Stratford Festival highlights, from ‘Rocky Horror’ to ‘The Tempest’

There are a lot of reasons why I make a point of journeying once a year to the Stratford Festival …

There are a lot of reasons why I make a point of journeying once a year to the Stratford Festival in Ontario, where approximately a dozen classic plays and musicals are produced each summer by a company of over a hundred actors.

Stratford is one of the few places left in North America with a repertory acting system, in which actors appear in multiple shows at once, which creates a homegrown, ensemble-oriented quality that is stimulating for actors and satisfying for audience members. Another pleasure of Stratford is its scenic, secluded and welcoming atmosphere.

With that in mind, it came as a shock when this season’s opening night performance of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” had to be called off at the last minute because of a bomb threat. It was the first time in the festival’s history that an opening night was canceled. Following a police investigation, the festival quickly moved forward and resumed performances. The show must go on.

When I returned to the festival recently, the place was as peaceful and vibrant as always, with American and Canadian tourists intermingling with each other, local residents and actors.

In addition to “The Tempest,” I attended two musicals (“The Music Man” and “The Rocky Horror Show”), a stage adaptation of the 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Oscar Wilde’s rarely-seen marital melodrama “An Ideal Husband.”

It is simply impossible to fit in every production at Stratford over a single long weekend, and I regret that I was unable to catch an high-tech, multimedia-infused interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” by the controversial and experimental Canadian director Robert Lepage (who is making his Stratford debut). That being said, virtually all the shows I caught this year were excellent.

“The Tempest” (starring festival regular Martha Henry as a female Prospero and staged by artistic director Antoni Cimolino) was an elegant, traditional production with great performances all around. Especially novel was how the nimble spirit Ariel was linked with the natural landscape, surrounding him with ensemble members wearing mounds of grass over their heads.

“The Music Man” and “Rocky Horror” were both directed and choreographed by Donna Feore, whose productions of classic musicals (including recently “The Sound of Music” and “Guys and Dolls”) win acclaim year after year. Interestingly, both “Music Man” and “Rocky Horror” were revived on Broadway in 2000 and neither has been seen in New York since then.

Although “Music Man” and “Rocky Horror” are as stylistically and culturally opposite as one can get, both productions were crowd-pleasers. The rude, rowdy and raucous entertainment of “Rocky Horror” thrived as a welcome break from such serious, long-winded fare as Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (which I had no need to see again). On the other hand, “The Music Man” represented Feore’s best work to date, bringing zest to the crowd-pleasing production numbers while also tackling its complex characters and themes.

Director Nigel Shawn Williams brought a fresh perspective to “To Kill a Mockingbird” by making it clear that Scout (who serves as narrator) is reconsidering her childhood in the midst of 1960s political turmoil and focusing intently on the struggles of the African-American characters. As it happens, a new adaptation by Aaron Sorkin (which has already provoked ire from the estate of Harper Lee for an apparently unflattering depiction of the typically heroic Atticus Finch) is set to come to Broadway in the fall.

“An Ideal Husband” was a snooze, but I admire the fact that Stratford gave the play a shot. Not too long ago, Stratford produced Wilde’s brilliant comedy of manners “The Importance of Being Earnest” with the late Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell, which then transferred to Broadway. None of Wilde’s other plays live up to “Earnest.”

The titles comprising the 2019 Stratford season ought to be announced shortly. While some productions are obviously better than others, and some years have better overall quality, the way the festival works and its appeal remain the same.

For more info visit stratfordfestival.ca.

Matt Windman