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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Shaw and Stratford Festivals — Canadian Assurance

untitled (60) Consistently theatrical greatness lies just across the U.S. border at the two ends of the Canadian province of Ontario.

I first attended the Stratford Festival in 1976 when the actors included Jessica Tandy, Maggie Smith, Hume Cronyn, and Jeremy Brett. That year, I was also introduced to another actress who may have not the international reputation of the luminaries listed but now ranks as one of the finest on the English-speaking stage, Martha Henry, appearing this season as Lady Bountiful in George Farquhar’s “The Beaux’ Stratagem.”

My first sojourn to the Shaw Festival was in 1989, and I have returned more years than not since I discovered this marvelous oasis of repertory theater near the gorgeous geographic point where Lake Ontario meets the mighty Niagara River about 15 miles north of Niagara Falls.

The hallmark of both theaters, which perform a varied series of plays in rep from mid-spring to mid-fall, is something I call Canadian assurance.

Familiar plays are produced beside new plays, classics that receive less attention, and vintage works from various periods that rate a new look. The artistic directors choosing them, currently Jackie Maxwell at the Shaw and Antoni Cimolino at Stratford, display a canny sense in finding interesting curios from theater’s vast possibilities and in mounting them with confidence that may include stylization or a production concept but never includes fiddling with a play in a way that disguises its essence or clouds its meaning.

The Shaw and Stratford Festivals respect the plays they do. They don’t see a need to adapt them, increase their “accessibility,” or resort to any other insulting ploy that would make me think the theaters don’t have faith in a chosen work. They may set Shakespeare or another classic in a different setting or time period from that which the playwright prescribed, but Maxwell, Cimolino, and their stage directors proceed with purpose and plainly demonstrate why they moved a work from one era or one culture to another. You can tell these directors admire the works they are realizing on stage and would not stoop to the gimmickry and “ooh, I have an idea” smart aleck approach that can be so prevalent among theaters presenting classics in the United States.

As importantly, both theaters employ some of the best actors in the world, and these performers return season after season to form a reliable company you look forward to seeing each year, or several times a year.

Martha Henry, Colm Feore, Stephen Ouimette, Mary Haney, Jennifer Phipps, Tom McCamus, Patrick Galligan, Sharry Flett, Jenny Wright, Sarah Orenstein, Yanna McIntosh, Michael Ball, Benedict Campbell, Peter Hutt and others have not noticed me age because I am not performing for all, or anyone to see. I have seen some of them go from young artists of quality to brilliant stewards of classical, and comic, acting traditions. Others I have seen go from middle age to senior status, always retaining their luster. It is luck that Ms. Henry and Ms. Phipps are both on stage this year. They are treasures whose gifts all should experience.

Colm Feore, Mary Haney, and Stephen Ouimette each have two major roles this season. Yanna McIntosh acts Cleopatra opposite Tom McCamus in Shakespeare’s opus. Veterans of the Shaw and Stratford Festivals know how exciting this news is.

Actors attracted me to theater in my childhood. Other children collected baseball cards. I did too, but I had a second collection of TV Guide covers and pictures of movie stars. Then, I heard original cast albums. Then I heard Richard Burton on record acting Marc Antony in “Julius Caesar.” His “Cry havoc…” influenced the rest of my life.

Going to the Shaw and Stratford and seeing the wonderful actors  — I can mention more such as Lucy Peacock, Mark Shara, Jim Mezon, Norman Browning, Corrine Koslo — is a special treat because I know I will see artists with gifts of diction, timing, character development, and overall craft who are assembled in one place to entertain, enlighten, and introduce me to worlds and ideas conceived by geniuses for my, and everyone’s, enjoyment and edification. Enjoyment first. Always. I am one of those commentators who believes theater’s first job is to entertain.

The magnificent thing about the Shaw and Stratford Festivals is they entertain grandly. They add to entertainment by getting to the marrow of plays and showing you the humanity with which great writers like Shaw, Shakespeare, O’Casey, Priestley, and Brecht endowed their  works while also conveying the mirth Coward, the Gershwins, and Carroll bring to our lives.

Canadian assurance is a knack for presenting plays at their richest, with entertainment value that appeals to our minds, tugs at our hearts, and tickles to our funnybones, accomplished masterfully and, as said at the beginning, consistently.

