Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Stratford and Shaw Festivals - Great Canadian Theatre

Posted by Bruce Miller
I returned on Monday from a five-day trip to Ontario, Canada. I was fortunate enough again this year to be able to make my pilgrimage to the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, the two largest repertory theatres on the continent. This time, for the first time, I went by myself, without Terrie and the kids and without Phil. I discovered, to no one’s surprise, that solitary theatre sojourns are not my thing. Nonetheless, it was a valuable and enjoyable experience.

I flew out of Richmond last Wednesday morning via Jet Blue into Buffalo, rented a car and drove the three or so hours to the quiet town of Stratford, Ontario--on the Avon, of course, complete with swans. I checked into my B & B at around 6 pm, the Palmyra House,, owned and operated by Steve and Meg Garden-Smith. My room and my very friendly, accommodating hosts couldn’t have been nicer. The photos on the Palmyra House website don’t do the beautiful home justice. I recommend the accommodations, the breakfast, and most especially the Garden-Smiths without reservation. Almost immediately after checking in, I walked to my first show. All Stratford theatres are within an easy walking distance from the comfortable and peaceful Palmyra House.

I saw shows at Stratford on the following schedule: Wednesday 8 pm – A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee (Tom Patterson Theatre), Thursday 2 pm – My One and Only by the Gershwins etc. (Avon Theatre), Thursday 8 pm – An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde (Festival Theatre - pictured below), Friday 2 pm – The Odyssey by Derek Walcott (Studio Theatre).

I admired A Delicate Balance, which featured an amazing performance by David Fox as Tobias; I enjoyed My One and Only, but remembered why I had forgotten so much of the original Broadway production—it’s forgetable. I went nuts over An Ideal Husband, and absolutely hated not having anyone with me to talk to when the show was over—nothing worse for me than seeing a great show and having to keep my feelings to myself. I didn’t like The Odyssey at all, despite Derek Walcott having won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

After The Odyssey, I hopped into my Toyota Corolla and headed to Niagara-on-the-Lake, a gorgeous, flower-festooned town not far from Niagara Falls, and home to the Shaw Festival. I tend to stay at whatever accommodations are most affordable, and at the Shaw Festival that meant staying at the Comfort Inn in St. Catharine’s, a small city about 15 minutes east. There are some beautiful B & B’s in Niagara-on-the-Lake, but the ones that were available when I booked my room were outside my budget.

I took Friday night off, and then saw Shaw Festival productions on this schedule: Saturday 12 noon – The Kiltartan Comedies by Lady Augusta Gregory (Courthouse Theatre), Saturday 2 pm – The Philanderer by Bernard Shaw (Royal George Theatre), Saturday 8 pm – Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams (Royal George Theatre), Sunday 2 pm – Hotel Peccadillo adapted from Georges Feydeau (Festival Theatre), Sunday 8 pm – The Cassilis Engagement by St John Hankin (Courthouse Theatre).

I loved The Kiltartan Comedies, two folksy, very Irish one acts; I enjoyed The Philanderer, although I thought it became a little talky in Acts II and III, and I wasn’t sure where Shaw was trying to go with it. You could tell it was only his third play. I went nuts over Summer and Smoke, and again, missed my accustomed post-theatre fellowship in a neighborhood bar. Hotel Peccadillo started out fun (and wild and crazy), but seemed to me to run out of steam in the last third of Act I and all of Act II. I very much enjoyed The Cassilis Engagement, especially since I knew nothing of the show or the playwright before last week.

One of the best things about the Stratford and Shaw Festivals is the caliber of the acting. Many of the greatest U. S. actors relocate to New York and/or L. A. In Canada, the greatest actors seem to be drawn to Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake, at least in season.

The best known name in the Stratford company is Brian Bedford (pictured to the left), who is internationally recognized as one of the finest English speaking actors alive in the world today. (I saw Mr. Bedford with Tammy Grimes in the Broadway revival of Private Lives in about 1970, and I still remember it as the funniest play I’ve ever seen.) But aside from Mr. Bedford, the majority of the actors in both companies are first-rate, world-class talents. It’s great fun to see your favorites in one show, and then see them in a different show that evening or the next day, and barely be able to discern that you’re watching the same person.

Another great thing about the festivals is that you can see two or three shows a day, every day except Monday. I saw nine shows in four and a half days of playgoing. That's my kind 'a town.

My favorite thing about the festivals is the play selection. Go to Broadway these days, and almost everything is a musical. At the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, you can see Broadway-caliber productions of the wonderful but often less familiar plays of the world’s greatest playwrights. Of the nine shows I saw this trip, eight were shows I’d never seen before.

And, of course, I didn’t see everything. What I missed due to limitations of time and money were world-class productions of Oklahoma! (Rodgers and Hammerstein), King Lear (Shakespeare), To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck), The Merchant of Venice (Shakespeare), Othello (Shakespeare), The Comedy of Errors (Shakespeare), St. Joan (Shaw), Mack and Mabel (Jerry Herman etc.), The Circle (Maugham), A Month in the Country (Turgenev/Friel), and a couple other less familiar titles.

Fun fact: the Stratford Festival opened on July 13, 1953, 19 days before the founding of Barksdale Theatre. Fun coincidence: at my last performance, I caught up with Scott Nogi (pictured to the right), the very talented actor who appeared in Theatre IV’s production of The Music Man when he was still a student at Godwin High School in the mid-90s. Scott went on to get his BFA from the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU in 2001, studied with RADA in London, and is now forging a wonderful career as an actor, director and fight choreographer in NYC. He was visiting the Shaw Festival with his beautiful wife, Haley, and was gracious enough to re-introduce himself to me. Hopefully, we’ll be able to reconnect with Scott soon here at Barksdale.
--Bruce Miller

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