Saturday, August 23, 2008

Seana Takes Stratford to San Francisco

From the Globe and Mail:

"The Stratford Shakespeare Festival will visit San Francisco in 2010. Its 2009 production of Jean Racine's Phèdre will feature Stratford veteran Seana McKenna in the title role, and move to the non-profit American Conservatory Theater (ACT) after it completes it run in Stratford.

The French classic is slated to be directed by ACT artistic director Carey Perloff in a new adaptation by playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker."

Seana McKenna is in the current season as Andromache in The Trojan Women and Queen Isabella in Fuente Ovejuna.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Palmer Park "Powerful"

Robyn Godfree (the Stratford Gazette) reviews Palmer Park:

"In 1967 there were race riots in 59 cities in the United States, the worst of which were in the Detroit civil rebellion, or the 12th Street Riot. Shortly thereafter over 100,000 Caucasians left the city in a 'white flight' exodus. As a result, property values and their taxes plummeted. Funding for school boards was tied to property taxes, and so schools and their students soon suffered from overcrowding and under-funding. However, some upper-middle-class districts had been succeeding in racial integration in both their neighbourhoods and schools: Palmer Park is the story of one such neighbourhood that tried – but ultimately failed – to uphold this ideal.

"The story is much more complicated than this brief introduction, and Joanna McClelland Glass’ play does not gloss over the very real, very volatile issues that this era contained. No solution is offered, no happy ending is tied off in a sweet red bow: the events preceding the play are still very much retained in the memories of a living generation, and Ms. Glass deftly navigates the issues without judgment, pity or moralizing.

"That being said, every person in the audience for this play will hear and see something different, depending on their own experiences. For me, white and born after the events, it is a revelation of my own naivety; for someone with memory of the events themselves it may evoke all the emotional turmoil of the time; for someone who is black, it may stir up a lot more than that. During one monologue by Dan Chameroy, who plays the white Martin Townsend, I suddenly realized that his reasonable, impassioned plea for the ideal of integration would sound completely different – and possibly arrogant – to someone with less pasty skin than I, who was overworked and whose children were suffering in an under-funded school. As such, it is a powerful piece of theatre.

"Mr. Chameroy and Kelli Fox play the idealistic and naïve Townsends with just the right amount of nervous confidence and compassion as they learn more and more about the realities their neighbours, the African-American Hazletons, must endure on a day-to day basis. As the Hazletons, Yanna McIntosh and Nigel Shawn Williams are both outstanding as they (mostly) patiently explain to their new friends the lay of the land – that, as African-Americans, they will not be seated in a road-side restaurant unless they are well-dressed, for instance. The look of incredulous pity on Ms. McIntosh’s face as this is explained to Kate Townsend is heartbreaking.

"Also living in the neighbourhood of 65 per cent whites and 35 per cent blacks are the Rifkins (Brad Rudy and Severn Thompson), the Marshalls (Kevin Hanshard and Lesley Ewen) and the Lamonts (David Keeley and Jane Spidell). Kevin Hanshard doubles as the beleaguered Alvin Wilkinson, who is determined to ship the extra students from their poor school to the relatively wealthy Palmer Park school; his just rebuttal of Martin Townsend’s plea is firm and leaves the audience wondering: how was such a dilemma ever to be solved fairly?

"Palmer Park is not all about social issues – it is as much about the things these neighbours had in common as it was in exploring their differences: the way they grew as a community and in friendship. ('The Baseball' scene is the most memorable example of this and is pure joy to watch – a mad three or four minutes of rapid-fire, hooting dialogue from the men as they cheer on the World Series winning Detroit Tigers of 1968). It makes their subsequent departure from the neighbourhood all the more poignant.

"Although the characters discuss what it is to be prejudiced and they discover perspectives on race that they had never recognized before, Palmer Park never becomes preachy, for all the education it provides. It is an illuminating play, directed with sensitivity by Ron Parson and is definitely worth the price of admission."

Moby Dick Moves

Paula Citron (the Globe and Mail) reviews Moby Dick:

"Morris Panych's new production of Moby Dick is ambitious and audacious - but it needs work.

"In collaboration with creative associates - movement designer Wendy Gorling and choreographer Shaun Amyot - Panych has adapted and directed Herman Melville's mammoth 1851 novel as physical theatre. Simply put, Panych and his team have manifested Melville's masterpiece as movement to music.

"Yes, there are some words. The voiceover of Shaun Smyth, who plays the narrator Ishmael, is heard from time to time reciting text from the novel, but sound designer Wade Staples has sampled the words to the point where they are superimposed over each other to be rendered almost incomprehensible. This is one of the show's first weaknesses. Why have this text at all if it is difficult to understand?

"Panych and Gorling are responsible for the brilliant 1997 non-verbal treatment of Gogol's The Overcoat, one of the most successful theatre productions ever to have come out of Canada.

"Comparisons are inevitable.

"That adaptation is anchored in rich character portrayals and cleverly timed movement to music. Moby Dick lacks that detail to its detriment.

"On the positive side, Moby Dick is filled with images of staggering imagination. On two tall ladders placed on rolling stands, the actors range themselves in a descending order from top to bottom. Holding their jackets or shirts with outstretched arms, they move gently from side to side in strict synchronization, recreating the fluttering of sails. Instantly, the tall ship Pequod is before us riding the wind in full glory.

"Unfortunately, the production's many visual strengths are offset by weaknesses. The greatness of Melville's novel rests on the unbridled obsession of Captain Ahab. The terrifying white whale Moby Dick has chewed off one of Ahab's legs and he is bent on revenge. In the universal picture, Melville sees this quest as a metaphor for the self-destructive violence of humankind that must lead to tragedy.

"David Ferry is generally an impressive actor, but his Ahab does not radiate this magnificent obsession. There has to be more work from the creative team in terms of physicality and presence to build up this role into a dominant position onstage. At least his ivory peg leg, depicted by a white stocking and limp, is clear.

"Similarly, the scenes aboard the Pequod detailing the day-to-day existence of seamen mending nets and swabbing decks are wonderful, but their individual characters are not clear. We get only hints of personality.

"Smyth's Ishmael has his journal, and the fierce South Sea cannibal tribesman and harpooner Queequeg (Marcus Nance) has his colourful tattoos. We see their friendship. From the stance of W. Joseph Matheson, the authority of first mate Starbuck comes through. The mate Flask (Eddie Glenn) has his bottle and his bravado, but the other men, the multicultural village who populate Melville's book, are, for the most part, ciphers.

"The meetings at sea or 'gams' with the captains of Jungfrau and Rachel (Shawn Wright and Eric S. Robertson respectively) are important, but they are not played up enough. From the Jungfrau, Ahab hears news of the white whale, while the grieving Rachel captain tells of the loss of the whaling longboat with his son aboard. Ahab refuses to help the Rachel in the search because his obsession to go after Moby Dick overpowers human sympathy. That the captains are portrayed as mere caricatures is a failing.

"And then there is the misguided use of the Sirens (Kelly Grainger, Alison Jantzie and Lynda Sing). These three women in flimsy costumes are both the lure of the sea and its destructive power. They are also the manifestation of whales. Unfortunately, Grainger and Jantzie are not effective dancers. The repetitive prancing simply becomes irritating. The production needs better dancers who spend less time onstage, with better choreography.

"Finally there is impressionist composer Claude Debussy's music, which is the soundscape for Moby Dick. It certainly speaks of the power of the sea with its swirling, crashing patterns, but it almost becomes much of a muchness over time, despite the artful placement of individual pieces. One wonders if the insertion of another composer's music at climactic moments - say, Benjamin Britten's sea interludes from the opera Peter Grimes - might spice up the sameness of the score.

"One is moved by Panych's images of dead bodies floating in the sea, the fury of the storm scene and the chase after Moby Dick. Dana Osborne's costumes capture the seamen's life beautifully, while Ken MacDonald's representational set is a marvel, as is Alan Brodie's atmospheric lighting.

"This Moby Dick could be a triumph. It is just not there yet."

Moby Dick Artistic, With Great Actors

Sharon Malvern (the Stratford Beacon-Herald) reviews Moby Dick:

"This famous 'whale of a tale' got a fresh new look in the Studio Theatre's production that opened Sunday.

"Moby Dick, the well known novel written by Herman Melville in 1851, has long been considered a classic of American literature. Its opening line, 'Call me Ishmael,' and its theme of the quest for the great white whale by the one-legged Captain Ahab, are legendary. Moby Dick has been adapted to numerous art forms, from movies to television, opera, dance and even comic books for children.

"But this version of Moby Dick, commissioned and premiered by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival for the 2008 season, is original. Moby Dick has been adapted and directed by Canada's celebrated playwright Morris Panych.

"It's not easy to describe this creation. For one thing, there are very few words spoken. The story is told through the movements of the cast, rather than words. The plot, based on the 800-page novel, is revealed through 13 brief episodes. There is no conventional scenery. It takes a leap of the imagination to put all the pieces together. But it's well worth the effort.

"The basic storyline is the arrival of Ishmael in New Bedford, where he meets the native Queequeg, and the two sign on to the whaling ship, the Pequod, as harpooners. When Captain Ahab finally appears, he reveals the purpose of the voyage -- a hunt for the White Whale. The protests of the first mate, Starbuck, are in vain.

