If Fringe and SummerWorks aren’t enough to satisfy your summer theatre cravings, the world-renowned Stratford Festival is now only a bus ride away from downtown Toronto, thanks to the new Stratford Direct bus route (“the best thing [the Festival] has done in years” according to one usher at the Avon Theatre). Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino has put together a season to please tastes from the traditional to the extravagant. Here’s what we think about five of Stratford’s current productions.
Donna Feore’s production of this classic musical about faith, tradition, love, and Tsarist Russia’s evictions of Jewish villagers in 1905 is simple, humble, and incredibly earnest. Those words could also describe the village of Anatevka, where the story is set, as well as the story’s central figure, the poor milk seller Tevye. The success of a production of Fiddler falls mainly on the shoulders of the man wearing Tevye’s worn-out shoes, and Stratford veteran Scott Wentworth rises to the task. His take on the role isn’t revolutionary, it’s just performed with a keen sense of the balance of tragedy, comedy, and nobility that comprises the character. As the patriarch of large family, Tevye is forced to handle three daughters who choose to marry without traditional arrangements, even as the Russian military presence in his small town becomes increasingly oppressive. Wentworth gives Tevye a charm that an audience could watch endlessly, whether he’s having private discussions with the Lord above, or with his wife, or especially during his direct addresses to the crowd.
Though Wentworth is a definite highlight of the show, group numbers like “To Life,” “Tevye’s Dream,” and “The Bottle Dance” are thrilling to watch, and that’s not because of any over-the-top tricks of lighting or projections (granted, one is a dream sequence, where a little embellishment is forgivable). While these scenes of joy and celebration fill the stage to the brim, some of the more violent events come off a bit stiff. Even so, this Fiddler is standing sturdily on a hit production.
It’s hard to go wrong with Samuel Beckett’s signature absurdist script, especially when it’s performed by a cast that includes Tom Rooney, Stephen Ouimette, Brian Dennehy, and Randy Hughson. In fact, director Jennifer Tarver’s production is one we could watch day after day, after day, after day, after day… You get the picture.
The two leads are a gloriously odd copule. Rooney is the ever-upright Vladimir, relentless in his fruitless mission to wait “by the tree” for the renowned Godot, and Ouimette is the grouch Estragon, who lacks his companion’s conviction and optimism, yet is unable to strike out on his own. In the play “where nothing happens. Twice,” as critic Vivian Mercier put it in 1956, Ouimette and Rooney’s nonsensical banter provides more than enough entertainment until the boisterous Pozzo, played by Dennehy, and his slave Lucky, played by Hughson, add a noisy (sometimes too noisy) distraction. Supporting the accomplished cast is Teresa Przybylski’s set, which places a white dirt road on top of a slick, black platform. The rise and fall of the raised road not only provides a captivating visual as the actors continuously move back and forth along it, it also evokes the metaphorical island that they can’t escape. Above, the circular movement of the moon to loud mechanical sounds emphasizes the clockwork routine of Beckett’s dystopia. If you’re a Godot fan, it’s a wonderful, frustrating, sad experience.
Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” meaning its tone is either heavily comedic or serious, though it’s neither a comedy nor a drama. Its story concerns the Duke of Vienna (Geraint Wyn Davies), who has let crime overrun his city. To set things right, he disguises himself as a priest and puts the straight-laced Angelo (Tom Rooney) in charge. Alas, Isabella (Carmen Grant), a nun pleading for her brother’s life, brings out Angelo’s un-saintly side. He makes an unseemly proposition that results in more scheming from the Duke. Other characters provide comic relief, including a witty bawd named Pompey (Randy Hughson) and a bumbling officer, Elbow (Brian Tree), whose comic wordplay gets lost in delivery.
While John Pennoyer’s set distinctly separates the stage into the formal government offices of the Duke and Angelo and the dirty cobbled ground of Vienna’s underbelly, the strength of Measure for Measure is in demonstrating the contradictions that exist within people. Every character is maddeningly hypocritical, but only Angelo’s faults seem to come to a satisfying conclusion, partly because of an outstanding performance from Tom Rooney that demonstrates the character’s ability to terrorize both himself and his subjects. Overall, director Martha Henry is unable to solve this problem play.
Rock and roll is a wild ride, and in Des McAnuff’s revival of the ’90s Broadway hit Tommy, he urges you to strap in and hold on for dear life. Pete Townshend’s story of a boy who inexplicably becomes deaf, dumb, and blind after a traumatic event, then rises to fame for his skill at pinball (an allegory for Townshend’s own rise to music stardom) is a catchy rock opera. But McAnuff’s take on the show is armed with an arsenal of visual, audio, and pyrotechnic technological advances that overwhelm the story, and frankly, the viewer.
There are some saving graces in the cast—Robert Markus as Older Tommy, Paul Nolan as the problem child Cousin Kevin, and Steve Ross as the greasy Uncle Ernie—all of whom can meet McAnuff’s production extravagance. But, mostly, the staging is needlessly busy. It dwarfs the moments and images that would otherwise help create a meaningful narrative. “The Acid Queen” becomes only an opportunity for scream-singing from Jewelle Blackman, instead of a moment of revelation for 10-year-old Tommy. In another scene, as Tommy goes through medical tests, a spinning table sent a glass beaker flying and crashing onto the stage, necessitating a pause in the show so the mess could be cleaned up. Songs like “Tommy Can You Hear Me” and “Pinball Wizard” will get your toes tapping as always, but the rest will have your head itching.
Well, not every season is totally perfect. Director Tim Carroll, seen usually at London’s Globe Theatre, is known for his “original practices” approach to Shakespeare—a time when the crowd gathered around the stage in broad daylight, and cheered or jeered as they pleased as the actors spoke directly to them, up close and personal. Actors wear traditional Elizabethan dress, and a live baroque band plays as audience members find their seats. Inside Stratford’s cavernous Festival Theatre, Carroll’s “original practices” angle for Romeo and Juliet results in an awkward, cheesy, and emotionally false production, not to mention a disastrous replacement for the opening prologue. This isn’t helped by juvenile performances from the two leads, Sara Topham as Juliet and Daniel Briere (in his Stratford debut) as Romeo, seemingly left out to dry by Carroll’s direction and traditional treatment of the language.
After the entire play unfolds with wide eyes, outstretched arms, and wailing voices—save for the performances of Tom McCamus (Friar Lawrence), Scott Wentworth (Capulet), and Jonathan Goad (Mercutio)—peace comes when the two star-crossed lovers lie lifeless in the Capulet crypt, hands clasped in their final embrace. But not so fast! Here comes a dance number! Romeo and Juliet comes off as a jolly romp for the whole family, which would be fine, if it wasn’t one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies.