How do you solve a problem like The Stratford Festival?
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How do you solve a problem like The Stratford Festival?

This year's offerings from The Stratford Festival are gut-wrenching in sometimes the right way, and sometimes in the very, very wrong way.

Alexis Gordon as Julie Jordan and Jonathan Winsby as Billy Bigelow with members of the company in Carousel  Photo by David Hou

Alexis Gordon as Julie Jordan and Jonathan Winsby as Billy Bigelow with members of the company in Carousel. Photo by David Hou.

Multiple Venues (Stratford, Ontario)
Tuesday, April 21-Sunday, October 18

The super convenient shuttle bus that travels directly from downtown Toronto to each of the Stratford Festival theatres and back makes it very easy to reach the picturesque Ontario town that holds the country’s largest theatre festival. But in order to make the trip really count (for a theatre critic especially), you have to cram in as much of the season’s programming as you can. Five two-act plays in three days is very doable, but this weekend… This particular weekend was a doozy.

This selection of five plays from the current Stratford Festival season features two notoriously sexist works, two that take place during the rise and fall of the Nazi regime, and Hamlet. Of course, our itinerary didn’t include some of the season’s comedies, like Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer or Canadian playwright Michael Healey’s adaptation of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Physicists, and it’s not uncommon for Stratford to include classics with antiquated gender politics or more serious historical subject matter. It is troubling, however, that Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino felt that the inclusion of one admittedly problematic play (that being The Taming of the Shrew) would justify the programming of other problematic plays (like Carousel and definitely aspects of The Sound of Music and Hamlet) because they seem to share a theme? Actually, the programme states that Cimolino’s season explores “discovery” of one’s self or the world at large, which could arguably include virtually any piece of theatre ever written. Cimonlino usually has a great handle on what will appeal to ticket buyers and what will be genuinely interesting theatre, but here the skew is way off.

Maybe we wouldn’t have left that weekend at Stratford with genuinely hurt feelings if Carousel, by far the worst offender, wasn’t first on the docket. But that also made the weekend’s winner, The Diary of Anne Frank even more of a breath of fresh air. But now that the shuttle bus is a success, may we suggest the next change Stratford make is to allow beverages into the theatre? A glass of wine in our seat would go a long way in washing it all down. Rant over, on with the shows.

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The way Carousel has been discussed in the media and in the programme notes details how the show approaches the issue of domestic abuse, and how before-their-time Rodgers and Hammerstein were in their portrayal of the complex relationship between husband and wife Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan (credit to performers Jonathan Winsby and Alexis Gordon; they’re great in a very flawed production)—how their love somehow persists even when one is emotionally and physically hurtful to the other. Recent scandals in the NFL have lead to a healthy discussion about this very thing, that women choose to stay with abusers for valid and real reasons, which can’t be judged by anyone looking in. But making this point clear shouldn’t come at the expense of ever other female character in the show. Director Susan H. Schulman veneers the gritty business in Carousel with the kind of musical theatre sheen that reduces its characters to caricatures and turns off-colour actions into jokes. Even looking past the domestic abuse treatment (including the infamous line spoken by Julie, “It’s possible for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and not hurt at all”), look at Julie’s friend Carrie (Robin Evan Willis). She is obsessed with getting married to a fisherman who promptly plans their life together and gives her a rigorous schedule in which she must bear him children (And she giggles! Really!). Then she is duped into sexually suggestive horseplay with the show’s villain Jigger Craigin (Evan Buliung), silly girl, which her fiancé catches reprimands her for participating in. And even though the women are paid pennies for their work at the cotton mill, which also strictly regulates their social lives with a mandatory curfew, they’re also plagued by sailors who hoot and holler at them and beg to be given coffee and doughnuts and as the women plan that real nice clambake, too. (But they just roll their eyes, and give’em a swat on the head. The lazy scamps!) Those sailors, by the way, get an athletic, fast-paced, show-stopper of a dance number, with choreography by Michael Lichtefeld—the female ensemble, on the other hand, get group numbers that have them sitting docilely and singing about the joys of getting married and loving your man no matter what trouble he causes.

