Thursday, July 31, 2008

Public Invited to Directors Summit Tonight

"Re-invigorating and re-imagining the classics" is the theme at the directors summit taking place in Stratford July 31 to August 16.

The public is invited to attend two events:

Thursday, July 31 -- A panel discussion between Joanne Akalaitis (co-founder of Mabou Mines) and Carey Perloff (artistic director of the American Conservatory Theatre) to be moderated by Festival General Manager Antoni Cimolino. 6-7:30PM at the Studio Theatre.

Saturday, August 9 -- Harvard professor Marjorie Garber will lecture on "Profiling Shakespeare". 10AM at the Studio Theatre.

Tickets for both events can be reserved through the box office: 1-800-567-1600.

For more information about the summit, read the press release.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Lots of Reasons to See Universe

Globe and Mail theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck gives Shakespeare's Universe 3 stars:

"There is much to like, but much more to admire, about director Peter Hinton's unwieldy The Taming of the Shrew currently playing at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. It drips with Hinton's research into the sexual politics of the Elizabethan era - some might say drowns in it.

"If you were a fan of all that contextualization, however, you'll love Shakespeare's Universe (Her Infinite Variety), a Shrew spin-off of sorts written and directed by Hinton. Presented on a circular outdoor stage a stone's throw from the Festival Theatre, this play/lecture presents the result of Hinton's gender study without any pesky plot or characters getting in the way.

"Using six actors - four women, two men - Hinton romps through various pamphlets, poems and plays written by the Bard and his contemporaries pondering the place of women in Elizabethan England. He is particularly fascinated by the paradoxes of the period: Good Queen Bess was ruler of the land, but her fellow women had no legal rights; Shakespeare was writing complex, humanist female characters, which were then played by boys.

"Shakespeare's Universe includes snippets of soliloquies from Much Ado About Nothing, Richard III, The Merchant of Venice, Othello and Antony and Cleopatra. (The subtitle comes form the latter's description of the Queen of Egypt: 'Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.') Cast members conclude these moments by signing Shakespeare's name in the summer air, saying aloud as they write it: 'William Shakespeare.' Aside from being a very mockable gesture - on the car ride home, a friend and I punctuated our best bits of conversation by signing our names in the air - it seems a mistake to ascribe the opinions of Shakespeare's characters to Willy S. himself. Part of what makes him such a great playwright is that it is very difficult to pigeonhole his personal politics.

"It's the 'universe' part of this presentation that is much more interesting - extracts from rarely staged Elizabethan and Jacobean plays such as The Two Angry Women of Abingdon by Henry Porter and The Witch of Edmonton by Thomas Dekker, William Rowley and John Ford (in which Karen Robinson takes on the title role and Matthew MacFadzean has an excellent turn as a hellhound).

"We get a peek, as well, at John Fletcher's The Woman's Prize, or The Tamer Tamed. In this sequel to The Taming of the Shrew, Katherine has died and Petruchio remarries a woman named Maria. Perhaps inspired by Aristophanes's Lysistrata, Maria leads a group of women in abstaining from sex until their husbands are tamed. (How intriguing to see that Shakespeare's play was provoking feminist response even during his time.) The actors present a wry, 10-second summary of the two tamings: Kate places her hand under Petruchio's foot, then Petruchio places his hand under Maria's.

"Particularly well suited for a sunny, outdoor stage is Thomas Heywood's The Fair Maid of the West, in which Laura Condlin plays Bess Bridges - a proto-Buffy the Vampire Slayer whose name elicits cheers from other women in the cast. This swashbuckling sister disguises herself as a man to confront bullies who cause trouble at her tavern. (And later, in a part not staged here, leads a group of privateers in attacks on Turkish vessels.) Over all, the writings in Shakespeare's Universe - many of them by women, including poet Aemilia Lanyer, polemicist Moderata Fonte, and Elizabeth I herself - paint a complex portrait of Elizabethan women.

"Yet Hinton does not shy away from the more perverse and oppressive aspects of the age. He introduces a torture device called the brank, a monstrous metal mask with a spiked tongue immobilizer that a shrewish woman would wear as a punishment paraded. The full horror of this is chillingly evoked as the play's four female actors place upside-down chairs on top of their heads and describe the funnel that would be put down their throat and the unspeakable liquids that would be poured in.

"At just $10, Shakespeare's Universe is worth a peek between shows if it's a sunny afternoon. Whether this history lesson actually helps us better understand the Bard's female characters, however, is arguable. Certainly Hinton's production of The Taming of the Shrew demonstrates the pitfalls of getting too bogged down in period detail. It's the universality and timelessness of Shakespeare's women than make them of enduring interest, as we have seen in this year's Generation Y Juliet and Edwardian Ophelia."

Monday, July 28, 2008

Reviewer: Maraden Should Return

A review of All's Well That Ends Well from Gary Smith at the Hamilton Spectator:

"Unfortunately all is not well in Marti Maraden's beautifully imagined, darkly comic production of All's Well That Ends Well.

"Maraden has orchestrated a mordant reading of the comedy. The play begins, in fact, in a period of mourning. Against a dark, autumnal scene by Watteau, characters move in black Victorian costumes, beautifully designed by Christina Poddubiuk.

"A graceful sense of lamentation is suggested by Keith Thomas's lyric score. Louise Guinand's evocative lighting sends patches of golden mystery across the Stratford Festival Theatre stage.

"Then, alas, Jeff Lillico's cold and petulant Bertram and Daniela Vlaskalic's dispassionate Helena spoil everything.

"Lillico, a fine and sensitive young actor, chooses to play Shakespeare's shallow young gentleman with too much puppylike whimper. And Vlaskalic doesn't summon up the fire and ice necessary to make Helena a figure of great strength and intelligence.

"When the central core of the play is capped at the knees, it's difficult for the rest of the folks onstage to make the thing dance and sing.

"Here, Juan Chioran as a moody, cowardly soldier and Tom Rooney as a saucy servant work hard to restore the play's sense of humour. So do Fiona Reid in the small role of Widow Capilet and Michelle Fisk in the even smaller one of Mariana, her friend. None of these fine performances, however, can wallop the play home, so we are stuck trying to imagine what Lillico and Vlaskalic think they are doing as those ultimately mismatched mates Bertram and Helena.

"Martha Henry does what she can as Countess of Rossillion, mother to the recalcitrant Bertram. She uses that marvellous Henry voice as a musical zither, riding up and down the scale with rhythmic invention, and she moves like a dream. No one can swish back a Victorian skirt better than Henry in full flight.

"Brian Dennehy does similar service in his role as the King of France. Though his bursts of vocal power tend to be trumpet calls of orchestral imagination -- rather than meaningful connections to his character's illness and ultimate restoration -- he still makes a compelling stage figure. His Shakespearean debut here augurs well for future performances, hopefully at Stratford.

"It's good to see Stephen Ouimette back onstage stealing every scene he can as Lafew, a man who comes to understand we're all imperfect in this out-of-whack world.

"What director Maraden creates best here is a world where imperfect people struggle to make sense of those around them -- as well as themselves. It's a much better play than sometimes critics suggest, and in this production, despite its central deficiencies and an underpowered performance by Leah Oster as quick-witted Diana, the total is better than the sum of the parts.

"What All's Well proves is the fact Maraden should be back directing at Stratford next season. Even with Lillico and Vlaskalic failing to strike sparks, she has managed to make a faux silk purse out of what might be considered a sow's ear of a play."

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Provincial Funding for Shakespeare's Universe

From CBC News:

"The Ontario Ministry of Culture has announced $80,000 in new funding for Shakespeare's Universe: Her Infinite Variety, a new outdoor production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

"John Wilkinson, MPP Perth-Wellington, made the announcement Friday following the show's premiere and the opening of the Festival Pavilion on parkland adjacent to the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ont.

"Written and directed by Peter Hinton, Shakespeare's Universe explores the often paradoxical role of women in late 16th and early 17th century England, where women did not appear on stage even though Shakespeare's plays contain some of the greatest female roles ever written.

"The 75-minute production was commissioned to complement the 2008 Stratford program, which includes Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, and All's Well That Ends Well.

"Shakespeare's Universe runs until Sept. 28, with eight performances a week in the new pavilion on parkland adjacent to the Festival Theatre. Admission is $10.

"Wilkinson said the new funding is intended for marketing the show."

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Must See Love Before Time Runs Out

Review of There Reigns Love by Robyn Godfree for the Stratford Gazette:

"There are four love affairs present in Simon Callow’s one-man entertainment called There Reigns Love.

"The first love affair is that of a poet and a beautiful young man to whom he writes a great number of the poems about love and beauty. The second is that of the poet and his 'Dark Lady of the Sonnets'; the third is the affair that occurs between that same dark lady and the beautiful young man. Those affairs form the story possibly hidden in the background of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, revealed most clearly when they are reordered as proposed by a psychoanalyst by the name of John Padel.

"The fourth love affair present is that of Simon Callow’s evident love of Shakespeare’s poetry, and the idea that in this reordering – perhaps the order in which they were actually written – the sonnets appear to be autobiographical in nature, thus perhaps revealing an intimate bit of the enigmatic Bard’s life. It is an intriguing idea – tantalizing even – and although Mr. Callow cautions the audience to treat everything he says with the utmost suspicion, his enthusiasm is infectious, and his 'performance' of most (but not all) of the sonnets brings alive those with which we are all familiar, and more importantly, makes sense and illuminates those that are less known.

