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Mixed Bill Shakespeare festival

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This 51st season of Canada's Stratford Festival is dedicated to the recently deceased great international designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch. She set the Festival's incomparable design standards for many years, and invented Stratford's much-imitated combination Elizabethan/ancient Greek/modern thrust stage. I don't know what the outspoken Ms. Moiseiwitsch would say about the peculiar mishmash of spectacles in Stratford's opening week, but I wish she had designed them. Certainly, The Shrew would have been less silly.

            Modern sensibilities cringe at the plot of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew: A husband brainwashes his shrewish bride by starving her, terrorizing and confusing her, permitting her no sleep, and demeaning her in every way. It's not a favorite of most feminists.

            But Miles Potter directs his wife, the vibrant Seana McKenna, to remain sharpwitted throughout and "tamed" by her own clear decision to accept Petruchio's crude taming devices. She seems to be restraining a genuine attraction to him, and to welcome his offer of freedom from the family constraints that clearly infuriate her. Some of the "taming" dialogue is cut.

            And handsome Graham Abbey's empathetic Petruchio meekly takes his lumps from her without fighting back, just doggedly insisting that she must marry him. The two play the impossible final scene with such shared emotion that Katherina's groveling "I am ashamed that women are so simple" speech is almost acceptable.

            The pity of Potter's direction is that he's got the difficult relationship between two principals nearly perfect, then ruins all their fine work with a lame notion of a Wild West setting. I've seen a delightful Shrew at Stratford set in the '60s and three others that worked fairly well in modern settings, but this ill-conceived mess panders to the lowest level of entertainment without being amusing or entertaining.

            Some of Patrick Clark's designs are attractive, but several get jokey and inconsistent. Fine actors get lost in messy imitations of ill-chosen stereotypes. Wayne Best plays Petruchio's "sidekick." He's got up to look like Roy Rogers' old sidekick Gabby Hayes, but is clearly too young for the whiskers and tongue lolling. Like several others, his ludicrous attempts at an accent simply ensure that we'll never know what dialogue Shakespeare gave these characters.

            Deborah Hay is often unclear, playing Bianca as Minnie Mouse. Her shrill squeaks would scare me off faster than the shrew's abuse. Jonathan Goad's "Mexican" accent has many variations, waxing and waning, but is mostly garbled and very irritating. So is Brad Rudy as Gremio, Bianca's older suitor. And most of the singing and dancing is embarrassing.

There's nothing wrong with Stratford's revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I.Musical Director Berthold Carriere brings the luscious score to rich, splendorous life. Deborah Hanson's showy sets include some monstrous pieces all in dazzling gold. Add all known bright colors and Roger Kirk's splendid costumes, beautifully lit by Kevin Fraser, and the resulting celebratory production looks expensive and pretty, if a bit gaudy. Helen Yu plays the Crown Prince's mother, Lady Thiang, with some authority. And her operatic mezzo-soprano gives the lovely song, "Something Wonderful" a luster I wish were achieved by other singers in the cast.

            Still, Lucy Peacock as Anna, Victor Talmadge as the King, Charles Azulay as Lun Tha, and others sing well enough to present the songs effectively. Ann Marie Ramos produces notes as Tuptim, but conveys no meaning in her songs. She needs work on acting. Peacock is charming and very pretty as Anna. Talmadge is mostly commanding and whimsical as the King, but occasionally loses concentration and energy. Their big scenes together play well. And I've never understood the comments about a sexual tension between Anna and the King anyway. I've never noticed any, and don't think there should be any.

            Susan H. Schulman keeps the action lively and bright, and Michael Lichtefeld choreographs smartly when not reproducing Jerome Robbins' original choreography in famed set pieces like "The Small House of Uncle Thomas." I miss Brian Macdonald's genius for making Stratford's actors really look like dancers, though. The ending is sad, but this is generally a feel-good musical, and likely to be a great hit at Stratford.

Martha Henry directs a fairly sound Antony and Cleopatra, but I found Allan Wilbee's designs rather drab. The metal structure that serves as the basic stage set has no particular symbolic or imagistic resonance; it's just a big triangle with steps at its base. A few big pieces are brought in to give us oars for ships and weapons; and the Roman scenes work clearly enough. Some of the fancy togas look very rich. But this is bargain basement Egyptian luxury with a queen whose entourage is worth looking at only for an occasional big, golden fan.

            Peter Donaldson is such a tragic old Antony that it's hard to imagine his past heroic image. But he plays with affecting passion. Diane D'Aquila is a compelling Cleopatra who believably persuades Antony to follow her advice and desires. But she's hardly an alluring femme fatale --- more Lady Macbeth than Siren.

            I liked several supporting players, especially Bernard Hopkins as the clever Egyptian eunuch Mardian and Wayne Best as a harshly realistic Enobarbus. I don't know why Ms. Henry wanted to cast boyish, light-voiced Paul Dunn as Octavius Caesar and then have him dressed in dignified silver robes with a silver wig. But though he doesn't quite work, he does create interest in what this peculiar Caesar is saying.

            I've yet to see an Antony and Cleopatra that I've found powerful and moving. It's an almost-remote tragedy with wordy climactic speeches. So the death of Timothy Askew's Eros --- the boy who cannot bear to kill his beloved master Antony as instructed and, instead, stabs himself fatally --- moved me more than Antony's or Cleopatra's death. I don't think it's supposed to.

            Simpson reviews Stratford's "Gigi," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," and "The Adventures of Pericles" in next week's issue.

Stratford Festival: Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew,at the Festival Theatre to November 1; Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's The King and I, at the Festival Theatre to November 9; Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, at the Tom Patterson Theatre to September 27.

            Call 1-800-567-1600 for information, special events and tours, accommodations, and tickets from $20.70 to $105.40 Canadian dollars (approximately $15.11 to $76.96 US dollars). orders@stratfordfestival.ca, www.stratfordfestival.ca

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