"The usual work of sailors on board ship is seen as the crew swab the decks, raise and lower sails and climb the masts, fight and engage in horseplay and peer through spyglasses to spot whales. One unusual event is the appearance of female sirens that bewitch the sailors.

"Whales are sighted and one is caught, dismembered and eaten. A terrific storm comes up, and the crew battle it for their survival. Starbuck wants to abandon Ahab's obsessive quest, but the captain prevails. The sailors meet the Jungfrau, and Ahab interrogates the captain about the White Whale.

"Events move rapidly as Queequeg becomes ill, the Pequod meets the ship Rachel, and the Captain tells of his son, lost at sea. But Ahab is determined to pursue his personal quest for revenge. Finally the White Whale is spotted, a chase follows and Moby Dick fights back. The story ends as Rachel rescues Ishmael.

"This adventure story isn't so much told, as experienced, through the gorgeous orchestral music of French impressionist composer, Claude Debussy.

"The audience experience of Moby Dick is mainly communicated through the expertly choreographed movements of the cast. The effect is that of a ballet, though many of the movements on the wildly rolling ship are very acrobatic.

"Mime, body language and facial expressions are also significant modes of the storytelling here.

"The conflict of man versus the awesome powers of nature is predominant throughout.

"David Ferry is an excellent Captain Ahab, as he portrays the obsessive personality of this strange man, poring over maps and gazing out to sea. Shaun Smith, as Ishmael, captures the initial youthful idealism of the man, his friendship with Queequeg and his fight for survival in the closing scene. However, his inexplicable stuttering mars his speeches.

"Marcus Nance effectively plays the extraordinary-looking Queequeg, with his little idol Yojo. Shawn Wright as Father Marple epitomizes religious zeal as he sermonizes on Jonah. W. Joseph Matheson is convincing as Starbuck, the first mate who is at odds with Captain Ahab.

"The most unusual characters are the three sirens -- Kelly Grainger, Alison Jantzie and Lynda Sing -- who execute graceful balletic moves around the sailors. Clad in flesh-coloured body stockings and wispy, fluttering garments, they are sexy and unforgettable seducers.

"Costume designer Dana Osborne dressed the men in neutrals as early Victorian seafarers.

"Designed by Ken MacDonald, the set is simple, yet representative of the ship, with a compass painted on the floor, doors that resemble the wooden ribs of a ship and huge cream coloured sails. The furniture is used creatively: ladders as masts, planks to represent the sides of small boats and benches as beds.

"Sound effects of wind, waves and seabirds add to the overall effect of life at sea.

"Even without the realism of a film, the storm still appears a wild and frightening experience, thanks to the movements of the cast as they are tossed about the deck and on the sea.

"It's difficult to determine who contributed what to this production, as there is a list of 32 artists who participated in the development of the piece. But it's probably fair to say that Wendy Gorling, creative associate movement, and Shaun Amyot, creative associate choreography, deserve congratulations for their work. Alan Brodie's lighting was superb.

"Moby Dick is an unusual artistic work, brimming with creativity and innovation. "

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Casear Strikes a Chord

J. Kelly Nestruck (the Globe and Mail) reviews Caesar and Cleopatra:

"With a marquee star, spectacular, sparkling sets and costumes, and a pair of topless women in a sauna, director Des McAnuff doesn't skimp on the razzle-dazzle with Caesar and Cleopatra.

"But the production of Bernard Shaw's 1898 play from the Broadway director and now Stratford Shakespeare Festival head honcho is also thoughtful, well-staged and finely acted. After McAnuff's flashy but underwhelming Romeo and Juliet earlier this summer, this hilarious play leaves us less concerned that Canada's largest theatre is in worthy hands.

"Indeed, McAnuff promises to bring a welcome HBO sensibility to the festival, delivering sensational but adult entertainment.

"With Caesar and Cleopatra, Shaw let his Shakespeare envy show by penning a parodic prequel to Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.

"The comedy tells us little about its two famous protagonists, however, and much more about what Shaw thought about Victorian mores and the British Empire.

"Here, the invading Roman general is a classic Shavian contrarian dispensing uncommon wisdom to the shock of all around him. Intervening in the throne struggle between the childish Cleopatra and her younger brother Ptolemy, Caesar teaches the queen of Egypt how to rule like him.

"Though most historians tell us Caesar had a child with Cleopatra, the most intimacy the asexual Shaw allows his pair of protagonists is a fatherly peck on the top of her head. This is decidedly not a romance.

"Rather it is a first draft of (the far superior) Pygmalion, but with the obstinate older man teaching an impetuous, rough-around-the-edges younger woman how to conquer Phoenicians instead of phonetics.

"Christopher Plummer, the big draw of this production, is well worth hailing as a mischievous Caesar. The charming actor has the audience in the palm of his hand from his opening monologue delivered to the Sphinx (beautifully designed by Robert Brill). With his wry smile and Friendly Giant haircut, Plummer wrings the laughs out of every quip, getting particular play out of Caesar's self-deprecating remarks about his age and balding pate. At 78, the Canadian stage icon may need a body double to leap from the Pharos lighthouse (blink and you'll miss the clever switch), but when he shifts from indulgent gabbing to imperious ordering you have no doubt of his ability to command an army.

"Originally, the Tony-winning actress Anika Noni Rose was slated play Cleopatra, but when she pulled out to film a television series, in stepped Nikki M. James, an American actor who is also starring as Juliet at the festival.

"After James got universally bad reviews in Romeo and Juliet, many predicted that she would be yanked, but McAnuff stuck to his guns.

"McAnuff's loyalty to his protégé has turned out to be based on more than stubbornness. The actress, who had previously performed mostly in musicals, has learned to project without straining her voice after a few months on the Festival Stage and is obviously more comfortable with this modern, comic text. Though still not the most modulated actor, her childlike voice and natural inclination toward a petulant tone works well for Shaw's 16-year-old and condescendingly childish Cleopatra (five years younger than she actually was at the time).

"The cream of the Stratford company fill in the gaps around Plummer and James. As Caesar's ornery right-hand man, Peter Donaldson completes a hat trick of memorable supporting performances this season, while Diane D'Aquila is a stealthy scream as Cleopatra's nurse, the vicious hissing Ftatateeta.

"In smaller roles, Paul Dunn is a ridiculous sight as Cleopatra's 10-year-old brother Ptolemy, Steven Sutcliffe is a fey Brittanus – a character Shaw uses to mock his own countrymen – and Ian Lake makes a strong, brief impression as a Roman sentinel.

"Layered on top the mostly solid performances is the McAnuff flash. He has Cleopatra's consorts (Michelle Monteith and Sophia Walker) take a steam bath onstage, their Ftatateetas fully on display, and he sticks in a marvellous, bloody throat-slitting.

"McAnuff has cut the long-winded prologue spoken by Ra, but has an actor dressed as the hawk-headed God stand motionless as a statue as the audience enters in homage to it. (He's cut the so-called 'alternative to the prologue' as well, another excellent decision.) The production is full of these street performance-inspired human statues played by company members. McAnuff can apparently whip his troops into disciplined shape just as well as Caesar."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Palmer Park "Spell-Binding"

Sharon Malvern (the Stratford Beacon-Herald) reviews Palmer Park:

"If you remember the late '60s you'll enjoy Palmer Park for the nostalgia it evokes. If you are too young for the memories, you'll get a history lesson you won't forget. And in both cases, you'll be intensely moved by a spell-binding drama that depicts the complexities of racial integration.

"The world premiere of Palmer Park gives us a poignant glimpse into events of just 40 years ago, revisiting Detroit just after the violent race riots of 1967 that destroyed much of the city. Although the play deals with social and racial issues that are still problematic, it is also a fascinating, humorous and ultimately painful portrayal of idealistic neighbours attempting to create a better world for their children.

"In 1968, Palmer Park was an upper-middle-class Detroit neighbourhood made up of young, white (65 per cent) and black (35 per cent) families who were working hard to maintain racial diversity both in real estate and in the community school, Hampton Elementary. They were very aware of the 'white flight' when nearly 300,000 names left the Detroit phone book in the six months following the race riots. The result was bargain-basement prices for the beautiful homes of Palmer Park but financial disaster for the Detroit school system which is funded by property taxes. And they also knew the real estate mantra: 'Integration is what occurs between the first black moving in and the last white moving out.'

"The play begins when a young white couple, Martin and Kate Townsend, buy a house in Palmer Park next door to a young black couple, Fletch and Linda Hazelton. Martin is a professor of physics at Wayne State; Fletch is a pediatrician. The newcomers are soon caught up in their neighbours' endeavours to sustain the racial diversity of their community. They put their 'feet on the street,' knocking on doors to request financial donations to buy much-needed supplies for the school. And they also use their professional connections to persuade white people to buy houses in Palmer Park.

"For a while, the Palmer Park parents succeed. But the parents of black children at a severely overcrowded nearby school resent the financial advantages that parents have brought to Hampton Elementary. They want their children to have a decent education too. When they threaten to send 130 black children to the school, the racial balance is at risk, and so are the allegiances and values of Palmer Park. The white people are surprised by the class and cultural differences of the black community that come to the forefront. Finally, the idealistic dream is shattered.

