STRATFORD, ONT. - Few things can be better than to do wonderful things in a wonderful place.
Our annual journey to Canada's Stratford Festival is exactly such a circumstances. The drive to and from there is one of the most unpleasant I can imagine, but the beauty of the city and the excellence of the theatrical productions which are presented there make it well worth the experience.
Our own Chautauqua does wonderful things in a usually wonderful place, but when the siren calls of events at Chautauqua drift into the past, what a comfort it is to visit Stratford and experience the sheer joy of a visit there. This year 12 productions are taking place there, continuing well on into the autumn. I recently was able to attend five of them, and I just can't wait to tell you all about them.
In Shakespeare’s day, every play ended with a merry dance. Here Sara Topham as Juliet and Daniel Briere as Romeo least the cast in a dance, patterned after Shakespeare’s own at this year’s Stratford Festival.
Let me begin by sharing a few things about the experience of going there, then I'll give you my perspective on the wonderful things I did get to see:
GOING TO STRATFORD
The Stratford Festival takes place each year in a beautiful little town, roughly midway between Toronto, on the east, and Windsor/Detroit, on the west. If we could drive straight across Lake Erie, we could be there much more quickly, and probably with less grief. Instead, we must drive in a giant S-shaped pattern, going north and east to Buffalo, the crossing the border to Canada and driving north and east as far as Hamilton, then turning west and north until we reach Stratford.
It takes about four hours from Jamestown, and a bit less from Dunkirk/Fredonia, if road repairs aren't too intrusive and the border crossing isn't a nightmare. This year I left home at 8 a.m. and was in Stratford, having lunch, a few minutes before noon, but returning on the exact same highways, it took more than six hours, so don't risk missing a play by leaving only the minimum amount of travel time.
Like so many places in Canada, the city itself is full of old stone and brick houses, many with Victorian towers and balconies, and nearly all bedecked with some of the most fabulous gardening you could imagine. It's a quiet place with plenty of parking. Streets bear historic names such as Shrewsbury and Coburg. People are friendly, and there are many fine restaurants, ranging from grand gourmet to welcoming diners. The bookstores are worth the drive, all by themselves, if you have any interest in history or the theater. There is a large, quiet lake, bedecked with swans and ducks, and huge weeping willows, dropping their branches to the water's surface.
Earlier this year, I wrote a feature which included driving directions to Stratford. I have often had readers ask about the possibility of taking an auto ferry across Lake Erie, and I did my best to find out about one. I learned that there is a ferry from Sandusky, Ohio, west of Cleveland, to Pelee Island, and a ferry from the island to the Canadian mainland at Leamington, Ontario, although I was not able to learn if it's possible to complete the crossing in one effort, or if it is necessary to spend the night on the island or some such. I emailed the ferry operator, and when nobody replied, I wrote a regular letter, which nobody answered.
If you have the time, the money, and the interest to look into such a trip in person, please do let me know what you find out.
The ferry which sometimes runs between Rochester and Toronto, is currently not running, so that is not an option, for now.
My own choice has been to bite the bullet, make the drive, and to allow the beauty and the opportunities of Stratford to heal the pain, once I get there.
ROMEO & JULIET
As I said in our write-up of the Shaw Festival, not long ago, I have to go to Canada when there is a gap in the Chautauqua schedule, and see whatever is being performed while I'm there. The plays I didn't get to see are ''The Three Musketeers,'' (ends Oct. 19) ''The Merchant of Venice,'' (Oct. 18) ''Blithe Spirit,'' (Oct. 20) ''Othello,'' (Oct. 19) ''Mary Stuart,'' (scheduled to end Sept. 21, but has been extended three times, thus far) ''Waiting for Godot,'' (Sept. 20) and ''Taking Shakespeare,'' (recently extended until Sept. 27.) I would have been thrilled to see any of them, although ''Mary Stuart'' has been the most consistently sold-out production of this season, and ''Taking Shakespeare'' is a brand new play about teaching students about the Bard, which I would dearly have loved to have seen, so they would have been first choice.
The one thing I did see which I might not have chosen, was ''Romeo and Juliet,'' which is playing in the Festival Theatre through Oct. 19. It isn't that I have anything against the play, nor against director Tim Carroll, but that I just reviewed the same play at Chautauqua, in their astounding production with one actor, one singer, and one dancer portraying each of the major characters.
Still, nothing I've ever seen at Stratford has not been worth the trip up there, and Carroll's version had a very different perspective on the well-known story. For one thing, just as Shakespeare himself wrote for a theater which took place by daylight, with little or no artificial light whatsoever, Carroll had his excellent cast performing with a full set of lights, including house lights, which made it very obvious that we were in a theater, and not in Verona.
Another factor was that as one scene came to an end, the actors for the next scene were already walking briskly onto the stage and talking, giving the production a sense of rushing ahead, which is perhaps the principal theme of the play. None of the tragedies of the plot needed to happen, and could have been prevented with just a little bit of patience.
