Canada’s Stratford and Shaw Festivals bring four classic works to life

STRATFORD, Ontario – All’s Well That Ends Well is one of Shakespeare’s least loved comedies. “Gaslight” is a hopeless old melodrama that delivers woman-victim tropes. And “Chicago” is so covered in Bob Fosse’s fingerprints — or are they footprints? — that he is an indispensable part of the musical.

But on a recent trip to Canada – six days here in the home of the Stratford Festival and another day in Niagara-on-the-Lake where the Shaw Festival is performing – I saw all three of those shows successfully relaunched. I’ve also seen a classic, Richard III, successfully left alone.

Is there something sane about revivals in the air up here? Productions run until the end of October, so you have time to see for yourself.

Stratford’s All’s Well at the brand new Tom Patterson Theater was perhaps the biggest surprise. As usual, it’s the sickening tale of a clueless playboy named Bertram, who treats the friend who loves him – Helen, a young “gentlewoman” from his mother’s household – as a disposable child’s toy. And although Helen eventually gets her revenge by using a textbook “bed trick” to catch him, it also feels gross.

In fact, “All’s Well” often feels like a Shakespearean supercut. Bertram’s mother, a recently widowed countess, sells Polonius-like pearls of wisdom; a dude soldier gets a Malvolio-like compensation; and the dying King of France is magically saved from apparent death, like 32 other characters in canon.

But with vivid, detailed performances directed by Scott Wentworth, the Stratford production turns problems into benefits. Bertram (Jordin Hall) is not frivolous; on the verge of manhood, he fears being trapped by his past. Likewise, Helen (Jessica B. Hill) draws from the fear bordering on anger, which is the other side of a crush. That you want what’s best for both of you — and even for the poor guy (Rylan Wilkie) — makes the conflicts all the more compelling.

A more subtle transformation has turned the Countess (Seana McKenna, superb) and the King (Ben Carlson, also) from stick jerks into complex characters. This is accomplished less by overthinking motivations and more by digging into language, which is far richer than I imagined. The actualization of the period – which appears to be World War I from Michelle Bohn’s Edwardian costume – is just enough to provide the actors with recognizable social situations (a funeral, a farewell) that make the verse make sense rather than just pretty. Instead, there are restless Satie-like piano etudes by Paul Shilton.

“All’s Well” thus turns out to be less of a riot and more of a moving look at the stages of maturity: how they are first avoided at all costs, then uncertainly pursued and finally achieved for the lucky few, if not with dignity, little regret.

A few blocks along the Avon River – yes, that’s his real name – takes you from the Tom Patterson to the Festival Theater, where “Chicago” is set, directed and choreographed by Donna Feore. Feore is the first person allowed by the show’s rights holders to replace Fosse’s choreography in a major production; As she’s shown in previous Stratford musical revivals, including Guys and Dolls and The Music Man, she makes every step count.

But actually she isn’t as interested in steps as Fosse was so pronounced. (Its style is the same regardless of the material.) Rather, it builds on the ballroom dancing of the late 1920s era to tell the story it seeks to elevate. This story is less about the cynicism of America’s justice system – how two “funny killers” (Jennifer Rider-Shaw and Chelsea Preston) get out of hand by turning their crimes into showbiz – and more about women caught in the difficult negotiate new landscape of independence and prohibition.

So when six incarcerated women perform the “cell block tango,” we see their husbands blown away — and they look like they deserve it. And when Hunyak, the immigrant who maintains her innocence to the end, is executed anyway, Feore enacts the scene as an aerial act, in which the doomed woman (Bonnie Jordan) falls from the roof of the… theater descends . I won’t reveal how Billy Flynn, the selfish lawyer played by Dan Chameroy, is leaving.

Still, this “Chicago” is a mostly joyful reception, as is almost inevitable with packed sets and costumes, rather than the somber aesthetic of the long-running Broadway revival. (Since everyone is wearing black in this production, it can seem like a super-chic sorority guard at times.) Instead, Feore seems to have taken inspiration from the great song “All That Jazz” by Kander and Ebb, which opens the show on a liberating note: ” Oh, I’m nobody’s wife/but, oh, I love my life.”