"'Palmer Park is a lament for the failure of integration in the United States. It is also an examination of the plight of upper-middle-class African Americans," states Canadian-born playwright Joanna McClelland Glass in the program notes.

"Palmer Park is based on her personal experience, between 1968 and 1974, when she lived in an integrated neighbourhood in the University District of Detroit, alongside Palmer Park. She calls that experience 'haunting,' because she and her neighbours pursued their ideals, though naive, with tenacity and ardour, but ultimately they failed.

"The setting, 1968-1972 in Detroit, is brilliantly detailed by the use of a huge screen as backdrop, with a montage of visuals: the houses in Palmer Park, the streets of Detroit, singers, television stars like Flip Wilson from the popular comedy show, Laugh-In, news clips of political figures like Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy (both of whom were assassinated in 1968), logos and more. The soundtrack was a musical journey into the era.

"Designer Jessica Poirier Chang deserves credit for the minimal yet effective stage furnishings and props.

"The costumes, designed by Katherine Lubienski, are authentic outfits from the '60s, colourful and appropriate for the characters.

"Director Ron O.J. Parson skilfully captured the turbulence of the times, the idealism of the people and the cross-racial friendships with a first-rate cast. The lead actors were outstanding. Dan Chameroy's speech to the Detroit school board was impassioned and inspiring, and Nigel Shawn Williams depicted the dilemma of the black American with sensitivity and anguish."

A History of Plummer at Stratford

From Richard Ouzounian at the Toronto Star:

"When the curtain rose on Caesar and Cleopatra’s opening performance at Stratford last night, it marked the 14th role that Christopher Plummer has created for the festival.

"Most of them took place within the years between 1956 and 1967. In fact, in the last 41 years, Julius Caesar is only the third role he has played at Stratford.

"'I know I don’t come back here often enough,' Plummer told me wistfully a few weeks ago, 'but I still think it’s home.'

"He certainly made one of the splashiest debuts in history, playing the title role in Henry V in 1956, when he was only 26, making an electric impression on everyone. The great American critic Brooks Atkinson called him 'magnificent' and Plummer recently called the production 'the defining event of my life.'

"He returned the next year to earn a similar triumph as Hamlet, directed by Michael Langham. But Plummer himself feels, 'I was too young to play Hamlet then. I’m ready now. But that’s the damnable thing about that role. When you’re smart enough to do it, you’re too old to play it.'

"But whereas in 1956 Plummer had only played one role, in 1957 he paired his tragic Hamlet with a broadly comic Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Tyrone Guthrie’s staging of Twelfth Night.

"By 1958, Plummer was a full member of the Stratford family and appeared in three shows: as the buffoonish Bardolph in Henry IV, Part I, as the witty Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing and as the tormented Leontes in The Winter’s Tale.

"His supporting players included his wife, Tammy Grimes, which made it easier to care for their daughter Amanda, who had just passed her first birthday. American star Jason Robards Jr. and British diva Eileen Herlie were also his co-stars that summer.

"The 1959 Stratford season was Plummer-less, because he was on Broadway, starring opposite fellow Canadian Raymond Massey in Archibald MacLeish’s Pulitzer Prize-winning modern verse adaptation of the Book of Job, J.B. Plummer was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Actor but did not win.

"He returned to Stratford in 1960 in two flashy but supporting roles, Phillip the Bastard in King John and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, with actors such as Julie Harris and Bruno Gerussi.

"He skipped the 1961 season, when Paul Scofield was the leading performer, only to return in 1962 to play a pair of giant parts: the title roles in Macbeth and Cyrano De Bergerac.

"The poorly received 'barbaric' Macbeth, directed by Peter Coe, was one of Plummer’s less happy experiences, despite the pleasure of working with Kate Reid as Lady Macbeth. 'I can trace the arthritis that haunts me to this day,' he moaned in an earlier interview, 'to all the time Peter (Coe) made us spend sitting on the cold damp floor.'

"But the opposite was the case with Cyrano. Once again working with Langham as director, Plummer found a role he would return to later in his career, winning a Tony Award in 1974 for playing the part in the musical version. 'I love Cyrano,' Plummer observed. 'He’s all the best parts of me and none of the worst.'

"The next five years found Plummer occupied on the stages of London and New York as well as in the movie that would make him a household name, The Sound of Music.

"When he finally returned to Stratford in 1967, it was a memorable experience. With Langham in charge, Plummer was joined by Zoe Caldwell in a production of Antony and Cleopatra that is still spoken of with awe.

"But despite the magic of that performance, nearly 30 years would pass before Plummer played a role on a Stratford stage again. His theatrical career flourished in the West End and on Broadway, his TV and film appearances were legion, but he was absent from this Ontario town.

"In 1993, he appeared for a special performance to celebrate the festival’s 40th anniversary, but it wasn’t until 1996 that he actually played a part again: the flamboyant, self-destructive American actor John Barrymore in William Luce’s Barrymore.

"Producer Garth Drabinsky, who had worked with Plummer onscreen, was the force behind this show, bringing it to Broadway, where it won Plummer another Tony. The 2002 production of King Lear, directed by Jonathan Miller, found Plummer in rare form playing the title role. It too transferred to New York, where Plummer earned one more Tony nomination.

"He shared his secret to the role. 'Everyone is so damned earnest when they play this guy. I believe that if you take care of the humour, then the tragedy will take care of itself.

"'Indeed, that’s how I’ve played my entire life.'

"And now Caesar and Cleopatra. Will it follow the path of Plummer’s last two Stratford shows and travel to Manhattan and Tony adulation? And after that, will there be yet another role to draw him to this stage that has been so much a part of his life?

"Or perhaps he’ll be thinking of several things when he looks at Cleopatra in the final scene and says, 'I do not think we shall meet again. Farewell.'"

Miss Caesar At Your Own Peril!

Richard Ouzounian (the Toronto Star) gives Caesar and Cleopatra 4 out of 4 stars:

"If you've been waiting for a perfect combination of high art and high entertainment this summer, then wait no longer.

"The production of Caesar and Cleopatra that opened at the Festival Theatre last night is a superb example of what our festivals can do at their best.

"It's a big, bold, beautiful, bounteous piece of crowd-pleasing theatre, filled with laughter and excitement, but also capable of provoking some serious thought as well.

"Shaw's wonderful story of how the aging Julius Caesar encountered the teenybopper Cleopatra when he invaded Egypt, and they wound up teaching each other a lot about the ways of the world, is given full measure here by director Des McAnuff.

"This may only be the third show he has ever directed on the festival stage, but he handles it like the most skilled of veterans, creating striking pictures that take your breath away, while keeping the space alive with the constant pulse of actors in motion.

"From the very first moment, when the statue of an Egyptian god proves to be something different that what we thought, McAnuff grabs our imagination and never lets go.

"Robert Brill's set is a series of boldly iconic Egyptian images that are capable of constantly fascinating reconfiguration. And Paul Tazewell's costumes splash the stage with welcome colour and help McAnuff create the stunning images he keeps dazzling us with.

"But although this Caesar and Cleopatra is visually splendid, it's so much more than that.

"I know you're supposed to save the best for last, but Christopher Plummer is such an essential part of this production's success that he must be mentioned first.

"In the hands of this master, Shaw suddenly seems like one of the wittiest playwrights alive and the theatre rocks with laughter as the Sahara-dry Plummer flicks line after line off with seeming aplomb, only to have them reap gigantic returns of hilarity.

"He's sweetly touching as the old man holding on to the shreds of his 'middle age,' cringing as Cleopatra mocks his baldness, then preening at every compliment she deigns to give him.

"But in an instant, he can turn into the imperious warrior, whose very glance could freeze the Nile as he shows his pupil Cleopatra that war is perhaps the most dangerous of all sports.

"Watch Plummer in the deep manly friendship he shares with his 'shield,' the gruff military man Rufio, or watch him as he plays a game of intellectual give-and-take with his trusted secretary Britannus.

"He knows that every character, every person needs or wants something different from Caesar and he's willing to provide it.

"This once-in-a-lifetime performance contains all these things and more. It's also mischievously insouciant, capriciously flamboyant and unexpectedly resonant.

"Death is in the wings for Caesar throughout this play and although he jokes about it with a steely bravura, you know that it chills him deep inside.

"This role is proof that Plummer remains the finest classical actor of our times and the fact that he is 78 years old is just icing on the cake.

"You'd need no other reason than Plummer's virtuoso turn as Caesar and McAnuff's splendid production to head to Stratford immediately, but there are many other virtues in the cast.

"Nikki M. James as Cleopatra is far, far better here than she was in her opening week performance as Juliet.

"The cadences of Shaw's prose suit her better than Shakespeare's verse and she seems much more at home as this frightened kitten who turns into a sharp-clawed cat.

"One would expect Peter Donaldson to be brilliant as Rufio and indeed, he is.

"The straight-talking man whose supposed simplicity hides a world of complex emotions isn't an easy character to play, but Donaldson greets him like an old friend and brings him to vibrant life.

"Diane D'Aquila has a field day as the domineering nurse Ftatateeta, spitting out the correct pronunciation of her name to any who mangle it and flashing her eyes with distrust of the world in general. She's very, very amusing.

