Absolute Perfection: Stratford's Matchmaker

One of the aspects of reviewing I have the most difficulty with is what to write about in the case of a perfect production. Praising uniform amazingness gets tiring (this is an unspoken rule of criticism, I fear), and often does the production a disservice. So imagine my consternation when I came out of the Festival Theatre having seen The Matchmaker.

Goddamn it, this is a beautiful show.


How dare they?

Before I go on to sing the praises of The Matchmaker, I should make one thing clear. On paper, and often in performance, I don't like Thornton Wilder's work in the least. I find his writing to be sanctimonious and condescending. Even Hello, Dolly!, the musical based on The Matchmaker, rubs me the wrong way.

But something about the cast and director Chris Abraham's handling of the script make me appreciate and respect this work in a way I hadn't thought I would. There's a new level of relatability and humanity. When the characters talk to the audience, it doesn't feel like Thornton Wilder hissing carpe diem from beyond the grave; it feels like an honest and profound look at the inside of the character.

The plot of The Matchmaker is a bit complicated, but in a nutshell -- Once upon a time in Yonkers, millionaire Horace Vandergelder refuses to let his niece marry an artist with no financial prospects. At the same time, he's preparing to propose to hatmaker Irene Molloy, via the arrangements of matchmaker Dolly Levi, who has her own eye on Horace and his considerable estate. Meanwhile, Horace's employees decide to leave Yonkers and have a life-affirming day in the big city. Hijinx ensues.

It certainly helps that the cast is comprised of the acting titans who bless this Festival. Seana McKenna is outstanding as always in the role of Dolly Levi. With a wink of her eye, she stamps her signature on the role, giving it the gravitas one might see in any Shakespearean role. Geraint Wyn-Davies gives a surprisingly grounded performance as job-hopper Malachi Stack. Tom McCamus as Horace Vandergelder is crusty and amiable, with impeccable comic timing, and Cara Ricketts as his tearful niece Ermengarde is a delight to watch.

As Irene Molloy, Laura Condlln acquits herself most elegantly, and Andrea Runge as her shop assistant is really charming. As Cornelius Hackl, Mike Shara brings his usual a-game, and Josh Epstein as Barnaby Tucker is unbearably cute.

What's really marvelous is how brilliantly the cast works as an ensemble. From a breathless transition between scenes that got gasps and applause, to the deliciously farcical restaurant scene, these actors bring an energy and unity of the kind that was sorely missing in Henry V.

The candy-coloured sets are very impressive and multi-leveled, and they lend themselves well to the physical comedy that's required. The costumes are gorgeous and evocative of the era without looking like museum pieces.

The Festival stage's various dimensions and features were used with great understanding and a panache that is sometimes lacking in mainstage productions. Thought the production is very frenetic, it is never overly busy and always keeps a focus on the main action.

This is my first time seeing a play directed by Chris Abraham, but if he handles next year's Othello with the same amount of thoughtfulness and profundity, I'm totally on board.

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