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."

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