"Equally droll is Steven Sutcliffe as the uptight 'English' secretary Brittanus, playing him with just the right lightness of touch, not making him too campy or doltish.

"And then there's some added weight provided by the Pothinus of Timothy D. Stickney and the Achillas of Roy Lewis.

"At the other end, Paul Dunn is deliciously childish as the young prince Ptolemy, channelling all the worst qualities of Stewie from Family Guy.

"But although Caesar and Cleopatra is filled to the brim with enjoyable moments, it has more serious matters on its mind as well.

"When Plummer's Caesar bitterly comments on 'Rome, that has achieved greatness only to learn how greatness destroys nations of men who are not great,' you can almost see the spectre of the Bush cabinet that invaded Iraq hovering in the background.

"And by the time he tells us that 'to the end of history, murder shall breed murder, always in the name of right and honour and peace, until the gods are tired of blood and create a race that can understand,' you will pause and think of how little the world has changed since those words were written 100 years ago.

"This is one you miss at your own peril."

Excellent Actors in Palmer Park

Robert Crew (the Toronto Star) gives Palmer Park 3 out of 4 stars:

"If you find the highways and byways of American history of overwhelming interest, then Palmer Park could be your sort of play.

"There's a certain irony here. This somewhat parochial piece was written by an accomplished Canadian-born playwright, Joanna McClelland Glass, and is being staged here at our flagship theatre festival.

"Set in Detroit in the late 1960s, it looks at an area of the city that was, briefly, a Camelot of integration, with white and black families living side by side and happily raising funds for their local school, Hampton. (Glass lived in roughly this area from 1968 to 1974.)

"It's the tale of two upper-middle-class families. Martin Townsend, a professor of physics, and his wife Kate, a white couple, move into the area and are made welcome by their black neighbours, Fletcher, a pediatrician, and his wife Linda.

"With contemporary footage of the 1967 Detroit race riots, the 1968 World Series won by Detroit and more, it has the feel of a docudrama and Glass certainly doesn't stint on statistics. Houses in Palmer Park cost a mere $30,000 compared with $100,000 for houses just a few miles north. The ratio of whites to blacks in the area and Hampton was 65 per cent to 35 per cent; anything more equal and the whites got nervous.

"This urban paradise falls apart, however, when another, blue-collar school protests the ratio of students per teacher at Hampton (25 compared to 36 per class at the poorer school). The solution imposed by the board is to transfer 130 black kids out of the overcrowded school and over to Hampton.

"The situation quickly devolves into a nasty struggle of black against black, salaried employers versus wage earners. The character of Hampton changes and the black middle-class families start to move out, with the white not far behind.

"Glass calls the play a lament for the failure of integration in the United States, but it's hard to feel a heck of a lot of sympathy for the Palmer Parkers who bought their homes on the cheap and created a privileged, artificial world; real integration, after all, would be 50-50. For all their much-vaunted idealism, the situation was hardly ideal.

"That said, the acting almost persuades us otherwise, with Dan Chameroy and Kelli Fox excellent as the white couple and Nigel Shawn Williams and Yanna McIntosh both giving powerhouse performances as Fletch and Linda. The rest of the cast, led by Kevin Hanchard and Severn Thompson, also make strong contributions.

"Ron OJ Parson's direction is unexceptional and the set becomes somewhat uninteresting, but Dayna Tekatch chips in with some lively choreography.

"Paradise lost, perhaps, but the middle class moved on and created new, prosperous lives elsewhere. Unlike the kids of those blue-collar workers. "

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Panych Makes Music With Moby Dick

Catherine Kustanczy writes for the New Theatre Review:

"As well as Shakespeare, Shaw, and large-scale musicals being produced at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, there are four new works premiering this season, including Shakespeare’s Universe (Her Infinite Variety), performed at the outdoor Festival Pavilion, There Reigns Love, devised and performed by British actor/writer Simon Callow, and Palmer Park, Joanna McClelland Glass’ exploration of interracial tensions in a Detroit suburb. And then there’s Moby Dick. Unlike other works, there’s no declaiming, no speeches, no laments or words of love. In fact, there’s no dialogue at all. Governor General Award-winning director and playwright Morris Panych has crafted the staged adaption of the 1851 Herman Melville novel as a mix of dance, movement, and mime, all set to the moody orchestral music of French composer Claude Debussy.

"Advance buzz has quietly been building around the production, which in and of itself, is unlike anything Stratford has ever staged in its fifty-five year history. Yet it’s just the sort of project the festival needs in order to attract younger audiences interested in experimental works; the development of such a work is also important in keeping the flow of ideas and projects constant between various Canadian theatre artists."

"Ferry says initial good notice came from the sound designers on the show, and spread like wildfire through the festival’s acting company. The Festival’s Artistic Director, Des McAnuff named Moby Dick as one of the must-sees of the season. But Ferry isn’t jumping the gun: 'I’m a bit worried, really.' Shows with good buzz usually get skewered by critics after all, and are rarely given a chance to develop their own rhythms, much less their own personalities. But with Moby Dick, Ferry explains, there has been consistent and equal involvement with all the artists in the production. Indeed, the program recognizes the input of everyone, listing them all by name. 'It’s been a really interesting process,' Ferry says, his blue eyes widening, 'and it’s been great to get to know everybody, and form those relationships early on. When we turned up (in Stratford), we were ready to get going. The stage managers were different, but they seen the video, and the whole thing had been scored. The sound techs had this huge screen with numbers on it too, so it was pretty together by time we got here.'

"Music is central to the work, with the action, plot, and characterizations of the novel being dictated by Debussy’s works. Moby Dick employs three pieces from the composer’s canon: La Mer, Jeux, and his three Nocturnes. The latter, composed in 1899, has three movements, titled “Clouds”, “Festivals”, and suitably enough, “Sirens” (three female dancers writhe, stretch, and move sinuously across the stage as the mythical sea beasts as part of the stage adaptation). Jeux, from 1912, was originally written for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and was described at the time, rather prophetically, as a 'danced poem'. La Mer, composed between 1903 and 1905, is one of his most admired and frequently performed works; the composer himself subtitled the piece 'three symphonic sketches', as if the term 'symphony' was far too constricting. With names like “From Dawn To Midday”, “Play of the Waves” and “Dialogue Between Wind and Waves” serving as labels for each movement, Melville’s novel might seem like a natural choice through which to connect literary seafaring themes with musical ones.

"But Debussy’s music is anything but narrative-driven; it is instead a musical meditation. Hearing it, one is struck by the lush, sensuous instrumentation, and the swaying sonic undulations that invoke the piece’s namesake; pairing it with Melville’s whale of a tale, however, adds another level of drama that is initially a challenge for viewers who aren’t well-versed in the novel’s finer plot points, let alone in French impressionist music. Any confusion over onstage action, or questions about mounting conflict, rely on the audience’s imagination, dancing with Debussy’s music as a full partner, to fill in the missing steps.

"Indeed, the production is filled with striking, poetic images, like sails made from men’s shirts, a preacher high on a pulpit, and a female dancer posing, nearly Christ-like, as a gutted whale. Moby Dick is filled with the sorts of images –and by extension, drama – that will stick in the collective memories (and perhaps fire up the imaginations) of its viewers. Like Debussy’s music, Melville’s words float, shimmy, sway, and echo within their own specific rhythms, evoking the gentle, then harsh waves of the sea. Moby Dick is an attempt to convey the awesome beauty and ferocious power of not only the hefty Melville novel, but of the natural world itself. The narration is an extension of that intent; it is utilized less for laying down plot points than for sonic counterpoint, as a means of weaving through and around Debussy’s score. The spoken word becomes less about plot and more about using the senses and the imagination as guides for onstage action. The process of deciding to include narration was, however, a difficult one. 'At one point, both Ahab and Ishmael were doing more narrative,' explains Ferry about the show, 'and then it was decided there would be no narrative. And then there was narrative, and then only Ishmael, as he’s the narrator anyway, so it makes sense. But it’s very impressionistic.'

"'One of the great scenes in American literature, if not in all English literature, is where Ahab is discovered by Starbuck, and he’s weeping at the side of the boat, and they have a whole conversation about their wives back home -how they’ll never seeing them again, about the people they’ve lost. It’s a very powerful scene. Then there’s a passage in the book that describes Ahab sniffing the wind like a dog. I just had to look for images that lay in there already.'

"For one of this country’s most versatile theatre artists, who has played everything from Hamlet (twice) to the tightly-wound cop Donnie in George F. Walker’s Suburban Motel series, was Artistic Director of the Resurgence Theatre Company, and has directed numerous works including The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (for which he won a Dora award), and Brendan Gall’s Alias Godot, working on a project as unconventional as Moby Dick has been a real treat.

"'It’s certainly different than anything I’ve done,' he says with a laugh. 'I’ve never done anything like this, so I can’t really compare it. Your emotional line is carried by the music, it tells you how you feel in many ways. Your plotline is told by the novel and the aspects of the novel you’ve chosen to play… but for me…' He pauses, considering his words before flashing a smile. 'I won’t back down. I go one-hundred-percent into something. You tell me when it’s too much and I’ll stop. So for me, the image (of Ahab) was a cross between silent film and pantomime… and movement theatre, because that’s what it really is. In terms of approaching acting, the more I listen to the music, and know when my cue is, the more I can fill in, clearly and emotionally and gesturally, what the music is demanding from me. There’s stuff you’re still discovering in every performance too - 'Oh, I hear that now', 'Oh I never heard that note' 'What can that add to it?' or, 'Do I do nothing?' -you make choices like that. It’s a different kind of approach and working. I’d definitely do it again.'"

Read the entire article.

Buy tickets for Moby Dick, on stage now through October 18.

Christopher Plummer Reading

Christopher Plummer will read Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang on Saturday, August 23 at 11am. Tickets are available here.

Read more about the special at the Globe and Mail:

"The man who originally recorded the tales of Jacob Two-Two will crack the spine of Mordecai Richler's famous debut children's book for the first time in two decades next Saturday, as Christopher Plummer gives his first-ever live reading of Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang on a Stratford stage.

"The Canadian veteran of stage and film, who recorded the first two instalments of Richler's trilogy for the CBC in the 1980s, will read an abridged version of the first book to raise funds to send underprivileged youth to Stratford.

"The reading will also serve as a reunion for the actor and Richler's widow, Florence, a friend and admirer of Plummer since their youth in Montreal. 'I met Florence when she was married to Stanley Mann, the writer, way back when she was the most beautiful model that Montreal had - but she was always very bright and clever, she had a terrific brain,' says Plummer, adding that he and Mordecai were also fond friends.

"Plummer is at Stratford first and foremost to play the lead role in the Des McAnuff production of Caesar and Cleopatra, which opens tomorrow, and is heading into a nearly sold-out run that ends Nov. 8. Last fall, Don Shipley, part of the now-defunct leadership triumvirate under Antoni Cimolino, proposed the reading. Plummer, thinking it 'a rather nice thing to do,' chose the charity, and agreed to participate pro bono.

"Plummer fondly recalls recording readings of Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang and its sequel, Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur, in the 1980s, and recently dug up an old recording. 'I'm going to play it, just to see how I did, before I do the reading,' says Plummer. 'I do voices for most of them, and God knows what accents I use, but anything to be different from the narrative.'

"The Jacob Two-Two series was born 'by accident' of a charmingly simple paternal act. Florence recounts that she had her hands full with the couple's other children before hosting dinner guests one evening, and deposited Jacob, then about 5, on Mordecai's chest as he reclined on the sofa reading the paper. She asked Mordecai to tell their son a story. 'And while I was leaving the living room, I heard Mordecai say, "Well, there was once ..." and he went on to call this character, this little chap, Jacob Two-Two. I swear to you, it was spontaneous and wonderful.'

"She lingered, listening at the living-room door, and later urged Mordecai to write it down. He 'looked a little puzzled,' and said nothing more about it for some time. One night, she recalls, 'After dinner, he said, "When you have time, would you read this?" and that was the first Jacob Two-Two.'

"Jacob, now a journalist and in his late 30s, says he is eager to take his own children, age 8 and 10, to Plummer's reading, adding that when he was a child he 'was too young to know how unusual and special and exceptional it was to have your dad write a children's story more or less about you.'

"Florence says Jacob's siblings never seemed thrilled at their imaginative portrayals: Jacob, for example, never had his fictional alter ego's trademark habit of saying everything twice; and Florence notes that 'this was not a boisterous family by any means,' in contrast to the books' rollicking quintet.

"Says Plummer: 'I think it's irresistible. It's just a bunch of extraordinarily unattractive [characters] all thrown into one delicious little book picking fun at youth and old age and everything.'

"Having surpassed a three-quarters capacity audience in the 1,072-seat Avon Theatre two weeks in advance of the show's opening, with little advertising, the reading demonstrates the enduring appeal of the series for children and adults alike. 'The shock of this so-called difficult personality, Mordecai Richler, writing something as amusing and tender as a children's book, that in itself was most appealing,' says Florence.

"Plummer, meanwhile, hopes events such as this one can help keep the late author at the forefront of Canadian consciousness. 'I don't know who has replaced him in Canada,' says the actor. 'I don't think anyone yet. This country, more and more, needs to be able to laugh at itself. Particularly in these humourless times, we need Mordecai desperately. He's wonderfully naughty and disrespectful. He's just a great satirist.'"

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Best Value and Best Swordfight in the Pavilion

A review of Shakespeare's Universe: Her Infinite Variety from Robyn Godfree at the Stratford Gazette:

"What a great way to spend an hour and a quarter: the warmth of the sun, a cool breeze bringing the scent of nearby roses, the chirrups of birds and squirrels in the rustling leaves overhead, relaxed laughter earned by good actors with a compelling story…

"What’s that? Leaves overhead? In a theatre?

"Oh yes. Perhaps you have not heard, or not been by Upper Queen’s Park lately, but there is now a fifth stage at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, an outdoor pavilion, nestled against a tree, surrounded by a screen designed to blend into the park. On the inside is an open stage, a second scrim with London’s image on it – a London that Shakespeare would have known – and in front of the stage, bleachers. And on the stage, one of the most fun, interesting pieces of live theatre on stage this season. It is Stratford’s version of Shakespeare in the Park, but better, because it has all the professional resources that are at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival to support it.

"Peter Hinton’s first foray into Shakespeare’s Universe gives us the history of women in Shakespeare’s time. According to the literature of the day (mostly written by men), women fell into four categories: the maid (an unmarried girl), a scold (a woman with a sharp tongue), the moll (any woman who worked for a living but often a prostitute), and the witch (any woman who was older, poor or deformed, usually a combination of the three). Mr. Hinton’s history lesson about how women lived and loved in Elizabethan England is more entertaining – and more memorable – than any history book, especially as delivered by the four actresses portraying these women.

"Dayna Tekatch plays the maid sweetly but without being too coy, and sings 'A Maid That’s Deep in Love' beautifully; Peggy Coffey is at her impish best as the scolding shrew – but is most moving when mourning for her loveless marriage. Laura Condlln is pitch-perfect as the cheeky moll Bess Bridges (she and Michael Spencer-Davis provide the best sword fight of the season) and Karen Robinson’s performance as the pitiable 'witch' is startling both in its compassion and sudden eerie turn (although her poise while portraying the writer Amelia Lanyer is a particularly strong moment). The men, Matthew MacFadzean and Mr. Spencer-Davis, provide the necessary balance in this mini battle-of-the-sexes as the Puritan and the Poet: the writers, politicians, lovers and opponents of these women. They also provide the necessary tenor for harmonious renditions of songs like 'Hedger and Ditcher' (a distinct crowd-pleaser). The music and songs that are worked seamlessly into the fabric of the storytelling adds the extra elements of mirth and wistfulness to a play about a brutal age – especially brutal for women – but throughout, Her Infinite Variety reminds us that Shakespeare, as evidenced by the way they are portrayed in his plays and sonnets, was ahead of the curve in understanding how women thought and what they felt. That ribbon of hope woven into the text is as bright as its music.

"Some have questioned the professionalism of the pavilion: Is an outdoor stage in keeping with the spirit of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival? I think Tyrone Guthrie, the founding artistic director who started it all under a tent, and who insisted upon the very best in every aspect of theatre – I think he’d be pretty damned proud. Shakespeare’s Universe: Her Infinite Variety is the best value going this season: with the calibre of acting, design, writing and direction, it is worth a lot more than the paltry $10 admission fee, even in its rained-out location of the Café Lobby (minus the swords). It continues until Sept. 28."

Share the Stage

There's controversy over at the Shaw Festival:

"Toronto's Andrew Moodie, 40, electrified the country's theatrical community last week when he announced that he was starting an online initiative he calls Share the Stage to lever the festival, started 46 years ago at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., to embrace such practices as colour-blind casting. In the announcement, Moodie asks: 'Does the festival actually have a policy to exclude people based on race?'"

"Moodie thinks that the Shaw should emulate the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. "They've got it right. ... They're working with members of colour to commission new plays and commission plays that are black-themed." This year's Stratford cast an African Canadian, Nikki James, as the lead in Romeo and Juliet and hired an African American, Ron OJ Parsons, to direct Joanna Glass's Palmer Park: A Visit to Post-Riot Detroit."

You can read all the quotes and reactions in the Globe and Mail article.

J. Kelly Nestruck, in his blog for the same paper, expands on the comparison to Stratford:

"The contrast with Canada's other big repertory company is striking. Over at the Stratford Festival, there are actors of colour playing Juliet, Helen of Troy, Christopher Sly, Cleopatra (in a play by Bernard Shaw, no less) and rebellious Fuente Ovejunians, to name just a few. There isn't a big fuss made about it, either. Maybe it's because Shakespeare's characters were originally all played by male actors, but non-traditional casting is just the way Stratford roles. (Apologies.)"

Nestruck also points us to two Shaw actors, Ali Momen and Thom Allison, who have responded to the issue in their own blogs.

So . . .

What do you think?

As Previously Announced . . .

West Side Story and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum will be the two musicals mounted in the 2009 season.

A Funny Thing . . . will be at the Avon Theatre, where the musicals are this season.

