Feore lights up Stratford fest

Festival spotlights longtime theater vet

STRATFORD, Ontario — It’s a three-alarm Feore at the Stratford Festival this summer.

In its 54th season, the largest classical repertory theater in North America has pinned most of its hopes on the talents of Colm Feore, who spent 14 years with the company in his youth, before going on to an international stage and film career.

Feore is playing three drastically different roles this summer: the title roles in Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” and Moliere’s “Don Juan” as well as Fagin in the Lionel Bart musical “Oliver!”

He unveiled his Roman general and London miser in the fest’s opening week, which began May 29, providing two high points in a wildly uneven slate of plays.

The festival is in the final two years of the long reign of artistic director Richard Monette, who took over in 1994. His successor, Antoni Cimolino, already has been announced and, in fact, directed “Coriolanus.” But the stamp of Monette’s regime remains evident in the tendency inrecent years toward cronyism and lackluster productions.

Despite a threatened protest by antipoverty groups that proved to be a nonevent (only 40 demonstrators), the opening night production of “Coriolanus” proved a solid and often thrilling affair.

Feore was in top form, radiating vitality and making speeches with a combination of rapid delivery and perfect diction that recalled Olivier in his prime. The setting by Santo Loquasto was sparse but effective, and Cimolino again proved he can combine intellectual rigor with theatrical flair.

The next night was “Oliver!” a Feore family affair with Colm starring as Fagin and his wife, Donna — previously known only as a choreographer — making her Stratford directing debut. It’s a large, handsome spectacle, delivering generous doses of comedy and pathos along with fine singing and dancing.

Feore’s sympathetic Fagin held the show together, and Blythe Wilson’s Nancy stopped the proceedings cold with a knockout turn on “As Long As He Needs Me.”

Also in the opening week was Monette’s “Henry IV, Part 1,” derided by virtually all critics for its slapdash perfs and perversely comic interpretation of Hotspur. Monette regulars like David Snelgrove (Prince Hal) and James Blendick (Falstaff) failed to make much of an impression.

Miles Potter directed “The Glass Menagerie” in a production that sometimes dug too deeply for comedy but still drew largely positive critical response for the show and its star, Seana McKenna.

Brian Bedford directed and starred in Dion Boucicault’s 1997 Tony-nommed play “London Assurance.” Bedford’s stylish comic tricks are always a pleasure to watch, and on this occasion, he had a gifted partner in veteran designer Desmond Heeley, whose outrageous sets and costumes drew high praise.

Peter Hinton, the newly appointed a.d. of the National Arts Center, garnered wildly mixed notices for his highly stylized production of John Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi.” Although visually impressive, the actors were generally weak, and the overall effect was one of style triumphing over substance.

The fest’s second musical of the season was a cotton-candy production of “South Pacific,” which took the song “Happy Talk” far too literally, and delivered a vision of the classic tuner long on shtick and short on emotion.

Blame choreographer-turned-director Michael Lichtefeld for most of the surface treatment. He wasn’t helped by Stratford’s resident musical star, Cynthia Dale, who seemed to be playing Nellie Forbush for perkiness at the expense of everything else.

Things came to a sad close with “Much Ado About Nothing.” This production had been troubled from the start, with helmer Stephen Ouimette withdrawing near the end of rehearsals due to nervous exhaustion and Marti Maraden taking over.

However, it appeared that no one had any idea how tomount the play, which featured the kind of well-costumed generic emptiness that marks Stratford at its worst.

Peter Donaldson was a zesty Benedick, but Lucy Peacock, another Monette favorite, delivered the same performance she now uses for all roles. The rest of the cast was largely negligible.

There are still seven productions to be unveiled in the next two months, including Feore’s “Don Juan,” but until Monette’s final departure at the end of the 2007 season, it looks as if Stratford will resemble an old-fashioned bride — made up of elements old, new, borrowed and blue.

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