The Canadian Festivals
I’m turning 50 in a few weeks. Apparently this is a big deal. Whatever. I have reached the place in my journey where rather than be obsessed with or concerned by my age, it just becomes less and less relevant. And anyway, like most men, the place in my brain which handles self-image – located right next to the place dedicated to procreating the species, and the place for protecting the family from wolves – stopped developing somewhere between 17 and 25 years old, which is how old I feel, flab and reading glasses be damned. This is why men my age begin to embarrass themselves more and more, as the difference between between how old they are, and how old they think they are, becomes more and more absurd.
But I have been rewarded by my father (who only embarrasses himself with technology) by a week-long trip to visit both the Stratford and Shaw Festivals in Ontario, Canada. I had never been, but these theater festivals have a global reputation and I had heard of them both many times before. So last Saturday, the day after the summer season of White Pines Productions came to a close, I landed in Toronto and took a shuttle to Stratford, Ontario. There I was met by my Dad and about 10 old Yalies, this being a trip arranged by the Yale Alumni Association, and led by Yale Professor of Theater and English Murray Biggs. I arrived towards the end of the first leg of the trip in Stratford, and had missed several plays the others had seen. I was the youngest person in the group by about 20 years. Surprisingly, this did nothing to buoy the youthful self-image I wrote about earlier. Instead, I peered into my own future, and was alarmed.
As the week progressed I warmed to my genteel companions, and admired Prof. Biggs’s introductions to the plays we were to see, usually lasting either 60 or 90 minutes and held in a basement conference room in one of the two hotels we stayed in: a bunker in Stratford and a pleasant room in Niagara-on-the-lake. Although it was a bit of a “busman’s holiday” for me, I gradually began to enjoy these conversations, and Murray is an expert on introducing ideas and then guiding a discussion about them.
Stratford, Ontario began as a railroad town. It took shape in 1832 when Thomas Mercer Jones, a rail company director, gave a picture of William Shakespeare to William Sargint, the owner of the Shakespeare Hotel. A stone marks the site of this hotel, near 70 Ontario Street. Jones gave the village the name of Stratford and the creek, which had been known as Little Thames, was renamed the Avon River. In addition to the railroads, furniture was also a big business in Stratford for many years. It wasn’t until 1953 that Tom Patterson, a Stratford-born reporter for Maclean’s Magazine, and a group of local supporters opened the Stratford Festival. As the railroad shops closed and the success of the furniture industry waned, the Festival helped make tourism a significant industry for the city.
Niagara-on-the-lake is about 20 minutes south of Niagara Falls, which my Dad and I went
to visit on our second day there. It began as a place British Loyalists retreated to during the Revolution, and it was a military town and outpost for many years, figuring prominently in the battles waged with American forces during the War of 1812. Soon, with the development of the falls as a worldwide destination, this little town went from obscure to quaint quickly, and now it is a beautifully manicured vacation town with high-end shops selling egregiously over-priced merchandise, grand old hotels and cute B&B’s. It also features some of the most astonishing public flower arrangements I’ve ever seen. In general, Canada impressed me as a place where public amenities are tended to carefully. Makes sense, since the way a locale relates to the public is akin to the way you invite guests into your home. Think about that the next time you look for a public toilet in an American city.
My Dad and I saw seven plays in six days. My capsule impressions below:
42nd Street, Stratford Festival. Big and glamorous, and presented in their main (Festival) theater, this was the over-the-top show biz confection it was written to be, without a serious bone in its body. I kept thinking about Gypsy! which I performed in last winter. The two musicals share much in common, but Gypsy! seems to me to have a little more gravitas around the issues of ambition, sex & commerce, feminism, and mothers & daughters. As well presented as it was, I came away feeling that this was not a good musical to do in a festival where you are employing actors in multiple roles. This was most evident in the chorus, in which there were some peculiar casting choices and not entirely top-notch tap dancing. Tap is what this musical is about, and unless you have the specialists required to shine in the extraordinary choreography, it will seems a little sloppy around the edges, when, in fact, the actors are working their asses off to get it right.
Cymbeline, Stratford Festival. Yes, when I saw this on our schedule I got a headache. I felt that of all Shakespeare’s problem plays, this was the “problemiest”. I had done a scene from it in drama school which I barely remembered, between two characters with weird names, and I knew there was some endless journey a young woman (Ingmar? Innocent?) took to find a place called Milford Haven. So my first wonderful experience on this trip was being impressed and excited by this production of a play which isn’t such a problem at all. At least not when played under the superbly simple and direct direction employed here, and acted with beautiful passion and clarity by a company of wonderful actors. And Imogen! What a role! I think this might be the best role for a woman in Shakespeare, and you don’t have to look fourteen to play her. She’s married when the play begins, but unlike some other Shakespearean ingenues, not a whole lot is made of her age.