West Side Story, which appeared ten years ago at the Avon Theatre, will be in the Festival Theatre this time. General Manager Antoni Cimolino explains the choice to the Beacon Herald:

"Since West Side Story was earlier produced at the Avon, 'artistically, it seemed to provide new abilities to experiment and grow by putting that one on the main stage,' he said.

"As well, there are other shows the Festival wants to stage at the Avon next year.

"People may be wondering if the Festival is selling fewer tickets this year because the musicals are at the Avon, said Mr. Cimolino, but in 1999 with the musicals at the Avon, sales went up. Seating capacity is the same or increased with more shows staged there, so that's not the issue.

"'We want to make it (the show) different and new,' he said."

Casting has not been announced yet, but for all the details that have been, you can read the reports from CBC News (basic), the Canadian Press (basic), the Globe and Mail (basic), or Playbill (extensive).

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

2009 Musicals Confirmed

From the Canadian Press:

"West Side Story and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum are slated to be staged at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival next year.

"Des McAnuff, the festival's artistic director, notes that both musicals have ties to the Bard.

"West Side Story, he says, was based on Romeo and Juliet, while Forum was heavily influenced by A Comedy of Errors.

"McAnuff, who directed the Tony Award-winning Jersey Boys, will take the helm of Forum with choreographer Wayne Cilento.

"The pair have previously worked together on Broadway productions of The Who's Tommy as well as How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

"West Side Story will be directed by Gary Griffin, who will make his Stratford debut. His credits include the Broadway production of Oprah Winfrey's The Color Purple.

"West Side Story has been produced at the festival once before, in 1999.

"This is the first time Forum will be staged at Stratford."

Read the official press release.

2009 Musicals Announced!

There's a press release, but this Playbill article provides a lot more background:

"West Side Story and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with Broadway directors, have been announced as two musicals planned for the 2009 season at Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario.

"Des McAnuff, the Tony Award-winning director of The Who's Tommy and Jersey Boys, and artistic director of Stratford, will stage Stephen Sondheim, Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove's Forum, inspired by ancient Roman funnyman Plautus (whose works also inspired Shakespeare). Wayne Cilento (Wicked, The Who's Tommy, How to Succeed…) will choreograph.

"Gary Griffin, the always-busy Chicago director whose Broadway credits include The Apple Tree and The Color Purple, will stage West Side Story, with choreography by Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys). West Side Story also has roots in a classic: The musical drama by Leonard Bernstein, Sondheim and Arthur Laurents was inspired by Romeo and Juliet. (Laurents is directing a new Broadway production for 2008-09.)

"McAnuff stated, 'There is no question that these two musicals play legitimate roles in the classical theatre repertoire and I am very proud that we are producing them side by side.'

"McAnuff, a two-time Tony winner, also directed the hit Broadway musical Big River, which won seven Tonys, including Best Director. McAnuff's production of Jersey Boys won four Tonys, including Best Musical of 2006.

"Never before presented by the Festival, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (to play the Avon Theatre) 'is a wonderfully irreverent musical that combines aspects of the 2,000-year-old comedies of the Roman playwright Plautus with classic vaudeville humor,' according to Stratford. 'Forum, which features the hit song 'Comedy Tonight,' is the story of Pseudolus, a slave in ancient Rome who will do anything to win his freedom. With book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, it is the first Broadway musical for which Stephen Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics.'

"Director Griffin will make his Stratford debut with West Side Story. He made his Broadway debut directing Oprah Winfrey's production of The Color Purple. His London production of Pacific Overtures received the Olivier Award for outstanding musical production. Griffin has received eight Joseph Jefferson Awards for his work in Chicago, where he is associate artistic director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

"Produced once before at the Festival, in 1999, West Side Story 'is set in New York, where two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, wage a war fuelled by racial intolerance.'

"Choreographer Trujillo also choreographed the 1999 production at the Festival's Avon Theatre. This time, however, Trujillo "will have the opportunity to produce on the thrust stage as West Side Story will be mounted at the Festival Theatre."

"Trujillo will be collaborating with McAnuff on a new production of Guys and Dolls set to open on Broadway in spring 2009. His other credits include the European debut of Disney's Tarzan and the London production of Peggy Sue Got Married.

"Rick Fox, the Festival's director of music, will serve as musical director of West Side Story.

"Production dates and casting have not been announced."

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Playwright: Joanna McClelland Glass

An interview with Joanna McClelland Glass from Richard Ouzounian at the Toronto Star:

"If Canadian playwrights ever achieve mythological status, there's one piece of casting that's already a done deal.

"Joanna McClelland Glass would have to play Athena.

"It's not just the cool elegance that this 71-year-old radiates that makes her right for the role, but the concern with serving wisdom and justice that she shares with her ancient Greek counterpart.

"Palmer Park, now in previews at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival prior to its opening next Saturday, is almost the quintessential Glass play in that it contains many of the features that have marked her work over the years.

"In the first place, it's based on historical fact: There is a Palmer Park in suburban Detroit and after the deadly 'black day in July' race riot of 1967, it was one of the few parts of the city where blacks and whites still tried to live together in harmony.

"It's also about an actual chapter in Glass's life.

"'I first came to Palmer Park in August of 1968,' she recalls now, sitting in the living room of her house in Stratford where she has been carefully supervising its restoration for the past year.

"'The city was still a shambles, even a year after the riots. It's hard to be diplomatic about Detroit. It's a very sad city. I find it second only to New Orleans in its sadness.'

"Glass is not speaking just from a subjective point of view.

"Before the 1967 riot, the city's population was nearly 2 million. In the six months following it, as Glass puts it 'the phone book lost nearly 300,000 names.'

"Today the city is home to 900,000 people.

"'I guess it all started with Henry Ford and his automobile,' says Glass.

"'He made the city prosperous, but he also planted the seeds of its future strife when he brought thousands of people up from the deep South to work on his assembly lines for $5 a day.'

"By the time the 1960s arrived, most Detroit blacks had trouble finding affordable housing and many were the subject of large-scale police brutality.

"Early on Sunday morning, July 23, 1967, a police raid on a 'blind pig' or after-hours speakeasy in the city's West Side served as the fuse that exploded a bomb of racial tension that had been building for decades.

"Before the violence was over, five days later, 43 people were dead and 2,000 buildings were burned down.

"That was the prelude to the situation Glass entered a year later.

"'The educational system in the States is built on property taxes,' explains Glass, 'but when so many white people moved away following the riots, the Detroit school system was in dire straits.'

"But the people of both races who chose to live in Palmer Park didn't want to see their local elementary school closed, or gutted, or overcrowded with inappropriate busing.

"'There is a cynical truism,' observes Glass, 'that integration in America is what happens between the first black moving in and the last white moving out. It usually takes two to four years.'

"To tell the story of what Glass saw happen, she creates two couples who live next door to each other – one black, one white.

"Like everyone in the neighbourhood, they're middle or upper middle class: teachers, doctors, professional people.

"'The character Kelli Fox plays is based on me,' volunteers Glass, 'but her husband, played by Dan Chameroy, is entirely different from my husband.'

"Glass is equally concerned about the black couple, Fletch and Linda Hazelton, played by Nigel Shawn Williams and Yanna McIntosh.

"'It's a little delicate to have a white lady writing about it,' allows Glass, picking her words carefully, 'but there hasn't been a lot written about the black middle class, the ones who did everything you were supposed to do to be accepted by the white community in those days, only to find the wall was still up.'

"But not in Palmer Park, at least not for a while. The residents convince everyone that an integrated neighbourhood can be a reality and raise money to keep their local school supplied and open.

"'At that point in time,' recalls Glass, 'the broke-down Detroit school system was using busing as its answer to everything.

"'They were taking kids who came from homes where there was one toilet down the hall for five families and sending them to schools in upper class suburbs where the recess conversation would be, Oh, are you going to Bermuda for Christmas?'

"And in a way, that's what finally did in Palmer Park. The school board sent 130 black children from an overcrowded school in an impoverished neighbourhood to the environment the parents had worked so hard to maintain.

"'It marked the beginning of the end,' sighs Glass.

"'By my daughter's last year in school, she was one of four white children in her class. Today, Palmer Park is only 10 per cent white and that's mainly old people who just don't want to leave.'

"The scars of the past obviously cause Glass great pain still, so why would she want to reopen wounds after 40 years?

"'Because segregation has seeped back into the American schools even worse than it was back in the 1950s. And the worst part is that it seems like there's hardly anybody even trying.'

"In a year when America might elect its first black president, Glass is wise to ask us to look at our past in an attempt to find an answer for our present."

Friday, August 8, 2008

One New Previews; Two New Photo Sets

Joanna McClelland Glass' Palmer Park begins previews today at the Studio Theatre:

"Two professional couples– one black, the other white – become neighbours in Detroit after the race riots of 1967. Together, they and their other friends strive to maintain the racial integration of their community and their children’s school. But skin colour, they find, isn’t the only thing that can drive people apart."

Buy your tickets online.

You can browse a gallery of production photos here.

A similar gallery came online today for Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, which opens August 17. Check it out here.

Palmer Park opens on August 16 and runs through September 21.

Not Enough Summer to Save Season

As reported by Laura Cudworth for the Beacon Herald:

"The box office is buzzing, but it won’t be enough to break even.