The first act is just enraging, and the second act helps slightly (maybe because it’s mostly dancing?), but once Billy describes his unborn child as “pink and white” in his “Soliloquy,” the jury’s out. There is very little reason to ever do this show in 2015, no matter how much of a classic it is.

The Taming of the Shrew
4 Stars

Deborah Hay as Katherina and Michael Spencer Davis as Gremio in The Taming of the Shrew  Photo by David Hou

Deborah Hay as Katherina and Michael Spencer-Davis as Gremio in The Taming of the Shrew. Photo by David Hou.

If Stratford was going to do the infamous Taming of the Shrew, then director Chris Abraham was definitely the right choice, after his joyful and progressive re-envisioning of A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year, set at the reception of a same-sex wedding. And he certainly kicks it off with a bang—the first 15 minutes of Shrew are some of the most fun and funniest we’ve ever seen on a Stratford stage, as Abraham chose to include the often-ignored introduction to the play that situates it as one large joke played on a drunk and belligerent (in this case) theatre blogger. It is irreverent and weird and hilarious when Deborah Hay, who will eventually play Katherina (the “Shrew”), orchestrates the ruse on the Fool, played in disguise by Ben Carlson, who will eventually play Petruchio (her “Tamer”).

From then on, everything is amped up a notch, to justify its playful tone. Hay is an unwieldy Kate, an absolute terror that destroys her sister Bianca’s (Sarah Afful) clothes before ramming her head into a pillar. In its exaggeration, these scenes that let Kate loose are some of the show’s most entertaining, potentially even rivalling the comedic duo of Tom Rooney as Tranio and Gordon S. Miller as Biondello, two servants who have a time with the elite while their master Lucentio (Cyrus Lane) poses as a tutor to woo Bianca. (It almost goes without saying, at this point, that Rooney will be a highlight in any production.) But it’s more or less a rather straightforward production of Shrew, and still suffers under the play’s shortcomings despite the chemistry between real-life husband and wife Hay and Carlson and their stellar performances. Perhaps it’s even more heartbreaking to see Kate’s downfall, specially when she’s forced to play dumb because of Petruchio’s insistence that the sun is the moon, given how energetic and powerful she was at first.

The play-within-a-play structure was thrilling at first, but eventually loses its edge. If it is all a game, it doesn’t explain what these players are trying to say to the buffoonish blogger by playing it. Nor does it suggest to the audience what the point of it all was. Still a solid production, still a flawed play. (Worth a note: The Globe and Mail critic Kelly Nestruck points out an interesting fact about the play’s gendered history at the festival at the bottom of his review here.)

The Sound of Music
4 Stars

Members of the company in The Sound of Music  Photo by David Hou

Members of the company in The Sound of Music. Photo by David Hou.

Donna Feore has a had a string of successes in her musicals on the Festival Stage, with Fiddler on the Roof and Crazy For You in the last two years, most notable for her choreography as well as her overall direction. She strikes again with The Sound of Music, which is pretty delightful to watch, regardless of your feelings about this particular Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. The dance sequences between the von Trapp children and their governess Maria are very sweet, as is the show’s lead Stephanie Rothenberg in her Stratford Festival debut (a slightly controversial casting, since she’s American, has worked out well). The choral singing by the Abbey’s nuns is stunning, thanks to musical director Laura Burton. The youngest von Trapps are adorable, as likely will be the hoards of small children who fill the audience. And Ben Carlson is a very likable Captain, so much that you have an easier time that usual believing that his waltz with Maria ignites a passionate love (despite that it feels a bit creepy, as Rothenberg’s portrayal of Maria is more like the kids’ new, cool babysitter rather than their new mother).