In addition to wonderful theater, visits to the Shaw and Stratford Festivals take you to one amazing beautiful and multi-faceted corner of the world, Ontario’s Niagara region, and one quaint enclave that lets you see the Canadian countryside and puts you in proximity of other small cities that have individual delights.

I have seen the Niagara Falls more than 100 times, and I never tire of returning. (One time, when I wanted to be at the Falls in relative solitude, I drove down Niagara Parkway at 7 a.m. to take in the splendor before most tourists descended. I was successful. My only company was two buses of Japanese visitors, a good number of whom insisted on taking my picture as a “real Canadian,” which, though blond at the time and blue-eyed, I am not but was perfectly willing to be in the name of civility and Canadian tourism.)

The Falls only begin the fun people can have in the Niagara area that features wonderful bike and walking trails, masses of thoughtful floral displays, numerous wineries, orchards galore — At the August harvest, there’s a peach festival. — and for nerds such as I, the chance to tour one of the world’s more important hydroelectric plants. (You’re reading someone whose favorite sight in the Las Vegas area is Hoover Dam and who can’t wait someday to see the Panama Canal.)

Niagara-on-the-Lake, where the Shaw Festival is, has burgeoned from a small row of shops, two blocks worth, to a major destination for folks who have discovered those shops and come by the dozens to browse in them.

Once upon a time, almost everyone who ventured to NOTL, as Niagara-on-the-Lake is abbreviated by natives, was heading to the Shaw Festival or, maybe, Greaves’s jam shop or the store that sold beautiful Irish and Scottish woolens. Today, you encounter many who aren’t aware a theater festival is going on all around them.

NOTL also helped Ontario arise from the capital of bland cooking to a place where the cuisine is actually interesting and appealing. This happened because a Vietnamese woman bought the most chic hotel and installed a French chef. In some ways, I miss the basic Canadian menus of yesteryear, but the improvement is marked  and much more appealing to the palate.

Toronto, about an hour’s drive from NOTL, has also changed from being a culinary nightmare to a city that boasts many fine and interesting restaurants. It is a relief not to have to head to Montreal or retreat back to the States, easy to do from NOTL, to find a meal that might have a hint of seasoning.

13959632978_5a3d8e5be8Stratford is in a sleepier part of Ontario. Its centerpiece is the park by the Avon River that borders the area where most of the Stratford Festival theaters are. Downtown Ontario Street is more like a small town than NOTL’s Queen Street.

No matter. It is refreshing to be in a genuine city that happens to have one the world’s major theater festivals. Also, day trips to Ontario towns such as Waterloo, Kitchener, Guelph, Blythe, London, and my favorite, Goderich,  can be relaxing and rewarding. Goderich is a beautiful spot on one edge of Lake Huron, and it is delightful just getting a box lunch and heading to the lake to enjoy the scenery.

Ontario loves flowers and theater. Several places nominate themselves the Flower Capital of Canada, so you can find some non-Festival theater, especially in Blythe, and enjoy the floral arrangement that grace practically every Ontario home as you head to it.

Theater is the reason I ventured to NOTL and Stratford, and theater is the reason I return regularly, like a pilgrim on an annual journey to a shrine or an addict who can’t go through a summer without experiencing Canadian assurance.

The offerings at both theaters  are exciting this year, the Shaw mixing Shavian contemporaries and newer playwrights like Edward Bond with the master, George Bernard Shaw, the Stratford Festival presenting  a wide array of Shakespeare, including two takes on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” while incorporating two musicals, a children’s show, and a dramatic look at Sweden’s Queen Christina, played  by Jenny Young.

First, I will list the playbills for both festivals. Then I will analyze…and analyze… and analyze.

The Shaw Festival features 10 plays. They are “Arms and the Man” and “The Philanderer” by Shaw, “When We Are Married”  by J.B. Priestley, “Juno and the Paycock” by Sean O’Casey, “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Couer”  by Tennessee Williams, “The Philadelphia Story”  by Philip Barry, “The Sea” by Edward Bond, “The Charity That Begins at Home” by St. John Hankin, “The Mountaintop”  by Katori Hall, and “Cabaret” by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Joe Masteroff.

The Stratford Festival has 12 attractions. They are “King Lear,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (in two forms), ” and “King John” by Shakespeare, “Hay Fever” by Noel Coward, “Mother Courage and Her Children” by Bertolt Brecht, “The Beaux Stratagem” by George Farquhar,” “Christina, the Girl King,” by Michel Marc Bouchard, “Alice Through the Looking Glass” after Lewis Carroll, “Crazy For You” by Ken Ludwig, George Gershwin, and Ira Gershwin,” and “Man of La Mancha” by Mitch Leigh, Joe Darion, and Dale Wasserman.

The Shaw Festival offers an interesting blend. One of its Shaw plays, “Arms and the Man,” is one of the most frequently produced and has been turned into an operetta and a musical in its time. “The Philanderer” is an early work Shaw had to fight to get on the stage because no manager would take a chance on its content, deemed too unusual in its day. The familiar “Juno and the Paycock,” The Philadelphia Story,” and “Cabaret” are balanced by a relatively unknown Williams piece from late in that author’s life, a Priestley play that finds windows of popularity every 20 years or so, a recent work about Martin Luther King’s last day by Hall, a play set in the Victorian era by one of late 20th century England’s most interesting commentators, Edward Bond, and a curio that sounds charming by Shaw contemporary, St. John Hankin.

The Stratford Festival is situated in a town called Stratford on a river named the Avon (and pronounced by locals as the A-von, with the initial “a” articulated like the “a” in “have). Naturally it would wend towards Shakespeare, the author on whom its founding was predicated, and present two frequently performed works, “King Lear” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” opposite more rarely produced pieces, “Antony and Cleopatra” and “King John.”

Stratford also heads towards merriment this year with Coward’s look at a slapdash family barely tending to its weekend guests in “Hay Fever,” Farquhar featuring two men looking to support their later lives by marrying rich women in the Restoration lark, “The Beaux Stratagem,” and Ken Ludwig’s fizzy take on the Gershwins’ “Girl Crazy,” the 1992 Tony-winning musical, “Crazy For You.”

In the midst of Coward and Ludwig are Brecht’s “Mother Courage” and Bouchard’s take on Queen Christina.

The classical tone of the festival is enhanced by the popular musical based on Cervantes’s “Don Quixote,” “Man of La Mancha” and a children’s show  based on Carroll’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass.”

Cervantes, incidentally, was born on the exact day in the exact year, April 23, 1564, that William Shakespeare was. The Wasserman-Darion-Leigh musical, and the take on Carroll’s monumental work join “Crazy For You” in giving the Stratford playbill a populist touch. (As if “A Midsummer Night’s Dream doesn’t!)

Perhaps the most glorious “Midsummer” I ever saw, a partner, though far different in style, to the landmark Peter Brook production of 1970, is the Stratford production that starred Lucy Peacock in the mid-90s. Grandeur matched sensibility, and theatricality illuminated Shakespeare’s theme, in that magnificent staging.

It whets my appetite for this year’s “Midsummers,” both of them. One is a full production that features Stephen Ouimette as Bottom. The other is a chamber version enacted by a  troupe of four that plays the various pairs of contrasting lovers as well as Bottom and the rude mechanicals.

The 22 plays the Shaw and Stratford make available fill one with anticipation. And impatience to head to Canada.

“Arms and the Man” is bound to be its usual delightful look at heroism, military bluster, and the romantic vs. the practical, even in love. The other Shaw play on the Shaw Festival bill, “The Philanderer,” is about member of the Ibsen Club, which has strict rules about its members. One man, known to be a rake, falls in love with a woman who doesn’t want him while he spurns a woman who would do anything to attract him. The Shawfest production restores a third act eliminated at the time of “The Philanderer’s” original production in the 1890s.

“The Philadelphia Story” is the well-known story of Tracy Lord, whose imminent wedding is intruded upon by a reporter and photographer from a magazine, in addition to Tracy’s first husband, Dexter. “A Lovely Sunday at Creve Couer” is Tennessee Williams in a gentler, less steamy vein than expected. This one is a light comedy about the difficult experience of heartbreak in love as friends plan a picnic in the countryside adjacent to St. Louis. I saw the original production with Shirley Knight and, I believe, Peg Murray, and have favorable memories of it.

“The Charity That Begins At Home” is about a mother and daughter who invite the people they judge to be the most disagreeable to a weekend at their home. They are testing the tolerance of their charity towards the foibles of fellow humans, particularly mean ones, but the daughter falls in love with one of the nonconformist guests.

images (13)“When We Are Married” has Priestley asking the question about whether couples who have been wed for 25 years would marry again if given the option on their quarter-century anniversary. Things comes to head when three couples learn they were never legally married and not bound to stay together.

“Juno and the Paycock” is simultaneously funny and serious as O’Casey depicts a poor Irish family who is about to receive an inheritance but are living in the midst of the Irish Civil War and have personality quirks with which the beleaguered Juno must contend as she tries to bring sense of her situation. Shaw stalwart Mary Haney stars as Juno. Jim Mezon, Benedict Campbell, and Jennifer Phipps also appear.

Edward Bond is known for his searing political commentary while writing several plays set in historical periods and many set in the 1970s to ’90s when he wrote them (as he continues to write them). His play, “Restoration,” earned my Philadelphia Theater Critic’s Award for Best Production in the mid-’80s. “The Sea” is a comedy, rare enough for Bond, and is set in the Victorian era. It is about a man from a small village who is lost at sea, and more about the young man who survived the same voyage and others in the village.  Patrick Galligan is among the actors appearing in the Shaw production.

“The Mountaintop” is set in Memphis’s Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King will be killed by an assassin on April 4, 1968. Katori Hall envisions him expanding on his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech while having a conversation with a motel chambermaid.  The Lorraine Hotel is now a tourist site and a civil rights museum that is worth a visit.

“Cabaret” is a musical that works on many levels, as the original production by Harold Prince and subsequent revivals (including a current one) by Sam Mendes and Rufus Norris amply prove. The Shaw rendition stars Deborah Hay as Sally Bowles, Juan Chioran as the Emcee, Corrine Koslo as Frau Schneider, and Benedict Campbell as Herr Schultz.

As noted, Shakespeare remains the key figure at the Stratford Festival. In the ’90s, Stratford productions of “King John” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” each received my international award for Best Production. Both are on the bill for this year.

The season that boasted the brilliant “Midsummer” included an equally marvelous staging of “The Pirates of Penzance.” Both productions featured magnificent central performances by Colm Feore, at the time the handsome youth lead of the Stratford Festival.

Feore has gone on to make a name for himself in movies and television, but he returns to his Stratford roots at age 56 to play one of the most difficult and rewarding of all Shakespearean leads, Lear, in the Bard’s “King Lear.” Long-time colleagues Stephen Ouimette and Scott Wentworth appear in support as The Fool and Gloucester.

Feore also figures prominently in this year’s staging of “The Beaux Stratagem,” a regular reunion of Stratford stalwarts as Lucy Peacock, Mike Shara, Scott Wentworth, and the laudable Martha Henry join him in Farquhar’s excellent play I last saw, and loved, at D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre a decade ago.

Gary Griffin, a director who has done interesting work in both Canada and the U.S., including his idea of performing “My Fair Lady” accompanied by two pianos, is at the helm of “Antony and Cleopatra,” one of the more challenging in the Shakespearean canon to realize on stage. His leads, Yanna McIntosh and Tom McCamus, give him a great headstart in providing the complex, complicated piece with dramatic impact.

“King John” is a chronicle of the monarch who was forced to submit his kingdom to some measure of temporal authority by issuing the Magna Carta, establishing a Constitution and responsibilities for Parliament in 1215. The ’90s version of this play, led at Stratford by the late Nicholas Pennell, was riveting and showed how well Shakespeare understood politics and their mechanics. Tom McCamus is this season’s John. Seana McKenna is Queen Constance. Patricia Collins plays John’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Ken Ludwig is a master with a one-liner and with putting characters in disguise. Both traits serve his musical, “Crazy For You,” modelled after the Gershwin show, “Girl Crazy,” that brought Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman to Broadway with Ginger’s big number, “Embraceable You,” choreographed by Fred Astaire. The Gershwin tunes join with Ludwig’s scrumptious script to provide a great time in an American West that remained a frontier outpost while Manhattan, the hometown of the male lead, was cooking and lively with theater.

I have been a fan of “Hay Fever” since seeing a college production, scored with Ray Noble tunes, during my days at Temple University. Subsequent stagings starring Rosemary Harris, Celeste Holm, and Penelope Reed have reinforced my love for this Coward play, in which guests are abandoned to their own devices although they all received invitations to the country home of actress Judith Bliss and her playwright husband. Lucy Peacock stars as Judith at Stratford.

