Canada’s Stratford festival

STRATFORD, ONT. – Few things can be better than to do wonderful things in a wonderful place.

Our annual journey to Canada’s Stratford Festival is exactly such a circumstance. The drive to and from there is one of the most unpleasant I can imagine, but the beauty of the city and the excellence of the theatrical productions which are presented there make it well worth the experience.

Our own Chautauqua does wonderful things in a usually wonderful place, but when the siren calls of events at Chautauqua drift into the past, what a comfort it is to visit Stratford and experience the sheer joy of a visit there. This year 12 productions are taking place there, continuing well on into the autumn. I recently was able to attend five of them, and I just can’t wait to tell you all about them.

Let me begin by sharing a few things about the experience of going there, then I’ll give you my perspective on the wonderful things I did get to see:

GOING TO STRATFORD

The Stratford Festival takes place each year in a beautiful little town, roughly midway between Toronto, on the east, and Windsor/Detroit, on the west. If we could drive straight across Lake Erie, we could be there much more quickly, and probably with less grief. Instead, we must drive in a giant S-shaped pattern, going north and east to Buffalo, the crossing the border to Canada and driving north and east as far as Hamilton, then turning west and north until we reach Stratford.

It takes about four hours from Jamestown, and a bit less from Dunkirk/Fredonia, if road repairs aren’t too intrusive and the border crossing isn’t a nightmare. This year I left home at 8 a.m. and was in Stratford, having lunch, a few minutes before noon, but returning on the exact same highways, it took more than six hours, so don’t risk missing a play by leaving only the minimum amount of travel time.

Like so many places in Canada, the city itself is full of old stone and brick houses, many with Victorian towers and balconies, and nearly all bedecked with some of the most fabulous gardening you could imagine. It’s a quiet place with plenty of parking. Streets bear historic names such as Shrewsbury and Coburg. People are friendly, and there are many fine restaurants, ranging from grand gourmet to welcoming diners. The bookstores are worth the drive, all by themselves, if you have any interest in history or the theater. There is a large, quiet lake, bedecked with swans and ducks, and huge weeping willows, dropping their branches to the water’s surface.

Earlier this year, I wrote a feature which included driving directions to Stratford. I have often had readers ask about the possibility of taking an auto ferry across Lake Erie, and I did my best to find out about one. I learned that there is a ferry from Sandusky, Ohio, west of Cleveland, to Pelee Island, and a ferry from the island to the Canadian mainland at Leamington, Ontario, although I was not able to learn if it’s possible to complete the crossing in one effort, or if it is necessary to spend the night on the island or some such. I emailed the ferry operator, and when nobody replied, I wrote a regular letter, which nobody answered.

If you have the time, the money, and the interest to look into such a trip in person, please do let me know what you find out.

The ferry which sometimes runs between Rochester and Toronto, is currently not running, so that is not an option, for now.

My own choice has been to bite the bullet, make the drive, and to allow the beauty and the opportunities of Stratford to heal the pain, once I get there.

ROMEO & JULIET

As I said in our write-up of the Shaw Festival, not long ago, I have to go to Canada when there is a gap in the Chautauqua schedule, and see whatever is being performed while I’m there. The plays I didn’t get to see are “The Three Musketeers,” (ends Oct. 19) “The Merchant of Venice,” (Oct. 18) “Blithe Spirit,” (Oct. 20) “Othello,” (Oct. 19) “Mary Stuart,” (scheduled to end Sept. 21, but has been extended three times, thus far) “Waiting for Godot,” (Sept. 20) and “Taking Shakespeare,” (recently extended until Sept. 27.) I would have been thrilled to see any of them, although “Mary Stuart” has been the most consistently sold-out production of this season, and “Taking Shakespeare” is a brand new play about teaching students about the Bard, which I would dearly have loved to have seen, so they would have been first choice.

The one thing I did see which I might not have chosen, was “Romeo and Juliet,” which is playing in the Festival Theatre through Oct. 19. It isn’t that I have anything against the play, nor against director Tim Carroll, but that I just reviewed the same play at Chautauqua, in their astounding production with one actor, one singer, and one dancer portraying each of the major characters.

Still, nothing I’ve ever seen at Stratford has not been worth the trip up there, and Carroll’s version had a very different perspective on the well-known story. For one thing, just as Shakespeare himself wrote for a theater which took place by daylight, with little or no artificial light whatsoever, Carroll had his excellent cast performing with a full set of lights, including house lights, which made it very obvious that we were in a theater, and not in Verona.

