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Christopher Plummer's controlled despair

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Distinguished alumni continue to return to the Stratford Festival to make its 50th anniversary season stellar indeed.

            Alumnus Brent Carver, a Tony Award-winner for Kiss of the Spider Woman, returns to Stratford in the world premiere of Timothy Findley's play, Shadows. Findley, an actor in the first 1953 company at Stratford, later became a well-known author and contributed such splendid plays to Stratford's repertory as The Stillborn Lover (1995) and Elizabeth Rex (2000); tragically, he died on June 20.

            Christopher Plummer, perhaps Stratford's most famous alumnus with more than 100 films and multiple Tony and Emmy Awards to his credit, returns in his first King Lear at Stratford.

            And taking over from Colm Feore as Higgins in My Fair Lady,Geraint Wyn Davies was greeted by a contingent from the international fan clubs he has won with television stardom in shows like "Forever Knight."

Triumphant as Stratford Artistic Director Richard Monette's My Fair Ladyhas been from the first, it is now warmer, richer, and even more crowd-pleasing with Wyn Davies' sparkling performance as Professor Higgins and his romantic interaction with Cynthia Dale's exquisite Eliza Doolittle. It was therefore a great pleasure to see the show again.

            I haven't seen Wyn Davies since his dashing Henry V at Stratford in 1989. He remains handsome and charismatic, and his potent vocal technique gets a workout and showcase in Do Not Go Gentle, a play about fellow Welshman, poet Dylan Thomas, written by fellow Stratford acting alumnus Leon Pownall.

            Unfortunately, Davis was able to squeeze only three evenings of this play into the current season. But I'm told that he has traveled widely, performing it in various cities, so it's certainly worth looking for any of his performances you might catch. And you can see him in My Fair Lady through September 14, after which director Richard Monette, no less, takes the role until November 24.

            The two new Canadian plays added last weekend are Celia McBride's Walk Right Up and the aforementioned Shadows.

Walk Right Up introduces us to a family which is working hard to move up to dysfunctional. Millar Ruskin, the demanding, wheelchair-bound father (played by Paul Soles) has evidently had a stroke, talks out of the side of his rigid mouth, and can't walk. His wife Lily (Elizabeth Shepherd) is insufferably controlling but also seems to be suffering occasional Alzheimer's-like total losses of control.

            Their caregiver daughter, Poet (nicknamed --- properly --- "Pill"), is leaving to take an acting job. Kimwun Perehinec plays Poet/Pill perhaps too accurately. Their other daughter, a designer named Ella (Brenda Robins), is scheduled to take over their care but tries to pay her brother, a dope-addicted loser named Brilliant, to replace her as caretaker. Brilliant, played by young actor/playwright Damien Atkins, is pitiable but likable. I found all the other characters to be much in need of bashing with a two by four, but the actors did all they could to make them sympathetic.

           

Shadowsis much more polished and complex, but it eventually drowns in its own cleverness. A first-rate cast --- Carver and Perehinec, Stephen Ouimette, Gordon Rand, Chick Reid, Brenda Robins, and Karen Robinson --- play out a series of derivative "truth games" at a dinner party mostly attended by theater types.

            Then we find out that they aren't playing for real, but are all would-be playwrights pretending and dredging up a whole lot of well-known lines and moments from other plays as examples of stories they've invented. Then they say that these inventions are their true lives. There are self-conscious references to good plays, but ... aren't you already getting tired of reading this account of the thing?

Director Jonathan Miller has a tendency to reinterpret classics, usually in the opposite direction from their creators' intentions --- like his willfully static and unfunny The Taming of the Shrew seen as a study of Puritanism in Elizabethan England. He's got some political ideas in his King Lear, but fortunately plays it fairly straight and spares us a funny, relaxed version. Nonetheless, with the exception of Barry MacGregor's mincing, unintelligible Cockney Fool, the play's emotions do seem to be understated.

            You can get a knockout illustration of versatility in repertory playing by seeing James Blendick's romp through the role of Doolittle in My Fair Lady and then his dignified, tragic Gloucester in this Lear. But somehow, even with Gloucester's faithful son Edgar and treacherous bastard son Edmund played rather lumpishly by Evan Buliung and Maurice Godin, respectively, I'd expect Blendick to be more moving in the role.

            Even Christopher Plummer's passionate Lear isn't especially affecting. True, the key to the King's emotional play in this drama is his relationship with his daughter Cordelia, and Sarah McVie is not only emotionally inadequate as Cordelia; she's not yet learned to make her character even interesting.

            Benedict Campbell's well-spoken Kent and Stephen Russell's commanding, hot-tempered Cornwall are effective. Brian Tree makes the slimy Oswald more memorable than larger roles. And both Domini Blythe as Goneril and Lucy Peacock as Regan play Lear's daughters as grasping, scary, and evil, yet maintain a queenly femininity.

            But it is Lear who must justify this often rambling and mechanical tragedy as a compelling portrait of manly and kingly power in decline. Plummer certainly has the King's requisite stature, the vocal power in his anger and rants, the gorgeously expressive face --- a picture of haggard frustration and despair, and a suppliant posture that can alternate with flashing rage, his aristocratic head held high. But Lear's defiant howls against the storm, his fury and his despair seem too controlled and almost pulled back. With Plummer's talent and physical gifts, I want more from him and suspect that later audiences will get more.

Stratford Festival: Alan J. Lerner & Frederick Loewe's My Fair Lady at the Festival Theatreto November 24; Celia McBride's Walk Right Up and Timothy Findley's Shadows at the Studio Theatre to Sept. 15; Shakespeare's King Lear at the Festival Theatre to November 3. www.stratfordfestival.ca 1-800-567-1600.

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