the supervision of Martha Henry, yelling is no longer a major part of the curriculum, it also gives an indication of how far the school has to go in establishing a program to train actors ready for the Shakespearean stage.

"As one of the trio of young men surrounding the king, Ian Lake has impressive moments, but the problem with Pardy (and Jesse Aaron Dwyre and Jon de Leon, the other two members of this foursome), is that they are boys sent to do a man's job and can do little more than recite the lines and hope.

"On the distaff, Hawley, teamed with Melanie Keller, Michelle Monteith and Dalal Badr, fares better, but finally, one is left with the impression that this quartet is little more than refugees from the copying machine where they were born.

"For all that it rarely rises above the level of an accomplished and wonderfully designed (take a bow Charlotte Dean on sets and costumes and Michael J. Whitfield on lighting) high school production, there is still a major accomplishment here.

"While Langham may not have had time to fully accomplish the transition from sow's ear to silk purse, he offers up a masterclass in how to use Stratford's unique thrust stage -- a class that should be considered compulsory viewing for everyone currently directing on those stages or hoping to direct on them at any time in the future. "

Monday, June 2, 2008

"Delicious" Cast in Taming of the Shrew

Theatre critic Richard Ouzounian (the Toronto Star) gives The Taming of the Shrew 2/4 stars:

"The good news first.

"The return of Evan Buliung to the classics is one of the many things to celebrate about the opening week of the new regime at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

"His performance as Petruchio in the production of The Taming of the Shrew that opened Saturday night manages to combine strength, charm, wit and textual clarity with a welcoming dose of swaggering machismo that has been conspicuously absent from the festival in recent years.

"Unfortunately the production he's displaying all these qualities in is – not to put too fine a point on it – a bit of a dog's breakfast.

"The story of how Petruchio 'tames' the shrewish Kate while a series of suitors clamour for her younger sister Bianca's hand is a fairly complex commedia dell'arte-ish tale on its own.

"But director Peter Hinton, in an attempt to tackle some of the problematic issues in this classic battle of the sexes, has flung so many conflicting ideas onto the stage that you don't know where to look.

"How can I tell thee? Let me count the ways.

"The play as written features a framing device in which a lord, stopping with his hunting party at a country inn, decides to toy with a drunken tinker named Christopher Sly and winds up presenting the story of The Taming of the Shrew to bemuse him.

"That's complex enough, but Hinton has decided the lord is actually Queen Elizabeth I and so we have Barbara Fulton, looking like a faded copy of Maggie Smith from Robin Phillips' famous production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, where the Virgin Queen played Hippolyta and Titania.

"Ready for more?

"On the strength of one line in the text ('Why does the world report that Kate does limp?') which most scholars usually accept as a joke inspired by some physical business (a kicked leg, a broken shoe), Hinton has decided that Katherine has an actual physical deformity and has her hobbling across the festival stage as though she were Richard III instead of Katherine I.

"One can just imagine the moment of I-could-have-had-a-V8 recognition when Hinton came up with this ('You see? That's why she's so mean!') but it does absolutely nothing for poor Irene Poole, except slow down the amount of time it takes her to cross the stage.

"Between Queen Elizabeth, Kate's limp and everything else Hinton has loaded on the play, it's no wonder it runs three hours.

"What is there to celebrate? The cast.

"Buliung is a fine Petruchio, capable of genuine anger as well as sudden compassion. And the sexual tension he shares with Poole is real.

"Alas, she's been directed to play most of the show on one note of non-stop surliness, but when her own instincts are allowed to poke through she shows a complexity that's welcome in the role.

"Stephen Ouimette is a delight as Baptista, offering us a sly neurotic rather than the usual benign blusterer. Some of his double takes and unexpected line readings are the funniest parts of the evening.

"Juan Chioran also reminds of his delicious comic flare as the aged Gremio, while Ben Carlson does his best with Tranio, one of the most thankless parts in Shakespare. (He has to keep explaining the plot to everyone else.)

"Adrienne Gould is a distinctive and different Bianca, the real shrew hiding at the play's core, while the dashing Jeff Lillico is a fine mate for her as Lucentio.

"Hinton has also decided that Petruchio's servant, Grumio, should be played as a woman, which makes no sense within the period, but allows Lucy Peacock some opportunities for a relaxed free-wheeling comedy that is highly welcome.

"But in the end, we leave this production without really knowing anything more about The Taming of the Shrew or Elizabethan England.

"While one has to applaud Hinton for bringing some fresh concepts to the table, there are times when having too many ideas is worse than having none at all."

Labours Evident in This Production

After years of successful Love's Labour's Lost, Toronto Star theatre critic Richard Ouzounian thinks Michael Langham has lost his touch. 1.5 out of 4 stars:

"There's too little love and too much labour; as a result, one of Shakespeare's most haunting plays is lost.

