A preview of Canada’s spring performing arts

Only a short drive from our area, there are three wonderful, world class arts festivals preparing to thrill us, entertain us, teach us, comfort us and all the many other things which the arts can do for their audiences.

We will have to wait another month for the American festival which is closest to us of all – Chautauqua Institution. In the meanwhile, it has become our custom each May to share with you a general idea of what will be happening at the Luminato Festival in Toronto, at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario. Luminato and Stratford are each about four hours’ drive from Jamestown and 30-45 minutes closer to Dunkirk. The Shaw Festival can be reached in about two hours’ drive.

All are in Canada. That means all prices quoted in this week’s column will be in Canadian dollars, which are worth a bit less than U.S. dollars at this time. Going to any of these festivals will require that anyone, including U.S. citizens, have a passport, a special driver’s license which is good for international travel or one of the various documents which will be accepted at our border, in order to return to the U.S.

I know a great many readers who say the festivals column is their favorite of the year, so I hope you’ll enjoy this one especially.

Luminato

The Luminato Festival will be held throughout the metropolitan Toronto area, this year between June 6-15. The idea is that you go to Toronto, find a hotel or some other place to stay which fits your style, your personal economics and your tastes. Then, you get a program and attend the things which interest you and ignore those which don’t. There are showings of visual arts, folk music, classical music, dance, theater, literature, performance art, film, culinary arts and much more.

You can attend small audience talks by artists, including famous ones such as Rufus Wainwright and Josh Groban. You can go where musical groups are performing for whoever wants to do it, to dance in the street.

Some things require formal tickets and most of those you would be wise to look up on their web site, at www.luminatofestival.com, and to purchase tickets in advance. Other thing, you can just walk up and participate.

Some of the acts are from exotic locations such as Asia and Africa. Others are as mainstream as a high school musical. Actor and film star Isabella Rosselini does several performances of her ”Green Porn,” series, in which she acts out the exotic mating customs of various plants and animals. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra performs musical tributes to the Americas. Buffy Sainte-Marie performs music which combines influences of her native Cree Nation with American folk music, rock and roll, jazz and more.

Unlike the other two festivals, in which you drive up and there are three performances at 2 p.m. and three performances at 8 p.m., Luminato is a long list of events lasting all day and into the evening, and you have to pick what sounds interesting, buy tickets if they’re required, and find your way there, either walking from your hotel, driving or learning to use the subways, buses and streetcars.

My favorite event of the several Luminato Festivals which I have attended, happened when I was on my way to a performance riding down in the elevator from my hotel room when the car stopped. The doors opened, and Joni Mitchell stepped onto the elevator. That’s the kind of event it is. Go to the web address above, check it out for yourself, and then jump in and visit. I’m sure you’ll have a great time no matter what your interests are.

Shaw Festival

The Shaw Festival is the nearest of the great Canadian Arts Festivals. It’s located in a pretty little village which runs a bit like Disney’s Epcot Center, in which everything is a bit cleaner and more ”created” than natural. On the other hand, the quaint little shops sell high end merchandise which is difficult to find elsewhere, and the shopping is a major draw if you’re into that kind of activities. You can also visit local wineries and learn how wine is made and sample their wares. You can ride a speed boat up through the Niagara Rapids to get a closer look than usual at the falls.

You can clip-clop through the quaint streets in a horse-drawn carriage, picnic in a park with spectacular views of the Niagara River, attend lectures and demonstrations by actors and backstage artists from the Festival and more.

The Festival has already opened for the 2014 season. They have four theaters, in various shapes and sizes. If you drove up today, there are four productions which have opened and there will eventually be your choice of 10 plays, all of which either were written during the nearly 100 years in which Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw was alive, or which have been written in other times and take place during Shaw’s lifetime, of roughly 1850-1950. It is possible to leave home at a reasonable hour, attend a lunchtime theater, a 2 p.m. matinee, and an 8 p.m. evening performance, and still get home not long after midnight. There are also hotels, motels, bed and breakfast houses and great restaurants.

The quality of the sets is astounding. The actors are as good as you’ll see anywhere. The directors are usually brilliant, and on the rare occasion on which they aren’t brilliant, they produce productions which fail so interestingly, you’re nearly always glad you saw them?

At this time, the plays are expected to run through October 26, although it is not at all unusual that ticket sales are so brisk that more and more performances are eventually tacked onto the end of the season. Here is what you can choose from, if you visit:

The Festival Theatre is the largest and most technically equipped. Virtually every day, except Mondays, you can see one of these productions at 2 p.m. and another at 8 p.m.

The musical ”Cabaret,” by Kander and Ebb is open now and will run through Oct. 26. The play is set in Berlin in the 1920s when the Nazi party was first taking over the government of Germany. An American writer checks into a boarding house where he meets a kooky English music hall performer named Sally Bowles. In her nightclub, the songs and dances act out a version of the political horrors which are actually happening to Germany, at the time. It’s a bit risque.

