STRATFORD, Ont. - The confidence level is such at the Stratford Festival, North America's biggest theater company, that it has included a quartet of lesser-known Shakespeares in its 52nd season.
Begun in 1953 as the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, it has always had the Bard as its house dramatist. But as it grew and diversified, the Bard's share of the yearly menu declined to about a third of the 11 or 12 plays shown in three theaters.
But in recent years, the amount of Shakespeare has increased, as has the proportion, even with the addition of a fourth theater. This year, in addition to the oft-repeated Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream, there are the less frequently seen King John and King Henry VIII (All Is True) and the genuinely rare Timon of Athens and Cymbeline.
"Rare" is relative, of course; Stratford has already done the pair three times each. But four lesser-known Shakespeares in one season is a remarkable gesture of confidence in the Bard's drawing power. It also gives artistic director Richard Monette, now in his 11th year, just one more play to complete a tour through the full Shakespeare canon under his leadership.
But the Bard doesn't do the heavy lifting alone. If this season is bravely arcane in one direction, it is aggressively popular in another. There are not one but two big American musicals - Guys and Dolls and Anything Goes, two of the greatest - and a recent popular farce, Noises Off, all continuing staples of the commercial theater. Add to these a new adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, and you see how the bills are paid.
What's left of the season is eclectic, including Marivaux's 1732 comedy The Triumph of Love ; the completion of a sequence of new plays called The Swanne, a historical fantasy about the young Queen Victoria; and a double bill of a new Canadian play, The Elephant Song, and Jean Cocteau's The Human Voice.
It's an oddly bifurcated season, with Shakespeare balanced by more populist titles. But it testifies to Stratford's confident reach, as further supported by the statistics: a total company of nearly 1,000 at the peak (of whom 145 are actors) with a 2004 budget of Canadian $52 million (U.S. $39 million), staging 704 performances from April through Nov. 7 for a total projected audience of 595,000.
With planning, you can see two plays each day. In two days in June, I saw these four:
'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
Shakespeare can be a draw, too, and this transposition of Midsummer's squabbling lovers to the Amazon rain forest, complete with Cirque du Soleil-like acrobatics, should prove popular. But as with any clever re-imagination of Shakespeare, the attractions are sometimes balanced by oddities and losses.
Director Leon Rubin has dealt with the resulting geographic jumble by excising all the references to Athens, although, as is usual with such rewriting, it goes either too far or not far enough, depending on your point of view. Rubin's best justification for the rain forest is to re-create the magic and danger of Shakespeare's forest, missing in today's domesticated woods. It certainly provides a lush setting, with the majestic Festival Stage fitted out with a network of iron ivy for the fairies to clamber about and trapezes high above providing treetop platforms for aerial choreography.
Designer John Pennoyer gives the fairies the look of rain-forest Indians in lots of colorful body paint. Puck puts the lovers to sleep using a blowpipe. Titania and attendants give an impression of vine-leaved nudity in their flesh-colored tights. Many of Rubin's freedoms would sit better if the acting weren't so often either cartoony or flat. The worst are the lovers, who play such buffoons it's hard to imagine fairies, let alone an audience, caring about their troubles. Nazneen Contractor's Hermia is the worst very cute, but with a high-pitched, unvaried voice. Jonathan Goad's Oberon and Dana Green's Titania look fantastic, but they don't do justice to their glorious verse.
The workingmen are six-pack-toting simpletons, like overgrown frat boys. Thom Marriott's Bottom is a funny, stolid show-off. I like his song, a rap concoction. Brendan Averett is a big man who plays a very fruity Thisbe with a towering feathered headdress.
Rubin gets much of the emotion right. He doesn't pretty up the Titania-Bottom match, and a final dance involves the whole cast in a rich resolution to the sexual tensions.
Director John Wood also has a bold and interesting concept that sometimes goes inexplicably off on a tangent or is undercut by spotty acting, but it has a great Lady Macbeth and a handful of wonderful moments.
The concept concerns the witches, who become "travelers" - Gaelic nomads whose lifestyle resembles that of the Gypsies. We first meet the three witches collecting body parts on a battlefield.The witches' scene to which Macbeth comes for further prophecy is a big, fabulous traveler encampment, complete with Gaelic music and a very funny treatment of Hecate, presented not as a magical vision but as the slightly addled troupe elder. The famous cauldron is a soup pot until Macbeth appears and the ingredients turn hellish.
Hecate is often omitted from Macbeth because her scene was probably not written by Shakespeare. But that wouldn't stop director Wood, who invents several new scenes of his own. When the Porter (disappointingly young and unfunny) enters, he converses with (I think) Banquo's young son, Fleance, silent because, of course, Shakespeare didn't write him into that scene. Obviously Wood intends to emphasize the parent-child theme to underline Macbeth's childlessness. But it often feels like padding. He orchestrates an impressive prophetic procession of kings for Macbeth to gape at, then introduces an egregiously large mob of ninja-like murderers to dispatch the Macduffs.
