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Uncle Vanya.

With financial woes abounding on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border, the Stratford Festival opted for early season productions that showcase its traditional strengths: lavish costume, effective design, intelligent directing, and ensemble acting. While technically sound and artfully mounted, these productions showed little willingness to gamble with interpretation. Rather they seem designed to attract the well-heeled audience the Festival needs in hard times.

Uncle Vanya exhibits the production values people have come to expect from Stratford. The set's haunting beauty reflects the household's masked emotional history, emphasizing theme and emotional rhythm. The lights come up revealing a house "like a maze" in Serebryakov's words: tables, chairs, and a chaise, all draped with ivory dust covers, clutter the length of the long thrust, creating playing areas and obstacles that both bring together and separate the characters. As the action progresses dust covers are pulled back, first partly, then completely, to reveal rich, red velvet upholstery and table covers, the frayed nerves and sinews of the family being dissected.

If the key to successful Chekhov is the ability to produce simultaneously the laughter and tears characteristic of comedie larmoyante, Stratford's Uncle Vanya, marked by effective scenes and even superb acting on occasion, ultimately fails. Director Joe Dowling's production aims alternately for tears then laughter in a mechanistic way. At times it provokes laughter without pity, as when Vanya enters bearing flowers for Yelena only to find her in Astrov's embrace; and later pity without laughter, as when Vanya in heated dudgeon fails to shoot the insufferable Serebryakov. The final scene is sentimental and lacks Chekhov's dark, comic irony. Standing behind Vanya, cradling his head, Sidonie Boll's diminutive Sonya delivers a homily of stoicism and hope uninformed by any conscious recognition of her own emotional loss.

Alan Scarfe's Vanya is alternately larger than life, silly, and finally a pathetic wreck. At one moment, he is vigorous, making one almost believe that he could have been a Schopenhauer or a Dostoyevsky; at others, face to face with the unattainable Yelena, he turns into a shambling, shuffling schoolboy. Raging volcanically at Serebryakov's selfish plan to sell the estate, he is Justice personified. At the conclusion, disillusioned, without love or meaningful work, he collapses into a silent lump at his desk.

This Vanya is fined with other well-studied but limiting performances. While the characters are clearly conceived, they lack the self-conscious intelligence that often produces Chekhov's ironic effects. Wayne Best's disheveled Astrov lacks social grace and the acuity one expects of a participant-observer in the foibles of love. Lucy Peacock's luminous, tightly-wound Yelena is beautiful and anxious but too vacuous for angst. Finally, David Williams's Serebryakov is an ego-centric monster by turns cantankerous and cruel; but in his proposal to sell the estate, he falls into a caricature of pedantry.

Romeo and Juliet, directed by Richard Monette, is a clear but conventional interpretation. Monette emphasizes the lovers' youthful innocence, the text's lightning shifts of mood, and the rigid and violent social context which dooms love. Choosing to set the action in the 1920s Verona establishes a social context rife with the poison of Fascism's proud and passionate prejudice. Lorne Kennedy's Tybalt and the Capulet servingmen swagger in Fascist blackshirt uniforms, emblems of menacing conformity and reminders of the catastrophe kindled by their malignant spirit. Counterpointing Tybalt's Fascistic conservatism is a casual, violent Mercutio played fortissimo by Colm Feore as a decadent, leisured ne'er-do-well in a Miami Vice white suit. Attractive and dangerous, he charms and threatens.

This Romeo and Juliet mutes hormonal sizzle and bawdry. Antoni Cimolini's Romeo and Megan Porter Follows's Juliet give us chaste young lovers, moved by enthusiasm for each other rather than physical passion. The choice to emphasize innocence and downplay sexual passion works and to a degree charms, coming as it does in the wake of the sweaty adolescents of some productions. To drive home the image of chaste innocence, Monette keeps the lovers apart throughout the balcony scene. Romeo never tries to scale the Festival Theatre's balcony to embrace Juliet. The anticipated embrace and kiss take a humorous turn. Romeo reaches up exuberantly to touch Juliet's hand, but her hand cannot quite reach his. To compensate, she scrambles to her hands and knees and reaches between the balustrade, hooking his outstretched fingers with her own. He smiles in rapture, and for a moment seems to hang, elevated by her grip.