"Mr. Callow has invited patrons to sit on the stage during his performance, so do not be surprised to see audience members lounging comfortably on cushions downstage while Mr. Callow appears upstage. (The only quibble one may have with this production is that this obvious desire for intimacy with the audience may have been better suited for the cozy Studio Theatre; but then, Mr. Callow would not have had use of Tanya Moiseiwitch’s lovely balcony, incorporated as it is at the Tom Patterson Theatre into Charlotte Dean’s warm set.) Mr. Callow explains Mr. Padel’s theory and then begins to animate the sonnets: at first subtle movements and steady voice, growing more enlivened as the story heats up. All the while Mr. Callow’s beautiful, precise diction gives no doubt for his passion for speaking the sonnets; it shines through with each crisp word.

"While it may feel like more of a lecture than a performance in places, I’ll say this: if we had all had teachers like Simon Callow, not only would we have learned a hell of a lot more, but we would never dream of yawning at the Sonnets and poetry in general ever again. Grab your chance to see this once-in-a-lifetime production with one of the foremost Shakespearean actors in the English-speaking world before it ends on Aug. 3."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Four Reviews

Reviews of Cabaret, The Music Man, and Hughie and Krapp's Last Tape, by Michael Kuchwara for the Associated Press:

"There's a nice theatrical contrast - all-American wholesomeness versus determined Teutonic debauchery - on display at the 2008 Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

"It's the impossibly innocent, strawberry-phosphate, brass-band world of Meredith Willson's The Music Man up against the sexually aggressive, pills-and-liquor environment of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret. Give a slight edge to licentious behaviour at the Avon Theatre where both shows are running in repertory well into the fall.

"Director Amanda Dehnert is brimming with ideas for her production of Cabaret. Maybe too many. But better overstuffed than undernourished, and Dehnert makes the tale of a young American writer adrift in Berlin during the early 1930s emotionally involving as well as visually arresting. The woman uses film, puppets and even a bit of uncomfortable audience participation, among other things, to keep the action flowing.

"Dehnert - with the considerable help of choreographer Kelly Devine - is equally at home in the musical numbers at the Kit Kat Klub and the personal stories of the two couples whose relationships dominate the musical.

"Her production takes a cue from the 1987 Broadway revival, filling out the character of the writer, Cliff Bradshaw, ably played by the strong-voiced Sean Arbuckle. Cliff is more than a passive observer in this world of collapsing morality as the Nazis come to power and most people are just too preoccupied to care.

"The man is involved with a second-rate chanteuse named Sally Bowles, who makes up in intensity what she lacks in talent. Trish Lindstrom's Sally exudes a narcissistic desperation to have fun, no matter the cost. Don't look for vulnerability here.

"Their relationship is mirrored by the sweetly affecting - and equally doomed - partnership between Cliff's sympathetic Berlin landlady, a personable Nora McLellan, and a Jewish shopkeeper (Frank Moore).

"For the most part, this is an exceptionally well-sung Cabaret, showcasing what is the most satisfying score by John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics). Take Bruce Dow, a deliciously different master of a ceremonies. He's more full-figured than the fellows created by either Joel Grey or Alan Cumming. Think the Pillsbury doughboy's naughty twin.

"Dehnert is at her most inventive with this character, seen as a kind of libidinous guardian angel who watches over just about everybody in the show.

"It's quite a distance from pre-Second World War Berlin to River City, Iowa, circa 1912, the territory ripe for the picking by Harold Hill, the memorable charlatan in The Music Man.

"Hill is sandblasted in everyone's memory - from either the original cast recording or the film - as the property of Robert Preston. Here, Jonathan Goad makes a game attempt at making the con man his own, but there's a slight unease to his duplicity as Hill attempts to sell the townsfolk band instruments and uniforms for their children while charming the town's prim librarian (a delightful Leah Oster).

"It's not easy to mess with The Music Man. The musical is one of those perfectly constructed shows that doesn't leave much room for radically different interpretation. Director Susan H. Schulman offers no surprises in her take on Willson's idealized version of his Iowa youth.

"Yet while his vision is nostalgic (captured in the lovely sets and costumes by Patrick Clark), it is never overly sentimental. Willson's memories are tinged with an exuberance that is impossible to resist. Not to mention a tuneful score that ranks as one of the best of Broadway's golden age.

"The supporting cast deserves the highest of praise, but let's give a special shout out to Sara Topham as the piano-playing Ethel Toffelmier. Topham is a giddy delight as the goofy Ethel, dancing her heart out in Shipoopi. Quite a change from her fine, furious emoting in Fuente Ovejuna, Lope de Vega's grim yet glorious revenge tragedy. It's positive proof that playing in rep enhances an actor's skills.

"A transformation of equally extraordinary stature is occurring at the small Studio Theatre, where Brian Dennehy is undergoing a radical makeover - all during one evening. The vehicle? A double bill of Eugene O'Neill's Hughie and Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape.

"In Hughie, Dennehy portrays Erie Smith, a down-on-his-luck gambler complaining about his losing streak to a passive night clerk (the eminently watchable Joe Grifasi) in a flea bag New York hotel.

"Erie's good fortune deserts him after the previous night clerk (the play's title character) dies. And now the man is looking to find his way back to Lady Luck. With his imposing physicality and wide grin, Dennehy excels at bravado, and Erie, decked out in a dapper cream-coloured suit, is a man of show - but not much tell.

"His inner anxiety seeps out during the rest of his garrulous, nearly one-sided conversation with the mournful little clerk. Director Robert Falls directs with the lightest of touches, allowing the expansive Dennehy to create a memorable portrait of man trying to find a reason to keep on living.

"Desperation of another sort is on display in Krapp's Last Tape, Beckett's bleak memory play in which an older man, at age 69, listens to his taped ruminations of three decades earlier. Dennehy undergoes a stunning physical transformation, trading the bonhomie of O'Neill's big-city gambler for the haunted, hunted, almost feral look of a man hearing his past come back with regret.

"Yet the play, directed with impeccable precision by Jennifer Tarver, is not without humour. Beckett was a big fan of those silent-film greats Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Put a banana peel on stage and you know Krapp will slip on it. Still, it's the pain of what once was that dominates the fierce, furious man in this memorable, unnerving work. "

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Q & A: Simon Callow

From Martin Morrow at CBC News:

"When you sit down to interview Simon Callow, you are confronted by two men. One is Simon Callow, the distinguished British stage actor, currently performing a one-man tour de force called There Reigns Love at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ont. The other is Simon Callow, the author, whose non-fiction books include a major — and perhaps definitive — three-volume biography of Orson Welles. To these two, add several subspecies of Callow, including the film actor (A Room with a View, Shakespeare in Love), the theatre director (Shirley Valentine, The Pajama Game) and the book critic for the London Guardian. Callow seems to have taken Shakespeare’s claim that 'one man in his time plays many parts' as his personal credo.

"It’s Shakespeare that has brought Callow to Canada this summer, where he’s making his Stratford debut with There Reigns Love. The production itself is a premiere, created for the festival by the 59-year-old actor and woven out of Shakespeare’s sonnets, some 82 of which Callow recites in the course of his performance. Not merely a mnemonic feat, the show also offers a possible key to Shakespeare’s most enigmatic body of work. Callow strings the sonnets together with a narrative based on their interpretation by the late British psychoanalyst and literary scholar John Padel. In his playfully titled 1981 book New Poems by Shakespeare, Padel puts the 154 sonnets in a new order and theorizes that they recorded Shakespeare’s unrequited infatuation with a young aristocrat, William Herbert, the third Earl of Pembroke – the 'W.H.' to whom the poems are dedicated. Padel also posits that the mysterious 'Dark Lady' who appears in the sonnets was Shakespeare’s mistress and acted as an intermediary between the poet and Herbert.

"Chilling in a white T-shirt and black jeans in a lounge at Stratford’s Festival Theatre, Callow poured some of his surfeit energy into an eloquent discussion of the sonnets and Padel’s theory. But inevitably, our conversation also strayed to the Welles bio and the protean Callow’s other recent pursuits – including his Satanic leading role in Chemical Wedding, a bizarre occult horror film penned by Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson.

Q: There is a real sense of discovery in There Reigns Love — not only in your presentation of Padel’s theory of why Shakespeare wrote the sonnets, but also in hearing so many of the poems recited. Even people who know their Shakespeare quite well are often unfamiliar with the bulk of them.

A: Yes, I was astonished. In the show we have what we call 'the groundlings,' people who sit on the stage on cushions, and I talk to them afterwards. I said, 'How well do you know the sonnets?' And most of them said, 'Not at all.' They know 'Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…' and 'Let me not to the marriage of true minds…' but that is sort of it. And there are great, towering pieces of poetry there – especially the poems against time. They’re absolutely overwhelming in their scope and verbal magnificence.

Q: During the performance, you explain that Padel’s theory is just one way of viewing the sonnets. What is your personal opinion of his interpretation?

A: His way of ordering the sonnets I am entirely in accord with. The historical superstructure that he constructs around them is very speculative, however. It’s based on very well-informed guesses. To me, the whole fascination of this exercise is not so much that it tells us something about William Shakespeare, it’s that it releases a narrative of compelling authenticity – a story about the human heart. The psychological sequence of emotions that the poet experiences tells an extremely recognizable and true story to me, as it has never been told before. I don’t think there exists a better account of that kind of abject infatuation and the agony of acknowledging that the relationship is one-sided and doomed. The feelings of self-rejection, loathing, hatred, are just horribly, vividly conveyed.

That’s the wonder of the evening to me. The autobiographical Shakespearean dimension is sort of neither here nor there, except for one important thing: I find it perfectly credible that Shakespeare was that kind of a man, that Shakespeare was indeed someone who, once an emotion had started in him, had to let it run to the bitter end. This is what we find in the plays, in characters like Othello, Hamlet, Lear and Macbeth. That’s the kind of man Shakespeare was, in my view.

Read the entire interview.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Caesar Should go to New York: Chris Plummer

An interview with Christopher Plummer from Gary Smith at the Hamilton Spectator:

"'I don't feel old at all, you know.'

