The 2015 Stratford Festival – Season Recap
By David Grapes
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 of 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 again an eclectic mix of plays that includes four Shakespeare (Hamlet, Pericles, The Taming of the Shrew, Love’s Labour’s Lost), an English Restoration comedy (She Stoops to Conquer), a provocative Canadian play (Possible Worlds), two Broadway musicals (The Sound of Music, Carousel), Ben Jonson’s comic satire on greed and lust (The Alchemist), the Greek classic (Oedipus Rex), Michael Healey’s new adaptation of Durrenmatt’s social satire (The Physicists) among others.
The thirteen 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 3rd year as Artistic Director, Antoni Cimolino has chosen the theme of “discovery” for the 2015 season. In a recent article for the Stratford Beacon, Cimolino elaborated on this theme: “Shakespeare lived in an age of rapid change, a time of new worlds, new beliefs and scientific discoveries – an age very much like our own. But in that early modern age, change was especially unsettling, overturning societal foundations and leading to revolution. In our own time we have not only become inured to change, we welcome it as our new faith. In the plays of our 2015 season, characters learn surprising truths about the world around them or perhaps about themselves. In that eureka moment, their lives change forever. How do they deal with that change? At what cost comes knowledge? Since Adam and Eve, these questions have been at the centre of the human narrative. In 2015, through our playbill and more than 200 Forum events, we celebrate the power of the newest god in our pantheon: Discovery.”
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 personal discovery to be woven seamlessly through all of this year’s productions.
With the exception of The Diary of Anne Frank and The Last Wife, I was able to attend the remaining eleven productions in the 2015 season. These were my favorites:
The Sound of Music **** Four Stars!
Certainly personal discovery is at the very core of Maria’s journey in this Rogers and Hammerstein classic. Beautifully staged/choreographed by Donna Feore, this production is a revelation thanks to the stunning debut performance of American Broadway star Stephanie Rothenberg, whose sheer joy, honesty, and exuberance forces the audience to discover this familiar musical all over again.
The Physicist **** Four Stars!
Geraint Wyn Davies’ brilliant, subtle, and finely nuanced performance anchors Michael (The Drawer Boy) Healey’s smart and witty new adaptation of Durrenmatt social satire. Well paced and well designed, this production allowed the capacity audience in the Tom Patterson Theatre to rediscover the complex themes of madness, perception and corporate greed in this rarely produced play. These themes unfortunately still resonate in our modern world.
Oedipus Rex ***1/2 Three and one half Stars!
Possibly the most famous and oft produced of the Greek classics, this Oedipus Rex is given a brazen and daring reinvention by translators Stephen Berg and Diskin Clay. Under the masterful direction of Daniel Brooks, this contemporary production is unrelenting in its visual and psychological horror.
Possible Worlds *** ½ Three and one half Stars!
This fascinating play about the nature of the human brain by Hamilton-born mathematician Dr. John Mighton is at times confusing, bizarre, and shocking. However it is never dull. While the play asks more questions than it answers, it is certainly an innovative, electrifying, and thought provoking evening in the theatre.
Carousel *** ½ Three and one half Stars!
Carousel has never been one of my favorite Rogers and Hammerstein musicals. Its misogynistic tone and bullish central character (Billy) have always struck me as problematic. While this production did not change my opinion, I did enjoy the lavish visuals and the breakout vocal performance by Jonathon Winsby. This beautiful score has always deserved a better book.
Also worth your time: The Alchemist *** Stars! - Hamlet*** Three Stars! – The Taming of The Shrew *** Three Stars! – She Stoops to Conquer *** Three Stars!
Not worth your time: The Adventures of Pericles ** Two Stars! - Love’s Labour’s Lost ** Two Stars!
If you go: There are a number of convenient non-stop flights from the US 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 $25.00 to $180.00+ CAN. There are many ways to save on tickets via Stratford’s social media links. The season runs now through November 1, 2015.
Tickets and Information at: www.stratfordfestival.ca