Stratford 2014

Stratford’s Antony And Cleopatra: The Whole is Lesser Than The Parts. Reviewed by Jamie Portman.

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

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Yanna McIntosh as Cleopatra, Geraint Wyn Davies as  Antony. Photo David Hou.

STRATFORD — There’s no denying the memorable moments in the Stratford Festival’s new production of Antony And Cleopatra.

For example — the ferocious outburst of sexual rage from Yanna McIntosh’s Cleopatra when she learns that Antony, the love of her life, has married someone else. Director Gary Griffin shows a keen sense of dramatic timing here, extracting a mounting tension from the scene before Cleopatra explodes into fury.

That sequence is splendidly theatrical. But, in contrast, we also get displays of tender intimacy. A lovely scene where McIntosh helps the aging and weary Antony of Geraint Wyn Davies into his armour has an easy familiarity about it: these are two lovers who know each other well, who are comfortable with each other, who respond to each other naturally.

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Christina Casts its Spell At Stratford Despite Problematic Script: reviewed by Jamie Portman

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

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Jenny Young and Graham Abbey. Photo Cylla Von Tiedemann

STRATFORD — She bursts onto the stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre with cyclonic force, a female fury in the elegant garb of a male. But don’t assume we’re getting another variation of a trouser role here.
This not a case of actress Jenny Young simply dressing up like a man. She’s not just making like a 17th Century tomboy. It’s a moot point as to whether she voraciously inhabits the character of Sweden’s endlessly fascinating Queen Christina or whether Christina has taken occupancy of her. The bottom line is that she seizes our attention immediately as — all attitude — she starts berating a hapless court booby named Karl Gustav for his attempts to ravish her.
What comes through here with burning intensity is the forthright young queen’s revulsion at the thought of any intimate contact with a male. Indeed, as Young’s Christina spells out details of Karl’s attempted seduction, we wouldn’t be surprised if she upchucked before our eyes at any moment.

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Stratford Unveils A Provocative New Take On Shakespeare’s Dream Play as Chamber Theatre.

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

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Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Chamber Play. Photo: Michael Cooper. 

STRATFORD — Forty years ago, a movie called Earthquake arrived in cinemas, its impact heightened by a new system called Sensurround. The aim was to give audience members a truly shuddering experience — not just earth tremors but as close to the equivalent of a full-fledged quake as possible. So if you were an audience member, you felt as though both you and the auditorium were in danger of being shaken to bits.

Indeed, the legendary Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard started losing pieces of ceiling plaster when Earthquake opened there. And in Chicago, alarmed city authorities imposed severe restrictions on the use of Sensurround in its movie houses.

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Mother Courage: Stratford’s Seana McKenna offers a tough and memorable performance.

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

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Seana McKenna as Mother Courage. Carmen Grant as Kattrin. Photo. David Hou 

STRATFORD, Ont. — The image is unforgettable — this drab, middle-aged, grey-haired mother trudging endlessly through her chosen landscape of war and misery and dubious fiscal opportunity, hauling her battered peddler’s wagon behind her, her only concern the survival of herself and her grown children.
Watching a production of Brecht’s Mother Courage And Her Children, you can’t easily label the play’s title character as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Well, perhaps you can in those productions where the play is allowed to turn soppy and sentimental and tug on our emotions — an approach that infuriated playwright Bertolt Brecht but one that still tempts directors disdainful of his alienation theories.
History tells us that when Mother Courage premiered in Zurich some 70 years ago, some critics approvingly commented on the maternal qualities of its central character. Brecht’s enraged response was to rewrite the play to make her even harsher. Heaven help any treatment that allows her to enlist our sympathies.
But of course, she does — regardless of what Brecht might have wanted. However callous she may seem to an outside world, she still has an inner life, and in any good performance, we’re going to be conscious of it.
In the Stratford Festival’s astonishing new production, we’re riveted by the scene in which Seana McKenna’s Mother Courage is forced to gaze down on the corpse of her son, Swiss Cheese, and deny any knowledge of him. She has no other course if she is to avoid arrest and death herself at the hands of the military thugs who killed him. So, without a visible tremor of emotion, she gives her answer — no, she does not know him.

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Jamie Portman at the Stratford Festival: Stratford Mounts a Harrowing King Lear.

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

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Calme Fiore as King Lear. Photo: David Hou.

STRATFORD, Ont. — It’s one of the most horrendous scenes in dramatic literature — perhaps the most appalling Shakespeare ever wrote.

So if you know King Lear, you know you have to brace yourself for the sequence where those who have become his adversaries blind the Earl of Gloucester.

