Saturday, August 1, 2009

From Stratford to Elora to Niagara-on-the-Lake...

This holiday weekend, while some head out to cottages and campgrounds in search of good weather and relaxation, others stay closer to home and take in the myriad of cultural events going on in their own backyards or just a short drive away. It is almost impossible to fit everything in, but we do try, and this weekend there is no shortage of events to enjoy.

The Music Niagara concerts continue at various locations in Niagara-on-the-Lake, with a highlight being Monday evening with Between the Wars: Coward & Company in Words and Music, with performances featuring former Shaw Artistic Director Christopher Newton as well as Jennifer Phipps, Craig Winters, Atis Bankas and Luke Pomorski. It gets underway Monday evening at 7:30 and is just one of many great musical events in the Music Niagara schedule over the next week. Meantime, the Elora Festival's 30th anniversary season wraps up this weekend with several performances, included a performance called the Sicilian Jazz Project at the Gambrel Barn this evening I look forward to attending. It has been a stellar lineup, including performances by Natalie McMaster, Dawn Upshaw and a host of others since the 10th of July. Elora has always been one of my favourite destinations for great performances and wonderul scenery. Meantime, the Stratford Summer Music series got underway this past week and continues throughout much of August with several events going on every day in many venues around town, and even on the streets. For detailed listings of all these events and many more, log on to my website at and go to the Calendar page for everything you need to know. The page is updated weekly, so it is always very current.

On Wednesday I began my summer reviews from Shaw, which will continue for the next several weeks; starting today and continuing the next several Saturdays, I'll review some of the offerings at the Stratford Festival I've had the pleasure of seeing this season.

Overall, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, as it is now properly known, has been generally strong this season, in spite of early season ticket sales running below expectations resulting in some late-season performances being cancelled. The picture now seems quite a bit brighter, and that is great news for a festival that has struggled in the past but now seems to be doing quite well, thank you very much.

My first performance of the season at the beginning of July was Anton Chekhov's 'Three Sisters', in a version by Susan Coyne. Martha Henry directs this production with a sure hand, and gets great performances by several cast members, including Lucy Peacock keeping things in check as Masha; Dalal Badr as a beautifu Irina; Kelli Fox as a typically strong Natasha; and Peter Hutt doing what he always does, but having some fun here as Kulygin. Notable as well are James Blendick as Doctor Chebutykin and Juan Chioran as a quirky Solynoy.

Chekhov may be fun for actors, as noted in the program notes, but not always for the audience, as you really have to work to get into this play and try to understand and even like some of these characters. The story, of course, centres around the Three Sisters of the title, Lucy Peacock (Masha), Irene Poole (Olga) and Dalal Badr (Irina) and their seemingly hopeless existence in rural Russia at the turn of the last century. Life goes on, but takes several twists and turns before the conclusion of the play.

The sets and costumes are very attractive, thanks to designer John Pennoyer, and the 'Orchestra' of Marc Desormeaux, playing balaika, mandolin, guitar, zither, accordion, piano, percussion and flute is very atmospheric. Although the music is all recorded, he is truly a one-man band!

This is a play that won't appeal to everyone, but for those familiar with Chekhov they likely won't be disappointed. I give it a recommendable three out of four stars. Three Sisters plays at the Tom Patterson Theatre until October 3rd.

Also at the Tom Patterson Theatre, playing through to October 2nd is Ben Jonson's 'Bartholomew Fair', directed by Antoni Cimolino, and designed by Carolyn M. Smith. This is essentially a Young Company production (now known as the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Music in fact) with a huge cast. The younger members are joined by some excellent veterans of the festival, such as Brian Tree as Humphrey Wasp and Juan Chioran as Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, a Puritan Elder. Tom McCamus has a great time as the eavesdropping Justice Overdo and Kelli Fox and Lucy Peacock each put in good turns as Joan Trash and Ursla, respectively. With Peacock especially, the comic role is a welcome departure for her, as she dons a fat suit and has several comic moments because of it.

Ben Jonson lived from 1572 to 1637 and this is the first time his work has been presented at the festvial. It is a brilliant satire of class and character in Jacobean London, but isn't the least bit bitter. Rather, it is a fun romp through the Bartholomew Fair, populated by all sorts of unsavoury characters. The well-to-do in the story get their comeuppance in the end, and even Justice Overdo, on a secret mission to see what "enormities' are being perpetrated there, will not escape unscathed.

The cast is huge for this production and it is a little hard to keep up with all the action going on onstage, but it all works out in the end. Don't make it your only production at Stratford this year, but if you want to sample Ben Jonson's work, you could do much worse. Bartholomew Fair continues at the Tom Patterson Theatre until October 2nd and rates a three out of four stars.

The final play we'll look at today is Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, playing at the Avon stage until October 31st. Director is James McDonald and the designer is David Boechler. I mention that right away because although I like the nice, clean sets and overall design of the production, suitable for the timelessness of the story, I had problems with the modern dress costuming which depicts really no time period at all. The costumes are a real mish-mash of designs, and the battle scene uniforms look like something out of a Star Trek episode.

The problem I often have with modern-dress Shakespeare, especially the ones with several battle scenes as is the case here, is the fact the dialogue refers to killing with swords, yet they are all running around the stage with what look like sub-machine guns. So all those guns and not one is fired...but when you have to kill someone, out comes a daggar...such is modern dress Shakespeare!

Once you get past all that, the cast is a strong one, let by a gentlemanly Caesar in Geraint Wyn Davies and a rather profound Brutus in Ben Carlson. This isn't quite his stellar Hamlet of last year, but Carlson delivers a good performance here all the same.

The story, of course, is so well known it need not be repeated here; suffice it to say the production is faithful to the text in spite of the rather odd choices for costuming and design for the battle scenes. Because of those factors, even though the cast is strong, this Julius Caesar only rates a two out of four stars.

That's it for this week from Stratford; some more reports from Shaw come Wednesday.

August 1st, 2009.

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