The Stratford Festival…and More
For many years, I had heard of Canada’s Stratford Festival in Ontario, not only through press coverage of its celebrated productions, but because my high school drama teacher would go each year with his partner and write glowingly about it in their annual Holiday letter. (That said, until a few moments before writing this, I thought it was “The Shakespeare Festival”. Oops, though a plurality of the shows done each year there are by the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon.)
Last year, I discovered that a pal of mine and his partner had moved to Stratford during the pandemic. They were kind enough to invite me up north, and we started making plans this past spring for a late-August visit. It turned out to be an absolutely lovely li’l getaway, not only because of the Festival but because Stratford itself is a charming town…and I just happened to miss the worst of this summer’s heat in New Orleans!
The Stratford Festival
The Festival runs from April through November each year and features a mix of shows done in repertory in its four theaters. This year’s season boasted 13 productions including four works by Shakespeare, two popular musicals (Spamalot and Rent), and a variety of other plays among which was a stage version of the classic children’s book A Wrinkle in Time.
Founded in 1953, over the years such stars as Alec Guinness, Christopher Plummer, and Maggie Smith have appeared in Stratford. While no one of that wattage was part of this year’s Festival, I was struck by how diverse the acting company of nearly 150 performers was. In fact, there were often more people of color on stage than in the audience.
I was able to see five shows in four days; with both matinees and evening performances nearly every day, I might’ve been able to squeeze in even one or two more. If not everything I saw was a palpable hit, the pluses certainly outnumbered the minuses.
Alice Childress’ 1973 drama Wedding Band (thru Oct. 1) received a flawless production and, somewhat sadly, is just as relevant now as when it premiered off-Broadway in 1972 starring Ruby Dee (who also starred in the TV version the following year). A tale of an interracial love affair in 1918 South Carolina when such relationships were illegal, this stirring, humane drama brought to mind all the anti-LGBTQ legislation that is being passed today.
Sam White’s excellent, well-paced direction allowed all the characters, Black and white, to get their full due. Cyrus Lane and, especially, Antonette Rudder as the two tortured souls at the heart of Wedding Band gave complex, moving performances as the lovers who are celebrating their tenth anniversary together and dream of escaping north to New York.
Other stand-outs in the superlative cast included Liza Huget as an older landlady who’s tough, bitter, lonely and not without prejudices of her own; and Maev Beaty and Festival veteran Lucy Peacock as Lane’s sister and mother, respectively, who by humanizing these potentially cartoonish characters demonstrated how the roots of racism take hold in the souls of insecure and frustrated people; the showdown between Rudder and Peacock brought to life one of the most bone-chilling encounters in all of dramatic literature.
Italian dramatist Eduardo de Filippo’s seldom performed Grand Magic (thru Sept. 29) received an exquisite production from the Festival’s Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino in a new wonderfully naturalistic translation by John Murrell and Donato Santeramo. This Pirandellian dramedy deals with truth, love, and illusion as an over-the-hill magician assists a woman trying to escape a jealous husband and then bamboozles that husband into a metaphysical black hole.
If Grand Magic runs a bit out of steam in its talky third act, the first two were so imaginative and playfully cerebral, including a breathtaking second act finale, that I didn’t mind. Gordon S. Miller as the husband and Geraint Wyn Davies as the magician endowed each of their characters with a panoply of emotions, Miller going from pompous and unyielding to utterly beguiled while Davies ranged from grandiloquent charlatan to rumpled has-been to playful lover.
Gordon S. Miller and Geraint Wyn Davies in Grand Magic (photo by David Hou)
As with Wedding Band, the entire cast was outstanding; not only Sarah Orenstein as the magician’s zesty wife, Emilio Vieira as a zany police inspector, Christo Graham as a put-upon houseboy, and David Collins & Steve Ross as the magician’s wily accomplices, but even Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah who, in a small role in the first act, delivered mouthfuls of exposition superbly, giving piquant life to what could’ve been dull.
Dull is one word that does not apply to Jillian Keiley’s production of Shakespeare’s Richard II as adapted by Brad Fraser (thru Sept. 28). Here RII is as flamboyant a homosexual as you can imagine. That’s all well and good (Don Ellis’ sound effects for the sauna sex scene alone were worth the price of admission), but in portraying him this way, the implication is that his downfall came about because he was gay rather than, as Shakespeare rightly portrays it, that he didn’t govern wisely.
While overall a solid production, unless you read the program notes beforehand, you’d never know that it is set in the Studio 54 era as AIDS is about to take center stage. Sure, there’s a disco ball, but the whole production has an abstract, timeless feel as it never particularizes the era through specific period-appropriate costumes or set decoration. And what exactly was the purpose of the chorus of angels other than to look fab and move scenery around?
While there’s nothing wrong with playing with the text a little and swapping some characters’ genders, to take out portions of the poetry, some of Shakespeare’s best, from this too rarely done history play, was unwise; while I could live without John of Gaunt’s Sceptered Isle speech, the omission of Richard’s sublime “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me” speech was tragic. (I also missed Sir William Bagot a politician and favorite of Richard; “Bushy and Green” just doesn’t have the same poetic ring to it as “Bushy, Bagot, and Green”.)
