Stratford Openings

by Lynn on August 26, 2010

in Archive,Picks & Pans


The Stratford Shakespeare Festival opened its last five productions of this 2009 season this past weekend. They included A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM by Shakespeare, of course, PHEDRE, by Racine, based on the Greek tragedy, and three Canadian plays: THE TRESPASSERS, RICE BOY and ZASTROZZI. Our theatre critic, Lynn Slotkin, is here to tell us if Stratford’s offerings opened with a bang or a whimper.

Hello Lynn, I know I usually ask you at the end of the review if they represent a bang or a whimper, but we can’t wait. What is it?

Neither. It’s more like a thud, along with groaning and gritting teeth. I always hope for the best when I go to the theatre. There was a lot to look forward too with these Stratford plays.

Shakespeare and Racine represent he classics. And three Canadian plays are showcased, with two written by our leading playwrights. The acting company for the most part is strong.

On paper, the directors appear to be accomplished. But the proof is in the finished productions and that’s where many of the problems lie.

Let’s start with Shakespeare. A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM is usually so magical, what could go wrong?

In director David Grindley’s production, practically everything. I’ve seen his work elsewhere. Very impressive.

But not here.

The play is magical, about prickly love that gets smoothed out. But Grindley has depicted this as a nightmare not a dream. ( I think Shakespeare knew the difference).

The magical forest where most of the play takes place is inhabited by fairies in Shakespeare’s play, which Grindley has interpreted as leather clad, boot-stomping, pelvis thrusting Goths, in sun-glasses. The acting is uneven. But Tom Rooney is inventive as Puck dressed like a punk rocker. And Geraint Wynn Davies is sweet As Buttom. The lighting is murky making it hard to see anything.

Oh dear. And Phèdre?

It’s a fraught story of Phèdre, in love with her stepson. It involves heightened emotions and wrathful Greek gods. But the production is lumbered by a dull, stodgy adaptation by Timberlake Wertenbaker.

And the direction of Carey Perloff is static and that removes all the energy. There’s good acting by Seana McKenna as Phèdre, Jonathan Goad as Hippolytus the stepson, and Roberta Maxwell as Oenone, but they are in this lumbering production.

Aren’t you heartened by Stratford doing three Canadian Plays?

I would have been if they were better plays. THE TRESPASSERS is a new play by Morris Panych—always cause for anticipation. It’s about life, sexual awakening and peaches. A grandfather teaches his teenaged grandson about life and stealing peaches from the neighbouring orchard, much to the boy’s mother’s dismay.

Panych writes dazzling dialogue. Full of wit. But as happens so often in a Panych play, aside from the wit and esoteric musings, the centre is hollow. He directs as well. The cast is great: Joseph Ziegler is the grandfather, Noah Reid is the grandson. Kelli Fox is the long suffering mother. A fine cast in a witty-sounding but ultimately hollow play.

And the other two plays: RICE BOY and ZASTROZZI?

TRICE BOY by Sunil Kuruvilla takes place in both Canada and India and is about three generations of men and their losses in life.

It is a shapeless, meandering mess of a play that has not benefited from the playwright’s reworking of his earlier version, or the workshops, dramaturgy and readings it’s had.

ZASTROZZI is a very early George F. Walker play,1977, one of our leading playwrights. It takes place in Europe, a few hundred years ago and is about a man who is a killing machine, getting rid of artists he thinks are mediocre—would that it was so easy. It shows a little of the angry humour and dark vision that make his recent plays crackle with life.

He is our most successful playwright but you would never know it from this weak, early work. Why on earth program it if it doesn’t show him in a good light, in spite of creative direction by Jennifer Tarver and a terrific performance by Rick Roberts as Zastrozzi?

You are not in a recommending mood?

Zastrozzi gives a prophetic line: ‘artists must be answerable to somebody’. The same can be said of the people who run the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. I don’t get the sense of artistic rigour or respect.

Just a desperation to try something new and appeal to a younger audience. What about the loyal audience that expects quality and isn’t getting it?

These five plays, coupled with a generally disappointing season, except for a few sterling productions, left me furious and fearful for the festival. Is there anyone watching the store?

This isn’t good enough.

Do better.