"Christopher Plummer leans back in a comfy leather chair and smiles.

"And there it is, up close and personal, that chiselled face, those liquid blue eyes, that handsome frame.

"Surely this is a real Canadian matinee idol. 'I'm not you know.' But when you tell him that at 78 he still looks like a million bucks, he turns pink, then he grins.

"A blue turtleneck hugs his neck and a white sweater dangles carelessly over broad shoulders giving him a tennis pro look.

"Playing with the yellow band of his designer watch he talks about life, love, booze and the pursuit of art.

"'I love my work,' he says, nodding. 'I'm not going to do anything stupid like retire. I promise you that. I'm going to drop dead on the stage.'

"'It's scary you know. These days you can almost live forever. And I don't really know what it means to feel 78. I walk, I exercise, I play tennis. And I have loads of energy. I feel fit. I credit my wife Elaine with much of that.'

"Married for 37 years, Plummer calls his wife his saving grace.

"'You could say she saved my life. I don't drink like I did -- and I was a big boozer. And I eat right. Elaine is a cordon bleu cook, only she knows how to limit the sauces and doo-dahs that clog up the arteries.'

"Born in Montreal, Plummer came to Toronto as a young lad. 'It was dull as horse muck,' he shrugs. 'I couldn't wait to get back to Montreal.'

"Referring to pals Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole and Richard Harris, he says: 'I'd like to think I was one of the bad boys.'

""Hard drinkers, they loved to laugh.'

"'In those days I was ashamed to be Canadian.' He shrugs. 'There was such a lack of love for the arts here then. And the life here initiated a sense of rebellion in me. You just wanted to break the rules, be rebellious, break out and take risks.

"'In some quarters it's still that way. There's this feeling, or attitude, you can't be Canadian and be any good. You certainly can't be a star. We're all too suspicious of that. I made my exit as fast as I could. I got the hell out.'

"In New York City, Plummer found his theatrical way. He also knew every bar on 9th Avenue as well as the Upper West Side.

"'In those days a real man had to drink a lot and still be able to go on word perfect as Hamlet.'

"'But I guess like all the others, I gave up drink with advancing years. It's hard to be 40, out of shape and still give a performance eight times a week. Know what I mean?'

"'I was never drunk on stage, you know. I always worked like a fiend in the theatre. I did my boozing after hours. In the 1970s, everyone was sobering up, or taking drugs. It wasn't politically correct to drink.'

"Always a risk taker, Plummer remains so in his career. He might have given in after The Sound Of Music, played leading men and slowly atrophied.

"'Oh I just couldn't bear that,' he says, scowling. 'Contrary to what people think, I don't hate The Sound Of Music. It's just it's such a goody-goody movie, that's all. Maybe I said things against it out of my own rebellious instinct. I mean, face it, I've done well over a hundred movies. Some of them very good. Others? Well, they made money.'

"'And those von Trapps,' he shrugs, 'They weren't exactly loved in Austria you know. The people had them up to here.

"'But the Austrians shouldn't complain, they brought millions of tourist dollars into the country, precisely because of The Sound Of Music.'

"Now it's time to talk turkey. Plummer gets down to the reasons he's back at Stratford after several years hiatus.

"'I've always wanted to do Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra... It's a very sexy play for that old tease Shaw to have written. I mean I don't think he knew anything about sex, but this play comes pretty close.'

"Plummer has no secrets about the way he'll play the part.

"'I'm not thinking of him as Napoleon or anything. I'm just going to do the play as truthfully and as amusingly as I can. And I'm hoping my Cleopatra is going to be very sexy, dressed in something revealing, very revealing. It's just that kind of play.'

"Plummer's at Stratford because he loves the place and the years he spent here starring with actors like Tony van Bridge, William Needles and Douglas Campbell.

"'I miss those old boys,' he says. 'There used to be this middle-age range of actors here. Now they're all so young. It's scary. But you know the place is in good hands. I am so in favour of this regime. Des McAnuff is the right man for this place. He has an international reputation and he can get good directors to work here.'

"Plummer hopes his Caesar will go on to London or New York after Stratford is through. 'Things shouldn't end here.'

"Plummer also has a couple of films coming out -- The Last Station with Helen Mirren and Doctor Parnassus with the late Heath Ledger.

"'That was just awful,' Plummer says of Ledger's death. 'I didn't get to know him well, but he was a happy young man. I think the journalists were appalling suggesting he took his own life. It was an accident -- that's all.'

"These days in Stratford, Plummer rents a big house close to the theatre.

"'At West Over Inn in St. Marys, where I used to stay, they have a plaque on the penthouse door that says Christopher Plummer Suite. Well, the damn thing is, I can't even get in there anymore. It's always booked. So much for being a star.'"

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Two More Dates for Krapp/Hughie

After three additional performances earlier this week sold out in a single day, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has arranged for two more performances of Krapp's Last Tape and Hughie:

-- Thursday, July 31

-- Sunday, August 31

Tickets went on sale at midnight last night.

Plummer Prepares for Caesar

From Richard Ouzounian at the Toronto Star:

"Arthur Christopher Orme Plummer walks into The Belfry Restaurant late on a summer's day.

"He pauses by one of the stained glass windows, splendidly backlit by the afternoon sun and looks about as regal as it's possible for a man to be without benefit of royal robes.

"At the age of 78, he still stands ramrod-straight, eternally tan, eyes flashing with mischief, as a slightly sardonic grin plays around his lips, making you feel he's just been told a joke that you couldn't possibly understand.

"We don't confer titles on our North American actors, but if we did, he would surely be Sir Christopher, if not Lord Plummer.

"Just the kind of man who should be playing Julius Caesar, which is a fortunate occurrence, because that's what he's here to do this summer.

"Not Shakespeare's Caesar, a dusty bore who dies before the show is half finished, but the one imagined by George Bernard Shaw in Caesar and Cleopatra, directed by Des McAnuff and starting previews on Aug. 7 at the Festival Theatre.

"Plummer sits down, orders a glass of red wine and relaxes. His jacket is stylishly cut, but the lack of a tie indicates that this man may be imperial, yet he's not imperious.

"Ask him why he wants to do this particular script and he cuts right to the chase.

"'Because it's very, very kinky. I feel like I'm playing Humbert in Lolita. A sexy, smart older man infatuated with a devilishly divine kitten of a much younger woman.'

"Having caused a shock wave with his daring opening line (as he knew he would) he instantly backpedals with grace, as the naughty but well-mannered Westmount boy that he was raised to be.

"'It's not quite as lascivious as Lolita,' he purrs, 'but there is that naughty frisson behind the relationship that keeps the audience on their toes without being filthy.

"'I've loved this play for a long, long time. It's not done very often because it's expensive to mount, but it's so fascinating because Shaw suddenly becomes a sexy writer, a sensual writer. My God! It's a romantic comedy up there on the stage.'

"Cleopatra isn't present this afternoon, but Plummer hastens to praise the actor playing the role, the 24-year-old Nikki M. James.

"'I'm so glad we've got someone truly young in the part,' exults Plummer, 'and I'm thrilled with what she's doing. She's got great energy and grace and youth...ah, youth!'

"But it takes more than a charming leading lady and a tempting script to get Plummer to commit his time and energy. He's still in demand for stage work in New York and London as well as for movies around the world.

"So what brought him back to Stratford this year?

"'I'm here because I wanted to come and support Des (McAnuff),' says Plummer simply, speaking of the Festival's Artistic Director. 'I thank God that he's here. He takes risks, he dares, he's got a wonderful theatrical sense. He's just the right kind of person to take over at the moment.'

"Although always proudly Canadian, Plummer has been a citizen of the world for 50 years, working anywhere and everywhere he chooses, which is why he applauds McAnuff's decisions to broaden the Festival's artistic horizons by bringing in first-rate talent from America, England and Europe.

"'Des has got such great antennae towards the right people in other lands,' observes Plummer, 'and he's not afraid to ask them to join us.

"'We used to do it here at Stratford all the time and there were always some people who bitched and said "They've all got to be Canadian." That's ridiculous! How can Canadian actors ever learn unless they pitch themselves against stars from other countries?'

"Plummer is positive about a lot of the transformations he sees happening in this first season, even though he knows that some discord and a certain amount of financial pain has emerged.

"'It's all good. It's all exciting. It doesn't matter if it's rocky or not. It's change and this place needed it.'

"Of course, he wouldn't be Plummer the Perfectionist if he didn't find some faults and he's ready to speak about them as well.

"'We've got to get all the genteel theatre out of the place, the kind of thing that people love to come to see because they know they can drop off and have a nice snooze.

"'I also feel there are too many plays being done here. Actors can't do their best work if they're constantly running madly from one show to another. It's like going to a restaurant with a menu that's so big you know the chef just can't prepare every dish well.'

"Plummer's passion for Stratford even surprises himself and he pauses to take a sip of wine, speaking more softly when he resumes.

"'I guess I have an unconscious desire to always be a part of Stratford because the defining event of my life took place here.

"'I was 26 years old, it was 1956 and I played Henry V here. It was glorious. The French were played by actors from Quebec and the whole concept of bringing this country together became something that actually seemed possible.'

"Ask him what he remembers about Stratford when he wakes up at four in the morning and he laughs.

"'Going to bed at four in the morning. No, really, that's what it was. A big party. We were all like that.

"'The company wanted to test me. They would keep me up drinking till all hours because they wanted to see if I was tough enough to carouse all night and then perform Henry V at a matinee the next day. And if you did, you were a man, my son.'

"The word 'retire' isn't in Plummer's vocabulary and he grows excited again as he talks about the kind of work he still wants to do.

"'I want to play characters who drive, who do, who make things happen.

"'Al Pacino and I talked about doing Volpone together, but the only trouble is that Al always wants to do 14 years of workshops first and by the time he got through them, I'd be dead.'

