With the recent and gala opening of Christopher Plummer's very personal memoir of his life and times -- in and out of the theater -- Canada's Stratford Festival's 2012 slate of 14 plays is complete, with many of the major shows set to continue into late October.
The 90-minute Plummer work, "A Word or Two," has been revised and mounted comfortably at the Avon Theatre. It's a tribute to literature, word magic that the award-winning actor and bon vivant has worshipped since childhood, when nightly group reading by his family was a ritual. Lewis Carroll was a favorite. Not just "Alice in Wonderland," but the Carroll poem "Aged, Aged Man." The first line of that poem is "I'll tell you everything I can." That's a place to start for his "A Word or Two."
A podium. A chair here and there. A table, papers and books opened and scattered. In the background, set designer Robert Brill has assembled an eye-popping rising spiral of books, hundreds of them heading off into infinity. Plummer moves about, tells of his childhood in Montreal, his early exposure to all things arty, his attraction to the stage, his insatiable reading habits (W.H. Auden, A.A. Milne, the Bible, Shaw and Wilde, Coleridge and Marlowe, Frost, Shakespeare, Edmund Rostand, Archibald MacLeish, the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock and an endless list of others).
He excerpts and reads passages, slips into character for some of them -- Auden's campy high priest Herod, Shaw's Devil from "Don Juan in Hell" -- dialects come and go, gaits change, moods alter, all swiftly with, well, a word or two, connections and tangents found and adapted.
Plummer never met an epigram he didn't like, or a pun. He's quick with a one-liner or an acid aside even a song or two, some in French -- apparently Quebecois bawdy tunes judging by the reaction of some bilinguals in the audience -- and he is a master storyteller. He has worked with nearly everyone during a six-decade career (Buffalo's famous acting diva, Katherine Cornell, was once a mentor), so details, albeit brief, can tease.
Near the end of "A Word or Two," Plummer gets a bit darker, commenting on death. "It doesn't take a holiday," he notes. He's 83. His acceptance speech at the recent Oscars, speaking to the statuette -- he was the oldest actor ever to win one -- began with "You're only two years older than me, darling. Where have you been all my life?" And so, there is the thought of the inevitable. With that, there is a thoughtful rendering of Cyrano de Bergerac's famous death speech. Charm, wonder, misty eyes. A fitting end to the night.
At Stratford's Tom Patterson Theatre is "Wanderlust," an original musical by Morris Panych, with music composed by Marek Norman. It is about the "Bard of the Yukon," Robert W. Service.
Serendipity can be elusive. It will be discovered though, in the quirky "Wanderlust," a little, addictive tale based on Service's poems. Service here is a Walter Mitty-ish bookkeeper in a small town bank who longs for adventure, gold and frontier women while trapped at his desk among his debits and credits. "Service," says his superior, "We have to live up to the banker's creed: 'Empty a man's pockets without stealing.' " Service can't do it. He writes poems, doggerel mostly, about northern wilderness, harsh weather, parkas and "a lady that's known as Lou."
Panych has written an entertaining story based on the real-life Service, a poet who once wrote, "Ah yes, I know my brow is low and often wished it high." But he also wrote "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee," colorful poems put to music that get imaginative treatment from Panych and Norman and a fun-loving cast led by classical actor Tom Rooney as Service and the wonderful Robin Hutton. The score has tender ballads and raucous dance, laughs and a love story.
"Wanderlust" is a great surprise and gives cause to learn more about Robert Service, perhaps wrongly neglected. Dreamers everywhere, you'll love this show.
A rare 'Cymbeline'
Also at the Patterson is William Shakespeare's rarely produced "Cymbeline."
"Cymbeline," written in 1609, doesn't fit easily into Shakespearian classification.
A history play? Sort of. Tragic? Some. A romance, a comedy? Yes and maybe.
So, theater historians sometimes call this long and strange play a tragic-comic romance.
Cymbeline, a king, marries a widow with an oaf for a son, Cloten by name. The new queen envisions Cymbeline's daughter, sweet Innogen, and Cloten as a couple. Innogen says no way and marries the poor, but stout, Posthumus who soon enters stupidly into a wager over her fidelity. This and other matters lead to treachery and worse -- banishments, a beheading and all-out war between Britain and the Roman Empire. Dreams play a large part in this story and the seemingly impossible conflicts and situations are solved in the last minutes.
The play has never read well, but director Antoni Cimolino works some stage magic.
The strong cast includes Geraint Wyn Davies, the flawless Cara Ricketts, Mike Shara, John Vickery, Tom McCamus, Brian Tree, Graham Abbey and Peter Hutt.
It's violent and often mean-spirited, but in the end, reconciliation reigns. Good finish.
"A Word or Two" by Christopher Plummer
4 stars (out of 4)
WHEN: To Aug. 26
WHEN: To Sept. 28
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
WHEN: To Sept. 30
WHERE: Stratford Festival