The calendar says that summer is almost here, and for those of us who love the arts, it's time we did some serious planning, because seeing the quality of art which calms that desperate hunger inside us requires us to take advantage of travelling while the snow and ice are somewhere else.
Obviously, fine art can be found all over the world, including at our own Chautauqua Institution. But the Institution's events are so big and so local that they will require a column entirely of their own. Those who have been calling me and wanting critic's picks for the coming season still have a week to wait.
Certainly there are New York City, and London, and Hong Kong, but by far the two largest arts destination for those wanting fine arts within a reasonable drive of our area are the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival. These two giant Canadian theater festivals stage performances of the highest imaginable quality.
The fearsome Pirates of Penzance surround the daughters of Major General Stanley, in the Stratford production of the popular Gilbert and Sullivan romp.
Each spring, I try to include current facts about the two events, along with directions and suggestions for their current season. I hope you can manage to make your way to at least one of them. They are a theater lover's heaven on earth.
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival, to give them their full name, will produce 14 professional quality productions of plays and musicals this year, ranging from the moralistic writings of the ancient Greeks to a visit with television's notorious Simpson family.
The Critical Eye deeply mourns the passing of one of the finest portrait painters in the history of our area.
Lurabel Colburn has immortalized in beautiful works of art, everyone from beloved pets to Supreme Court justices and other grand figures. Her passing, in her mid-90s, back in May, is a great loss to us all.
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Speaking of the Stratford Festival, a few weeks ago, I wrote a column about the production of "Jesus Christ Superstar," which was a hit of the 2011 season at Stratford, and which is now one of the most popular shows on Broadway. You can see a number of scenes from that show and backstage interviews with the artists by taking your computer to the "YouTube" site, and typing the name of the show into the search feature. The quality of sound and visuals is very high.
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Also speaking of Stratford, 2012 is the final season in which Des McAnuff will be the artistic director of the festival. McAnuff is the director of the "Superstar" production, described above. He also is the director of the hit Broadway show "Jersey Boys," which is playing directly across the street in New York's theater district, from his other hit.
Earlier this month, "Jersey Boys" passed the longevity record attained by "My Fair Lady," making it the 19th longest-running musical on the Great White Way. And, of course, it's still running.
It is a bit of a challenge that the performances begin in April, but those are previews, which cost less to attend, but cannot be reviewed, because the directors are still tinkering with them.
The first official openings take place Memorial Day weekend, by which time I am up to my elbows in events which are happening right here in Chautauqua County, but I'll get up to Stratford at my very first opportunity, and tell you all about it.
Stratford is roughly four hours' drive from Jamestown, and obviously somewhat closer to Dunkirk and Fredonia. It is located in Stratford, Ontario, which is roughly midway between Toronto and Detroit. It's possible to drive there, see one performance, then return home - I've certainly done that - but it makes much more sense, if you can do it, to drive up, see several performances, while staying a night or so, and then return home at leisure.
Stratford is pricey for a limited budget, but it is a bargain, compared to New York City, for example. A full-priced ticket to a major Stratford production will cost you between $50 and $100. Certain performances have reduced prices for students or for those older than age 65, etc. By comparison, in Manhattan, a major Broadway production will cost you around $140, and unless you can arrange to walk up to the box office yourself to buy your tickets, there is an additional charge of more than $40 per ticket for the privilege of ordering through a ticket agency.
Likewise, accommodations in Stratford range from a clean bedroom in a private home with shared bathroom up to luxury suites. The price guide on their housing website has $200 per night as the most costly category. By comparison, if you can find a decent hotel room in New York City for $200 per night, you've made a major success. Best of all, you can drive to Stratford and park for a small fee or in many cases, free of charge.
The other good news is that the festival's box office will also make arrangements for you at accommodations all throughout those price ranges if you need some advice or prefer not to have to make them yourself. Wonderfully competent young Canadians who provide the service are polite and creative and usually can find you very close to what you're looking for.
Stratford runs four fine theaters. At the peak of their season, all four theaters operate twice per day. The plays are scheduled in repertory, meaning that if you go for three days, you can probably see as many as six different plays, and all of them are certain to be quality productions.
Here is the list of plays for the 2012 season:
The largest theater in Stratford is the Festival Theatre, the famed thrust stage and the set-up of which have won countless awards for architecture. Patrons there are alerted that the play is about to begin by trumpeters and drummers who perform a series of three different fanfares, ending just before the lights come down. It beats the pants off flashing lights or a house manager screaming ''The performance is about to begin!''