"Plummer drains his glass of wine and looks off in the distance where the sun is sinking ever lower in the sky.

"'I do want to play Prospero one day,' he says a bit wistfully, 'but it's always regarded as a farewell performance and I don't even want to think of that.

"'No, not yet.'"

Thursday, July 17, 2008

More Speculation on Losses

From Richard Ouzounian at the Toronto Star:

"Shakespeare's Malvolio put it best in Twelfth Night: 'And thus the whirligig of time brings in its revenges.'

"For the first time in recent memory, the Shaw Festival is doing far better at the box office than its colleagues at Stratford.

"In fact, the chances are very good that, come year-end, there will be black ink at Shaw and red ink at Stratford: a definite reversal of the colour scheme in recent years.

"And whereas both festivals are feeling the pinch from rising gas prices and declining tourism, it seems to be hurting one far more than the other.

"The good news first. As of now, the Shaw Festival is 8 per cent ahead in revenue from where it was last year at this time.

"They never like to discuss how individual shows are performing, but sources within the company tell me that, plain and simple, the musical this year, Wonderful Town, is selling much better than Mack and Mabel did last year.

"And though I'm delighted that Shaw is doing well this year, it's still only regained about half the ground it lost in 2007 when sales dropped 15 per cent and is still roughly 7 per cent behind 2006.

"Will this year wind up in the profit column? There's a definite chance it could happen, but let's wait till the season is over to celebrate.

"I'm afraid that in Stratford, celebration isn't on anyone's mind. An internal memo last week told the staff to prepare for belt-tightening and revealed that sales were running 10 per cent behind last year's.

"On its own, that's a frightening figure and some sources have been trying to attach an exaggerated $5 million deficit to it, but there are some things worth pointing out to ease the mind slightly.

"The 2007 Stratford sales were 8 per cent ahead of 2006, which means that even if things continue on the unsatisfying trajectory they're now on, it will only represent a 2 per cent decline from 2006.

"It's interesting to note that there is actually a 14 per cent decline from U.S. customers and only 7 per cent in Ontario.

"Why has it happened? The season (with some telling exceptions) has received a generous critical response, and names like Brian Dennehy and Christopher Plummer can be counted on to sell some tickets.

"But the new administration at Stratford tried something daring this year and it proved to be a losing gamble.

"They moved the major cash cow musical out of the larger Festival Theatre and into the smaller Avon. As has been often pointed out, it's in your largest theatre (whether you're Stratford or Shaw) where you make or break your budget.

"To date, there are four Shakespeare plays on the Festival stage and only one of them, Hamlet, has received major praise and attracted corresponding box office attention.

"With the name change to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, it's embarrassing that Shakespeare is where this regime has fallen down. Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, Love's Labour's Lost and All's Well That Ends Well have not received consistent acclaim from critics or audiences, either.

"You can find lots of people to cheer The Trojan Women, Krapp's Last Tape, Fuente Ovejuna and The Music Man, but none of them are playing in large-capacity houses.

"Stratford will survive the rough financial weather this season. Fourteen years deficit-free and a successful endowment campaign have seen to that.

"But there have to be changes in the future.

"I'm sure they're not looking for advice, but here it is: put at least one big musical back into the Festival Theatre and make sure anything else on that giant stage is done extremely well.

"And if there's only going to be one true comedy in your major theatre, then do us all a favour and make sure that it's really funny."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Financial Losses Will Harm 2009 Season

Compiled by Michael Posner and James Bradshaw for the Globe and Mail:

"The theatre community is abuzz with rumours about who might be appearing at Ontario's Stratford Shakespeare Festival next season, but that subject is now being overtaken by concerns about the overall state of the enterprise after an internal memo informed staff of a drop in this season's ticket sales.

"In a recent letter to festival personnel, general director Antoni Cimolino and artistic director Des McAnuff blame gas prices, currency-exchange issues and border-crossing delays for causing a 10 per cent decline in 2008 ticket sales. Insiders have estimated that the festival could lose as much as $5-million this year."

"Already, the festival has begun to cut the 2009 budget. According to the letter, there will be fewer plays produced than in 2008 and fewer performances of those that are mounted. Stratford has also decided to abandon publication of the souvenir book and other selected publications, and it is investigating a format for house programs that could reduce the current page count. The lobby live-music schedule is likely to be trimmed, and book and gift-store hours cut back.

"More economies may be in the offing. The Cimolino/McAnuff letter says that 'a further comprehensive list of possible savings and revenue opportunities' is now being evaluated and weighed against 'artistic quality, patron service and employee impact.' The letter invites festival staff to suggest other ideas, either directly or anonymously. 'We welcome and encourage your best ideas, no matter how unorthodox you think they may seem at first.'

"Though economic factors have clearly taken a toll on the festival's bottom line, this year's playbill shows a shift in direction that, while critically lauded, assumes some financial risk."

"The projected loss also shows the apparent magnification of a recent trend of declining gate revenue at Stratford. In 2007, three quarters of the festival's $53.9-million budget came from earned revenue, and the festival subsidized 4 per cent of its budget – about $2-million – with cash from its endowment fund to avoid running a deficit. In 2006, the company financed 2 per cent of its budget using the endowment fund.

"In Niagara-on-the Lake, Shaw Festival executive director Colleen Blake said the economic downturn has had an undeniable impact on ticket revenues for Ontario's theatres, but that Shaw 'sort of saw that coming and we shifted our marketing plans a bit to try and focus on the Canadian audience.' The result, combined with a solid season, has been an 8-per-cent increase in ticket sales thus far and has given Blake the confidence to assert that Shaw 'will definitely have a stronger financial year this year [than last (an almost $1 million deficit)].'

"Shaw sells about 40 to 42 per cent of its tickets to American visitors, while Stratford has traditionally sold between 35 and 40 per cent to the same group. This year, Shaw's figure has dropped to 38 per cent, a less significant decline than Blake had expected.

"But Blake said that both festivals face uncertainty regardless based on 'what's on the stages and what people are interested in seeing. There's always going to be some impact from your playbill as well.'"

Read the entire article.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

3 More Chances to See Dennehy

Due to high demand for tickets to the double bill of Hughie and Krapp's Last Tape, three additional matinee performances have been added:

-- Tuesday, July 29,
-- Thursday, August 7
-- Sunday, August 24

Tickets go on sale Wednesday, July 16 for members; Thursday, July 17 for the general public.

Hughie/Krapp's Last Tape is on stage at the Studio Theatre through August 31.

Buy now!

Assistant Artistic Director Appointed

J. Kelly Nestruck reports for the Globe and Mail:

"The Stratford Shakespeare Festival seems to be stabilizing after its shake-up this spring, when two of the three artistic directors resigned, leaving Des McAnuff the last man standing.

"To fill the hole, Dean Gabourie has been appointed as assistant artistic director to McAnuff. Gabourie is in his fifth season at Stratford.

"Meanwhile, the 2009 season is shaping up, though the festival is remaining tight-lipped.

"Brian Bedford looks set to return to Stratford to direct Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest - taking the role of Lady Bracknell for himself. A Midsummer Night's Dream is planned with British director David Grindley at the reins. Other plays rumoured to be on the schedule are West Side Story and Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair."

There Reigns Theatrical Study of Sonnets

John Colbourne (Sun Media) gives There Reigns Love 3.5 out of 5 stars:

"Defining Shakespeare as 'just a playwright' is a little like defining Michelangelo as 'just a sculptor.'

"For while the latter's legacy is certainly defined in large part by works like David and the Pieta and the former's by his roster of works for the stage, when it comes to Michelangelo's artistic contributions, if one overlooks the bit of painting he did in the Sistine Chapel, one gets no more a complete portrait of the artist than if one looks only at Shakespeare's plays and overlooks the sonnets that have captivated the world for centuries.

"And while the Stratford Festival has spent a fair bit of time exploring the depth and the breadth of Shakespeare's plays, his sonnets, in the main, have been left to languish here.

"All that changes with the arrival of There Reigns Love, a new work for the stage devised and performed by British artist Simon Callow (who one might label 'just an actor' if one had read neither his bio nor any of his books).

"Although it was commissioned by The Stratford Festival, where it made its premiere Sunday on the stage of the Tom Patterson, There Reigns Love is, in fact, part of an ongoing exploration in which Callow has been involved for some time.

"It all started when he became involved with psychoanalyst John Padel, who had re-ordered the 154 sonnets from their 1609 printing in such a way that they told a story of a three-sided love affair that involved not only Shakespeare, but a young British nobleman, his mother and Shakespeare's one-time mistress.

"The name of the mistress has sadly been lost to history, but the theory has long held that the young man in question -- the Mr. W.H. of the cryptic 1609 dedication -- is one Mr. William Herbert, who became the third Earl of Pembroke, son of Mary Herbert, who was apparently in her day a major force in the arts.

"According to Padel's theory -- a theory apparently thoroughly embraced by Callow, even though he cautions his audience that not a single word should be taken as gospel -- Shakespeare was initially hired by the mother to write a series of sonnets for the youth's 17th birthday, extolling the virtues of matrimony.

"Having been thus introduced, Shakespeare developed a passion for the young man, eventually hatching a plan to introduce the youth to the older man's mistress and thus to the mysteries of heterosexuality.

"Once introduced, however, the young man embraced them so enthusiastically that the playwright/poet lost his place in the young nobleman's heart.

"In Callow's hands, working under the direction of the venerable Michael Langham, it all makes for a pretty compelling argument, presented using about half of the sonnets as proof of the theory espoused.

"With a few members of the audience seated on pillows on the stage, Callow begins what initially feels like lectures most of us recall from high school days, save for the fact that this is a lecturer caught up in his subject and gifted in recitation.

