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Fanfare, firsts, and a fabulous Richard III 

Tony Hauser/Stratford Festival

On July 13, 1952, Alec Guinness stepped onto the stage of a large tent to play Richard III in the first performance of Canada's Stratford Festival. Exactly 50 years later, Shakespeare's Richard III opened at the multi-million dollar Avon Theatre July 13, after the entrance of the Governor General of Canada and after a very long standing ovation for Tom Patterson, who conceived and founded the Festival.

            The original fanfare, still played to open all performances at Stratford's magnificent Festival Theatre, was incorporated into the music score for this Richard III.

            Earlier that afternoon, Stratford's just-completed Studio Theatre officially opened, with fanfares and ceremonies and the first full performances of two brand new plays by young Canadian playwrights, one of whom we saw that night acting a featured role in Richard III. And the night before, Stratford completed the Shakespeare canon with the opening of its first full performance of the last play Shakespeare worked on, The Two Noble Kinsmen.

            Written by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher (we think), The Two Noble Kinsmen currently has a large cast of gifted young actors, each a former participant in the Stratford Conservatory. Stratford's Young Company briefly performed a cut-down workshop version of this play at the Patterson Theatre, then called the Third Stage, in 1985. Now Stratford revisits an old experiment to create a significant "first" in North American theater history. What a pity that The Two Noble Kinsmen is such a god-awful play.

            It has some funny scenes, all derivative and inferior to what they remind us of. As in A Midsummer Night's Dream, we get untalented rustics trying to impress to noble Duke and his followers outdoors and winning some money for their foolish efforts. There are fights and posturings so melodramatic that we giggle.

            And there are certainly noble sentiments expressed. Most of the dialogue is fusty rhetoric, very declamatory, and seldom accompanying any action. Some sounds unlikely indeed, like the warrior duke and his guards exclaiming about how great-looking the Kinsmen and their virile knights are. Dead serious, they sound like the comic Pandarus in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida when he simpers over Hector that "It does a man's heart good" to see a hero so handsome.

            The plot, such as it is, involves two cousins, Arcite and Palamon, from ancient Thebes, captured in war by Duke Theseus just after he married the Amazon Queen Hippolyta. Their jailer's daughter falls in love with Palamon, and after he escapes to the woods, she follows him, goes mad, sings and babbles a lot about flowers, then almost drowns and tries suicide. But no one tells her to get to a nunnery. Then the two kinsmen embrace and reminisce affectionately about their youth together, but try to kill each other because they are both in love with Hippolyta's sister, Emilia.

            Finally, the Duke has them come back after a month and fight a duel, after which the winner gets Emilia and the loser gets executed. So after Arcite and Palamon embrace and reminisce affectionately about their youth together a couple more times, they try to kill each other and Arcite wins. But just as Palamon is to be executed, Arcite is brought in dying. He fell off his horse! So they embrace and reminisce affectionately about their youth together. And the Duke and his Amazon go away, presumably to bed, without even asking Puck to sweep up.

            David Gaucher's designs include a central horse head in the pool and odd, Asian-style costumes with armor and leather that looks expensive. He says they reflect Oriental styles from the 10th to 15th centuries. Why I know not. The physical production is very striking, with truly artful lighting by Michael J. Whitfield.

            The two new plays are about pretense. Paul Dunn's High-Gravel-Blindgets its title from Launcelot Gobbo's comic line that his father "being more than sand-blind" [is rather] high-gravel-blind and knows me not." An actor, Dunn played Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice last season and thought about that clownish character's telling his nearsighted father that he, Launcelot, is dead. What a mean thing to do!

            But in this play, Lance, the offbeat, gay young man who lives with a young woman in a crummy Montreal apartment, greets a man at the door who says he is his father. But Lance's father abandoned him when he was a tiny child. So Lance denies being the son that Gord is looking for, and says that Lance is dead. The complications rise from there.

            Damien Atkins, a young actor-playwright himself, plays Lance very amusingly, displaying considerable talent for physical comedy. Stephen Ouimette plays Gord as a rumpled, beaten-down alcoholic tamed by his wife. Kimwun Perehinec plays Jessica, Lance's sculptor friend. And Chick Reid is hilarious as Margery, the controlling new wife. A professional Christian, Margery has come to Montreal for a religious seminar. In the intimate new Studio Theatre, Richard Monette directs this predictable play with sly comic characterization and makes it involving and entirely enjoyable.

