Sunday, August 22, 2004

Stratford Festival of Canada--2004 Review

Stratford Festival okay, but not up to its usual excellence

Driving up to the Statford Festival is especially lovely in the fall. Depending on which routing you take, you either go up through Buffalo and pass through the Erie wine country or through Detroit/Windsor and meander through the Canadian countryside. If you want a stop along the way, both routes offer something special. The Buffalo route gets you into Niagara Falls where the attractions are not only the falling waters, but a new casino and excellent outlet malls. The Detroit Windsor overnight could include a visit to the revitalized Greektown area of the Motor City, where two casinos are situated, or the Windsor Casino. Visits in that area include the historically interesting Greenfield Village. Either route will take you about 5 1/2 hours from Cleveland to Stratford, Ontario, Canada.


This season’s productions center on the theme: “It’s the idea of a world beneath: a secret, subconscious or even supernatural counterpart of what we experience on the surface of things. There’s more to life than meets the eye.”

Capsule judgments of the shows I saw:

‘NOISES OFF’ by Michael Frayn is a farcical play within a play. Everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. Chaos unfolds as we see the play both from the perspective of the audience and what goes on backstage. If properly done, the Canadians, with their abilities to do farce, should have been able to make this show a total hoot. Unfortunately, in spite of excellent performances, Brian Bedford’s directing is way too slow, causing more of a comic rather than a hysterical feel. This makes the play pleasant, not reaching its potential.

In Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux’s ‘THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE,’ love defies logic. Princes Leonide of Sparta attempts to win the heart of Agist, the rightful heir to the throne Leonide now occupies. Agist has been taught to reject love as a source of human weakness. This is not, by any turn of imagination, a great play. The plot is contrived, the show is too long, but the well-staged and well-acted production does hold the audience’s attention. Claire Jullien and Lucy Peacock give fine performances.

‘GUYS AND DOLLS’ is a combination of the tales of Nathan Detroit, a small time gambler who runs the “oldest established floating crap-game in New York” and Adelaide, his doll; the high roller Sky Masterson’s gambit of winning a bet by talking the up-tight missionary doll, Sarah Brown, into going to Havana with him; and the multiple character studies of the likes of Harry the Horse, Nicely-Nicely, Benny Southstreet, and Big Julie. These are the people of Damon Runyon. For the musical to work, there should be a New York cadence, a New York sound. That is, for those aware of the sound, the cadence, and Runyon’s characters. Interestingly, most Canadians aren’t familiar with those elements, so that becomes a mute point in their appreciation of the show. From my perspective the show missed its point but from the Canadians I talked to this was not an issue.

The musical contains such delightful songs as “I’ll Know,” “My Time of Day,” “If I Were a Bell.” The show’s highlights are Adelaide’s “Bushel and a Peck,” “Adelaide’s Lament,” and “Take Back Your Mink.” Sheila McCarthy was delightful as Adelaide. “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” a big production number, centers on the ability of the character Nicely-Nicely commanding the stage. Bruce Dow did exactly that! Most attenders will like this production

‘A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM’ was my favorite of this season’s Stratford productions. The play about spellbound lovers who chase each other through the woods by night, is one of Shakespeare’s best comedies. Creatively directed, beautifully acted, the humor well keyed, and the play perfectly paced, this was a fine, fine production. Complete with creative costuming and trapeze acrobats bungy jumping over the heads of the audience, the production let totally loose in every aspect of its staging. Thom Marriott was wonderful as Nick Bottom. Michelle Gioroux as Helena, Nazneen Contractor as Hermia, Jeffrey Wetsch as Lysander, and Haysm Hadri as Demetrius all were special. This is a fine, fine staging of a fine play.

Alexander Dumas is known for writing swashbuckling novels. One of his favorites is ‘THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO.’ The story concerns treason, a dashing young sailor, imprisonment, a daring escape and a quest for vengeance. The show opens with a thunderstorm, intensified in effect by swelling music and a moving boat. The sword fights are exciting, the costumes lush. In the end, this, like any good melodramatic play, can’t be taken seriously, but it can be a good time, if you are willing to put aside your definition of what “good” theatre is all about.

The most problematic production of the Stratford season was ‘MACBETH.’ Overplayed in many segments, the production lacked a consistent voice. The script probably has more famous speeches than any other Shakespeare play. “Is this a dagger” was given an effective underplayed interpretation. On the other hand, “Out, out damned spot,” was totally overdone, making the meaning secondary to the staging. This was not a shining version of a script by the company’s signature author.

Besides the performances there are post-performance discussions, warehouse, backstage and garden tours. Check these out. They add a great deal to the Stratford experience.

Lodging? I’d opt for one of the many bed and breakfasts. Our favorite is The Jennie Forbes Cottage, Kathy and Don Spiers’ charming 1857 regency cottage within walking distance of all the theatres and downtown. (website:

Though not as lovely a city as Niagara-on-the-Lake where the Shaw Festival operates, the shopping is better in Stratford. I strongly recommend Davis Canadian Arts (106 Ontario Street). This is a wonderful art gallery that offers Canadian traditional and contemporary sculptures, ceramics and paintings. For women’s quality clothing make sure to stop at The Touchmark Shop (137 Ontario Street). The establishment offers unique and one-of-a-kind products at excellent prices. Restaurants tend to be expensive, not always giving good value for the dollar. The exception is The Annex Room (38 Albert Street).

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The 2004 Stratford Festival of Canada is performing an adequate season. There is nothing in this season’s program to match last year’s perfect ‘THE KING AND I’ and the spectacular ‘THE ADVENTURES OF PERICLES.’ This is not to say that you shouldn’t attend. Several of the productions, including ‘A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM’ are quite good, but the offerings, at least those I saw, aren’t up to Stratford’s usual excellence.