"But as the work progresses, transformations from theory to poetry marked by the off-stage strumming of a lyre, it becomes more and more theatrical, with Callow roaming the recesses of Charlotte Dean's simple set and, through the power of his recitation, making us see the world through Shakespeare's great love and his great loss, using sonnets more at home on the page than the stage as building blocks.

"Even without the occasional glitches that marked the opening-night performance and almost brought it to an early end, it's a problematic work for the stage -- but under Langham's direction, Callow thinks his way through every single line, rather than merely reciting it, and 'as an imperfect actor on the stage,' makes it memorable nonetheless. "

Love Introduces Unknown Shakespeare

J. Kelly Nestruck (the Globe and Mail) gives 2.5 out of 4 stars to There Reigns Love:

"William Shakespeare may be the most famous writer in the history of the English language, but he is barely known to us. No tell-all autobiography exists, only a sketch of a life recorded in legal documents.

"For those who desire a deeper relationship with Shakespeare, the man, however, we do have the Sonnets. Written in the first person, these 154 poems full of love and lust are the closest we can come to knowing the Bard with no holds barred. 'With this key, Shakespeare opened his heart,' William Wordsworth wrote in 1827. ('With this key, Shakespeare let down his pants,' Aldous Huxley chuckled in reply, a century later.)

"The Sonnets, themselves seemingly a product of obsession, can inspire obsession in others. Simon Callow, the British stage actor and writer who is best known on this side of the Atlantic as Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral, is as dedicated to them as any. In 1979, he famously performed all 154 - more verse than the parts of Hamlet, Lear and Othello combined - in a marathon session at the National Theatre in London. The sold-out audience loved it; the critics called him vain. As Callow records in his book, Being an Actor, he was both exhilarated and unsatisfied: 'It was a heady moment but I knew that I'd failed.'

"If at first you don't succeed Callow has tried and tried again ever since, reading the Sonnets for fundraisers and one-off events, including one in Toronto in 1999. Now, in his new one-man show, There Reigns Love, directed by Michael Langham, he returns to 80 of them once more.

"As with his 1979 performance, There Reigns Love is based on the theories of John Padel, a psychoanalyst and classicist who shuffled the poems and read into their new order an elaborate love triangle between William Shakespeare, his 'dark' mistress and a beautiful male youth.

"According to Padel, Shakespeare was commissioned to write 17 sonnets on the virtues of marriage for the 17th birthday of William Herbert, son of the Countess of Pembroke.

"Once he met the young man, however, Shakespeare became infatuated with him in a way that mixed sexual desire with status anxiety and belated mourning for the death of his own son, Hamnet.

"Then, so the theory goes, Shakespeare introduced young Herbert to his mistress, the 'dark lady,' in order to initiate him sexually. But this bizarre relationship went awry. Syphilis and self-loathing followed.

"There's something absurd about mining the Sonnets for detailed autobiography like this. It involves code-breaking and conjecture of the Dan Brown variety, and it can actually warp the pathos and passion of the poems.

"As a framing narrative for a show, however, Padel's speculations will do. Callow leads us through the theory in an erudite, but accessible way, and is always careful to remind the audience that the story he is telling through the Sonnets is not to be taken as gospel. 'Is this his diary? Is this his e-mail? Is this is memo to himself?' Callow asks, pointing to his pocket copy. 'Perhaps. Maybe. Who knows?'

"Dressed in a black suit, Callow is like one of those cool and charismatic English professors beloved by students. At Stratford's Tom Patterson Theatre, you can sit on cushions on the stage in front of him for just $10; this is probably the ideal way to experience the show, gazing up at his Vandyke and basking in his gregarious glow.

"When he acts out some of the Sonnets while grappling with invisible characters, the exercise can become silly. But when he performs several that deal with the poet's desire to keep his loved one young and perfect by making him immortal through poetry, Callow turns in a tormented, desperate performance: 'His beauty shall in these black lines be seen/ And they shall live, and he in them still green.' This is impossible obsession, ugly and inspiring.

"Under-rehearsed, There Reigns Love was full of miscues on opening night. Lights illuminated parts of the stage where no one sat or left Callow delivering lines in the dark. Unnecessary harpsichord interrupted him mid-stanza, and Callow himself stumbled, searched and skipped. Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day was, to put it politely, abridged.

"But There Reigns Love, which has only a short run, is more of a 'special event' than a fully fleshed-out production. As an evening with Simon Callow and the Sonnets, it is quite enjoyable, and the bugs will be worked out. Ultimately, however, one is inclined to side with Northrop Frye, who wrote: 'About all that one can get out of the Sonnets, considered as transcripts of experience, is the reflection that pederastic infatuations with beautiful and stupid boys are probably very bad for practising dramatists.'"

There Reigns Love "Gold-Medal" Theatre

Richard Ouzounian (the Toronto Star) gives There Reigns Love 3.5 out of 4 stars:

"Forget about Beijing.

"The Olympics started here on Sunday night when Simon Callow gave a gold-medal display of acting skill in There Reigns Love, the theatre piece that he devised from the sonnets of William Shakespeare.

"This man has spent three decades of his life contemplating, inhabiting and performing Shakespeare's sonnets, but until now he has always done so behind the safety of a lectern with a copy of the text close at hand.

"On Sunday night, he tried something new and courageous.

"With the aid of director Michael Langham he offered us a full and complete theatrical production, aided by Michael J. Whitfield's subtle lighting, Charlotte Dean's simple yet elegant setting and Peter McBoyle's tastefully chosen pieces of musical punctuation.

"The work of psychoanalyst John Padel inspired the whole proceedings, with his bold theory that, if rearranged in the correct way, the sonnets tell the story of a terrible yet beautiful triangular relationship between Shakespeare, his mistress and the young man to whom the poems were dedicated.

"The one flaw in the whole enterprise is that Callow is so intent on our understanding everything that he spends far too much time filling in background and setting the scene while we are anxious for 'the thing itself': the poetry of Shakespeare and the genius of Callow.

"But once it starts rolling, there is no doubt of the validity of the enterprise or the gifts of the man presenting it.

"Sometimes four, or five or six sonnets follow each other uninterrupted and we ride with Callow on the wave of fierce emotion that ripped Shakespeare's life apart. At other moments, we share the deeply philosophical thoughts about love and mortality that these poems stirred up in the Bard of Avon.

"Except for one section in the second act when Callow seems to run too frantically up and down to the balcony while wooing his mistress, Langham has provided him just enough to lift this from a reading into a satisfying piece of theatre.

"I think the part I cherished the most deeply occurred early on, at the precise moment when Shakespeare allowed himself to become hopelessly smitten with the beautiful young William Herbert.

"Callow's enraptured performance doesn't suggest anything as trivial as sexual infatuation, but rather the total commitment of a man who has found someone he would gladly devote his life to.

"The tragedy of it all, alas, is that the pleasure of love lasts for one poem, while the agony of doubt and betrayal goes on for over a hundred more.

"Opening night was a touch ragged, the way an athlete striving for perfection can somehow get in his own way.

"He even stumbled over one of the most famous sonnets ('My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun') but instantly recovered with aplomb.

"Callow needs to learn how to make his own connecting narrative more engaging and less breathless, and how to pace some of the headier emotional sections with more variety, but all this will come in time. It's already worth your serious attention."

Monday, July 14, 2008

Callow Wonderful Compliment to Stratford

Review and synopsis from Stratford Beacon Herald reporter Sharon Malvern.

"Simon Callow made his debut at Stratford with an extraordinary one-man performance of There Reigns Love, an original work inspired by Shakespeare’s sonnets. It is a unique theatrical experience.

"In character as Shakespeare, he performed 80 of the 154 sonnets Shakespeare wrote, with wonderful clarity of diction, expression, sensitivity and a wide range of emotions. By turns, he was passionate, angry, jealous, resigned, obsessive and ecstatic as he portrayed the poet’s erotic relationships with his mistress and a handsome young male aristocrat.

"Published in 1609, the sonnet sequence contains some of the greatest poetry in the English language. However, the sonnets have mystified readers and scholars for centuries with a number of ambiguities. Who commissioned them? Do they represent Shakespeare’s own experience? Who is the 'W.H.' to whom the work is dedicated?

"Commissioned by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Mr. Callow’s play is based on the re-ordering of the sequence of Shakespeare’s sonnets by British psychoanalyst John Padel. His theory is that the sonnets are autobiographical, a record of Shakespeare’s personal experience. By re-arranging them, Mr. Padel provided a coherent narrative of Shakespeare’s intimate thoughts on love. Although Mr. Padel’s hypothesis is open to question, (it’s one of many interpretations) it does provide a thematic framework which Mr. Callow explained as he performed groups of the sonnets themselves.

"In his version, the first 17 poems were commissioned by Mary Herbert, mother of William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke (W.H.) as a 17th birthday gift for him. The poems had a purpose: to urge the young man to marry and have children, as his father was very ill, and she wanted to avoid the appointment of a guardian should he die. But when Shakespeare went to Wilton House to present the poems, he was impressed by William’s beauty, and later developed intense feelings for him. They later met in London, and he wrote another set of sonnets for the young man’s 18th birthday, as well as introducing him to the world of the theatre. But Shakespeare also wrote a set of poems to his mistress (the mysterious Dark Lady) which he had William deliver personally. To his great pain, he discovered that William and his mistress made love. Later sonnets depict his reactions and the evolution of his feelings for both.

"Shakespeare skillfully weaves the themes of romantic infatuation, realism, maturity, forgiveness and the timelessness of love through the sonnets. Again and again he personifies Time, as in 'Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks within his bending sickle’s compass come.'

"Another dominant theme is that art makes love immortal: 'Your monument shall be my gentle verse,' and 'So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, /So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.'

"And he was right. More than 400 years later, we are still reading and listening to the poetry in which he immortalized his friend.

