STRATFORD, ONT. - Expect to be seeing my bare ankles for the next few weeks - the Stratford Shakespeare Festival just blew my socks off, last week, and it will be a long time before I'm back to regular days.
This has to be the best season of theater at Stratford for several years, and it certainly is one of the best seasons I can remember.
Let me give you the general facts for a visit to Stratford, and then I'll tell you about the six productions which I saw on their stages, to give you a taste of what is available to you, if you manage to make it up there, before they close for the season in November.
Hefty Sir John Falstaff is the key figure in Shakespeare's play ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor,” which is now playing at the Stratford Festival. The actor is a very well padded Geraint Wyn Davies.
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is a professional summer theater festival, which annually draws hundreds of thousands of lovers of the stage, out to a small town on the Canadian prairies. The Festival begins performances in April, and continues through early November.
This year, 12 different plays will be performed on the Festival's four stages. During the summer season, most of the theaters are working every day. As the year declines toward late fall, the frequency of performances and the number of productions which are still running will decline steadily.
The acting, directing, technical feats, and everything connected with the theater are as good as you're going to see, anywhere. The small town of Stratford is beautiful, with spectacular gardens everywhere, wonderful shops, including world class bookstores, places to stay which range from the luxurious to the spare but clean, and restaurants as good as you're going to experience.
The festival is always one of the very brightest highlights of my year.
It takes about four hours of steady driving to get there from Jamestown. Obviously, Dunkirk is a bit closer. In addition to the four hours, you'll want to leave extra time for meals and/or bathroom stops, plus for crossing the border, which is sometimes quick, but not always, and of course, some time in case you encounter necessary road repairs and other such delays.
This year, coming home, I encountered an accident which closed Highway 403, near Hamilton, Ontario, which delayed my trip home by more than an hour. I then drove along the Queen Elizabeth Way, past electric sign after sign, announcing that there was a delay of one to two hours at the Lewiston International Bridge and the Niagara Falls Bridge, but no delay, whatsoever at the Peace Bridge.
We drove to Peace Bridge and it took us very close to two hours to get across. The point is that it probably won't take you that long, but you should allow time, just in case.
To get there from here, take I-90 east to I-190. Follow that route through downtown Buffalo to the exit for Peace Bridge. Be sure you have a passport or one of the other documents which are now required to leave the U.S.
When you are admitted to Canada, drive directly away from the immigration booth, and you find yourself on the QEW, headed toward Toronto. You will drive across two huge, high bridges as you go. Just after you come down from the second one, you will be faced with a choice between staying on the QEW or going west on Highway 403. Take the exit for 403. Shortly after you start down the exit ramp, it will offer you an additional exit for a Toll Road, highway 407. Stay on 403, toward Hamilton.
Shortly after you merge onto highway 403, find an exit for Highway 6, north, toward Guelph. Near the curiously named community of Puslinch, you will intersect Highway 401. Take it west, toward London. Fairly soon after you join 401, you'll see an exit for highway 8, in Kitchener, Ont. It is a little confusing, because there is a provincial Route 8, and a local Route 8. You want the one with the white crown imperial, behind the digit 8. Follow that route, right into Stratford.
To find out what plays are being performed, at what time, and on what day, the best source of information is to go to the festival's web site. The address is www.stratfordfestival.ca. Note that the address ends ''ca,'' for Canada. You can phone them at (800) 567-1600. If there's time, they'll mail you a visitor's handbook, which includes a complete schedule of their entire season, plus advice on how to get places to stay, where to eat, etc.
Otherwise, give them the dates you're available to come and they'll tell you over the phone. There are so many different possibilities - discounts for those younger than 30, group discounts, bargain performances, etc., that I could devote the entire column to just that. Suffice it to say, I have never found strangers as helpful as those at Stratford. Phone them, and they'll advise you well.
WHAT I DIDN'T SEE
I deeply envy those people who can look over the Stratford schedule and pick the plays they wish to see, then look at the dates when those plays are being performed.
I have to find two or three days when I'm available to travel there, and try to see as much as I can on those days. This year, I wasn't able to see ''The Misanthrope'' by Moliere, nor ''Jesus Christ, Superstar,'' by Andrew Lloyd Webber. I couldn't catch ''The Homecoming'' by Harold Pinter, nor Shakespeare's ''Richard III.'' At the festival's smaller Studio Theatre, where they do experimental or very new plays, I didn't get to see ''Shakespeare's Will,'' nor ''The Little Years.'' I would have been happy to have seen any of them.
By now, you've noted that while they are located in a town named for the English town where Shakespeare was born, and they have added Shakespeare's name to the name of their festival, this year only four of the 12 productions are of plays by the Bard of Avon.
The season is a mixture of classical works, historic works, entertaining pieces, and challenging modern plays. They offer two major Broadway-style musical shows. If you have someone in your family who can't find at least something there which he or she would find delightful, I'm truly sorry.
