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Two Lives, Intoxicated by Theater

Christopher Plummer
The New York Times

By Charles Isherwood

STRATFORD, Ontario — Much of the glory and a lot of the money in show business find their way to actors — or at least stars. But two refreshing solo shows at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival this season reorient our perceptions of where much of the magic really comes from, at least in the theater.

As it happens, one of the productions is written by and showcases the newly Oscar-laureled veteran actor Christopher Plummer, one of those luminous beings long at home in the spotlight. But “A Word or Two,” directed by Des McAnuff, is by no means a self-glorifying star turn.

I expected the show to be a sort of potted version of Mr. Plummer’s rollicking autobiography, “In Spite of Myself.” And, yes, Mr. Plummer does oblige with the occasional personal anecdote about his roistering among boldface names. But Richard Burton plays a supporting role in a story about wild nights at the White Horse Tavern in the West Village. The star is Dylan Thomas, regaling Burton, Mr. Plummer and the rest of the bar with stories and snatches of verse.

Far from being a glittery recitation of career and personal triumphs and trials, “A Word or Two” is a warm and highly literate tribute to the writers whose work has inspired, sustained and delighted Mr. Plummer as he has forged his career as an international star both on the stage and in the movies. It’s a passionate love letter to language, to poetry above all, and while Mr. Plummer tells the occasional story of overindulgence in another of his favorite pastimes — namely drinking — we come away with the firm sense that he has far more often been intoxicated by the beauty of verse. Audiences are likely to find themselves exiting the Avon Theater here in the same woozy-happy state.

The show does move along a general chronological curve in line with traditional autobiography. Mr. Plummer begins with Lewis Carroll and A. A. Milne, whose writings provided a comfortable refuge in his lonely boyhood in Canada’s chilly north. An only child whose father abandoned the family, and who suffered from “crippling shyness,” Mr. Plummer cites his beginnings as inauspicious: a birth date of Friday the 13th in the grim year 1929.

But he grew up in the bosom of his mother’s literature-loving family, at a time when reading aloud was still considered a staple form of entertainment. As he traces his growth from youth to maturity, and his emergence from bookish introvert to eager performer, Mr. Plummer combines an easy erudition with a sense of affable humility as he recites selections from his favorite poets, loosely assembled as a journey from childhood to old age.

Wallpapered in poetry quotations as it is, this isn’t a Greatest Hits of English Verse show: despite the span-of-life theme, we don’t hear Shakespeare’s “seven ages of man” monologue, and in fact Shakespeare makes only a cameo appearance. Established giants like W. H. Auden, Robert Frost and Philip Larkin are included, but Mr. Plummer quotes liberally from writers like the poets Robert Service and Stephen Leacock (both better known in Canada).

Ambling across a handsome set by Robert Brill, aptly dominated by a giant, spiraling sculpture made entirely of books, Mr. Plummer recites poetry with the ease of a man who has been hearing it singing in his head virtually every day of his life. His velvety baritone has lost little, if any, of its beauty or authority. To hear Mr. Plummer reciting verse is to be reminded that the greatest classical actors are those most deeply attuned to the disparate rhythms and textures of language — whether it is the comedy of Leacock or the ecstatic heights of the “Song of Solomon” from the Bible.

The selections are woven together with modest, often funny personal reflections. Mr. Plummer proves himself an aphorist worthy of inclusion alongside Oscar Wilde and Oscar Levant when he says that middle age is “when you stop combing your hair and start arranging it.”

But for the most part Mr. Plummer’s aim in “A Word or Two” is to lead the audience to share his intimacy with the writing that has clearly enriched his life and even fueled his art. In contrast to most solo shows featuring name stars, the message of “A Word or Two” is not “Look at me!” but “Listen to this!”