STRATFORD FESTIVAL 2023: The Spirit of the Tent Lives On

Women of the Fur Trade

By Frances Koncan Directed by Yvette Nolan

Set design by Samantha McCue

Costume design by Jeff Chief

Featuring: Keith Barker, Nathan Howe, Jenna-Lee Hyde, Kathleen MacLean, Joelle Peters.

Played at the Studio Theatre July 8 through July 30.

Richard II

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Jillian Keiley 

Choreographer Cameron Carver

Set Designer Michael Gianfrancesco

Costume designer Bretta Cerecke

Lighting designer Leigh Ann Vardy

Supervising fight director Geoff Scovell

Featuring: Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Jordin Hall, Emilio Vieira, Michael Spencer-Davis, Debbie Patterson, David Collins, Debbie Patterson, Hannah Wigglesworth, Tyrone Savage, Sarah Orenstein, Matthew Kabwe, Charlie Gallant, Thmas Duplessie, John Wamsley, Andrew Robinson, Steve Ross, Marcus Nance, Sarah Dodd, Justin Eddy, Celia Aloma, Malinda Carroll, Justin Eddy, Mateo G. Torres, Matthew Joseph, Wahsont:Io Kirby, Heather Kosik, Chris Mejaki, Marcus Nance, Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane, Jane Spidell, Dabelle Verayo, John Walmsley, Alex Wierzbicki, Travae Williams.

At the Tom Patterson through September 28

Much Ado About Nothing

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Chris Abraham

Designed by Julie Fox

Lighting designer Arun Srinivasan

Composer and sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne

Choreographer Adrienne Gould

Featuring: Graham Abbey, Anousha Alamian, Akosua Amo-Adem, Maev Beaty, Michale Blake, Déjah Dixon-Green, Austin Eckert, Allison Edwards-Crewe, Jakob Ehman, John Kirkpatrick, Kevin Kruchkywich, Josue Laboucane, Cyrus Lane, Patrick McManus, Jameela McNeil, Danté Prince, Glynis Ranney, Anthony Santiago, André Sills,  Gordon Patrick White, Rylan Wilkie, Micah Woods

Onstage Musicians: George Meanwell, Jonathan Rowsell, Stephan Szczesniak

At the Festival Theatre until October 27

Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White

By Alice Childress

Directed by Sam White

Set Designer Richard H. Morris, Jr.

Costume Designer Sarah Uwadiae

Lighting Designer Kathy A. Perkins

Composer Beau Dixon

Sound Designer Debashis Sinha

Featuring: Aliya Anthony (alternating with Aria Anthony and Ariel Ollivierre), Ijeoma Emesowum, Liza Huget, Joella Crichton, Antoinette Rudder, Micah Woods, Jonathan Mason, Kevin Kruchkywich, Eleanor Beath (altlernating with Madison Taylor MacKenzie, Cyrus Lane, Maev Beaty, Lucy Peacock 

At the Tom Patterson until October 1

It seems that a lot of people are like me; glad to be out and about in nature during a summer that was almost Covid-free but still cautious with mass public events. Of the patrons frequenting the Festival theatre circuit recently, few masks were in evidence and ticket buyers were nowhere near their pre-pandemic numbers. Nonetheless, I was happy to put my toes back into circulatory waters by way of summer theatre going at Stratford and Shaw once again – with some very compelling and rewarding reasons for doing so.

Jeff Chief’s striking costumes for Women of the Fur Trade put the trade in fur right at the top of the show before anyone speaks a word in Frances Koncan’s hilarious feminist satire that depicts Louis Riel (Keith Barker), the founder of Manitoba, as a hottie revolutionary who has turned the Métis camp follower Marie-Angelique (Kathleen MacLean) into a purveyor of perfervid fan mail. The three women central to the story – Marie-Angelique and her friend, the Ojibwe fur trader, Eugenia (Joelle Peters); and Cecilia (Jenna-Lee Hyde), a pregnant British settler – are all wearing period fur coats, looking as though they could hold their own on any fashion runway. As the first design element that grabs your attention when the lights come up, it’s a stunner.

By the time the lights go down 110-minutes later in this fast paced welcome addition of Indigenous story telling at Stratford, so ably guided by Yvette Nolan and designed by Samantha McCue, one gets to decide where one stands on the ideas proposed by Louis Riel in contrast to the narrow colonialist/racialist program being set forth by Sir John A. MacDonald. The women put it to the audience directly: where do you stand – are you with Riel or against him? By the cheering standing ovation at the end of the performance, it is pretty clear that if there were any outliers against, they kept their opinion pretty much to themselves.

