Stratford, Ontario — See a stand-alone production at a theater near you and you leave, well, thinking about that show.
Attend a festival where you see nine full-length plays in eight days from a single company — complete with talent on and off-stage taking part in multiple productions — and exponential connections become a key part of the experience.
Such is the case at the Stratford Festival, the Canadian treasure launched in 1953 and now the largest repertory fest in North America. With 12 plays on three stages (three shows open later in the season and a new stage is set to premiere in 2020), Stratford offers a combination of musicals, Shakespeare, contemporary work, classics, and obscurities with each, by design or happenstance, commenting on the others. This year's shows run through October or November.
This season marked only my second in-person Stratford adventure, although I’ve watched every shot-from-the-stage video I’ve been able to get my hands on. (The fest usually selects two production to send out to movie theaters, last season being Corionalus and The Tempest). It proved a whirlwind week.
Let’s start with the festival’s biggest surprise.
Henry VIII (through Oct. 20) isn’t the first play to come to mind when thinking of Shakespeare’s history plays. It probably isn’t even the fifth, sixth, or seventh. And a theater company doing one play at a time would probably only be advised to attempt it if they were firmly committed to completing the canon (and only then after they’ve had a go at King John and Timon of Athens).
So why was the obscurest Henry play among my favorites of this year’s fest? Credit the total commitment of the cast (led by Jonathan Goad), the subtle vision of director Martha Henry (now in her...wait for it….45th season with Stratford), and the fact that, because it was my first experience with it, it felt like a new play.
After a lifetime of theatergoing, shouldn’t I have known more about it going in? Perhaps. But I long ago committed to the idea that I would not read a Shakespeare play — or even read much about it — until I saw it on stage or on film. This conceit has led to very satisfying — if late to the party — run-ins with Pericles, Timon of Athens and more from the Bard undercard.
Yes, Henry VIII is episodic. Yes, it ends with obvious Queen’s ass-kissing propaganda. But, in the hands of Stratford, it also offered a fresh look at a familiar character, just two wives into his notorious career.
Its pleasures were compounded thanks to a visit the next night to the world premiere of Mother’s Daughter (through Oct. 13), a play whose only disappointment was the generic title. Kate Hennig’s historical drama focuses on the machinations of Mary, the first ruling queen of England, as she wrestles with rebellion, her half-sister Elizabeth, a political marriage, and her legacy.
Dabbled with deliberate anachronisms, punctuated with characters living and dead, and sparked with sharp, telling dialogue, it’s the rare political drama dominated by women, each of which is painted with compelling and complex colors. The Studio Theatre’s up-close-and-personal size enhanced the work, providing an intimate canvas for Shannon Taylor to make a strong impression as Mary and Irene Poole to continue the compelling portrait she offered of Katherine in Henry VIII.
The third work to occupy the Studio Theatre, Edward Kemp’s 2003 version of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1779 play Nathan the Wise (through Oct. 11), concerns a Jewish man (played with spunk and ache by Diane Flacks) who returns from a business trip to find that his daughter has been rescued from a house fire by a Christian who, in turn, has been released by the Muslim sultan. Religious complications ensue. My only complaint about this revelatory — and very timely — plea for tolerance is that some of the delicate work of the company was undermined by program notes that gave away major second-act reveals.
(I’m looking at you, Associate Professor Holger Schott Syme from the University of Toronto as well as whomever edited the program book. Why do you want to rob theatergoers of the pleasure of having this relatively unknown, to mass audiences, story reveal itself in the moment?)
Matters took a significantly lighter turn at the Avon Theatre, the proscenium house at the other end of the Studio Theatre.
Here, Stratford stalwarts Geraint Wyn Davies and Lucy Peacock had all the right moves and brought a knowing joy to the best punchlines (and many moments in between) in Noel Coward’s Private Lives (through Oct. 26). But I’ll admit a bias: I’ve never gotten much of a kick from Coward. The set-ups for his oft-staged works seem fine but in my experience, nothing ever seemed at stake. Whatever the talent, Private Lives remains the story of four people of little consequence engaging in a plot of little consequence. A more abstract set than usual (design by Ken MacDonald) provided additional eye candy for the nourishment-free piece.
Also at the Avon, a traditional take on Little Shop of Horrors (through Nov. 2) was toplined by two fine singers who never quite believably became the down-and-outers the script requires.
I don’t demand the glorious over-the-topness of Ellen Greene in every Audrey, but Gabi Epstein here seemed just a decent haircut away from a good job in a better neighborhood. And, opposite her, Andre Morin’s not-very-nebbishy Seymour Krelborn could easily have passed for an assistant at a Republican campaign office. But that didn’t keep the goosebumps from rising on “Skid Row” and “Somewhere That’s Green,” two of musical theater’s strongest “I want” songs. And who would have guessed that the play would achieves maximum giddiness in “Mushnik & Son,” a song I usually skip over when listening to the recording? Here, it was a delight.
