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Stratford Theatre Festival: Summer 2018

One of the virtues of maintaining such a large repertory company as Stratford does is that they can easily afford to stage such large-cast productions.

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Bahareh Yaraghi as Mrs. Laura Cheveley and Brad Hodder as Lord Arthur Goring in a scene from “The Ideal Husband” (Photo credit: Emily Cooper)

David Kaufman

David Kaufman, Critic

Though The Importance of Being Earnest is Oscar Wilde’s more famous and popular play, An Ideal Husband is actually superior. While Husband is as witty as Earnest–and filled with Wildean bon mots and aphorisms–it’s also more meaningful and thought-provoking. It tells the story of a husband who’s concerned that his wife is about to learn about some misdeeds in his past, just as Wilde himself was concerned, at the time he was writing it, that his wife was about to learn about his homosexual behavior.

Husband is also receiving a sublime production this summer at the Stratford Theatre Festival in Ontario, Canada, featuring a bubbly Brad Hodder as the “good-for-nothing” Lord Goring, who “leads such an idle life” and often serves as Wilde’s spokesman. There is also a haughty Bahareh Yaraghi as the shrewd Mrs. Laura Cheveley (who knows “such pleasant scandals about all her friends,” while creating some of her own), a no-nonsense Joseph Ziegler as the Earl of Caversham, Tim Campbell as Sir Robert Chiltern and Sophia Walker as his wife, Lady Gertrude. Though she has the lesser role of Lady Markby, Marion Adler also shines whenever she’s on stage.

Joseph Ziegler as the Earl of Caversham and Brad Hodder as Lord Arthur Goring in a scene from “The Ideal Husband” (Photo credit: Emily Cooper)

Without naming the many other cast members, An Ideal Husband reminds us that one of the virtues of maintaining such a large repertory company as Stratford does is that they can easily afford to stage such large-cast productions. It has also been staged with such genius by Lezlie Wade that it puts her on a par with Wilde himself.

The three distinctive set designs, which deserve and receive applause as they change before our very eyes, have been achieved by Douglas Paraschuk. And then there are those aphorisms. Consider: “Questions are never indiscreet, answers sometimes are….” “People are either hunting for husbands or hiding from them….” “I like talking about nothing–it’s the only thing I know anything about….” “Your husband is the exception–mine is the general rule….” “Don’t use big words–they mean so little….” In fact, I liked the rarely performed play and this particular production so much, that I saw it twice during my one week at Stratford this year.

Daren A. Herbert as Harold Hill and members of the company in a scene from “The Music Man” (Phto credit: Cylla von Teidemann)

Another highpoint of the Stratford season is their new version of The Music Man, especially as directed and choreographed by Donna Feore, who commandeered the same magic with the Stratford’s revival of Guys and Dolls, last year–and, presumably, with many of the same terrific dancers. With a solid Daren A. Herbert as Professor Harold Hill, the strong-voiced Danielle Wade as Marian (“the librarian”) and the hysterical Blythe Wilson as Eulalie Shinn (the Mayor’s wife), this other enormous cast also features Denise Oucharek as Marian’s mother and Alexander Elliot as her son Winthrop.

My companion and I fled Bronte: The World Without, a new play by Toronto-native Jordi Mand at the smaller Studio Theatre, at intermission. It’s about the three Bronte sisters, writers all. But they’re really just bickering and shrill as they talk about their ill, aged, offstage father and their offstage brother Branwell–throughout the first act, at any rate. It’s also badly written, badly acted, and badly directed. The decision to include contemporary songs during the scene changes in the mid-19th century period piece–presumably by director Vanessa Porteous–was also bizarre and off-putting.

André Sills in the title role (far right) and members of the company in a scene from “Coriolannus” (photo credit: David Hou)

It was a relief to turn, the next day, to the Stratford’s current production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. As directed and designed by Robert Lepage with great clarity and beauty, it features André Sills as a towering title character, whose original name is Caius Martius but becomes Coriolanus after he defeats the Roman enemies, the Volscians, and captures their city called Corioles.

It opens with a large sculpture of Coriolanus on a pedestal, delivering his initial speech, as the lips on the enormous head actually move. It’s hard to fathom, at first, why a young boy (Coriolanus’s son) soon wheels out a red wagon and places foot-tall toy soldiers around the stage. But then, when Coriolanus goes to fight the Volscians, the “Young Matrius” returns and proceeds to knock them all down, representing the war: It’s a smart and effective way of staging battle scenes, which usually don’t come across well in Shakespeare productions. There’s also another scene where two soldiers, dressed in U.S. army garb, text their dialogue to each other on their cell-phones, as it’s projected on a screen above them, as if on a phone screen–even including an emoji.

