Now that the SARS scare is yesterday's news, you can resume considering Canada as a summer vacation destination. My wife and I did that last month when the paralyzing E-word still dominated the front pages. After a week in Minnesota's Twin Cities attending an annual conference of the American Theater Critics Association, we saw that the "epidemic" in Toronto was contained and bravely crossed the border.

Sampling the summer theater festivals of Ontario is an intoxicating pleasure, like tasting the vintage fruit of the region's renowned vineyards. There's no language barrier, the beauty of the facilities is surpassed by the quaint villages where they stand, and the exchange rate on the Canadian dollar is license to steal.

The Stratford Festival of Canada and the Shaw Festival, at Niagara-on-the-Lake, are two of the biggest theater festivals in North America. Both festivals are partial to the classics but audience-friendly at the same time. This year's lineup is particularly tempting. The Stratford and the Shaw reached full throttle late in May 2003. Then a new event sprang up in Ottawa, a funky Magnetic North Theater Festival, celebrating contemporary Canadian pieces in the capital city. Amid the SARS scare, Ontario has put forth an extra effort to make Americans feel at home. Through September, the 5 percent Provincial Room Tax has been waived. Unfortunately, in tightening their budget to attract tourists, Ontario legislators neglected to set aside sufficient funding to publicize their warm generosity. Tourism continues to lag, with ticket sales down 11 percent at the Shaw through June 25, 2003. With the WHO's all-clear, business will hopefully improve. As seasoned travelers to Canada already know, you can also get a rebate on the 7 percent tax on goods and services when you return to the American border. It applies strictly to purchases of $50 or more, and there's no rebate on your restaurant tab. Still after our seven nights in Canada, my wife and I harvested more than $89 by holding onto our bookstore, clothing and lodging receipts.

We saw 11 of the 19 shows that were up at Stratford and at the Shaw. With that much already on our plates, we scrapped plans to see three of the 11 pieces showcased in Ottawa between June 11 and June 21. That left us with more energy for shopping and sightseeing. Particularly at the Shaw, which is a scant 35 minutes from Niagara Falls even in the thick of Sunday traffic, you don't want to neglect the landscape. We also expedited our return to the States by taking the Queenston-LewistonBridge off the

Niagara Parkway
. Even with the questioning from the border guard, we zipped through in less time than we spent at most of the tollbooths in Illinois and Indiana.

How did we get so smart so quickly? Well, you get a nice head start if you consult the festival websites for places to stay. Then at the bed & breakfasts we chose, our hostess in Stratford and our host in Niagara-on-the-Lake took care of reservations at the best local restaurants and guided our day trips. While we found travel times from to be questionable at times, their directions were flawless for our Canadian travels if you don't mind dealing with kilometers.

Stratford Festival of Canada

On July 13, it will be exactly 50 years since Alec Guinness, under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie, launched a new chapter in Canadian stage history by uttering the first words of Richard III: "Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this son of York."

At its inception, Stratford was an exclusively Shakespearean festival with a six-week season designed to infuse new tourist dollars into a town economy crippled by the withdrawal of the railroad industry. Today the Stratford has expanded beyond Shakespeare and the glorious summer, running from early April through November 9, 2003 and claiming to be the largest theater festival in North America. With four fine performing spaces capable of cranking out two different shows a day, Stratford dishes out a wide repertoire 16 shows this year ranging from the grim Agamemnon to the bubbly Gigi.

Studio Theater In its second year of operation, this intimate 260-seat space is in the grip of an exciting concept. They're doing a special "House of Atreus Series" sort of an Oresteia with a French twist. Beginning the cycle with Ted Hughes' translation of Aeschylus, the series skips merrily ahead to Jean Giraudoux's Electra and Jean-Paul Sartre's The Flies.

I couldn't resist a preview peep at the Agamemnon a full 10 days before the series officially opened. The Studio's arena configuration and amphitheater simplicity are ideal for Greek tragedy. Although three different stage directors guide the ensemble, Wendy Greenwood is the constant lighting designer, while Lorenzo Savoini handles the sets.
Agamemnon was enough to convince me that Savoini and Greenwood are a simpatico team. Still finding her way as Clytemnestra, Karen Robinson was already formidable in the ghastly denouement. The unheeded prophetess Cassandra gets added emphasis in director David Latham's imaginative concept, and Sara Topham executes with a finely gauged hysteria, tethered to a pole and daubed in slime. But the most charismatic performer, appearing late on Savoini's high balcony, is Scott Wentworth, glorying defiantly in the fiendish, furtive triumph of Aegisthus. Sean Arbuckle has plenty of nobility as Agamemnon, but Wentworth throws him decisively into eclipse after his treacherous regicide. Fortunately, there are generous extra helpings of Wentworth as Aegisthus in the remaining Atreus dramas.

