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STRATFORD, Ontario When artistic director Richard Monette announced that he was taking Stratford's Festival Theater and the tiny Tom Patterson stage back to their roots, divesting productions of clutter and returning to bare-stage Shakespeare," it was celebrated as the right thing to do.

And it is undeniably a relief to see Tanya Moiseiwitsch's exquisite balcony design for the Festival theater returned to its original vision.

But some of the first productions of the season betray that pared-down aesthetic, with all three Shakespeares overdressed and, in two cases, swathed in peculiar concepts.

"The Tempest" is the most restrained. While designer Meredith Caron has filled the stage with vibrant color, glittering gold court attire and a Caliban who is hairy from head to foot, her work is linked closely enough to the world of the play that occasional excesses are forgivable.

But things get somewhat muddier in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Although Monette's lively production is enjoyable enough--and his ability to pull laughs from just about any material adds a lightness that is necessary--the overall design has a central flaw. Teresa Przybylski has mostly gone for an Athenian look, with robes in bright primal colors, but when the court goes hunting, the production suddenly starts looking Asian. Someone suggested a connection to "The Bacchae," but I couldn't see it.

The production boasts some magical moments--literally--with fairy flowers being thrown off balconies to suddenly appear clutched in a fist, and some amusing and well-orchestrated physical comedy.

There is unfortunately no such saving grace in "Macbeth," where things have simply gone off the rails. Clearly costume designer John Pennoyer went for a bold concept--a post-apocalyptic world where everyone is dressed in whatever they can find. But the futuristic garb of wire mesh, feathers and furs often looks just plain silly. Astrid Janson's set is thankfully simple, but she has included a massive, moving platform with stairs so wide apart it's a wonder the actors haven't fallen.

In all three shows, however, there is interesting work to be seen beneath the design flubs.

"The Tempest," with William Hutt as Prospero, delivers a performance to cherish forever. It may be his last as he contemplates retirement--it is certainly one of his best. The 79-year-old veteran towers so far above the rest of the cast that--with rare exception--the production seems barren when he is not onstage. This is Hutt's third time in the part and the fifth time the production has been staged in the Festival.

Michael Therriault as sprightly Ariel, and Graham Abbey as Ferdinand also manage to hold their own.


Highlight perfs in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" are by "Ragtime's' Steven Sutcliffe as Peter Quince, Brian Bedford as Bottom and Seana McKenna as Titania.

Graham Abbey as Lysander is proving this season he has the chops to handle the Bard. Also nimble is Jordan Pettle as Puck.

But "Dream" looks very good alongside "Macbeth." There is little to celebrate about Diana Leblanc's production. Her vision of a world driven by bloody skirmishes and the malevolence of witches is a bold one. But it is outlandish in all the wrong ways, and has a Macbeth (Rod Beattie) not up to the task. Martha Henry's Lady Macbeth is emotionally taut and strongly focused.

Going more modern

Moving from Elizabethan to Regency England, Jeannette Lambermont tackles Chicago playwright Christina Calvit's adaptation of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice."

Lambermont has done a good job of keeping the action flowing, with Lucy Peacock's Elizabeth rooted to center stage as the action shifts around her. Peacock delivers one of several lovely performances as Elizabeth, with just the right amount of independence to make her engaging and thoroughly human.

Sutcliffe is delicious as obnoxious Mr. Collins; Geordie Johnson manages to inject enough interest into the cool Mr. Darcy that we care if he and Elizabeth end up together; and Brian Tree steals the show with his dry wit as Mr. Bennet.

It's left to the two musicals to provide the most coherent productions of opening week. "Dracula," the new chamber musical for seven actors, is a slick show with a future (see review, page 87), while "West Side Story" showcases the talents of two performers developed by Mirvish productions--Tyley Ross ("Tommy") as Tony and MaAnne Dionisio ("Miss Saigon") as Maria. Ross' singing is spot-on and powerful, but Dionisio is having trouble with her voice.

With a focus on the dancing (some of the acting is not as strong as it could be), director Kelly Robinson and choreographer Sergio Trujillo have put together a sizzling show that captures the sensibilities of the 1957 original. Karen Andrew as Maria's friend Anita has legs that go on forever and extensions that astound.

Both "Dracula" and "West Side Story" are beautifully designed, the former by Douglas Paraschuk, the latter by Ruari Murchison. In each case there is a harnessed creativity that enhances the action. The effects are gorgeous, the costuming absolutely right.

Both musicals are also on the proscenium Avon Stage, which is unquestionably easier to work with than the long arm of the Tom Patterson or the thrust of the Festival Stage. Now the question is whether the next set of shows at the Festival (Ben Jonson's "The Alchemist" and Moliere's "The School for Scandal") and those at the Patterson (Canadian playwright David Young's "Glenn" and "Richard 11") can turn the tide of opening week. In all but one case (Janson takes on "Richard 11") the designers are different.
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Date:Jun 21, 1999
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