The vegetative puppetry was expert but expected in Little Shop of Horrors, since most theatergoers are likely to have seen similar plants in productions elsewhere. Stratford’s The Neverending Story (through Nov. 3) on the other hand, was packed with surprising uses of the art.
While the world of avid-reader Bastian (Jake Runeckles) was played relatively realistic, the storybook world he loses himself in came complete with a magnificent multi-operator horse, a swirl of colorful discs that merged to become the shell of a giant turtle, and a charming knee-high couple operated from a puppeteer’s shins (credit Movement and Puppetry Director Brad Cook and his team).
The adaptation, by David S. Craig from Michael Ende’s novel, could use a bit of trimming — I wasn’t convinced of the need for some ancillary characters — but one of the pleasures of Stratford’s youth productions is its trust of the audience’s attention span. And the kids around me — and most of the adults — happily went along for the ride.
In Stratford’s flagship space, the Festival Theatre, Othello (through Oct. 27; photo on the cover is of Michael Blake as Othello; photo by David Hou), was given a fairly straightforward production led by director Nigel Shawn Williams. The most memorable addition here was a vivid prelude in which Othello and Desdemona’s wedding stood in dramatic contrast to Iago’s rage, personified by a circle of writhing dancers surrounding him.
Projected images set the scenes and sped up transitions so that it moved at an almost cinematic pace. While the language was crystal clear, though, I never got what has proven to me the most important element of a production of this play: A guilty pleasure in the scheming of Iago. As with Richard III, I don’t just want to see a villain plot; I want to feel like I’m in on it in an intimate way. But that never happened in an otherwise psychologically sound performance by Gordon S. Miller. Opposite him, Michael Blake gave blood and strength to the title role while never making the Moor so smart that he wouldn’t believably fall for Iago’s manipulation.
Revenge of a different magnitude and tone is at the center of The Merry Wives of Windsor (through Oct. 26). In it, Falstaff sends a pair of love letters to two married women and, for his sins, he is punished. Three times.
If, like me, you have never been totally comfortable with the Sir Topas scene in Twelfth Night — in which the otherwise lovable rogues torture Malvolio with mindgames the seem to be out of proportion to his crimes — be prepared for Wives which stretches that idea to a full-length play. And, throughout, Shakespeare piles on the fat jokes.
Not usually thought of as a problematic play the way The Taming of the Shrew is — in part, I think, because it’s rarely thought about at all — Merry Wives received a ‘50s suburban location and an unapologetic emphasis on farce in festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino’s production.
Falstaff and company live in a charming town full of life, with kids punctuating the landscape and locals going about their business (the play opens with the stage being raked of its leaves) while the title duo playfully plot their revenge. The knockabout action won over the audience, who celebrated it with big laughs throughout. And the final moments of reconciliation and forgiveness proved powerful, even if this Falstaff (again, Geraint Wyn Davies) is more of a puppy than the vibrant life force he is in Shakespeare’s history plays.
This year’s pull-out-all-the-stops musical, Billy Elliot (through Nov. 3) soared in ways I found stronger than the two national tours that I’ve witnessed.
Solidly cast throughout and with a dynamic drive, it managed to overcome the show’s flaws, including second-tier Lee Hall lyrics (exceptions being the lovely “Electricity” and the heartbreakingly understated “The Letter”). I still could do without the dancing dress forms and the superficial flying — up until he takes flight, Billy has already flown thanks to Donna Feore’s deeply human choreography and Colton Curtis’ just-right turn as Billy’s older self and dance partner.
But these took a backseat thanks to Feore’s expert use of the space and the work of an outstanding Billy (Nolan Dubuc) who not only triple-threated as actor/singer/dancer but also had a believable world-on-his-shoulders gravitas.
Still to open this season, Arthur Miller's The Crucible (Aug. 1-Oct. 25), a new adaptation of Ben Hecht's The Front Page (July 30-Oct. 25), and Wajdi Mouawad’s Birds of a Kind (July 30-Oct. 13), translated by Linda Gaboriau.
If I could, I’d go back for another triple header. Instead, I’ll settle for some finds at area bookstores (yes, some towns still have bookstores), including works by and about former Stratford artistic directors John Neville and Richard Monette. And perhaps rewatch some of past recorded productions, many of which are available on BroadwayHD.com.
» Lou Harry is editor of Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists, Chair of the American Theatre Critics Association's New Play Committee, and hosts the Lou Harry Gets Real podcast. Follow him on Twitter @LouHarry and at www.louharry.com