This year's offerings will be Shakespeare's ''Much Ado About Nothing,'' the tap dance musical ''42nd Street,'' Thornton Wilder's popular play ''The Matchmaker,'' which is better-known when set to music as ''Hello Dolly,'' and Shakespeare's ''Henry V,'' the play which Winston Churchill asked Laurence Olivier to make into a movie, to inspire Britons to unite to oppose Hitler, even though Britain stood alone.
Stratford's traditional proscenium theater is the Avon, where not that many years ago a young Stratford native named Justin Bieber could be seen strumming his guitar and singing on the street, to pick up a few extra dollars.
This year you can choose among three productions at the Avon, including ''The Pirates of Penzance,'' by Gilbert and Sullivan, which will feature the directing skills of Chautauqua's resident director Ethan McSweeny at its helm. Also there will be the small, intimate musical show ''You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown,'' based on the cartoon characters by Charles Shulz, and ''A Word or Two,'' which invites you to spend an evening listening to famed stage and film actor Christopher Plummer, describing his life and career, and naturally performing short selections of poetry, prose and drama from that stellar career.
TOM PATTERSON THEATRE
The festival's most unusual theater has a very long thrust stage which makes each performance virtually into theater in the round. There will be three plays alternating in that space. ''Cymbeline,'' one of the Bard's less frequently performed works, is the first. ''Wanderlust'' is the world premiere of a play about Canada's Poet of the Yukon, Robert Service. It will be directed by its author, Morris Panych. The third will be ''Elektra,'' by Sophocles, which explores a young woman's life-long plotting of revenge against her mother, who had murdered the woman's father.
The smallest and newest theater in Stratford is the Studio Theatre, which was created to do brand new plays and other productions which might not be popular enough with the general population to sell out the tickets to one of the larger venues, but which have usually delighted the real ''theater in the blood'' types.
This year, the Studio was the first to do an actual opening, and sadly, that production is already over. ''MacHomer'' is a look at Shakespeare's ''MacBeth,'' imagining that the many cartoon characters from television's ''The Simpsons'' were cast in the roles of ''The Scottish Play.'' Rick Miller played all the roles and did every one of the voices.
The productions which you could still see include ''The Best Brothers,'' a play by Daniel MacIvor who imagines that a woman's accidental death causes her two adult sons to attempt to improve the hostilities with one another which they have perpetuated up to this time. ''Hirsch'' by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson is a one-man examination of the life of John Hirsch, one of the early artistic directors of the Stratford Festival. Finally, ''The War of 1812'' examines the last war fought between Canada and her large neighbor to the south. The printed program says it will be performed in ''The Studio Theatre Annex,'' which I assume is different from, but attached to the Studio Theatre, which is different from, but attached to the Avon Theatre. It was written by Michael Hollingsworth, and that's about all I know about it.
To get to Stratford from our area, take I-90 East, to the exit for I-190, which is labeled ''Downtown Buffalo.'' Take the exit from that, for Peace Bridge, and cross into Canada. Please remember, our country now requires that U.S. citizens must have either a passport or some other legal form of identification to cross the border. If you've been crossing with just your regular driver's license for several decades, that is no longer enough.
Once admitted to Canada, you will find yourself driving on the Queen Elizabeth Way. Drive toward Toronto until you reach the Canadian city of Burlington. Exit on Route 403, West, headed toward Hamilton. In only a few miles, you will see an exit for Route 6, north, toward Guelf. Take that exit and drive about 30 minutes to the intersection of Highway 401 West. Follow that until an exit for Kitchener, on Route 8, West. That road will take you right into Stratford.
Stratford has a very useful and informative website, www.stratfordfestival.ca. You can buy tickets, make accommodations reservations, and answer all sorts of other questions there. If you like to hold information in your hands, so you can think about it at leisure, they will still send you one of their beautiful printed catalogs, if you request one through the website or by phoning 800-567-1600. You can make reservations by phone, as well.
Stratford is a beautiful community with gardens and parks and wonderful shopping, and some of the finest theater in the world.
Half way to Stratford - close enough to visit for one or two performances and still return the same evening - is the Shaw Festival, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.
