A LETTER FROM STRATFORD: The 2012 Stratford Festival in Canada Glistens With Christopher Plummer, Des McAnuff and More

By Mark Shenton
29 Aug 2012

Deborah Hay and Ben Carlson in Much Ado About Nothing
Photo by David Hou

My personal recommendations on the dining front are led by the stunning reclamation of an old church into two spaces with a French accented menu, The Church Restaurant in the main downstairs, highly theatrical room, with the more intimate Belfry upstairs. Terrific, too, is Down the Street, the popular post-show hang-out for members of the acting company that's a combination of Joe Allen and Bar Centrale (but with a better menu than either), and is open late. Actors also hang out after their shows, particularly ones at the Avon next door, at Foster's Inn on Downie Street, which is also incidentally where I stayed for part of my visit in one of the beautifully appointed guest rooms on the second and third floors.

In the midst of so much theatre, of course, you may need a break, or at least a glass of fine wine. Stratford is in the heart of vineyard country, so a glass is never far away; as a non-drinker, however, I sought my refuge in sugar. And if a constant diet of classical theatre going can be heavygoing, it's no wonder that Charles Isherwood, who was also in town for the New York Times, and I took daily fortifying post-matinee trips to the local DQ, with blizzard ice cream sundaes mixed with Slor and mini-Rolo's became a favorite for both of us.

Shakespeare, of course, remains the backbone of the festival — in addition to McAnuff's Henry V, this year's season includes a revelatory production of Cymbeline (directed by incoming 2013 artistic director Antoni Cimolino, who rose from actor to director to administrator over 20 years) that's infused with real theatrical magic, plus a sunny, funny production of Much Ado About Nothing. But the biggest pleasure for me was seeing Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker for the first time, a play that is far more radical, daring and hilarious than those of us who know it only from the Jerry Herman musical Hello, Dolly! that it provided the basis of might have suspected.



And, in a 60th anniversary season, it was also lovely to see the festival pay tribute to one its former artistic directors, John Hirsch, in a one-man show simply entitled Hirsch, who led the company for five seasons from 1981 but whose own story — from being orphaned in the Holocaust to dying in another holocaust of an AIDS-related illness in 1989 — is one that touches two giant tragedies, yet is also about the redemptive power of theatre itself, spellbindingly played by Alon Nashman.

Tom Rooney in Wanderlust.
photo by David Hou

Stratford provides plenty of reminders of the power of the theatre — not least that an entire economy revolves around it. It's also striking that, amongst the serious-minded classical revivals, there's room for a different kind of classic: the quintessential Broadway musical 42nd Street more than deserves its place in this company, and it is far more than just a chance for them to let their collective hair down. I've once heard it said that the role of Julian Marsh is the King Lear of musical theatre roles, and Sean Arbuckle, another Stratford veteran, invests him with just the right kind of earnest sincerity. Making theatre matters; when he says, "musical comedy are the two most beautiful words in the English language," you better believe him.

You hear beautiful words, of course, all over Stratford, not least in Christopher Plummer's literary compendium that, of course, he speaks utterly beautifully. But Stratford isn't only about glories of the theatrical past but also about a theatre of the future, too; and it's good to see the theatre's commitment to new Canadian work continuing with a new musical called Wanderlust that interpolates the words of the bank clerk turned poet Robert Service into a story about his life by director/writer Morris Panych, set to music by Marek Norman. I dubbed it Sunday in the Bank with Robert, but if it doesn't cut as deep about the artistic cost and process as Sondheim's musical about Seurat, it affectingly brings Service's words to new life.

I already can't wait to go back for the 61st season next year, in which highlights will include the return of two Brians — Bedford as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Dennehy in Schiller's Mary Stuart and Beckett's Waiting for Godot — as well as Des McAnuff reprising the aforementioned The Who's Tommy, and Dona Feore directing Fiddler on the Roof.

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Read more about Stratford's coming 61st season next year.

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The Stratford Shakespeare Festival's 2012 season continues to Oct. 28 in Stratford, Ontario. The full season includes Much Ado About Nothing; 42nd Street, The Matchmaker; Henry V; You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown; The Pirates of Penzance; A Word or Two (now closed); Cymbeline; Wanderlust; Elektra; MacHomer (now closed); The Best Brothers; Hirsch and The War of 1812 (now closed). For more information, visit stratfordfestival.ca.

Browse a gallery of photo highlights from this year's festival:

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Kyle Blair and Amy Wallace in Pirates of Penzance
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann