Stratford Festival Mixed Bag
by Rachelle Urist
What do the following song titles have in common: "A Bushel and a Peck," "If I Were a Bell," "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat," and "Adelaide's Lament" otherwise known as "A Person Can Develop a Cold?" Answer: These familiar melodies are all from the musical "Guys and Dolls" which is the Stratford highlight this season at the Festival Theatre Stage.
The Stratford Festival in Ontario is sometimes touted as the best theatre festival on the continent. The trip can be made from Ann Arbor in under four hours, and many of us have made the festival the site of annual pilgrimages. The festival's standard of excellence reaches from its stellar actors to its capacity for magical spectacle. The spectacle is everything that Stratford has come to do best: big, glamorous, and lavish. Oftentimes where Stratford fails, it is because the management has tried to make a kind of Busby-Berkeley musical of a chamber or classical piece.
In the case of "Guys and Dolls," the festival's inclinations and the show's needs combine to create the kind of theatrical conflagration that makes for a long-running hit. In fact, according to a theatre-going companion who saw the original Broadway production in 1950, the Stratford one is better. While we have no way to measure their relative worth, the current production is so perfectly cast and richly arranged, that even the most jaded of theatregoers might find patience with the wild enthusiasm of the standing audience ovation at the show's end.
The show is based on the Damon Runyon stories of the '20s and '30s. Runyon's prose was famous for its street language, and his stories' adapters, Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling, and Abe Burrows, took pains to maintain Runyon's vernacular. Women are always "dolls," men pack "rods," and money is counted in "G's" and "potatoes." The story, which revolves around two couples, takes place in the gambling den of iniquity around 42nd Street and Broadway in New York City. The two leading men are gamblers (as are most of the other low-lifes who comprise the sizeable cast). One of the women, a singer, has been engaged to her man for 14 years, and her loyal optimism brands her a dizzy dame. The other woman, a sergeant in the Salvation Army, is netted by her gambling man through a bet. Given that this is musical comedy, both pairs are successfully hitched, and both men reform.
The ensemble is so tight that praise is deserved all around. Scott Wentworth is to be especially commended in his role as Sky Masterson, and Karen Edissi, who plays Adelaide, draws applause and titters with her every ditzy appearance.
In another of this season's spectacles, "Macbeth," also on the Festival stage, Scott Wentworth stands out again, this time as Macduff. It is a strange "Macbeth" when the actor playing Macduff eclipses even the title character, but so he did- at least to these eyes - in spite of the fact that Macbeth is played by the wonderful Brian Bedford. Being the mesmerizing performer that he is, Bedford does manage to command the stage, but he strains under the yoke of his directors' notion that Macbeth is more distracted than ambitious. Worse, Bedford has no one to play against. The usually wonderful Goldie Semple falters as Lady Macbeth, declaiming with endless, false passion. She handles the sleepwalking scene like a mad Ophelia. Something is very wrong.
This "Macbeth" is worth seeing primarily for its astounding five-minute opening. Signaled by a thunderclap, the tragedy begins with a spectacularly choreographed dance-battle, with clash of swords and bodies, followed by the chilling sight of the three witches spoiling the dead. Having collected their loot, they depart, charging one another to meet again soon. Great promise is heralded in those opening few minutes. Not much of that promise materializes. Part of the problem is that this "Macbeth's" two directors, David William and Robert Beard, have fallen under the spell of Stratford's resources, attempting to make a Broadway spectacle of a Shakespeare tragedy. When costumes, concepts, and accoutrements drown the play, the result is neither Broadway nor Shakespeare. It is simply bad theatre.
Meanwhile back at the Third Stage, a phenomenal production of Racine's "Phaedre" unfolded under the thoughtful and controlled direction of Brian Bedford. His brilliance is to bring very little stage business into play, so neither actor nor audience is distracted from a crystal clear translation in rhymed verse by Richard Wilbur. The poetry is given center stage in this production, and the audience remains riveted on the powerful words which are delivered impeccably by a cast of stars, among them: Patricia Conolly as a sensuous, tormented Phaedre, Colm Feore as the virile stepson, and Douglas Rain as his musical-voiced tutor.
Finally, also on the Third Stage, hearing is given to a contemporary play called "Forever Yours, Marie-Lou" by Canadian playwright Michel Tremblay. Except for some excellent performances by its cast of four which includes the seated and incomparable Susan Wright in a full leg cast (she's wheeled off the stage in a wheelchair), the play is forgettable. It's a long, primal whine. The playwright assails an unhappy family with certain psychological tools to unveil layers of grief and blame, but ultimately, the whole thing is tedious and more or less predictable.
PHOTO: Scene from "Forever Yours, Marie-Lou," featuring (l to r) Julia Winder (Carmen), Susan Wright (Marie-Louise), Shaun Austin-Olsen (Leopold), and Marti Maraden (Manon).
"The Strafford Festival in Ontario, Canada is sometimes touted as the best theatre festival on the continent. The trip can be made from Ann Arbor in under four hours, and many of us have made the festival the site of annual pilgrimages."