Still, despite some reservations, this was a most worthy Richard II. Stephen Jackman-Torkoff’s Richard was certainly the party boi but could switch in an instant to being an imperious king. Jackman-Torkoff spoke the Bard’s words so beautifully that he could have done without certain superfluous hand gestures. Appropriately self-dramatizing, Jackman-Torkoff well-conveyed that RII believes that his “King-ness”, bestowed by God, will protect him.
Sarah Orenstein, Jordin Hall, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane, and Alex Wierzbicki in Richard II (photo by David Hou)
As Richard’s cousin and rival Bolingbroke, who will go on to become King Henry IV, Jordin Hall almost seemed sorry, and aptly so, to go against the natural order of things as he opposed the King. Orenstein as a scheming Countess (a Count in the original) and Ross as a weaselly Bishop contributed two more finely calibrated performances. Only Vieira, so good in Grand Magic, disappointed as Richard’s lover Aumerle; lacking a requisite charisma, I never fully believed that Richard would be drawn to him, sexually or otherwise.
I also attended the opening night of Frankenstein Revived (thru Oct. 28), a world premiere adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel by Morris Panych, “arguably Canada’s most celebrated playwright and director” according to his bio in the program, though I had not previously heard of him.
Frankenstein unquestionably has relevance; one only has to look at the daily headlines about AI to confirm that. This dance theater piece, however, with David Coulter’s drony music and choreographer Wendy Gorling’s stylized movements might’ve been cutting edge 40 years ago; now, I found it to be merely pretentious.
Laura Condlln, as Shelley, floated around the stage, large quill pen in hand, to show her creating her book, just as Dr. F creates his monster. Charlie Gallant brought passion and moved lithely as Frankenstein, but why did he tear off his coat and shirt before bringing the Creature to life in his laboratory? I’m not complaining–he has a hot bod–but I tend to doubt Alexander Fleming or Louis Pasteur did likewise. Marcus Nance moved herkily jerkily as the Creature but at least put forth an authentically touching humanity that allowed you to empathize with his situation.
If Frankenstein Revived got better as it became more focused in its second act, it also wasn’t as much campy fun. Was I bad to keep hoping for a duet between Dr. F and the Creature to Puttin’ On the Ritz?
And then there was King Lear directed by Kimberley Rampersad (thru Oct. 29). It wasn’t bad so much as just mediocre. Despite its seemingly dystopian setting, Rampersad brought no new interpretive insights to it and guided her cast to little more than superficial line readings. Ironically, this Lear elicited more laughs than some of Shakespeare’s comedies; I’m not sure that was such a wise idea.
Paul Gross, star of TV’s Slings and Arrows, was okay as Lear; whether in the hands of a more astute director he could’ve brought more depth to the role, I cannot say. André Sills stood out as the decent Edgar, as did some of the actors in smaller roles (Devin MacKinnon, Austin Eckert, Jakob Ehman), but I expected more. Fortunately, Lear was the first show I saw and, afterwards, everything else, even Frankenstein Revived, was an improvement.
Beyond the Festival
Of course, there’s more to Stratford than just the Festival. In fact, there’s one other name associated with Stratford that may be even better known nowadays than Shakespeare’s, namely native son Justin Bieber.
You don’t have to go far from the Festival, though, to encounter Bieberness. Back in 2007, when he was just 13, Bieber busked on the steps of the Festival’s Avon Theatre, where I saw Frankenstein Revived, with a rented guitar during tourism season. There’s now a plaque in the sidewalk outside the theater with his name on it.
Outside the Avon Theatre where Justin Bieber used to busk, his star now adorns the sidewalk
For over 20 years, the City of Stratford has embedded this “Walk of Fame” in streets throughout the city. Many of the folks so honored are connected to local history and I didn’t recognize their names; outside the Avon Theatre, however, in addition to Bieber are such stars as the aforementioned Sir Alec Guinness and Christopher Plummer as well as Tony Award winner Irene Worth. And though he never performed at the Festival, a plaque for Canadian William Shatner, of Star Trek fame, is not too far away.
Sidewalk plaques (clockwise from upper left)–Sir Alec Guinness, Irene Worth, Justin Bieber, and Christopher Plummer
In addition to the productions themselves, the Festival adds cachet to Stratford. For example, outside the Festival Theatre, where I saw King Lear, before each performance, a quartet of trumpeters, joined by a drummer, imperially blow their horns to let people know it’s almost curtain time. Very classy.
Outside the Festival Theatre before the show
Most of Stratford’s sights are in a fairly compact area, easily walkable within a day, or even an afternoon, though there are many art galleries, boutiques, and antique stores you’ll want to pop into. And if you like chocolate, do not miss Rheo Thompson Candies. Here are some of the other places I enjoyed in Stratford.
