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Outbound: A visit to Ontario’s Stratford Festival (think Shaw Festival, only bigger) yields some gems.

STRATFORD – WHAT’S IT LIKE?

Thumbnail reviews below, but first, a little about The Stratford Festival, in Stratford Ontario. If you’ve never been, it’s rather like the nearby Shaw Festival in Niagara on the Lake. Better funded with a few more “name” directors and performers, larger stages (except for their “Studio Theatre) with more tours, lectures, backstage and other educational events all bundled under THE FORUM headline, it’s a world class very well-rehearsed repertory company. What does that mean? Simply that a number of shows will be presented in any given week all season long and, as with the Shaw, most actors will be in at least two of those productions – one a major role, one a supporting role, and occasionally a third minor role sometimes two on the same day. Just as at the Shaw, many actors and directors return year after year and develop a well-deserved loyal following. (1-800-567-1600).

www.stratfordfestival.ca

While they are re-building (from the ground up) a newly imagined “Tom Patterson Theatre,” Stratford, like Shaw, is currently juggling their season in three locations – their “Festival Theatre” (the big one with 1,800 seats vs. Shaw’s 856 seat “Festival Theatre”); their “Studio Theatre” (260 seats, more black box, same name and size as Shaw); and their “Avon Theatre”  – a charming, 1,000 velour seat, proscenium stage affair rather like, although three times as big as, Shaw’s “Royal George.”

Similar to the Shaw, after months of previews (which, as at Shaw, are an excellent value), the shows officially “open” to the press rather late in the summer, but, on the other hand, they continue into October, and a few shows (at Stratford at least) go into November.

On the downside, like the Shaw, when a major actor comes to the end of his or her career, they are often honored with a production tailored to them, occasionally, unfortunately, a few years after their prime (not anyone mentioned in this article).

Unlike The Shaw, which some criticize for drifting farther and farther from its original mission of presenting plays by G.B. Shaw and his contemporaries (although they seem to be getting back to basics in 2019), the Stratford Festival this year offers 4 plays by Shakespeare (out of 12, so “a quarter” of the productions) – JULIUS CAESAR, THE COMEDY OF ERRORS, THE TEMPEST, and CORIOLANUS.

About 130 miles from downtown Buffalo, you can drive there in under 2-1/2 hours (assuming a short bridge crossing), but with a stop exactly halfway at Tim Horton’s on Route 6 North, it’s a comfortable 3-hour drive. In my youth I could drive up, see a play, and drive home on the same day. Those days are over, but Stratford being a “destination” town there are many levels of accommodation available. Remember that currently, $1 U.S. gets you $1.30 Canadian. No need to convert a lot of money before you go. There are bank ATMs in town, or you can use your credit card when you make a purchase (you’ll see the daily exchange rate on your statement), or you can just “wing it” and give the vendor U.S. and they usually come up with some sort of accommodation. For example, you can buy a Coffee Crisp candy bar priced at $2.50 Canadian for $2.00 U.S. Close enough.

THUMBNAIL REVIEWS

Here, from best to worst, in my opinion, are the shows which I saw.

A PAWÂKAN MACBETH (in workshop): So, I saw 7 out of the 12 ongoing productions this year and one workshop (no costumes or staging and the actors all read from their scripts) of A PAWÂKAN MACBETH by indigenous artist Reneltta Arluk (director of last season’s excellent THE BREATHING HOLE). This adaptation of Shakespeare’s MACBETH is set in Cree territory in 1870s Alberta, where the three weird sisters are shape-shifting coyotes and Macbeth becomes the cannibal spirit Wihtiko, “the one who walks alone.” Brrrr. Chilling. I hope that they put on a full production in 2020. Fingers crossed. It’s really good. Critics are requested to refrain from reviewing workshops, but if I were “allowed” to, I’d give A PAWÂKAN MACBETH workshop…

5 out of 5 “Buffalos.”

Andre Sills (left) as Coriolanus and Michael Blake as Cominius. Photography by David Hou

CORIOLANUS by SHAKESPEARE (up through October 25): The other absolute “must see” on my list was the tour-de-force production of a rarely performed Shakespeare play, one of his final tragedies – CORIOLANUS – directed by internationally renowned Montreal based Robert LaPage (say roh-BAYR lah-PAZH) and starring Shaw favorite AndréSills. As they told me at The Shaw Festival, “when Robert LaPage calls you, you go.” So, André Sills (whom you might have seen when the Shaw Festival sent MASTER HAROLD AND THE BOYS over to Buffalo’s Shea’s 710 Theatre) and Robert LaPage combining forces? It’s a multi-media, stage magic like you’ve never seen, original Shakespeare text in a completely believable contemporary setting, mobile phones, etc. non-stop ride. Gas up your car and go.

Another 5 out of 5 “Buffalos.”

