Several hundred amazingly respectful school kids attended the matinee I saw of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and seemed to really enjoy it, despite the wrongheaded production. Stratford's eye-popping, elaborate stagings, performed by some of the world's best-trained, most gifted classical actors in these state-of-the-art theaters are likely to be the best you will see, even when they're ill-conceived. So the kids were right to feel well entertained.
But this Dream makes little sense. The play is set in a fantasy world, so it can look like any place or period. But why would director Leon Rubin want it to look like 20th-century proletariat visiting a tropical jungle full of painted Mardi Gras celebrants? Why, when Nick Bottom is transformed into an ass, does he look like one of the natives draped with fronds of dried leaves, his donkey-head not comic but artsy, like an open, woven sculpture?
Gorgeously lit by Michael J. Whitfield, John Pennoyer's designs are exotic and spectacular but do not present a magic fairy world or an aristocratic court of any kind. And Bruce Gaston's music is a loud intrusion unrelated in style or period to what is happening onstage.
Is there a through line for the mishmash of acting styles? Why do some of the fairies perform trapeze acts? To create magic from beautiful movement, director Max Reinhardt flew the fairies on wires and had beautifully choreographed dancers onstage. Peter Brook substituted actors' magic for stage magic, using trapezes and unadorned practice clothes. But all the acrobatics thrillingly served a dramatic purpose. Rubin's weird-looking creatures just bob up and down on trapezes overhead pointlessly. Rubin has Donna Feore choreograph dancers as if in some scary tribal ritual.
When handsome Jonathan Goad looks merely vulgar as Oberon, king of the fairy world, and lovely Dana Green seems downright slutty as Titania, his queen, something is amiss. Nicholas Van Burek, always notably excellent at Stratford, is somehow ordinary and hardly interesting as Puck. And Thom Marriott ought to sue for being made to look like a bad amateur actor playing one as Bottom.
Wouldn't you know that right after the official opening night of that botched Shakespeare classic, a new version of an old hambone drama would get a Stratford production that looks like great theater? When I caught up with Marshall Borden's The Count of Monte Cristo, it was a hit show and a supremely polished performance.
Borden has condensed the huge Alexandre Dumas novel to playable length but maintained the best-known episodes and skillfully turned it into exciting theater. Director Andrey Tarusiuk keeps the complex action clear. He has designer Guido Tondino tone down his lavishly beautiful pictorial designs in favor of remarkably versatile sets that change persuasively in an instant from a ship in a sea storm to a colorful two-story inn, a man rowing up to a bleak dock, an official's office, the inside and outside of a forbidding prison, a treasure cave, and a luxurious ballroom. Blink, and we're somewhere else.
Two fine actors play "the Count" --- David Snelgrove as Young Edmond Dantes and Brad Rudy as Older Edmond, the Count of Monte Cristo. Dantes does age a lot in the 25 years in which he sailed as a First Mate; was appointed Captain; met Napoleon in exile; got arrested and held prisoner under terrible conditions; escaped death; found a treasure; became impossibly rich; gained revenge, love, and a son; fought some nifty duels; and had adventures on several continents. Snelgrove later plays Dantes' son.
Dana Green matures into a more refined but no less beautiful heroine as Dantes' beloved Mercedes. A uniformly fine, very large cast includes Andy Velasquez and Donald Carrier, who get what humanity they can from the two chief villains. And Robert King and Andrew Massingham stand out as Dantes' longtime supporters.
The whole production is handsome. Francois St.-Aubin's authentically realistic costumes, Robert Thomson's richly varied lighting, and Berthold Carriere's beautiful original music help lift every scene to a higher level.
John Stead's climactic fight scene is a knockout, not merely literally. It's all unlikely, daydream stuff, but it's great escapist entertainment masterfully served up.
Stratford Festival,Stratford, Ontario: Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, at the Festival Theatre through October 31; Marshall Borden's The Count of Monte Cristo,at the Avon Theatre through October 30. $23.65 to $111.40 ($17.57 to $82.77 US dollars). 800-567-1600, www.stratfordfestival.ca