The 2014 Stratford Festival: The Plays, part 1

In my last post I outlined some of the fun adventures I had at the Stratford Festival this year. Today I’m going to take a closer look at four of the Shakespeare productions I saw, starting with King Lear, starring Colm Feore. 



I am a very technically-focused and analytical theatre-goer, so I very rarely lose myself entirely in a play. This doesn’t diminish my enjoyment (in fact, I think it enhances it) but it does mean I am rarely moved to tears by what I see on stage. And I’m not going to go so far as to say Feore’s Lear made me cry, but there was definitely something in the air that made my eyes a bit itchy.



If I am slow to cry, I am quick to laugh, especially when an actor finds humor in a line or situation that I otherwise would never have considered humorous. The case of King John, especially Graham Abbey’s wry and swaggering Bastard, managed to unearth every latent laugh in what, on the surface anyways, appears to be a somewhat dour history play. I enjoyed myself tremendously, much more than I had anticipated. 



The joy of going to a repertory company like the Stratford Festival for numerous years is that you see each actor in numerous different roles, and become familiar with different facets of their talent and stage presence. One of things that has always enamored Geraint Wyn Davies to me is his propensity to utilize his native Welsh accent. (As a proud, if somewhat diluted 1/32nd Welsh patriot, I am particularly susceptible to Welsh accents.) I hasten to point out that Mr. Wyn Davies’s excellent Antony showed few signs of hailing from across the Severn… but I kind of wish he had. 



Director Chris Abraham’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream could have been expressly designed to push every single button possessed by Shakespearean purists. It plays with the text, adding lines to establish a framing device setting the play as an entertainment put on to celebrate the wedding of a gay couple. Lysander is played by a woman and as a woman, making Hermia’s father’s objection to his daughter’s marriage a comment on marriage equality. Titania is played as a woman, but by one of two rather muscular men.

There are cell phones, pop songs, food fights, sight gags, and an on-stage pond that numerous people fall into. It’s cluttered and overwhelming and OH MY GOODNESS IT IS SO MUCH FUN. I have never been a particular fan of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, apart from the Pyramus and Thisbe bit, but this production instantly won a place in my heart. It is so full of joy, so full of fun, and is such an open celebration of love that, appropriately enough, I fell in love with it.

If you want “traditional” Shakespeare (whatever that might be), this is probably not the production for you. But if you want A LOT OF PURE, UNADULTERATED FUN wrapped up in a Shakespeare-shaped package, I can’t think of a better thing to do than to see this show. 

…..

Is that enough gushing for now? Check back on Friday when I’ll take a look at some of the non-Shakespearean productions. Also, take a look at my other Stratford Festival comics

The 2014 Stratford Festival: My Experience

I’m back from the Stratford Festival! Wow, those are six of the saddest words in my vocabulary. As anyone who followed my adventures on Twitter can attest, I had a simply marvelous time. Here are the comics I posted on various social media thingummys last week, with added commentary:



I love walking along the river in Stratford. Appropriately enough, it is called the River Avon, and, also appropriately enough, it is full of swans. And ducks. And geese. And seagulls. One of my favorite things to do is to find people who are engaged in feeding the birds and watching the subsequent swarming and panicked retreat. 



Right before the first show of my season (The Beaux’ Stratagem), the Festival’s director of communications, David Prosser, invited me to the administrative offices up to say hello. He treated me to refreshments on the green room patio. While we were chatting I saw several of my most revered Stratford actors appear on the patio, people whose work I have adored from afar (or at least from Row H) for decades. Naturally, as is my wont in such situations, I tried my best to pretend they were not there.

I’m such an idiot. 



This marked the halfway point in my Stratford sojourn. Let me just go through them one by one….

  1. The Festival copy machines looks pretty much like any other copy machines. But imagine the cool stuff they get to copy!
  2. Going to Stratford is like having a free licence to buy any Shakespeare-related books I can get my hands on, either from the excellent Fanfare Books downtown, or from the Festival’s various theatre stores. 
  3. Having communicated with the estimable Ladies of Angiers on Twitter, I finally plucked up the courage to go to the stage door and meet Actual Actors in person. To my relief, surprise, and delight, they turned out to be wonderfully warm ans generous people, and were very patient to put up with my endless gushing. On this occasion the third Lady of Angiers had scarpered off before I reached the door, but I caught her later on in my visit.
  4. The jelly bean assault happened halfway through a production of Alice Through the Looking Glass, in which cast members romped up and down the aisles, hurling packets of jelly beans into the audience with great force and accuracy. 
  5. Appropriately enough, the skies opened up on the day I saw King Lear. I got drenched once, while fetching lunch from York Street Kitchen, and then, after a change of clothes, got partially drenched again while walking to the theatre. I had wet socks through all of the first act. 
  6. During the same performance of King Lear, one of those “live theatre” things happened and a speaker went haywire, filling the auditorium with static. It was the scene when Lear is confronting Regan and Goneril right before rushing out into the building storm, so for a while the audience wondered if it was just very poor sound design. Fortunately it was only a few minutes before intermission. The actors soldiered bravely on, not batting an eye or missing a beat, and the techies fixed the issue during intermission. 


