STRATFORD, ONTARIO - The Stratford Festival is experimenting with star power this year, bringing three actors to their stages who are well known from films and television.
I always see wonderful things, and delight to the finest theatrical productions in the English-speaking world. What they choose to do isn't always a success, but it is always an interesting and challenging experiment, which, for me, is better than a bland success any day of the week.
This week, I'd like to describe and analyze the six performances which we saw there. I'll describe them in approximately the order in which they were written.
Clockwise, from above left:
A queen looks on the destruction of her home and her children. Martha Henry appears as Queen Hecuba in “The Trojan Women.”
The number of productions will decline steadily as the year continues on, but there will be productions on stage through early November.
The Trojan Women
Euripides wrote ''The Trojan Women'' more than 400 years before the birth of Christ. It is an examination of the behavior of the Greek armies in the days immediately after their capture of the city of Troy, after 10 years of warfare, and it seeks to demonstrate that the army's cruelty and less-than-humane treatment of their enemies in war resulted in their own destruction.
In the play, the women of Troy are dirty and torn. Their husbands, fathers and other men have been slaughtered, and they wait, helpless, to learn whether they shall be taken as slaves to serve in their conquerors' kitchens or beds, sacrificed to the Greeks' gods or some other grim fate.
The central figure is Hecuba, the Queen of Troy, who - in mythology - was believed to have given birth to 50 sons and 50 daughters. As the play progresses, the aging and ragged woman receives report after report of her children's deaths, her grandchildren's murders, her city's total destruction and more.
As the queen receives blow after blow, while being approached for advice by many of her former subjects, she rages against the cruelty of the gods and of men, ponders whether it is even seemly to go on living in a world which contains such evil, and questions the character of mankind as a whole, and whether the human race even deserves to continue.
To understand the play itself, imagine getting aboard a roller coaster which sets out from the station, begins to drop at a high rate of speed, then continues dropping without any let-up, for two hours.
The modern audience accepts and deals with shock and horror best when there are interruptions, during which a bit of calm and restoration takes place. In Hecuba's world, there were no such interruptions, and the blows of tragedy fell without relief. Some members of the audience found it difficult to bear.
The highlight of the performance was Martha Henry, in the role of Hecuba, who allowed the audience to see clearly how deeply each piece of bad news wounded her soul, yet who maintained an elegance and personal majesty which made her seem every inch a queen.
It's not a production for children, nor for those who might be depressed. It will continue to be performed through Oct. 5.
Romeo and Juliet
''Romeo and Juliet'' is one of Shakespeare's easiest plays to understand for modern minds, and as a result is often taught as young people's first exposure to the Bard's creations.
Stratford is producing the play as the centerpiece of the current season, directed by McAnuff. Of course there are many strengths to the production, but for me, it was the production I enjoyed the least of the six we saw.
The plot is set in Verona, Italy, in the 13th century. Two families - the Montagues and the Capulets - have been feuding for many years. The teenaged son of the Montagues, Romeo, meets the 13-year-old daughter of the Capulets, Juliet. The two fall in love, but both get caught up in the brawling and plotting of their parents and other relatives, and both end up dead.
How many times are the plots of plays constructed around people who are so busy dealing with trees they never understand or cope with the forest? Stratford Artistic Director Des McAnuff has gone out of his way to take racial issues out of the equation. Romeo is played by a white actor, Gareth Potter, and his mother is performed by a white actress, while his father is portrayed by a black actor.
Juliet is performed by a black actress, Nikki M. James, and her mother is portrayed as black and her father as white.
McAnuff presents the fighting between families as a class issue, with the Montagues snobby, old-money plutocrats and the Capulets tacky, nouveau-riche social climbers.
Potter is a young man, but not young enough to carry away the naive posturings and cocky struttings with which the playwright endows his character. James is far closer to the extreme youth of Juliet, and is perhaps the most effective portrayal on the stage.
Nobody, not even seasoned professional Peter Donaldson as Friar Laurence, succeeded in riveting my feelings and thoughts on his character's realities.
In short, there's nothing really wrong with the production, but there's nothing remarkably right about it either. The production continues in the Festival Theatre, the largest of the four, through Nov. 8.
All's Well That Ends Well
''All's Well That Ends Well'' is considered one of Shakespeare's ''problem plays.'' Generally that means that it's difficult to categorize it as a comedy or a tragedy, but at least for the modern audience, it's a problem because it's difficult to believe.
The plot is built around a young woman named Helena, the orphaned daughter of a famous medical doctor. Helena has grown up in the household of the wealthy and influential Countess of Rossillion in France. She has come to love the countess's only son, the handsome Bertram, although the difference in their social standing makes him something of a distant dream.
She has inherited her father's medical equipment and recipes for medications, and when the king develops a seeming fatal illness, for which his doctors can offer no help, Helena is able to save his life. He offers her any reward within his power, so she asks to marry Bertram. But when the king announces the engagement, Bertram is utterly repulsed and flees away to war in Italy to escape her.
Through a series of plots and tricks, Helena follows her guy to Italy, and teaches him her true value, then lures him back to France, where the king enforces their marriage.
I can't understand why she doesn't just find someone more worthy to be her husband, and I can't say the Stratford production changed my thoughts on the subject.