"Mr. Callow’s performance was amazing. Reciting 80 sonnets is not the same thing as working with a plot and a cast of characters. However, he used the entire stage, with a few minimal props, and held the audience enthralled with his dramatic portrayal of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

"Director Michael Langham, one of Stratford’s former artistic directors, ably guided this production.

"Mr. Callow is well known as a stage, television and film actor, writer and director. Among his many credits are acclaimed biographies of Charles Laughton and Orson Welles, portrayals of the lives of Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens on stage, and roles in Four Weddings and A Funeral, Amadeus, Shakespeare in Love, and A Room with a View.

"There Reigns Love will add yet another impressive credit to his reputation as actor and author.

"This performance not only marks the premiere of There Reigns Love, but also the first production of any work by Simon Callow at Stratford.

"And for theatregoers at Stratford, There Reigns Love is a fascinating complement to the Shakespeare we know through his plays. "

Join Simon Callow in a live webcast at 6:30 Wednesday!

2009 Season Gossip

From Richard Ouzounian at the Toronto Star:

"It's Colm Feore by a nose.

"Now that it's getting close to the time when final plans for next season have to be made at Stratford, Deep Swan (the name for my collective Perth County informants) has brought me a wealth of news.

"A few weeks ago, I reported that Donna Feore would be directing her husband Colm in a musical version of Cyrano de Bergerac and I was promptly informed that I was wrong.

"Okay, but not totally wrong.

"The Feores are indeed going to be working together on Cyrano de Bergerac next season at Stratford, but it's on the original Edmond Rostand version, not a song-and-dance adaptation. Feore, by the way, previously played the role at Stratford in 1994.

"Feore is also expected to be playing the murderous Scotsman in Macbeth and, knowing what a workaholic Feore is, I'm sure there's another major role he'll be jumping into as well. I would not, however, give any credence to the rumours that Mrs. Feore will be playing Lady Macbeth. Some people are just plain catty.

"In other news, I hear that there will only be three Shakespearean titles on next year's playbill, with A Midsummer Night's Dream and Julius Caesar joining the Scottish play.

"And, in another change, I'm informed that one of the musicals will be returning to the Festival Theatre stage only a year after we were told the Avon Theatre is where all such shows would play in the future.

"As previously suggested, West Side Story is the show moving onto the Festival stage, directed by prominent Chicago and Broadway (The Color Purple) stager Gary Griffin and choreographed by Tony nominee and Toronto guy, Sergio Trujillo, who also arranged the dances for Stratford's last production of the show in 1999.

"At the Avon stage, look for Stephen Sondheim's ancient Roman romp A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to be taking up residence. If you'd like to see the obvious choice for the leading role of Pseudolus (made famous by Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane), then head over to this year's production of Cabaret and watch the cast closely. Hint: it's not Nora McLellan.

"Also coming to the Avon will be Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, to be directed by Brian Bedford. As has been reported elsewhere, Bedford will also be playing the role of Lady Bracknell, a piece of transvestite trickery first undertaken at Stratford by the late William Hutt in the 1970s.

"Among the tantalizing shows that were initially planned but have now fallen off the schedule include Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Kim Cattrall, it seems, will be otherwise occupied, filming the sequel to Sex and the City.

"Some more titles and people still have to click into place, but you will probably also find one of the festival's best-loved actresses returning mid-season in a play where she portrays a woman with a thing for a younger man.

"And no, the show in question is not The Kim Cattrall Story. There are others, you know."

Not Enough Praise for Krapp/Hughie

Another, if late, raving review of Krapp's Last Tape and Hughie, now on stage at the Studio Theatre.

From Gary Smith (the Hamilton Spectator):

"Sometimes lightning strikes twice. It did at Stratford last week.

"I expected Brian Dennehy to be great in Krapp's Last Tape and Hughie.

"But I wasn't prepared for the theatrical thunderbolt that shook the very foundations of the steel trap they call The Studio Theatre.

"Brilliant acting doesn't come along all that often. And when it does -- as it does here -- in a fantastic one-two punch, it's something to savour.

"Dennehy may have made his major reputation in Hollywood action flicks.

"But the thing is, he has always had an affinity for the stage.

"Starring opposite Vanessa Redgrave and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Long Day's Journey Into Night on Broadway, he created a theatrical meltdown Broadway won't ever forget.

"Then, in Chicago at the Goodman Theatre, there was Hughie, another Eugene O'Neill play that made you quiver.

"Well, that's one of the plays Dennehy has brought to Stratford in a new production by American director Robert Falls.

"It's thrilling theatre, polished like a diamond, pure as clean snow.

"Erie Smith is a small-time gambler, a worn man in rumpled white suit. Shambling into the lobby of a seedy West Side hotel, he's just off a bender.

"Part of a seedy world of con men and barflies, he spins elaborate pipe dreams. Wisps of blown smoke hang in the air like wasted hopes.

"Outside, the subway grinds by, a perpetual clash of steel, sending a death rattle into the night.
Inside, a dark cavern of shabby brown remains tomblike and silent. Only the whir of a ceiling fan disturbs the mordant silence.

"Propping up a solid wood counter, flanked by faded fronds of dirty palms, a desk clerk stands bleary eyed.

"As Erie tries to forge a connection, to make contact with something real in the middle of a lonely, bleak city, he talks about Hughie, the hotel's former desk clerk he dominates in a one-sided conversation. Hughie, the hotel's former night man. His conversation reveals as much about himself as it does poor Hughie.

"Dennehy is brilliant, suggesting a cast-iron receptacle for sadness and pain.

"Spinning tired tales, he weaves dreams into a sorry excuse for a wasted life.

"As the hours wind by, he threatens to climb the stairs to his fourth-floor room.

"That he doesn't speaks volumes about loneliness born in midnight hours.

"This is great O'Neill.

"It's also great Dennehy.

"If he isn't the greatest living exponent of this playwright's world of petty nere-do-wells and dreamers, I don't know who is.

"He's supported beautifully here by Joe Grifasi's worn-out desk clerk in a performance of stunning simplicity.

"And the production designed splendidly by Patrick Clark is illuminated with painterly lighting by Robert Thomson.

"Balanced against the cynicism of O'Neill's play comes the evenings coup de grace. A mordant death cry by Samuel Beckett, Krapp's Last Tape is haunting theatre.

"Like Waiting For Godot, it explores a world of loss and desolation.

"Krapp sits at his desk playing old tapes, his life unspooling from shiny metal reels.

"Existing only as hollow memory, these tapes hold clues to a life gone by.

"It's a play about giving up, about relinquishing the dream of love, about chasing earthly mortality.

"Ruthless in the way he forces the present to collide with the past, Beckett creates a dark world with little hope.

"Dennehy morphs into a hollow husk of regret and pain, creating a man who grunts at life and swallows lost hopes. It's a stunning performance , one that grips you by the throat and never lets go.

"Director Jennifer Tarver orchestrates brilliant waves of silence that punctuate sorrow like waves of tears.

"Hughie and Krapp's Last Tape aren't easy theatre to digest. They make you think, feel and regret. That said, they are some of the most thrilling moments on a Stratford stage in years.

"Don't miss this one. Dennehy is a force to be reckoned with."

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Fuente Ovejuna Reason Enough to Cross the Border to Stratford

Chicago Tribune reporter Chris Jones encourages theatre fans to cross the border:

"Only in Stratford does a hotel desk-clerk launch, unprompted, into a deeply informed discussion of the merits of pairing the works of Samuel Beckett with those of Eugene O'Neill. Only here do you run into Christopher Plummer on the sidewalk or step into Foster's Inn and see Brian Dennehy, holding court in the grand and mostly defunct old style, regaling doe-eyed apprentices with tales of Arthur Miller and Jessica Tandy. Even the suspicious border guards at the crossing between Michigan and Ontario seem to have the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in their DNA. Say you've been to see one of the 14 shows on offer here between April and November, and you can get asked to recite the titles by an agent who already knows there's a new production of Cabaret. Don't screw them up. They'll search your car.

"Like NASCAR fans headed to Daytona, serious theater lovers (including, says the festival, more than 30,000 people annually from the Chicago area), flock to little Stratford for the twice-daily pleasures of total immersion and, more importantly, the sense that their passion is hardly a minority pursuit. In Stratford, the theater is Lord Mayor. The gossip is not of Zac Efron or Amy Winehouse, but of the Hamlet or the Shrew. It is an altered universe."

"Stratford has long been eclectic and, despite the traumas, a five-show sampling of this year's first wave of productions revealed shows that are, on the whole, of a collective quality you don't easily see anywhere else.

"On a single three-night visit you can't see all the productions (openings continue through August), and part of the trick here is choosing the right ones. But there is one that's not to be missed. And that's Laurence Boswell's dazzling production of Fuente Ovejuna.

"Drive eight hours for an obscure drama from the Spanish Golden Age that almost never gets done outside university campuses? That sounds like something only a certifiable Stratford groupie would do. Perhaps. But Boswell, a British director who has created a new adaptation of the classic text, has the kind of show that stops your mouth and stirs you heart.

"It is an epic tale of a group of peasants who overthrow a brutal tyrant. It is exquisitely acted and staged with a sensual, guttural thrust that delivers the gut-wrenching story right into your lap. Thrilling and moving, accessible and unusual, raw and intensely sophisticated, this is the kind of show that would be labeled box-office poison anywhere else in North America but that they'll be talking about in Stratford for years."

Brief Reviews from Chicago Critic

Reviews from Chris Jones at the Chicago Tribune:

Cabaret (2.5 stars)
"With faux-vintage film, audience interaction and darkly sexual theatrics aplenty, Amanda Dehnert's restless, ill-choreographed revival lacks focus but still manages to capture the dark fascination of John Kander and Fred Ebb's iconic musical. Bruce Dow's Emcee doesn't take full command of the stage, but he nails the haunting number 'I Don't Care Much'. But despite very moving performances from Nora McLellan as Fraulein Schneider and Frank Moore as Herr Schultz, the show ultimately is undermined by an energetic but strangely invulnerable performance from a miscast Trish Lindstrom in the lead role of Sally Bowles."

