Monday, July 19, 2010

Weekend at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

When writing about the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, I am prone to overdoing my praise. I love this place, truly, more than any other in the world, and it seems to have been designed specifically for me. It wasn't, of course, but it was designed for people like us, the kind who live and breathe Shakespeare.

This is my first trip of the summer, and I find the place pretty much as I left it last fall, with all of my favorite restaurants and shops still open for business (and my least favorite store, the tacky Christmas shop, thankfully closed). As always, the shows are some of the highest quality productions in North America.

A few quick notes about the plays I saw this weekend:

As You Like It
When we read this play a few weeks ago, I confessed that I've never really seen the appeal, either with Rosalind as a character or with the play in general. None of the productions I've seen in the past year has managed to change my mind (especially not that disastrously awful America-through-the-ages production at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, which I may never be able to forgive).

Having seen the Stratford production, I'm still not willing to concede that Rosalind is, as Harold Bloom claimed, one of the best female characters in all of literature. However, I do like the play much better than I did, especially with theater-crush Ben Carlson as Touchstone and the excellent Andrea Runge as Rosalind. The charm of the play, and the magic and wonder of the Forest of Arden, are better expressed here than I have ever yet seen.

The play is set in the 1920s, during the rise of both Surrealism and extreme political movements such as fascism. The usurping duke's court is Nazi-esque, which should weigh down the production but somehow does not. The rest of the staging is decidedly bizarre; ensemble characters wander around with flower bushes for heads, giant apples dangle from the ceiling, and for one scene a deer leans casually against a tree, smoking his pipe. This is all very strange, of course, but it gels nicely with the characters' very subjective understanding of reality and time. Beyond that, it is simply beautiful. At one point -- when the red court banners are stripped away in an instant and the flora and fauna of the forest are revealed -- the audience actually clapped for the scenery.

Of course, the production isn't perfect. I'm not a fan of Cara Ricketts, who plays Celia; there's something about her delivery that jars me. (I've heard it described as "cheerleader on speed.") And Brent Carver, who played Jaques, was a bit flat.

Still, I loved that, in the final scene, Jaques was the only one dressed in black, amid a sea of characters costumed in white. It was a great way to set him apart. And the songs from the play, so often glossed over, are here performed with gusto and skill, bringing the forest wonderfully to life.

The Winter's Tale
Did I mention that I have a little theater crush on Ben Carlson? He did a fantastic Hamlet here a few years ago, and his Ernest (in The Importance of Being Earnest) was one of the funniest things I've seen, here or elsewhere. He brings the same talents to Leontes, who ranges so wildly between fury and despair. This production is touching and sweet, staged straightforwardly on the Patterson thrust stage with minimal distraction.

The best and most beautiful moment in the play is, as it should be, the revelation of Hermione's statue. I was sitting next to a women who apparently did not know the story of the play; when Paulina promised to make the statue move and speak, my neighbor gasped and whispered, "She's alive! Oh, she's alive!" It was a good reminder for me: This play may not be Shakespeare's most popular, but it is wondrous all the same. It is a perfect example of the themes of redemption and reunion on which Shakespeare so often focused toward the end of his career.

The Tempest
Starring Christopher Plummer as Prospero, this is the headline show of the season, and it deserves every ounce of that attention. The staging and costuming are pure magic, featuring enchanted swords, flying fairies, man/fish hybrids, a "floating" Plummer, a light-up magical cloak and other fun moments. In the wrong hands, these could be mere gimmicks, distracting from the text, but not here. I've never seen a production that so fully captures the magic of Prospero's private wonderland.

From an interpretive standpoint, this production focuses less on the master/servant dynamics of colonization and more on the bonds between father and daughter, father and son, brother and brother, and (soon to be) husband and wife. These are ordinary relationships, functioning in a distinctly non-ordinary place, which makes the production lighter and more relatable than its servitude-obsessed peers.

And, of course, the acting is superb, especially from Plummer; Julyana Soelistyo, who plays Ariel; and Trish Lindstrom, who plays Miranda.

I tend to be stingy with my standing ovations, but I was on my feet the moment the lights came up (and so, I might add, was every other person in the theater). Truly, this is a wonderful show. If you can get up here to see it, do.

P.S. On a totally unrelated note, I saw Christopher Plummer around town twice this weekend, on Saturday night for dinner at the Church restaurant and on Sunday night for dinner at Rundles. Apparently we have the same foodie tastes!

P.P.S. If you've ever wondered about the Shakespeare statue featured on the banner of this blog, you'll find him in front of Stratford's Festival Theatre.


  1. Thank you so much for your comments on your time in Stratford. I'm glad you enjoyed the three productions you saw, will you be coming back to see The Two Gentlemen of Verona?
    It's great that we could change your mind, even just a little, on As You Like It. I really found this production to be something truly magical. The nice thing about this production of The Tempest is that it's preserved forever, and will be in cinemas and on television in the future. There is something just awe inspiring about The Winter's Tale isn't there?
    Thank you again for your comments and I'm glad you enjoyed the productions.
    Aaron Kropf
    Social and Online Media Coordinator
    Stratford Shakespeare Festival

  2. Thanks for checking in, Aaron! I'm coming up again in late August with some friends, and we're going to catch "Two Gents" then, along with "Tempest" again and one other show (possibly "Dangerous Liaisons").