Monday, June 21, 2010

The Play’s the Thing – Part 2

After we married, my husband and I continued to migrate to central Ontario each summer to visit Stratford and see his old school buddies strut and fret their hours upon the stage. Over the years, we saw an amazing array of shows, some plays many times, each one fresh and different in its interpretation. I loved the elaborate costumes, fantastic sets but, above all, the actors.

It has always amazed me that people can learn so many lines, let alone remember where to stand and deliver them. Oh, sure, I went to school in the days when ‘memory work’ was de rigueur. In public school we were required to memorize 500 lines a year, from any selection of poetry and keep track of them in a little booklet. We never knew when the teacher would pluck us out of the crowd and put us on the spot in front of the whole class. To this day, although there isn’t much call for this sort of thing, I can recite the entire poem: 'How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix', by Robert Browning, although I have no idea where Ghent or Aix are, nor do I recall what that good news was.

But to be able to memorize dialogue, which goes back and forth, and to have to act it out effectively, is quite another matter. I stand in awe. I have absolutely no talent for this kind of thing whatsoever. I harbor no illusions. In university, the closest I ever got to the stage was helping out behind it, painting a lot of scenery and designing programs. Once, I was asked to fire a starter’s pistol backstage, at a crucial moment in a play, and I was a complete wreck during the entire evening until I finally got to press the trigger. With what I went through, you’d think I had sung an entire aria at the Met. (I’m sure Renee Fleming knows whereof I speak).

Over the years I have sat in the Avon or Festival theatres and enjoyed Maggie Smith and Brian Bedford bantering Noel Coward’s dialogue in 'Private Lives' and Peter Ustinov not going gently in 'King Lear', Bill Hutt as a man or woman in everything from Shakespeare to Wilde, the young Christopher Plummer, and now, the eminent senior trodding the boards, this very summer, as Prospero. Maybe next year he’ll be back as King Lear, himself, a part that all great actors tackle before they shuffle off their mortal coils.

If you are interested in checking out the list of astounding actors who have put aside their film careers to spend a summer up in rural Ontario exercising their chops, check out the list: You won’t find Maggie Smith on it, but don’t worry, I have already written to their archivist to correct this serious omission. It might shock you to learn which TV actors and movie stars either spent their formative years on those stages or, later, came back to remember why they became actors in the first place!

And the productions! Was there anything as gorgeous as the Stratford production of ‘The Mikado’? As hysterical as ‘Satyricon’? As magical as ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’? (Pick a production, any production of this fantastical play…..they all delighted and entertain over the decades, although I must reserve my highest praise for the Peter Brook version, which breezed through the O’Keefe Centre in the early 70’s and changed theatre, and Shakespeare, forever). 'Into the Woods’, a musical which I had seen so many times I thought there were no more surprises in store for me, was astounding. I loved being wrong. And this year’s production of ‘The Tempest’ not only brings back the imperial Plummer but includes an Avatar by the name of Julyana Soelistyo for whom the role of Ariel was obviously created. Shakespeare must be dancing in his grave.

Admittedly, over the years, he might also have had a few spins there, too. Sometimes they miss the mark. As far as I’m concerned, I’m not crazy about Fascist footwork in the midst of a 1920’s interpretation of a 15thC. comedy pretending to take place in the forests of ancient Greece, but that’s just me. A lot of the modern dress versions don’t appeal to me, come to think of it. Hearing all that poetry pronounced by people traipsing around in track suits just doesn’t make sense to me, although I do recall a charming production of “Much Ado” set in pastoral England of a more recent century, so it’s not that I need to see a lot of farthingales and doublets to get the point of the play. It’s just that are they are so much prettier than tee shirts or Nazi uniforms, especially when they are velvety and lacy. What can I say?

I also hate when all the costumes are brown.

