Arts & Entertainment » Theater

In love and war, from Ontario to ancient Greece


The Stratford Festival brought out big guns for its last salvo.

            I'd only heard about Anne Chislett's Quiet in the Land.In1981 it was commissioned by, and premiered at, the Blyth Summer Festival, whose plays typically deal with rural Canadian settings and history. Quiet in the Land is about the pacifist Amish in southwestern Ontario. Set in the final years of World War I, Chislett's fact-based play deals with the presently relevant topics of conscientious objection to war and dissensions within traditional religion. Powerful and thought-provoking, it turns out in performance to be well worth its imposing reputation.

            The plot is fairly simple. Struggling to maintain their way of living according to their religious beliefs, the Amish community resists the draft and gains exemption for their younger members. Required to attend school outside their community, those younger folk have their own struggle against their elders' insistence on anachronistic customs (e.g., prohibiting association with non-believers, or use of modern machinery, or English speech). Their neighbors are antagonistic because the Amish avoid military service but profit from the war by selling their farm goods. And they speak a form of German, the language of the country's wartime enemy.

            These larger ideas are made personal by focusing on a few families. Christy Bauman (played with conventional harsh dignity by imposing Stephen Russell) is an unyielding, conservative widower, who becomes Bishop and insists upon separatism and "the old ways." His mother, Hannah (movingly portrayed with humor and dignity by Joyce Campion), while equally xenophobic, attempts to soften his flinty manner. The representative and ultimate victim of all the play's conflicts, Christy's son Yock, questions his father's beliefs and resists conformity.

            Yock is goaded to fury by his father's pitiless response to Yock's non-Amish school chum Paddy's loss of his legs in the war. Christy says that he did not ask Paddy to go fight and lose his legs, that Christ performed sufficient sacrifice for our sins on the cross. Yock's blasphemous response that he didn't ask Christ to do that either results in a brutal public beating from his father and Yock's subsequent desertion of the community and enlistment in the army. When he returns, a hero admired by neighbors but a killer despised by his religion, Yock is turned away by his father and feels bitterly agonized by self-doubt.

            In a more dangerous threat to Christy's severe traditionalism, Yock's friend Menno joins and embraces the religion and begins to lead seminars of young people in a "Sunday school" movement that will eventually erode and change from within and ultimately challenge the accepted order.

            Lara Jean Chorostecki as Katie, Yock's beloved, who remains and marries Menno, is lovely and persuasively empathetic. Jason Mitchell believably and persuasively develops Menno into an appealing secondary protagonist. And Michael Therriault is brilliant and heartbreaking as the troubled Yock.

            The superb cast seems to me to have done more to vitalize the play than Andrey Tarasiuk's slow, stately direction. And Keith Thomas's wholly inappropriate music is ponderous and intrusive: it sounds like Gregorian chants and couldn't be less connected to a drama about earthy Amish people. However, John Ferguson, the original designer of Quiet in the Land's premiere production, works within a rigid Amish dress code that prohibits any prideful individuality and a limited color scheme that reflects simplicity, and yet manages to subtly characterize the individuals by choice of clothing for each and to provide handsome stage pictures.

Stratford's Executive Director Antoni Cimolino directs a nifty version of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lostin a major production at the big Festival Theatre. Perhaps it is Steven Hawkins' muted lighting that makes all those hanging greens, like weeping willow branches, look so moldy. Otherwise, I don't understand how international superstar designer Santo Loquasto came to create such a confusing, ugly set. But his costumes are expectedly clever and gorgeous. So are the charismatic young cast members who play the comedy's multiple lovers. And the silly comic roles are well placed in the capable hands of veteran actors James Blendick, Barry MacGregor, Brian Tree, and the great Brian Bedford.

            I just wish I weren't so bored with this play. It is young Shakespeare showing off his wit and poetry in dialogue that is often lovely and witty, but more often forced and mannered. And tediously verbose.

            For all its charm, the plot is too precious for words, even Shakespeare's words. Ferdinand, the young king of Navarre, has gathered his three best friends --- Berowne, Longaville, and Dumain --- in an idealistic retreat. They will study, pursue knowledge and virtue, restrict their diet, sleep, and physical comforts, and avoid women altogether. Unsurprisingly, they are visited by the young Princess of France attended by her three attendant maidens and best friends --- Rosaline, Maria, and Katherine. Upon sight of one another, they all fall in love, the men each secretly sending love notes to their opposite numbers: King to Princess, Berowne to Rosaline, Longaville to Maria, Dumain to Katherine. A whole lot of wooing follows.