Fuente Ovejuna (4 stars)
"Laurence Boswell's revelatory and gripping production makes the case that Lope De Vega deserves his place in the classical repertory, just as long as you've got a fresh-eyed translation such as this one. De Vega had more of a populist eye than Shakespeare, and you'll be drawn deeply inside the travails of decent, regular folk caught in political turmoil (some things don't change) and forced to take matters into their own hands. Clearly pushed by a perfectionist director, the Stratford acting ensemble is at its best here, with Sara Topham, Scott Wentworth and James Blendick all offering powerful yet wonderfully human performances. Not to be missed."

Hughie/Krapp's Last Tape (3.5 stars)
"In this powerful double-bill showcasing the fine actor Brian Dennehy, you get a fresh sense of the thematic relationship between Eugene O'Neill and Samuel Beckett. Goodman Theatre audiences already saw Dennehy's poignant picture of Erie Smith, a Broadway bum with a big mouth. But when paired with the Beckett solo piece, they enhance each other. You come to see that Erie's chattering bravura is all that keeps him from Beckettian despair, and thus you blame him a little less. And when Dennehy turns to Beckett, he enhances Krapp's Irish-American humanity and humor, while replacing optimism with resignation. By the end of this moving, revealing show, you start to think the loudmouth drunks know something we don't."

The Music Man (3 stars)
"There is nothing whatsoever to surprise you in Susan H. Schulman's very solid and enjoyable revival of the Meredith Wilson classic bit of Americana, but who goes to Music Man for revelation? Leah Oster is a warm-throated, good-hearted Marian and Jonathan Goad a credibly charming and unusually deep Harold Hill. All goes quite well until the finale, when you find yourself hoping for more razzmatazz."

The Taming of the Shrew (1 star)
"Shrew has torpedoed many directors, and Peter Hinton goes down with the ship. This weird, highly conceptual production at least has the virtue of bold choices—Kate has a limp throughout, and Queen Elizabeth I is, believe it or not, a character in the show. And to his credit, Hinton includes the oft-cut prologue which sets the show's sexism in sharp relief. But while Evan Buliung's Petruchio has his charms, it's hard to tell that Irene Poole (as Katherina) is playing comedy. And when you take so much of this script so seriously, you're left with more discomfort than cohesion. "

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Krapp/Hughie is "Theatre for the Mind"

Together, Krapp's Last Tape and Hughie are worth five stars, according to critic John Coulbourn (Sun Media):

"Ask anyone who's ever fallen under the spell of fine theatre and they'll tell you some of the best theatre in the world takes place not on the stage, but rather in your mind.

"That's precisely the kind of theatre on offer in a double bill of one-act dramas that opened on the stage of the Stratford Festival's Studio Theatre this past weekend.

"The playwrights featured are titans of the 20th-century stage -- America's Eugene O'Neill (represented by Hughie, one of the last pieces authored in his remarkable career), paired with Britain's Samuel Beckett, (represented by Krapp's Last Tape, a one man tour de force that has been offered up several times on local stages by such acclaimed artists as Hume Cronyn and John Neville.)

"The two works are fused into a single entertainment in two powerful ways.

"First and foremost, they are both about characters whose best-before-date has left them far behind, leaving them to live on memories and dreams.

"In Hughie, that character is Erie, a down-at-the-heels gambler who returns to the Manhattan flea-bag he calls home after a long bender, inspired in no small part by the death of his longtime friend, the Hughie of title.

"The night clerk in the hotel where the action takes place, Hughie was, at least by Erie's lights, a bit of a mope, who found vicarious thrills in Erie's high-flying ways.

"But as the gambler mourns the passing of his friend, it becomes obvious that Erie needed Hughie far more than Hughie needed him, Hughie being finally the only person in Erie's ever-diminishing world who saw him as a winner.

"In Krapp's Last Tape, we meet the Krapp of title on his 69th birthday as he prepares, as he has every year for at least the past 30, to update his reel-to-reel audio diary.

"But finally, it isn't what's transpired in the past year that dominates his thoughts but rather the memory of a romance that ended on a watery note some 30 years previous.

"Joined as they are into a single evening, interrupted only by a brief intermission, they represent a perfect opportunity for a seasoned actor to strut his stuff -- and 'seasoning' is precisely what Brian Dennehy brings to these roles, immersing himself so completely in each of them that it is initially hard to believe it is the same actor in both performances, even though that single actor is essentially the glue that holds it all together.

"Teamed up with the wonderfully understated Joe Grifasi as the inscrutable replacement night clerk in Hughie and completely on his own in Krapp's Last Tape, Dennehy proves a master at invisible performance, so completely inhabiting the characters that he seems possessed of shape-shifting abilities that would give a magician pause.

"Patrick Clark's sets and Robert Thomson's lighting are both artfully and impeccably pressed into Dennehy's service, highlighting a matched pair of magnificent performances.

"And while one suspects that director Robert Falls has not left even trace elements of emotion behind in O'Neill's character study, Jennifer Tarver allows a few niggling oversights to undermine her otherwise strong direction of Krapp's Last Tape, not the least of which is the fact that Krapp at 39 on tape sounds a whole lot more American than Krapp sounds in life at age 69.

"But those are indeed niggling concerns in the face of such superb work -- rare work that invites the audience to use their own imaginations to see into the past and the future of the characters they are watching.

"And in the process, help in the making of great theatre for the mind. "

Maraden Plays Down The Middle

John Coulbourn (Sun Media) gives All's Well That Ends Well 3.5 stars out of five:

"When the name of the game is romantic comedy -- and when there is precious little romance on offer and a surfeit of forced comedy -- one doesn't need the gift of second sight to know that things aren't going to end well.

"And when the play in question is, in fact, William Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well, things just sort of wrap themselves up in a neat little package that fits quite nicely into the miss column of this season's hits and misses at the Stratford Festival.

"All's Well opened last week on the stage of the Festival Theatre.

"Now, in fairness to director Marti Maraden and her cast, it should be pointed out that this little number has long been recognized as one of Shakespeare's problem plays, concerned as it is with a romance between an arrogant young snob and a bright, but conniving woman who is prepared to do almost anything to woo him.

"The young man in question is Bertram (played here by Jeff Lillico), a young man whose father's death has left him not only with the title of Count of Rossillion, but with an entree to the court of the ailing King of France, whose friendship with his late father elevates the young Count to favoured status the moment he arrives at court.

"But when he left home, Bertram left behind not just his widowed mother (Martha Henry), but a young woman who burns with an unrequited passion for him as well -- his mother's orphaned ward Helena (played by Daniela Vlaskalic), whose only legacy from her late father is a vast supply of medical knowledge.

"So Helena follows Bertram to Paris, where she cures the King (stolidly played by Brian Dennehy) and asks for Bertram's hand in marriage as her reward. But though it is in the king's power to bestow Bertram's hand, he cannot control the young peacock's heart, and the young man callously abandons his new bride, insisting she is not good enough for him and listing seemingly impossible ways she might actually become his wife in life as in law.

"Helena, of course, outwits him after following him to Florence, and everybody lives happily ever after.

"Everyone who is still awake, that is, for this is one frightfully dull production, thanks as much to Christina Poddubiuk's dark appropriation of Victorian times -- so it can start in a train station, where it then proceeds to die -- as to Maraden's miscasting (for if we credit her with casting of The Trojan Women, it is only fair she wear the blame here).

"As Bertram, the fresh-faced Lillico simply lacks the grit to play the cad convincingly, while as Helena, the piping Vlaskalic opts for vacuity instead of the kind of innate knowingness that could transform this character into a pre-feminist role model. Henry, for her part, is superb, for all that she is more believable as Bertrams' grand dame than his dame.

"Fiona Reid, who like Henry essayed the role of Helena in earlier productions here, also does a fine turn as the widow Capilet, whose daughter (Leah Oster apparently in search of a tune) catches Bertram's eye and offers Helena a means to her end.

"As for the comedy of the piece, Maraden conspires with Tom Rooney to turn the boisterous Lavache into an almost inaudible spectre, falling back on Juan Chioran and Randy Hughson to pimp for laughs, seemingly refugees from this season's much more appealing production of The Taming Of The Shrew.

"Which is fitting in its way, for in the right hands, All's Well could well serve as the distaff's answer to that politically incorrect bit of misogyny.

"These are not, needless to say, the right hands."

Friday, July 4, 2008

Stratford "Sacred" to Brian Dennehy

Gary Smith (The Hamilton Spectator) interviews Brian Dennehy:

"Brian Dennehy is a closet intellectual. I know because he said so.

"Never mind that he made most of his money in action flicks like Gladiator (the 1992 boxing film), Silverado and Assault on Precinct 13.

"'Half the time I don't even remember the movies I was in,' he says with a shrug. 'Hollywood is mostly a load of crap. The movies they make are strictly for kids.'

"A tall, handsome man, casual in approach, Dennehy sits back in a comfy chair and sips his coffee. Born in Bridgeport, Conn., he has the gift of blarney, as you might expect given his Irish ancestors.

"'I don't mind doing crap,' he says with a grin. 'If I'm asked, I'm there in a shot. But I have no illusions. Hollywood isn't all that interested any more. I'm too old, I suppose.

"'But I don't care. I've had a great ride.'

"Dennehy is in Stratford to appear in All's Well That Ends Well, as well as star in the double bill of Krapp's Last Tape, by Samuel Beckett, and Hughie, by Eugene O'Neill.

