STRATFORD, ONT. - For many lovers of the arts, a visit to the Stratford Festival, in Central Ontario, is among the happiest times of the year.
This year I was able to catch six performances of the festival's even dozen of productions, and I'm eager to share with you what I've seen.
There is singing and dancing from beginning to end in this year’s Stratford production of ‘‘Crazy for You,’’ with music by George Gershwin.
Always one production seems to stand out, from among the jewels of a given Stratford season. This year's focal point seems to be Shakespeare's ''King Lear,'' in which the title role is performed by film, television, and stage star Colm Feore.
And a worthy focus it is.
''Lear'' is a semi-historical telling about a king, far back in British history, before the Norman Conquest. Lear, himself, is a mature man, with three grown daughters. Based upon lines said in the play by other characters, he has been a successful king, but he decides to retire, and to let others do the work of kingship, while he enjoys the power and the luxuries.
Having no sons, he decides to divide his kingdom in thirds among his daughters. He rules that each young woman should make a speech in which she describes how much she loves and owes her father before he will give each of them her third.
Two of the daughters do so, but the youngest refuses, so Lear divides her third between the older two, and exiles her.
Soon the older girls and their husbands find that a king who doesn't do the work of a king, is a burden too heavy for a kingdom to carry, so they begin to strip their father of his wealth and power. Eventually, Lear and his few, loyal followers are forced to either accept servant status in his daughters' kingdoms, or else to venture alone out into the wilderness, where soon they are engulfed in a horrible storm.
Feore chooses a middle route, among the many interpretations of the role. His Lear is fast to act, but genuinely means well, and accepts his own culpability for his situation. Lear's famed madness, for Feore, is an unraveling of what he has always believed about the world, and about himself. Things he has believed all his life turn out not to be true, which makes him reluctant to make any decision, for fear that the elements of the decision might turn out to be equally different from his understanding.
Maev Beaty and Liisa Repo-Martell, as Lear's older daughters, descend into evil, rather than nurturing it from the beginning, as is true in many productions. In the interpretation of Director Antoni Cimolino, Lear is wrong in the early parts of the play. His daughters are only being reasonable in attempting to rein-in the behavior of their willful father.
But, once they take a few baby steps, along the road to defying the king, they find themselves increasingly galloping into self-indulgence and excess. Michael Blake and Mike Shara as the two women's husbands markedly demonstrate two possible results of the overthrowing of traditional right. Both act well. Blake demonstrates an attempt to enlarge traditional power with reason, while Shara is lost for how to behave, without the old rules, and goes vastly more wrong.
Stephen Ouimette is a thoughtful portrayer of Lear's loyal Fool, who goes with his master into the storms of the Green World, despite fully knowing the reason why they're there.
Inevitably at Stratford, the cast is attractive, and speaks powerfully. Each actor had a grasp on his character and his place in the plot.
This wasn't the most startling nor eye-opening production of the great play, but it was a good, solid version.
CRAZY FOR YOU
In the 1990s, playwright Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor) decided that he could take a large number of the songs composed by George Gershwin, with words by his brother Ira, and weave them into a plot, in the style of the big tap dance shows of the 1920s and 30s.
The result was the show ''Crazy For You,'' which shares the stage of the Festival Theatre with ''Lear.''
The plot concerns a Broadway showman in the pattern of Florenz Ziegfeld. Bobby Childs is a wonderful singer and dancer, but the producer Bela Zangler won't bother to watch an audition. Bobby is the scion of a wealthy and powerful family, who want him to drop the show business pretenses and join the family business.
When Zangler refuses once more to see Bobby, he decides he will accept an assignment from his mother's bank, and take the train out to the Wild West, to oversee the foreclosure of a theater in Deadrock, Nevada, which has been failing to make mortgage payments for some time. When Bobby arrives, he finds that the theater was built by Everett Baker, as a show place for his talented wife, but she has died, so there is nothing to attract ticket buyers to the theater.
Since Baker has a lovely and talented daughter, Bobby decides that instead of foreclosing on the theater, he will put on a dandy show, featuring himself and Polly Baker, and earn the money to pay off the bank and establish a career for himself, and get the girl, all at the same time.
Since Polly has been hating Bobby for years, as the holder of her father's mortgage, although she has never seen him, he decides to disguise himself as Zangler, which works until Zangler himself shows up. Naturally, there are any number of big production numbers, with singing and dancing and girls in small, shiny costumes.
Donna Feore has directed the show with a great deal of energy. She also choreographs, and the dance numbers are huge and eye-popping. Stratford's choruses of follies girls and cowboys have got to be among the best in the world.
