Each week, Drama Club looks at Toronto’s theatre scene and tells you which shows are worth checking out.
Robo-Shakespeare has arrived at Stratford’s Festival Theatre. Photo by Richard Bain.
If you’re taking the time to read this column, it’s likely that you or someone you love has encountered the lovable (and occasionally frustrating) experience that is classical repertory theatre. For Toronto (and, to be fair, much of Southern Ontario and upstate New York), the big wigs in this department are the Three Ss: Stratford, Shaw, and Soulpepper. Soulpepper got the rep-theatre ball rolling in February with season opener Travesties, and Stratford and Shaw will both be up and running in just over a month, which means it’s time for Part Two of our Rep-Theatre Round-Up. This week, we turn our eye to the grandaddy of bunch: The Stratford Festival of Canada. Established in 1953, Stratford has become an important part of Ontario’s and even Canada’s cultural identity. It even inspired the fictional “New Burbage Festival” on TV’s Slings and Arrows. But recent years have seen management shake-ups and sometimes shakier seasons.
After the cut, we walk you through Stratford’s upcoming season and attempt to separate the good, the bad, and the musical. Plus, more theatre news and reviews!
Theatre nerd quiz: can you spot the “Discovery Space”? Photo provided by Stratford Festival.
Compared to a company like Soulpepper, Stratford’s season can’t help come across as somewhat tame and commercial, but that’s the nature of the beast. While not the Shakespeare theme park it’s sometimes accused of being, the festival does rely heavily on family excursions and busloads of bluehairs from Buffalo, and that means classics and musicals are a must. Let’s break down the forthcoming season, theatre by theatre:
The Festival Theatre
This is the big one you see in all the pictures (including the ones in this post). Its stage is in the traditional Elizabethan style, making it an obvious choice for the flashier Shakespeares and usually a couple of musicals and/or comedies, and that’s exactly what we get this year. Things begin with that classic tale of Shark vs Jet, West Side Story, get going. Expect a pretty traditional version of the musical. Next up is Artistic Director Des McAnuff’s version of Macbeth, featuring Stratford heavy hitter Colm Feore (President Adar on Battlestar Galactica, First Husband Henry Taylor on 24, but always a PM in our hearts). Critics will probably make note of the colourblind casting at the typically rather Caucasian festival, which includes the fabulous Yanna MacIntosh as Lady M. For a similar run, Colm will be playing a very different character as the titular lead in Cyrano de Bergerac. This translation is by A Clockwork Orange scribe Anthony Burgess, which could be interesting, but it’s helmed by Donna Feore (who just happens to be married to the lead), and she’s more known for her work as a choreographer than a director. Finally, there’s crowd-pleaser A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Geraint Wyn Davies in the iconic role of Bottom.
The Avon Theatre
The Avon’s stage is proscenium style, and the house is smaller, but the planned productions are as safe and commercial as the festival’s. Ever-popular Wilde farce The Importance of Being Earnest receives its umpteenth Stratford production; this one is made slightly saucier because the role of Lady Bracknell is to be played by Brian Bedford in drag. Then things get rather Roman with historical tragedy Julius Ceasar and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which is potentially Stephen Sondheim’s worst musical.
Tom Patterson Theatre
The Tom Patterson’s intimate thrust-stage is no longer the festival’s smallest theatre, but it does have a season of slightly less-obvious fare. Chekhov classic Three Sisters has a strong cast, including Irene Poole, Kelli Fox, and Tom McCamus. And Bartholomew Fair is a rarely performed work by Shakespeare contemporary Ben Johnson, which might be fun. Ever Yours, Oscar is another Wilde-themed piece starring Brian Bedford, but this time it’s as the famous aesthete himself as he reads Wilde’s real-life letters. Potentially for h-core Oscar-heads only. And finally, there’s a new adaptation of Racine’s Phèdre (itself an adaptation of the Greek tragedy) starring the wonderful Seana McKenna. Probably worth catching if you enjoyed her Medea.
The Studio Theatre
The most recent addition to the festival’s venue roster, the Studio is where newer works get shown. For instance, there’s the premiere of Morris Panych’s The Trespassers, which is directed by Joe Ziegler and stars Kelli Fox, among others. There’s also Rice Boy, directed by Guillermo Verdecchia and starring Anita Majumder, a show about Indian-Canadian immigrants. That’s right, it’s not about white people! Finally, there’s Zastrozzi, a classic piece by George F. Walker starring Rick Roberts, Oliver Becker, and Sarah Orenstein. While such a production would be old-hat at Factory, it seems positively revolutionary at Stratford.
Clearly, it’s very tempting to program “safe” seasons in this economy, but is pure escapism the only thing we need right now? Maybe a smarter thing to do is to produce solid productions of great Canadian plays, written in, say, the last twenty years. Who knows? We might even be able to relate to them.
On Stage This WeekBlind Date opened last night at Harbourfront’s World Stage and plays until March 7. It’s a ninety-minute improvised clown show, but not the way you think: Mimi’s blind date stands her up, so she picks someone from the audience and makes them have one with her! Performed by Spiegel Show vet Rebecca Northan.
Buzz is an interesting event running at Passe Muraille next Monday through Thursday that involved developing works involving the likes of the Rheostatics, One Yellow Rabbit, Dave Bidini, Ted Dykstra, Mary Francis Moore, Maja Ardal, Anusree Roy, Eda Holmes, Diane Flacks, Ravi Jain, and many others.
Miss Julie: Freedom Summer is a re-working of the Strindberg classic that moves the action to 1960s Mississippi and turns characters John and Christine into the black servants of a white Miss Julie. Caroline Cave is a scream as the Divine Miss J, who seems to have wandered out of a lost Tennessee Williams play (or possibly this episode of The Golden Girls), but Stephen Sachs’ script spends so much time exploring what the show has to say about class (and in this version, race), that it never seems to notice the blatant misogyny bogging it down. It plays at the Bluma Appel until March 7.
Celebrated actor/playwright Kristen Thomson’s new play The Patient Hour opened last week at Tarragon. A sister and a brother (played by Waneta Storms and Kristen’s real-life brother Todd Thomson), visit their mother, who has just suffered a stroke, in hospital. The clever twist in the show’s staging is that the mother’s bed lies just beyond the fourth wall, meaning audience members view the play through the perspective of the invisible, comatose mother. The cast is rounded out by Liisa Repo-Martell as an adorable nurse and Patricia Fagan as a mysterious patient from a neighbouring room. As usual, Thomson’s characters are thrillingly real and often hilarious, especially as performed by the stellar cast. Many will, perhaps unfairly, compare this show to Thomson’s previous work, the smash-hit I, Claudia. While both plays privilege character development over plot, The Patient Hour‘s more conventional storytelling makes this more nakedly obvious. Perhaps in an attempt to address this “problem,” Thomson’s script, subtly improved since last year’s public workshop, throws in a couple of final-quarter plot twists. After two viewings, we still can’t decide whether we think they were necessary. While gracefully justified by the writing, they end up somewhat steamrolling much of what we’ve seen so far—Thomson’s wonderful characters and their story, simple though it might be. And sometimes simple is also beautiful. It plays until March 29.
Soulpepper’s version of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties continues at the Young Centre until March 21. James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin, and Tristan Tzara cross paths in a Swiss library before the Russian Revolution. It’s a very entertaining night of theatre, with terrific performances by Diego Matamoros, David Storch, and Jordan Pettle, but Stoppard’s clever script has a tendency to start seeming less like a play and more like a Master’s thesis presentation.