STRATFORD, ONT. - Last week, we told you all about the production from Stratford which will be performed at Chautauqua's Bratton Family Theater, only to receive an e-mail, after the column was in print, to inform me that the performances have been postponed until next June.
In fact, since the column appeared, I have been bombarded by contacts from people who say they planned to buy tickets, and as of this writing, the official web site is still proclaiming that the performances will be this month, but I have it right from the producers of the event, that it is postponed until the spring.
I'm sorry that you won't be seeing a Stratford production in our area, but the good news is that the Stratford Shakespeare Festival will continue to present performances through early November, so let me tell you about the five productions which I saw in August. These are in addition to ''Dangerous Liaisons,'' which I discussed in last week's column.
Mike Jackson, Monique Lund, Juan Chioran, and Chilina Kennedy portray actors who are trying to perform Shakespeare's “The Taming of the Shrew,' while being pursued by gangsters, in Cole Porter's musical “Kiss Me, Kate.'
It remains true: Life is a banquet.
The full name of the show we saw in Stratford's Tom Patterson Theatre is ''Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,'' although, in fact, M. Brel is dead and buried in the South Pacific.
I call the production a show, rather than a play, because it has no central plot. It is a revue of songs, each of which has a plot and many of the qualities of a good play, unto itself.
Brel was born in Belgium, and did most of his songwriting and singing in Europe, but in the 1960s and 70s, his music was often to be heard, both on popular radio stations and in formal concert halls, throughout the world. Singers from David Bowie and John Denver to Judy Collins and Frank Sinatra have recorded and performed his songs to both popularity and financial success.
In 1968, about a decade before Brel's early death, from lung cancer, Eric Blau translated a number of what he considered Brel's best songs into English - most are written in French, with a few in Flemish - and put them together into a theatrical evening, to be performed by two men and two women. His work is the basis of this show.
The Stratford director, Stafford Arima, has changed some of the songs around, added two which he encountered on early Brel recordings, and is responsible for the show as it is performed this season.
This version of the show is too long. Brel's message is that each individual is fighting for the life he believes is correct, against a torrent of pressures, from poverty to prejudice to ignorance to his own personal weaknesses. Nearly all are very moving and stimulating of thought, but when you put so many of them, end to end, I found myself fighting for a chance to digest what I had already heard, before they sang anything more.
That said, I wouldn't have missed the performance for the world. It was thrilling, and if I didn't get the exact amount of Brel's music that I wanted, that is in keeping with his message of needing to live with what is, instead of what one wishes to be.
Those who learned to love Brel's music when it was new, especially if they encountered it through an English-speaking singer, will find some big differences, as the songs have often been re-translated. Most are done in English, although a few are done in their original language, and if you speak them, you may be surprised how different they are from their better-known versions.
The singers in the Stratford production are Jewelle Blackman, Brent Carver, Mike Nadajewski, and Natalie Nadon. All four sing well, dance well, and have excellent comic timing.
They are accompanied by a small ensemble, conducted by Laura Burton. The versatile musicians often played multiple instruments, putting down a guitar and picking up a cello, or laying aside the concertina to play the violin. Sometimes they came out and became characters in one of the mini-plots which each song represents.
It's a wonderful show, beautifully performed, choreographed and orchestrated. It just wrung the heart a few times too often for a single evening - at least for my tastes.
It continues through Oct. 3, so go soon, if you're interested.
KISS ME, KATE
If a Shakespeare Festival is going to do musical shows, which seem to be necessary to attract the contemporary audience, there couldn't be a more appropriate choice than Cole Porter's ''Kiss Me, Kate.'' It is based around the plot and characters of the Bard's ''Taming of the Shrew.''
The songs are some of Porter's most effective and popular. The book by Sam and Bella Spewack has won many awards, and is universally beloved.
That said, I would have to report, I enjoyed this production less than any other I have witnessed in more than 30 years of attending performances at Stratford. And, ironically, this is true despite the fact that there is nothing seriously wrong with it.
The production's director, John Doyle, has made quite a name for himself with a production on Broadway, of Stephen Sondheim's ''Sweeney Todd.'' In it, he broke down the tradition that there is a performance and there is an audience. He had his actors step out of character and talk directly to the audience. Every actor in his production not only sang and danced as his character should, he played the musical instruments in place of the usual orchestra.
Doyle has tried to repeat his trick with this production, and for my taste, it hasn't worked. I would have to say truthfully, there were some people who thought it was delightful, and those who go to a musical only to hear wonderful singing and see outstanding dancing, could leave without disappointment. It's the play lovers who left disappointed.