Another factor was that as one scene came to an end, the actors for the next scene were already walking briskly onto the stage and talking, giving the production a sense of rushing ahead, which is perhaps the principal theme of the play. None of the tragedies of the plot needed to happen, and could have been prevented with just a little bit of patience.

If Juliet hadn’t insisted on getting married less than 24 hours after meeting Romeo, if Tybalt hadn’t insisted on immediately punishing Romeo for crashing the family’s party, if Lord Capulet hadn’t insisted on Juliet marrying Paris three days after her cousin’s death, none of the deaths and suffering needed to take place.

Sara Topham and Daniel Briere were lively and beautifully spoken as the central couple. Both danced exceptionally well, as the play ended, not with a bleak fading of the light, but with the whole cast dancing a lively jig, of the 16th-century styling. The fact that we’ve watched Topham in Stratford productions for more than a decade, while Briere was still in college in recent months, did make for a bit of mismatch, as her actions were more mature than his.

The costumes by Carolyn M. Smith were beautiful, and since it was set in Shakespeare’s own era, the pumpkin pants and elaborate dress has been known to inhibit free movement, especially with swords. But they did not do so here. The fact that I believe every character except Juliet spent the entire play in the same clothes gave the feeling of an exercise, more than a story.

Expert help from Kate Henning’s lusty nurse, Tom McCamus’ nervous Friar Lawrence and Jonathan Goad’s exceedingly neurotic Mercutio helped that feeling of “exercise” to be overcome.

I don’t doubt that it does one good to get a feeling for how these plays were originally staged, but like a roof’s shelter from the rain and the relief of air conditioning, I’m willing to sacrifice a bit of authenticity for the good of the play.

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF

North Americans love musical theater. Because they sell a lot of tickets, the festival has been doing one large-scale musical and one smaller-scale musical production each season for many years now.

To me, the trouble with this is I don’t need to drive four hours into Canada to see really first-rate musical theater. This year’s Stratford production of “Fiddler on the Roof” which plays at the Festival Theatre through Oct. 20, is beautifully done. You can see it beautifully done much closer to home, but if you do make the trip, they do an outstanding job.

The story of the show is based on a short story by Sholem Aleichem, about a community of Jews, living in Czarist Russia, in the 19th century. Tevye is a milkman, whose poverty and hard work are nearly perpetual. He lives with his wife, Golde, and their three daughters, in a community which, we are told, is dominated by tradition.

We are told that Tevye allows one small tradition to change, and the result is the complete unraveling of life as the family knows it. When his oldest daughter begs him to be allowed to marry the young man who has been her friend since their births, instead of the older, widowed butcher to whom she has been promised, he allows it.

Soon his second daughter wants to marry a visiting scholar from a large city, who is a revolutionary and is arrested and sent to Siberia, and then the third daughter wants to marry a Cossack, outside the Jewish community.

By the end, we see the entire village ordered broken up and family members deciding where to go, overhung by our knowledge that which choice they made would determine their very survival, although they don’t know it.

Director Donna Feore had a grasp on the story and its charms, and instead of scoping out anything unexpected in the plot, focused on presenting the expected with style and class.

Scott Wentworth was blustery but lovable as the hard-working dairyman, while Kate Henning might have been a bit more focused as his wife. A good Tevye needs a bossier, more challenging Golde for us to be astonished by his accomplishments.

Jennifer Stewart, Jacquelyn French and Keely Hutton were well matched to their characters as the daughters, while Andre Morin, Mike Nadajewski and Paul Nolan produced perfect contrast as the very different men they chose to marry.

The scenery was beautiful, the lighting was sensitive, the dancing was extraordinary, and everyone who sang was good at it. Again, you don’t need Stratford to enjoy a great production of “Fiddler,” but if you go there, you will see one.

MEASURE FOR MEASURE

“Measure for Measure” is one of Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays,” and while different writers disagree on why that is so, it definitely is a problem. It plays at the Tom Patterson Theatre, through Sept. 29.

The plot concerns a Duke of the city of Vienna. As the play begins Vincentio has been governing the city for many years. Although from time to time he has passed strict morality laws, during his reign, in fact, he has never enforced them, and the city has grown more and more morally loose.

Lacking the courage to suddenly enforce what he has allowed to lapse, the duke announces that he will go away for a period of time, leaving the government of the city in the hands of his deputy, a prudish young man named Angelo.

No sooner is the duke gone when Angelo begins enforcing laws with a vengeance. Soon he has arrested a young man named Claudio, and condemned him to be beheaded for the crime of impregnating his own fiancee. Claudio’s sister, Isabella, is one day before taking her vows as a nun, but she leaves her convent to plead with Angelo for her brother’s life.