            The first act of Anton Piatigorsky's Eternal Hydra is fairly intriguing. It presents a driven scholar, Vivian Ezra, who is the literary agent for a legendary, deceased writer, Gordias Carbuncle; the cynical old publisher, Randall Wellington Jr., whom she takes his novel to; and a young black novelist, Pauline Newberry. Seen and heard only by the scholar and by us is the spirit of the dead writer.

            In love with her vision of Gordias, Vivian tries to negotiate the publication of his long-lost masterpiece, Eternal Hydra. It is a work of genius about the meaning of life and all and all. Pauline is about to publish a second novel centering on neglected African-American novelist Selma Thomas, who knew Carbuncle in the 1930s in Paris. She has them meeting and having an affair. Publisher Randall wants to get Vivian to write an introduction to Pauline's novel to create a tie-in to Carbuncle before publicizing Eternal Hydra. Each has conflicting agendas.

            Act II is much more predictable, very pretentious, and interminable. We meet the real Gordias Carbuncle in Paris in the '30s and find that, like his name, he is entirely self-invented and phony. We see what his real relationship was to the researcher-mistress who hid his manuscript after he died, and what really occurred between him and the real Selma Thomas. And we look at our watches a lot.

            The cast plays the tiresome piece so well that it seems to move when it actually doesn't. Chick Reid is touching as Vivian Ezra and dynamic as Gwendolyn Jackson, Carbuncle's researcher in the '30s. Paul Soles seems typecast as the current, bright old publisher and as his pioneering father back in the '30s. Karen Robinson is glamorous and believable as Pauline, the present-day novelist, and as Selma. And Stephen Ouimette gives a cleverly layered, revealing portrayal of the enigmatic Gordias Carbuncle.

            Another returning Stratford alumnus, Tom McCamus makes up for his disappointing MacHeath in The Threepenny Opera with an electrifying Richard III. His playful, sardonic schemer is so self-amused at his villainy that he actually invigorates the audience as well as the play. We laugh at him, with him, in fact, while simultaneously feeling creepy about the horror of what we are being entertained by. McCamus is expressive and complex enough, physically and in his delivery, that we can sense Richard's self-loathing even while he actually enjoys his outrageousness and nastiness.

            When he tells us about his plans to destroy his brother, destroy the two innocent children, and destroy the pathetic widow whom he woos and wins after killing her husband, his manner isn't conspiratorial. No, this crafty monster is bragging. And laughing. And yet he seems to sneak a glance to see whether we disapprove.

            Martha Henry's direction is daringly theatrical but visually beautifully composed. She makes the powerful females more significant opponents to Richard than are his political or military rivals. Richmond may defeat him, but his antagonists at court who stand up to him and revile him are Queen Margaret, widow of Henry VI, Queen Elizabeth, wife of Edward IV, and the Duchess of York, his mother and mother of Edward IV and Clarence.

            Diane D'Aquila plays Margaret not just as expectedly strong, but with savage force more like Medea. Seana McKenna plays Elizabeth initially with cold dignity but eventually with both fury and biting sarcasm. And Lally Cadeau brings such humanity to the Duchess that one feels her anger but sympathizes with her tragedy, mother to a monster responsible for the death of his brothers.

            An entirely able, large and distinguished cast enriches this very physically played drama. The fight scenes are unreal but reasonably strongly felt. Richard takes some startling falls that are both telling and unexpectedly funny. Scott Wentworth is more memorably vivid as the dying King Edward IV than the victimized Clarence. Peter Hutt seems to visibly shrink as his Duke of Buckingham moves from happy accomplice to doomed, out-of-favor discard. And Aaron Franks has unusually commanding presence as the murderer, Tyrell.

            Allan Wilbee's almost abstract designs have wonderful texture, and his huge, gnarled trees seem symbolic of the entire drama. Louise Guinand's lighting saves its effects for climactic moments, and then delivers. But dominating the whole endeavor with showy virtuosity, McCamus scores a triumph.

Stratford Festival: Shakespeare & John Fletcher's The Two Noble Kinsmen at the Tom Patterson Theatre to September 29; Paul Dunn's High-Gravel-Blind and Anton Piatigorsky's Eternal Hydra at the Studio Theatre to Aug. 10 ; Shakespeare's Richard III at the Avon Theatre to November 3; or 1-800-567-1600.

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