The Gaelic tone continues throughout in the music. Duncan is welcomed to Glamis with a song, joined in by Lady Macbeth. There are some fine, weird sound effects and dramatic swaths of light. Otherwise, designer John Ferguson's decor is spare, with the Festival Stage converted to a tilted slab of gray slate with simple wooden ramps. The costuming is period-unspecific, with lots of vaguely 19th-century great coats, some with a touch of military piping.
There is nothing spare about Lucy Peacock's Lady Macbeth, which is as good as I've ever seen. We first meet her in a dark gray cloak, which reveals a form-fitting blood-red gown; her pale, oval face is framed by long hair swept simply back. She starts out sexy and spirited, ferocious in driving her slow-mettled husband into action. Later, in a long robe with fur collar, her face even paler with a gash of vermilion lips, she starts to show the effects of their crime.
The best scene in the play is her sleep-walking. The stage is covered first with a huge white sheet. Lady Macbeth enters in a sheer negligee, paler than ever, and the lights jolt up, making her seem like a Kabuki ghost in a painful white-out blaze. Then she kneels, and, as her nightmare intensifies, she gathers the whole sheet around her, terrified as she drowns in its billows.
In contrast, Graham Abbey's Macbeth is a too-careful elocutionist, as if reciting well, head high and savoring every syllable, were his chief aim. He's better when anger forces him into action, and he is best in the battles that end the play.
Sean Atbuckle's Banquo, too, likes to stand center stage and talk to the center balcony. Gareth Potter's Malcolm has more spunk. There's a black Duncan (Walter Borden) and other black and Asian faces; it's good to see multicultural casting taking stronger hold at Stratford.
I'm also happy to see directors exercise interpretative wiles. I guess false steps inevitably accompany such freedoms.
'Guys and Dolls'
But no one had better mess with this classic, and director Kelly Robinson hasn't tried: She does it right and well, proving that Stratford has developed the capacity to do a Broadway standard at the level of a national tour.
The Festival Stage is expanded into a shiny platform, surmounted by Debra Hanson's colorful display of neon. It instantly fills with choreographer Michael Lichtefeld's humorously detailed human neon, too, in the opening "Runyonland " panorama. It's an ensemble creation, with better dancing than Stratford used to be able to muster. But the leads are better than creditable, especially Scott Wentworth's Sky. He has a smoky charm with a smile that's a shade too easy, so we (like Sarah) have to learn to trust it. Cynthia Dale's Sarah is a convincing ugly duckling, emerging into her own sensuality, and she has the pipes to soar. Sheila McCarthy and Geordie Johnson are engagingly quirky as Adelaide and Nathan, and Bruce Dow's Nicely-Nicely is in the well-rounded Stubby Kaye mode.
Like most classic musicals and most Shakespearean comedy, Guys and Dolls is all about innocence at war with decadence and repression with release. Where Shakespeare has his language, Frank Loesser has his score. Stratford may stage musicals just to pay the bills, and they may not sit completely at ease on that great Shakespearean thrust stage, but they don't disgrace it, either.
'The Triumph of Love'
Repression and release pretty well define Marivaux's small gem, as well. Staged in Stratford's new, gem-like Studio Theatre, this might be the best show of the season.
A prince has been brought up in purity and seclusion by a pair of disgruntled philosophers, and all three are tested by a brilliant princess who invades their retreat dressed as an enticing young man. Love triumphs, of course, but not without witty struggles involving (of course) some buffoonish servants.
This is the same Marivaux play that became a charming (and underappreciated) Broadway musical. John Van Burek's new translation has an appealing lyricism , though it isn't always as funny as it might be. I saw it in early previews, so the comic timing may not have been fully refined, but the direction by artistic director Monette and the wittily neoclassical design by Michael Gianfrancesco were already self-assured.
So was most of the acting, led by Lucy Peacock, triumphing in the very un-Lady Macbeth-like comic role of the philosopher who finds herself giddily, head-over-decorum in love. It is comic acting of the highest kind, always showing the fragile human being within the foolish ideologue.
As her male counterpart, James Blendick hadn't yet found the precise mix of pompous, wise and rueful. F. Murray Abraham and Betty Buckley played those roles on Broadway: Blendick may never match Abraham, but Peacock is already more than a match for Buckley.
Claire Jullien plays the clever princess with a shade too much thought, but David Snelgrove is delicious as her innocent love. The whole effect is greater than the sum of its parts, further intensified by the intimacy of the lovely small Studio.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Post-Gazette drama critic Christopher Rawson is the Post-Gazette's drama critic. Contact him at: email@example.com or 412-263-1666.