By David Grapes - Arts Journalist
Set amid the bucolic rolling hills of Southern Ontario, the small industrial town of Stratford would appear at first glance to be an unusual location for a theatrical tourist mecca that draws hundreds of thousands on patrons each year from all over the world. However, for all those who enjoy a deep and abiding love for the plays of William Shakespeare and who also enjoy quality theatre in all its forms, tiny Stratford is a mecca indeed.
Originally founded in 1952 by Tom Patterson, who convinced the late Tyrone Guthrie to stage two plays in a tent the following summer starring Alec Guinness and Irene Worth, the Stratford Festival has since grown to become the largest summer theatre festival in North America with a budget exceeding 58 million dollars. And while it is company based, the Festival continues to attract major talent to its stages. Maggie Smith, Christopher Plummer, Brian Dennehy, Brian Bedford, William Hutt, Lorne Greene, Paul Gross and even William Shatner have all trod the boards at Stratford.
This year’s schedule is an eclectic mix of plays that includes five Shakespeare (Antony and Cleopatra, King John, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (two different versions) King John), an English Restoration comedy (The Beaux Stratagem), a new Canadian play (Christina – The Girl King), two Broadway musicals (Crazy For You, Man of La Mancha), Bertold Brecht’s anti-war masterpiece (Mother Courage), Noel Coward’s frothy comedy (Hay Fever), among others.
The twelve show season is produced in a repertory format in the company’s four beautiful theatre spaces, which allows the avid theatre goer the opportunity to see two plays a day or five plays over a weekend. Last year’s attendance topped 480,000 patrons with nearly 40% coming from America.
Now in his 2nd year as Artistic Director, Antoni Cimolino has chosen the theme of “madness: minds pushed to the edge” for the 2014 season. In a recent article for the Stratford Beacon, Cimolino elaborated on this theme; “That pressure that we all feel may make uncomfortable in real life, on stage it becomes great theatre. I think that there is something special about those plays that look at the pressures in our daily lives and take it to the nth degree. It leads to metamorphosis because either you change or you break. If you change, it’s comedy. If you break, it’s tragedy.”
Those themes were certainly present in all of the productions that I attended in early August. I found Cimolino’s overarching vision on the nature of madness to be woven seamlessly through all of this year’s productions, not to mention highly relevant, given the shocking suicide of the brilliant madman Robin Williams, which took place the week I was in Stratford.
With the exception of Alice Through the Looking Glass and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I was able to attend the remaining ten productions in the 2014 season. These were my favorites:
King Lear **** Four Stars
Certainly madness is at the very core of Shakespeare’s great work and Colm Feore gives us a nuanced and heart wrenching performance in the title role of a king gone mad. Staged by Cimolino the production moves quickly and effectively to its brutal but not unexpected conclusion as Lear’s own heart breaks at the death of his beloved Cordelia.
Crazy for You **** Four Stars!
Gershwin’s musical valentine to Broadway is given a spectacular treatment by director/choreographer Donna Feore, as she unleashes a bevy of beautiful chorus girls and dancing cowboys, who can all tap the lights outs. Here we have madcap rather than madness, as everyone falls crazy in and out of love as they deliver those melodic Gershwin melodies.
The Beaux Stratagem **** Four Stars
George Farquhar’s most famous Restoration comedy is chock full of comic madness as love is played out as an elaborate social game where there are often no winners. A long first act full of exposition eventually gives way to act two’s physical humor. Once the comic chemistry between Luck Peacock and Colm Feore kicks into high gear, the play soars.
Man of LaMancha *** ½ Three and one half Stars!
Here again, Tom Rooney’s mad knight Don Quixote de la Mancha is set center stage as playwright Dale Wasserman explores the many facets of both genius and insanity in this musical drama. Full of inventive theatricality and dramatic invention, this production succeeds where many others have failed. And in the wake of Robin Williams’ tragic suicide, the musical’s ending was even more poignant and heart wrenching.
Christina – The Girl King *** ½ Three and one half Stars!
Not much is known about the real Queen Christina and why she chose to abdicate the throne of Sweden in 1649, renounce her Lutheran faith and flee to Rome under the protection of the Pope. Was she suffering from mental illness or might she have been a closet lesbian who yearned to be an independent free woman and throw off the yoke of office? These questions and many more are explored in Christina – The Girl King, a wonderful new Canadian play by Michel Marc Bouchard.
Also worth your time: King John *** Three Stars! and Antony and Cleopatra *** Three Stars!
Don't waste your time: Midsummer Night's Dream - A Chamber Play * One Star
Did not see: A Midsummer Night's Dream or Alice Through the Looking Glass
If you go: There are a number of convenient non-stop flights from any major airport to Toronto with numerous rental cars options available at the airport. Stratford is located at the mid-point between Detroit and Toronto with easy access from the QEW.
Ticket Prices: Ticket prices range from $20.00 to $135.00 CAN. There are many ways of saving on tickets via Stratford’s social media links. The season runs now through October 12th.
Tickets and Information at: www.stratfordfestival.ca