Theatre

Drunk on Drama

There's nothing like the kick of Stratford's and Shaw's best

John Bemrose June 25 2001
Theatre

Drunk on Drama

There's nothing like the kick of Stratford's and Shaw's best

John Bemrose June 25 2001

Drunk on Drama

There's nothing like the kick of Stratford's and Shaw's best

Theatre

JOHN BEMROSE

The ephemeral quality of live theatre is one of its charms— each performance of a play is unique and unrepeatable. You

can see a film whenever you want, and it never changes. But if you didn’t make the effort to catch Ralph Richardson’s Falstaff or William Hutt’s Prospero, then the miracle of those performances has escaped you forever. You have to have been there.

This summer at two of North Americas most important theatre festivals, the Stratford and the Shaw (both in southern Ontario, and both a couple of hours’ drive from Toronto), a handful of productions may well lodge in the memories of those lucky enough to have been there. The finest is Stratford’s heart-piercing rendition of Edward Albee’s 1962 black comedy, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf It stars Martha Henry as the incorrigible, foul-mouthed Martha, and Peter Donaldson as her longsuffering history professor husband, George. Martha is one of the great toxic heroines of modern literature, a kind of Wife of Bath for the nuclear age. The droll George proves her match, however, in an

exchange of insults that makes for one of the most gripping duets in Stratford’s history. In the end, the two actors reveal the bewildered child behind Marthas rampages with exquisite tenderness (to Nov. 3).

The other near-perfect show at Stratford is director Brian Bedford’s champagne-

smooth version of Noël Coward’s 1930 comedy, Private Lives. Bedford also stars as the suave but short-tempered Elyot Chase, a role he’s made his own, having played it opposite many of the finest actresses of the postwar era, including Maggie Smith. Here he is partnered with a vivacious Seana McKenna (to Nov. 2). Meanwhile, director Jeannette Lambermonfs taut rendering of

Shakespeare’s Henry V, aided by Dany Lyne s stark sinking bridge of a set, uncomfortably balances our attraction to the patriotic English leader (a poignandy youthful Graham Abbey) with our horror at his slaughter of the French (to Nov. 4).

The remaining Stratford productions, while clearly flawed, offer some memorable performances: Cynthia Dale’s deeply charming Maria in the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music (to Nov. 4); Douglas Campbell’s huffing volcano of a Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry LV, Part 1 (to Sept. 29); Lucy Peacock’s aggressively incandescent Portia and Paul Soles’ understated but terribly credible Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (to Nov. 3). Finally, James Blendick, a big man who is as light on his feet as any Las Vegas table cruiser, gives the comic performance of his career as that rascally old sleazebag Sir Toby Belch in Shakespeare’s Twelfih Night (to Nov. 2).

At Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival, the best show is easily the 1953 minor American classic Picnic by William Inge. Superbly directed by Jackie Maxwell, this late-summer tale of a drifter who disturbs the peace of a small-town Kansas family is a feast of finely detailed acting. The leading female performers—Jennifer Phipps, Fiona Byrne, Wendy Thatcher and Goldie Semple—conduct a virtual seminar on what it means to live and love as a woman. When Phipps as the old spinster, Helen Potts, shows her excitement at the presence of the drifter, Hal Carter (Mike Wasko), she re-

veals an undiminished flame of girlish longing that singes the heart (to Sept. 21).

Another success is J. M. Barrie’s 1904 classic, Peter Pan, directed by Christopher Newton (to Oct. 28). This production digs deeply into the destruction that occurs when boys—and men—refuse to grow up. And so Jim Mezon, in a double performance of comic brilliance, plays both the outlandishly immature

Mr. Darling and his demonic shadow, Captain Hook. The show scintillates with directorial inventiveness: the underwater fight between the pirates and the Indians, low-tech though it may be (it’s conveyed in slow motion, with undulating turquoise cloth as the surface of the sea), is as wittily captivating as anything on the silver screen. Just don’t wait for the video.