While I’m talking about costumes, as an added treat to seeing a performance or two, you can book a tour of the costume warehouse, a building only slightly smaller than an airplane hangar, on the outskirts of town (ie. two blocks from the main street). It is something to see, filled with racks and racks of outfits, hats and props from every century from over fifty years of productions. I have taken my high school field trippers there many times and the kids go crazy trying on the outfits and taking pictures of each other dressed as King Henry the Vee-Eye-Eye-Eye or Ophelia. It’s quite shocking to see the physical and even emotional makeover that a young boy goes through when he dons a doublet and plumed hat and regards himself in a long mirror. His right foot juts out, he leans his shoulders back a little and cocks his head jauntily. The centuries fall away and he is instantly transformed into Romeo right before your eyes. (And before the eyes of the girls in the class, who formerly thought he was a nebbish). Clothes do make the man!

If you want to get a real feel for what this place is all about, you should watch the excellent TV series, 'Slings and Arrows', created by the adorable and talented Canadian actor/writer/producer Paul Gross. The English department teachers at my old school used to sneak off into a darkened classroom on Fridays, at lunch, to watch it on the VCR and delight themselves at the end of a typically bleak work- week. Mr. Gross, a noted Stratford Hamlet, in his day, swaggers around impressively through three seasons, which parody the goings-on-about a small town and a festival that seems suspiciously familiar. It deserves a wider audience.

Every year, the company at Stratford tries its best and often succeeds beyond my wildest expectations, which is why I keep going and going, I guess. There’s something so profoundly moving about sitting in the dark at an excellent production of a play that has meaning for all times, with the real live actors working right in front of you in real live 3-D, breathing and sweating and even sometimes spitting on you, that simply cannot be compared to the silver screen stuff. The energy is right there in the space, all around you.

Lest you think, perforce, that I do not hie me to other theatrical venues, for to make comparisons, let me correct that impression. I sometimes think I have seen it all, even too much....including an interminable preview performance of 'Les Mis' (or is it Miz?) in Toronto, where the entire audience thought the show was over at intermission, or wished it was. (Intermission didn't come till 10:30 p.m., so the mistake was understandable). My extensive repertoire also includes such hits as 'Homer, Sweet, Homer' which starred Yul Brynner and the wife of the producer (don't ask), 'Two by Two' (feh by feh) with Danny Kaye and Madeline Kahn, and 'Phantom' to which I was dragged when I knew better. 'Cats', seen twice, with assorted felines, which is one more time than necessary, haunts me to this day....not in a good way..jellical cats, jelli-cal cats, oh jellical cats, etc....oy! My husband and I knew we were meant for each other when we discovered we were the only two people on the planet who didn't enjoy 'Man of La Mancha', a musical without a much-needed intermission. So I could leave.

On the other hand, I have also been fortunate enough to have been dating the theatre critic for the U of T Varsity paper the year both the National Theatre Company of England and the APA Rep company from the States competed for audiences and I had to see ALL the plays. One day, Laurence Olivier in 'Dance of Death', another day Helen Hayes in 'School for Scandal'.

Have you ever seen the phenomenal show 'Pantaglieze'? With Ellis Rabb? I have! Three times. They had to 'paper the house' at the Royal Alex and I was a piece of paper all week. Memorable.

"She's got a blue tattoo,
Right on her 'you-know-who',
She's got a blue tattoo.
When she gets through with you,
You'll have a blue tattoo there, too!"

How about Sirs John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson in 'No Man's Land' by Pinter? Together! Those were the days.

A little loftier than these days, when audiences flock to enjoy 'My Mother's Gay-Lesbian-Wickken-Wedding' for a night on the town and think they've gotten their money's worth. Oh well. They'll never know. But I'm a good sport and have tried to lower my standards on occasion, if only to support an actor/friend in a questionable production.
I'd mention the names but have mercifully forgotten them.

Unforgettable, however, is my favorite, all-time theatrical experience, the Peter Brook 'Midsummer Night's Dream' at the O'Keefe Centre in 1970 or so. I am not alone in noticing its significance as a 'major influence on the contemporary stage'.
Here is a link to the review by the critic, Clive Barnes, from its opening night at the other Stratford-on-Avon, the one in England:
I don't know how to make it link automatically, so you'll have to copy into Google, but it's definitely worth your while. Too bad you can't see the play. I wish they'd revive it. Exactly the same way. (I often think it's experiences like this that make it so difficult for me to be impressed by things like 'Avatar'. Sorry, but that's the way it is).

Like the audience way back in Shakespeare’s day, I love to be surprised and delighted.
For me, the play’s definitely the thing!

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