THEATRE

BEAUTY AND THE BARD

Strippers shimmy with Shakespeare at Stratford

John Bemrose June 21 1993
THEATRE

BEAUTY AND THE BARD

Strippers shimmy with Shakespeare at Stratford

John Bemrose June 21 1993

BEAUTY AND THE BARD

THEATRE

Strippers shimmy with Shakespeare at Stratford

JOHN BEMROSE

Brian Macdonald knows a lot about stripping. More than four decades ago, the director and choreographer of Gypsy, the musical about burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee now playing at Ontario’s Stratford Festival, was a young music critic for The Montreal Herald. His beat took him to the city’s Gaiety burlesque house, where he became backstage friends with the legendary stripper Lily St. Cyr. “She was an extraordinarily glamorous woman with a very, very beautiful body,” Macdonald recalled in an interview last week. “And she had this wonderful haughtiness. After she’d taken a few things off, she’d half cover herself with the curtain and say,

That’s it, boys. You’re not gettin’ any more from me.’ ”

Macdonald has incorporated some of those memories into his compelling Gypsy, which, along with three Shakespearean plays {King John, Antony and Cleopatra and A Midsummer Night’s Dream), recently launched the 41st annual festival in Stratford, 150 km southwest of Toronto. Macdonald’s production plays with all the paraphernalia of burlesque’s golden age: the boas, G-strings, pasties and feathers. But it is a serious musical, too, especially in its portrait of Rose (Sandra O’Neill), the mother of Gypsy (Monique Lund). She is a driven woman who pushes her two daughters into show business to satisfy her own hunger for attention. For Macdonald, it is the psychological undercurrents of the piece, so brilliantly caught in its ironic songs by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Sondheim (with book by Arthur Laurents), that make Gypsy worthy of the classically oriented festival. “If you have Molière on that stage on Friday night, and Shakespeare on Saturday afternoon, you can’t do some light, entertaining dinner theatre piece on Saturday night,” said the lanky, balding director, 65. “You have to take very seriously how you portray life on that stage.”

On the morning after Gypsy’s première, Macdonald relaxed in the old Stratford house that he shares with his wife, former prima ballerina Annette av Paul. The back windows give a view of a beautifully kept garden that slopes to the Avon River. An antique sideboard is crowded with gifts from Macdonald’s opening night wellwishers. He and his wife cherish their Stratford nest because it brings a sense of rootedness to their itinerant lives. Av Paul is the director of dance at l’Ecole Pierre Laporte, a Montreal high school specializing in performing arts. Macdonald runs the summer dance program at the Banff Centre—as well as travelling frequently to other countries to stage ballets, operas and musicals. Canada’s best-known choreographer has lived in many European capitals but loves small-town Stratford where, as he puts it, “You can still put a nickel in the parking meters.”

Bom in Montreal in 1928, Macdonald worked briefly at the Herald before becoming one of the original members of the National Ballet

of Canada in the early 1950s. Then, in 1954, a serious arm injury led him to divert his ambitions to choreography. He worked with CBC TV in Montreal and, in 1958, began a productive freelance association with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Later, he choreographed in New York and in Stockholm, where he became the artistic director of the Royal Swedish Ballet—and first met av Paul.

Macdonald is known as an exceptionally tough director. He admits that, earlier in his career, he was “harder to work with. , I wanted to see specific things right away and I wanted it perfect in 10 minutes.” Now, he claims, he has relaxed about the process of creating a new show, and is more likely to let dancers improvise and suggest ideas of their own.

Yet his insistence on bringing every production to a high polish is as strong as ever. Macdonald says that he developed his perfectionism during his early Winnipeg and Montreal phases. It was then that he got to know two directors who would become prominent in Canadian theatre: John Hirsch and Jean Gascon. The three men agreed that standards in the country’s performing arts were simply not high enough, Macdonald recalled, and they set out to change them. Now, Macdonald rejoices that many Canadian dance and theatre productions are on a par with the world’s best. It is different, he claims, in Australia, where a few years ago he directed a production

of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers. “Australian performers are an energetic, slam-bang type of people who were fun to work with,” he recalled. “But they had no idea of the standard we work to in Canada. So I had to push and pull and sharpen my elbows. I’m sure they couldn’t wait to get me on the plane home.”

