Stratford made news with its last three openings, starting with one of its finest productions to date. Two, however, close at the end of September and should be seen.
The superb production of Jean Anouilh's The Lark marks many Stratford debuts: of theatrically and intellectually original French playwright Anouilh, of renowned actress Amanda Plummer as Joan of Arc, of legendary designer Eugene Lee, and of Broadway-international artists Michael Lindsay-Hogg (director) and Edward Pierce (lighting designer). Their contributions to this great modern play make a spellbinding theatrical event.
Anouilh doesn't retell Joan of Arc's triumphs nor build to her martyrdom in conventional linear drama. He wrote the play just after World War II. It emphasizes the interrogation of Joan and dramatizes her history in flashbacks acted out by the people in the court, thus raising questions about how we view history and how politics color even our religious beliefs.
Director Lindsay-Hogg sets this version in the occupied France of Anouilh's day, so the military power is English but appears to be Nazi, even though there are no specific symbols like swastikas. Graham Abbey as the Duke of Warwick stalks menacingly across the stage on crutches with metal braces on his legs like Eric Von Stroheim in Grand Illusion. It's a nifty theatrical image born of accident: Abbey broke his ankle playing soccer and really needs one crutch. There are many connections between the artists of this veteran cast and this play's history, but this unique production is seamless and new and essential for lovers of modern theater.
Christopher Marlowe's Edward II is the first Marlowe play in Stratford's history, though Marlowe was probably the greatest English playwright among Shakespeare's contemporaries. It is not often performed, partly because it makes many demands, including a large cast and many difficult roles, partly because it is controversial in its sensational details. But Marlowe's staging is talky and bombastic; the play is long and has mostly suggested action. Director Richard Monette follows Marlow's hints at intentions to create a remarkably active staging with many memorable visual images that make this production play much more vividly than the play reads.
The homosexual elements are certainly in the script, Edward's history, and Marlowe's biography. It was Edward II's obsessive attachment to his exiled favorite Gaveston that sparked the rebellion of his nobles. Monette has several scenes of the barely clothed Edward and Gaveston and later Edward and Spencer, his succeeding favorite, kissing and embracing, as well as courtiers in stylized orgiastic pantomimes.
The brutality of Edward's jailors is also physically shocking. And the legendary murder of Edward with a red-hot poker up his anus is fairly graphically suggested.
David Snelgrove is again impressive in the long, difficult title role, and the always potent Scott Wentworth is memorably villainous as his nemesis Mortimer. The large cast takes us through battles and political maneuverings with skill and clarity.
Finally, Shakespeare's Measure For Measure has had several productions at Stratford, but not on Richard Monette's watch as Artistic Director, since 1994. So this one makes news by completing Monette's presentation of the entire Shakespearean canon, generally accepted to include 38 plays, some of which may not be entirely written by Shakespeare.
Measure For Measure isa partly mean-spirited and unpleasant play, but director Leon Rubin tricks it up with anachronisms, slapstick, acrobatics, and trapeze-work to get as many laughs as he can.
Jonathan Goad is actually persuasive in the hard-to-accept role of Angelo, a virtuous prig so offended by the immorality of his society that he pursues its offenders harshly, but becomes so enamored of the virtuous Isabella that he tries to force himself on her sexually. Isabella, who is about to become a nun, has a brother, Claudio, who impregnated his fiancee before being able to marry her and consequently is under sentence of death.
If Isabella gives in to Angelo, he will spare Claudio. He really plans to seduce Isabella and then have Claudio killed. The Duke, in whose absence Angelo is running the country, is actually around all the time, checking up on everyone and unrecognizable because he wears sunglasses and a hat.
The play is better than that summary sounds. It has much to say about morality and religious fanaticism and hypocrisy. And a very attractive cast plays it entertainingly. If you haven't seen the eight versions I have of this supposedly seldom performed work, this is a worthy one.
You should go if you want to see the concluding three plays of the Stratford Festival --- before they close.
Stratford Festival of Canada, Stratford, Ontario: The Lark, Festival Theatre, to October 29; Edward II, Studio Theatre, to September 24; Measure For Measure, Tom Patterson Theatre, to September 24. Tickets $23.65 to $114.39 ($18.85 to $91.16 US). 800-567-1600, www.stratfordfestival.ca