"The Stratford Shakespeare Festival based its budget on 550,000 seat sales to stay out of the red this season. General director Antoni Cimolino said the Festival is about eight per cent lower than that now.

"Despite an improvement at the box office and an 'acceleration' in sales in recent weeks it’s not feasible the Festival will be able to make up the deficit.

"'I think we can make up some of it, but it will be very difficult to make up all of it. We’re running out of summer,' Mr. Cimolino said yesterday. 'We would need a lot of acceleration in sales in the next three months and you run out of shows.'

"To compare ticket sales in recent years, the Festival sold 557,000 last season and ended the year with a net revenue of $221,000. The Festival had anticipated 528,000 patrons would visit the theatre last year. That projection was likely based on ticket sales from the year before.

"In 2006 the Festival sold 528,373 seats to 16 productions. Had it not been for record donations totalling $7.6 million, government grants and other sources the Festival would not have seen a $20,000 net revenue that year.

"The improvement over the past few weeks in the sale of tickets, some of which are discounted, can be attributed to Canadian patrons.

"'Things in the United States are not picking up. It’s worse than we were a month ago,' Mr. Cimolino said.

"Mr. Cimolino suspects word of mouth is part of the reason sales have improved two per cent in Canada — the Festival’s biggest market.

"The season has had good reviews both in Canada and in the U.S., but the American audience has been harder to entice.

"The high Canadian dollar, the sluggish American economy, gas prices and border hassles have been too significant to overcome, he suggested.

"The question on Mr. Cimolino’s mind is how to compensate for American ticket sales which have fallen 16 per cent. He noted next year there will be one more hurdle added when Americans will require a passport to get home.

"The question at the Festival is whether to work harder at attracting Americans, maintain the same level of advertising or shift the focus to Ontario for the next couple of years. Whatever the answer, it will have a long-term impact on the Festival, Mr. Cimolino said.

"'We can’t expect to bounce back (immediately) but we can’t afford to walk away,' from the American market, Mr. Cimolino said. 'These things go in cycles, and we’ve got to maintain connections.'

"The Festival employs between 900 and 1,000 people and those numbers tend to expand and contract, Mr. Cimolino said. He acknowledged there will be a 'slightly leaner complement' of staff next season. Some of the tightening could be in talent and administration, but Mr. Cimolino couldn’t provide a definitive answer.

"As for talk of a scaled back season next summer, Mr. Cimolino said it won’t be much smaller than previous seasons.

"Additional shows like Shakespeare’s Universe, performed outside, were possible because of a one-time grant and won’t be repeated next year.

"He was tight-lipped about what the Festival will produce next season except to say 'old favourites' would be back along with 'great comedies.'

"'We’re up for an exciting year. (Artistic director) Des (McAnuff) has done a terrific job.'"

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Interview: Christopher Plummer

Christopher Plummer discusses Stratford, Caesar, and his career (including the perennial Sound of Music) with Martin Morrow:

"When interviewing Christopher Plummer, there is always an elephant in the room — a singing elephant, to be exact. You don’t want to mention it; you know that he’s referred to it disparagingly in the past as 'The Sound of Mucus' and 'S&M.' But readers are curious. After all, despite a vast and varied resume onstage and in film, Plummer’s most beloved role remains Capt. von Trapp in the treacly 1965 movie of The Sound of Music.

"Midway through our recent talk at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, I broached the subject. No sooner is the title out of my mouth, than Plummer quickly nods, ready to set the record straight. Whatever he may have said about the picture itself, he has fond recollections of the people involved with it.

"'I made a great lifelong friendship with Julie [Andrews], whom I adore,' he says. 'And I loved the director, [the late] Robert Wise; I spoke at his memorial in Los Angeles. I have terrific memories of making it.' But he doesn’t think much of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s forthcoming revival of the musical in Toronto, or the way its star was chosen via the CBC-TV series How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? 'At one point, Julie and I were approached to do the reality show,' Plummer says, laughing incredulously. 'No, thank you!'

"Plummer discusses the film, along with many other highlights in his remarkable 60-year career, in his memoir, In Spite of Myself, to be published in Canada this fall. It’s a career that is still in full swing. At 78, the great Canadian actor is headlining at Stratford once again, in an eagerly awaited production of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra that begins previews Aug. 7. He came straight to the festival from Berlin, where he was shooting The Last Station, a film about Tolstoy, with Helen Mirren and Atonement’s James McAvoy. Before that, he wrapped up his title performance in Terry Gilliam’s forthcoming fantasy, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, co-starring with the late Heath Ledger.

"That’s typical of Plummer’s whirlwind schedule in recent years, which has seen him appear in a succession of high-profile films while still taking on major stage roles – like the Clarence Darrow figure in last year’s Broadway revival of Inherit the Wind, which garnered him rave notices and a Tony nomination.

"'I haven’t stopped working for the last six years,' Plummer admits. 'It’s been bang-bang-bang, one thing after another.' The heavy workload is entirely intentional. 'You know, when you get to my exalted age, you have to work,' he says with a smile. 'The more you work, the younger you appear to be, I think, and the younger you feel.'

"Plummer does look youthful for a man near the end of his seventh decade. His grey hair is thinning, but his eyes are still a penetrating blue, and he retains that patrician elegance that has served him well in roles ranging from the Duke of Wellington to King Lear. Dapper even in his rehearsal togs – a black tracksuit topped with a black blazer – he leans back in his chair and toys with a pair of yellow wrap-around shades. It strikes you that he has the perfect air of regal amusement to play Shaw’s Julius Caesar – a part Plummer coveted in vain for years.

"'I could never get a director to be interested in this play,' he reveals. That is, until Des McAnuff, an old friend and Stratford’s new artistic director, agreed to stage it. 'It’s a tremendous director’s piece, as Des is proving.' It’s also a rare opportunity for Plummer to do a Shaw work. 'I think I have an ear for his rhythms,' he says, 'and I particularly like Caesar because the play not only is funny, but has a great deal of romance and an attempt at historical accuracy. It’s bigger than most of his other plays. Someone once said that it was the closest thing he got to a Shakespearean play in size.'

"But Shaw’s portrayal of the Roman general is very different from Shakespeare’s. 'Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play is merely a figurehead,' Plummer says. 'Shaw’s Caesar is huge in comparison and terribly funny, very witty. And then there are moments of great loneliness that happen to Caesar; you realize what a lonely person he must have been, because there were very few people in the world who could match him. He was so far ahead of the game and of the society surrounding him.'

"Shaw’s comedy focuses on the aging Caesar’s visit to Egypt, where he takes the teenage Cleopatra under his wing and teaches her to be a queen. Plummer points out its similarity to Shaw’s later, better-known Pygmalion – the source for the musical My Fair Lady. Caesar and Cleopatra here are mentor and protégée – with a hint of an underlying May-December romance.

"'There’s that hidden tease that Shaw is always giving us, that suggestion of a sexual relationship,' Plummer says, 'which, of course, they really had: he fathered her child. But it’s merely suggested in the play – subtly suggested.'

"Playing Cleo to Plummer’s Caesar is Nikki M. James, a protégée of director McAnuff’s and also the star of his Romeo and Juliet. 'She has such fire and energy and she’s absolutely delightful,' Plummer says of the 27-year-old actress. 'Never has there been a Cleopatra, in my memory, that suggested 16. She looks 16. So there’s an added sense of Caesar as a father-like tutor.'

"Plummer says he’s back at Stratford – in his first starring role there since 2002’s King Lear – partly to do this play, partly to throw his support behind McAnuff’s first season as artistic head. 'He’s probably the hottest director at the moment in the theatre, anywhere,' Plummer asserts. 'It’s wonderful that he’s here.' Plummer jokes that he’s even pushing McAnuff to cast him in Guys and Dolls, the director’s next Broadway musical. 'I keep auditioning for him all the time, just to tease him. I come in singing [he switches to the gravelly New York accent of Guys and Dolls’ Nathan Detroit] Serve a paper and sue me, sue me…'

"Plummer’s challenge would be to shoehorn another stage role into a calendar already overflowing with film work. He says he’s pleased with the kinds of films he’s being offered these days – movies like Syriana, Emotional Arithmetic and Closing the Ring. 'I haven’t always liked the films I’ve done,' he says. 'They have been a [financial] necessity, as they often are in most actors’ lives.'

Continue reading for more disucssion of Plummer's work in film.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Audience to the Rescue

Richard Ouzounian (the Toronto Star) reports that things have improved for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival since an internal memo revealed the need for cutbacks next season, and the best is yet to come:

"The sun was shining on the Stratford festival Sunday, in every sense of the word.

"Besides the glorious weather, the city was filled with happy people there to see the plays and most of the venues I stuck my head into were playing to near capacity.

"No wonder artistic director Des McAnuff was beaming as he sat down to enjoy a cappuccino before running off to an eight-hour rehearsal for Caesar and Cleopatra.

"'It's all started turning around in the last two weeks,' sighed an almost paternally proud McAnuff. '"I can't tell you how relieved we all are.'

"Just around mid-July, there was a flurry of unwelcome media attention after an internal memo was leaked which urged the staff to tighten their belts in the face of a 10 per cent downturn in sales. Some people (but not this reporter) were even talking about a $5 million deficit.

