Tuesday, August 7, 2012


For the first Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 1953, a circus tent was brought from Chicago and raised on a hillside.

Festival Theater

As Eva is in Ecuador on a community project, expected to return in a week, some photos may be seen here Cañar, Ecuador, where Eva is currently pictured at the center of the Facebook July 9 entry entitled Youth Encuentro (you don't need to be on Facebook to look at the photos), also several of the July 14th entrants (middle and middle bottom), Lynn & I had a short trip this year, driving up to Stratford, Ontario for what amounts to a theater festival.  Unlike a film festival, where one sets their own schedule and packs about 2 or 3 films a day over two weeks, where one literally becomes immersed in the variety, geographical cultures, and changing shape of cinema, which is considered a surprisingly young artform little over 100 years, we saw an afternoon play every day leaving our evenings free.  Lynn & I seem to prefer afternoons to evening performances, some of which simply run too late into the night, where stamina becomes an issue for the working world, as it interferes with needed sleep, and if the play is particularly uninspiring, one loses interest quickly.  In the afternoons where there's no competing need for rest, one tends to stick a bit longer with borderline plays on the edge, which may be problematic but are also of interest if you're of a mind to appreciate it. 

Theater was firmly established thousands of years ago during the Greek era, specifically Athens (as theater is a Greek word), including comedies or satires, but what survives are more often historical tragedies leading to what is commonly called the Greek chorus, often using masks and elaborate costumes, dance and song, where the chorus interacts with the audience, challenging their views of the various moral issues being developed by the play, where the playwright does not give away their hand, does not explain and over-explain everything (like a few filmmakers we know), or depict what's right or wrong, allowing the audience to develop their own ideas about what constitutes moral behavior, especially when the leading players are often forced to perform overwhelmingly tragic acts, leading to killings and death, sometimes within one's own family - - events that are hard to imagine, but where each person is asked how they would react under similar circumstances.  The Greeks even devised theater festivals, where citizens were commonly asked to participate in the plays themselves, becoming community events that served to inspire a sense of common purpose and unity, not to mention cultural and intellectual advancement. 

We have been to Stratford a few times in the past with our kids, where the price of student tickets are half off, making it an extremely attractive experience for families, but this is the first time Lynn & I have gone alone, so it was more of a festival appeal, where plays were the centerpiece of each day.  Besides film, my own personal baby, apparently, that Lynn takes little interest in, we have through the years regularly been seasonal supporters of the Goodman Theater, Lyric Opera, and Chicago Symphony, dropping the latter two after about a decade or so of support due to rising costs and repetition in programming, continually performing the same most favored works that are supposedly the most popular with the audiences, a practice only the super rich can afford.  Scandinavian music, among my most favorite in classical music, such as Sibelius's mysterious 4th Symphony, or Russian music, such as Shostakovich's equally serene 4th Symphony, are rarely, if ever programmed, preferring heavy doses of Wagner, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Bruckner, and Mahler.  Vagne Holmboe, Alan Petterson, or Eduard Tubin are never played, while Grieg, Nielsen, Hindemith and Martinu may occasionally receive a performance, usually not by the best orchestras.  Chicago has championed Janacek, both in opera and symphonically, where the Glagolitic Mass simply resonates through the building.  Even the piano series, among my favorites, seeing the likes of Rudolf Serkin, Alfred Brendel, Maurizio Pollini, Andras Schiff, and Evgeny Kissin, though I never saw Arturo Michelangeli Benedetti (still the best Debussy ever!!) or Sviatoslav Richter play, has become bogged down in over-programming the same Chopin, Liszt and Schumann pieces, where one wishes for variety.

Interestingly, Gary Griffin, who is the musical director at Stratford, is also a musical director at Shakespeare Theater here in Chicago, where Stratford plays often make it here in Chicago utilizing local actors.  Most memorable was the production of Hamlet a few years ago with Canadian Ben Carlson, who literally blazed through the dialogue, winning a Jefferson as the best actor in Chicago theater that year.  This was the 60th anniversary of the Stratford Festival, beginning as an outdoor festival, now seen in 5 different theaters, where you have to buy tickets and schedule accommodations well in advance as it's heavily populated during the summer months.  Known for their expertise in Shakespeare, also revivals of Greek tragedy, they put on 14 plays this summer, 3 Shakespearean, one Greek tragedy, which is par for the course, usually intermingling the famous with the undiscovered, the tragic with the comedic, and intimate one or two man plays with lavish musical productions.  Easily the most  memorable was a one-man performance written and performed by Canadian national treasure Christopher Plummer, now 82, in something of an autobiographical tribute to the great writers he's been allowed to perform in his lifetime, mixing his own life's experiences with the works he's performed.  Without intermission, A Word or Two is a sensational experience, the most intimate at the fest, a mix of nostalgia and Romanticism, where the audience couldn't have been more mesmerized and enchanted by his stream of conscious walk through literature, embellishing the impact of the written word, which like music, has a way of staying with you your entire life, where favorite passages do resemble favorite songs, each representing a different stage in our own lives. Plummer was fortunate to have been friends with 3-time Pulitzer prize winner Archibald MacLeish, often returning to his poetry onstage, adding recollections of Dylan Thomas spouting inebriated verse in bars, urged on by a young Richard Burton. 

