It’s a joyful thing when a great play that seemed to be lost is found. How much more so when its greatness is confirmed and the play takes root in the soil of a new time.
That was my experience seeing Alice Childress’s “Wedding Band” this summer at the Stratford Festival, in Ontario. Written in 1962, and first produced in New York by the Public Theater, in 1972, it had all but disappeared for 50 years when Theater for a New Audience, in Brooklyn, revived it last spring. A revelation then, it is even more so now, not because Stratford’s production is better but because, by being excellent in a different way, it confirms the play’s vitality.
Second comings are crucial to the restocking and refreshing of the dramatic repertoire; a work may be praised at its premiere or when unearthed as a novelty but must be produced a second time before it can be produced 100 times. Helping new and rediscovered work through that bottleneck is one of the things the noncommercial theater does best.
During the week I spent at Stratford last month I saw four plays (and two musicals, which I’ve written about already) that encompass the idea in various ways and to various ends. Two of the plays — “Wedding Band” and a rollicking “Much Ado About Nothing” — were revelations. Another, a “Richard II” set in the disco era, was a mixed-metaphor mess. And one, “Grand Magic,” a 1948 morsel of the Italian absurd, was a stylish mystification.
At the same time, returning to the festival for my fifth visit in seven years — it and I were mostly shut down for the two worst Covid seasons — I was heartened by the second coming of the festival itself, and of its recently rebuilt theater, the Tom Patterson.
“Wedding Band,” “Richard II” and “Grand Magic” all played at the Patterson, the only one of Stratford’s four theaters with a thrust stage. That made it ideal for the claustrophobic intimacy of Childress’s play, in which a Black woman in South Carolina in 1918 (Antonette Rudder) and the white man who is her husband in all but the law (Cyrus Lane) find the world in which they can share their lives shrinking, eventually to nothing.
It was always a tragedy for the couple and, by implication, the country, whose attempts to encompass all races in a loving union have been notably fitful and remain unfinished. But the director Sam White’s production unexpectedly adds another layer of tragedy. Her staging emphasizes the hard-won pleasures of the central relationship, so that something valuable is felt to be lost when the world intervenes. But distinctively it also suggests the tragedy of the white characters — especially the man’s mother and sister — who are nominally the villains.
When I saw the play in Brooklyn, those women were brilliantly rendered grotesques. As played here by Lucy Peacock and Maev Beaty, they are no longer monsters though their behavior remains monstrous; we see how the tragedy of racism makes victims of everyone.
It is a pleasure of the repertory system, nearly extinct elsewhere in North America, that Beaty, so twisted and tortured in “Wedding Band,” was a witty and emotional Beatrice in “Much Ado” the night before. To my mind the best of Shakespeare’s comedies in balancing insight with laughs, “Much Ado” is frequently updated in various ways. Most recently in New York City, Kenny Leon set it in an upper-class Black suburb of Atlanta during a hypothetical Stacey Abrams campaign for president.
At Stratford, the director Chris Abraham has left the original setting pretty much alone, though his version of 16th-century Sicily has a stronger than usual commedia dell’arte accent. (The pratfalls never stop.) Beaty’s Beatrice is notably more heartful than most, not so guarded about the love she feels for Benedick (Graham Abbey) despite their professed mutual disaffection. And Abbey’s Benedick, though sharp-tongued, is a superbly rendered goofball, an overgrown bro who doesn’t know how to get serious about what he wants.
Purists shouldn’t mind any of that, but they will surely yelp about the addition of material, by the Canadian playwright Erin Shields, that puts the play in an overtly feminist frame. A new prologue, spoken by Beatrice in a reasonably supple pentameter, tells us, among other things, that in Elizabethan London, “nothing” was slang for “vagina,” thus altering the thrust of the play’s title. And in a revamped final scene, Shields bears down on the harm done to women by male paranoia, the cure for which must be liberation.
Since that theme already underlies the play, it hardly needs the underlining; Abraham’s production gets to the same point quite handily on its own. Still, I found Shields’s additions droll, and possibly useful as a kind of welcome, for those not expecting such rutting from Shakespeare, to the three hours of frank sex talk, or at least sex puns, that have always been hiding there in plain sight.
What’s hiding in Stratford’s “Richard II” is, alas, the play itself, so baroquely reframed you can no longer see it. As conceived and directed by Jillian Keiley — with interpolations from “Troilus and Cressida,” “Coriolanus,” “Much Ado” and the sonnets — the tragedy of the 14th-century English king has been phantasmagorically transported to Studio 54-era New York as a celebration of what a program note calls queer Black “divinity.” So Hotspur is a coked-up club kid and, yes, there’s oral sex in a hot tub. AIDS gets what seems to me to be a gratuitous cameo.
The problem certainly isn’t the queer part of the mission statement. Many productions have explored the suggestion in the text that Richard (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff) and his cousin Aumerle (Emilio Vieira) were lovers, and that their connection helped lead to the king’s downfall in a court that would have seen that relationship as a sign of his unfitness. And surely in the age of “Bridgerton” we’re excited rather than scandalized by the casting of Black actors in roles previously played only by white ones.
The problem is the cultural metaphor that Keiley and Brad Fraser, who did the adaptation, have chosen to superimpose on a history play. The first of a tetralogy telling the “sad stories of the death of kings,” “Richard II” is fundamentally about personal flaws that become political disasters. Celebrating those flaws as fabulousness confuses the issue whichever way you look at it. Was Richard a martyr to a movement in the future? Does the ecstasy of gayness make for bad governance?
It did not help, on the Patterson’s extraordinarily long and narrow thrust, with audiences banked closely on three sides, that the actors were staged so densely and busily you often could not grasp what was going on.
That wasn’t a problem for Antoni Cimolino, the festival’s artistic director and a primary force behind the building of the new theater. His production of Eduardo de Filippo’s “Grand Magic,” on the same stage as “Richard II,” is flat-out gorgeous — sets, costumes, music, everything — and always legible.
If only the play itself were. The world premiere translation (by John Murrell and Donato Santeramo) is clean and colloquial, but the story of a washed-up magician (Geraint Wyn Davies) working scams on customers at a Neapolitan resort is nevertheless as hard to follow as one of his tricks. Like “Much Ado,” it turns on a husband’s overweening jealousy, and his wife’s need to liberate herself, in this case with the help of a disappearing act.
Yet the play finally isn’t very interested in its story or even its characters except as vehicles for big ideas about identity and illusion. Playgoers drawn in by the captivating mise-en-scène may soon feel hoodwinked by the flood of abstractions. As a play, it’s its own disappearing act.
I don’t know what will happen to “Grand Magic” next; I barely know what happened during it. But sorting work for the future can sometimes mean letting it go. Re-creation is a constant winnowing, but also, more happily, a constant expansion. “Wedding Band” — and Stratford itself, nearly back to its prepandemic capacity — will both be part of that.
In repertory, with staggered closing dates through Oct. 27, at the Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ontario; stratfordfestival.ca.