If Juliet hadn't insisted on getting married less than 24 hours after meeting Romeo, if Tybalt hadn't insisted on immediately punishing Romeo for crashing the family's party, if Lord Capulet hadn't insisted on Juliet marrying Paris three days after her cousin's death, none of the deaths and suffering needed to take place.
Sara Topham and Daniel Briere were lively and beautifully spoken as the central couple. Both danced exceptionally well, as the play ended, not with a bleak fading of the light, but with the whole cast dancing a lively jig, of the 16th-century styling. The fact that we've watched Ms. Topham in Stratford productions for more than a decade, while Briere was still in college in recent months, did make for a bit of mismatch, as her actions were more mature than his.
The costumes by Carolyn M. Smith were beautiful, and since it was set in Shakespeare's own era, the pumpkin pants and elaborate dress has been known to inhibit free movement, especially with swords. But they did not do so here. The fact that I believe every character except Juliet spent the entire play in the same clothes gave the feeling of an exercise, more than a story.
Expert help from Kate Henning's lusty nurse, Tom McCamus's nervous Friar Lawrence and Jonathan Goad's exceedingly neurotic Mercutio helped that feeling of ''exercise'' to be overcome.
I don't doubt that it does one good to get a feeling for how these plays were originally staged, but like a roof's shelter from the rain and the relief of air conditioning, I'm willing to sacrifice a bit of authenticity for the good of the play.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF
North Americans love musical theater. Because they sell a lot of tickets, the festival has been doing one large-scale musical and one smaller-scale musical production each season for many years now.
To me, the trouble with this is that I don't need to drive four hours into Canada to see really first-rate musical theater. This year's Stratford production of ''Fiddler on the Roof'' which plays at the Festival Theatre through Oct. 20, is beautifully done. You can see it beautifully done much closer to home, but if you do make the trip, they do an outstanding job.
The story of the show is based on a short story by Sholem Aleichem, about a community of Jews, living in Czarist Russia, in the 19th century. Tevye is a milkman, whose poverty and hard work are nearly perpetual. He lives with his wife, Golde, and their three daughters, in a community which, we are told, is dominated by tradition.
We are told that Tevye allows one small tradition to change, and the result is the complete unraveling of life as the family knows it. When his oldest daughter begs him to be allowed to marry the young man who has been her friend since their births, instead of the older, widowed butcher to whom she has been promised, he allows it.
Soon his second daughter wants to marry a visiting scholar from a large city, who is a revolutionary and is arrested and sent to Siberia, and then the third daughter wants to marry a Cossack, outside the Jewish community. By the end, we see the entire village ordered broken up and family members deciding where to go, overhung by our knowledge that which choice they made would determine their very survival, although they don't know it.
Director Donna Feore had a grasp on the story and its charms, and instead of scoping out anything unexpected in the plot, focused on presenting the expected with style and class.
Scott Wentworth was blustery but lovable as the hard-working dairyman, while Kate Henning might have been a bit more focused as his wife. A good Tevye needs a bossier, more challenging Golde for us to be astonished by his accomplishments.
Jennifer Stewart, Jacquelyn French, and Keely Hutton were well matched to their characters as the daughters, while Andre Morin, Mike Nadajewski, and Paul Nolan produced perfect contrast as the very different men they chose to marry.
The scenery was beautiful, the lighting was sensitive, the dancing was extraordinary, and everyone who sang was good at it. Again, you don't need Stratford to enjoy a great production of ''Fiddler,'' but if you go there, you will see one.
MEASURE FOR MEASURE
''Measure for Measure'' is one of Shakespeare's so-called ''problem plays,'' and while different writers disagree on why that is so, it definitely is a problem. It plays at the Tom Patterson Theatre, through Sept. 29.
The plot concerns a Duke of the City of Vienna. As the play begins Vincentio has been governing the city for many years. Although from time to time he has passed strict morality laws, during his reign, in fact, he has never enforced them, and the city has grown more and more morally loose. Lacking the courage to suddenly enforce what he has allowed to lapse, the duke announces that he will go away for a period of time, leaving the government of the city in the hands of his deputy, a prudish young man named Angelo.
No sooner is the duke gone when Angelo begins enforcing laws with a vengeance. Soon he has arrested a young man named Claudio, and condemned him to be beheaded for the crime of impregnating his own fiancee. Claudio's sister, Isabella, is one day before taking her vows as a nun, but she leaves her convent to plead with Angelo for her brother's life.
Angelo is astonished by Isabella's beauty, and agrees that he will spare Claudio if she will agree to sleep with the deputy. Fortunately, the duke has not really left the city, but is living there in disguise as a lowly monk, and he is able to work out a solution.
I certainly remember the 1970s production of this play, directed by Robin Phillips, in which the moral laxity of Vienna was portrayed by supporting actors in leather and chains. This production's director, Martha Henry, makes us take the word of the characters that immorality is abounding. Except for Angelo's shameful fall from grace, we don't really know what people have gotten up to doing.