Avon Theater Broadway habitues will feel right at home in this midsized 1093-seat proscenium theater, remodeled to coincide with the opening of the adjoining Studio Theater during Stratford's 50th season in 2002.

Gigi, the most charming production at Stratford this year, is also the slickest, utilizing a velvety turntable to whisk us from scene to scene and animated projections on the painted scrim to remind us of the cinematic origins of this Lerner & Loewe bonbon.
As Gigi, Jennifer Gould spans the chasm between girlish ebullience and budding womanly grace. You never believe such a sprite could ripen into a cold courtesan, but the ultra-discreet script barely grazes that possibility, so you can take innocent children to this show without fear. Patricia Collins regally commands each scene she appears in as Gigi's Aunt Alicia with her hilariously decadent rectitude. Domini Blythe's Mamita had me thinking that Hermione Gingold's was overrated. The garrulous James Blendick as Honore was not quite as successful in exorcising the ghost of Maurice Chevalier, but Dan Chameroy's Gaston was a revelation. Stripped of its French accent, the misogyny of "She's Not Thinking of Me" and the capitulation of Gigi closely mirror the agonies of Henry Higgins under the spell of Eliza. And Chameroy doesn't shy away from the comedy.

There are also revelations in the new homegrown adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Rick Whalen. Unlike the seminal 1939 movie version, Whalen doesn't tinker with Victor Hugo's ending and even references the French novelist's intro. We get more of Phoebus and his fiancee Fleur-de-Lys in the new version. Esmeralda's embittered mama is restored to the story, and the gypsy's enchanted goat gets more of the spotlight. The tortured soul of Frolio, archdeacon of Notre Dame, is bought back into focus. But to get around Hugo's labyrinthine plot, Whalen has a bunch of innocuous Parisians shouldering an outsized portion of the narrative burdens. Sharing the stage with Gigi, set designer Alexander Dodge doesn't deal with scene changes nearly as gracefully, and his palette rarely transcends a drab monastic gray.

Stephen Russell is superb as Frolio, and Jennifer Gould's Esmeralda is a remarkable transformation from her Gigi -- sensuous, sentimental and pitifully doomed.

Peter Van Gestel replaced Nicolas Van Burek as Quasimodo for the matinee I attended, delivering a compelling characterization of the hunchbacked bell-ringer without the fearful presence I would have liked. The fight scenes were an embarrassment, but I blame fight director John Stead more than the understudy. Stead's handiwork in The Adventures of Pericles is hardly any better. The expanded gallery of minor characters restores much of the authentic Hugo texture to this effort, and the ensemble is superb.

Tom Patterson Theater

Sitting next to a lawn bowling field and sharing space with Stratford's Kiwanis Club, this 487-seat facility is Stratford's least inviting. Nor did the current production of Sartre's No Exit warm up the thrust stage. Seven days before its official opening, this 75-minute chamber piece seemed to need more incubation in its second preview performance than the Agamemnon. Or perhaps the right word from director Jim Warren will cause the austerely-designed production to click into place. Casting and characterization both appear on-target. But the elemental message never quite sparked between characters. I didn't see an electric moment where somebody in Sartre's mirrorless hell understood that his or her existence could only be validated in the eyes of an eternally damned roommate. So none of the tense encounters ever slapped me as they might.

Festival Theater

Reminding me of the beloved Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, this 1824-seat facility was my favorite among the seven theaters I attended in Canada. No spectator is more than 65 feet from the marvelously versatile and atmospheric thrust stage. You'll also find that the gift shop/bookstore at the Festival is several notches above the Avon's. I began an enchanting day at the Festival with a magical production of Shakespeare's Pericles, flamboyantly renamed "The Adventures of Pericles" and given a flamboyant Far-Eastern design. Warriors parade across the stage wearing costumes that conjure up the conquering Tartar and Mongol hordes, with colored armor that shines like "transformer" gladiator toys.

Watching the story meander through six kingdoms with its long arcing separations and reunions, I realized that this is the most medieval of Shakespeare's plays. It's more like Chaucer, Boccaccio, and the "Arabian Nights" than The Tempest, Cymbeline, or Troilus and Cressida.

There are vile villains and villainesses in Pericles in a fairy-tale vein. There are pure women who endure their woes patiently until they are reclaimed after long years, veritably reborn like Lear's Cordelia or women in satyr plays. All surround Pericles, the prince of Tyre who suffers all and is ennobled by his sufferings.
Jonathan Goad seems to get better in the title role, measuring his words more effectively as the wandering prince ages and acquires wisdom. Thom Marriott adds a haunting layering as the sardonic narrator Gower, buffed in pale body paint and wearing little more than a diaper. His final exit down a trapdoor with an ocean of silk following him was spellbinding. The joy that the prince feels reuniting with wife and child had a poignant resonance.