''The Taming of the Shrew'' is a play about a man with two beautiful daughters. The younger is sweet and compliant, but the older one is harsh tempered and ''brawling.'' He refuses to allow the younger girl to marry until the older one is married first. The many suitors who want to marry the younger eventually pay a poor but courageous stranger to marry the shrew and to tame her outrageous behavior, in the bargain.
''Kiss Me, Kate'' is noteworthy because it takes contemporary people who have the same personal characteristics as the characters in Shakespeare's play, and puts them into a similar, parallel circumstance. Fred and Lilli have had a tempestuous marriage, and have divorced.
Fred is trying to put on a successful production of ''The Shrew,'' with himself as the tamer, and he has hired his ex-wife to play the Shrew.
Meanwhile, he has hired a beautiful chorus girl to play the compliant sister, and hopes to make some time with her, himself. But, he has needed to hire her boyfriend, an unlettered Broadway hoofer, to play one of her suitors, in order to get her in his cast. The boyfriend has a bad habit of sneaking out of rehearsals to gamble, and he has signed Fred's name to an IOU, with a dangerous gangster. The gangster has sent two of his goons to make sure Fred pays up, and they keep breaking into the performance.
It is urgent, for the show to work, that the audience understands that Fred and Lilli are still deeply in love, but at the same time, each has the ability to hurt the other, profoundly.
Doyle has chosen to stage the show as essentially a long row of Cole Porter's greatest hits, and the Devil take the Shakespeare. Juan Chioran's Fred and Monique Lund's Lilli meet, quarrel, and suddenly she's singing ''So In Love With You, Am I.'' No connection was ever established. ''The Shrew'' has been virtually excised from this version of the show, so the parallel lives don't show up.
Chilina Kennedy has a wonderful voice, and really throws herself into her role as the chorus girl, portraying the younger sister. At one point, though, Doyle sends her up the aisle into the midst of the audience, to comment on the dancing being done by three cast members. She calls them by their own names, not the names of their characters, and she is clearly egging the audience on to applaud. I think most audiences like to decide for themselves whether applause is in order, and feel alienated from performances which try to manipulate their responses. this is an example of how the production went awry, for my tastes.
Designer David Farley has created ridiculous, ill-fitting, neon colored costumes for the Shakespearean play, as though Fred is an amateur director, instead of one of the finest actors in America, as the script claims he is.
The singing was wonderful. The cast was talented. The dancing was wonderful. Franklin Brasz and the show orchestra were wonderful. I didn't enjoy it much. It will be performed through Oct. 30.
THE WINTER'S TALE
''The Winter's Tale'' was one of Shakespeare's final creations. By the time he has arrived at its creation, he was prepared to move beyond telling events as they happened, and ready to share with his audience an expectation that they could go beyond literal events to deal with some symbolism and other expectations that the truth can be more than a list of facts.
The play starts in the Kingdom of Sicilia, then moves to Bohemia, then returns to Sicilia, for the denouement. Director Marti Maraden and designer John Pennoyer have wisely grasped that Sicilia exists in a condition of winter: cold, colorless, and nearly emotionally dead. Their Bohemia is a world of color, warmth, comedy, and motion.
The plot concerns King Leontes of Sicilia. Blessed with Hermione, a beautiful and loving wife, Leontes suddenly becomes certain that she has betrayed him with his best friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia. He orders her imprisoned, and has their new-born daughter abandoned on an uninhabited coastline, to live or die as fate decides.
The child is found by a passing shepherd, and grows up, believing she is his daughter. Fate eventually carries her back to Sicilia, where her true father comes to appreciate that she is really his daughter and a worthy heir to his crown.
The playwright's faith in cosmic justice and the power of right to triumph over everything from the will of man to the laws of physics, is nowhere more powerfully displayed than in this play.
Ben Carlson gives a truly moving performance as the distraught Leontes. His facial expressions, his manner of walking and sitting are always perfect to his character's evolution, even when the focus of the scene is elsewhere on the stage. Audiences have a tendency to disbelieve someone who changes character so radically in such a short time, but his performance defied disbelief.
Paulina, a devotee of the queen, who speaks her bitter anger at her mistress's injustices without fear of the king's power, is an important but often annoying character. Seana McKenna gave her great authority, and so much dignity, we tended to overlook her cloying qualities.
It is often said in the theater that whenever a company wants to do this play, they have to decide how they will cope with the event in which one character is killed and eaten by a bear. If they can solve that, they can do the rest of the play without trouble, it is said.
Pennoyer and lighting designer Louise Guinand came up with a truly frightening puppet bear, which obviously wasn't real, but was real enough for me.
This wasn't a pleaser of all crowds, although I think it greatly pleased the Shakespeare lovers. Those unable to make the leaps of faith which the script required would be better off with a different production. See it through Oct. 3.