Geraint Wyn Davies' Vincentio is troubling, because by refusing to take action, but hiding in the city and serving more as a voyeur than a active force, he puts the other characters into the position of needing to preserve themselves by dealing with wrong.
Tom Rooney's Angelo was the ultimate hypocrite, absolutely convinced that his own sins are understandable, while he is completely justified in enforcing the laws on others, without mercy - which so often happens in real life. It was a strong and most believable performance.
This production is set in Vienna, immediately after World War II, with a result that the costumes are often colorless and not attractive at all. Isabella, whose beauty is allegedly so impossible to resist is dressed so plainly that her beauty needs to be imagined. Angelo's devotion to it is puzzling.
Brian Tree did a splendid job as Sergeant Elbow, of the guard, the typical Shakespearean fool, whose strutting and elbow swinging was always good for a laugh.
Hearing beautiful language spoken beautifully, and seeing the famed Shakespearean love for humanity completely demonstrated by the end was a delightful experience, although the production required the audience to do a lot of the work which is normally done for us, by the production.
Recently written by playwright Judith Thompson, ''The Thrill'' takes a riveting look at one of today's most difficult issues: the decision of who has the right to end life, and who has the right to force anyone to live, if he or she chooses not to do so.
The play will be performed at the festival's newest theater, The Studio, through Sept. 22. The plot gives a brutal conflict between a man and a woman, which brilliantly reverses in the process of the play and leaves each character on the opposite side, from which he or she began.
Elora is a young woman who suffers from many severe physical handicaps. She is confined to a wheelchair, with her useless legs dangling in front. She needs a full-time care assistant, who needs to do nearly everything for her, even sometimes feeding her with a spoon. Elora is militantly opposed to people who believe parents should be allowed to abort fetuses who suffer from profound handicaps, or that adults who have such handicaps should be allowed access to doctor-assisted euthanasia.
Julian is a man whose sister needed to be wheeled around in a wheelbarrow, lined in fleece, who suffered horrible and unrelenting pain for years, before finally dying. He has written a book about how cruel and unfair it was to make his sister suffer for so long, to no gain. Elora goes to one of his lectures and literally assaults him with her wheelchair.
The two begin by sparring, but eventually, they fall in love. He admires her spirit. She respects his kindness. And there is a period of happiness, until Elora learns that she is losing the ability to swallow, which her doctor warns her will soon be followed by loss of the ability to speak, then to see, then to hear, and finally to think rationally.
She decides she deserves at least the opportunity to die with dignity, but her militant activism has begun to sway Julian's views, and he considers it unforgivable to help her, even though she is no longer able to help herself.
Director Dean Gabourie makes the entire production believable, and natural, and he draws our attention and our sympathy by 100 subtle means. Lucy Peacock, as she so often is, is riveting as the Elora, elated in her self confidence, until finding herself living with the results of that confidence. It's a brilliant performance.
Nigel Bennett is key to the production's success as Julian. Often times, people want to do what is right, and have a difficult time standing up to someone such as Elora, who is so aggressive and so certain, and he lets us share his decency and his efforts to do right, while treading such uneven ground.
Patricia Collins and Robert Persechini complete the cast, as Julian's mother, gradually sinking into the swamp which is Alzheimer's Disease, and as Elora's health aide, who has to woo and to dance around her powerful temperament in order to perform services which she needs in order to live.
This was a wonderful evening of theater - indeed, an exceptional evening of theater. It won't answer any certainties for you, but it will give you food for thought in a dozen different directions.
When I was in college, ''Tommy'' was a double record album, by a rock group called The Who. It told the story of a young boy who witnessed his father committing a violent act, and who responded by becoming hysterically deaf, dumb and blind. Eventually, he becomes the world champion player of pinball machines, which would seem impossible because of his condition, but people are won over and he becomes the public's answer to the greatest person alive.
It was impossible to go to a party or a dance where they weren't playing ''Tommy.'' Eventually, the story, complete with the music, was made into a feature film which starred a member of The Who, Roger Daltrey, as Tommy, and film star Ann- Margret as Tommy's mother. It was directed by over-the-top whiz Ken Russell, and at its highlight, it had Ann-Margret watching a television which exploded and covered her from head to toe in baked beans.
Eventually, in 1991, the same story was made into a Broadway show, directed by Des McAnuff, who until last year was artistic director of Stratford. McAnuff has agreed to direct the show again for Stratford. The result is mind-numbing. The sound is overwhelmingly loud. The stage is filled with flashing lights, pictures of faces which suddenly grow to be 10 feet tall, a boy playing a pin ball machine which rises up on a hydraulic lift like one of those bulls people ride in bar rooms, and he rides that machine up and around the stage until it finally explodes. Handsome young actor Robert Markus, who plays Tommy as an adult, deserves an award just for that wild ride.
The cast is wonderful. The scenery, lights, sound, orchestra, dancing and everything else is spectacular. It will certainly blow your mind. See it at the Avon Theatre until Oct. 19.