Thursday, August 18, 2011

Seana McKenna shines brightly at the Stratford Festival this season

One of the major in-house stars at the Stratford Festival for many years has been Seana McKenna, an actor who imbues almost everything she does with a depth few others can match.  She can also make you believe, more than many others, she is something she isn't.  Such was the case a number of years ago when she played a sprightly 16-year-old Juliet in Shakespeare's play about the ill-fated lovers on the Festival stage, even though she was obviously not anywhere near 16 years of age at the time.  But she played the role and we bought into it.

So it is again this season, as Seana plays two difficult roles with total assurance and impressive results, even though with one of them, you really have to get your head around the fact she is playing a male lead character.  I had difficulty with that at first, as I suspect others will as well this season, but Seana is just so darn good in the title role in Shakespeare's Richard III, you soon put aside your qualms and buy into her character yet again.

Let's start our review of Seana's two star turns this season with, obviously, Richard III.  I've seen several productions of the play before, but Seana takes this male role and makes it uniquely her own, with just a right mix of evil and malice plus a certain vulnerability I don't think most males in the role could match.  Although she appears rather slight, physically, on stage, her strong presence is felt from beginning to end.  The physical deformity of Richard is not played up so much in this production, which is probably a wise move on the part of director Miles Potter and McKenna.  She appears real, yet suitably challenged, without taking that part of the character to the next level.

The acting ensemble supporting McKenna is uniformly strong as well, including good performances by Martha Henry as the widow of King Henry VI, and Roberta Maxwell as the King's mother.  Andrew Gillies missed all of the performances I was scheduled to attend that particular week, which is unfortunate, as I was looking forward to seeing his work this season after missing his considerable presence on stage in any major roles for several years.  No explanation given for his absence, but I hope he is well and back onstage now at Stratford.  In Richard III, incidentally, he would be playing the role of Lord Stanley.

Overall, this Richard III benefits from good direction and a strong cast, but it is a long sit and clearly not a production for everyone.  Those who do go, however, will be impressed by McKenna's performance once they adjust their expectations at the door.

Richard III continues until September 25th at the Tom Patterson Theatre, and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

The second McKenna show this season, which I saw the afternoon following Richard III, incidentally, is  McKenna's one-woman, one-act play by Vern Thiessen, Shakespeare's Will, which the author freely admits is his own take on what might have transpired once Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway, returns home from burying her husband and finally, if slowly, faces the fact of dealing with her late husband's last will and testament.

The marriage of William and Anne was a long and generally solid one, although Will spent much of his professional career in London writing his plays and acting, while his wife and kids were back home in Stratford-upon-Avon.  When he retired from the theatre a wealthy and well-respected man, he returned to Anne and the family to live out his final years, starting sometime after 1610.  He died in 1616 at the age of 52; Anne lived until 1623, dying at the age of 67.  He did indeed leave a will, which offers the springboard to what Thiessen imagines transpired after his death in this play, Shakespeare's Will.

To be sure, their marriage was a most unusual one for a number of reasons, but one that evidently worked for these two.  Both Anne and Will were more sexually engaged than we might have imagined, with Will known to have several dalliances outside the marriage and Anne telling Will before their marriage she likes the company of "lots and lots of men."

The simple set design at the tiny Studio Theatre by Peter Hartwell and effective lighting by Kevin Fraser leave the small stage almost entirely to Seana, who together with director Miles Potter again, make the most of a very interesting character and a most intriguing performance by McKenna.

Seana is one of our great Shakespearean actors, and both of her performances this season, in Richard III and Shakespeare's Will, prove the fact beyond a shadow of a doubt.  Her stage presence in both productions make them both must-sees at Stratford this season.

Shakespeare's Will runs only until September 2nd at the Studio Theatre and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

August 18th, 2011.

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