As heavenly as the return of the Stratford Festival to Canada is, hell is very much in the farmland of Ontario this year. And I’m not talking about the delay in crossing the Blue Water Bridge from Michigan to Ontario, or the Canadian border guard who had a hard time figuring out how someone could get to the theater alone.
In director Donna Feore’s splendid new production of the musical “Chicago,” sleaze-bag lawyer Billy Flynn descends there, complete with his tongue-in-cheek exit score. Down Dan Chameroy travels to Hades, via a trapdoor from the 1,800-seat Festival Theatre, the much-loved main stage of this venerable citadel of classically-oriented theater since 1957.
His exit is all the more resonant for contrasting Feore’s take on a show long associated now with Walter Bobbie’s sardonic minimalist Broadway production.
Feore’s highly detailed staging, replete with closely observed detail, acrobatic dancing, extra tricks and props of all kinds, and bravura lead performances, especially from conductors Chelsea Preston and Jennifer Rider-Shaw, lean the other way. It embraces the cynicism of an article created by a reporter for this newspaper by amplifying the razzamatazz. It’s the only musical on the program this year at Stratford and it’s a real crowd pleaser doozie.
Meanwhile, at Stratford’s new theatre, named after its founder Tom Patterson, Colm Feore’s diabolical ‘Richard III’ makes his first entrance from his own grave, discovered under a parking lot in the English city of Leicester in 2012.
After the villain leaves his own bones behind, Richard, the ‘king of the parking lot’, as the British press dubbed him, is sent back from present-day Leicester to his mid-15th century home, director Antoni Cimolino having made a few helpful points: (1) the wickedness born out of pain and insecurity knows no chronological bounds, and (2) even great kings end up as a pile of bones underneath where buyers park their Mini Coopers.
And while we’re on the meta-track here, it’s worth noting that Colm Feore (Donna’s husband), best known to Canadians for playing Pierre Trudeau for the CBC and to Americans for appearing in the “Spider- Man,” also deconstructs the whole superhero idea, even as Cimolino’s production plays with action movie notions through wild special effects, including a knockout moment where Dicky 3 is ejected to the ground, screaming desperately about his horseless condition.
Richard is of course part of that small but mighty crew of declared Shakespearean villains: people like Iago and Don John, who take to the stage and declare both their grievances and the wickedness they intend to do as a result. . All these years of writing about them I felt like they were inferior creations, so to speak, compared to more nuanced characters like, say, Hamlet, whose actions are also offered this year in Stratford in a new production from director Peter Pasyk with actress Amaka Umeh as the moody Dane.
But in this current moment, these infamous groups of aggrieved humans, utterly assured of the moral rectitude of their outright hostility and unwilling to apologize for anything under the sun, are much more like everyone else.
I always thought Richard was an outlier; Colm Feore, who makes him entirely recognizable, made me think otherwise. Cimolino’s production, which also stars the excellent Jessica B. Hill as Lady Anne, doesn’t focus so much on whether Richard is likable or not, but makes it clear that the people around him are s appropriate his vile nature for their own ends. The only moral force for good is Ben Carlson’s Lord Hastings, a character who constantly marvels at the world he lives in. Judging by all the sympathetic nods Carlson received from the audience, his efforts were appreciated.
Smart theater buyers know to show up when a great destination theater opens a new multi-million dollar building that comes with all the latest toys. Cimolino’s ‘Richard’ is a showcase for the newest addition to the festival and I have no doubt he’s been thinking about it throughout a long pandemic delay that had the new theater ready and waiting but unable to house a spectacle.
The new Tom Patterson Theater is truly a low room of great beauty, filled with natural wood, bronze beams, Danish brick (for a future “Hamlet” perhaps?), Italian marble and windows letting in the light in the halls. . It is also surrounded by extensive green landscaping.
On the other hand, what will be most striking for festival-goers is how much the theater resembles the old hall on the site of which it was built. Admittedly, the environment is upgraded compared to before, but the public’s relationship to the space remains largely the same. Those who fear change have not received too much. Technological capabilities, however, are something else entirely. Cimolino’s brilliant production is filled with sharp beams of light, powerful underlines, sculpted imagery with cinematic intensity and, of course, a bowed-headed villain who speaks to the audience as if posting on his facebook wall.
This same intimacy initiates the contemporary “Hamlet” at the Théâtre du Festival: we see a family group seated around a table under which rests the Ghost of King Hamlet. Or, at least, its corporeal form, even if the most ghostly form wanders abroad. Here, Hamlet often sends his sweet words to Andrea Rankin’s Ophelia, sending her into a fit of uncertainty about her intentions.
This rich closeness, the unassuming clarity of the spoken language, and the energy and creativity of Amaka Umeh are the highlights of the show. But the play fizzles out dramatically before the end, mostly because you don’t feel enough change in Hamlet, nor have the intuition that it is finally engaging with a level of thought that matches the words coming out of his mouth. The show, in the end, fails to translate its moment-to-moment strength into a viable dramatic arc. He does not seize death, shake it, attack it, and succumb to it with enough weight for a tragedy.
Stratford has produced this piece several times, of course. Never has it presented such a sympathetic Gertrude as Maev Beaty, whom the director not only seems to absolve of all blame for what is happening here, but who most clearly and deliberately kills himself in Act 5, in order to save his child. Fascinating, like everything here.
A final note: for the first time, despite years of visits, I saw a show in Stratford not produced by the festival. The play was Dennis Kelly’s “Boys & Girls,” a monological one-woman shock about marriage, careers, children, and jealousy that’s performed (Chicago-style) in a simple play inside the Falstaff school (it’s Stratford, after all).
Directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson, it is the work of the Here For Now Theater Company and it contains a riveting and heartbreaking performance by Fiona Mongillo that is quite equal to anything in the big houses.
It made me think that Stratford, just as nice as Edinburgh, Scotland, needed a fringe.
Chris Jones is a reviewer for the Tribune.