Stratford: Cool theatre for summer's parching heat

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âeoeThe Americans arenâe(TM)t coming âe¦ the Americans arenâe(TM)t coming!âe

Canadian cultural institutions are feeling the strain of the downturn in the economy.

Itâe(TM)s not only the automotive industries and the towns in which they are centered in Ontario (Oshawa, Oakville, Windsor) that are feeling the pinch with regard to the rise in oil and gas prices and attendant layoffs by Ford (which recently posted a quarterly loss of $8.7 billion) and General Motors respectively. Now Ontarioâe(TM)s arts and cultural industries are suffering as well.

With fifteen productions running in four theatres, North Americaâe(TM)s largest repertory theatre, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (SSF), has recently announced that it will lose millions in box office revenue this year as a result of a projected 10 per cent decline in ticket sales for 2008. The lack of sales is placed primarily within the 35 to 40 per cent of tickets sold annually to American tourists. Down the road, at Niagara-on-the-Lakeâe(TM)s Shaw Festival, the predictions are not quite so dire but there is still worry.

The irony is that both institutions are offering fresh and innovative productions that mark some of their strongest work in several seasons. Herewith are several capsule reviews for rabble readers who might be contemplating a visit.

As the new artistic director of the SSF, Des McAnuffâe(TM)s production of Romeo and Juliet toggles a bit awkwardly back and forth from contemporary Italy to 16th century Verona within the context of two multiracial households in conflict. Both the Capulets and the Montagues are mixed race families in this production. The opening week reviews generally lauded the production with the exception of the two leads, Gareth Potter (as Romeo) and Nikki M. James (Juliet) who were considered weak and not up to their parts.

I saw the show three weeks into its run and can only say that whatever tensions and stress that might have plagued these two young actors on opening night has now dissipated and with the resiliency that only youth can bring to a role (which may have included staying in rehearsal until they broke through to the material) they are now performing like a couple of well seasoned Shakespearean professionals. Their love scenes are passionate and believable and their ability to articulate the poetry of the piece was rewarded with shouts of bravo from an audience that finally gave up a standing ovation only when they came forward to take their bows.

Another directorial feat at Stratford this summer comes with Peter Hintonâe(TM)s interesting and uncompromising take on The Taming of the Shrew. His historicist approach helps us understand the play in a larger context. The opening scene shows a woman in a dunking chair being tortured for some perceived crime against the local community contextualizing the subjugation of women and the origination of waterboarding all in one quick moment. Gender bended casting and the use of Elizabethan songs of the period with resonating lyrics (âeoeMy husbandâe(TM)s got no courage in himâe¦âe ) that could easily be interpreted as incipient feminism, continually remind the audience of what women were facing when they interacted with men.

Irene Poole is a physically challenged Kate who walks with a limp (âeoeWhy does the world report that Kate doth limp?âe Petruchio âe" played by Evan Buliung âe" asks rhetorically). She is a straightforward, no-nonsense Kate as any Kate there ever was. She gives as good as she gets and therein attests a peculiar sense of equality that belies the ostensibly male supremacist character of the text.

Musicals have been moved off the main Festival stage at Stratford this summer and are now housed in the smaller Avon Theatre. This is always a gamble, especially when you have a huge hit on your hands with the current production of The Music Man. What is it that compels us to keep coming back to this show whenever and wherever it is produced, giving real meaning to the phrase timeless classic? Well there is of course the music; those bouncy, catchy tunes and lyrics by Meredith Wilson that infected us so many years ago, and for which there apparently is no known cure. And then, of course, there is that fascinating rogue, Professor Harold Hill (here played superbly by Jonathan Goad).

The traveling con artist has always been a staple of American literature. Herman Melville developed the theme in his 1857 novel, The Confidence Man. Mark Twain introduced us to those two traveling grifters, the Duke and the King in Huckleberry Finn. Hucksters, snake oil salesman, riverboat gamblers and out of town jaspers ready to flim-flam the gullible rubes in all those small towns that dot the Midwest is part of Americaâe(TM)s literary heritage.

But Harold Hill is a con man who deep down has a good heart. And when he falls hard for the local librarian âe" well, therein lies the story for a great musical. Leah Oster is an effervescent and seemingly effortless Marian Paroo, the stewardess of the River City library. And even as the real people of Iowa (whose crops really did âeoejust happen to dieâe this summer) go through some tough times, one doesnâe(TM)t feel for a moment that this sweet bit of musical theatre looks down upon or belittles them in any way at all. On the contrary, the hanky factor is in evidence big time during this production because it rings out so authentically.

Although a star on the order of Brian Dennehy may not be pulling the Americans across the boarder, his stature looms large at Stratford this summer. The choice of Samuel Becketâe(TM)s Krappâe(TM)s Last Tape combined with Hughie, the seldom seen one-acter by Eugene Oâe(TM)Neill represents a clever combo that makes sense thematically while at the same time giving Dennehy a broad canvass and a colorful palette that results in two lovely portraits âe" one in the school of elliptical impressionism and the other in social realism.

In The Trojan Women by Euripides, the SSF gives us an opportunity to sample a Greek classic that thunders against war and rails against the gods. Director Marti Maraden made the right choices in my view by portraying the gods as military leaders.

Poseideon is played by David W. Keeley as an admiral in the Greek navy and Athena (Nora McLellan) is of equal rank. The vanquished women of Troy are led by Hecuba (Martha Henry) in more traditional dress. Maraden wisely dispenses with masks and personalizes the chorus by distributing some lines of the text to individuals and others to the group. All of this is enhanced by movement and choreography by Wendy Gorling and original music composed by Marc Desormeaux.

And finally moving down the road to Niagara-on-the-Lake is Jackie Maxwellâe(TM)s magnificent production of The Stepmother by Githa Sowerby. This play had only one previous production in its lifetime at the New Theatre, London, in 1924. After experiencing great success with another Sowerby play in 2004 âe" Rutherford and Son âe" Maxwell decided to give The Stepmother its North American premiere. The play is both romantic and realistic. It is set in the Edwardian world where Lois Relph (played with aching growing awareness by Claire Jullien) is a striving woman who makes it on her own as an enterprising dress designer while at the same time dealing with a cad of a husband who is demanding of much but deserving of little. Blair Williams plays her husband, Eustace Gaydon, a scheming, arrogant egotist who unfortunately is championed by the jurisprudence of the period when it comes to upholding property rights over the protestations of his spouse.

Two solid seasons from two major cultural institutions may not rid the air of economic anxiety but it does bode well for the future of this labour intensive sector of our economy.

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