Unlike most Shakespeare productions, where the scenes essentially occur in the abstract, everyone here is situated in an actual environment, be it a bar in an elegant restaurant, a radio call-in station room, offices, bedrooms–and many others. It’s also presented in contemporary dress, as it unfolds in the middle of a large rectangular space in the middle of the proscenium, making it appear like a live movie or TV show, with gorgeous–and realistic-looking rear-projections–helping to set the scenes. If the vivacious Sills is at his fiercest when Coriolanus is banished from Rome at the end of Act II, the other standouts in the cast include an impassioned Lucy Peacock as Volumnia, Coriolanus’s mother, and a sturdy Tom McCamus as his good friend Menenius.

Members of the company in a scene from “A Comedy of Errors” (Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Though The Tempest and Julius Caesar are also “on” at the Stratford this year, the only other Shakespeare play I saw was The Comedy of Errors, and it struck me as one of the best of the five or six productions I’ve seen, over the years–even if it was in the smallest venue, the Studio Theatre. The entire, large cast was uniformly perfect at the antics they were directed to do by Keira Loughran, including slapstick maneuvers, mugging and comic timing.

Set in an “imagined era,” as stated in the program, it was performed on a simple set, featuring, in the rear, a Victorian, metallic pavilion, and including fanciful, colorful costumes–both designed by Joanna Yu. The play’s “merry pranks” and “imaginary wiles” were realized by many cross-dressed players, including an especially marvelous Josue Laboucane as the Dromio of Ephesus and Alexandra Lainfiesta as Adriana. And then there’s the incredible Rod Beattie as both the “spherical” cook Luce and as Dr. Pinch, with his bugged eyes. But no one I’ve singled out should detract from everyone else’s performance.

Jonathan Goad as Atticus Finch (center) and members of the company in a scene from “To Kill a Mockingbird” (Photo credit: Davi Hou)

My two companions for the week in Stratford thought the new stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was the best of the seven shows we saw. Given the first-rate 1962 film version of the novel, it seemed like a challenge to do a fine stage rendering as well. Dramatized by Christopher Sergel in 1990, this is not the version that will be coming to Broadway later this year.

In Stratford, it featured a poignant Irene Poole as Jean Louise Finch, or the elder Scout, who’s essentially looking back and narrating the story even as she observes and participates in it, and a steady Jonathan Goad who as Atticus Finch is channeling the magnificent Gregory Peck in the film version. The other child actors–namely Jacob Skiba as Jem and Hunter Smalley as Dill–are equally impressive.

The production begins in 1968, shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, indicated by projected images of King with riot sounds in the background, and locating the novel’s relevance with today–unfortunately. If the first act ends during the trial that’s at the center of the story, the intermission arrives with the Judge telling the court, “Let’s interrupt this trial for a ten-minute recess.”

Jennifer Rider-Shaw, George Krissa as Rocky and Dan Chameroy as Frank N. Furter in a scene from “The Rocky Horror Show” (Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann)

We concluded our Stratford theater-going with a lively revival of that guaranteed crowd-pleaser, The Rocky Horror Show, which, like The Music Man, is also directed and choreographed by Donna Feore. Boasting of gobs of lewd and ludicrous audience interaction, of course, the Narrator (Steve Ross) was especially the brunt of the humor, with one person shouting out, “Where’s your neck?” soon followed by someone else screaming, “Is it true you fuck swans?” (The latter question was a reference to the town’s floating-bird mascot.) The Narrator had the good sense to answer, “It’s true,” but later, in another response to some audience participation directed against him, he holds up his middle finger. There’s yet another gratuitous shout-out: “Describe Justin Bieber.” And then there were the more typical shout-outs, such as someone yelling, “Say something French,” before the “Master” says “Enchantée,” as he kisses Janet’s hand.

There were also a number of costumed members of the audience, such as the woman sitting directly across from me on the aisle in an identical French-maid costume as Columbia, on stage. With ostentatious and lascivious costumes designed by Dana Osborne, the obligatory, well-built “creature,” or the titular monster (George Krissa), is clad only in a leopard-dotted, spangling, bikini-jock strap.

That “transvestite, transsexual, Transylvanian” Frank N. Furter is played to perfection by Dan Chameroy, and Jennifer Rider-Shaw and Sayer Roberts provide Janet and Brad with loud and clear voices.

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David Kaufman
About David Kaufman (81 Articles)
David Kaufman has been covering the theater in New York since 1981. A former theater critic for the New York Daily News, he was also a long-time contributor to the Nation, Vanity Fair, the Village Voice and the New York Times. He is also the author of the award-winning Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, the best-selling Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, and his most recent biography, Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin.

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