Christopher Plummer’s virtuosity and ability to command a stage have never seemed more secure in “A Word or Two,” his current one-man show at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Expanded considerably from a fundraising speech he gave for a Connecticut library more than 30 years ago, “A Word or Two” is one of the smoothest, most substantial autobiographical monologues to grace a stage. The current version has a fair share of Canadian references that one imagines could be trimmed for audiences in the U.S., for the show seems surely bound that way.
Plummer’s thesis is that the books he has read have helped to shape his life, and he goes on to prove it. It’s not just a collection of “and then I played,” although one or two of his greatest perfs (Hamlet, Cyrano) are here. He’s also just as riveting when it comes to the passages from parts he never played, such as Othello, or when he turns a piece of poetry like Robert Frost’s “Birches” into a full dramatic monologue with a muscular vitality all its own.
The basic form is chronological, and Plummer is especially charming as he recalls his early years as “that dreaded monster, the only child” in a house full of doting women just outside of Montreal. He’s both debauched and debonair recalling his first real bender in the bustling nightlife of that city, and heartbreaking as he recalls his final memories of his beloved mother.
But those looking for a point-to-point saga will be disappointed, because Plummer jumps from romantic excess (making the Song of Solomon sound positively X-rated) to idiosyncratic characterization (turning W.H. Auden’s Herod into a Truman Capote wannabe).
One of his sharper turns comes when he recites alternating speeches by Don Juan and the Devil from Shaw’s “Man and Superman” in rapid succession, displaying his versatility while letting us see that he never really was on the side of the angels. The show’s final section about death is moving without turning maudlin, capped with a bravura bilingual turn as Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac.
Des McAnuff has directed works like this before (notably Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays”), and he remains a master of knowing how to present a complete package without seeming too controlling. From set designer Robert Brill’s vertiginous tower of books through to Michael Walton’s tastefully understated lighting, this is a class act of a production, giving us Plummer in full classical battle cry without requiring the extravagance of the average period production.