Stratford Festival in Canada offers Shakespeare theater productions

It’s been a big year for Canadian theater in New York. The 9/11 musical “Come From Away,” written by a Canadian couple and set in Newfoundland, became a surprise Broadway hit. Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company took up residency at the Off-Broadway Signature Center over the summer.

But to truly experience one of the biggest, most diverse and well-established theater events that Canada has to offer, you have to head north.

The annual Stratford Festival — hosted in a small town in Ontario that was once home to Justin Bieber — is on now. About 130 actors performing at least a dozen shows (including Shakespeare and musicals) in repertory, with full production values, across four different stages.

“Over the years, we’ve transferred things to New York, like Christopher Plummer’s ‘King Lear’ and Brian Bedford’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest.’ But because of the size and scale of the productions and the related personnel, it’s extremely expensive,” said artistic director Antoni Cimolino. “It’s like Hannibal crossing the Alps.”

Cimolino says what makes Stratford different is that while “there are a lot of places where you get star culture, here you get detailed work by theater artists. Ultimately, I think that’s much more satisfying.”

Another pleasure of Stratford is its scenic, rural environment, which resembles a theater camp for adults.

During my most recent Stratford trip, I saw four shows over two days, including a classic 1950s musical comedy (“Guys and Dolls”), a Shakespearean tragedy (“Romeo & Juliet”), an 18th-century English comedy (“The School for Scandal”) and a whimsical French satire (“The Madwoman of Chaillot”). Taken as a whole, this was the most artistically accomplished set of productions I’ve seen at Stratford in any given year.

Stratford’s 2018 season will include a production of “The Rocky Horror Show,” which has people intrigued.

“Next season is based upon the idea of free will — what it means to act freely, what limits our choices, how we express ourselves in the world. ‘Rocky Horror’ is the story of two innocents who have been informed by their society and who meet a group of people who are outside the norm, and it’s a process of self-discovery,” Cimolino said.

“And, of course, the show is a hell of a lot of fun.”

For more information on the festival visit stratfordfestival.ca.