De Vega upstages the Bard at Stratford Festival

STRATFORD, Ontario &

It takes a lot to upstage the Bard, but Lope de Vega manages to do just that at the 2008 Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

Making his Stratford debut (some 370 years after his demise), the late 16th-century Spanish playwright gets a remarkable showcase in British director Laurence Boswell's thrillingly melodramatic (in the best sense of the word) adaptation of "Fuente Ovejuna" (Foo-WEN-tay Ovay-HOON-a), running into early October at the festival's Tom Patterson Theatre.

Once you get past the English translation of the play's title &

it means "sheep's well" and is the name of a small town &

things couldn't be more clear. Boswell's language is surprisingly modern in this tale of revenge that pits the town's residents against the nastiest of overlords, portrayed with evil, lip-smacking glee by Scott Wentworth.

When this monster is brutally dispatched, the question becomes "whodunit" &

at least for the authorities. The entire town says collectively, "We did," and wholesale torture ensues to find the culprit. What makes "Fuente Ovejuna" such a perfect fit for the festival is its large cast of characters, perfect for an actor-rich company such as the Stratford Festival. Roles may be small in "Fuente Ovejuna," but they provide an opportunity for potent portraits, and the actors make the most of it.

Chief among these seizers of opportunity are Sara Topham and Jonathan Goad as the brave young lovers whose romance is interrupted by the bloody goings-on. Topham, in particular, shakes things up with a spirited call to action, but there also are distinctive performances by Robert Persichini as one of the more brutally beaten townsfolk, and James Blendick as Topham's benevolent father.

Lope de Vega is a perfect source of plays for Stratford. They are rich in language, action and character, much like the festival's namesake. And he apparently wrote some 1,500 plays. OK, Stratford, 1,499 to go.

It hasn't been the easiest year for the festival, particularly offstage. Even before the season started, two of its three new artistic directors had departed, leaving Des McAnuff and general director Antoni Cimolino in charge of the more than a dozen productions that are part of a season that runs into early November.

Then there are factors beyond the festival's control: the dilemma of disappearing American tourists, most likely because of tighter border restrictions, the high price of gasoline and the sturdy Canadian dollar, now on par with the American buck. And even attendance by Canadian theatergoers apparently has declined a bit, too.

That's too bad because the festival this year has made a determined effort to put Shakespeare front and center again at its main stage, although the effort has been met with decidedly mixed results. The best-received this season by the Canadian critics has been the Bard's most well-known play: "Hamlet," with Ben Carlson as the tortured title character.

Carlson is Hamlet as an angry young man, displaying a craggy petulance that gradually turns fiercer and more self-assured. These moments of self-discovery are revealed, of course, in the man's parade of soliloquies, these well-known moments of solo acting that Carlson manages to make his own.

It's an elegant, stylish production (vaguely Edwardian) with the right balance of spectacle and intimacy. Director Adrian Noble uses that flash sparingly &

most obviously in the ghostly appearance of Hamlet's dead father (murdered by Hamlet's uncle) where every appearance is awash in a swirl of fog.

One of the joys of this production is its sharp juxtaposition of families: Hamlet's totally dysfunctional relatives contrasted with the joyous, loving relationship of Polonius and his two children, Laertes and Ophelia. Geraint Wyn Davies is a strikingly genial Polonius, sympathetic and understanding, not the buffoonish twit he often becomes. Bruce Godfree as Laertes and Adrienne Gould as Ophelia are loving, gentle siblings, which makes Ophelia's death stand out even more forcefully.

McAnuff has directed a young, sexy and eager production of "Romeo and Juliet" that looks right, even when the language seems beyond one of its two leads. Nikki M. James is a physically perfect Juliet, sweetly childlike in her demeanor and impetuosity. Vocally though, she has a hard time filling the festival's largest theater. Gareth Potter, as her ardent suitor, has no such problem. He is able to handle the extensive swordplay, too.

This is a kinetic production, done in modern-dress and with modern weapons (a machine gun and motor scooter can be found in the opening scene) that switches to period costumes at the masquerade ball when Romeo and Juliet first set off sparks. McAnuff has a sure sense of the visual, one that should appeal to a younger audience, who probably won't mind the leading lady's vocal limitations or the overacting by certain older cast members who should know better.

Kinetic is not an adjective one would use to describe "Love's Labour's Lost." It's an early Shakespeare comedy jam-packed with intricate wordplay and arcane references that are difficult for a modern audience to unravel.

And in this stubbornly static version directed by Michael Langham and performed by members of the festival's Young Company (with an assist from some seasoned members of the regular troupe), depth of talent doesn't go much beyond a proficiency with verbal technique. Emotional involvement is minimal.

The story sounds more intriguing in setup than in execution. Four young noblemen forsake the company of women as they pursue their education. These chaste plans, of course, quickly go awry.

No one makes much of an impression, although there is one scene-stealer in the crowd. The production's 11-year-old Abigail Winter-Culliford, who portrays the page Moth. Though pint-size, she has a giant talent, displaying a savvy stage awareness more experienced actors should envy.

Other Shakespeare productions at Stratford this season are "All's Well That Ends Well" and "The Taming of the Shrew" (unseen by this reviewer). And upcoming in mid-August is a classic from another master, George Bernard Shaw. The production, "Caesar and Cleopatra," will star Christopher Plummer, always a potent draw at Stratford, and will be directed by McAnuff.

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