Stage Door

Stage Door Reviews of
Stratford Festival 1998 Season - continued

Stage Door Reviews by Roger Kershaw and Jim Lingerfelt
(Your comments and reviews are also welcome. Please?)

A day at the Tom Patterson 

And what a day it was! When are we going to see a hiccup from this year's superlative Stratford Festival lineup? If the results continue like the current offerings at Tom Patterson, not this season. Where else in the world can one spend the day enraptured by such gorgeous language, surroundings and company. The current theatrical duet dancing cheek-to-cheek at the intimate and interactive Tom Patterson will leave you mesmerized, thrilled and exhausted. The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare, and The Night of the Iguana by Tennessee Williams complement each other and each send their audience all over the emotional map leaving them quite breathless and astonished.

The Winter's Tale

The Winter's Tale, one of Shakespeare's last plays (1610-1611), is seldom mounted, especially at Stratford, and one wonders why? It's a play that shocks, entertains and surprises in all manner of ways. Shakespeare's unequalled explorations of the human condition allow one to confront their own frailty.

The production is set in the mid-twentieth century in Sicilia (Sicily, off the southwest coast of Italy) and Bohemia (the modern Czech Republic). It has been suggested that Shakespeare chose Sicily because of a famous tyrant (the model for Leontes) who had ruled there, and Bohemia because in his day it was considered to be an exotic location suitable for imaginative tales of romance. Shakespeare was not as student of geography as he gives Bohemia a seacoast, though in fact it has none.

The Winter's Tale probes an uncontrollable jealous passion that threatens to blight the lives of two generations of royalty. Leontes (Wayne Best), King of Sicily, imagines that his wife, Hermione (Kate Trotter), is committing adultery with their guest, Polixenes (Juan Chioran), King of Bohemia. After making an unsuccessful attempt to have Polixenes killed, Leontes throws Hermione into prison, where she gives birth to a daughter. Believing the child to have been fathered by Polixenes, Leontes orders that it be abandoned in the wilds. However, the child, named Perdita (Claire Jullien), is found by a shepherd, who decides to bring her up as his own. A pronouncement from the oracle at Delphi, confirming Hermione's innocence and warning Leontes that he is in danger of dying without an heir, is followed by news of the death of Leontes' young son, Mamillius. At this, Hermione collapses in shock, and word is later brought that she too has died. Smitten with remorse, Leontes becomes a recluse.

Sixteen years later, Perdita, now a young woman in the care of an Old Shepherd (Richard Curnock) and his son (Tim McDonald), falls in love with Prince Florizel (Graham Abbey), the son of Polixenes. When Polixenes forbids his son to marry a mere shepherd girl, the lovers elope to Sicily, where Leontes' long years of grief are brought to an end by the revelation of Perdita's true identity - and by another even more miraculous reunion.

Director Brian Bedford has done away with histrionics and created a lovely world that, on the surface is all calm and light, but just below seethes and angry jealousy that darkens and uglies the pristine landscape. It is the wonderfully taut direction of his stars that create such magic in this production. Best's Leontes is simply the best. The actor exhibits Leontes' jealous rage is such a way that we, the audience, can see it, but it is hidden from his tormentors. Best is so smooth, yet can crumble into a vulnerable emotional heap. This marvelous actor was sorely missed last season keeping himself busy with Guardian Investment commercials. It is hoped he will return next season.

Keeping pace with the acting fireworks of Best is Diane D'Aquila as Paulina, friend to Hermione. Paulina's vitriol from such a misanthropic madam generates many of the genuine laughs in the play, and D'Aquila looked sincerely touched by the roaring ovation at the curtain.

Luminous in support is Trotter as the beautiful and wronged queen who brought a substantive class and presence to the stage, as did the always-solid Abbey as the love-struck prince who impresses us every time we see him. Curnock and McDonald provide healthy comic relief in their role of dimwitted but oportunistic rustics. The venerable John Gilbert portrayed the loyal Camillo with his customary refinement and elegance. And Geordie Johnson plays the devious Autolycus with a comic touch surely not seen before in The Winter's Tale. This actor, who never provides a misstep, was to supply a bravura performance not three hours later in The Night of the Iguana.

The design team has conceptualized a 1950s Sicily complete with magnificently tailored costumes by Ann Curtis, and evocative lighting by Kevin Fraser. To fault such a production seems fatuous but mention must be made of the set design by the renowned Ming Cho Lee. It is so simple in concept that we thought we may have "missed it". It seems this respected artist may have come to Stratford and whitewashed a few set pieces. That's about it. But it surely says volumes for Brian Bedford's magical touch that he can turn such blandness to brilliant colour.

