STRATFORD, ONT. - I recently took a quick trip across the border, into our good neighbor Canada.
Where else can you see a Shakespearean play, a modern rock opera, a children's fantasy play, do an interview with one of the most gifted young directors in our contemporary world, see a formal opera written by a contemporary popular singer, watch a ballet illuminating the history of Syria, attend a trio of contemporary dramas, meet an internationally-celebrated composer, attend a food festival, hear a fascinating lecture on visual art, spend an afternoon playing like a child, dance in the streets to the sounds of a trio of divas, and do it all with great places to stay and wonderful restaurants? I did it all in five days, too.
I spent two days in Stratford, where I went to interview the Co-Artistic Director of the Chautauqua Theatre Company, who is currently directing one of the plays which will be opening later in the Stratford season. While I was there, I saw three plays, and then I drove the relatively short distance to Toronto, where I got myself deeply involved in the Luminato Festival, a splendid celebration of all the arts from classical to ultra contemporary.
Lucy Peacock plays the rustic dairy maid Audrey, and Ben Carlson plays Touchstone, the court jester who falls for her charms in Shakespeare's comic play ``As You Like It.'
I'll tell you about Luminato next week. This week, I want to relive Stratford, and hope you'll join in with me.
The inspiration for my mad and outrageously enjoyable pilgrimage was the fact that Ethan McSweeny, who has shared the helm of the rapidly developing Chautauqua Theatre Company for the past several years, with the lovely Vivienne Benesch, has been invited to direct a relatively new and somewhat controversial play in the 2010 Stratford season.
The play is ''Dangerous Liaisons,'' by Christopher Hampton, and it will play at Stratford's largest theater, the Festival, from Aug. 3 through Oct. 30. It's an adaptation of the 1782 novel ''Les Liaisons Dangereaux,'' by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. You may have seen it in its 1988 movie form, under its own name, or again under the title ''Valmont,'' which came out with a different cast, in 1989.
The principal idea of the play comes from its setting, in the France of just before the bloody revolution, which began in 1789. In that society, the nobility had so much money and so much power, that they didn't need to work for anything, didn't need to hope for anything, and generally were so bored, they were capable of doing virtually anything - often cruel and immoral things - just to jar themselves out of the meaningless stupor which their lives had become.
The central characters are the Marquise de Merteuil, and the Vicomte De Valmont. Both are attractive and fabulously wealthy. Their lives have involved endless affairs, both with each other and with an endless list of others. At the beginning of the play, the Marquise offers a wager to the Vicomte.
She knows of a young woman of good virtue. She bets the bored nobleman that he cannot seduce the young woman. If he succeeds, she volunteers that she will sleep with him, once again, herself. She is betting that the opportunity to thwart her and make her give in to his will will inspire the Vicomte.
The pair drifts through the plot, damaging the lives of others, wasting money and property, and cheating and lying to each other and to pretty much everyone they encounter, in pursuit of a wager they don't care much about.
The play was first produced in the 1980s, the age when the biggest show on television was ''Dynasty,'' which had a number of imitators around as well, which dealt with people in our own culture who resemble the French from before the revolution.
It has been resurrected on Broadway, at the Roundabout Theatre Company, within the past year, and it's now drawing theater-goers to Stratford.
''I was eating in a Stratford restaurant, recently, with some members of the company of our play. The waiter recognized us and commented, 'Oh, you're doing the dirty play,''' McSweeny said. ''That's really not it, at all.''
I met up with him in mid-afternoon, in one of the many tasteful lounges which are scattered around Stratford's Festival Theatre, as a perk for those who have gone beyond buying tickets, to making serious donations to keep the company alive. While we spoke, a full theater of audience members were gathering to enjoy a performance of Shakespeare's ''The Tempest,'' starring film star Christopher Plummer.
The director is a good looking young man, who emerged from Washington, D.C.'s Folger Shakespeare Theater with a reputation of being a boy genius. Ask Chautauqua theater fans, and they'll tell you that he and his colleague have revitalized the artform and gotten more Chautauquans excited about theater than have been so for more than a decade.
In recent years, you'll see his work as a director in the New York City theater scene, and at most of the most significant regional theaters around the country. As he matures, professional evaluations have begun to drop the word ''boy,'' and to keep the ''genius.''
''The people in the play do some bad things, but just about all plays are about people doing bad things,'' he suggested. ''There is a lot to be learned about ourselves and the people around us, from this play.''
The festival's official program describes each of the 12 productions which will be performed throughout this season. Under ''Dangerous Liaisons,'' it suggests, ''Some nudity is expected.'' Is it still not the ''dirty play?''
McSweeny acknowledges that the issue of nudity has not been resolved yet, in the Stratford production, but he doubts that there will be any, or if there is, that it will be quick and minor. ''Audiences have gotten pretty used to seeing nudity on the stage, but I think it's usually a mistake,'' he said. ''When someone appears nude, it is the actor whose body we see, not the character, and that can serve to sever the audience's involvement in the play and focus it on the actor.''
