Jack Garner: The very best of the Stratford fest

05:00 AM, Aug 24, 2013

From left, Graham Abbey as Iago and Dion Johnstone as Othello in Shakespeare's 'Othello.' (Michael Cooper)/


Written By Jack Garner

After four days — and seven plays — at the Stratford Festival in Ontario Province, I’ve concluded this is the most rewarding season among the dozen or so I’ve attended. I highly recommend the three-and-a-half-hour drive and an overnight stay for a few days. The season runs through September.

I feel positive about the seven I chose from the 12 offerings — Waiting for Godot, Blithe Spirit, Measure for Measure, Othello, Taking Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, and Fiddler on the Roof — and very enthusiastic about four of them.

Shakespeare is, of course, the festival’s bread and butter, and this year includes strong productions of Merchant, Measure, and Othello. (We skipped Romeo & Juliet this time.)

Othello was extremely well-played, with Graham Abbey as a subtle and malevolent Iago and Dion Johnstone as the title Moor, “one that lov’d not wisely but too well.” Kudos also to Deborah Hay, as Desdemona’s handmaiden; her important last scene is as powerful as we’ve come to expect from this talented actor. The action is played out across a remarkable stage (by Julie Fox) that achieves maximum effect with minimum design.

With superb synergy, Stratford also offers a fabulous two-person modern play, Taking Shakespeare, about an elderly English professor who instructs a student on the meaning of Othello. John Murrell reportedly wrote the play for its star, the magnificent Martha Henry, a richly talented woman who breathes remarkable life into the work. I like to think of Henry as the Judi Dench of Canada, and I think the comparison holds. Henry was also a presence in another of the Shakespeare plays; she directed Measure for Measure and gives it a powerful place with its timeless tale of political power, sex and corruption.

The other two special gems were:

Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett’s famously enigmatic story of four characters who meet on a desolate post-apocalyptic road, where two of them are “waiting for Godot.” No one ever explains who Godot is, of course, though many viewers assume it’s God. This play is like a great modern painting by Picasso or Pollock — the interpretation is yours. The performances here are riveting, with highly regarded Stratford veterans Stephen Ouimette and Tom Rooney as Estrago and Vladimir (who are “waiting”), festival guest star Brian Dennehy as the boisterous Pozzo, and Randy Hughson as the decidedly unlucky Lucky.

Fiddler on the Roof, which was not a play I was especially eager to see, only because I’ve seen the great and beloved musical many times before. However, once in my Festival Theatre seat, I was treated to a breathtaking version, easily the best Fiddler I can recall seeing. The set and staging is first-rate, the ensemble — dancers, singers and actors — are at the top of their game, and Scott Wentworth fully inhabits the central role of Tevye. Interestingly, Wentworth here plays the most beloved Jewish character of the theater; in the same season, in the festival’s very good The
Merchant of Venice, he plays the most (unjustly) despised, Shylock.

First-year artistic director Antoni Cimolino has put forth a first-class buffet of great theater; I’m eagerly awaiting what’s to come. I know that next season is to include a King Lear, Man of La Mancha, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Gershwin’s Crazy for You.

WOODY’S ‘JASMINE’: When I consider who is the greatest living filmmaker, I usually come up with Martin Scorsese. There was a time I thought it was a tie with the talented Chinese director, Zhang Yimou, but I think his later work has fallen off just a little. However, I have come to a realization over the decades that Woody Allen is also in the mix for the very best there is. He is extremely consistent, almost always brilliant, very witty, and his movies are almost never really bad; it’s just that some are better than others.

His latest, Blue Jasmine, shows a great filmmaker still going to the edge at 77. It’s a hard-nosed portrait of a woman going down the road to despair. It has funny moments, like life, but this is not a comedy. And, yes, the central character, Jasmine, is very loosely based on Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire. But the comparison is minimal, at best. The downward spirals of the women have considerably different triggers. The fact of “the downward spiral” may be the only similarity.

And, as others have said, Cate Blanchett as Jasmine delivers the best-ever performance yet seen in nearly a half-century of Allen’s films. Though not quite a masterpiece, Blue Jasmine is a very good Allen film, and features a towering Blanchett performance.

Blue
Jasmine also is a showcase for two Rochester natives. Art director Michael E. Goldman (also of Star Trek into Darkness and Iron Man and others) was involved, and his longtime friend, John M. Morse, was the film’s first assistant director. Both men have known each other since school days at the Harley School, and now live in San Francisco. Among other things, they helped Woody Allen choose locations in Frisco when he arrived.