Saturday, July 31, 2010

Two more shows at the Stratford Festival...

Hard to believe we're already at the end of July as I write this, and I have been knee-deep, as it were, in summer theatre for the past month. So time to get caught up over the next few weeks on summer offerings at both Shaw and Stratford. This weekend, we'll look at two offerings this season at Stratford; later in the week we'll look at two more from Shaw.

Overall, Stratford is having a stellar season. I have not seen a single show thus far I could not recommend; some are obviously better than others, to be sure, but none so far I am recommending you avoid. That being said, the new production of Cole Porter's musical "Kiss Me, Kate" requires some forewarning.

Porter's Kiss Me, Kate, with a book by Sam and Bella Spewack, debuted on Broadway in 1948 and won Porter a Tony Award for best composer and lyricist. The show also received the first-ever Tony for best musical. It was well-deserved, as Kiss Me, Kate is brimming over with Porter's trademark wit and clever lyrics, along with easily-remembered tunes that have withstood the test of time. The story, of course, focuses on actor-director Fred Graham, who is preparing for the opening of his musical adaptation of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew at the Ford's Theatre in Baltimore. Fred plays the male lead of Petruchio in the production, opposite his ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi, as Kate. With insistent bill-collectors dogging Fred every step of the way, the backstage bickering spills out on to the stage in their production of "Shrew".

This production on the Festival stage, directed by John Doyle, is great fun, but I personally found the first act, focusing on their production of "Shrew", to be played far too broadly for my liking. I got the sense some in the audience weren't in on the joke, thinking the 'bad' Shakespeare was perfectly alright. The other somewhat annoying factor was the abundance of underwear onstage in the first act. Oh sure, I know we're watching actors stage a live show, but there were too many BVD's or whatever for my liking.

Performances are very strong in this show: Chilina Kennedy is interesting here, in a role quite different from her star vehicle Evita. Here, she plays Lois Lane, or Bianca in Shrew. Juan Chioran has a much meatier role here as beleaguered Fred Graham than in the thankless role of Juan Peron in Evita, and he makes the most of it. Monique Lund, playing is ex-wife Lilli, is supremely elegant in her real-life role; her Katherine in Shrew, however, is way over the top.

Once you get past the first act, the second takes you more behind the scenes and more into the hearts and minds of the characters themselves, and that's when this production really shines. The music is great; the cast is solid; and the staging is very good. So be prepared for vaudeville, almost, in the first act, and a real musical in the second act. If you know that going in, you'll have a grand old time.

Kiss Me, Kate, continues at the Festival theatre until October 30th, and rates a respectable three out of four stars.

William Shakespeare's romantic comedy (sorry to term it that way, Wil!) As You Like It, has probably been produced at Stratford more than just about any other Shakespeare play, I would venture a guess. It's easy to see why: it is certainly one of his more accessible plays with a universal story of love triumphing over all, and everyone is happy in the end. Not much to dislike there. I can't count the number of productions I have personally seen at Stratford, but I can certainly count this new production one of the best I've seen.

First off, I should point out this is probably the most musical non-musical you'll ever see: there are several strolling musicians onstage throughout the show, breaking out into joyous song at the drop of a straw boater, as it were, and everyone seems to get into the act. The show is directed by Stratford Artistic Director Des McAnuff, and he resists the temptation to go over the top with this show; that works to the advantage of everyone involved. Scenic designer Debra Hanson has worked with Des to create a beautiful show set in the 1920s. I have never been a big fan of modern-dress Shakespeare, but I think even the Bard himself would be happy with this show: it is elegant, gracious, and the all-white wedding scene a the end is a nice capper for the whole evening.

One of the overriding visual themes throughout the show is Debra Hanson's depictions of butterflies, right down to the butterfly motif on the thrust stage floor itself. It all creates a romantic, light and airy feel that makes this one of the most accessible Shakespeare productions you're ever likely to see.

Overall, the cast is very strong, with some very good individual performances from the likes of Paul Nolan as the lovestruck Orlando; Andrea Runge as an engaging Rosalind, later disguised as Ganymede; Ben Carlson is very good as the court fool, Touchstone; and Cara Ricketts is quite impressive as Celia, later disguised as Aliena. Other notable performances include Mike Shara, Brian Tree, and Brent Carver as the sad-sack Jacques. Quite a departure for him, but he pulls it off. And speaking of departures, you can't help but take notice of Lucy Peacock as Audrey the goatherd.

This may not be a Shakespeare production for the purists, but for those who enjoy a good story well told, beautifully set and expertly directed, this As You Like It can't help but please all but the most jaded theatre-goers. As You Like It continues at the Festival theatre until October 31st, and rates a very enthusiastic four out of four stars.

July 31st, 2010.


Stratfordfest said...

Thank you for sharing your comments on these two productions. Most people seem to be in the same mind set with you on these productions. They are generally enjoying them and a lot are saying this is the best As You Like It they have seen. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts.
Aaron Kropf
Social and Online Media Coordinator
Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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