Josh Franklin has a lovely, strong, tenor voice as Bobby, and his dancing is extremely good. Naturally, I saw only one performance, and others could be different, but when I saw the show, he lacked a quality which would draw eyes to him and cause the audience to identify with him, and to root for him. Still, many productions would be thrilled to have such a talented lead.
Natalie Daradich was beautiful as Pretty Polly, and she sang and danced well, also, although her voice had a curious quality which reminded me much of the singing of the late Teresa Brewer; a vibrancy which was appealing, yet made it difficult to blend with other singers.
Tom Rooney was a comic hit as Zangler, the big city genius, perpetually trumped by the rubes.
This production is a lot of fun. Certainly songs such as ''Bidin' My Time,'' ''Someone to Watch Over Me,'' ''Embraceable You,'' and ''I Got Rhythm'' had the audience humming along, and keeping it up out into the lobby at intermission, and after the show.
It isn't necessary to drive out onto the Canadian prairies to see a good ''Crazy for You,'' but if you do it, there is a very good one there to see.
If intellectual heft is your interest, you couldn't do much better than the Stratford production of ''Mother Courage and Her Children,'' by Bertolt Brecht. It's playing at the Tom Patterson Theater, with festival regular Seana McKenna in the title role.
The play is set in Europe, during the Thirty Years' War, which destroyed much of the wealth of Europe, and a great many of its population, in pointless invasions and futile endeavors to force either Catholicism or the relatively new reformed protestantism on the people back in the 17th century.
Mother Courage is a nickname, which has been adopted by a woman who is something of an embodiment of pragmatism. She has three grown children, and they travel around the battlefields, selling drinks and other needs to the soldiers. Mother perpetually tries to guess how much she can get for the 50 loaves of bread which she acquired yesterday, for example, so that they will be gone before they go moldy and aren't worth anything.
Often her estimations are right, but often they're wrong. People offer her deals, which sometimes make her profit, and sometimes don't. Sometimes she has everything she could want, and sometimes she loses everything, even her children, but her faith in buying and selling draws her on and on.
Surprisingly, director Martha Henry's approach to the heaviness of the topic is very light and often comic. She accepts Brecht's challenge that the characters are human and flawed. No trickery is permitted to make us like or dislike a character. They're not good or bad, but humans who do good things and bad things.
McKenna's determined exclamations that if this or that is what is needed to make money, this or that is what she and her family will do, are easily accepted by the audience.
Her character blends and contrasts with a cook, who buys food for his master, from her and with a protestant chaplain, who spends much of the play in disguise to avoid being murdered by the Catholic side of the war.
Geraint Wyn Davies and Ben Carlson play her two foils with naturalism, rather than charm, which is the correct choice, of course.
It was both an entertaining and an inspiring production. It's not for the viewer who doesn't want to think or evaluate.
Most folks are familiar with the stories of Robin Hood and his struggles against Wicked Prince John. Fewer know that John went on to become Wicked King John, among whose accomplishments was the murder of his older brother's son, so that John could get the crown.
Shakespeare wrote a play about John, and in his time, I've read, it was one of his most popular. In the years since Shakespeare's death, the play has become rarely produced.
Directed by John Tiggelloven, the Stratford production is perhaps the best illustration of the 2014 season's stated theme: ''People driven to the edge.''
King John, portrayed by Tom McCamus, is a man lacking strength or confidence. He is pressed upon by powerful and willful people, and doesn't know what to do about it.
The play joins King John when his older brother, Richard the Lionhearted, has just died. The two men had a brother whose birth fell between theirs, Geoffrey, but Geoffrey is also dead. He has left a young son named Arthur. According to the rules of primogeniture, which has governed much of the kingships of Europe, through history, Arthur, not John, should be king next.
John's mother, the powerhouse Eleanor of Acquitaine, believes that if the kingdom must wait for a child king to grow up, it will fall victim to old enemies, especially France. John is an adult, and she believes the country is better with him.
Meanwhile, Geoffrey left a widow: Constance of Brittany. She is determined to enforce her young son's rights, whether it is to England's advantage or not. The King of France thinks the boy should be king - outwardly because the law says so, but realistically, in the hope of a weaker enemy.
One curious character is named Philip. He is, he claims, the rightful son and heir of a courtier named Robert Faulconbridge, but John has convinced him that he should give up his claims, in return for which John declares him to be the illegitimate son of John's older brother, and thus of royal blood, though not an heir.
