A perfect antidote to Cincinnati’s slower summer theater season can be found in Stratford, Ontario, about three hours by car from Detroit. Founded as the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in 1952, the theater extravaganza has broadened its offerings since then and now calls itself simply the Stratford Festival. Between mid-April and late October, 14 productions are available in rotating repertory at four venues within easy walking distance of one another. This was my first visit since 1978.
Stratford (population 31,000, swollen considerably by tourists during the season) also affords an inviting destination for relaxing, walking, dining and shopping. Accommodations can be booked at inns, hotels and numerous bed and breakfasts salted throughout the town’s picturesque residential streets. (We stayed with some friends at The Blue Spruce B&B, a charming spot with friendly hosts.) Exquisite gardens abound around theaters and countless private homes.
The festival’s initial Shakespearean focus is still present: This season includes Romeo and Juliet, Timon of Athens and Twelfth Night. I saw the latter, Shakespeare’s most literate and profound romantic comedy, in Stratford’s largest venue, the 1,800-seat Festival Theatre.
Director Martha Henry employs the fool Feste (Brent Carver) as its organizing character. He launches the evening with yearning music (by Reza Jacobs), accents numerous scenes with his quizzical interjections and tones from Tibetan singing bowls and brings the production to a solemn (and again musical) close. It’s an unusual approach, offering a serious re-examination of a classic often staged in a more lighthearted manner. The surefire comic subplot of the self-important Malvolio (Rod Beattie) made a fool by four laughable tricksters sits uneasily within this low-key approach. This Twelfth Night didn’t quite measure up to one I attended in the same theater in 1978 featuring Maggie Smith as Olivia, but I’m glad to have seen it.
The 2017 festival offers another work by a pair of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Thomas Middleton and William Rowley. Their vicious The Changeling (1622) is a “revenge tragedy” about murder, manipulation and seduction — a dark, melancholy drama. Staged by Jackie Maxwell (previously head of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival, another outstanding Canadian theatrical destination) at the arena-like Tom Patterson Theatre (487 seats), it’s a thorny, bloody show about a conniving woman caught up in a scheme of sexual misbehavior.
A sunnier classic is Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal from 1777, staged by festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino at the Avon Theatre, a modernized 1901 proscenium stage with 1,000 seats. The witty comedy is about the selfish shenanigans of a pair of brothers, eventually exposed by their earnest uncle. They scheme for the affections of an effervescent young noblewoman, whose husband senses he’s losing his grip on his young spouse. The back-and-forth of their volatile marriage — she shops and flirts; he frets and agonizes — is deftly amusing, and the second act’s opening farce of characters hiding and revealing one another’s secrets is a delirious example of brilliantly comic plotting.
Sheridan’s comic characters have names that distill their personalities: Lady Sneerwell (Maev Beaty as a vicious destroyer of reputations), Sir Benjamin Backbite (Tom Rooney as a nasty gossipy scandal monger), Mrs. Candour, Snake, Crabtree and Careless. Cimolino enhances the humor with scandalous newspaper headlines projected on the drawing-room sets during scene changes. The production has a furious momentum, leaving many in attendance yearning to return for more of the lively dialogue.
Another period piece at the Avon, Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic operetta H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), or “The Lass that Loved a Sailor,” further demonstrates the long tradition of arch British humor. This whimsical tale satirizes Victorian England’s class stratification. It’s about an apparently lower-class sailor in love with the daughter of his ship’s captain, a man of higher social station. Their plight is resolved by a silly confession about baby switching, but no one looks to Gilbert & Sullivan for believable storytelling. The jaunty tale is full of good-natured pokes at prudish British behavior, from tea drinking to adherence to the social order.
The most entertaining musical performance I saw was a production of the 1950 Golden-Age Broadway show, Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls, the season’s major hit routinely selling out the huge Festival Theatre. Using a big, talented cast and incredibly athletic dancing, director and choreographer Donna Feore’s scintillating production is every bit the equal of New York musicals. The show commences with a hilarious cellphone warning: A gangster shoots an onstage ringing pay phone, then nods menacingly to the audience. It concludes with a pair of weddings between bad boys and good girls, an echo of the endings of numerous Shakespearean romances.
The festival is committed to new works, too. Kate Hennig’s The Virgin Trial is the second in a series of plays about the Tudor queens. Bess (Bahia Watson), the precocious teenage daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, is coming into her own as a manipulative — and manipulated — young woman on her way to the throne as Elizabeth I. Wearing contemporary clothing and speaking in blunt modern English, this production portrays the chilling nature of scheming political and sexual maneuvering that remains familiar today.
The Stratford Festival is a showcase of acting talent. Many actors appear in multiple productions — not only does Tom Rooney dazzle as Twelfth Night’s foolish Andrew Aguecheek and School for Scandal’s vile Sir Benjamin Backbite, he is playing the hypocritical title role in Molière’s Tartuffe. Additionally, the festival uses the commendable practice of colorblind casting in many productions.
The festival’s costuming and scenic design are universally dazzling, and this season represented a noteworthy array of female directors and designers. As Twelfth Night’s Lady Olivia observes at that show’s conclusion, “Most wonderful.”
The STRATFORD FESTIVAL in Stratford, Ontario, Canada continues through October. For more information: stratfordfestival.ca.