Ontario's Stratford gets back on track. Three Shakespeare romances and a musical start the season

THE Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Ontario, is an institution unique in North America. It has offered a remarkable assortment of Canadian, American, and British talent in a repertoire that has focused on Shakespeare and included a wide range of works, both contemporary and classic. Since I was last here in the summer of 1984, John Neville, a fine actor with a long track record as artistic director of first British, and then Canadian theater companies, was appointed artistic director here.

For his first season, he chose to offer the three Shakespeare romances -- ``The Winter's Tale,'' ``Pericles,'' and ``Cymbeline'' -- on the main stage, as well as a musical, ``The Boys From Syracuse.'' At the Third Stage, ``Macbeth'' and Brecht's ``The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui'' were on view.

One sensed a renewed commitment on the part of the company and a spirit of ensemble rather than strife, and this, alone, is cause for celebration. Clearly, this season is one for healing wounds, establishing harmony, and letting the actors and audiences know that Stratford is back on track.

Scheduling precluded my seeing ``The Boys From Syracuse,'' and ``Cymbeline'' had not yet opened. Both ``Winter's Tale'' and ``Pericles'' were flawed productions, with isolated, splendid performances, a strong, if not particularly vivid core company, and directors who do not really understand how to put together a production that is at once enlightening and coherent.

``Pericles,'' a real ``problem play,'' sports a frame which is clearly the Bard's, though the first two acts are clearly not his poetry. A director must convincingly string together this episodic play and make the viewer accept it as part of one overall vision.

Director Richard Ouzounian could not quite make up his mind about this play. He presents it as now folk-rock ballad, now leering caricature, now symbolist drama, now naturalistic confrontation. The styles are muddled and ill-matched. Renee Rogers uses her large chesty voice to good effect as the narrator Gower, but she sings deplorable music that clashes altogether with the mood of the text.

Mr. Ouzounian gets some good performances out of Stephen Russell (Thaliard), William Needles (Simonides), Nicholas Pennell (Antiochus), Goldie Semple (Thasia), and particularly Geraint Wyn Davies, a handsome, well-spoken Pericles.

At least the ``Pericles'' moves along at a decent clip. ``The Winter's Tale'' seems to go nowhere, slowly. If the play is to stir an audience, the director must set up a context where the implausible becomes plausible. One must believe that Leontes can, for no reason, go utterly insane with jealousy, destroy his world, accuse his wife, Hermione, of infidelity, put her on trial (which apparently kills her), and just as suddenly see his folly and spend 16 years repenting of it.

One must accept the horror of a faithful steward abandoning a child on a stormy heath and meeting his comic/ghastly death in the claws of a bear. One must believe that the statue of Hermione in the last scene really can ``come to life'' to forgive her Leontes.

Unfortunately, director David William has not been able to find his context. Nor does he get the right sort of performance out of Colm Feore as Leontes. The actor rants in sing-song oratory, and the entire magical edifice of Shakespeare's blueprint never gets built -- we are never really ``taken in.''

Mr. William has a faint grasp of the essence of the maligned Hermione, whose faith and patience see her through her darkest hour and give her the strength to forgive her husband. In the final scene, he places Goldie Semple downstage, front, so we can all see her blinking furiously while impersonating a statue, and thus the illusion is lost. When he has Hermione come on like Joan of Arc at the stake, we lose the sense that she is still, and always has been, a queen.

Again, some good performances make some of the scenes work. The pages of the play create their magic only because Susan Wright has created such a proud, sensitive, and eloquent Paulina. Miss Semple's Hermione has some very special moments along the way. Russell is a restrained, elegant Polixenes, Needles an effective Antigonus, Pennell a wise, understated Camillo. In the clown role of Autolycus, Joseph Ziegler gives an outrageously clever and vivid performance, and manages, at high velocity, to be always absolutely comprehensible. He is the only reason the turgid Bohemia scenes really come to life.

The Third Stage offers the Young Company in two productions, of which I could see only ``Arturo Ui.'' The play is done as Brecht intended -- a Chicago gangster chronicle with asides to the events leading to Hitler's rise to power. It was impressive on its own terms, with some remarkable performances by Maurice Godin (Ui), Jerry Etienne (Givola), Michael Hanrahan (Giri), and particularly Kim Coates (Roma).

Tom Kerr's production kept the farce aspect of the play tight, caustic, and effective. But the play lacks punch today unless it can be made to mirror some political events much closer to our time. Otherwise, the very essence of the message Brecht was trying to get across is diluted to the point where one is tempted to say ``it can't happen here.''

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