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."

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