            Punctuating all this romantic stuff are a number of word-molesters: the simple Costard who loves the country wench Jaquenetta; the absurdly affected fop, Don Adriano de Armado, who lusts after Jaquenetta himself; and Nathaniel and Holofernes, two pretentious pedants. They interact with the equally clownish Anthony Dull, a stupid constable, and Moth, Don Adriano's impish servant. The Princess is also attended by a sarcastic, prissy wit, the polished Boyet. Their nonsensical wordplay reaches a climax in a pageant which the noble lovers rudely interrupt and mock with only slightly playful disdain.

            In similar circumstances, the kinder nobles in Shakespeare's later A Midsummer Night's Dream demonstrate more tolerance and better breeding. The amorously combative and witty lovers, Berowne and Rosaline, are similarly inferior to their successors, Beatrice and Benedick, in Shakespeare's much later Much Ado About Nothing.

            Cimolino keeps the lovesick proceedings light, brisk, and amusing. All the cast are adroit and appealing, with the young lovers uniformly sexy as well as talented. Even the uncouth peasant lovers, Costard and Jaquenetta, are played as a cute couple by muscular Jonathan Goad and seductive Adrienne Gould. Except for Bedford's Don Adriano, there's no great acting here, but the comedy has an impressive overall sheen.

Stratford's Artistic Director Richard Monette directs a strikingly impressive version of Shakespeare's equally imperfect tragedy Troilus and Cressida --- with a number of surprises. This is the sexiest Troilus and Cressida I've seen.

            Shakespeare's cynical anti-war study of conflicting love, honor, valor, and decadence explores the voluptuous degeneracy underlying both sides of the Greek vs. Trojan conflict. The Homeric plot shows the fall of Troy as heralded by Achilles' climactic defeat of Hector --- unheroically murdered by several of Achilles' Myrmidons. Shakespeare's focus is on the love and loss of Cressida by Hector's youngest brother, Troilus.

            The lovers are brought together by Cressida's uncle, the lascivious Pandarus, from whom we get our word pander. They are separated by Cressida's father, who promises her to the Greek hero Diomedes in exchange for a captive Trojan hero. Shakespeare makes Cressida a wanton who essentially betrays her Trojan lover in a lustful union with the Greek to whom she is given. And the sensuality of almost all the major characters is clearly defined, including the homosexual union between Achilles and Patroclus. David Shelley's beautiful Patroclus even insultingly rips off his garment and walks completely naked away from the disapproving Greek commanders.

            Usually, Pandarus is played as a comic male "bawd," an ineffectual, often effeminate go-between and matchmaker: a kind of gossipy old maid. Monette directs the superb character actor Bernard Hopkins to play Pandarus as lascivious and cynical, but also as an assured manipulator. He toys with a handsome underling, fondling the man's crotch. And he preens more than he fawns.

            At the play's conclusion, Pandarus descends into a diseased, broken man. Troilus is then contemptuous of Pandarus. But, with unusual emphasis on Pandarus' earlier lines complaining about a rheum in his eyes and ache in his bones and his final cynical bequest of his "diseases" to his followers, Hopkins' Pandarus displays nastily made-up, puffy eyes and a discolored face as he staggers onstage to deliver his defeated epilogue. He is still obscene, but almost tragically deteriorated. It's a fascinating approach that results in a memorable performance.

            The huge cast is entirely impressive. I saw four understudies in major roles and found them all first rate. Young David Snelgrove is a passionate, heroic Troilus, enslaved by his love for Cressida but more honestly romantic than usual. Claire Jullien's complex Cressida slyly hints at artifice and wantonness, but is genuinely in love with Troilus, so that her eventual betrayal seems to be tinged with a lingering desire for her formerly honest love. Aided by Monette's straightforward emphasis, Stephen Ouimette's stunningly vicious portrayal of the often annoying railer, Thersites, is much more than a scurrilous malcontent. He is a hateful, inferior creature but also presents an unforgettable indictment of his corrupt society and this inexcusably destructive war. And Hopkins makes me want to retitle the play Pandarus.

            The production is visually stunning with all design, music, fights, and staging created at top level.

Stratford Festival:Anne Chislett's Quiet in the Land at the Patterson Theatre through September 26, Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost at the Festival Theatre through November 2, Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida at the Avon Theatre though September 28.Tix: $20.70-$105.40 Canadian dollars ($14.77-$75.18 US dollars) 800-567-1600, [email protected],