How on earth does a venerable institution such as the Stratford Shakespeare Festival choose the lead-off play for its 60th season? Simple: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.
The first two items come in the form of Christopher Newton. Marvellously in his fourth season in Stratford, the stage veteran played three seasons in the late ‘60s as an actor and now returns decades later to make his directorial début. Judging from the opening night crowd’s delight, the only question that remains for the artistic trust is, What took you so long?
In the borrowed department, look no further than the evening’s two stars: Ben Carlson (playing Benedick-the-perplexed with customary aplomb) and Deborah Hay (infusing Beatrice with her distinctly hilarious, inwardly insightful skills). The former has been permanently borrowed from the Shaw Festival for over five years while the latter seems to have just ended her Niagara-on-the-Lake triumphs (most recently as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady—cross-reference below) in favour of Broadway North. Finally, the blue component is woven into the threads and nickname of the dastardly Don John “the bastard” (Gareth Potter is deliciously foul enough to draw a chorus of devilish boos during the bows)—the evil half-brother of Don Pedro (declaimed with typical resonance and clarity by Juan Chioran).
One of the Bard’s funniest comedies demands a strong ensemble and a director that knows just how much rein to give his charges.
This production has an abundance of brilliant comic thespians in the play’s two romantic storylines but, surprisingly, suffers a comparative letdown with Shakespeare’s inventive comic relief (Dogberry—Richard Binsley—the vocabulary challenged constable-in-charge and his motley deputies whose first appearance might well have been dubbed The Gang Who Couldn’t Sing Straight).
Consequently, the first part is one of the best, most consistent, frequently side splitting ninety minutes of “comedy tonight” yet seen on the banks of the Avon.
Hay—who is quickly growing into Canada’s answer to Lucille Ball—is in top form whether pratfalling down a staircase or serving up a tour de force of diction, mannerism and deadpan that puts her lines at the head of the manic class. Carlson follows suit, pushing his already considerable ability delivering rapid-fire, droll banter into an even higher realm. Here is chemistry of the highest order—as good as this dynamic duo is at harvesting yuks, the mind positively salivates at the notion of them revealing just why their combined hilarity is so good by casting them together in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (cross-reference below)
Other funny folks of note include ever-wry James Blendick playing the host and father of the bride, Leonato, Keith Dinicol as his brother, Antonio (a great visage and dancing “technique”), and Roy Lewis as Dogberry’s second-in-command, Verges. The largely straight members of the troupe include an appropriately demur Hero (Bethany Jillard), the black-and-white emotions of lovesick Claudio (Tyrone Savage) and a wee bit too-“nice”-of-a-performance-to-be-despicable from Michael Blake as the duplicitous Borachio. Special mention also to Timothy Stickney’s compelling take on Friar Francis whose inventiveness doing the Lord’s work couldn’t have a better advocate.
Transplanting Messina from Sicily to Brazil works beautifully on a number of fronts. Santo Loquasto’s set is a colourful model of form and function from the beautifully rendered floor tiles to the aforementioned staircase that is equally effective in entrances, exits and—apparently—overhearing others’ conversations. The locale has also allowed Newton to once again display his penchant for and especial understanding of piano music. With six Brazilian composers brought to radiant life by Jonathan Monro (who also filled in the missing bars with his original score) the only caution was the employment of two instruments: the onstage baby grand having a decided aural edge over the less-than-lively digital keyboard in the “pit.” And, of course, with Latin-blooded music filling the air, the invitation to the dance must be issued. Choreographer Jane Johanson answered that call with a couple of full bore ensemble numbers that had toes a tappin’ to the hand clapping offbeats. Stepping further into the fun-loving culture, a bit of beefcake (Nicholas Dolan gamely doing the honours) was employed to set up a silent love triangle that helped keep the momentum moving forward even as the scene settings were artfully adjusted.
What fun that just days after his “appearance” in Misalliance, that the wily urchin, Cupid should find his way into the script (“…he [Benedick] shall fall in love with Beatrice. If we can do this, Cupid is no longer an archer”) then into and out of the hearts of young lovers as they try to endure sudden passion, fickleness and jealous deceits. Tellingly, trumped up duplicity fuelled by Don John’s bitterness (he can’t even beat his brother in war) and executed by Borachio leads to a damning description of the lady in question: “Everyman’s Hero,” basely attests to her alleged whoring.
But taken as a whole, Stratford’s liftoff to this special year finds Newton becoming the hero of the piece, much to “every man’s” satisfaction. JWR