Philip releases a constant chain of inappropriate statements and behaviors which suggest that once the legal standards are pushed aside, everything becomes a conflict to be won by whoever has the most strength, the most cunning, and the fewest morals.
McCamus gave an impressive portrait of a man, lacking strength or self-confidence, who rushes into foolish behaviors and unwise policies, then backs away from them.
Patricia Collins' Queen Eleanor was a rock of a woman, always dominant on the stage. Seana McKenna played on the edge of madness, desperate to save her son, desperate to have the position she believes God has ordained for her, and startled beyond imagining by the depths to which people on all sides of the issue are willing to sink.
Graham Abbey was impressive as Philip the Bastard, although it seems as though the role would work better if Philip were more subtle and less preening in his feeling of superiority over everyone in the play, regardless of rank.
This is a fine production, but I suspect it would appear most to historical purists, who will find threads to pick from its accuracy, and those determined to see every play Shakespeare ever wrote. It isn't an evening of entertainment.
This year, the festival is pioneering by doing two different versions of one of Shakespeare's plays and by performing in a venue which has never been used before, in my memory.
The play is ''A Midsummer Night's Dream,'' and it is being done in its full form at the Festival Theatre, and in a ''chamber form,'' at the Masonic Concert Hall at the eastern end of Ontario Street, in Stratford.
The full production is directed by Chris Abraham, and it's a production which sets out to challenge everything traditional. The play has a foreward, which establishes that a couple are being married and that a play is being presented as entertainment after the ceremony.
People wear modern dress, although some characters have been changed from male to female, for example, while others are presented in their normal form, but are portrayed by actors of the opposite sex from that described in the script.
Oberon and Titania, for example, are both portrayed by male actors, who switch roles, from performance to performance. The one I saw featured Jonathan Goad as Oberon and Evan Builung as Titania, although if I had waited to see it a second time they would have been in the opposite roles.
Puck is described as a mischievous fairy, prone to dash about pulling tricks. Abraham casts his role with Lally Cadeau, a mature actor who, by force, slows him down and makes him more pensive and more feminine.
Abraham brings in music, from Baroque to contemporary rock 'n' roll. Designer Julie Fox has created a beautiful backyard garden, which is beautiful for the modern wedding portrayed, and has included in it a small pool of water, which the director seems to find a hilarious opportunity to have actors "fall by accident'' into it, push one another into it, etc.
Frankly, it all begins to feel a bit sophomoric after a while.
I think it's very valid to extend Shakespeare into new ideas and new realities, but they need to carry equal intellectual weight to the original ideas and realities. Hitting each other with cream pies is not powerful theater.
Meanwhile, at the other end of town is a version of the same play performed in its director's words, ''not with a symphony orchestra, but with string quartet.''
Just as a work of music may reveal its inner structures and teach us much about its endeavors, when performed with a smaller instrumentation, ''A Midsummer Night's Dream,'' when performed by only four actors, brings the words to the fore, and nearly wipes out the stage actions. Director Peter Sellars, who has made a career of doing things in a new way, such as staging ''Antony and Cleopatra'' in a swimming pool, is at the helm here.
Sadly, though, this is a production which is likely to be appreciated only by those who are so familiar with the play that they know what is going on and understand most of the references.
The Masonic Concert Hall is a great, cement cave of a room. Designer Abigail DeVille has covered its rounded ceiling with unhinged doors, bicycles, bed springs, chairs and similar things. It does awaken in an audience member a sense of discomfort that some of this stuff is going to come crashing down, at any moment.
The cast has four members: Sarah Afful, Dion Johnstone, Trish Lindstrom and Mike Nadajewski. The first two are African-Canadian and large and sturdy in construction, while the latter two are Caucasian, and more slender. All of them spoke beautifully. Each of them plays multiple roles. I believe my knowledge of the script is good enough that I recognized that sometimes an actor would be saying lines by Lysander, and suddenly be saying lines from Puck, for example.
It was enjoyable to hear the beautiful words, said so powerfully, but those who lacked a reasonably good grasp on where everything was supposed to be going, left complaining and uncomfortable. Sellars runs the risk of classical music composers in the 1960s and 70s. He produces performances which can only be appreciated by the already-experienced, which gradually strangles the art form in obscurity.
Performances at the Stratford Festival are scheduled to continue in five different venues, through mid-September. After Labor Day, the frequency of performances will decrease regularly. A few of the productions have been extended beyond their originally-announced closing dates and more extensions might be forthcoming.
Plan to attend performances at Stratford by phoning 800-567-1600, or by visiting their website at www.stratfordfestival.com.