There are many powerful reasons to see Richard II, now playing at the Tom Patterson in Stratford, but the most compelling is Stephen Jackman-Torkoff’s indelible portrayal of Richard II, the regent so convinced of the divine right to govern transferred from God to the monarchy that (to quote another narcissist in love with power) one could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, ok?” That, of course, was a quote from Donald Trump, who, like Richard, may one day find that “divine rights” will take you only so far.

Brad Fraser’s radical adaptation of Shakespeare’s play moves the time frame to 20th-century New York City’s Studio 54, a place peopled with the young nobles of their day. Richard’s full-on embrace of the reckless hedonism and sexual exuberances of the gay scene prominent in the 1970s and 80s alludes to material excess and the oncoming AIDS crisis.

This can be seen as either a successfully fleshed out concept between adapter and director, or a problematic conundrum that will leave audiences pondering what the play is about. Prior to this production of R-II, the Stratford Festival had only produced the play four times previously over 70 seasons. So it is probably a safe bet to say that some in the audience – especially those seeing the play for the first time – probably would have liked to have seen a more traditional production than the one Fraser adapted. 

On the other hand, a group of demonstrably LGBTQ+ young folks a few rows in front me at a recent matinee performance that I attended, sat deeply enthralled throughout, adding a whole new demographic to the staid (and aging) Stratford audience cohort that I am used to seeing.

The toughest choices fell on director Jillian Keiley, as she strove to bring Fraser’s vision to the stage. The play begins with flashing lights and disco dance music that sees Richard flanked by an attractive group of dancing angels who act as the Praetorian Guard (only with wings rather than swords and shields). The white-ruffled, pants-suited, self-indulgent Richard takes to the dance floor in an extended opening number (choreographed by Cameron Carver) that leaves little to the imagination of what is to come. 

Soon after, Richard’s difficulties with the nobles begin. A conflict between Henry Bolingbroke (Jordin Hall) and Thomas Mowbray (Tyrone Savage) results in a gage being thrown down and a combat to the death demanded. In Shakespeare’s play, the duel is called off at the last minute by Richard. In Keiley’s production the duel is transformed to what looks like a kick-boxing jujitsu wrestling match by fight director, Geoff Scovell. There ensues a fine-tuned jousting between the two combatants who are oiled up and stripped down to the waist. 

Later, Richard amorously couples with a kissing cousin, Lord Aumerle (Emilio Vieira), in a faux hot tub scene beautifully designed by Michael Gianfrancesco. How the set designer’s aesthetic cleverly captures the ambiance of the gay bathhouses of the period without the use of one drop of water, is a joy to behold. 

The only problem here for Keiley is the investment in stage time demanded for extended dance sequences, an extraneous fight scene and a bathhouse tryst all in the first act. Although well directed, designed and choreographed in every detail, it’s all very time consuming for a play that ends up with an almost three hour running length. This forces the director and the adapter to giveth and taketh away in a kind of triage effect. In order to allow more time for the above, scenes such as John of Gaunt’s (David Collins) poignant “sceptered isle” speech, spoken on his deathbed, are cut.

But, as is alway the case with adaptations of the Bard over the years, Shakespeare usually wins out in the end. Richard II remains a play for our times. The way the Bishop of Carlisle (Steve Ross) supports Richard’s reprehensible behavior even while the King continues to undermine the foundations of the monarchy and the state that surrounds it, is not at all unlike the continued devotion shown by today’s evangelical community for a corrupt politician like Donald Trump. 

When, at last, beset with calamity from all sides, Richard’s shelf life as regent comes due, the certitude remains: “The breath of worldly men cannot depose the deputy elected by the Lord.” That is, until circumstances prove otherwise. Every time Jackman-Torkoff’s Richard references the supreme being, the reference is really to Richard with much emphasis place on the words Lord and God

With more resignation than regret or remorse, Richard finally succumbs to emotional collapse, splayed on the stage floor lamenting the universally sad story of how the high and mighty will all eventually meet their fate; either by way of their own willfulness and arrogance or through natural causes. No one yet has discovered the secret of immortality, although Elon Musk is reportedly working on it. Says Richard when the King finally gives over the Crown:

“No matter where, of comfort no man speak. 

