Only about two hours away from Toronto, madness is infiltrating the town of Stratford, Ontario—but fortunately, it’s the kind that produces delightful results. Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino has designed this year’s season around the theme “Madness: Minds Pushed to the Edge,” and explores it through everything from jukebox musicals to Shakespearean tragedies. And with the festival’s increasingly popular twice-daily bus service to and from downtown (in its second year), it’s easy to get a taste of what the mania is all about. Here’s Torontoist‘s take on a sampling of this year’s festival offerings—Ira Glass and his opinions notwithstanding, a whole lot of people would welcome a chance to spend some time with the Bard and some of Canada’s most esteemed artists.
Crow’s Theatre Artistic Director Chris Abraham’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream makes for perhaps the most joyful evening of theatre we’ve ever experienced. Abraham turns Stratford’s Festival Theatre into the backyard wedding of a same-sex couple (Josue Laboucane and Thomas Olajide) who are surprised to receive a production of Midsummer, proffered and performed by their guests, as a wedding gift. The play has its dazzling moments—including a crowd-pleasing song-and-dance number by the wedding’s youngest attendees (who double as Titania’s fairy aides), and the gradual appearance of the night sky as part of designer Julie Fox’s set—but the best part of this production is the relaxed and cheerful cast: Bottom (Stephen Ouimette, in a perfect casting choice) nails his scenes while simultaneously manning the barbecue and flirting with Peter Quince (Lally Cadeau); meanwhile, Hippolyta’s (Maev Beaty) tipsiness makes her reaction to the play-within-the-play all the more memorable. Casting Tara Rosling in the role of Lysander, and thus turning her character’s affair with Hermia (Bethany Jillard) into another same-sex relationship, was another inspired choice. The seating arrangement, which sees actors and audience members sitting together on cushions along the edge of the stage, creates an uncommon sense of intimacy. The performances may not be spotless throughout, but love has a way of making imperfections disappear—and we fell in love with this show.
Directing this year’s big-ticket Shakespeare production, Antoni Cimolino takes a decidedly topical approach to the generational conflict in King Lear, drawing inspiration from current youth employment challenges, the ever-increasing income gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the repercussions of an aging population amid such economic instability. Despite these influences, Cimolino’s production manages to maintain a stately, traditional atmosphere. It humanizes characters often seen as profoundly unsympathetic—eldest sister Goneril, for example, played here impeccably by Toronto favourite and Stratford newcomer Maev Beaty. But the most effective scenes in this production are the ones that terrify: Colm Feore, of course, plays the titular patriarch and oozes contempt and vitriol in the first act, before becoming childishness as he descends into madness. The interrogation scene between Gloucester (Scott Wentworth) and Cornwall (a high-throttle Mike Shara) is memorably torturous. There’s also plenty of heartbreak—Evan Buliung and Scott Wentworth make a tear-inducing pair as the tormented Edgar and his father Gloucester, as do Lear and his banished daughter Cordelia (Sarah Farb) during their brief reunion. On the whole, this is a solid production of King Lear that will make you want to either hug your parents, or cut off all familial ties altogether.
Classic Gershwin tunes, a couple of cute love stories, and a whole whack of tap–dancing cowboys in sequinned chaps and fringed plaid shirts—what more could you ask for in a musical? Exploring the lighter side of madness—the lovesick kind that leads to all sorts of misunderstandings and good-natured hijinks—director Donna Feore really delivers with Crazy for You. Josh Franklin (seen recently in Anything Goes with Mirvish and now making his Stratford debut) stars as Broadway-wannabe Bobby, who travels to the rundown town of Deadrock, Nevada, to seize the bankrupt local theatre. Of course, he falls in love with the theatre owner’s daughter, Polly (Natalie Daradich), at first sight—she also happens to be the only female in all of Deadrock. (Which is, if you think about it, a needlessly terrifying detail.) He decides to save the building by staging one last performance while disguised as his boss, the famous producer Bela Zangler—played by the always stupendous Tom Rooney, who often steals the show away from the two romantic leads. In fact, it’s often those in the background—including three harmonizing and joke-cracking cowboys (Steve Ross, Stephen Patterson, and Marcus Nance) and the entire dance chorus—that stand out the most. But, overall, this Crazy for You is easy to fall for, if you avoid thinking about how awful it would be to be the only female in what’s basically Deadwood.
While one director takes one of Shakespeare’s most well-known comedies in a contemporary direction, another takes one of the Bard’s most obscure tragedies back to basics. Director Tim Carroll has had some mixed results with his “original practices” approach to Shakespeare (his Romeo and Juliet at last year’s Stratford Festival was panned, but his Twelfth Night on Broadway earned seven Tony nominations and won two), but King John mostly triumphs thanks to performances from Tom McCamus as King John, Seanna McKenna as the widow Constance and mother of Arthur (John’s nephew), and Graham Abbey as Philip the Bastard, a distant relative whose newly discovered lineage turns him into a trusted adviser to the king and sharp-witted guide for the audience. The plot pits John, king of England, against Louis, king of France, who insists that Arthur is the rightful heir to the throne. The two sides are drawn into a devastating war—one involving too many twists and switched allegiances to sum up here. The familial power plays and copious bloodshed in King John are enough to drive the titular king mad, just as King Lear is, but there’s not much emotional weight in John’s plight. What we get is something like a 12th-century version of House of Cards, which is plenty enjoyable in its own right.
Musicals often have unlikely plots (see Crazy for You), but it’s exceptionally hard to believe that a new prisoner in a Spanish jail would be forced to perform a play as his initiation into his new home. Nevertheless, that’s what Miguel de Cervantes must do in Man of La Mancha, when he finds himself under the eyes of the Inquisition and imprisoned (in a puzzlingly well-furnished environment, designed by Douglas Paraschuk) with angry inmates demanding de Cervantes’s story, Don Quixote. Luckily, Stratford favourites Tom Rooney and Steve Ross star as de Cervantes/Don Quixote and de Cervantes’s servant/Sancho Panza and make this impossible plot gorgeous to listen to, managing to lodge classics like “The Impossible Dream” and “Dulcinea” in your head for hours to come. Director Robert McQueen doesn’t shy away from the sentimentality of the musical, instead embracing it—and Robin Hutton as Aldonza/Dulcinea seems to be the sacrificial lamb. In order for the show to create the emotional catharsis it should, it needs to expose Aldonza to suffering in the first act—and in this production, that results in a long and brutal departure from the whimsicality of Don Quixote’s story and leaves the character traumatized and with an uncertain future. Given the story’s issues, a perfect staging of Man of La Mancha is an impossible dream, but Stratford’s cast make a valiant effort.
An earlier version of this post misspelled Maev Beaty’s first name. We regret the error.