Wednesday, November 6, 2013

2013 Stratford Festival Season Recap

2013 Stratford Festival Season Recap
By David Grapes

Having written extensively about the Stratford Festival since 1983, I have witnessed a number of Artistic Directors (or teams of Artistic Directors) come and go at Stratford. None of these transitions has been more eagerly anticipated that that of home grown Antoni Cimolino, who took the artistic rains this year from perceived outsider Des McAnuff. While McAnuff brought some much needed marketing and development savvy to the Stratford organization, he was never able to effectively utilize Stratford’s amazing acting ensemble, preferring to import many American actors and designers whom he had worked with on Broadway or at LaJolla Playhouse in CA. And that would have been OK had he managed to deliver the artistic goods. However, it was obvious from his first production of Romeo and Juliet that Mr. McAnuff was much better equipped to deliver serviceable productions of American musicals that he was to stage Shakespeare. Thus he gave us some entertaining productions of Forum, Superstar and even this years Tommy while struggling badly with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, Macbeth and Henry V, his one triumph coming with an excellent production of As You Like It, which ironically he had really developed while still at LaJolla Playhouse. He never fully embraced the company concept and the company never fully embraced him.

So, there was a lot of joy from the established company when it was announced two years ago that Antoni Cimolino would become the next Artistic Director. As it turned out Mr. McAnuff decided to depart early and left Mr. Cimolino to pick up the pieces and quickly cobble together the 2013 season. While everyone knew that Mr. Cimolino had the potential to succeed, I doubt if anyone expected him “to turn around the Titanic” in a single season. However, turn the artistic and final ship he did, not only giving us the best first season that I can remember but one of the finest seasons in festival history. And he did it by going back to what makes the Stratford Festival special and unique. Chose interesting plays that challenge the audience, populate them with the correct acting ensembles and then stage them in a true thrust setting instead of trying to turn the Festival stage into a Broadway theatre. Gone are the technical pyrotechnics that Mr. McAnuff loved, replaced with simple theatricality and stunning design work that enhances rather than dominates the production. Gone too are most of the outside actors and designers, replaced by company members, who are eager to demonstrate their talent and worth to the company. One need only look at the cast lists for the two productions that Mr. Cimolino directed to know that he has the complete support of the acting company.

It is an exciting time again at Stratford. Tickets sales and fund-raising are up, the new Forum education program has been an unqualified success and there is a real sense of hope and optimism for the future of classical theatre in North America.

I for one can’t wait to see what theatrical gems the 2014 season will bring!

Here is my recap of the 2013 season. Productions are listed in order of preference

Mary Stuart (Tom Patterson Theatre) ****
                       Strong focused direction from Antoni Cimolino
                       Peacock and McKenna as the two queens
                       Interesting mix of modern and period design elements
                       Excellent Supporting cast lead by Ben Carlson and Patricia Collins
                       Powerful scenes that are emotionally charged and well acted
                       Beautiful use of the Tom Patterson Theatre

Taking Shakespeare (Studio Theatre) ****
                       Compelling new script from John Murrell
                       Martha Henry’s beautifully nuanced performance
                       Excellent set design
                       The production makes you realize why Shakespeare still matters

Othello (Avon Theatre) ***1/2
                       Stunning visuals
                       Amazing aural soundscape
                       Excellent cast with a strong command of Shakespeare’s prose
                       Beautiful stage pictures
Blithe Spirit (Avon Theatre) ***
                       Stylish design work
                       Strong ensemble acting led by Ben Carlson
                       Quirky non-tradition performance from Seana McKenna
                       Nice special effects

Merchant of Venice (Festival Theatre) ***
                       Set in the 1930’s during the rise of Fascism
                       Well staged on the Festival’s thrust
                       Strong ensemble acting
                       Contains several innovative directorial choices 

Measure for Measure (Tom Patterson Theatre)
The Thrill (Studio Theatre)
Fiddler on the Roof (Festival Theatre)
Tommy (Avon Theatre)
Romeo and Juliet (Festival Theatre)

The Three Musketeers (Festival Theatre)

Waiting for Godot (Tom Patterson Theatre)

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