Is there anything to dislike about this show? Not really, except that, again, it seems that a woman’s happy ending comes with a wedding dress (quite a big one, in this production) and Liesl’s dalliance with Rolf in the gazebo during “Sixteen Going On Seventeen,” though beautifully danced, is begging for more teenage energy (i.e. hormones). It’s a pretty faultless, if rather tame, take on the classic.

The Diary of Anne Frank
20111004Raystars 4andahalf24 Members of the company in The Diary of Anne Frank. Photo by David Hou.[/caption]

The bleakest of the weekend’s lineup was also the most hopeful and inspirational. Jillian Keiley’s moving approach to the story of Anne Frank avoids treating the play as a museum piece, which is a horrifying thought when you think of the fierce, lively little girl who inspired it with her diary. Keiley has chosen to look at how Anne’s story is continuing its relevancy in 2015 not exactly as a historical recount of the Holocaust, but as a coming of age story with many entry points for new readers or theatre-goers to relate to. Exemplifying this idea, each actor introduces themselves at the front of the stage before the action begins and reveals an anecdote from their life: maybe their adolescence, maybe their experience with this play, or maybe their interaction with the Holocaust, whether first-hand or theoretical. Acknowledging the actors as real people first elminiates the audience’s ability to see the play as people playing pretend on a stage, they’re acknowledging real people and a real story just as they did their own. And the whole ensemble, from Sara Farb as Anne, to Joseph Ziegler as her father Otto, to Shannon Taylor as her sister Margot Frank, Yanna McIntosh as her attic-mate and sometimes nemesis Mrs. van Daan, is exceptional.

Bretta Gerecke’s design is also a standout, with a transformational set that lets the Frank’s attic refuge literally come out of the woodwork. It’s a pretty magical moment, and eventually all the design elements (including Gerecke’s monotone beige costumes, and Leigh Ann Vardy’s lighting) play with the idea of the two families hiding in plain sight, while giving the play a very contemporary and visually stunning dynamic.

In a weekend with tiring tropes and rather traditional stagings, Farb’s Anne and Keiley’s Anne left us heartbroken for all the right reasons.


Jonathan Goad as Hamlet and Seana McKenna as Gertrude in Hamlet  Photo by David Hou

Jonathan Goad as Hamlet and Seana McKenna as Gertrude in Hamlet. Photo by David Hou.

There is a moment that is sure to get a hushed gasp from the audience in Antoni Cimolino’s Hamlet, and it’s probably the one you’d expect. At the grave of the clown Yorick, Hamlet (Jonathan Goad) looks down at the skull of his old friend in his hands, then swiftly raises one arm to hold it aloft in the light, and begins the famous “Alas, poor Yorick!” speech. There’s an unsettling atmosphere that hangs over this production, not like the haunting of his deceased father that Hamlet feels, but more like the show is very aware that it is doing that play, and it has been a long time since the festival has done that play, which is a very important play with lots of moments the audience will recognize and expect.

Cimolino’s intentions with this Hamlet are pretty muddy, as he tries to connect the story with our contemporary world by slowly changing some of the costumes from medieval in the start, to modern-day by the end—which is just as confusing as it sounds. (Did he also intend to mirror today’s society by making Goad’s Hamlet the whiny, woman-hating, eventually violent epitome of male fragility, tortured by his “unmanly grief”?)

That being said, there are some remarkable performances, most notably Tom Rooney (again) as the morally unshakeable Polonius, Father-of-the-Year to Laertes (Mike Shara) and Ophelia (Adrienne Gould). The convincing intimacy in this family turns their fates into the play’s real heartbreak, even if Ophelia’s devotion to the family patriarchs is a bit overdone. And Teresa Przybylski’s set, with black blocks of various heights moveable throughout the stage, creates several stunning images: Hamlet climbing up to see the apparition, or at a royal banquet which sees the guests’ images blurrily reflected back as if the room is filled with otherworldly doubles (mirroring the fact that Geraint Wyn Davies plays both Claudius and the ghost of Hamlet’s father).

Overall, this isn’t a Hamlet to drop everything and go see—it’s only a matter of time before its turns comes up in the rotation again.