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Saturday, August 29, 2015

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Amazing, typically Stratford

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One of the great joys of summer in southern Ontario, in addition to the longer days, the high, powder blue skies and the happier faces of Ontarians, is the return each year of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

Few are the comparable experiences where one can so effusively marvel at, be absorbed into, or take such absolute delight in the sum of so many diverse, super-talented individual parts than the experience of attending a performance at the festival. 

Playwrights, lyricists, musicians, choreographers, directors, set, sound and lighting engineers, wardrobe designers, wig and makeup specialists, singers, dancers and, of course, actors combine their considerable skills to produce for us a theatre fantasy world. 

We enter that world for some two hours at a time. Soon after, amazement envelopes us.

So it was again, this year at the performances of The Matchmaker, 42nd Street and The Pirates of Penzance. (Due to space limitations, I will comment on only one of the plays.) 

The Matchmaker, by Thornton Wilder holds the audience in thrall with scene after scene of comic grace, down-home, pithy gems of wisdom and laugh out-loud chuckling.

The story is well known to many of us as a result of its movie adaptation in 1964 as Hello, Dolly!

The plot revolves around a handful of characters who have a madcap, zany interaction one fateful day in New York City. It involves the attempt by Horace Vandergelder to impose his imperious will upon his niece, her efforts to marry whom she wishes, the bold, break-out experiences of Vandergelder’s two timid store clerks, the reckless abandon of a widowed milliner and her assistant, the all-for-love crusading of a wacky spinster and the wily, wise machinations of Dolly Gallagher Levi, the matchmaker of the story.

At its core, Wilder has given us a play that pits the ideals of love and the idyllics of romance against the hardnosed cynicism of the skeptical and utilitarian.

“There is only one way to get happiness and that’s to be rich enough to buy it,” says the self-absorbed, curmudgeon Vandergelder. “Marriage is a bribe to make a housekeeper feel like a home owner,” he sarcastically adds. 

Against Vandergelder, Wilder presents the opposite view from his little-experienced but endearingly doe-eyed clerk Cornelius Hackl: “A fine woman is the greatest work of God.” 

“I bet you could know a woman for a hundred years and never be certain if she likes you,” Cornelius tells his trusting, starry-eyed sidekick, Barnaby Tucker.

As the pace of the boisterous comedy and vaudevillian pratfalls quickens, Irene Molloy, the owner of the New York hat shop tells her assistant, “The world is full of wonderful things.”

What follows is aimed at proving her hopeful proclamation.

Chris Abraham masterfully ties a ribbon of directing excellence around this very large package of high-spirited, playful, wholly entertaining humour.

The key roles are ably and at times superbly performed. 

Tom McCamus is strong and effectively exaggerated as the vain, stuffy Vandergelder.

Mike Shara and Josh Epstein were like a pair of velvet gloves, fitting smoothly and seamlessly into each other’s comedic timing, as the two store clerks who venture from sleepy Yonkers, “where nothing ever happens,” to daunting New York City, where, in contrast, everything seems to happen. 

Laura Condlin was marvellous as the lovely yet single-minded and indefatigable Irene Molloy. Her humour was smoothly and deftly delivered, whether she was berating the bumptious Cornelius, raising an eyebrow of worry or scrunching her nose in frustration.

Seanna McKenna was a perfect Dolly: authoritative, compassionate, scheming, always and ever pragmatic, but tender too. Her introspective soliloquy about “living with human beings” rather than as a “single oak leaf” tugs at the heart but never descends to maudlin or camp. The experienced McKenna imparts the important message movingly, with touching affection for her late husband and hopeful opportunity for her own future.

Although wanting a life of comfort and ease for herself, Dolly understands the deeper truth about wealth and fortune that ultimately humbles the crusty Vandergelder. And she pronounces that truth in the earthy wisdom for which The Matchmaker (and Wilder) are famous: “Money is like manure. It is not worth a thing unless it is spread around.”

The Matchmaker entertains and amazes. It is thus typical Stratford.



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