The director said his plan is to focus on what is sexy, and not on what is sexual. With all the freedom which we now have to say and to show pretty much anything, we've gotten good at presenting the sexual, but we've lost much of the ability to inspire the feeling of something being sexy, he said.
McSweeny recalled a scene from a film ''The Age of Innocence,'' in which actor Daniel Day-Lewis unbuttons the glove of actor Michelle Pfeiffer, and kisses her wrist. ''It isn't really a sexual moment, and certainly isn't shocking, but it makes the audience feel the relationship between the two characters and it's really sexy,'' he explained.
I wondered what it must be like for a man such as McSweeny to come into a company of actors who have been working together, again and again, as has his cast at Stratford. Indeed, some have been sharing stages for literally decades.
''First of all, I've been made to feel very welcome here in Stratford, from the top officials of the company to everyone who works and lives here, for which I'm very grateful,'' he said. ''One of the most important things for a director to do, when putting up a new production, is to create a feeling of company which will enable the actors to feel comfortable and safe in revealing their feelings and reactions in public. Working here, that feeling is already pretty much formed. All I have to do is get them to expand the company to include me - and they certainly have.''
The cast of ''Dangerous Liaisons'' includes stage veterans Seana McKenna, Tom McCamus, Yanna McIntosh, and stage legend Martha Henry. ''When you add in 'McSweeny,' you have a whole room full of 'Mcs,'' he laughed.
How does he compare working at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival with directing at Chautauqua? He answers, ''Chautauqua is like a speedboat, and Stratford is like an aircraft carrier. When you're directing at Chautauqua, you can change your mind without a lot of advance notice. You can try something different or approach something in a different way.
''At Stratford, we currently have seven plays running, which will eventually expand to twelve, and all of our cast members are in at least one of them, in addition to ours. We can't make changes quickly or easily. On the other hand, we have real firepower. Just as one example, the designer who's working on this play is Santo Loquasto, who is one of the most talented and experienced designers in the world. We can do things that very few other presenters of theater can do,'' he said.
If the two festivals are different in these ways, how is Stratford like Chautauqua?
McSweeny answers that both festivals have ''a wall around them,'' which makes it hard to reach out to all the people they might like to reach out to.
''Chautauqua has a real wall, of course. Whenever you set yourself up to say some people can come in and others can't, you produce anger and hurt, and that leads to alienation. But both festivals have a wall of money around them. Many people cannot afford to participate in the activities at either place, and that can have the same effect as the literal wall,'' he said.
I hope you've enjoyed hearing how a talented fellow from here has made the beginnings of a big success elsewhere. In the meantime, if I was going to drive four hours to Stratford, I was going to see some productions. Let me tell you quickly about what I saw and what I thought about them.
THREE PIECES OF THEATER
The first production I saw was in the Avon Theatre - a production of ''Evita,'' by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.
In my experience, people tend to love the music from that show, but to find the plot confusing and not very entertaining. The production at Stratford had wonderful production values and outstanding singing and dancing.
The plot is based upon the real life experiences of a woman named Eva Duarte Peron. She was a woman who started life as a person of no education or wealth, who turned a willingness to sleep with men who had money and power, plus an utter ruthlessness and a powerful fashion sense, into elevating herself and her husband to complete dictatorship over the government of Argentina.
Then, just when they were achieving the heights, she developed cancer and died in her early 30s, becoming virtually a saint to the people she had manipulated and oppressed.
The show is written in an odd way, so that it begins with the announcement of Eva's death, then progresses to her funeral, then goes back to her first seduction of an older male ''helper,'' and continues on from there.
Throughout it all, the audience hears commentary on Eva and her cruelty from a singer/actor portraying Che Guevara, a young man born in Argentina who became famous in the 1960s as an agent of Cuba's Fidel Castro. It's hard to follow.
The lady of the title was performed by Chilina Kennedy, a very talented singer who is probably too much of a lady to play the down-and-dirty Eva. Juan Chioran was fine as the husband who followed his wife's star to power and fame.
If you want to enjoy great singing and dancing, you should see the show. If you want a theatrical experience, this isn't it.
People of my advanced age, probably remember the first time they saw Mary Martin, in green tights, come flying through the window of the Darling family's nursery, in J.M. Barrie's classic play ''Peter Pan.''
This is not the musical version of the story, made famous by actresses such as Sandy Duncan and Mary Lou Retton, although it is the same plot and characters.
If you have children, I can't imagine that they won't love this production, and if you'd like to revisit a time in your own life when you were less bitter and more innocent, you'll love it, as well.
I've seen at least 10 productions of the show, and this was the first one which featured a young man as the title character. Michael Therriault brought an athletic bravo to the character which I though worked very well.
Tom McCamus was a wonderfully nefarious Captain Hook. None of his evil ever worked out, but it didn't slow him down for a second, and he gave such commitment to the role, it really made the success of the performance.
Again, the production values were high, and there was depth and power, as well as wonderful entertainment.