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The search for self obsesses Canada's Stratford Festival.

"Men should be what they seem," Iago hisses at the Moor.

But, of course, men seldom are. A seemingly loyal lieutenant may harbor traitorous designs. A kindly uncle may be a regicidal rogue. Even a mirror's surface may conceal far more than it reveals.

The ambivalence of identity and the terrible cost of denying our true selves--or failing to perceive the truth about others--are themes that pervade Canada's 42nd Stratford Festival, its first under new artistic director Richard Monette. Stratford's first home-grown CEO--Monette has spent 22 years there as an actor and director--knows how to get the most out of this ensemble. This is a season of stunning thematic unity.

Superficially, the lineup (which continues in repertory through Nov. 13) looks like a dog's breakfast of clashing motifs: Hamlet, Cyrano de Bergerac, Othello, Long Day's Journey into Night. Yet from this melange Monette and company build an echo chamber of sociological and psychosexual cross-references.

Each work investigates personality as a construct, infinitely mutable and often dangerously misleading. Ghosts, family members and unresolved memories may take us up blind alleys, away from self-knowledge.

Yet Monette's interests go beyond conflicted souls struggling in tragic isolation. In each of these productions, familiar harmony and even social justice are seen to depend on the divided self being made whole, or at least reconciled to its warring parts. Else, chaos reigns.

BRIAN BEDFORD'S World War II-era production of Othello neatly encapsulates this seasonal subtext, particularly in Scott Wentworth's compellingly schizoid Iago. Probing for insight into Iago's (in)famous "motiveless malignancy," the seven-year Stratford veteran uncovers a vein of what is apparently repressed homosexuality. Unable to accept his true inclinations, Wentworth's Iago has converted self-loathing into hatred for the Moor (Ron O'Neal) and a chilling revulsion toward his wife Emilia (played by Dixie Seatle as a chain-smoking, attention-starved Mary Astor type).

Crew-cut and smirky, in tan U.S. army khakis, Wentworth's Iago clearly feels ambivalent about playing soldier. "Be a man!" he commands Roderigo (Tim MacDonald), his panicky co-conspirator. But his shrill, anxious bark of a voice betrays his own uncertainty as to what such an order really means.

Like a Peter Lorre villain stuck in Sands of Iwo Jima, Wentworth cajoles and seduces his fellow officers, dismissing them as often with a warm pat on the rump as a snappy salute. Coyly, he fingers the Moor's cravat while urging him to strangle Desdemona. In the fateful Act 2 drinking bout with Cassio, he unleashes a campy alter ego, belting out chanties and tugging up his trouser leg with all the subtlety of a Mae West at a Camp LeJune mess hall. Led away in handcuffs to his probable execution, he cocks a flirty, malevolent smile at his captors.

Set in 1941, a year synonymous with backstabbing and collective denial, the production suggests that the same culture that sanctions racist slurs against the Moor also restricts Iago to a hetero-sexist closet. Iago's duplicitous villainy is allowed to flourish in a society that judges men by what they seem, not by what they are. The shadows falling across Ming Cho Lee's sturdy black-and-white columns and arches remind us that moral absolutism is no defense against the gray areas of human nature.

Self-deception versus self-knowledge also absorbs Monette's bare-bones staging of Hamlet and Derek Goldby's swooning Cyrano. Stephen Ouimette's Hamlet overcomes his paralyzing narcissism by admitting the hidden possibilities of human behavior that Iago shuns. Suicidal urges, incestuous longings and sexual sadism (toward Ophelia) are impulses that Hamlet in the end bravely stares down. Confronting these demons is what finally empowers him to take up arms and bloodily restore unity to Elsinore at the cost of his own life.

THE PRODUCTION UNFOLDS at the compact Tom Patterson Theatre as a tutorial between the youngsters who sit and listen (Ophelia, Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) and the elders who stand and lecture hollowly about being true to thine own self. Debra Hanson's set design places them in lecture-hall chairs and on opposite sides of schoolmaster desks, signifying the fundamental power imbalance. The youth wear black jeans and leather jackets; their elders are in sepulchral gray.

But Hamlet chokes on received pieties and the preachment that there is only one "true," inviolate self. Instead, like his comic counterpart Cyrano (Colm Feore), the mopey prince carves out a dazzling new self with wit, audacity and rapier.

Stratford's pairing of these seldom-linked plays lets us spot other unexpected affinities. Like Hamlet with the Players, Cyrano first makes his audacious presence known by interrupting a play-within-a-play. He then proceeds to direct the action, just as Hamlet does, improvising calculatedly as he goes along.

BY DRAMATIZING THEMSELVES, both Hamlet and Cyrano break free of the strait-jacketing definitions of self that others seek to assign them. Ouimette does it mostly with cool sarcasm, Feore with a verbal agility that sounds as fresh as trash-talking at the NBA finals (Anthony Burgess supplies the muscular translation). Mortally wounded, Hamlet and Cyrano finally are able to disclose their true identities: Hamlet is his father's avenger and rightful heir; Cyrano is Roxanne's soul mate. All's well that ends well.

Order also is restored at the end of Diana LeBlanc's profoundly sympathetic Long Day's Journey, featuring the haunting duo of Martha Henry and William Hurt as Mary and James Tyrone. What Iago is to Othello and Claudius to Hamlet, James Tyrone Jr. is to his younger brother Edmund: a seducer, a projection of the hero's fears and desires, a sinister body-double.

Strafford's season of split personalities finds a final symbolic focus in Twelfth Night's clown Feste, played in Monette's lyrical production by Brian Bedford. One of the continent's premier actors, Bedford has spent the last couple of years out of town, including a Tony-nominated stint as Timon of Athens at the National Actors Theatre in New York.

Restored to Stratford in the role of a tattered, asexual jokester, in a wispy gray ponytail and ragged ruffles, he pronounces Illyria's happy reunification with his sweet little ditty about "the rain it raineth every day." Sometimes coming home again is the best way to find yourself.

Reed Johnson is a Detroit-based theatre critic.
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Author:Johnson, Reed
Publication:American Theatre
Date:Oct 1, 1994
Words:1020
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