“Mother Courage and Her Children,” Brecht’s comically cynical look at a camp follower who is dedicated to be a survivor of a never-ending war, features another who has earned a reputation for excellence, Seana McKenna, in the title role.

“Man of La Mancha,” as a recent Philadelphia production proved, can be quite moving. Stratford has a way with classics, and it will be interesting to see its take on Cervantes’s timeless story.

The Niagara area is a rife with activity that can satisfy any taste for a vacation. Obviously the Shaw Festival in NOTL more than suffices to suit the person looking primarily for culture.

NOTL is the main cultural destination for the Niagara traveler, but it also features fine shopping all along Queen Street from the site of the Festival Theatre below King Street to the golf course and the coast of Lake Ontario at Missasauga Street. The side streets in that region also have stores. Many deal in antiques. Greaves continues to carry its wonderful selection of jams and jellies. Clothing is also available.

Being a tea fan, I like the Dansk shop for crockery and the Niagara Tea Shop for its selection of loose teas. I am also partial to a shop that sells Japanese merchandise.

As you drive up to NOTL from Niagara Falls, to your right, by the Niagara River will be plenty of trails for hiking, biking, or just resting to look at the river. To your left, as you approach NOTL will be a series of farms that sell fresh produce, including apples and peaches from nearby orchards, perhaps even an orchard on the farm you’re visiting.

Dining in NOTL can be expensive since the restaurants upgraded, but there are many places to get light fare and sandwiches. Of the high-ticket places, I like the Epicurean on Queen Street, which also has dishes that are lighter on the wallet.  For mid-range, there’s good pub food and other selections at the Olde Angel Inn on Regent Street, and I enjoy breakfast at the Stagecoach on Queen Street, where reasonable dinners are also served.

When pressed for time, I’ve had sandwiches at the Festival Theatre concession stand. I often have between-show drinks at the Shaw Café on Queen Street.

The dining room at the Prince of Wales Hotel has always been reliable. So is The Cannery, at the Picket and Post Motel on John Street.

Wineries abound throughout the Niagara region. There are many tours, and a car ride towards Virgil and other nearby towns will take you to the wineries.

For natural beauty, NOTL has several parks. The best is the Queen’s Royal Park on Front Street  between King and Simcoe Streets. Here you can see the exhilarating point where the Niagara River and Lake Ontario meet. You can also see Old Fort Niagara on the United States side, worth a visit before you leave the region.

On the Canadian side is Old Fort George, which is open to visit. There is a Niagara Historical Museum and an apothecary shop with antique containers and fixtures.

Niagara Falls has one of the wonders of the world, and it is well worth beholding. It also has a beautiful, well-manicured park and many other places to see flowers, including the famous Floral Clock, the design of which the Horticultural College changes every year.

The city of Niagara Falls is a bit honky-tonk. It has many attractions for children in a congested tourist area. Hotels near the falls are more expensive than the area north on Lundys Lane, where there’s a variety of reasonable motels with pools. You can also find accommodations on Stanley Street, near the Niagara Casino.

Lodging near NOTL is often in bed and breakfasts that vary but are generally congenial and reliable. Check for whether you have a private bath, if there are stairs, and if there are animals to which you may be allergic. Some B&Bs accept pets as guests.

Stratford is smaller, and dining and lodging is more limited, particularly near the Avon River. The main drag to and through town is Ontario Street, which has many shops and amenities. I usually eat nearer the Avon and Studio Theaters on Downie Street in the part of Stratford that has a wider selection of restaurants and a few shops. The Church Restaurant is one of the oldest. The Raja is reliable for Indian cuisine. Just tell the waiter you’re American, and they’ll be more generous with the spices.

I have found many reasonable motels on Ontario Street approaching the Festival Theatre area and some decent lodgings right by it. Bed and breakfasts and house rentals are also popular. The Festival can arrange lodging.

On days when you have scheduled no theater, an excursion to a nearby town is recommended. As noted, Goderich on Route 4 is my favorite.

The Shaw Festival’s web site is www.shawfest.com. You can reach the Shaw by telephone at 1-800-511-SHAW or (1-800-511-7429).

The Stratford Festival’s web site is www.stratfordfestival.ca. Its telephone number is 1-800-567-1600.

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