Lucy Peacock as Satan in PARADISE LOST – Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

PARADISE LOST: Up through October 27 and almost “five out of five” but definitely a typical first-rate production of a new play at Stratford was Erin Shields’ adaptation of English poet John Milton’s PARADISE LOST as seen in Stratford’s smaller “Studio Theatre” – with quite vertical risers, it’s a smaller, black box affair rather like Shaw’s newly designed “Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre.” It’s hit or miss at Stratford’s more experimental Studio Theatre, but when they hit it right, damn it’s good! This year Stratford is trying for gender neutral casting and has put some of their stronger female regulars in the leading roles of JULIUS CAESAR and THE TEMPEST. I did not see either, but conversations with other visitors led me to believe that they weren’t breakthrough. However, Lucy Peacock as “Satan” absolutely nails it in PARADISE LOST. Not quite as out-of-this-world as A PAWÂKAN MACBETH or CORIOLANUS, but also…

5 out of 5 “Buffalos.”

Danielle Wade as Marian Paroo and Daren A. Herbert as Harold Hill in MUSIC MAN – Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

THE MUSIC MAN (up through November 3): Meredith Willson’s beloved classic gets a nice treatment here with color-blind casting and a youthful corps of dancers who dazzle. Cleverly staged with the best horse “puppet” I’ve ever seen pulling “The Wells Fargo Wagon” this is one of three current productions that would be ideal for a younger theater goer in your family. I’d combine it with TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and/or THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW (which I did not see, but, again, other visitors raved about).

Four out of Five Buffalos.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (up through November 8): In the aftermath of controversy surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s novel “Go Set a Watchman” it felt good to have a second look at Atticus Finch, not the flawless god-like Gregory Peck Atticus, but a more realistic, a bit tired, trying to do the right thing Atticus. Good performances (except for Southern accents drifting in and out) in this Christopher Sergel dramatization all around but especially from Sophia Walker as the Finch family’s cook “Calpurnia.” I can only give 4 out of 5 “Buffalos” due to not being able to hear the voices of the three children and a few of the adults (especially when they spoke away from us) in the very large (1,800 seat) thrust stage Festival Theatre. And I wasn’t alone in this complaint. Clara Poppy Kushnir was cracker-jack as “Scout” but jeez, give the kid a mic.

4 out of 5 “Buffalos.”

Lead image: STRATFORD (L-R) Hunter Smalley as Dill, Irene Poole as Jean Louise Finch and Clara Poppy Kushnir as Scout in MOCKINBIRD – Photo by David Hou

AN IDEAL HUSBAND (up through October 28): While THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST is probably Oscar Wilde’s most famous play, he himself preferred AN IDEAL HUSBAND (which you may have seen at The Irish Classical Theatre in Buffalo three seasons ago). It’s another Wilde play involving indiscretion and possible disgrace similar to his LADY WINDERMERE’S FAN recently put on by ICTC. While Stratford’s sets and costumes are stunning and the interstitial music is charming, and their cast is experienced, I just didn’t “buy” their take on AN IDEAL HUSBAND. I couldn’t bring myself to really care about anyone on stage and my big disappointment was the casting for Lord Arthur Goring who, I believe, should present as a supercilious, useless, you can’t lay it on too thick twit, so that the character’s sudden “reveal” is all the more delightful.

3 out of 5 “Buffalos.”

 

LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (up through October 13) is, in a word, long. It’s 3 hours and 20 minutes long with two intermissions. I’m glad that Stratford is putting on this Eugene O’Neill classic, but I’m tired of these dark, Ibsen-like, “naturalist” plays where every member of a dysfunctional family has his or her failings put on display. Still, if this is your thing, and judging by what people are streaming on television it seems to be, I promise you that I was thrilled to see two greats -Scott Wentworth and Seana McKenna – as James and Mary Tyrone.

3 out of 5 “Buffalos.”

THE BRONTË SISTERS – THE WORLD WITHOUT (through October 13): Remember how positive I was about PARADISE LOST, a new play this year by a female playwright put on at the intimate Studio Theatre? And I wrote (above): “It’s hit or miss at Stratford’s more experimental Studio Theatre, but when they hit it right, damn it’s good!” Well, you can afford to miss THE BRONTË SISTERS by Jordi Mand. Damn, it’s not good. Three younger actors valiantly try to present Charlotte Brontë (“Jane Eyre”), Emily Brontë (“Wuthering Heights”), and Anne Brontë (“The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”) in what appears to be a series of sleep-overs where they cat-fight, pout, screech at one another, and then furiously scribble using their quill-and-ink pens. It would seem to me that the purpose of this play should be to explain why in middle of nowhere (Haworth, in what is now West Yorkshire, England) with precious few resources three sisters came to produce some of the great works of English literature. But we don’t get any answers. We can’t even say “it was something in the water” because it was so contaminated from the village cemetery that, we read in the program notes, 41.6% of the population died before reaching the age of 6.  Besides being just silly, we were assailed by several, FULL LENGTH angst-ridden songs by contemporary women blasted at peak volume. A little music to set the scene or change the scene is fine. But verse after verse of emo pounded at peak volume? Maybe if performed in a high school, but not when ticket prices start at over $50 Canadian.

1 out of 5 Buffalos for this one.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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