While the Festival’s theaters offer spectacularly designed spaciousness, if you want to see the Guinness record-holder for “world’s smallest movie theater”, go to The Little Prince Cine & Lounge at 62 Wellington Street. Since 2021, its 12 seats have been available to rent out for private screenings and “intimate events” (whatever those might be)–popcorn included! Created and owned by Leigh Cooney, its foyer is sumptuously decorated to give it the feel of an old-time cinema. Leslie, the lovely ticket taker/popcorn server, toured my friend and me around the venue, including the bathrooms where old movie posters paper the walls. Even if you don’t have time to see a movie there–which looks like it would be a lot of fun–you should definitely stop by.
The screening room of The Little Prince Cine & Lounge
It may not be the “Shakespeare Festival”, but the Bard is very much in evidence around town. By the banks of the Avon River sits the Shakespearean Gardens. Formerly the site of one of Stratford’s earliest factories, Dufton Woolen Mill (founded circa 1870), only its chimney stack remains and it’s become the focal point of these picturesque gardens, filled with over 60 varieties of plants; many of them are types mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. Visited on an overcast day, I’m sure the Gardens are even prettier when it’s sunny.
The Shakespearean Gardens with the Dufton Woolen Mill’s chimney stack
Between the Gardens and a prominently placed utility box adorned with images of the creator of Macbeth and Hamlet, you can understand why I had thought the town presented a “Shakespeare Festival”.
Brush up your Shakespeare
Strolling around Stratford, you’ll also notice some fine examples of Victorian architecture including the City Hall (1900) where a costume from a 2008 Festival production of Romeo and Juliet is displayed in the entryway; the Perth County Court House at 1 Huron Street (1887); and the Freeland Fountain (1897), probably one of the few (only?) fountains in the world to be erected in honor of a beloved music teacher. W.J. Freeland served as the first Supervisor of Music in Stratford’s public schools from 1886 until 1894, and conducted numerous bands & choirs; his love of animals is paid tribute by the fountain’s drinking troughs for both horses and dogs.
(clockwise from left) Stratford’s City Hall, the Perth County Court House, and the Freeland Fountain
If Stratford’s galleries offer some worthy art, I was even more impressed with the work seen at Art in the Park, a thrice-weekly (Wed., Sat., Sun.) show of visual arts and fine crafts; it’s juried which might explain why the quality is so high. Art in the Park can be found along the banks of the Avon River between the Festival Theatre and the Tom Patterson Theatre (where I saw Wedding Band, Grand Magic, and Richard II, an ideal space for all three) and runs from May till the end of September. While there was lots of artwork I would’ve loved to take home, a charming landscape by Manivan “Minnie” Larprom fit in my carry-on and now graces my living room.
With artist Manivan “Minnie” Larprom at Art in the Park–the landscape painting in the lower right-hand corner is now on display in NOLA
And then there’s the Stratford Perth Museum (SPM) which sits a little further afield. I had wanted to visit it because of an exhibit dedicated to a certain “pop singer” and also because, well, I just like museums; I wasn’t sure what to expect. As it turned out, the Stratford Perth Museum is a wonderful venue somewhat similar to the New York Historical Society which houses a variety of small-scale exhibits, some permanent, some temporary, under its roof.
At the SPM, the first exhibit I encountered was “Railway Century” which gave a fascinating overview of how, beginning in the mid-19th century, Stratford became a railway center and how that was the main, but not the only, industry there until the 1960s when cultural tourism powered by the Festival became the prime economic driver.
I also enjoyed a room dedicated to “Tinkers, Tailors, Tech & Toys” and filled with all sorts items from each of those headings. “Who Was Tom Patterson?” explores the life of the founder of the Stratford Festival who was also a journalist, academic, and author. For those into military derring-do, another exhibit traces the history of “The Perth Regiment”. Perhaps best of all, “The Car That Ran on Hot Air–The Brooks Steam Car” tells about the scandal surrounding the establishment of the Brooks Steam Motors Manufacturing plant in Stratford in the 1920s which was either a genuine attempt at a new form of automobile manufacturing (of the 8 of these cars known to exist, 1 is on display) or a financial scheme to sell bogus stock to unsuspecting investors, an automotive version of The Producers.
From a decorative concrete doorstop to a steam car to a fire engine, there’s lots to see at the Stratford Perth Museum
And then there’s “Justin Bieber: Steps to Stardom” which has been extended until the end of this year. According to The New York Times, when the exhibit opened in 2018, it caused annual visitors to the SPM to increase more then 20-fold. Bieber, his mother and grandparents have been very supportive of the Museum, donating a variety of memorabilia over the years, including a photo of Justin and Mom with President Obama and a letter on White House stationery from Michelle Obama.
(left) Justin Bieber and Mom Pattie Mallette with President Obama; (right) Letter from Michelle Obama to Justin Bieber
So whether you’re into Shakespeare (or other dramatists), Bieber, or just want to get away from NOLA’s summertime heat, you may want to put a visit to Stratford, Ontario, on your agenda for 2024.