Equally memorable was an introduction to Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor, who performed in his own 2-man play, The Best Brothers, another autobiographical one act play, a dazzlingly inventive recollection of the death of his mother, where he and his brother, polar opposites, have to decide what to do at each stage of the funeral proceedings, where their differing views have a personal poignancy, but it's laced with lacerating wit and humor, where the two actors complement one another so perfectly, one gay, supposedly the favored younger son, but only because the other (the playwright) was viewed as the stronger, so he could handle it.  Interestingly, the younger son (John Beale) is overly affectionate and always socially at ease, and outside of Plummer (who plays himself), he was probably the best performance at Stratford, while MacIvor is more reserved and quietly reflective, often not amused by all the attention his younger brother attracts, but the two couldn't be more quick witted, which is the real novelty here, as the writing and acting are superb.  The best Shakespeare play was Much Ado About Nothing, one of the most beloved of all his works and one of his happiest comedies, the one starring Beatrice and Benedict, the two with blazing wit, but both at odds with one another, where the embellishment of their hatred reaches hysterical extremes, only to become enticed by the trickery of others into falling in love, but only because they're led to believe the other is madly in love with them.  Ben Carlson was Benedict, where this turns into slapstick, Marx Brothers style humor, always a crowd pleaser, where an interesting addition was setting the piece in Brazil and adding enchanting Brazilian songs and dances, turning it into a Carnivale. 

The other equally poignant work was another Our Town look at life in a small town from Thornton Wilder, this time in The Matchmaker, another hilarious romp that features a Scrooge-like capitalist at the core of the 1880's setting in Yonkers, which may as well have been upstate New York in those days, as it's notable by a listless pace of life where nothing ever changes.  From this reverie of meticulous detail, where time literally stops, characters reflect on their lowly status in life where nothing will ever change, but a secret adventure into the big city of New York reveals hilarious twists and turns, another madcap comedy of often hidden impulses that come to light, often through disguises, allowing layers of psychological depth to interplay with a joyous romp of mistaken identities.  Expecting a serious and thoughtful play, this one interjects plenty of small town humor and personality into a madcap farce of misdirection.  Wilder wrote the screenplay to Hitchcock's devilishly malicious Shadow of a Doubt (1943), another graphic portrait of the underbelly of small town life in the USA.

The best musical revival was 42nd Street, the joyously delirious Busby Berkeley/Ruby Keeler collaboration, a backstage, behind the scenes glimpse of show biz, a wonderful mix of nostalgia, hyper driven dance rehearsals, personal drive and ambition, where a wide-eyed chorus line hoofer becomes an overnight star, featuring the famous line "You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!" Something of an original version of A Chorus Line or Funny Girl, a young girl arrives in the big city from Allentown, Pennsylvania with dreams of becoming a star, where the show is a surprisingly accurate rendition of what people go through to get a show on Broadway, using carefully observed characters who continually have to struggle against unforeseen hurdles that seem to conspire against them along the way, where it takes a collective will of the cast, expressed in showstopping musical numbers, to make it to opening night.  Gary Griffin's direction features the brash energy it takes to become recognized in a highly competitive business.  Set during the Depression when many dreams have become jaded, this production is about the reawakening of that dream, where a manic, pill-popping, Bob Fosse-style director re-iterates what he considers the two greatest words in the English language - - musical comedy.  Stratford Artistic Director Des McAnuff provided a visually dazzling Henry V, where the stage design of a bridge leading to the deck of a ship, or across a castle moat, or the path to a horrific battle happening just offstage, was very clever.  Perhaps the greatest play about war ever written, it features the harsh and decisive decisions of a brash young king who dies young - - often forgotten is Henry V died at age 36.  But here he displays all his battle glory as Britain decides to return France to the British empire, sending an Army to defeat the French against all odds, defeating a vastly outnumbered enemy, where glory is bathed in heroic nationalism, where Henry V is a great battlefield orator, rousing his troops to unsurpassed heights, glorifying victory on a blood soaked battlefield.  McAnuff provided some interesting touches, such as a quick postnote after the play, reminding viewers of a historical fact that within a generation, France (through the efforts initiated by Joan of Arc) reclaimed their own land and sovereignty, kicking the British out of France, making all of the pomp and circumstance of this overloaded portrait of the ambitions of war, come to naught, as in the end they gained absolutely nothing. The most stirring image from the play comes when Henry hangs one of his own men, one of the merry men and friends of Falstaff, with whom Henry once socialized himself before he was a king, where he is literally string up and hung 20 feet into the air, remaining there even as the lights come on for intermission, remaining there for a good 10 minutes or so before he is finally lowered down to the ground. As so many children attend these plays, this is an image they're not likely to forget. 

