Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mixed Blessings: Stratford Festival's Kiss Me, Kate & The Tempest

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s current productions of Cole Porter’s musical Kiss Me, Kate and William Shakespeare’s drama The Tempest highlight the limitations of what can be done with sub-standard material. While the two plays are impeccably, even superbly, directed and acted, they’re still not representative of their creators’ best work.

Take Kiss Me, Kate, whose lyrics and music are by the estimable Porter ("Night and Day", "Anything Goes") with the book by émigré husband and wife playwrights Sam and Bella Spewack.For the most part, it's a lacklustre story, detailing the comedic goings on behind the scenes of an amateurish production of the Bard’s The Taming of the Shrew, in a rundown dive of a theatre in dreaded Baltimore in the 1930s. Echoes of Born Yesterday, Private Lives and various other show business set productions weave their way through Kiss Me, Kate, largely reminding you of how much more could be done with a tale like this. The story revolves around the play within the play’s director Harry Trevor (Douglas E. Hughes), his ex-wife, vain actress Lilli Vanessi (Monique Lund), whom he can’t admit he still loves, Harry’s current squeeze, nasal would be actress Lois Lane (Chilina Kennedy) and her jealous beau, actor Bill Calhoun (Mike Jackson). As the quartet spar and flirt, with various other characters crowding the margins, fact and fiction merge, culminating in two urbane gangsters/loan sharks, First Man (Steve Ross) and Second Man (Cliff Saunders), who think Harry owes their boss money, infiltrating The Taming of the Shrew and pretty much walking away with the show.

Ross and Saunders are a riot, meshing the menace of Tony Soprano with the erudition of Henry Higgins and hitting their high point when they wittily perform "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," which comments on modern idioms and situations by inserting the titles of his play into the present, Coriolanus and anus and the like. It’s funny stuff and a reminder of how good Porter can be as a lyricist and, considering that this song was created for the 1948 opening of Kiss Me, Kate, how adult he could be, too. Mike Jackson does a fine job with "Too Darn Hot," which I only know as a vehicle for female singers like Peggy Lee. But the rest of the show's twenty tunes, such as "Another Op’nin’, Another Show," "We Open in Venice," and "Always True to You in My Fashion" are generally forgettable and pedestrian. That’s unfortunate since the performances – most of the actors essay more than one role in Kiss Me, Kate - are uniformly fine (the cast have to play actors who aren’t very adept at acting). Especially memorable are Judy Holliday-like Kennedy and Lund’s prima-donna actress Vanessi, though others such as Lane’s fiancé, gung ho American General Harrison Howell (Kristian Truelsen) are types rather than fleshed out characters. Director John Doyle, too, does a fine job of evoking the backstage atmosphere of a dedicated troupe trying to drum up enthusiasm for a show they know, instinctively, isn’t very good, in a town that is uniformly considered the bottom of the barrel as desirable destinations go. Finally, it all comes down to the quality of the actual musical and in that, Kiss Me, Kate falls short. It’s simply not good enough to warrant all the top notch effort that went into bringing it to the Stratford stage.

That goes double for the acclaimed Stratford adaptation of The Tempest, which is considered to be the last play Shakespeare ever wrote. It’s the story of Prospero (Christopher Plummer), the Duke of Milan, who was ousted from power by his brother Antonio (John Vickery) and consigned, for 12 years now, with his daughter Miranda (Trish Lindstrom) to a barren island. There he has learnt to control the elements and when the chance arises, maroons Antonio, his old friend Alonso, King of Naples (Peter Hutt) and others on different parts of the island, ostensibly to teach them a lesson and force them to come to terms with what has been done to him.

It’s a provocative conceit but, truth be told, there’s not a lot of meat here. Following after so many of Shakespeare's superior plays, Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, A Midsummer Night's Dream, to name just a few of his best, The Tempest has little of value to offer. There’s some amusing tomfoolery when the horny Miranda, who has never seen a man besides her father, falls for Alonso’s son, the handsome Ferdinand (Gareth Potter), and some funny bits involving the jester Trinculo (Bruce Dow) and the butler Stephano (Geraint Wyn Davies) who squabble like an old married couple. But mostly, The Tempest showcases an artist who’s pretty much done and written it all and has nothing fresh to proffer to his audience.

And while all the actors are good, playgoers expecting Plummer to dominate the proceedings – as The Tempest ad material implies – will be disappointed. Prospero is absent for much of Act One and though he is prominent in Act Two, the role is not much of a challenge for Plummer. As Prospero, he gets to be a bit vengeful, a bit sly and a bit humorous but to call this a rich part is but of a stretch. Plummer’s had better film roles in The Insider (1999) and The Last Station (2009) and John Gielgud got to do a lot more in Peter Greenaway's admittedly overstuffed but entertaining Prospero’s Books, his unique 1991 film adaptation of The Tempest. (Helen Mirren takes on the part next in the forthcoming The Tempest, which at least offers the novelty of having a woman, and a vastly talented one at that, play the role on screen.)

Director Des McAnuff, who did a great job at Stratford with last year’s uproarious adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, is also on fire here, effectively utilizing terrific special effects, as the sprite Ariel (a wonderfully otherworldly Julyana Soelistyo) descends from the ‘sky’ and the half man, half creature Caliban (Dion Johnstone) skulks around the island. But, again, those neat pyrotechnics only serve to highlight the paucity of the material. Or to reference another Shakespearean play, this production is really a case of much ado about nothing.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.

1 comment:

  1. "Paucity of the material"? That's just about the most ridiculous review I've ever read... and to suggest that "Kiss Me, Kate" is anything but the creators at the top of their craft is also ridiculous...

    The only thing wrong with "Kiss Me Kate" at Stratford was that John doyle forgot it was a comedy and turned it into some metaphysical garbage...

    As for "The Tempest"... one of the greatest examinations of the role of the artist as creator/ controller ever written (Prospero the Wizard = Shakespeare the artist). Paucity? Please.