Stratford Festival premieres ‘Shakespeare in Love,’ ‘Macbeth’

Ontario’s Stratford Festival, where Shakespeare plays, musicals and other classic works are performed each year in repertory by a large stable of actors, made some especially daring and risky choices for its 2016 season.

The results may be mixed, but the festival’s massive size, artistic ambitions, repertory style of having actors appear in multiple productions at once (all but extinct in New York) and tranquil, scenic surroundings make it worth revisiting year after year. This marked my fifth year at the festival, although I was regrettably only able to attend four shows instead of six or seven.

Stratford is currently presenting the North American premiere of the stage version of the Oscar-winning film “Shakespeare in Love.” It is directed by Declan Donnellan, who is best known for his work with Cheek by Jowl, a troupe that presents spare, highly physical renditions of Shakespeare plays.

As it is now, “Shakespeare in Love” needs substantial reworking before it comes to New York. Lee Hall’s script (based on Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay) is overextended, muddled and too campy. It’s too bad that Stoppard (who is known primarily as a cerebral and imaginative playwright) didn’t write the stage adaptation himself.

Also noteworthy this year is Donna Feore’s new production of “A Chorus Line” because it incorporates new choreography by Feore — instead of slavishly reproducing the original Michael Bennett staging. It is also being performed on a thrust stage that wraps around the audience.

Ideally, theater companies should be given the freedom to alter the choreography of iconic musicals such as “A Chorus Line” or “West Side Story,” but it is a daunting challenge, and Feore’s production comes off as tame and bland compared to Bennett’s thrilling work. Her actors are also not believable as ethnic New Yorkers. That said, the thrust stage does add a good deal of intimacy to a show that revolves around personal disclosure.

The best production I caught was “Macbeth” directed by artistic director Antoni Cimolino, which is set in the traditional Medieval Scotland and emphasized the forbidding natural terrain and the terrors brought on by the witches better than any “Macbeth” I’ve seen to date.

Gary Griffin (the original production of “The Color Purple”) staged Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” with a wildly uneven cast (the best of whom include Stratford regulars Cynthia Dale, Sara Farb and Ben Carlson). But the production does have a full orchestra playing Jonathan Tunick’s incomparable orchestrations, whereas the 2009 Broadway revival had just a handful of musicians.

I regret that I was unable to catch a production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” that won raves from the local critics, not to mention a combination of “Richard II,” “Henry IV, Parts I and II” and “Henry V” into a two-part work under the title “Breath of Kings.”

Next year’s lineup looks comparatively conventional, but the plays are crowd-pleasers that emphasize Stratford’s strengths, including “Guys and Dolls” directed by Feore, Sheridan’s rarely-seen comedy “The School for Scandal” directed by Cimolino, Gilbert & Sullivan’s “HMS Pinafore,” Moliere’s “Tartuffe” and Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Count me in.

For more info visit stratfordfestival.ca.