Cara Ricketts was extraordinary as Imogen. Also wonderful were Graham Abbey as Posthumus, Mike Shara as Cloten and Tanya Macintosh as Queen. But the best of them all, in my estimation, was Tom McCamus as Iachimo. This was one of the best villainous performances I have ever scene; so wonderful that, as diabolical as he was (and he shares much in common with Iago’s motiveless evil), I was almost rooting for him to succeed. Unlike Iago, he has a redemption moment in the wonderful and absurd final scene. I am convinced that Shakespeare, writing this play at the end of his career, was taking the piss out of himself in constructing a scene with a ridiculous number of “reveals”. The cast played this beautifully, not winking or apologizing, but also not trying to overplay it so as to try and make less absurd. The audience roared with delight at each new reveal, which paradoxically made the tears flow more freely when the estranged lovers were reunited.
For all of it’s violence, the play ultimately has an overwhelmingly loving message, along the lines of: we all have to get along or we’re doomed. Again I thought of Will, late in life, the rumblings of civil war in the distance, the glorious wreckage of his family life strewn through his past, his fame secured. Surely, this was the message he held close to himself, as he sailed calmly into his twilight years in his home called New Place.
Later that day, Graham came to speak to us about playing Posthumus. He’s a total mensch. I was delightfully jealous of him.
The Millionairess, Shaw Festival. What a weird production of a weird play. I actually enjoyed it more than some others in our group. As we entered the cozy little Courthouse Theater, we heard a soundtrack of modern rock, hip-hip and pop tunes about money (Pink Floyd, The Beatles, The Stones, Blondie). The stage was an abstraction of an office, covered in red. The second act was blue, the third act green and fourth, yellow/gold. The play opened with the lawyer looking at us, smiling and playing a ukelele. Then the Millionaress arrives and literally propels the play for the remaining two hours. Dressed in primary colors which matched the sets throughout, and straining her voice (which I was afraid she would lose), Nicole Underhay tore a passion to tatters in the title role, and for me lost some of the menace and confidence the role requires through her occasionally histrionic performance. Murray related that this is a role that Kenneth Tynan had pronounced “un-actable” and I can see why. It is actable, but my God what a great challenge for a mature actress with a combination of classical chops and comic genius. This production made me laugh out loud again and again, and I appreciated the over-the-top design to go with the over-the-top performances.
Trouble in Tahiti, Shaw Festival. A seldom performed one-act opera, with lyrics and music by Leonard Bernstein, was a another wonderful surprise. I almost skipped it to obsess over grant applications and class prep, but I’m glad I didn’t. Written in the early 50s by Bernstein, while on his honeymoon, you can hear echoes of On The Town and premonitions of West Side Story in his tight and intricate score. He uses elaborations of commercial radio jungles for the chorus, and mixes this up-tempo jazziness in with heart-breaking ballads reminding me of “Theres a place for us”. But it was his lyrics which really jumped out at me. This is the only musical piece for which he wrote lyrics and they are way ahead of their time, in the way they peel back the shiny veneer of suburban married life to reveal two people falling into war with each other, and desperately seeking affirmation and meaning in a life depressingly devoid of either. I was especially taken with the way it opened: the two leads Elodie Gillet and Mark Uhre slow-dancing in their pajamas, in the dim light of dawn, a dream embrace of the love they both cling to and are losing hold of simultaneously.
Misalliance, Shaw Festtival. I was in this play seventeen years ago and so was looking forward to something I was familiar with. Imagine my surprise when the play opened with a long scene featuring the character I played (Johnny Tarleton) and I didn’t remember any of it. In fact, I didn’t remember any of the first act, which seemed to drag on and on. This is unusual – ask any actor. No matter how long ago it was, when you hear those lines again something clicks and you’re right back in it. Then, in the second act, I realized that I had been in a student version of the play in which we only performed the second act. Aha.
Some great performances here were hindered by a decision to place the production in 1962. So off we go, trying to draw the connections between 1909 (where Shaw places it) and 1962: suffragettes = feminism, fall of empire = cold war (?), merchant class = nouveau riche (???). I have never cared for these substitutions of era, which are usually director’s conceits, or ideas designers dream up because they’re sick to death of designing period pieces at places like the Shaw Festival. In this case, it was fun to look at but didn’t really add anything valuable to the play, and then seemed absurd when the catalyst of Lena, the Polish aviatrix, crashes through the ceiling in an anachronistic bi-plane. Krista Colosimo seemed a bit adrift as Hypatia, who I wished had been more confrontational and brazen in her provocative behavior, something you’d think 1962 might have allowed for. The standout was Thom Marriot as John Tarlton, employing a Yorkshire accent to locate his working class background and completely owning the muscular, comic speeches Shaw has given him. The second act redeemed the first, and I left with a grin on my face.
The next day, Thom came to speak to us about playing Tarleton. He’s a total mensch. I was delightfully jealous of him.