Macdonald’s decision to base himself in Canada has nothing to do with a lack of opportunities elsewhere. In 1979, he turned down a chance to run the ballet at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. “If I’d taken that job,” he said, “I’d just be a little asterisk in their history. Here, you feel more of a need for obsessive people like me—you feel you’re contributing to the artistic growth of the nation.” The ever-busy Macdonald will remount his wildly successful Mikado at Stratford in July (it played there 10 years ago). From there, he will move on to Banff, Montreal and Detroit to stage works as diverse as his ballet The Shining People of Leonard Cohen to Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. There is plenty of demand, it would seem, for a choreographer-director with high standards—and sharp elbows.

REVIEWS: Lovers and warriors

Gypsy is an exceptional musical because of the stubbornness with which it pursues the z truth about its characters. Laced with irony, it offers up songs laden with more meaning than g their singers often understand. Taken out of con| text, the number Everything’s Coming Up Roses 9 seems like a simple example of old-fashioned

American optimism. But performed by the mag° nificent Sandra O’Neill, her voice brassy with a determination that barely hides the anger beneath, the song vibrates with subtle menace. Yet O’Neill’s Rose is charming as well as neurotic, and it is easy to see why Peter Donaldson’s immensely likable Herbie falls in love with her. Robustly entertaining, without surrendering an inch of emotional honesty, Macdonald’s Gypsy is populated with real people, not the caricatures that throng so many musicals.

On the classical front, the deficit-ridden festival (it is $760,000 in the red) is staging only three plays by Shakespeare this year, instead of the usual four or five. Director Robin Phillips’s clear and exquisitely composed production of King John is easily the best. Set in the Middle Ages, the seldom-produced play concerns the rivalry between the French court of King Philip (William Webster) and the English court of King John (Nicholas Pennell). Phillips has stationed the two camps at either end of the Tom Patterson Theatre’s long, narrow stage—like opposing hockey teams. The production emphasizes the domestic turmoil in both royal households. Sometimes the women egg on the men, sometimes they are mere pawns in the men’s power games. John strikes a temporary alliance with his rival by marrying off his niece, Blanche (Michelle Risk), to the French dauphin (Diego Matamoros). But the alliance breaks up at the wedding party: Phillips shows the anguished Blanche being pulled in a tug of war between the rival courts. Then, in a daring piece of staging, the cast mimes a raging bonfire, clapping hands and snapping fingers to evoke flames engulfing the table where the wedding feast has been set.

Taking advantage of the Tom Patterson’s small confines, Phillips has fashioned a production of great intimacy. The actors scarcely need raise their voices to be heard. At times they murmur, their speech caught by hidden microphones. It is like listening to their private thoughts. Beautifully spoken and acted, this moving production is one of Stratford’s all-time finest.

Director Joe Dowling’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, on the other hand, may well be one of the festival’s all-time funniest. It is so relent-

lessly amusing that the four young Athenian lovers draw more laughs than the play’s usual comedians—the band of oafish workmen who also get lost in the enchanted woods of the fairy king Oberon (Colm Feore). Sheila McCarthy’s bookish Helena is a delight as she primly double-takes her way through the erotic confusions spun by Oberon’s fairy sidekick, Puck (Frank Zotter). And Feore’s Oberon moves and speaks with a dark, razor-like sexuality. But the biggest star of the show is designer Hayden Griffen’s inflatable set, which turns the trees and rocks of Oberon’s forest into huge, colorfully mottled sex organs—like something dreamed up by David Cronenberg. On its spongy, trampoline-like surfaces, the lovers and fairies and rustics bounce, slither, sleep, fight and make love with such hilarious comic abandon that Shakespeare’s beautiful poetry is too often pushed into the background.

Meanwhile, Richard Monette, who next season takes over as Stratford’s artistic director from David William, has directed an Antony and Cleopatra that celebrates middle-aged sexuality. Leon Pownall offers a grizzled, overweight Antony to match Goldie Semple’s fading, devious vamp. The chemistry between the two Stratford veterans is volatile and convincing: they bring the core of the play alive. And Stephen Ouimette, in his first major Stratford appearance in 10 years, turns Octavius Caesar, Antony’s political rival, into a complex creature who combines a sensual lust for power with a puritanical private life. Ouimette, who is also a standout as Philip the Bastard in King John, proves that a light tenor voice need be no obstacle in dominating the Stratford stage if it is combined with accomplished acting. But beyond those three actors, the production has several unfulfilled roles and, as well, suffers from the absence of a clear thematic concept such as the ones that animate King John and Gypsy. In those productions, the Stratford Festival is at its best, offering not only fine individual performances but the mark of a director’s unique vision on every scene.

JOHN BEMROSE