Stratford Festival in Ontario keeps old theater alive

Maria von Trapp and Hamlet have very little in common — except that they currently share the stage at Ontario’s Stratford Festival, where a large company meets each year to perform Shakespeare, musicals and other classic dramas in repertory.

This marked my fourth year in a row of visiting Stratford, which has the feel of a theater camp for adults. Even if many of the shows produced at Stratford can be seen in NYC, the repertory theater company model is all but extinct in New York.

For instance, festival veteran Tom Rooney is appearing simultaneously in “Hamlet,” “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and “The Taming of the Shrew.”

There is a real sense of community between the actors and the audience.

Although it’s not unusual for Shakespeare plays to be performed together, Stratford is also presenting two classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals: “The Sound of Music” (which the Canadian critics gushed over) and “Carousel” (which got mixed reviews). Both are excellent revivals with full production values.

Stephanie Rothenberg (of the recent Broadway revival of “How to Succeed”) is a stunning Maria. The production, directed and choreographed by Donna Feore, is a crowd-pleaser from start to finish.

Susan H. Schulman, who directed “Carousel,” has been criticized for not radically rethinking the musical, which can come off as dated and sexist today. But except for some casting issues, she offers a solid production of a very challenging musical. A cast album has even been released.

One of the rarer plays being produced this year is Dürrenmatt’s 1961 dark comedy “The Physicists,” in which a scientist fakes insanity to hide the secrets to world domination from international spies.

“The Diary of Anne Frank,” a chestnut of regional theater, is receiving a rethought revival with a very spare set (instead of one that meticulously reproduces the attic living space), an offstage choir and cast members that frequently address the audience to remind them that they are watching a true story.

Four Shakespeare plays are being done this year, three of which I saw. “Hamlet,” staged by the festival’s artistic director Antoni Cimolino, is efficient (with a running time of just under three hours) and enjoyable. Jonathan Goad is physically and vocally capable, but he displays none of the interior life we’ve come to expect from an actor playing Hamlet.

In “The Taming of the Shrew,” starring married couple Ben Carlson and Deborah Hay, director Chris Abraham plays up its slapstick elements and sexual heat.

John Caird, best known as the co-director of “Les Miz,” is making his Stratford debut with Shakespeare’s youthful comedy “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” It was the most vibrant production of the play I’ve ever seen.

Stratford has already announced its next season, which looks quite ambitious: the North American premiere of “Shakespeare in Love,” a two-part adaptation of four Shakespeare history plays, Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” “A Little Night Music” and “A Chorus Line” with new choreography. Count me in.

Visit stratfordfestival.ca for more info.