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Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000) 269-272
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The 1999 Stratford Festival
The 1999 Stratford Festival. Stratford, Ontario, Canada. 20-22 July 1999.
Stratford at the millennium is running in the black. After several years of red ink in the early 1990s, Artistic Director Richard Monette has the Stratford Festival turning a profit. Operating in a competitive economic environment, Monette has parlayed popular musicals, Shakespeare's "greatest hits," and Stratford's middle of the road interpretations into a profit-making operation. During his six years as Artistic Director at Stratford, Monette has built on the Festival's strengths in ensemble acting and design while avoiding controversial interpretations and emphasizing a kind of popular theatricality. The four productions I attended exhibited Stratford's hallmarks: strong casting throughout, high quality design with high-tech effects, and generally conservative play selection and interpretation. While some critics lament the Festival's descent into middle-class after-dinner entertainment, Monette has also been keeping innovation alive and is building for the future. For example, the recently established Stratford Conservatory for Classical Theatre Training, the long-awaited Canadian acting school, has begun to feed new talent into the Festival's troupe which is still anchored by highly-skilled but aging veterans like Martha Henry, Brian Bedford, and William Hutt. By establishing the acting school and selecting contemporary Canadian plays like the innovative Glenn, Monette is keeping Stratford's long-time promise to develop Canadian talent. Commerce is serving art.
While my longing for adventurous interpretation and staging was unfulfilled by productions like West Side Story and A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Stratford Festival's two "cash cow" productions, The Tempest and Glenn offered real theatrical excitement. West Side Story, staged in the proscenium arch Avon Theatre, proved a sturdy commercial vehicle. Its music, attacked vigorously by Berthold Carrière and the resident Stratford orchestra, and Jerome Robbins's choreography worked to give a kind of jagged urban energy to the production. A set with shifting panels simulated cinematic fades, effectively moving the audience's eye to emphasize ironic juxtaposition and pathetic tableaux. For example, in the concluding sequence the panels moved the audience from the innocence of Maria's bedroom where, "feeling pretty," she basked in her love for Tony, to the carnage under the highway, the rewards of hyper-machismo and gang violence frozen in stark light. Staged at the Festival Theatre, A Midsummer Night's Dream was effectively designed and competently acted, though it had few surprises, apart from some of the comic business in the Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-a-play. Brian Bedford gave the audience what it came for with his enthusiastic Bottom-Pyramus, and Michael Therriault performed hilariously as Flute-Thisbe. Juan Chioran's Oberon looked suitably dominant in his blue-feathered costume but neither he nor Seanna McKenna as Titania could spark any fire into their conflicts. This Dream worked like a clever machine without a soul.
The Tempest and Glenn did, however, spark theatrical excitement, though for quite different reasons. In the case of The Tempest at the Festival Theatre, excitement came in the subtle and subdued form of William Hutt's Prospero. Director Richard Monette repressed his own highly theatrical style--usually filled with up-tempo performances, visual comedy, and moments of startling theatrical technical effects--to spotlight Hutt, a monument in Canadian theatre, now nearing the end of his illustrious career. Designed in muted cream and brown tones and filled with low-key performances in most of the supporting roles, this Tempest focused on the text and Prospero's central role as prime mover of the dramatic action. Like a massive marble sculpture, Hutt stayed center stage much of the time and used his vocal dynamics to establish a commanding presence. In the long opening narrative to the sleepy Miranda, Hutt seemed a mellow Prospero, keeping under cover the character's profound anger at the usurpers and courtiers now under his spell. With the slightest hand gesture, the turning up of his palm, and subtle comic delivery, Hutt brought new...