I think this comic best sums up my relationship with theatre. I’m a very analytical and self-aware theatre-goer, with the result that I hardly ever cry during performances. However, I often get itchy-eyed after a particularly good show, when I realize that I will never, ever see it and experience it again

This season’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was such a fantastic show, so fun, vivacious, and brimming of joy, life and happiness, that it made me extremely miserable for the rest of the day. That’s just about the highest praise I can have for a show.



In recent years the Stratford Festival has organized a season-long Forum with numerous theatre-related events, including question and answer sessions with actors, a variety of workshops and demonstrations, and readings of plays both new and old. The result is that I spent 80% of my waking hours in Stratford sitting and watching fantastic performances, and the other 20% rushing from one performance to another. It’s hard work, going to the theatre, but somebody’s got to do it. 



This was probably one of the best Stratford Festival seasons that I can remember. It was so good that this next week is bound to be totally miserable for me as I suffer theatre withdrawal. 

Special thanks to all the actors who took the time to chat with me at the stage door, especially Brigit Wilson, Karack Osborn, Carmen Grant and Deidre Gillard-Rowlings, with whom I’ve exchanged random tweets and about ten minutes of real-life conversation, which I’m pretty sure makes us Best Friends Forever in this day and age.  Also, thanks to Scott Wentworth and Seana McKenna, for putting up with my starry-eyed gushing when I finally did meet them. Cheers especially to the Tom Patterson Theatre cast, most of whom had to put up with me ambushing them outside the stage door and garbling incoherent praise at them when I’m sure they’d much rather have been elsewhere.

Stop by again on Wednesday, when I’ll be reviewing the plays themselves in more depth. 

A Valid Question


"What about going home? Going home sounds like a feasible option."

I’m spending most of next week at the Stratford Festival. In order to decompress (as well as get caught up on several massively overdue projects - I’m hoping the two are not mutually incompatible), I will not be posting new comics here next week. However, I’m planning on uploading random sketches and observations to my Facebook and Twitter accounts, so if you’re not following me on one or the other already, this is a good time to do so. 

Have a good week! I’ll be back on August 25th, simultaneously recharged by a week of excellent theatre and disconsolate that it is over. 

Theatre Withdrawal

This has been my last seven days…



The great thing about going to theatre festivals for an extended period of time is that you can totally immerse yourself in the theatre-going experience. The bad thing about going to theatre festivals for an extended period of time is that, eventually, you have to leave and return to the real world. This is never a pleasant experience.

Fortunately I only have one week of real world to tolerate before I escape to the Shaw and Stratford theatre festivals. Watch out, Canada, I’m coming for you!

The Ohio Light Opera in 3 Panels, part 2

I have just returned from my annual jaunt to the Ohio Light Opera. Last Friday I posted three-panel summaries of the first three plays I saw there, and today I am inflicting four more of them on you.



Everybody knows My Fair Lady, right? Right?



This is possibly the weirdest and most hysterical operetta I have ever seen - and I’ve seen a lot of weird operettas. Composed by Victor Herbert, the first act is a pretty disjointed collection of comic scenes and songs. However, the real pay-off is in the second act, when, for no apparent reason, the entire cast puts on a half-hour spoof of Wagnerian grand opera, complete with magic swan, ponderously self-important music, and totally inane lyrics. 

Take it from me: you haven’t truly lived until you’ve seen an entire operatic chorus bellow “TAN TA RA TA TA TA TA BING BING!” at full volume. 

That was one of the best half hours of my life. I am in mourning now, because I will, in all probability, never again see such a masterclass in egregious over-acting again in my lifetime. It was a thing of beauty and a joy forever. 



You might have seen the 1953 film version of this musical, starring Ethel Merman. If you haven’t you ought to. It’s a lot of fun, and has some classic Irving Berlin tunes in it, such as “The Hostess with the Mostes’” and “You’re Just In Love”. 

Incidentally, the alternate version of this strip is as follows:

  1. Kenneth sings “It’s a lovely day today”.
  2. Kenneth sings “It’s a lovely day today” again.
  3. Kenneth sings “It’s a lovely day today” and the audience members have to have the tune forcibly removed from their ears.

Seriously, the guy will not stop singing that song



With music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse, this prime example of early American musical theatre relies heavily on a non-stop stampede of hijinks, misunderstandings and mistaken identities. You know… like most Shakespearean comedies.

Anyways, if you’re in the Midwest I highly encourage you to check out the Ohio Light Opera next summer. Because it’s SO MUCH FUN.

The Ohio Light Opera in 3 Panels, part 1

I’m on vacation this week, partying it up in Wooster, OH at the Ohio Light Opera! As I’ve mentioned before, I am a lifelong fan of light opera in (almost) all its forms, and I’m having a grand time indulging in a solid week of abnormal people singing very loudly about things that normal people wouldn’t sing loudly about.