"That's the admittedly glib, but unfortunately accurate verdict on Love's Labour's Lost, which opened at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival Saturday afternoon.

"Officially, this is a production of the festival's Young Company, with some of the more senior members of the main ensemble playing the older roles. And it's worth pointing out that many of the production's failings are not the fault of the young talent on display, but the way that talent has been used.

"It sounded like an excellent idea to have Michael Langham direct. Not only was he the artistic director of the festival during 12 of its most formative years, but his 1961 production of this play, starring Paul Scofield, is generally regarded as one of the finest in Stratford's history.

"Langham returned to direct the show again with the festival's Young Company in 1983, using a sprinkling of senior company members as he did this year, which proved so successful that it was remounted in 1984.

"So what went wrong this season? The 88-year-old Langham broke his leg just before the start of rehearsals and former artistic director Richard Monette came back to supervise the first few weeks of the production.

"But perhaps even more important, 25 years have passed since the last time Langham did the play at Stratford and styles of Shakespearean production change. This story of four young lords who vow to abandon the company of women to help them concentrate on their studies, and the fantastical collection of pedants and peasants who surround them, is an early Shakespeare work, full of literary conceits and high-flown language.

"It's good to have someone with the intellectual rigour of Langham at the helm to make sure the language is spoken with clarity, but too often you feel that you're not watching a play but reading a heavily annotated edition of the text.

"This dogmatic tone, coupled with the overly fussy cavalier period costumes that Langham and his designer, Charlotte Dean, have called for, makes it seem like the young actors are wearing straitjackets – emotional as well as physical.

"As an exercise in teaching fledgling performers the rudiments of style it may be admirable, but as a production, it's not much fun to watch.

"From the more senior company members, Peter Donaldson emerges triumphant, playing the Don Quixote-esque Don Armado with style, wit and pathos. Brian Tree is also deliciously lowbrow as Costard, but most of the others are less successful. Three of the young company members make a strongly favourable impression: Trent Pardy as a foppish King of Navarre, Alana Hawley as a vixenish Princess of France and Ian Lake as a roguish Berowne.

"One of the most striking pieces of work comes from the youngest cast member: Abigail Winter-Culliford, who is only 11. She plays Don Armado's page, Moth. Her scenes with Donaldson are the best thing about the production."

Men in Women Are Strong, Too

The Trojan Women receives 3 out of 4 stars from Globe and Mail theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck:

"If the Stratford Shakespeare Festival should ever find itself under attack by ancient Greeks, never fear: The theatre's female company members could easily repel them. The Trojan Women shows just how ferociously strong four of them - Martha Henry, Kelli Fox, Seana McKenna and Yanna McIntosh - can be.

"Euripides' tragedy is set at the end of the Trojan War, after Troy has been destroyed and every last man killed. As director Marti Maraden's production begins, the city's former queen, Hecuba, played by Henry, lies in a heap on the ground. Joint by creaking joint, she slowly raises herself up with a gnarled walking stick to survey the wreckage, the very embodiment of a survivor. With the chorus of other Trojan women, she waits, dignified but furious, to hear what fate awaits each of them. They will be doled out as slaves and mistresses to the Greek victors. And that's if they're lucky.

"Cassandra, Hecuba's daughter and a virgin priestess, is the first to get her sentence and goes crazy upon hearing it: She is to be the concubine of Agamemnon. At first, Fox is a little too la-la-la mad, but she soon works up a righteous anger that has her burning as brightly as the torch she swings at her conquerors.

"Next enters Andromache, widow of the mighty Hector, with her young son Astyanax clinging tightly to her waist. The show's standout, McKenna deep-freezes all vertebrae with her cry upon learning that her son is to be thrown from the top of the city's walls. Her wails are echoed in the ululations of the chorus, which along with their head coverings tenuously link the ancient action to the many modern Middle Eastern tragedies currently unfolding. The chorus's eight members include some powerful emoting (from Severn Thompson, in particular) and weak links (a flat Jane Spidell).

"The final Trojan woman to appear on stage is Helen, who gets hisses from the chorus for setting off this bloody, pointless war by (in this version of the story) being willingly abducted by Paris. An unbowed McIntosh makes a surprisingly strong case that the blame should lie with the gods, though I was not quite convinced her sultry looks could win back her husband, Menelaus. McIntosh pulls a pouty face that could launch 500, maybe 600 ships, but no more.

"Though they don't get star billing in the title, the Greek men deserve their due. Sean Arbuckle, who also stars in Cabaret as Cliff, gave his second wonderful performance of opening week; having seen him stand up to Nazism, we now get to see him just following orders as Talthybius, the Greek herald who reluctantly delivers the increasingly terrible news to the Trojan women. Opening the play with great verve, David W. Keeley is a commanding Poseidon.