Purists are often displeased that Stratford has taken to doing Broadway-style shows. You can probably see a good production of Lerner and Lowe's ''Camelot,'' without driving out to a small town in rural Canada. But, your production almost certainly won't be nearly as spectacular in quality.
At least, they often choose shows which are based upon genuine literature. ''Camelot'' has its roots in E.B. White's ''The Once and Future King,'' which has its roots in history and in earlier great writers.
It is the story of King Arthur, who decided that he would create an order of knights who would enforce a moral and civilized way of life in his kingdom. For the time of his reign, the innocent were safe, the criminal was prosecuted, and people could live decently and relatively freely. Eventually, though, people's greed and envy of one another brought about the end of his noble experiment, and plunged the world back into the chaos and terror of the Dark Ages.
Geraint Wyn Davies, whom we interviewed in these pages last season, when he was scheduled to perform in our area, had the leading role of Arthur. Sadly, the twists and turns of fate put an end to his visit.
He was a splendid king. Portraying the person who stands up for good versus all the juicy villains of the piece, is a challenge for any performer, and Wyn Davies was always strong and a leader, even when facing a gap between his plans and his realities.
Lovely Kaylee Harwood was very fine as Guinevere, Arthur's wife, whose romantic indiscretions cost him his dreams. The show portrays the queen as a childlike innocent, who strays from the path, not for personal gain, but for adventure. Ms. Haywood made us believe that naive image, yet was woman enough that it didn't seem like child molestation.
The rest of the cast was very fine. Broadway veteran Brent Carver was fine as Merlyn, Arthur's teacher, and also as his doting friend, King Pelinore. Jonathan Winsby was heroically built and powerfully sung as Sir Lancelot, the king's most powerful knight. There were no weak links.
The dancing was especially impressive, as was the orchestra, conducted by Rick Fox.
My only quibble with the production was that the performance I saw lacked energy. The cast seemed tired, although they gave it a most impressive go. Gary Griffin directed, Warren Carlyle choreographed, and Debra Hanson designed the set. If you love musical theater, I recommend this production to you. You're not likely to see a better one.
You can see this one through Oct. 30.
In my experience, Shakespeare is usually spoiled when a director tries to fit some concept onto the play. Setting a play in outer space or having the Montagues and Capulets speaking with heavy, comic Italian accents, usually brings a laugh or two, and then spoils the play, utterly.
When I heard that director Des McAnuff was going to make something of a rock opera out of ''Twelfth Night,'' I made it my least desired performance on the list, but when I actually attended, I loved it. Opening the mind can let some light in, if you know what I mean.
It's true, there was quite a bit of music by McAnuff and by Michael Roth, and there were electric guitars and other contemporary instruments, but Shakespeare's play was the core of everything, and it worked very well. The music was gentle, not hard rock, and much the quality of folk music.
This is one of the Bard's gentlest plays. It is the story of fraternal twins: Viola and Sebastian. As the play opens, the two are aboard a ship which is wrecked by a storm. Both survive, but each believes that the other had drowned.
Viola is washed ashore in Illyria, which is ruled by Duke Orsino. Afraid to be a woman alone, she disguises herself as a man, and is hired by the duke, for whom she soon falls.
Orsino sends his new ''man'' to press his marriage proposal to a wealthy countess named Olivia. She rejects the proposal, but falls for the duke's young man - actually Viola. There are numerous subplots, the most important of which is that Olivia has a steward in her household who is stern and disliked by all her other servants. They forge a letter, pretending to be from the countess, urging him to dress ridiculously and to speak to the countess with over familiarity. Naturally, he soon finds himself in prison.
McAnuff has made a central figure of Olivia's jester, one Feste. As played by Ben Carlson, he is costumed to rather resemble Beethoven, but he becomes the principal singer of the music, both the traditional songs of Shakespeare's own composing - ''The Rain, it raineth every day'' - and those of the composers' creation.
When this play is done poorly - and it often is - it is usually because Viola and Sebastian are mis-cast, or because Malvolio is made either too sympathetic, or too vile. Actor Tom Rooney did a wonderful job of showing us why people don't like Malvolio, yet why he is essentially a decent human being and deserves better treatment.
Pretty Andrea Runge and handsome Trent Pardy looked enough like one another that we can buy the twin story.
Film and television star Brian Dennehy resisted any possibility to jape and overact, as Olivia's drunken cousin, Sir Toby Belch, making the role a tool of bringing the plot about, not as a clown and a laughing stock.
Debra Hanson has surrounded the giant opening of the Festival Theatre's stage with a three-story high broken mirror, the perfect frame for a play where no one is what he or she looks like. This production was a major success, likely to please both the purist and the adventurous play-goer. Enjoy it through Oct. 28.