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Canada’s Stratford and Shaw Festivals Revive Four Classic Works

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STRATFORD, Ontario — “All’s Well That Ends Well” is one of Shakespeare’s least-loved comedies. “Gaslight” is a hopeless old melodrama purveying woman-as-victim tropes. And “Chicago” is so covered with Bob Fosse’s fingerprints — or are they footprints? — that the musical can hardly be imagined without him.

Yet on a recent trip to Canada — six days here at the home of the Stratford Festival and another day in Niagara-on-the-Lake, where the Shaw Festival performs — I saw all three of those shows successfully remade. I also saw one classic, “Richard III,” successfully left alone.

Is there something healthful to revivals in the air up here? The productions run through the end of October, so you have time to find out for yourself.

Stratford’s “All’s Well,” at the brand-new Tom Patterson Theater, was perhaps the biggest surprise. As usually performed, it is the distasteful tale of a callow playboy named Bertram who treats the friend who loves him — Helen, a young “gentlewoman” of his mother’s household — as a discardable childhood toy. And though Helen eventually gets her revenge, employing a textbook “bed trick” to snare him, that too feels icky.

Indeed, “All’s Well” often comes off as a Shakespearean supercut. Bertram’s mother, a recently widowed countess, retails Polonius-like pearls of wisdom; a fop soldier gets a Malvolio-like comeuppance; and the dying King of France is magically rescued from apparent death like 32 other characters in the canon.

But with vibrantly detailed performances under the direction of Scott Wentworth, the Stratford production turns the problems into assets. Bertram (Jordin Hall) isn’t frivolous; on the brink of manhood, he’s terrified of being trapped by his past. Likewise, Helen (Jessica B. Hill) draws on the anguish, verging on rage, that is the other side of a crush. That you want the best for both of them — and even for the poor fop (Rylan Wilkie) — makes the conflicts more compelling.

A subtler transformation has turned the countess (Seana McKenna, superb) and the king (Ben Carlson, likewise) from stock dotards into complex characters. This is achieved less by rethinking motivations than by burrowing into the language, far richer than I imagined. The updating of the period — which from Michelle Bohn’s Edwardian costumes appears to be World War I — is just enough to provide the actors with recognizable social situations (a funeral, a farewell) that make the verse feel purposeful instead of just pretty. For pretty, there are restless Satie-like piano études by Paul Shilton.

“All’s Well” is thus revealed as less of a knockabout romp than a moving look at the stages of maturity: how it is at first avoided at all costs, then pursued uncertainly and, eventually, for the lucky, achieved with dignity if not a little rue.

Walking a few blocks along the Avon River — yes, that’s its real name — brings you from the Tom Patterson to the Festival Theater, where “Chicago,” directed and choreographed by Donna Feore, is playing. Feore is the first person permitted by the show’s rights holders to replace Fosse’s choreography in a major production; as she has shown in previous Stratford musical revivals, including “Guys and Dolls” and “The Music Man,” she makes every new step count.

But actually, she’s not very interested in steps, as Fosse so distinctively was. (His style is much the same no matter the material.) Rather, she builds on social dance of the period, the late 1920s, to tell the story she’s chosen to highlight. That story is less about the cynicism of the American justice system — how two “merry murderesses” (Jennifer Rider-Shaw and Chelsea Preston) get off the hook by turning their crimes into showbiz — than about women negotiating the tricky new landscape of independence and prohibition.

So when six incarcerated women perform the “Cell Block Tango,” we see their men getting bumped off — and they look as if they deserved it. And when Hunyak, the immigrant who maintains her innocence to the end, is nevertheless executed, Feore stages the scene as an aerial act, having the doomed woman (Bonnie Jordan) descend from the top of the theater on a satiny ribbon that becomes her noose. I won’t reveal how Billy Flynn, the self-serving lawyer played by Dan Chameroy, departs.

Still, this “Chicago” is a mostly joyful take, as is nearly inevitable with full sets and costumes instead of the bleak aesthetic of the long-running Broadway revival. (With everyone wearing black in that production, it can sometimes seem like a super-chic sorority wake.) Feore has apparently drawn inspiration instead from the great Kander and Ebb song “All That Jazz,” which starts the show on a note of liberation: “Oh, I’m no one’s wife/but, oh, I love my life.”