”The Philadelphia Story,” by Philip Barry will run through Oct. 25. It is the story of a wealthy, headstrong young woman who has foolishly divorced the man she really loves and is determined to marry a stuffed shirt who matches her idea of proper, while the rascal ex-husband plots to win her back.

”The Philanderer” is by the Festival’s patron, George Bernard Shaw. It is one of his many examinations of what is expected of men and women, compared to what they are really like, and it centers on a man who is irresistible to nearly every woman, while the one woman he wants has no interest in him at all. It will open June 26 and play through Oct. 12.

The Royal George Theatre, located about four blocks from the Festival is a smaller theater is a bit crowded, but very pretty. It’s stage will be home to three productions this year.

”Arms and the Man,” another Shaw play, is about warfare in the Balkan Peninsula where people are so used to warfare, they seem to fight over issues that aren’t clear to anyone. In this play, a mercenary soldier, fleeing from one side of a battle, takes refuge in the house of the commanding general of the opposing side and falls in love with the general’s daughter. It is now running and it will play through Oct. 18.

”When We Are Married,” by J.B. Priestly is a comedy about three couples who have been friends all their lives. They come together to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary and learn that due to an unusual circumstance, none of them is actually married in the eyes of the law. What will this sextet do when suddenly faced with the possibility of escape from the life to which they thought they were permanently bound? It is now open, and will continue playing through Oct. 26.

”Juno and the Paycock” by Sean O’Casey is a tragic study of an Irish family torn apart by the Irish civil war. Can the central family survive and stay together among the killings, the betrayals, the executions and all that happened in Ireland not long ago. It will open June 28, and play through Oct. 12.

The Court House Theatre is located between the other two. Its arena stage means the audience is always close to the actors. That theater is showing the following productions.

”The Charity That Began at Home” by St. John Hankin is a rarely-performed little gem about a wealthy mother and daughter who decide it is their Christian duty to entertain people who are disagreeable and dull, on the pretext that anyone can be hospitable to an agreeable, pleasant person, but it requires Christian charity to entertain a stinker. That play is open now and will run through Oct. 11.

”The Sea” by Edward Bond is a political play about a shipwreck in Edwardian England and the effect it has on a small town which exists in a condition of denial of the real world. It will open June 3 and run through Oct. 12.

”A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur” by Tennessee Williams is one of the playwright’s famous portrayals of frustration, desire and the refusal to settle for what works even if one can’t have what one wants. A young teacher believes her principal is about to propose while her friend tries to convince her that the friend’s brother is a better choice for her. It will open June 28 and play through Oct. 11. This play is shorter and less expensive than the other productions and is performed during the typical lunch hour.

The Studio Theatre is the newest and smallest theater at the Festival and it gives them the opportunity to do plays which are only appealing to smaller audiences for one reason or another. The theater is now the Festival’s rehearsal hall, and when all the other plays in the season are out of rehearsal and running, then it will house its own production. This season it will be home to a production of ”The Mountaintop” by Katori Hall. The play deals with Dr. Martin Luther King and finds him as a guest at the motel where will soon be assassinated. The leader meets a maid at the motel who helps him to put his life into a new perspective. It will open July 16 and run through Sept. 7.

To get a printed brochure showing all the plays, dates and times when they will be performed, plus all the additional concerts, lectures and other events related to the festival, visit their web site at www.shawfest.com or phone 1-800-511-7429.

Stratford Festival

Stratford Festival is located roughly mid-way between Toronto and Detroit. Like the Shaw Festival, they have four theaters which usually show two performances per day, each. Stratford does not usually stage lunchtime productions.

The small city in which it is located is less Disney-like than Niagara-on-the-Lake, and many things are possible to do less expensively. Unlike Shaw Festival, Stratford does productions from every period of history, from pre-Biblical to things written within the past year. Its actors are also outstanding and their productions are usually brilliantly conceived.

Here is the principal playbill for the 2014 season, which includes 12 different productions:

  • The Festival Theatre is the largest and the most technically advanced. This year, you can see these productions there:

”Crazy for You” is a musical with songs by Gershwin. It concerns a young businessman who is sent to a Nevada mining town to repossess the town’s theater, but he falls for the owner’s daughter. It is now being performed in previews, officially opening May 27, and it will play until Oct. 12.

”King Lear” by Shakespeare is currently in preview performance and it will officially open May 26. It is the story of an English king who is weary of his duties so he decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, expecting them to support and do all his work for him, only to meet disappointment to the point of madness. This play features film and television star Colm Feore and it will play through Oct. 10.

”A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by William Shakespeare is a comedy in which a troupe of simple townspeople decide to produce a classic play, the nature of which they truly don’t understand, in hopes of winning a prize at their duke’s wedding. The production is now in previews and will open May 31. It will play through Oct. 11.