The lesser tier of plays includes Shakespeare's Cymbeline, one of his last plays about a young girl who gets lost, and later found, a kind of potpourri of his greatest hits, utilizing the magic potion that resembles death from Romeo and Juliet, creating a myth of death and the use of dreams, unalterably changing the views of the living who are lost in remorse, also used in Midsummer Night's Dream and Much Ado, featuring an Iago like Queen who attempts to undermine the King, from Othello, two of the King's sons missing for 20 years who appear washed up on a far away shore like The Tempest, and a deliriously happy ever after ending that is one of Shakespeare's happiest endings, where an overly self-righteous King insists his daughter marry his stepson, where she is forced against her will to take on a disguise as a man to flee his power, finding refuge in the woods where strange and magical occurrences alter the reality of the day.  Set during the Roman era, there's a bit of confusion what Roman soldiers are doing in Britain, as it seems an odd mix of history, but it's a play where confusion and ill-fated motives are eventually set right in the end.   

The two worst plays were Sophocles Greek tragedy Elektra, given an ill-fated rap style by the director who grows overfond of setting rhyme to a pulsating beat, where the play is more of a chant than a story, reflecting an ancient way of telling stories through music and dance embellishment, where the Greek chorus is there in the seats awaiting the arriving audience, interacting with them prior to the start of the play, introducing themselves for real as their real personages before calling out from  among the audience once the play begins.  This is something of a Hamlet play, as seen through the daughter's eyes instead of the son, where her father is murdered by a man who beds her mother, marries and assumes the throne, where in Elektra's anguish, she is continually in a state of mourning, where her existence is based upon mourning, even as the years pass.  She refuses to accept the King, or her mother, calling them hateful, where she interacts with the chorus, delving into the depths of her despair and her helplessness, where she reveals the powerlessness of a woman, as she cannot act as a man, using force upon force, where her only power is to defy them and grieve openly. The director's use of turning Sophocles into rap verse is an embarrassing misstep, as it only diminishes the power of the actual story, where Elektra is onstage for every moment, and for the Greek era, it's a surprisingly psychological plunge into the void of powerlessness.

The biggest disaster was Wanderlust, another musical set to the Canadian poems of Robert Service, one of the nation's greatest poets, which sounds delightful, as Service was also used to mesmerizing effect by Plummer in his play.  But this was a numbskull version of comedy, where the man portraying Service was an idealistic banker forever set in the confines of the bank, always dreaming of life in the Yukon or the Canadian wilderness, places he dreams to visit, but never does, remaining planted as a clerk in a bank instead.  In this version, Service never actually ventures to the North, where a third of  his poetry was written in this manner, but instead writes poems at his desk during idle moments, often sleeping on top of the bank vault at night, never even leaving the premises.  This weak and rather pathetic portrait of such a great poet who eventually ventured to the Yukon leaves plenty to be desired, as instead of being seen as a man of vision or intelligence, he's instead portrayed as a weak-kneed social misfit, an ordinary man whose poems set to song are always given a child's adventure version of idealization, where there's little of the actual vision or intelligence exhibited by the poet, who after all may be the one guy who expresses best the sentiments of being Canadian.  Instead of Wanderlust, it's Christopher Plummer who describes 95 % of Canadians huddled near the American border, where just above them to the North is this vast undiscovered wilderness that is simply enormous, too great to ever understand or experience.  This ultimately describes the identity of every Canadian, as this is their nation, mostly off limits and unrealized.  Unlike America where every inch has been bought or sold or cultivated, visited, or utilized, Canada is largely an unexplored wilderness too vast and uninhabitable to ever really know, leaving part of the Canadian identity an unexplored wilderness that couldn't possibly be tamed.  America, perhaps described best in song, such as America the Beautiful, "O beautiful for spacious skies," depicts the vast and empty horizons of the great American West, but in Canada, those endless horizons aren't some mythical Western lore.  Including water, Canada is the second largest country on earth after Russia, where it was Service who describes the endless expanse, both internally and externally, as part of who and what Canadians are.       

No! There's the land. (Have you seen it?)
It's the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
To the deep, deathlike valleys below.
Some say God was tired when He made it,
Some say it's a fine land to shun; Maybe;
but there's some as would trade it
For no land on earth-and I'm one.

—Robert W. Service, excerpt from The Spell of the Yukon      

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