Let’s talk of graves and worms and epitaphs,

Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes

Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth…”

Much Ado About Nothing, now playing in the Festival theatre is a joyful, rambling show filled with wrong turns, missed signals and physical sight gags (more reminiscent of Lecoq than commedia) animated by a pair of sparring lovers who are in the tradition of Shakespeare’s great comedies.

Always crucial for Much Ado to succeed, is playing out the delicate and delightfully neurotic relationship (and chemistry) between Beatrice and Benedict in scenes that contain some of Shakespeare’s finest wordplay. In casting Maev Beaty beside Graham Abbey, director Chris Abraham has successfully found two actors who winningly match wits perfectly. In the more thankless task of the sub-themed love match between Claudio (Austin Eckert) and Hero (Allison Edwards-Crewe), the two actors do their best with the shortchange that the play has laid out for them. 

In order to help them, Abraham imported playwright Erin Shields in an effort to confront the problems brought on by the machinations of the villainous, Don John (Michael Blake), who brings on all the unjust denunciation and public shaming of Hero to the extent that she is faced with no believable or meaningful exit from her dire circumstances. Extenuating a problematic plot line is also a thankless task. 

Now Erin Shields is a very talented playwright. But to bring her into this mess and expect her to write a prologue for Beatrice that states basically, “here is our dilemma” and an epilogue for Hero to summate, “and here is how my dilemma should have been resolved on behalf of myself and all women” is just a bridge too far. As evidenced by her most recent success, Queen Goneril (which premiered last season along with King Lear in rep at Soulpepper Theatre), Shields is more than capable of taking a classical work and turning it on its ear to give voice and agency to the women characters within a feminist framing fit for the 21st-century. 

A far better use of her time and talent would have been for Stratford to commission her to do just that. Let the director do the best he can with Shakespeare’s play as is and let Shields write a play with a working title called, say, Hero and Claudio. Better yet, pair the playwright with musician George Meanwell whose incidental compositions have so soulfully graced the Stratford stages in numerous productions over the years, including this one. 

Shields’ skillful application of rhymed verse would make her a fine librettist as well as lyricist. Combined with Meanwell’s composition skills, they could create a musical that is a powerful retort to a problem that no one has been quite able to solve in over 400 years. As the creators of SIX and & Juliet can attest, this can be done with surprisingly popular results.

It should be noted here that the cast of Much Ado is superb and in a side observation, I hope that Austin Eckert and Allison Edwards-Crewe have their contracts renewed by the Festival in the years to come. In about a decade hence, I would love to see them play Benedict and Beatrice.

I’m always somewhat bemused by the mainstream press cultural critics over the years (overwhelmingly white of course) who suddenly awaken to a great piece of art produced by a Black artist. The opera Tremonisha by Scott Joplin is one example as is the current production of Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White by Alice Childress, a play about miscegenation set in the American South (circa 1918) near the end of the First World War. 

Not unlike Edith Wharton’s play, Shadow of a Doubt, now on at the Shaw Festival, the critics inform us that it is “a forgotten script” and “a great play that seemed to be lost (but now) is found.” Forgotten, lost or found by whom? 

In the case of Childress and many other Black writers, these polite euphemisms would suggest an unaccountable accident of some kind that might be treated with a small drop of iodine and a band-aid rather than properly dressing the gaping wound of institutional racism. The reason for the play’s disappearance was not because of an unintentional memory blip that occurred somewhere along the line or a mislaid manuscript that got filed away incorrectly on some dusty archival shelf (which apparently was the case for the Wharton play). It was more an aggregate litany of offense typified by the 1994 New York Times obituary for Childress that referred to her as a novelist. To be fair, according to the Stratford Festival program notes, the obituary did note that Childress wrote “some plays.” No, there is accountability here and attention must be paid.

Wedding Band has been around for a long time. I taught it in class while teaching a high school survey course on the history of the American theatre in the 1970s and found it readily available by way of anthologies of the period. As text it is a powerful script to read with students, but seeing it brought to the stage in Sam White’s enthralling production, one is brought literally to tears.

Alice Childress has most recently enjoyed success in Canada by way of the Shaw Festival’s production of Trouble in Mind during the 2021 season where it was a breakout hit directed by Philip Akin. Earlier this year in a co-production with Royal Manitoba Theatre and the Citadel Theatre it was equally successful.