In casting Cimolini and Follows, Monette gambles by putting actors in their first major classical roles. Both are youthful and handsome, but neither delivers Shakespeare's lyrical moments memorably. Follows, TV's Anne of Green Gables, gives us a Juliet who is by turns innocently charming and spontaneously amorous in the early scenes. In the later scenes, she portrays Juliet's growing emotional maturity. Cimolini's Romeo falls short of Follows's Juliet. While he gives us a suitably youthful and pretty Romeo, his gestures are wooden and his voice without any resonant emotional tones.

The troupe's ensemble effort compensates for competent but not stellar lead performances. In addition to Feore's madcap, archly ironic Mercutio, other veterans help create a world marked by quicksilver emotions, rash rationalization, and violence. Lewis Gordon is a raging, partriarchal Capulet. Bernard Hopkins is the most effective Friar Lawrence I have seen, an affable and sympathetic rationalist. Barbara Byrne is a garrulous and affectionate Nurse without bawdiness.

With inexperienced leads, Monette de-emphasizes the play's poetry and opts for speed, leaving few moments to savor the poetry but giving the production a clean, contemporary feeling. The production shifts emotional gears smoothly and quickly, the most memorable example coming as the play's last bright hope burns, then explodes. Romeo's arrival in Mantua provides Monette his opportunity for a coup de theatre. As Romeo is spotlighted downstage center on the Festival Theatre's platform, Nino Rota-like carnival music plays, fireworks explode, and commedia characters cavort. Suddenly, the stage falls silent and dark. In a production that has moved quickly and cleanly, this pyrotechnic display seems an extravagance, yet it illuminates the play's world in a spectacular way.

With its strong supporting cast, competent if not brilliant leads, and emphasis on pace rather than language, this Romeo and Juliet has many charms though it lacks tragic depth.

Looking at love's lighter side, director Marti Maraden orchestrates a picture pretty Love's Labour's Lost, striking a deft balance between the play's witty language and entertaining stage business, to help the audience through some of the more arcane dialogue. Creating a series of moods that mark the classical comic movement from isolation to integration, she makes clear how Shakespeare's Cupid undermines the male claim to rationality.

The opening mood has the light and clarity of early summer. While the serious business of vow-making starts the play, the brown, green and white costumes and a huge tree with a large tree-house platform remind us that leisure and play are the order of this world's day. Dressed in a white frock coat, Deigo Matamoros's King of Navarre, tall, bespectacled and balding, is a comic looking scholar who leads his entourage into monastic seclusion to pursue ideals. With the arrival of Lucy Peacock's beautiful, tart, and peremptory Princess of France and her ladies, it is clear that the men stand no chance of escaping their own fragile, self-deceiving nature.

Colm Feore's Berowne brings comic self-perspective to the men throughout while boldly accepting his own human folly. Early on he bounds about the stage arguing realistically about love only to reluctantly put his hand against his head and heart by signing the King's vow. But Feore saves the full force of his audacious style and virtuoso delivery for act 3 when he vaunts his false moral superiority over his fellow scholars who have all fallen in love. As "love's whip" he struts around the stage using words to flog his hypocritical comrades, then literally tries to eat the written evidence of his own love letter to Rosaline; and finally, when all hope of a cover up is gone, he throws his hands up and roars in a moment of self-reproach and self-celebration, "We deserve to die." The night I attended he brought down the house.

On the way to the play's last sobering notes, the comic action grows heated and the mood antic. The Muscovite dance and the Masque of the Nine Worthies turn into mockeries of a male mystique of power and pride. As chaos breaks out, the mood turns abruptly somber. Lighting dims and the news of death, the ultimate reality, brings a sober order. High spirits and game-playing with emotions end, as Peacock's Princess, balancing her sorrow with affection, charges Navarre to sequester himself for a year to learn a more mature approach to love. In the play's coda, Maraden weaves together hope and present sorrow as the whole cast renders the bittersweet and amusing song between spring and winter.

