If ever the Stratford Festival opts to, er, mount, a stage version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail they have the ideal director in Chris Abraham. As past productions under his stewardship have amply demonstrated (cross-reference below), broad, physical, bawdy comedy is right up his theatrical alley.
And in this one, the biggest puzzle remains: Why wasn’t Grumio (Brian Tree, revelling in the part) provided a proper set of coconuts when parading about the thrust stage’s magnificent flooring (designer Julie Fox doing much with less throughout) as his master’s steed?
On more than one occasion, as various punches, slaps and grabs were meted out to a covey of recipients (female and male), I time travelled back to the CNE in 1962 where I was mesmerized by the slapstick antics of The Three Stooges (my ticket cost 50 cents). How curious that of all the zaniness in their madcap show, the moment when Moe broke character and cautioned us kids, “Don’t try the eye pokes—even we miss sometimes” remains stuck in my craw. His “Don’t try this at home,” caution might well have been reworded to “Don’t do this in Shakespeare for an extended period” for this version of the Bard’s well-loved play.
And so in Abraham’s hyperactive hands, Kate (Deborah Hay—dare we say delivered a knockout performance?), using every limb of her body and a shrieking decibel count frequently in distortion red, was the meanest, most contemptuous Shrew yet seen.
Doing twin duties as the beer-guzzling Christopher Sly (replete with the third audience-insider opening in the past ten days: as if social media has now wormed its way into the venues where so many of us seek haven away from shallow “liking” of Facebook and the character-limited—in more ways than one!—Tweetisphere; perhaps Twitisphere is more apt) and vixen-tamer Petruchio, Ben Carlson gamely did everything asked of him, even sporting a manly strap-on dildo that likely caused a few families to have a post-performance conversation that most certainly ventured down an uncomfortable path.
To be sure, the opening night crowd seemed to savour every humiliation, put down and inflicted pain—even as the issue of violence against women continues to roil outside the Festival Theatre in the “real” world—(thank goodness the long-ago populous had been far more accepting of beating down the missus in the good old days).
All of these larger-than-hurt performances by the two principals (aided and abetted by their underlings and competitors) combined to make Kate’s metamorphosis from cursed wench to loving supplicant seem as false as Hortensio’s (Mike Shara, er, readily up for the challenge of finding a bride be she new or “used”) beard-in-disguise. No one that nasty can be cured with just a few depravations (notably food, where, to her credit, Hay provided the funniest moment of the long night, straining desperately to devour a few daisies). With that overwhelming, incomprehensible stench wafting through the Festival Theatre at conversion’s end, it’s to everyone’s credit that the play’s real power—finally—trumped the circus that came before.
Kate’s “Fie, fie” speech—as rendered by Hay—was nothing short of superb. Here’s hoping this talented cast will find another “visioner” in years to come that manages to find the always elusive balance of raucous fun that knows its limits and the real power of love to overcome insurmountable odds. JWR