The Night of the Iguana

No sooner are the audience's hankies dry than Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana is presented on a tropically endowed stage designed by Guido Tondino. The sights and sounds of Mexico, and a decaying one at that, are the backdrop to this hugely engrossing story set in the Costa Verde, a seedy hotel in the rain forest above Acapulco in the summer of 1940. Despair, love and regret are the hallmarks of this famous play that spawned an even more famous movie that didn't star Elizabeth Taylor. Sensual widow and hotel-owner Maxine Faulk (Lally Cadeau) leads a group of colourful and disparate characters on voyages of discovery about themselves and their relationships with others. This poignant and highly poetic drama is superbly directed by Antoni Cimolino, who presents these characters to us warts and all, and poses questions on how easy it is to go from simply okay, to the depths of despair.

While the widow Maxine is a central character, the story revolves around her with an intricate web of other personas woven into the fabric. At first, her only guests are a family of Germans who are eagerly following the progress of the Battle of Britain on their short-wave radio. They are joined by a New England spinster named Hannah (Seana McKenna), who scrapes together a living by selling her watercolors to hotel guests; her 97-year old grandfather, Nonno (William Needles), a poet who is struggling to complete his first new work in 20 years; and the Reverend Shannon (Geordie Johnson), a defrocked priest whose taste for liquor and young girls got him kicked out of the Church at the beginning of his career and now threatens to lose him his current job as a tour guide. With him is a busload of teachers from women's Baptist college, the youngest of whom he has just seduced. As Shannon struggles both with a 103-degree fever and with his personal demons, he and Hannah discover a strange spiritual kinship, to the annoyance of the earthily sensual Maxine, who has her own designs on Shannon. As the characters unfold their innermost secrets to each other, the former priest is brought to the point where he must make the choice that will define the rest of his life.

Let there be no mistake, this is the defining role of Johnson's Stratford career…so far. He is spellbinding in the huge role and is hardly ever off the stage. We have always been fond of Johnson's work, both on stage and screen, but he is different here, and so much more vulnerable. The difference between his Winter's Tale role in the afternoon, and the evening's tour-de-force could not be more different, and yet his success in both is testament to his talent. Johnson plumbs the depths of the reverend's despair and we are dragged down with him, as playwright Williams is sure to have wanted. It leaves you exhausted and yet exhilarated. Johnson's scenes with Seana McKenna are the stuff of acting dreams. She and her gifted co-star pool their talents and create pure magic on the stage. Their characters' relationship becomes complex and they build the action slowly to a great crescendo. Patricia Collins lends inspired and hilarious support (with a Texan bent) as tourist-chaperone, Judith Fellowes.

The current Stratford cycle of Williams' plays keep getting better every year, like a fine wine. This production of the autobiographical Iguana is no exception and provides a wonderful evening's entertainment. Rush to get tickets and settle down in your seat at the Tom Patterson - no other theatre stage could involve its audience so imtimately - and be encapsulated in two worlds like none other.

The Night of the Iguana runs July 7 to September 18. The Winter's Tale runs June 9 to September 20.

(Your comments and reviews are also welcome. Please?)
 Speaking of which, here's what YOU had to say...

Thank you for the wonderful reviews of these productions.

I've seen Winter's Tale several times, and it was good the first time (in preview) improved a bit the next time I saw it, and has been consistantly excellent since then. Wayne Best and Kate Trotter are great. Diane D'Aquila is always magnificent, and Geordie Johnson is particularly enjoyable this wonderful, comic role.

Night of the Iguana has always been a bit uneven in the performances I've seen. Seems like there's always one of the main characters has difficulty (and these are very difficult characters); I've yet to see all of them "on" at once. Ms McKenna's performance has improved, but she's generally the weakest link in the performances I've seen. Mr Johnson's portrayal of Shannon provides a fascinating study of man on the edge, thru his "regression to infantilism", coming out on the other side with a calm acceptance of what fate has in store for him. In my opinion, tho, the biggest waste in the show is the German tourists. I know, TW wrote them in there, but I don't see that they add anything that couldn't be accomplished the way the school teachers are handled, off stage. ---- Lindy

Mr. Johnson has built a tour de force with Night of the Iguana. He brings to this role a wide variety of elements you could never have imagined from just reading the script: humor, fear, vulnerability and a charming, childlike playfulness. Shannon is more than an extreme character on the edge. In Mr. Johnson's performance, Shannon is in all of us in some way: when we mean to do what's right and don't quite succeed, when we fear what the future holds and can't always be brave, when we want to connect with someone and don't quite know how. A very worthy, humanistic production. ---

The Winter's Tale was like one of those dates you keep seeing while deciding if you should dump the guy. The time periods were a little unclear: the early scenes could be the 1930s or 50s. Autolycus (Geordie Johnson) and his boombox seem to put us in the present. But later, when
he's in big hair and flashy velvet jacket, we're in the 60s.