"But almost magically, the staff woke up the following Monday morning to find the box office busier than it had been all season and it's stayed that way ever since.

"'You don't knock away a slump like we had overnight,' admits the experienced McAnuff, 'but if things keep going like they've been recently, we may wind up out of the woods after all.'

"Why the sudden change? Economists might point to people who've finally reconciled themselves to a 'staycation' deciding that Stratford would make a fine destination, or Toronto residents who suddenly realized a round trip to Stratford wouldn't require enough gas to bankrupt them.

"McAnuff has another theory, also worth giving credence to. 'I think it's word of mouth,' he says. 'We've got a wide variety of really good shows here this season and I think people realized that, came to see them and are now telling their friends about them.'

"And in some ways, the best is yet to come on the Aug. 16-17 weekend, when three high-profile productions open, all with the potential for greatness.

"Joanna McClelland Glass opens her politically explosive drama about the aftermath of the 1967 Detroit riots, Palmer Park.

"I ran into a joyous Nigel Shawn Williams, who's playing one of the leads and he couldn't be more excited about the show's prospects.

"Then there's Morris Panych's revolutionary new movement piece inspired by Moby Dick, which is getting extraordinarily positive buzz during previews. Finally, there's McAnuff directing Christopher Plummer in Caesar and Cleopatra, the kind of playgoing treat that should start any theatre-lover salivating in advance. "

Monday, August 4, 2008

Actors "Awe-Inspiring" in Pavilion Production

A review of Shakespeare's Universe: Her Infinite Variety from Richard Ouzounian at the Toronto Star:

"The Festival Pavilion is, in principle, one of the best new ideas to hit Stratford in years.

"A mere stone's throw from the Festival Theatre is an artful circular playing area under a leafy tree, with simple seating around it, open to the elements. Prices are low and the atmosphere is the most relaxed you'll find it here.

"Late in the pavilion's opening production, Shakespeare's Universe, when the company break into a lengthy chunk of Thomas Dekker's still-powerful 17th-century script, The Witch of Edmonton, you see what a gem this place could be.

"Here is where no-frills productions of all the hundreds of great obscure plays from the classical repertory could be presented. All you need are talented actors, which Stratford possesses in abundance.

"Despite my joy at the possibilities of this facility, I have to report that Shakespeare's Universe is a considerable disappointment.

"Author and director Peter Hinton seems to have used this show as a dumping ground for all the obscure data on the Elizabethan era's treatment of women that he didn't have time to cram into his overstuffed production of The Taming of the Shrew across the road.

"It leaves a sneaking feeling that Hinton may be working towards a doctoral thesis with Stratford paying the research bills.

"What we expect at Stratford is considerably more than the kind of show unimaginative youth theatre groups have been touring since Christ was a pup. You know the kind I mean: brightly smiling actors step in and out of character to pelt us with dates, facts and quotes before acting out small scenes to illustrate their points.

"As if all this wasn't already just a bit too Learning Channel for words, they accompany it with choreographed hand gestures that would have done The Supremes proud.

"If someone mentions a bug bite, the whole company scratch it; if one actor talks about being drunk, everyone weaves tipsily. And the amount of times they get up and fall to the ground to illustrate changes of fortune are so frequent that I prayed they were wearing football padding underneath their Elizabethan costumes.

"There are a couple of saving graces: we get to see genuine passages from nearly forgotten plays of the period, such as The Two Angry Women of Abingdon and The Fair Maid of the West, with the added virtue that a fine cast performs them.

"Each deserves a positive mention. Peggy Coffey is a sparkling minx who's also capable of poignant melancholy; Laura Condlin swaggers as a man with a rare sensual style; Matthew MacFadzean is typically excellent as everything from (literally) a mad dog to a snarling chauvinist; Dayna Tekatch sings sweetly and dances with style; and Michael Spencer-Davis brings a nice clarity and weight to all the work he does.

"Then there's the awe-inspiring Karen Robinson. She's a forceful presence throughout, with those hooded eyes, baleful voice and jack o' lantern smile. But when she breaks into her virtuoso turn as Widow Sawyer, the so-called Witch of Edmonton, she's heart-stopping. A performer of classic grandeur who acts without fear, she deserves a lot more to do at Stratford.

"As for Hinton, couldn't he just quietly go back to Ottawa and his job at the National Arts Centre? It's not just that his work is numbingly obvious, but it's always too long. His Swanne trilogy lasted nine hours, Shrew took three and even this simple piece is too long at 75 minutes.

"I have the distressing feeling that if Hinton had created the universe, it would have taken eight days."

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Profile: David Ferry

From Richard Ouzounian at the Toronto Star:

"Talk about perfect casting.

"When Morris Panych went looking for someone to play the madly driven Captain Ahab in his new adaptation of Herman Melville's Moby Dick – now in previews at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival prior to an Aug. 17 opening – he was lucky enough to get his first choice: David Ferry.

"It's not that the rugged 46-year-old actor actually has one leg or spends his nights and days chasing after an elusive white whale, but he does know more than a little bit about obsession.

"For 30 years now, Ferry has been pursuing his dream of creating great original theatre in this country with a single-mindedness that the captain of the Pequod would have envied.

"'Sometimes you want something so badly that you turn your back on other things you know you shouldn't ignore,' admits Ferry, blurring the line between Ahab and himself even further.
It's a day on which Ferry has no rehearsals and is ostensibly off, but the workaholic is spending the free time renovating his Toronto home.

"'I never knew there was so much to faucets,' he sighs. 'It's mind-blowing.'

"His wife, the equally talented actor and director Kyra Harper, is keeping a wary eye on the proceedings in the background. She's totally on side for the home renovation, but wonders – with a streak of practicality that Ferry blissfully lacks – if it's the kind of task a man ought to undertake while he's in rehearsals as Ahab.

"'Kyra,' he sighs, with that wonderful mix of resignation and affection only those married a long time can feel, 'she's the one who's always asking me, Do you have to take that third job?'

"But he does. That's what makes Ferry tick and it always has, although the clock only really seemed to start working in overdrive once he passed his 40th birthday, 'So much to do, so little time left,' he explains. 'I saw friends dying all around me with things left undone. I didn't want to be one of them.'

"If truth be told, Ferry was born to the breed. Some suggest he must have left the womb emoting. His parents back in St. John's were both heavily involved in the community theatre of the time. His father also ran a chain of radio stations in Newfoundland and his mother, while ostensibly a housewife, still found time to direct the first stage works seen on television in the region.

"Young Ferry had a baptism of fire at age 15, when he was cast in the leading role of Tom Cahill's Tomorrow Will Be Sunday, a play light years ahead of its time about a young man dealing with the emotional damage of having been sexually molested by an elder.

"In 1967, the centennial year, the Dominion Drama Festival decided that everyone should present a Canadian play, and Newfoundland's entry was Cahill's searing drama, with Ferry along for the ride. 'I got hooked for sure,' he laughs. 'We were all in the festival that year, R.H. Thomson, Terry Tweed, Robert Charlebois. It was amazing.'

"Taken with the young man's talent, Newfoundland playwright Michael Cook insisted that the National Theatre School audition on The Rock for the first time. Ferry became a student.

"After graduation, he soon found himself in what he called 'the defining theatre moment of my career' – the production of James Reaney's The Donnellys, directed by Keith Turnbull, which became the signature piece of the NDWT Theatre Company.

"But Ferry kept moving, and a stint opposite Glynis Johns in Terence Rattigan's Cause Celebre at Edmonton's Citadel Theatre wound up bringing him to Broadway.

"'They had mounted Hugh Leonard's play A Life with an all-American and British cast,' recalls Ferry, 'and they were going to take it to New York. But one of the young men wasn't any good and director Peter Coe remembered me from the previous year. So they flew me in and I got the part.'

"The show wasn't a hit, but one of its cast members, Helen Stenborg, was a member of the renowned Circle Repertory Theatre.

"She insisted that their resident playwright, Lanford Wilson, see Ferry in action. He was so taken that he wrote a part for him in their next show, A Tale Told.

"Ferry was well launched in America at that point, but his heart belonged up north, and he returned. For the next quarter century he criss-crossed the country, playing a wide variety of roles and eventually emerging as a first-rate director and administrator as well.

"But, as he puts it, "This was going to be the first summer I didn't have to run a theatre," and he was looking forward to resting, when Panych paid him a call and Ferry couldn't say no.

"'I've never done a piece like this. There's very little text, just voice-over, mixed in with the movement. Morris is truly in phenomenal form. At the end of every day's rehearsal, there's been applause from the actors to salute him for the work we've done that day. Man, that never happens.'

"The often-deadly Stratford buzz is good on this one, and Des McAnuff, Christopher Plummer and Michael Langham have reportedly seen it in previews and been generous with their praise.
To Ferry's eyes, 'It's about Ahab and his obsession. It's an insane spiritual journey. He chases himself trying to kill what he hates in himself and it drives him crazy.'

"All this sounds exciting enough, but the Studio Theatre is extremely small. What are they doing about the whale itself?

"The answer is vintage Ferry: 'There's no frigging way we can build a whale on that stage, so why even try?'

"Good point."