Sunday, October 3, 2010

Stratford as I Like It

I'm currently in Ontario having a time out with the Eastern part of the chosen family.

Yesterday my dear friends Allan, Robert ,and I capped off Allan's birthday celebrations this week, with a trip to Stratford, a place we all love. We stayed at BRUNSWICK HOUSE, a B&B run by Gay Allison and her husband Geoff. Both of them are writers as well as story editors.Their charming old Victorian home is full of books, a short stagger from the town's main drag of bars, shops and restaurants, and one block from both the Avon and Studio theatres. Allan and I have stayed there many times before, but it was Robert's first visit to the house, and he loved it.

He was less enthusiastic about our theatre experience: Des McAnuff's production of AS YOU LIKE IT, currently playing at the Festival Stage.

When I was last in Stratford, three years ago, it was June,and John Huston and I saw three days of great theatre. It was Richard Monette's last season at the festival, and it was a good one. Monette directed a crowd-pleasing COMEDY OF ERRORS , but also a smart, sexually charged, and cheeky production.

Maybe it was the rain, or maybe it's the economy, or maybe it was the not entirely bloodless coup that preceded McAnuff's ascent to the artistic directorship of the country's largest theatre festival, but the place seemed tense this time. Certainly, the production of AS YOU LIKE IT felt a little too eager to please.

AS YOU LIKE IT is one of Shakespeare's great romantic comedies.  The story of family strife, mistaken identities and star-crossed lovers has been a crowd-pleaser for nearly 500 years.

Perhaps Mr. McAnuff is still finding his feet with classical texts, or perhaps he thought, given his successes on Broadway with hits like JERSEY BOYS, the audience wanted a musical from him.

However, AS YOU LIKE IT isn't a Broadway musical: it is Shakespeare.  What was chiefly wanted was a brilliant realization of the text. McAnuff focused on hitting the audience over the head with visual metaphor, and flashy musical production numbers, leaving the actors to largely fend for themselves with the actual play. This directorial strategy met with mixed success.

The Nazi inspired red and black of the Duke's court in Act One was a bit on the nose. The mostly fine company of actors more than conveyed the violence, greed, and menace of the court without needing such obvious sartorial trappings. It was as if McAnuff thought the audience was too dumb to get what the play is about.

He seemed capable with music, production numbers, fisticuffs, and staging broad comedy, but not with the heart of the play itself. This meant seasoned actors, especially Lucy Peacock, Ben Carlson, Randy Hughson, Tom Rooney and Brent Carver did fine work, because they were able to bring their experience to the table. The young lovers were good, especially Phoebe and her besotted sheppard.

It was the play's main engine, Rosalind,who suffered the most in McAnuff's choosing to privilege the production over the play. The lovely young Andrea Runge struggled undertaking one of Shakespeare's most challenging ingenue roles. Runge is a graceful actor ,and her gamine form made her physically well-suited to the role. However, her speaking voice lacks range. She didn't breathe well through the text. Her Rosalind had charm, but little depth. She seemed less like a girl dressed as a boy ,than a young musical theatre performer thrust into a role way over her head, with not much help from the director. She shone at the end, but for most of the performance seemed way out of her depth.

I saw Susan Coyne play Rosalind, about twelve years ago in Coronation Park. Coyne's acting shone with intelligence and passion from the time she graduated theatre school at NTS. Her Rosalind remains one of the greatest performances by an actress in a classical role I have ever seen, or likely will see in my life. Coyne crawled inside that text and illuminated the play from the inside. Coyne worked at Stratford as a young actress, as did Seanna McKenn, and Lucy Peacock. I expected someone of similar gifts at Stratford yesterday, and came away disappointed.

It's not Runge's fault she was in over her head. Blame for that falls squarely on the shoulders of the director.

It was, in many ways, an enjoyable production. There was great ensemble work from the company in the large scenes, and a beautiful Arden created by Debra Hanson, and Stratford's talented design team. The live music mostly enhanced the production, and made for a truly joyous finale. In the end, it was Shakespeare light: pretty, and mostly unchallenging.

I had a nightcap with two young actors in one of the town's bars last night. They were excited to be part of McAnuff's company, particularly at the prospect of perhaps going to New York in one of the star director's hits.

However, Stratford's primary role is NOT to serve as a farm team for Broadway producers. Stratford is one of the English-speaking world's great classical repertory theatre festivals.

McAnuff needs to focus not on New York, or on people who would rather be there,but on the task at hand: developing and maintaining Canada's pre-eminent repertory theatre company. McAnuff's primary focus must be doing great classical plays not just with style but with depth, insight and intelligence. We,the festival audience, deserve no less and we don't haul out to Stratford to see stuff we can see on King Street in Toronto.

I look forward to next season.