The question remains: why has it taken so long to see these works brought to the stage? Trouble in Mind follows a play-within-a-play structure that sees the fictitious, “Chaos in Belleville,” about Black sharecroppers in the southern U.S., written by a white playwright and directed by a white director, run into problems when the actor playing the lead role (the character of Wiletta) balks at the false cultural stereotypes and phony plot line in the script that has a Black mother giving up her son to white vigilantes. When she expresses her concerns to the director and the cast, trouble begins. 

Childress, who never lived to see her play reach the stage, played out this process in real time. She would have been the first Black woman to have a play presented on Broadway (before Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun) had she not remained firm in her commitment not to make substantial changes in the script demanded by her producer that would have given a happier ending for Broadway audiences.

As the playwright herself put it: “The commercial world is very smart. They know the place from which rejection will come. If you show your work to that place where finance will be provided – they know what they’re doing. Discrimination, racism, prejudice is not what is called a loose cannon. It’s a well organized thing.”

Lest we think the whole problem revolved around a disagreement between a temperamental playwright and her producer, there is a much broader question that needs to be addressed as well and that is, the cultural hegemony that has established a canon of work within American dramatic literature that excludes Black playwrights while clearly demarcating the field in favor of the plays by white writers such as Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee (to name a few) while marginalizing work by Black writers including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin and Ntozake Shange. 

For a deeper insight into this epistomological debate, one might want to reference Toni Morrison’s cogent critique of the American literary canon, Playing in the Dark, Whiteness in the Literary Imagination.

The theatre has always been a rather small tent and the queue is lengthy. It is only since the death of George Floyd and organized movements such as Black Lives Matter which preceded it, that the issue has gained momentum in recent history as evidenced by the manifesto in the form of a letter entitled: “We See You White American Theatre” (June, 2020) written by the WSYWAT collective. The posting attracted 80,000 unique visitors and garnered 50,000 signatories from allies within the first 24 hours of its appearance.

This may be part of the motivation as to why we are seeing excellent productions such as Wedding Band and James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner this season at Stratford and Shaw respectively. Their time has come, but not without a struggle.

Wedding Band is a play that needs to move right along even as it takes its time with the initial set up of the story line. Sam White’s effective staging using a functional set at one end of the theatre and the audience on three sides, provides for a smooth flow from interior to exterior scenes with minimal set change and easy use of entrances-exits at all four corners of the theatre. The pacing is kept swift by way of dialog as well as blocking. One would think she had been accustomed to working in the space for years rather than this being her inaugural outing directing at Stratford.

The other very interesting thing about Wedding Band is the play’s construction. Younger playwrights might want to take note. Childress’s script calls for 12 actors in a play that is structured in two acts. This is a large cast with carefully delineated characters in a day and age that seldom sees more than 6 or 7 actors in a new play. The other very clever thing about the play’s structure is that two of these actors, who are absolutely crucial to the play’s climactic ending, do not appear on stage until late into the second act. This is not only a masterful ploy by the playwright, it is also something that we seldom see on our contemporary stages. But there it is, and it works beautifully although sorrowfully in the play’s final resolve. I’ll say no more at this point because this is a late season review of a show that has already gotten raves. When you see it, you’ll know why.

I have been reviewing Canadian theatre now for more years than I should admit to. This was brought home to me by the Festival’s revival of Michel Tremblay’s classic Les Belles-Soeurs this season. Although I have not yet seen the revival (it plays at the Festival Theatre through October 28), I did review the English language premiere of this Quebecois play about spirited working class women in East End Montreal when it opened at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre in 1973! A much impressed young critic wrote then: “Les Belles-Soeurs must be the most progressive work the St. Lawrence Centre has attempted this season and, as such, they should be applauded for it. The opening night audience showed their appreciation by responding warmly with a standing ovation and bravos for the director and the playwright.”

Boasting 12 productions and 145 actors this season, the Stratford Festival is unrivaled as North America’s largest repertory theatre company. I can say unequivocally that this season’s company is one of the finest assembled in recent memory. As many theaters across North America lay off employees, put their season’s on pause or shutter completely, the Stratford Festival carries on with a youthful energy and an invigorating vibrance that augurs well for its future. 

The spirit of the tent lives on.

Yours truly circa 1973, Toronto

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