Canada's Stratford season: off to a troubled start

The recent months have been the winter of the Stratford Festival's discontent. A battle erupted between those Canadians who want one of North America's finest theatrical ventures to be staffed and performed mostly by Canadians -- and those who feel the theatrical excellence embodied here cannot be nationalistically pigeonholed.

When Robin Phillips, director for eight seasons, resigned in September, the board appointed a quartet of Canadians already associated with the festival, but these were fired in November. A few days later British director John Dexter was announced to replace them. The nationals won this skirmish, the net result being the appointment of John Hirsch as artistic director.

The message was clear: Canadianize the festival. So Hirsch, who was slowly extricating himself from his responsibilities as artistic adviser of the Seattle Repertory Company, and producer Muriel Sherrin, gave a heavily Canadian slant to this year's talent pool. So prominent is it that this year's souvenir program has dropped all mention of cast members' nationality and the flags that used to identify them.

The two opening productions have suffered from this bias, for neither director Jean Gascon (for Moliere's "Tartuffe") nor Leon, Major (for "HMS Pinafore") delivered Strafford Festival standard productions. And the casting in both works was weak and compromising.

"Misanthrope" officially opened the festival with the traditional gala evening. Brian Bedford played the querulous Alceste, and he and Len Cariou (to be seen later in the week as Coriolanus and as Petrucchio in "Taming of the Shrew") are the only recognized stars of the opening four productions. But Beford neither carried nor even dominated the evening as expected.

Director Gascon relied much too heavily on the actors' instincts and on Desmond Heeley's overwrought costumes to define each character. For a sense of locale and period, Gascon allowed Heeley's unattractive set to do the work. But plastic formal-garden shrubbery and a garish smear of astroturf -- an especially uncommendable shade of green that clashed with most of the costumes -- evoked nothing. Added to it all was David F. Segal's lighting -- aggressive and unflaterring.

Mr. Bedford turned in a discouragingly disconnected performance full of mannerisms without the splendid core of a character that so consistently marks his work. Sharry Flett proved, in repose, to be a Celimene of incomparable beauty and poise. But in both motion and speech, she is not yet a finished enough actress to suggest the attitudes that make this creature tick. Even Nicholas Pennell and Pat Galloway, usually so realiable, made little impression except, perhaps, that Mr. Pennell's wig was distressingly massive.

If Mr. Gascon brought nothing whatsoever to "Misantrope," Leon Major brought, in one sense, far too much to "HMS Pinafore' at the festival's Avon Theater. He chose to encrust "Pinafore' with mugging and lots of "humorous" vignettes. But that could not hide the fundamental lack of concept: Major simply did not know what to do with this Gilbert and Sullivan charmer.

"Pinafore," as with most Gilbert and Sullivan, is operatic parody, social satire, and entertainment all rolled into one. Major viewed it as vaudeville-burlesque, as second- rate farce, as something to be mocked and fussed up. He agreed with set designer Murray Laufer that the show should be massive and cartoonish, and surely no other terms can describe Laufer's overblown, awkward set. Even the costumes (credited to Astrid Janson) were comic book and unexceptional.

The show was cast for its singers, few of whom could really act, and, with the exception of Katherine Terrell -- who occasionally erred on the side of the overwrought -- projected little character. The chorus, meant to be a precision ensemble, was ragged of gesture and voice. In the pit, Berthold Carriere led his natilly sailor-costumed players with rousing conviction -- musically this was a very good "Pinafore" indeed. But it is also the only Avon production for the first part of the season -- 70 performances through early August, and it does not offer audiences a festival standard outing.

And that is exactly what is missing from these first two productions -- any sense of the excellence that is Stratford. Glimpses of it are to be seen in the core of performers that have stayed on, and in the backstage crew. But this Stratford season has gotten off to a makeshift start.

The lack of stars is distressing, as is the casting of performers not ready for such big roles (Miss Flett's Celimene being the prime example). One hopes that the attitude of the new regime will not be myopically nationalistic. Canadian theater has always tended to be political.

Yet Stratford has proven that pan-nationalism can work, and can benefit good Canadian actors in the proces. The season of 1979 also boasted a primarily Canadian focus, and the artistic profile of the festival suffered noticeably. A place like Strafford cannot afford to lose its public, and it is a public that comes because the Maggi Smiths, Brian Bedfords, Hume Cronyns, Jessica Tandys, and Peter Ustinovs of the theater world are show-cased in memorable productions. To offer anything less will mean that Stratford will no longer be Stratford.

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