The Stratford Festival’s new production is merciless when the moment arrives. As the horror proceeds, it’s as though the participants are seized by an uncontrollable frenzy. There’s a whimpering Scott Wentworth as the wounded Gloucester who, having already lost one eye, is crawling pathetically away from his tormenters. And there’s the excellent Mike Shara, a demonically driven Duke of Cornwall, pouncing on him to complete the job.   Meanwhile, looking on, we have Liisa Repo-Martell’s Regan whose fascinated revulsion seems fixed in amber.

In Antoni Cimolino’s production, the scene has an emotional intimacy that makes what’s happening all the more unsettling. These are people who have known each other in better, more settled lives. But a vicious canker has taken over their world. What unleashed its poison?
The answer, of course, is found at the very beginning of the play when Colm Feore’s aging Lear totters onto the Festival Theatre stage and proceeds to open the gates of hell with his cockeyed plan to portion his kingdom among daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. Gaunt, wispy-bearded, voice sometimes quavering, his body language at times uncertain, this Lear may seem a relic, but his vanity and sense of entitlement still burn within him, even though even his aura of decisiveness soon reveals itself as an old man’s terrible foolishness.

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Jamie Portman Reviews Stratford’s King John: Fascinating Performances Despite a Show Lacking Cohesion

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

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PHoto. David Hou

STRATFORD — There’s no denying that Tom McCamus is delivering a fascinating portrayal of “something” at the Stratford Festival this summer.
Yet, it’s easy to be left with the feeling that it makes little sense, that this seasoned actor is resorting to a mere grab bag of emotions and mannerisms. But yet again, perhaps that’s all to the good.
After all McCamus is playing King John — or rather doing riffs on Shakespeare’s take on one of the more dubious monarchs to rule England. So if John emerges as something of a mess in McCamus’s interpretation, so be it. That’s one way of salvaging a character that often seems to lack definition in Shakespeare’s actual text.

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Stratford Misfires with Noel Coward’s Hay Fever: reviewed by Jamie Portman.

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

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Photo. Cylla Von Tiedemann

STRATFORD — You find yourself worrying about the Stratford Festival’s bungled revival of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever even before the performance begins.

‘That’s because a glance at the printed program notes reveals that director Alisa Palmer, a Shaw Festival veteran who really ought to know better, has decided to impose some kind of trendy feminist agenda on Coward’s 1925 comedy. Hence, among other things, Hay Fever actually deals with a mother-daughter power struggle: Coward’s memorable creation, veteran actress Judith Bliss, is suffering a mid-life identity crisis, while daughter Sorel is merely doing what a young woman must do, which is to break free of her family and become independent.

Or so Palmer claims.

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Jamie Portman reviews Stratford! Crazy For You: Gershwin musical triumphs at the Festival!

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

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Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

STRATFORD, Ont. —  “Who could ask for anything more?”
Lyricist Ira Gershwin got it right when he was supplying the words for brother George’s irresistible music for I Got Rhythm.
But you could pretty much apply them to the whole experience of watching the Stratford Festival’s hugely entertaining production of Crazy For You.
The line comes at the climactic moment of one of the great songs in the Gershwin canon — a number that at Stratford erupts into a rambunctious explosion of song and dance in the gun-slinging Nevada town of Deadrock. It’s a feel-good moment, one of many bestowed on us by director choreographer Donna Feore and her wonderful cast. And it wasn’t the only time that you wanted to stand up and cheer at Tuesday night’s opening performance.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Stratford’s production is depressingly foolish and self-indulgent.

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

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Stephen Ouimette as Bottom. Photo Michael Cooper.

STRATFORD, Ont. — Some may see the Stratford Festival’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as an act of desecration.
Not so. But it is a depressingly foolish and self-indulgent treatment that drains the magic out of Shakespeare’s most magical comedy and opts for sophomoric nonsense instead.
We’re not talking here about director Chris Abraham’s much publicized decision to introduce same-sex relationships into this world. That idea seems inspired.
Indeed, the show begins promisingly with Scott Wentworth’s Theseus bestowing his blessing on the marriage of two males. But then, Theseus turns fickle when confronted by the love between Hermia and Lysander, both portrayed here by women. He doesn’t like the idea

That’s enough, of course, to send Hermia (an enjoyable Bethany Jillard) and Lysander (Tara Rosling) fleeing to the enchanted wood where they and other characters in the story find their true affections thrown into further chaos by Puck’s magic.
Considering that much of the play’s comedy revolves around sexual confusion and misdirected yearnings, the gay aspect introduces an intriguing new dynamic. And mindful that in Shakespeare’s time, female roles were played by males, the production has added another fascinating layer, in that two men, Jonathan Goad and Evan Buliung are alternating this summer as those reigning fairies, Oberon and Titania.
A pity then that an audacious concept fails to reach its potential — perhaps because Abraham had no real idea what to do with it. Instead both it and the play itself are pulverized into stupidity by a director who should know better.
It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that Chris Abraham, who in recent years directed truly memorable productions of Shakespeare’s Othello and Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, should be responsible for this infantile mess.

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