The centerpost of the Stratford production is Brian Dennehy as the King of France, having a vast stage presence and leaving us in no doubt that someone would do what this king said, no matter what. Daniela Vlaskalic and Jeff Lillico were fine as the central characters, both clear-spoken and believable, although neither role demanded any rare or challenging quality. Juan Chioran was very funny as Parolles, a soldier serving with Bertram who serves as frequent comic relief.
The production was very fine. The play isn't one of the master's best, but even average Shakespeare has more food for thought than other writers' finest. If you want to see it, you'll have to hurry, as it finishes its run next Saturday.
''Hamlet'' is Shakespeare's longest play, and his most successful. It is the story of a Prince of Denmark who is called home from his university studies in Germany because his father has been killed, allegedly by the bite of a poisonous snake. Arriving home, the young prince is shocked to learn that his father's brother has claimed the throne and has married Hamlet's mother.
The prince is visited by his father's ghost, who tells him he wasn't killed by a snake, but poisoned by his brother to get the crown and queen.
The ghost demands revenge, but the prince is a whirlwind of confusion. What if the ghost is a figment of his imagination, or what if it is an evil spirit trying to trick him into murdering an innocent person? Eventually the situation is resolved, although with a pile of corpses on the stage.
Portraying Hamlet is rather the Mt. Everest of acting. Essaying the role at Stratford is a young actor who is much celebrated in Canada, although not well known in the United States: Ben Carlson. Regular readers will recognize his name from many leading roles at the Shaw Festival. The role of Hamlet is so demanding, physically, emotionally and intellectually, that it is nearly always played by an actor considerably older than the 19 or 20 years which a university student would normally have. Like Potter's Romeo, Carlson is old enough to rob his character of the impulsiveness and immaturity needed to make the characterization work.
Elements of the role were brilliant. When Hamlet accepts that he might be killed and delivers his famed ''the readiness is all'' speech, it had stunning effect, for example. In other places, he tore at his hair and threw himself onto the ground and tended to leave one cold, as though watching something one would never see in real life.
The fencing at the end of the play was some of the finest stage combat I have ever seen.
Carlson has a gift which he has come to use as something of a parlor trick. He is able to rattle off pages upon pages of words at a very fast pace without losing any of the meaning or becoming hard to discern, then suddenly stop and say one sentence at a normal pace, which has the effect of underlining that one sentence, five or six times, then covering it with ink from a highlighting pen. It's a good trick, but it loses its magic with time.
In a generally fine cast, Scott Wentworth stood out as the murderous uncle, a fine demonstration of finding humanity, even in deep evil.
Director Adrian Noble has offered a clear and very understandable production with very high production values. The pacing is fast and excellent. If you haven't seen ''Hamlet'' in a long while, this is an excellent choice. If you have a number of fine performances already in your memory, this one won't stand out from the others. It will run through Oct. 26.
Caesar and Cleopatra
Stratford ventures into the territory of its rival Shaw Festival with a production of a play by Shaw.
''Caesar and Cleopatra'' is one of Shaw's best plays. It tells a tale of an aged and increasingly jaded Julius Caesar arriving with his army of conquest in Egypt. There he meets the teenaged queen, Cleopatra.
The hardbitten general has a great deal to teach the frightened child, but he learns too late she is his student and not his possession, and she will use the skills he has taught her for her own goals, rather than for his.
Christopher Plummer, probably best known as Captain Von Trapp in the film of ''The Sound of Music,'' portrays Caesar. The performance is a lesson in the mysterious gift of stage presence. Some people go on stage, say their lines and the audience feels as though each of them has been grabbed by the lapels and pulled powerfully into the action on stage.
Plummer has the gift. Indeed, there were some awkward pauses and what seemed like missing lines, yet I felt completely enthralled.
Nikki M. James brought the same combination of youthful innocence and smoldering sexuality to Cleopatra that she had already shown as Juliet.
This production is funny, it's historically pretty accurate, and it's beautiful. If you can see only one play at Stratford this year, this would be a good choice. It will continue to play through Nov. 9.
''Cabaret'' is a musical based on the writings of Englishman Christopher Isherwood, who lived in Berlin during the years in which the Nazi Party was preparing to take over its country's government and most people didn't believe it would happen, or were too busy singing and dancing to do anything about it.
The plot says that a young writer named Cliff Bradshaw comes to live in Berlin because German money was so badly inflated that he could live on very little cash. There he meets a singer and dancer named Sally Bowles who completely seduces his entire life.
She performs in a nightclub, over which presides an odd, eccentric master of ceremonies. The production numbers in the cabaret serve as lessons in what is happening in the country, politically, and clearly demonstrate the foolishness of those who will not participate in politics. It will happen to you anyway.
The production was excellent, everyone sang and danced wonderfully well, and the production values were very high.
My one reservation was that Trish Lindstrom, as Sally, lacked that stage magic which I described above for Christopher Plummer. In this show, Sally Bowles must be lovable and fetchingly air headed, and the audience must care what happens to her, with all our hearts. That didn't happen.
Nonetheless, good productions of this show are rare and precious and you could do much worse. It will continue to run until Oct. 25.