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A First-Time Visitor Inhales Stratford’s Theatrical Perfume

That mille-feuille effect is one of the glories of repertory companies like this one, in which members of a resident troupe of actors play two or three different roles a week in a wide variety of productions. But actually, there are few repertory companies like Stratford’s; other than the Shaw Festival (also in Ontario, in Niagara-on-the-Lake) and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore., this type of theater has mostly vanished, a victim of its own costs and complications.

Stratford is by far the largest survivor, this year employing a company of 130 actors (and 420 other artists) to mount 14 shows in a season that runs from April through October. Along with “Bakkhai” and “Twelfth Night,” I saw “Timon of Athens” and “Guys and Dolls,” all in three days. That sampling, with its interplay of Shakespeare, an older classic and a big musical, is reasonably representative, even if I missed the new commissions, modern works and family programs that usually round out the mix.

Four was enough: If no show I saw surpasses its best-ever incarnation, each is strong enough to make a lasting impression. In that regard, the “Guys and Dolls” (through Oct. 29) is typical. The latest in a series of musicals recently directed and choreographed for Stratford by Donna Feore, it delivers all the joys of that nearly perfect book and score, here using the excellent 1992 Broadway version (with a 19-player orchestra) as the template. The central quartet of actors are engaging and colorful, though among the leading men there is a slight sense of slumming. Not every Nathan Detroit (Sean Arbuckle) is also a noted Stratford Banquo or Agamemnon, not every Sky Masterson (Evan Buliung) a Pericles or Petruchio. The New Yawk accents are novel.

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Excerpt: ‘Twelfth Night’

Brent Carver in a scene from Martha Henry’s production of the Shakespeare play.


By STRATFORD FESTIVAL on Publish Date August 14, 2017.


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The women negotiate the musical-theater style with more finesse, especially Blythe Wilson as a believably dim but lovable Miss Adelaide. And in smaller roles the advantages of the repertory system are evident in the quick, confident character choices made by actors who, on other days, are probably appearing in “H.M.S. Pinafore” and “Romeo and Juliet.” The repertory system doesn’t, however, account for the narrative verve and daring athleticism of the dancing, which Ms. Feore brings so far forward on the Festival Theater’s thrust stage that you expect to end up with a crapshooter in your lap.

That stage, part of Stratford’s original 1953 design, informs the feeling of many productions here, even those that take place in the three newer performance spaces the festival maintains in this charming city of 31,000. Sight lines (and the limited space for traps and flies) do not permit a great deal of scenery, so the sets are typically minimal and the costumes, in compensation, maximal. The unusual depth of the thrust also means that audience members, even those in the last row of the balcony of the 1,800-seat flagship theater, are never far from the action. This encourages an intimate acting style.

Both qualities are evident in the effervescent “Twelfth Night” (through Oct. 21), which in Martha Henry’s production feels personal but not maudlin. Shannon Taylor (also appearing in “School for Scandal”) beautifully traces the stages of Olivia’s recovery from grief; for once, you get the sense that her love for Viola (in disguise as Cesario) is drawing her back toward the sunlight in which she always belonged. The comedy and cruelties are nicely balanced, too, with an especially piquant contrast between Geraint Wyn Davies’s Sir Toby Belch — the best and funniest Shakespeare roué I’ve encountered — and the scarily dour Malvolio of Rod Beattie. But the star turn in this production comes from Brent Carver as the fool Feste, here a honey-voiced melancholic singing a suite of lovely songs (set by Reza Jacobs) while accompanying himself on glass bowls.

Music plays as large a role in Jillian Kelley’s production of the Euripides drama often known as “The Bacchae” but rendered here more Greekly as “Bakkhai.” Playing in the round at the festival’s Tom Patterson Theater through Sept. 23, this highly sexualized version, which required an “intimacy choreographer,” imagines the title characters as a throbbing coven of longhaired groupies, somewhere between an ambitious porno and a Summer’s Eve commercial. The 2015 adaptation by the poet Anne Carson also makes much of King Pentheus’s fetishy eagerness to spy on the women; when he applies lipstick as part of his disguise he does so like someone who has been longing for just this chance.

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From left, Jasmine Chen, Bahia Watson and Sarah Afful in “Bakkhai,” at the Stratford Festival.

Credit
Cylla von Tiedemann

That is apt enough, and even an extended sexual encounter between Pentheus and Dionysos, no doubt worked out with the intimacy choreographer, seems justifiable. But larger themes are crowded out by the production’s narrow focus on individual and small group psychopathology. We don’t feel the Euripidean conflict between civilization and hedonism or government and anarchy so much as that between personal repression and liberation. Still, the cheeky modern approach pays off when Ms. Peacock’s Agave, realizing the horrors she has committed while under Dionysos’s influence, faces a contemporary feminine punishment. Off comes the comfy robe; on go the heels and Spanx. It’s actually devastating.

Because “Bakkhai” is playing in the same theater where, earlier that weekend, I saw “Timon of Athens,” and because Stratford’s “Timon” also has a modern kick, I began to imagine Euripides and Shakespeare discussing hubris in that room. But the “Timon,” running through Sept. 21, makes a strong case, as “Bakkhai” ultimately does not, for an awkward and rarely done “problem play.”

Awkward because its first half, an incisive comedy of false friendship, has little to do with its second half, a ragged tragedy of Lear-like madness. The turning point comes when the wealthy and magnanimous Timon realizes what the rest of us already know: His friends are sycophants, adoring him only as long as the handouts last. Bankruptcy shows him the hard truth.

It’s unclear what truth Shakespeare (and his probable co-author Thomas Middleton) meant to show us. This production, directed by Stephen Ouimette, sidesteps the message problem by focusing on the way personal relationships are tested by both largess and loss. The modernizing helps: Fops and poseurs and senators and generals are more easily recognizable in pinstripe suits than Greek chitons. When Timon’s loyal servant Flavius (Michael Spencer-Davis) sadly shows his master the household accounts, it makes perfect sense that they are on a laptop — and we instantly understand the bad news that QuickBooks brings.

During the week I saw him in “Timon,” Mr. Spencer-Davis, in his seventh Stratford season, was also performing in “The Changeling” and rehearsing “The Madwoman of Chaillot.” Such a varied menu must be hectic, if thrilling, for an actor. For an audience it is enlightening, and not just because the plays acquire new depth in the process. The audience acquires new depth, too. More than once I found myself forced to wonder how many characters we all have lurking — how many mad Timons and hopeful Adelaides — in the repertory theater of our souls.

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