That sentiment is nothing you’d expect to find in “Gaslight,” the 1938 Patrick Hamilton thriller about a woman driven nearly insane by her husband. In earlier versions of the story, including the 1944 George Cukor film, the wife, Bella, is a bewildered victim of psychological torture and a mostly passive participant in the escape from her husband, Jack. She’s rescued by a police detective, whom we understand she may marry next.

But in Johnna Wright and Patty Jamieson’s complete revamp along feminist lines for the Shaw Festival, there’s little left of the original but the gaslit Victorian setting and the general theme of mind control. Even that is now a two-way street. Bella (Julie Lumsden) soon understands what Jack (André Morin) is doing, and fashions a plan to turn the tables. With no police detective in sight, she must rescue herself, with just a doughty maid (Kate Hennig) to help.

Normally when producers find material broadly objectionable, I think they should simply not produce it. (There are plenty of new plays that need to be staged.) This “Gaslight,” though, makes a convincing case for the renovation, not because it is palatable to our tastes but because it is so satisfying as genre drama. It doesn’t hurt that the production, directed by Kelli Fox, is taut and luscious — the set and costumes are by Judith Bowden — with Lumsden particularly compelling as a woman waking up to her powers.

Whether the revision can become a new classic is yet to be seen. It could certainly take a shot at Broadway, where the original, under the title “Angel Street,” ran for three years in the 1940s.

But which works manage to last, and why, remains a great mystery. Though it certainly helps to have Shakespeare on the title page, even he is buckling under pressures of representation and fairness. “The Merchant of Venice” is antisemitic, “The Taming of the Shrew” is sexist, “Othello” is arguably both.

This year seems to find “Richard III” on the block. When it opened the first Stratford festival in 1953, no one blinked at having Alec Guinness, who was not disabled, play a king who famously was. But when the play, in a nice touch of symmetry, opened the new Tom Patterson this summer, in a production starring Colm Feore — he’s Donna Feore’s husband — I felt torn. I had just seen the Public Theater’s garbled take in Central Park, in which Danai Gurira played the title role without any acknowledgment of Richard’s disability.

Feore more than acknowledges Richard’s body. In some ways that’s what this production, directed by Antoni Cimolino, Stratford’s artistic director, is about. Cimolino frames the action with the discovery of what is most likely the king’s skeleton in 2013. Feore walks with one leg turned at almost a 90-degree angle, causing him to lurch wildly and, at some performances, fall over. If that weren’t enough to make plain the importance of disability in this production’s conception of the character, the scoliotic curvature of Richard’s spine is sewn into his costumes, designed by Francesca Callow.

One ought not like it. Even if you believe, as I do, that someday everyone should be able to play anyone, there are too many disabled actors who rarely get work to give a plum role like Richard to somebody else.

And yet, what can I say? Feore is superb in a very cool and traditional reading of the role. (He barely raises his voice, or needs to, thanks to the Patterson’s phenomenal acoustics.) His internalization of Richard’s disability seems complete, accurate and uncondescending. The supporting cast, most of whom appear in “All’s Well” at alternate performances, is unusually fine, especially the quartet of women whom Richard widows, taunts, haunts, marries or murders. Actually, in this production, it’s a quintet of women: The assassin he hires to do his worst deed — the killing of the boy princes who stand in his way — is no longer James Tyrell but Jane. Chillingly, she is the only person onstage you believe Richard actually loves.

Despite that alteration, and the contemporary framing device, this remains a conventional revival in the best sense: It restores the power of the story by keeping faith with its words. That’s what makes all the Canadian revivals I saw so powerful. (Well, OK, there was a middling “Hamlet.”) If there’s something in the air here promoting that quality, it’s the repertory system: Stratford, still returning to full strength after the pandemic shutdown, has 10 productions running this season; Shaw has 11. Talk about maturity! Most things get better the more you do them.

Stratford Festival

“All’s Well That Ends Well,” “Chicago” and “Richard III” are in repertory through Oct. 30. Stratford, Ontario; stratfordfestival.ca.

Shaw Festival

“Gaslight” is in repertory through Oct. 8. Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario; shawfest.com.

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