In The Tempest, director David Williams emphasizes mercy's virtue while recognizing the irreconcilable duality of humanity. Ariel and Caliban give us two perspectives of Prospero: one a thing of air and light, beloved, the other a thing of earth and darkness, cursed though acknowledged "as mine own" in the end. From the opening tempest at sea, Williams signifies the dual nature of the courtly characters who are spread around the stage frozen, spotlighted, each accompanied by a silvery, ghost-like double, an emanation of a moral essence about to be harrowed.

Prospero's redemption from revenge and his acceptance of his flawed humanity are central to Williams's interpretation. As Prospero, Alan Scarfe exposes the character's warring emotions of anger and compassion, though he clearly subordinates irascibility to compassion, giving us a kinder, gentler Prospero. From the opening narrative of his folly and betrayal, to his recognition that compassion represents the moral high ground, to his confrontation of the murderous courtiers, Scarfe's Prospero is an undeniable softy, never fully exploring the limits of the character's vexed anger. His transformation seems foregone with goodness and mercy so clearly predominant.

As a punk-haired Ariel, Ted Dykstra moves with deliberate grace rather than speed to illuminate the spirit's nobility. Ariel's spiritual power develops through special lighting effects. Before his initial appearance loud noise and intense light deafen and blind the audience. Later, as the courtiers approach the mysterious banquet, Dykstra cows them, appearing out of smoke and blinding light on the upper balcony as a fully feathered harpy with a twenty foot wing span.

Wayne Best's Caliban is a seething simian - kinetic, cursing, knuckle dragging. He slithers, cringes, and jumps about the stage with an energy borne of anger, pain, and sexual frustration. Though this portrayal suggests Caliban's leashed rage at Prospero, the pace allows little opportunity to savor the lyric, humanizing moment when Caliban relates his dream-reality of the enchanted island that hums with "the sound of an thousand twangling instruments." For such a Caliban redemption seems remote. Yet within the play's symbolic framework and Williams's interpretation, a sudden transformation seems right. Once Prospero has accepted the darkness within him, it may be transformed. In the closing sequence, this Prospero moves within an alchemist's circle scribed center stage. Reaching down to hold the crouching Caliban by the arm, Prospero claims him emphatically with "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine." His eyes now opened to Prospero's care and his foolish slavishness to Stephano and Trinculo, Best's Caliban stands fully erect, for the first time in the play, accepting Prospero's orders almost proudly, and pledging boldly to "be wise hereafter / And seek for grace."

Apart from Gonzalo and Alonzo, the characters from the civilized world are an unwholesome lot. Tom Wood's Antonio, dressed in black and silver, with close-cropped hair, is a malevolent bullet-like presence. Lorne Kennedy's Sebastian is carefully groomed and fawning, using sensuality to urge Antonio to murder, toying with his hair and kissing him full on the mouth to seal their villainous partnership. While Nicholas Pennell's Stephano and Edward Atienza's Trinculo occasionally draw a laugh, they mirror Sebastian and Antonio in their corruption. Atienza is a mockery of foppishness. Pennell's paunchy Stephano is an overweening, petty tyrant emboldened by drink, whose abuse of Caliban is cruel and debasing.

Williams uses kissing as a structural motif that moves toward a conservative moral interpretation. Antonio and Sebastian's kiss is "unnatural" and manipulative; Caliban's kiss of Stephano's arse, a servile acceptance of dominance and debasement; Prospero's kissing and washing of Ferdinand, one of paternal love and acceptance. The last opportunity for a redeeming kiss is left unfulfilled. As Scarfe's Prospero opens his arms ready to embrace his brother, Wood's Antonio glares at him with forced resignation. Head held high, he makes a long cross up stage, detouring around, though not looking at, Prospero. While Caliban may stand up, Antonio keeps his seething, rebellious spirit alive.

Williams gives us an artful production that recognizes mercy's transforming power and, simultaneously, the human stubbornness that resists it. On the emotional level, however, The Tempest backs away from revealing Prospero's inner darkness, and remains in memory as a beautiful but insubstantial pageant.

With the exception of Love's Labour's Lost, I felt that the productions intellectualized conflict. None moved me deeply, and I longed for the adventurous days of Stratford season's past.
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Title Annotation:Tom Patterson and Festival Theatres, Stratford, Ontario
Author:Brady, Owen E.
Publication:Theatre Journal
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:May 1, 1993
Previous Article:Restoration.
Next Article:Romeo and Juliet.

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