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On stage 6.15.05

Leave it to the actors

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Stratford's opening week showed eight fine, greatly varied productions with seven to come. This season completes Artistic Director Richard Monette's presentation of the entire Shakespeare canon and continues expanding the contemporary repertoire.

Monette's staging of Shakespeare's The Tempest is dominated by its towering Prospero. Supposedly the final farewell performance by William Hutt --- at 85 probably Canada's greatest actor (rivaled only by Christopher Plummer) --- it is a masterful example of interpretive skill and technical command. But when Hutt announced his fourth Stratford Prospero in the 1999 Tempest as his farewell performance, his nephew, actor Peter Hutt, left Shaw Festival to play onstage with his uncle for the occasion. Peter later told me, "He'll never retire." So we'll see.

Hutt keeps refining his definitive Prospero with not always subtle changes. Now the usually sadly contemplative "Our revels now are ended..." is bitter in a last burst of vengeful anger by this exiled Duke of Milan. It reflects his betrayal by the Italian nobles now shipwrecked on his island and by the bestial Caliban, whom he nurtured. His final taking leave of his art is a reawakening of Prospero's humanity, taught to him by the humane pity shown by the non-human spirit Arial. Elsewhere Hutt's trademark quiet vocal assurance convinces that although we can hear, the person sitting behind us can't. His Prospero's fond observance of his daughter Miranda and the shipwrecked Ferdinand's excessive first love is as amusing but also warmer than before. You are unlikely to see the role better acted.

Adrienne Gould's Miranda is funny and innocent but not a thing of beauty and magic. Despite Meredith Caron's generally unflattering costumes, Jean-Michel LeGal has charm and looks great as Ferdinand, Barry MacGregor is a noble and sympathetic King of Naples, and Bernard Hopkins is likable and dignified as honest old Gonzago. Stephen Sutcliffe and Brian Tree are surprisingly understated as the comic drunkards who encounter Stephen Ouimette's appropriately weird-looking but also understated Caliban. And Jacob James moves and sounds otherworldly and affecting as Arial, though garbed in what looks like badly made underwear.

Beautifully lit by Michael J. Whitfield, and set to lovely music by Berthold Carriere, the fanciful wedding masque goes on far too long with ludicrous-looking figures in tedious choreography by Michael Lichtefeld. But the main drama is first-rate.

You should go if you want to see the (maybe) last --- and great --- performance of William Hutt as Prospero.

Stratford has musical interludes in several plays and includes two major musicals in 2005, but their most popular musical star is playing straight this season. Cynthia Dale plays "Maggie the Cat" in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Dale gets the frustrations, social and sexual, as well as the intelligence and underlying strength of this superficially clinging wife. Dale's beautiful but aristocratic features might belie Maggie's poor background, but she is wordlessly eloquent in her revulsion at the vulgarity of her in-laws and their "no-neck monster" children. Sophia Cimolino, who enthusiastically plays the most prominent little girl, is the daughter of Stratford's executive director Antoni Cimolino, who lovingly remarked that she does have a neck but is a monster.

Monette directs a sterling cast in an uncensored, vivid staging of Williams' great play that rises to thrilling heights in the honest confrontation between James Blendick's magnificent Big Daddy and his disturbed, alcoholic son Brick dealing with the insufferable "mendacity" in their lives. Big Daddy has to learn about his fatal cancer. And Brick has to admit his compliance in his great friend Skipper's death, which followed rumors of Skipper's homosexual impulses. This production pulls none of the play's punches.

By the way, "Big Daddy" is simply a common Southern etymological variation of "Grandfather," whatever its symbolism. Before this play was written I knew ordinary children who called their grandmothers and grandfathers Big Momma and Big Daddy.

Glamorous Lally Cadeau is unrecognizable as the fat, shuffling, annoying, but touching Big Momma. Brigit Wilson is shrill and infuriating as the pushy breedsow Sister Woman. And handsome David Snelgrove, whom I've not found exciting as an actor before, gives the performance of his career as an unforgettably tormented Brick.

You should go if you'd like to see an appropriately complex portrayal of Maggie the Cat, in a staging of Williams' play that pulls none of its punches.

Stratford Festival Stratford, Ontario: Shakespeare's The Tempest, at the Festival Theatre to October 28; Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, at the Avon Theatreto October 29. $23.65 to $114.39 ($18.85 to $91.16 US dollars). "Play On" tickets (aged under 30) are $20 Canadian ($15.94 US). 800.567.1600, www.stratfordfestival.ca

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