"With two Tonys on his mantel, he's no slouch in the drama department.

"'I come from Irish immigrant stock,' he says. 'But I'm not as tough as people think. I can be hurt.'

"He strokes a grizzled face and his blue eyes dance.

"I've been panned,' he says. 'But what are the critics? They're no help, really. They can't help you when you're bad, and certainly not when you're good. You spend months working on a part and some jerk comes along and tells you what you're doing isn't right.

"'And the audience? Well, they wait for their instructions. They have to see if the show is good or bad by reading a review? C'mon.

"'Of course every actor says he never reads reviews,' he continues. 'Hah. Paul Scofield told me never, never. Then his wife chimes in. "No, he doesn't read them. He has me read them to him, very, very slowly."'

"A roar from Dennehy, and the conversation moves on.

"'I love [the] Stratford Festival," he says. "This place is real. It's all about doing the work. Trying to make it good.

"'On Broadway, it's all about who you're going to get to star in the play, how you're going to beat the critics and how much money the whole thing's going to make.

"'It's commerce, not theatre.'

"That said, Dennehy has acted the socks off O'Neill on stage, from The Iceman Cometh to Long Day's Journey into Night with Vanessa Redgrave and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

"Then there were 650 performances as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

"'You know, in a part like that, you never stop growing. I was still learning at the very last performance. Now that's a role.'

"In Stratford, Dennehy is flexing his acting muscle, playing Beckett, O'Neill and Shakespeare.

"'Those are three heavy hitters,' he says. 'Maybe I'm nuts. But you know, I'm 70 July 9. I feel my head very close to the ceiling. I'm aware of mortality. Ten years ago, I thought, "Oh hell, I've got plenty of time." Now it's another thing.

"'I feel like I've used my days wisely though,' he says. 'I've squeezed it all out. That's not a sad comment, just an honest thought.'

"The topic returns to Stratford and the roles he's playing this season.

"'This is graduate school, you know," he says. "If you want to be an actor, this is the place to be.

"'I'm so glad I'm here. There's nothing like this in the States. Nothing. We have great regional theatres, but nothing like this. There'll be claw marks if they try to get me out of here, now I've discovered what it means.

"'This place has the right kind of ambition. It should be regarded as a sacred institution, nirvana.'

"Dennehy drinks the last slurp of coffee. He gets ready to go back to rehearsal.

"When you see the exit sign blinking in your face, you realize the only thing that matters is grabbing hold of each day. That's very Beckett, very O'Neill and very Dennehy to boot.

"'Come watch me make a fool of myself,' he says with a laugh.

"I doubt it, Mr. Dennehy. I doubt it very much."

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Dennehy the Right Man for Double Bill

Colin Hunter (the Kitchener-Waterloo Record) reviews the double bill of Hughie and Krapp's Last Tape:

"We, the audience, got 20 minutes older during the intermission.

"Somewhere backstage, Brian Dennehy aged a decade or two.

"It wasn't simply the addition of bushy eyebrows and high-waisted trousers that transformed the actor from a two-bit gambler named Erie into a dishevelled, embittered old coot called Krapp.

"Dennehy's metamorphosis was complete and stunning -- an overhaul of his entire being.

"Even the glimmer in his eye that brought a roguish spark to Erie was deadened when the actor reappeared onstage as Krapp following the intermission of Saturday's opening night performance.

"It is Dennehy's commanding presence that, above all else, makes the double-bill of one-act plays Hughie and Krapp's Last Tape a strong and affecting addition to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

"The show begins with Eugene O'Neill's Hughie, a glimpse into the crumbling world of a gambler named Erie who has lost everything -- his money, his dignity and his only friend, a recently deceased hotel clerk named Hughie.

"On the tail end of a three-day bender, Erie wobbles into the hotel -- a decrepit Manhattan flophouse in which members of the audience truly feel like flies on the wall.

"Behind the desk stands a new night clerk, Hughie's replacement, a meek and tired little man who seems in no mood to talk.

"But Erie is all talk -- a verbose embellisher keen to tell his tall tales about big-money poker games and the beautiful dames he has bedded.

"Hughie loved hearing such stories, Erie insists. The new night clerk, however, has a blank, faraway stare that suggests he is barely awake, let alone paying attention.

"Veteran actor Joe Grifasi is perfect as the clerk, a deceptively difficult role with few lines but a mountain of meaning. Grifasi and Dennehy have performed together in other productions of Hughie, and it shows -- they are wholly believable as the play's mismatched, nocturnal ships in the night.

"When they ambled offstage together, Grifasi patted Dennehy once on the back -- perhaps just a friendly gesture from one actor to another, or perhaps a final hopeful glimmer of friendship between Erie and the clerk.

"If Hughie ends with a hint of optimism, it's the last optimism the audience gets, since Krapp's Last Tape is unrelentingly bleak.

"The audience returns from intermission to see only a small wooden desk at centre stage, a tape recorder and some tape reels scattered on it.

"The house lights dim and, moments later, a single spotlight beams onto Dennehy, apparently decades older, slouched, staring intensely at nothing.

"He sits in silence, glaring, for an unsettlingly long time before he engages in some absurd activities that unmistakably identify the play as the work of Samuel Beckett.

"Krapp rummages for a banana, deliberately slips on its peel, mutters to himself and disappears offstage to glug what we presume to be strong liquor.

"Finally he plunks down at the desk, loads a spool of tape into the player and listens to an audio diary he recorded as a much younger man.

"Clearly his life has not turned out the way his younger self had envisioned. Dennehy conveys a vast array of emotions with the most subtle, non-verbal expressions -- a grunt, a grimace, a lick of his dried lips.

"Krapp is a tragic character (even his scatological name seems chosen by Beckett to convey this), but he is also the author of his own misfortune. The audience doesn't know whether to pity Krapp or merely dislike him.

"Krapp's Last Tape is more accessible than Beckett's most famous play, Waiting for Godot, but not by much. One theatregoer lamented noisily after Saturday's show that if Krapp's Last Tape were some kind of joke, it wasn't very funny.

"She was half-right: it's not very funny. It's a melancholic and often disturbing portrait of regret and sorrow.

"It's a one-man show that requires just the right man, since it could easily become dull or silly if attempted by an unskilled actor.

"Dennehy, thankfully, is just the man for the job -- a virtuoso performer who easily lives up to the hype that the Stratford Festival has built up around him."

All's Well in this Production

Robert Reid (the Kitchener-Waterloo Record) reviews All's Well That Ends Well:

"All's Well That Ends Well has never been popular.

"Nonetheless, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has turned to it at significant times in its history.

"In 1953, founding artistic director Tyrone Guthrie launched the festival with Richard III and the North American premiere of All's Well That Ends Well.

"In 2002, Richard Monette, the festival's longest serving artistic director, included it in the gala 50th anniversary season.

"The play is being staged for only the sixth time to mark the inaugural season of Antoni Cimolino as general director and Des McAnuff as artistic director.

"Neither comedy nor tragedy nor romance, All's Well That Ends Well is closer to satire. Scholars usually lump it in with Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida as so-called problem plays.

"The play has fared better in recent years because it seems peculiarly modern with its spunky heroine coupled with distasteful hero against a backdrop of forthright sexuality.

"It's ironic that the production, which opened Friday at the Festival Theatre, is being directed by Marti Maraden.

"Things did not end well for Maraden and Don Shipley when they resigned as co-artistic directors weeks before the festival opened, leaving the artistic reins in McAnuff's sole possession.

"Those who are seeing the play for the first time will wonder why it's been so unpopular. Maraden's production is both irresistibly elegant and charming.

"All's Well That Ends Well has been described as a bitter comedy because of its dark ambiguity. Although it ends with the conjugal resolution of Helena and Bertram, most commentators believe there's no assurance all is well for the couple.

"Maraden will have none of this. She wraps the bitter pill in the play's belly in a tasty, bittersweet coating.

"In this poignant production, the redeemed cad falls at the feet of the woman he was forced to marry below his class against his will.

"Maraden and designer Christina Poddubiuk have set the production in the high Victorian period of the late 1880s. They paint the production in warm Chekovian colours.

"Poddubiuk's set is handsome. Her costumes are subtle variations on black and grey in France and golds, browns and rusts in Italy.

"Louise Guinand's lighting evokes both eventide and autumn, while Keith Thomas's music is wistful and nostalgic.

"Indeed, the production is lovely to behold.

"The play revolves around Helena, one of Shakespeare's most attractive heroines. Daniela Vlaskalic makes an auspicious festival debut as the 'poor physician's daughter.' She's a delight in every way.

"Bertram is easy to dislike as a petulant snob who never seems worthy of Helena. Even at play's end, theatregoers can be forgiven for wondering what Helena sees in him.

"Nonetheless, Jeff Lillico is a convincing Bertram. In keeping with Maraden's interpretation, he makes us believe the remorseful young buck is completely and permanently redeemed.

"The production brims with sparkling performances.

"Martha Henry demonstrates why Bernard Shaw famously described the Countess of Rossillion as 'the most beautiful old woman's part ever written.'

"Brian Dennehy's phrasing is more casual than we customarily hear in Shakespearean productions at Stratford, but he's a commanding King of France.

"Stephen Ouimette is a wise, witty and compassionate Lafew.

"Juan Chioran attracts many of the laughs as the cowardly braggart Parolles who struts around the stage like a peacock in heat.

"Fiona Reid and Randy Hughson make hay with the little they are given as Widow Capilet and Interpreter.

"The crowning performance, however, is Tom Rooney as Lavache, whom he plays as a pigeon-toed fool with Tourette's syndrome. It's a wonderfully eccentric gem of a performance that lingers in the mind.

"Thanks to Maraden, her creative team and cast, this production of All's Well That Ends Well lives up to its title -- no irony intended."