You wouldn’t expect that feeling in Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 thriller, Gaslight, about a woman who is driven almost insane by her husband. In previous versions of the story, including the 1944 George Cukor film, the wife Bella is a confused victim of psychological torture and a largely passive participant in the escape from her husband Jack. She is rescued by a police officer whom we know she will marry next.

But in Johnna Wright and Patty Jamieson’s complete feminist makeover for the Shaw Festival, all that’s left of the original is the gaslit Victorian backdrop and general mind control theme. That too is now a one-way street. Bella (Julie Lumsden) soon understands what Jack (André Morin) is doing and devises a plan to turn the tables. With no cop in sight, she must save herself with only a brave maid (Kate Hennig) to help her.

Usually when producers find material broadly offensive, I think they should just not produce it. (There are many new plays to be directed.) However, this “Gaslight” makes a compelling case for renovation, not because it’s to our liking, but because it’s so satisfying as a genre drama. It doesn’t hurt that the production, directed by Kelli Fox, is tight and lush – with sets and costumes by Judith Bowden – with Lumsden being particularly convincing as a woman coming to her powers.

It remains to be seen whether the revision can become a new classic. There might well be a chance on Broadway, where the original, entitled Angel Street, ran for three years in the 1940s.

But which works survive and why remains a great mystery. While it certainly helps to have Shakespeare on the front page, even he buckles under the pressure of representation and fairness. “The Merchant of Venice” is anti-Semitic, “The Taming of the Shrew” is sexist, “Othello” is arguably both sexist and racist.

This year appears to have “Richard III” on the block. When it opened the first Stratford Festival in 1953, no one was surprised that Alec Guinness, who wasn’t disabled, played a king who was known to be disabled. But when the play, in a nice touch of symmetry, opened the new Tom Patterson this summer, in a production with Colm Feore – he’s Donna Feore’s husband – I felt torn. I had just seen the garbled recording of the Public Theater in Central Park, in which Danai Gurira played the title role without acknowledging Richard’s disability.

Feore more than acknowledges Richard’s corpse. In a way, this production is directed by Stratford’s artistic director, Antoni Cimolino. Cimolino frames the action with the discovery of what is most likely the king’s skeleton in 2013. Feore walks with one leg twisted nearly 90 degrees, causing him to stagger wildly and fall over in some performances. As if that weren’t enough to illustrate the importance of disability in this production’s character vision, the scoliotic curvature of Richard’s spine is sewn into his costumes, designed by Francesca Callow.

You shouldn’t like it. Even if you, like me, believe that one day anyone should be able to play anyone, there are too many disabled actors who rarely get work to give anyone else a plum role like Richard.

And yet, what can I say? Feore excels in a very cool and traditional take on the role. (Thanks to the Patterson’s phenomenal acoustics, he hardly ever raises his voice, or has to.) His assimilation of Richard’s disability seems complete, accurate, and condescending. The supporting cast, most of whom appear in alternate performances in “All’s Well,” are unusually good, particularly the quartet of women Richard widowed, taunted, pursued, married, or murdered. It’s actually a quintet of women in this production: the assassin he hires to carry out his worst deed – murdering the young princes who stand in his way – is no longer James Tyrell, but Jane. Shockingly, she’s the only person on stage who you think actually loves Richard.

Despite this change and the contemporary setting, this remains a conventional revival at its best: it restores the power of the story while staying true to its words. That’s what makes all the Canadian revivals I’ve seen so powerful. (Well, OK, there was a mediocre “Hamlet.”) If there’s something in the air here that encourages that quality, it’s the repertory system: Stratford, still returning to full strength after the pandemic shutdown, has in 10 productions running this season; Shaw has 11. Talk about maturity! Most things get better the more you do them.

Stratford Festival

“All’s Well That Ends Well”, “Chicago” and “Richard III” are in the repertoire until October 30th. Stratford, Ont.; stratfordfestival.ca

Shaw Festival

“Gaslight” is in the repertoire until October 8th. Niagara on the Lake, Ontario; shawfest.com.

Leave a Comment