Come Back Little Sheba, Shaw Festival. In a recent post, I describe works of art which have “shook me to my core, and I came away from the encounter feeling altered (which is different from happy), as if the artist(s) I had just encountered had reached into my life and re-arranged the Very Important Issues, and I had been changed in some private and essential way.” Such was the case with me after seeing this extraordinary production of William Inge’s play. I knew next to nothing about it, and had only seen Picnic some thirty years ago. This play is about alcoholism, a topic I have some connection with, and about the helpless loneliness one feels when confronted by it.
When I say it is about alcoholism, I mean is also about AA – in astonishing and frank language. The play begins with one of the two main characters, Doc, reciting the Serenity Prayer at the urging of his wife, Lola. They discuss the steps and he shares that he is going to be doing some “12 step work” that night at an awful place – the City Hospital, where they send the really hopeless cases to share cells with the criminally insane. I had to imagine that Inge, struggling with his own addiction, wrote this play as a testimony to the new program for recovery he was trying out, a program barely 15 years old when this play was written. Like any great work of art, it is about many other things too. The sad desire of the middle aged (both male and – strikingly performed here – female). The sexual exuberance of youth, and the unintentional meanness of it when it lives in close quarters with those who are older and trying desperately to hide their longing. It wouldn’t be a great play about alcoholism and recovery without a slip, and all I will say is that the slip we witnessed was one of the most terrifying ten minutes I have ever watched unfold on stage. This play and this production shook me to my core with its courage, beauty, honesty and pain.
You’d think I would have left in despair, but no. I was overwhelmed with gratitude: that theater could still do this to me, that it could still be this great, that a sad closeted gay playwright could have a triumph like this thirty years after his suicide, that actors I had never known existed could make me leap to my feet in the curtain call, choking back tears, to demand that they stay up there a little longer for one or two more bows, please. Standing on Queen Street afterwards outside the Royal George Theater, I said to my Dad, I have to see them. I have say thank you to the actors. And so we stood like two little groupies by the stage door on a beautiful afternoon on Niagara -On-The-Lake and said congratulations to each actor as they passed, sharing with us the shy surprised smile of all actors when complemented for just doing their job. But my tears came for Ric Reid who played Doc and Corrine Koslo who played Lola. With both I said, you don’t know me, but I’m an actor and a person in recovery and I have to hug you. And I did and they were gracious and warm, Corrine sharing some information with me that made our connection even more meaningful.
What a play. What a production. Hats off to Jackie Maxwell, artistic director of the Shaw and director of this Little Sheba. Thank you thank you thank you.
Hedda Gabler, Shaw Festival. While the rest of my crew was seeing His Girl Friday, I struck out on my own for my final play to see one I am very familiar with. I have spent the past summer teaching this and other classics in an acting class I have devised as a tribute to a deceased teacher of mine. What stood out about this show was not the production, which was serviceable, but two events which make live theater so cool. One was the aged actress played the maid Berte, who fell on an exit, eliciting a laugh from the audience, who thought it was a choice in keeping with her comic portrayal. It wasn’t, and entirely in character, the actor playing Lovborg went to her and helped her up, as she improvised as Berte, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry”. It was only then that I saw the ASM coming down the stairs to help her, to which she said in a feigned state of dizziness “Who are you?”. She returned in later scenes apparently unscathed. Then later, when Hedda brandishes a pistol for a second time, a young girl about my daughter’s age stood and, index fingers buried deep in her ears, marched down the row of seats to the exit with her sheepish Dad in tow. One loud gunshot had been enough for her. A good thing she didn’t stay for the end, in which Hedda’s suicide was rendered with a violent gunshot and a spatter of blood on an interior wall. Moya O’Connell as Hedda was beautiful and dangerous, but, like our Millionairess, I thought she was working a little too hard. But crikey – It’s Hedda, right? The rest of cast was superb.
Alcoholism: Come Back Little Sheba, Hedda Gabler
Older men obsessed by younger women (in plays written by an older man): The Millionairess, Misalliance, Come Back Little Sheba, Hedda Gabler, Cymbeline
The struggle of marriage: Cymbeline, Millionairess, Misalliance, Come Back Little Sheba, Hedda Gabler, Trouble in Tahiti
The erotic life-force of the young: Cymbeline, Misalliance, Come Back Little Sheba, Hedda Gabler, 42nd Street
The interrelationship of money, class and status: 42nd Street, Millionairess, Misalliance, Hedda Gabler
I sing the praises of the Canadian actor, the anonymous actor, living in bright community year after year, with audiences who look forward to seeing them again and again, and having enough magic for us all. I sing the praises of the festivals, celebrations of the art I love the most, bringing economic muscle to the places they have grown up in, leaving a legacy of success and innovation to be admired by all. I sing the praises of the Canadian government, giving money to these festivals so that the light they shine can continue and the artists they employ can live: humble and creative lives, the kind all artists strive for.
I sing the praises of my Dad, who cries at plays more than anyone I know, and in so doing shows me my feeling are not shameful. Who introduced me to this art and has supported me in it every step of the way. Who gave me a kick-ass birthday present, the best part of which was being with him.