It begins as a domestic soaper but, by Act 2, we're on a tour of American musical theatre. The sheep-shearing party looks suspiciously like Oklahoma! (or a rousing performance of Riverdance). Later, Autolycus sings while wearing very big hair that looks ready to devour him like the Venus Flytrap in Little Shop of Horrors. Dancers cavort around him in a style that suggests we've left "Little Shop" and we're pulling in to Godspell. (Personally, I always hated musical theatre. And this entry in Shakespeare's canon can't endear me to it.)

But don't get me wrong! I can't even pick out the highlights because the entire cast comes together beautifully, like a fine symphony. The dramatic moments are appropriately touching, the funny bits are wildly funny, and some of the music is downright catchy (but you didn't hear that from me). This is one date I'd like to keep seeing. ---Kathy B. (

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

by Jay Presson Allen, adapted from the novel by Muriel Spark, directed by Janet Wright
Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, May 23 to November 6, 1998

A Stage Door Review by Roger Kershaw and Jim Lingerfelt
(Your comments and reviews are also welcome. Please?)

Lovely Lally sparkles and shines in a glorious Brodie


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Jay Presson Allen and adapted from the novel by Muriel Spark is a marvelously engrossing play that tugs at the hearts and minds of audiences. First presented on stage in 1966, Brodie is about a charismatic teacher at an Edinburgh girls' school in the 1930s. The novel explored "themes of innocence, betrayal and cold rationality opposed to unchecked emotionalism." This new Stratford Festival production is a triumph of direction, acting, and staging that ensures a topnotch theatrical experience and caps another superlative season for this illustrious company.

Comparisons with the movie aside, director Janet Wright has gone her own way with her Brodie and infused the heroine with a lighter touch that, while towering, doesn't quite go over the top as did the Oscar-winning movie interpretation of Maggie Smith. Wright's work is awesome and maintains all the power of the familiar movie surrounded by the realistic sets and costumes of Douglas Paraschuk.

For anyone who has a fondness for plays about the halls of academe, Brodie will thrill and entertain. More passionate than others in the genre, its story and themes are powerful and mature. Some adore Jean Brodie (Lally Cadeau), some despise her - but none can quite ignore her. She is an eccentric, indeed some may say slightly mad, but passionately committed teacher at the conservative Marcia Blaine School for Girls in oh-so genteel Edinburgh. A small group of four "little girls," as she calls them, the "Brodie Set" become the charges, both educationally, emotionally, and even sexual proxies, for the spinster Brodie. Her credo is "give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life."

The story is told in flashback by Sister Helena, a cloistered nun who has written a best-selling book. She reveals that one of the important influences in her life was her teacher in the 1930s: Miss Jean Brodie. The story shows the charismatic and mercurial Brodie in action, inspiring her coterie of students - her "crème de la crème," as she reminds them to be -- with her slightly risqué tastes in art, literature and music. Brodie also takes delight in baiting her staid and disapproving headmistress, Miss Mackay (Patricia Collins), and conducts romantic liaisons with two of the male teachers on staff: the lily-livered music teacher, Gordon Lowther (Brian Tree); and the senior art master, Teddy Lloyd (Wayne Best).

Unfortunately, Brodie's passion for strong men also extends to an unqualified support of European fascists Mussolini and Franco, an error in judgement that has fatal consequences for Mary MacGregor (Melody A. Johnson), a stuttering unpopular student who is desperate to gain her teacher's approval. Encouraged by Brodie, Mary runs off to join her brother in the civil war in Spain -- where she is killed by a bomb.

Motivated in part by sexual jealousy, another student (and central character in the play), Sandy (Cara Hunter), betrays Brodie's role in this misadventure to the school authorities by "putting a stop to her." Brodie is dismissed from her post and Sandy goes on to pursue a surprising choice of career.

Wright's wonderfully insightful and masterful direction speaks volumes at every moment and her cast doesn't let her down. So many accolades have already been heaped on Miss Cadeau, and her performance so magical, that we will simply add our collective voices to the throng. Her interpretation is a marvel, and save for a slightly uneven Scots accent in the first act (terribly difficult for any actor especially at an early afternoon matinée), Cadeau makes this Brodie her own and demonstrates one does not have to be the incomparable Maggie Smith to succeed.

Hunter, as schoolgirl Sandy, is perfectly cast in the role that allows her acting, rather than acknowledged dancing talent, to shine. Her stage growth from "little girl" to sexually active teenager, though remarkable, would have been underscored had director Wright insisted the play's turning point scene in the art studio be punctuated by partial nudity as it was in the movie.

The remaining cast members all have fine moments highlighted by Best as the lustfully enraptured art teacher and Collins' vinegary headmistress.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a play that is seldom staged (this is a Stratford premiere) but so completely enjoyable. The Stratford season is slowly drawing to a close and this one, like so many others, has offered several wondrous productions. Brodie shows Stratford at the top of their game, but it is Lally Cadeau's performance, that will remain with you long after the snow has settled on this year's festival.

(Your comments and reviews are also welcome. Please?)

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