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A closer look at three Stratford plays

STRATFORD, Ont. – Here, on July 13, 1953, Sir Alec Guinness strode to a stage in the middle of a large tent and spoke these immortal lines from William Shakespeare’s “Richard III:” “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York.” Was this to be folly or fortune? The start of something big in this sputtering old railroad town in western pastoral Ontario,  a one-shot hope, a midsummer night’s dream?

Now, 63 successful seasons later, worries have proven unfounded for the once-risky venture now known as the Stratford Festival. Yet, inventive artistic director, Antonio Cimolino, wonders aloud like the Bard’s Prince of Denmark: “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

Here’s a capsule look at three major Stratford productions of this 2015 season:

“Hamlet”

Festival Theatre to Oct. 11

Rating: ∆∆∆∆ (Out of four)

William Shakespeare’s longest work, a tragedy, “Hamlet,” the world’s most performed play, written circa 1603, probably the most analyzed story ever written, is a tale adapted to every possible genre, spoofed, glorified, the source of ballets, movies and operas.

“Hamlet” is difficult to summarize but I’ve always liked Sir James Barrie’s sweet and motherly Wendy Darling’s review, she of “Peter Pan” and caretaker of the Lost Boys, who ask her to tell them stories – “Cinderella,” “Snow White” or, important to us here, “Hamlet” – “ … umm,” Wendy begins, “well, Hamlet dies, and the king dies, and the queen dies, and Ophelia dies, and Laertes dies … but everybody who’s left lives happily after!” Seems right to me.

Cimolino directs this Shakespearian masterpiece brilliantly, completely in control, tying together seamlessly the series of huge dramatic moments that mark this chronicle of loss and hate, revenge, power-grabs and madness. Discovery moments? There are terrible ones and they multiply rapidly, giving rock-star Hamlet – played wonderfully well by one of Stratford’s young stars, Jonathan Goad – a witty, agile and likable kingly heir who goes conniving and murderous quickly and with possible understandable motive, little chance to sleep, much less to dream.

Goad is aided by a powerful cast: Seana McKenna, Geraint Wyn-Davies (a courtly yet sinister Claudius), Mike Shara, Adrienne Gould and Tom Rooney, who gives the doomed Polonius  lighthearted minutes. In fact, this “Hamlet” actually emits smiles on occasion. Different.

A watchable, understandable tale of woe.

“The Taming of the Shrew”

Festival Theatre to Oct. 10

Rating: ∆∆∆½

“I’m no child, no babe … ,” says Katherina, aka Kate, in Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” a play seldom lauded and mostly reviled since its bow. This is the confusing story of “Kate the Cursed,” the angry and intimidating, spitting, biting banshee daughter of Baptista, a rich merchant of Padua. Baptista very much wants to marry off Kate – she’s a handful – but he thinks that he must do so before he does the same for younger sister Bianca. Plenty of suitors for Bianca. Nary a one for Kate except a stranger named Petruchio who vows to “tame” the unruly one. Otherwise, no takers.

So, that’s the story, one that director Chris Abraham is retelling on Stratford’s mainstage in commedia del arte style, with zanies galore, pantaloons in style, phallic symbols everywhere, disguise rampant, misogynism rampant.

Feminists howl everywhere “Shrew” plays – the “taming” concept, the infamous play-ending speech by Kate of surrender and her paean to male dominance. But here, Deborah Hay’s Kate is such a pistol that there seems no possible way that she could be serious. She falls in love, yes, but to me she dupes the entire male company, including Petruchio, whose reverse psychology, sleep-deprivation and starvation tactics seemed to have worked. Hah. Scam time. And to think an interpretation like this has taken from 1593 to evolve. Another Cimolino “discovery” moment.

Hay is marvelous. Superb others include Ben Carlson, Peter Hutt, Mike Shara and the tumbling tandem of Tom Rooney and Gordon S. Miller (although their antics get a little tedious, truth be known). Director Abraham has kept “The Induction” scene, minutes sometimes omitted. “Shrew” is fun, but leans toward the overdone.

“The Physicist”

Tom Patterson Theatre to Sept. 20.

Rating: ∆∆∆½

Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt wrote “The Physicist” in 1961 and it had a token run on Broadway in 1964. It has been rarely seen since; several theater critics over the years have said that Durrenmatt’s plays have been “admired more than revived.”

But, Miles Potter has directed a strangely appealing, often comical – if sometimes scarily violent version of the Durrenmatt work, a wordy, thought-provoking story of three scientists, an “elegiac trio,”  all pretending to be insane so to be able to think and calculate and ponder at their will – locked away in an asylum with what they say are “secrets too terrible to know.” Little do they do that their madwoman supervisor is on to their ruse and plans to take their work – nuclear theories, universal particles, doomsday stuff – and use it for “world domination.”

So, it’s all about scientific ethics and responsibilities … with plenty of gallows humor and some Dr. Strangelove philosophy. Graham Abbey, Seana McKenna, Geraint Wyn-Davies, Mike Nadajewski and Claire Lautier are featured.

It’s slick and intriguing.

For info on plays, tickets and directions: go to stratfordfestival.ca or (800) 567-1600.

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