Exchange the Siskiyou Mountains for Midwestern farmland, and the histories of Stratford, Ontario, and Ashland, Oregon, share some remarkable similarities. In the middle of the last century, both were rural towns struggling to thrive after losing their importance as railroad hubs.
Then two visionary individuals, Angus Bowmer in Ashland and Tom Patterson in Stratford, proposed unlikely solutions: why not start a theatre devoted to the works of William Shakespeare? They drew others into the projects, counting on the alchemy of passion to produce the Bard’s work with little more than two planks at first. Today, the Stratford Festival of Canada has earned a brilliant halo on the cultural map for its revolving repertory of world-class productions on multiple stages.
Last month, packing tickets to seven plays, we flew into Toronto then drove ninety minutes southwest to the Suburban Motel. A couple miles from downtown Stratford, it looks out on a picturesque red barn and acres of soybeans. Like the innkeepers in Ashland, the proprietors, Mike and Mandy Weinheimer, collect the inside stories on the plays. We were pleased to hear that the two by Shakespeare on our list would be well worth the torture of flying the unfriendly skies.
While some may grouse when a production of Hamlet does not conform to the Hamlet in their minds, we’d come all that way in the hope of discovering a new perspective on the play, implications we’d never thought of. Stratford Festival Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino did not disappoint with his spare, existential version of this tragedy. It begins in gloom with steam rising from a gaping grave; it ends with light beaming up from the same place. The action in between unfolds among square pillars of black marble, configured to suggest different locales. Bodies moving around them are reflected in their polished surfaces as pale, wraith-like blurs.
Against these bleak reminders, the cast explodes with color and intention. Jonathan Goad plays an athletic Prince, whose madness is clearly a stratagem. He brings such energy to the role that we forget he has issues with melancholy and procrastination until each soliloquy snaps him to a halt. Even then, he comes across as a man whom second thoughts have caught by surprise.
Family bonds are lifelines in this barren world, and they have been ruptured by fratricide and what passes for incest: Hamlet’s uncle Claudius has murdered Hamlet’s father and wed his mother, Gertrude. As if to undo the consequences of this crime, Claudius (Geraint Wyn Davies) clutches and kisses the lips of anyone he can get his hands on. His desperate boisterousness only highlights his too, too corrupt flesh.
While Hamlet seethes, Polonius’ family displays humor and physical affection as a very boyish Laertes prepares to depart for France. All the hugging soon shades into jealous possessiveness, though, when the developing relationship between Ophelia and Hamlet comes under scrutiny. This Polonius (Tom Rooney) is no buffoon—he knows his advice to Laertes falls somewhere between pragmatic and cynical. In fact, his body language with Claudius suggests an awareness, perhaps some abetting, of the King’s murder, a disturbing possibility given the cross hanging prominently around his neck.
In this family-focused production, Adrienne Gould’s Ophelia becomes the scapegoat for the mess. Spirited and open to life at the start, her betrayal and abandonment by everyone is unbearably poignant. The motherless, fatherless girl who loved Hamlet breaks apart before our eyes when he rejects her. Her suicide only completes the violence inflicted by her milieu.
Imagine Katerina in The Taming of the Shrew glimpsing a shadow of Ophelia’s fate, a forewarning that trust in her elders and vibrant hopes for married life can be horribly dashed. Kate’s determination never to let that happen to her might account for her stubbornly choleric disposition. Interestingly, though, director Chris Abraham makes no effort to explain her in those terms. Kate is angry, and that is that. When she isn’t yelling, her body twitches at the restraint. Supported by a stellar cast that includes real-life spouses Deborah Hay and Ben Carlson as Katerina and Petruchio, period costumes drenched in red, and an expanded Induction frame to insist on the fictionality of extreme events, Abraham’s concept works!
The opening moments find actors milling around a rack of costumes. Then Tom Rooney, who’ll play the comic Tranio, steps forward to deliver a paean to the capacious pumpkin pants he’s wearing. Out in the audience, Christopher Sly swills a flask and fights ejection by an usher. This Sly (also played by Ben Carlson) is not a pedlar but a theater blogger, who wants to strip all the mitigating tricks away from Shrew and just see it done, as written.
The performance that follows grants his wish. The furious Kate discloses barely a hint of interest in Petruchio, while his announced financial motive for the marriage gets quickly bumped aside. The more Kate intrigues him, the more uncertain he seems of the course he has chosen “to tame a shrew,” finally turning to the audience to ask quite sincerely for help.
By the end, has Kate been broken when she decides to comply with her husband and advise two other women on proper spousal obedience? One happens to be her hated sibling, Bianca, the other a catty know-it-all, but Kate takes no pleasure in lecturing them. In fact, the speech is at first excruciating for her, and her near-heroic delivery almost flips this problematic comedy into something sad. Then bathed in Petruchio’s admiration, she begins to find the ironies, the absurdities in the whole situation. Maybe she remembers it’s just a play. She certainly gets in touch with her desire. Abraham leaves it there, fraught with ambiguity, inconsistencies, a complicated, precarious, and ultimately private balance of losses and gains—an honest wedding picture.
Molly Tinsley taught literature and creative writing at the U. S. Naval Academy for twenty years. Her latest book is the spy thriller Broken Angels (www.fuzepublishing.com)