STRATFORD, Ontario — Overly dramatic doesn’t begin to describe this old railroad town on the Avon River. So enamored of theater is this locale that matinee performances here run not just on weekends or Wednesdays, but fully six days a week. It is a city where innkeepers fill you in on the backstage gossip at Romeo and Juliet, where teens swarm the street corners as fiddlers and jugglers and guitar-strummers, where a tip left at a bar is likely to be about the Friedrich Schiller play down by the riverside.
Stratford is indeed a company town, that company being the Stratford Festival, the 60-year-old troupe that runs a dozen plays and musicals in repertory each spring through autumn. As a result, it has stamped an otherwise workaday outpost 90 miles west of Toronto as the sturdy berth for the flagship among North American theater festivals.
Though its artistic influence has ebbed and flowed over the years with the quality of its offerings, the festival has been on a streak of late, building productions that have sailed all the way to Broadway, via highly praised revivals of Shakespeare (King Lear with Christopher Plummer) and Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest with Brian Bedford) along with the occasional clunker (a frantically electronic Jesus Christ Superstar).
It’s also been forging connections to Washington. Some of the company’s strongest players have been making their way south to enrich the productions of the Shakespeare Theatre Company: Geraint Wyn Davies, in director Michael Kahn’s Cyrano and Love’s Labour’s Lost; Sara Topham and Bruce Dow, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Diane D’Aquila, in Coriolanus. Dow returns to Washington in November, as Pseudolus in Shakespeare Theatre’s revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum — a role that he played at Stratford in 2010.
A festival visit in late July to sample seven of the 2013 season’s 12 productions gave ample evidence of why the bond between Stratford and Kahn’s company is growing, and of how similarly the two organizations — like other companies known for classical fare — are striving to tailor their programs to evolving tastes. Last fall, the Stratford Festival even dropped “Shakespeare” from the name it carried since its first performance in 1953, a Richard III with Alec Guinness staged by Stratford’s founding artistic director, Tyrone Guthrie.
The big hit at Stratford is a revival of none other than Fiddler on the Roof, in the troupe’s largest space, the 1,833-seat Festival Theatre. Only four of the festival’s 12 offerings, in fact, are by Shakespeare, a downshift from a year such as 1976, when six of 10 productions in Stratford were by the Bard.
Capped by Scott Wentworth’s lump-in-the-throat-inducing portrayal of Tevye the Milkman, Fiddler was the best production of the seven I saw. The others at the top of my list included two pieces more comfortably in sync with conventional impressions of Stratford: a vibrant incarnation of Schiller’s early 19th-century historical drama Mary Stuart, shepherded by the company’s new artistic director, Antoni Cimolino; and a solid Measure for Measure, boasting Wyn Davies as the enigmatic Duke Vincentio.
The festival revival of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit benefits from director Brian Bedford’s flawless comic instincts, and a lovely country-home set by Simon Higlett. After these, the results get spottier in Stratford: Taking Shakespeare, a new play by Canadian dramatist John Murrell, about the sunset of a Bard scholar played by decades-long Stratford star Martha Henry, retraces its central conceits far too frequently to sustain its intermittent charm. A turgid Waiting for Godot, notable for the presence of Brian Dennehy as the overbearing Pozzo, unfolds with airless studiousness in the company’s 480-seat Tom Patterson Theatre. In the category of loud acts of tedium, the festival has on offer a new digital-art project, disguised as a revival of the Who’s Tommy.
Directed once again by Des McAnuff — the recently departed Stratford artistic director who staged the musical’s original Broadway production 20 years ago — the redesigned Tommy boasts a lot of new software-guided gimmickry and nifty graphics, but the same old Tommy problems: endlessly recycled melodies and minimal narrative coherence.
Though plans are afoot to move the production south of the border (no doubt at some point with Broadway in mind), the piece remains dramatically inert.
And in spite of its explosive energy and volume, the statement the show makes most clearly is that there’s a vast difference between a good rock album and a compelling rock musical.