Like Stratford, the Shaw Festival operates four theaters. At their peak, there are two performances per day, in all four theaters, and an additional hour-long play, on certain days, making it possible to see three performances on the same day.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is located at the exact spot where the Niagara River flows into Lake Ontario. It's almost a Disney envisioning of a picturesque English village, with horse drawn carriages clopping through the streets and eye-popping gardens everywhere you look, and upper end shopping for clothing, table furnishing, gourmet foods, and the like.
This season, they will do 11 productions. Unlike Stratford, this festival focuses on the literature which was written during the nearly 100 years of the life of their patron, Irish playwright, critic and journalist George Bernard Shaw. That would be approximately 1850 through 1950. A few years back, they decided to expand that mandate slightly, to include plays written about that period, as well.
Shaw Festival's largest theater is also called the Festival Theatre. This season's flagship production is ''Ragtime,'' an examination of the 19th and early 20th century in the U.S., by Terrance McNally, Lynn Ahrens, and Stephen Flaherty. It is a musical setting of the novel by the same name, written by E.L. Doctorow. The play shows the interactions among whites, blacks, and Eastern European immigrants, who maneuver among one another like dancers to the beat of ragtime.
Also at the Festival, see Noel Coward's biting comedy ''Present Laughter,'' and ''His Girl Friday,'' adapted by John Guare from the play ''The Front Page.''
COURT HOUSE THEATRE
With audiences on three of the four sides of the action, plays at the Court House Theatre allow the audience to get relatively close to the actors on stage. This season's offerings are ''Hedda Gabler,'' the classic about the early days of women's rights by Henrik Ibsen. Also ''The Millionairess,'' by festival patron Shaw, and ''A Man and Some Women,'' a play by Githa Sowerby, dealing with the effects on a man's life of society's policy of confining and limiting the lives of women. Ms. Sowerby's plays were unknown until a few years ago, because a female author was considered unworthy of production. The festival has had a number of successful stagings of those plays now that they are seeing the light of day.
The final production is the annual one-hour play, performed over the lunch hour. This year, see and hear ''Trouble in Tahiti,'' a musical/opera by Leonard Bernstein which examines in both words and music, family life in suburban America.
The small but colorful, traditional proscenium stage of the Royal George will offer three choices this season: ''Misalliance'' by Shaw himself is the tale of a young woman, living under her father's thumb and being pressed into an unwanted marriage until a plane crashes in the back yard, bringing to the house a handsome aviator, a female daredevil, and a crowd of others, throwing everything open for question.
''French Without Tears,'' is an examination by playwright Terence Rattigan of a community in the south of France which has been established for well-educated and wealthy young men from around the world, who plan on a career in government or diplomacy to come and learn to speak good quality French. And, of course, there is a beautiful woman ...
''Come Back, Little Sheba'' is a study by William Inge of a couple who were once part of ''the beautiful people,'' who married right out of high school, and who now, 20 years later, find their hopes and dreams have faded, until they decide to increase their income by taking in a boarder. The beautiful young woman who moves into the spare room has surprises in store for everyone.
Only one offering in the smallest of theaters this year. ''Helen's Necklace'' by Quebec playwright Carole Frechette concerns a western woman on a visit to the Middle East, who misplaces an inexpensive but sentimentally valued piece of jewelry, and who goes on a solo search for the item, through the threatening streets of a city full of things she could never have expected.
Plays at Shaw continue through Oct. 28, although once Labor Day passes, the frequency of performances will begin to decrease rapidly.
They also have a helpful and colorful website at www.shawfest.com. For a printed brochure, or to order tickets by phone, call 800-511-7429. Shaw doesn't help you find accommodations, but the Chamber of Commerce of Niagara-on-the-Lake will try to help you, for a small fee. Last year it was $2.50. I don't know if that has changed or not.
To get to the Shaw Festival, follow the directions to Stratford, above, until you are on the Queen Elizabeth Way, heading in the direction of Toronto. About 20 minutes after you cross the border, there is an exit for Niagara-on-the-Lake. Get off and follow the signs to the village. Look closely, because the directional signs are unusually small.
We used to recommend crossing the border at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, and that is still a possibility, but both I and a number of readers have found that smaller bridge often results in substantial delays. It's a shorter and more scenic trip, if you don't encounter the delays, so decide if you want to take the risk.
The drive to Shaw Festival involves about two hours of actual driving, although delays for highway construction and possible delays at the international border must be taken into consideration.
Life is still a banquet, my friends, and some of the richest dishes of all are a short drive away, across the Canadian border.