Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The 2016 Stratford Festival – Season Recap
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 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 (Macbeth, As You Like It, Breath of Kings: Rebellion, Breath of Kings: Redemption), Ibsen’s symbolic opus on the nature of despair and loneliness (Jon Gabriel Borkman), a family offering (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), a provocative Canadian play (Bunny), two Broadway musicals (A Chorus Line, A Little Night Music), Moliere’s comic satire on all things medical (The Hypochondriac), Virgil’s classic (The Aeneid), Arthur Miller’s timeless family drama (All My Sons) Lee Hall’s new adaptation of the recent hit film (Shakespeare in Love) 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 450,000 patrons with nearly 40% coming from America. Now in his 4th year as Artistic Director, Antoni Cimolino has chosen the themes of “victory and defeat” for the 2016 season. In the annual Festival Playbill Cimolino introduces us to his 2016 season in this way - “We can be our own worst enemies – and our greatest victories consist of making ourselves more. When we overcome a failing, when we find true love, when we free ourselves from the compulsions and obsessions that distort or lives, when we see ourselves clearly for the first time: these are the victories that truly transform us.”

Those themes were certainly present in this year’s productions.

With the exception of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Aeneid, I was able to attend the remaining eleven productions in the 2016 season. These were my favorites:

All My Sons **** 4 Stars! 
This beautifully delivered ensemble production is the best of the best at Stratford this summer. An amazing cast delivers in spades. A must see!

Shakespeare in Love **** 4 Stars!
Shakespeare in Love is brilliantly acted and beautiful to look at, full of passion, memorable characters, evocative music and glorious costumes. It will make you laugh and cry and constantly remind you of why you love the theatre. See it!

A Chorus Line *** 3 ½ Stars!
Strong dancers, a kick ass band, and smart choreography by Donna Feore make this Chorus Line sizzle.

Macbeth *** 3 ½ Stars!
This Macbeth is a dark and rough edged delight. Lots of blood, mayhem and magic make for a memorable night in the theatre! This edition succeeds and navigates the fine line between vaulting ambition and unbridled lust where many other past productions at Stratford have failed.

The Hypochondriac *** 3 ½ Stars!
The Hypochondriac starring the ever constipated Stephen Ouimette delivers a healthy dose of comedy

Breath of Kings: Rebellion *** 3 ½ Stars!
Tom Rooney's magnificent performance as Richard II is the artistic glue that binds the first half of Breath of Kings together. He certainly delivers one of the best interpretations of Richard II that I have ever seen.

Breath of Kings: Redemption *** 3 Stars!
While not as tight dramatically as its first half, part two of Breath of Kings is still great theatre! One of the highlights here is having Rooney reappear as the chorus for Henry V.

A Little Night Music *** 3 Stars!
This production is long on style but short on heart. Average voices for a musical that demands much more vocal firepower.

Bunny *** 3 Stars!
Bunny is a wild ride! Raw, shocking, provocative, highly sexual and yet quite touching at the same time, it's quite an evening!

Not worth your time:

Jon Gabriel Borkman ** 2 ½ Stars!
Three of Stratford’s finest actors battle an undramatic and expository translation of this long and tedious Ibsen diatribe. Unfortunately the Script wins. 

As You Like It * 1 Star!
There is almost nothing to enjoy in this mess of a production. I found the whole evening to be self-indulgent. Layered with inane audience participation this sweet play will go down in Festival history the worst acted and misguided Shakespearian productions ever mounted on the Festival Stage. It should have never been let off the train from Newfoundland!

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 $189.00+ CAN. There are many ways to save on tickets via Stratford’s social media links. The season runs now through October 29, 2016. 

Tickets and Information at: www.stratfordfestival.ca

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