"Maraden deserves praise for pulling fabulous performances out of her cast, but her very classic production of this anti-war play lacks visual imagination or much modern resonance. John Pennoyer's design is blandly non-specific. The stage is mostly bare, save for a short length of platform that the gods walk on in the prologue; supposedly it is to lift them above the Earth, but it only makes them look like they're strutting their stuff on a catwalk.

"Poseidon, god of the sea, wears a Second World War-style military uniform, as does Menelaus (Brad Rudy), the king of Sparta, but their subordinate soldiers look like modern commandos adorned with strange, otherworldly camouflage that made me flashback to the Lord of the Rings musical.

"The women of Troy, meanwhile, are dressed as timeless refugees, but their cloaks have a futuristic scaly sheen and they sport Fraggle haircuts. The general effect is that of a low-budget science-fiction series; the design takes a play full of modern resonances and makes it feel as if it were taking place in another galaxy.

"This Trojan Women may seem particularly dull on account of my having seen just months ago a tremendously showy production at the National Theatre in London directed by stage auteur Katie Mitchell, full of ballroom dancing, explosions, full-frontal nudity and a working elevator. Couldn't understand what the heck was being said for a good chunk of it, but it wasn't boring for a moment.

"It's a cliché to note that Canadian theatre is lacking in exciting, innovative directors, while being blessed with a surfeit of top-notch thespians. But this production is a good illustration of why."

Women Are "Intense", "Brilliant"

A brilliant review of The Trojan Women from Toronto Sun critic John Coulbourn:

"Regardless of who wins, it always seems to be the women who lose at war.

"Once the battles are done, not only will each side have its share of mothers, wives, sisters and daughters left to grieve the fallen dead, in the camps of the vanquished, the women historically face further horrors as the victors take their spoils in an excess of rape, murder and torture.

"In too many arenas, that's the way it is today and sadly, that's the way it has always been. For proof, look no further than Euripides' The Trojan Women, a play penned almost 25 centuries ago that finally had its Statford Festival premiere on the Tom Patterson stage Friday in a smart new translation by Nicholas Rudall.

"Set in the days immediately following the final battle of the Trojan War, where a beleaguered Greek alliance snatched long-overdue victory for the belly of a horse, The Trojan Women, as its title implies, is set in the camp where the women of the vanquished Trojans are now held.

"Principal amongst them are the aged Hecuba (Stratford veteran Martha Henry), widow of the fallen King Priam, her mad daughter Cassandra (Kelli Fox in an impressive debut), her daughter-in-law, Andromache (Seana McKenna), the widow of her son Ajax, and Helen (Yanna McIntosh, making a long-overdue Stratford return), the woman whose love for Hecuba's son, Paris, sparked the war that has just ended.

"With the full weight of Greek revenge about to fall upon them, it seems that they must also shoulder the wrath of the gods, for in conquering Troy, the Greek army has angered both Poseidon (David W. Keekey) and Athena (Nora McLellan), who now conspire to take their revenge -- and even the vanquished will not be spared.

"To bring this tale to life, erstwhile artistic director Marti Maraden has assembled what can only be described as a dream cast, fleshing out her quartet of brilliant actresses with a largely impressive supporting cast. Sean Arbuckle plays the role of Talthybius, the Greek herald while young Ronan Dante Rees proves a heart-breaker in the tragic role of Astyanax, son of Andromache.

"Meanwhile, Jane Spidell and Trish Lindestrom head up a chorus comprised of Tessa Alves, Joyce Campion, Naomi Costain, Kelly-Ann Evans, Lesly Ewen and Severn Thompson, and Brad Rudy is cast as Menelaus, cuckolded husband of fair Helen.

"Lit by Michael J. Whitfield and simply designed in an uneasy fusion of historical, ethnic and modern military styles by John Pennoyer, this is a production aimed at showcasing an abundance of talent -- and in that, it is hugely effective.

"From Henry and McKenna, Maraden draws superb performances, largely free of the mannerisms that have afflicted much of their work in the recent past. Maraden then fuses their work seamlessly with powerful and deeply affecting turns from Fox and McIntosh to maximum effect.

"In supporting roles, Keeley hits the stage in full flight, launching things on an impressive, almost earth-shaking note of barely contained rage, while in the thankless role of Talthybius, Arbuckle too manages to shine.

"In fact, the only disappointment in this extensive talent pool is Rudy, delivering up such a wooden performance as the husband wronged that one is left with the impression that this whole Trojan War might have been avoided had Helen's husband been a better actor -- but happily this is a small part.

"In total, it is, not surprisingly an intense affair, but a brief one, clocking in at just over 90 minutes. But thanks to a stable of brilliant actors and Maraden's fine husbandry, it is 90 minutes that will linger in your mind and your heart forever. "