For those of you unfamiliar with light opera, I am summarizing this season’s performances in my now-traditional three-panel mode. (Apologies for the image quality - the perils of working on the road. I will clean them up when I return home.)

The Little King (in 3 Panels)



Emmerich Kalman’s Der Kleine König  tends to take itself a bit seriously for my tastes, and is sadly lacking in the glorious Kalman gypsy csardas that we all expect from him, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that the main plot point involves an opera singer attempting to assisinate the King of Portugal with a bomb hidden in a bouquet of roses. I mean… how awesome is that?

The Pirates of Penzance (in 3 Panels)



I had this entirety of The Pirates of Penzance memorized when I was about four years old, and would run around the house singing “WITH CAT-LIKE TREAD” over and over again. Surprisingly, I was not disowned.  I eventually fulfilled my childhood ambition to be a pirate by sneaking into the underpopulated men’s chorus of my college’s Gilbert and Sullivan society’s production, where I sported the most charming penciled-on piratical beard ever seen on stage.

Die Fledermaus (in 3 Panels)



Seriously, I am in love with this show. It was, I believe, the first thing I ever saw in a theatre, at the tender age of three. I then watched the Covent Garden video of the gala performance with Kiri Te Kenawa over and over and over again. To this day, the only German phrases I know come directly from the libretto of Die Fledermaus.

Tune in again on Monday, when I will inflict four more three-panel operetta summaries on you! But just you wait. They’ll be worth it…

A Mid-Burmese-Lesson’s Dream

Two years ago I took a summer course in Burmese language at the Southeast Asian Studies Summer Institute in Wisconsin. It was great, but in the intervening two years my fledgling Burmese skills have deteriorated sharply, due to me not keeping up with my studies and having no one else to talk to in Burmese. So I decided to give myself a quick refresher by listening to Burmese By Ear, an audio course covering all the conversational basics. Everything was fine until we got to Unit Ten. 



Now, given how many of my waking hours are spent thinking about Shakespeare, it’s not unheard of for me to hear Shakespearean references where there are none. However, this time it wasn’t me. This entire section featured Demetrius, Hermia, Helena and Lysander very politely asking each other what their names were. It was surreal.

And then, of course, I got so distracted by this that I had to listen to the lesson over again, because I wasn’t paying attention: I was imagining A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in Burma and trying to decide if Bottom would remain an ass or if a water buffalo head would be more appropriate. (Final verdict: he would remain an ass, so as not to infringe on the Bago Nat's territory.)

Operetta Bingo

I am intensely fond of all things Shakespearean, but my first theatrical love was operetta, those fluffy, lyrical stage confections that aren’t quite operas but haven’t evolved into musicals. My parents took me to a local production of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus when I was three years old (I fell asleep in Act 3), followed shortly afterwards by a trip to the Stratford Festival to see their Pirates of Penzance. I was hooked.

Fortunately for me, the Ohio Light Opera is not too long a drive away from my home. Now in its 36th year, OLO’s mission is to perform as many random operettas, light operas, comic operas and early musicals as possible. I have been going there for almost my entire life and shall be driving down again this week to get my annual operetta fix. 

To celebrate, I’ve put together a small bingo sheet covering some of the most common (and beloved) operetta tropes. If you are going to see an operetta anytime soon, print out a copy and take it along. Just please don’t shout “BINGO” in the middle of the performance.



The sausage roll song, incidentally, is from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Grand Duke. This will probably not be the last time Gilbert and Sullivan is featured on this blog…

Ira Glass and the History of Shakespearean Criticism

So, as everyone knows, earlier this week NPR radio star Ira Glass ignited a firestorm by daring to voice his opinion about Shakespeare, writing the following tweets:




Unsurprisingly, the pro-Shakespeare crowd has been having a field day with this. As the world’s leading (i.e. probably the world’s the only) Shakesperean webcomic blogger, I feel obliged to address the matter. So here…



It’s like chocolate. Some people don’t like chocolate - I think they’re crazy, and they don’t know what they’re missing, but I’m certainly not going to argue with them about it. It’s a personal thing. People have been busy disliking Shakespeare for centuries, but Shakespeare is still here. And so is chocolate. I happen to think the world is a better place because both of those things exist, but people are free to disagree with me. 

Basically, my only quarrel with Mr. Glass is the utterly pedestrian terms he uses to attack Shakespeare. “Shakespeare sucks” is such a bland and banal statement when compared to George Bernard Shaw’s devastating “it would positively be a relief to me to dig [Shakespeare] up and throw stones at him.” If you’re going to criticize Shakespeare, do it with emphatically and with some flair. 

Blackout

So, I was planning to do a witty piece commenting on the entertaining “Ira Glass thinks Shakespeare sucks" kerfuffle that has been raging across Shakespearean social media accounts, but then the electricity at my house went out. So you have this instead:



In case you’re wondering what other Shakespearean quotes work well during power outages, I can also recommend shrieking “Come, thick night, and pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell!” Just be forewarned - this tends to alarm people.