You can deduce from the aforementioned titles that Stratford works hard to avoid too intense a whiff of the esoteric; as cultural tourist destinations go, this one accommodates visitors desirous of safer paths. (The other Shakespeares this season are Romeo and Juliet, Othello and The Merchant of Venice.) The upside for both veteran playgoers and dabblers is that the company nurtures actors of note and delivers well-balanced, unfussy and cleanly directed productions. It must be added, though, that on some occasions these virtues combine in ways that leave the flavors of a Stratford evening tasting a little too vanilla.
That is certainly not the case with director-choreographer Donna Feore’s Fiddler. Her version conveys the heart-filling pleasures of this 1964 Broadway musical, with score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein, far more stoutly than did the cold Broadway revival with Alfred Molina nine years ago.
From the electric Tradition that introduces us to the colourful denizens of a Russian shtetl, to the rueful Anatevka that sings them into enforced exile, Feore’s Fiddler holds us firmly in its comforting arms, confidently waiting for tears to flow.
Who knew Stratford had such sharp instincts for a musical based on Sholem Aleichem short stories? ( Fiddler was previously performed at the festival in 2000.) Wentworth, who, intriguingly, is also playing Shylock at Stratford, having replaced the ailing Bedford, is one of a number of actors well-known to festival audiences in major roles.
Wentworth’s down-to-earth performance, light on the schmaltz, feels as if it’s a Tevye for right now: a father who wishes he were a rich man, but wishes even more fervently to believe in the future his daughters are inventing. This leads not only to more realistic and affecting exchanges between this Tevye and his elder children — the splendid “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” trio of Jennifer Stewart, Jacquelyn French and Keely Hutton — but also to a more resonant examination of the marriage of Tevye and Golde (Kate Hennig). In Andre Morin’s Motel the Tailor, too, Feore finds the ideal match for Stewart’s Tzeitel: He’s the quintessence of enchanting sheepishness.
The sappy duet between Tevye and Golde, “Do You Love Me?” sometimes can set one’s teeth on edge. Here, in the tender conversation it evokes, the song becomes the sweet paean to commitment that Bock and Harnick intended. As a result, it strikes one of the production’s unqualified high notes.
Two of Stratford’s best-loved performers, Seana McKenna and Lucy Peacock, parry in director Cimolino’s “Mary Stuart” with a satisfyingly combustible contentiousness. It’s a strong example of Stratford’s classical prowess, giving robust life to Schiller’s imaginary tale of a meeting between Peacock’s Mary Queen of Scots and the regent who held her prisoner for nearly two decades, Elizabeth I of England. (They in fact never met.)
But the real surprise of this production in the Patterson — an elongated thrust stage with awkward sight lines at one end — is the degree to which Cimolino lets us see how, due to physical or emotional isolation, Mary and Elizabeth permit themselves to be manipulated by the men they trust. Through sharply defined performances by Wyn Davies, as the duplicitous Earl of Leicester, Ben Carlson playing the rigid Lord Burleigh and Dennehy as the conciliatory Earl of Shrewsbury, “Mary Stuart” constructs a fascinatingly tragic latticework of gamesmanship and guile.
The “Measure for Measure” and “Blithe Spirit” here are the sorts of commendable entries that merit their inclusion on a weekend’s itinerary, even if polish is their best attribute. One of the elements recommending “Measure” is Tom Rooney as the vile, poker-faced Angelo, in whose twisted actions are revealed the hypocrisy of a society trying to legislate morality.
An outstanding feature of Bedford’s light-as-sorbet “Blithe Spirit,” meanwhile, is McKenna’s turn as the psychic Madame Arcati, a hamhanded sorceress who conjures chaos, in the form of the irksome ghost of a harried writer’s first wife. McKenna’s hearty, nose-to-the-grindstone take on Arcati amusingly refreshes a character sometimes portrayed as a grotesque flake.
I have a hankering now to see McKenna again, perhaps in Chekhov. Or Wyn Davies in Moliere or Wentworth in Webster. Maybe sometime they’ll even be invited to perform on one of Washington’s Shakespeare stages or down by the National Mall. That’s the kind of imagining one has time for in Stratford, where a pilgrimage feels less like a trek than an adventure — and a visit is the closest a grownup gets to theater camp.