Going to a distant place like Stratford to see a seldom-produced drama like Pericles, I found the joy of discovery enhanced by the length of the journey.

Still if you want to sample the Festival Theater and Stratford at their best, I have to give the edge to their magnificent revival of The King and I. The entire stage is inlaid with red, black, and gold lacquer. Huge pillars topped by gleaming statues flank the upstage wall, a royal archway with tall palatial doors between them. Costumes are as eye-popping as the Bangkok palace. And where's the orchestra? Presumably up above that archway. But I never saw the conductor or a single TV monitor, and I never figured out how the singers caught their cues. Even so, Debra Hanson's set, Roger Kirk's costumes, and musical director Berthold Carriere's wizardry aren't the chief wonders. What's rarer and more precious is the attitude. Under Susan Schulman's direction, Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I is treated with the reverence and devotion of a theater classic. Nowadays, most Broadway and touring productions aim to divert and impress like theme parks, tacitly devaluing the naked power of the music, the story, and the stars.
Lucy Peacock isn't the most charismatic singer I've heard, but her Anna is fabulous because she captures the British governess's starchiness perfectly and because those plucky R&H songs she sings are so superb. She simply has to act them to devastate us.
Victor Talmadge owns the King without straining to be mighty or imperial, and the littlest of his many children are adorable without straining to be cute. Anything less natural would be insidiously condescending, undercutting the message of the story. Simply, this is how musical theatre should be written and produced.

The Shaw Festival
With an eccentric, fiercely radical, devilishly witty Irish icon as their standard bearer, the Shaw Festival seems to have taken a quirkier, more intellectually rigorous and elitist path in carving out its mission.

Launched in 1962, the Shaw paralleled its elder Stratford cousin by starting out exclusively devoted to the works of George Bernard Shaw. While Stratford exploded its original boundaries, the Shaw has merely expanded them, keeping its original name. Beginning on April 3 and running through November, the Shaw concentrates on GBS, his contemporaries, and plays dealing with the birth and essence of modernity. The Shaw claims to be the second largest theater festival in North America but not insistently. It has grown to three theaters in a strictly-zoned village, where you can find every Festival offering, plus a profusion of fetching shops and two ritzy hotels, by strolling along

Queen Street
. Walk down a few blocks from the main drag and, in clear weather, you can see the Toronto skyline across LakeOntario. Hop in your car or rent a bike and you can make a quick excursion to Niagara Falls, extolled by Oscar Wilde as "The second great disappointment in American marriage."

Court House Theater

Outside the exterior is gray and dignified. But inside the Festival's original theater space, there's a pleasant 327-seat layout surrounding a thrust stage. Here's where you'll find the prime cuts at the Shaw and the most intimate presentations. The protein isn't served up with the same technical sizzle you see down in Stratford. With Shaw's Widowers' Houses on my plate, the depth of the acting and the playwright's ideas were quite sufficient. GBS's first play is surprisingly well-crafted, with an absorbing plot, well-rounded antagonists, and a provocative inversion of normal happy endings. Jim Mezon delivers a riveting performance as Sartorius, a demonic slumlord who keeps rentals reasonable for the poor by ruthlessly neglecting upkeep and maintaining inhuman living conditions. Lisa Norton is nicely neurotic as the capitalist's pampered daughter, and Dylan Trowbridge is passionately corruptible as Dr. Harry Trench, the would-be idealist who falls in love with her.

Supporting characters are tellingly pointed: Patrick Galligan as Trench's fastidious mentor and Peter Millard as Sartorius' opportunistic lackey, Lickcheese.

There hasn't been a scrap of Sean O'Casey in the 16 years that I've reviewed theater here in Charlotte. So I wasn't turning back for home without seeing The Plough and the Stars, even if we did have to pay for preview tickets. Watching the Easter 1916 uprising come to life, I was quite content with my investment. Neil Munro directs with a keen sense for dramatic pacing, imaginatively utilizing Cameron Porteous' hardscrabble set while treading softly on the terrorism theme. The resonance with our post-9/11 world happens naturally, but we're still seeing O'Casey and Ireland instead of Munro. That's a handsome tribute to the work and its timelessness, beautifully accented by lighting designer Kevin Lamotte.
Slated to open on July 4, Plough was almost completely polished when my wife and I saw it 12 days earlier. Benedict Campbell won my pity as the backsliding drunkard Fluther. Simon Bradbury as the irascible revolutionary Peter Flynn was a superb foil for his Marxist tormentor, the Young Covey of Ben Carlson. Wendy Thatcher was a delightfully thorny monarchist as Ms. Burgess, softening beautifully after the carnage begins. But I do wish Munro would take Kelli Fox aside for a heart-to-heart. Her intensity as the downtrodden widow Mrs. Grogan is arresting, but the Irish accent is thicker than three-day-old porridge and mostly unintelligible. We're missing key exposition as a result.

Royal George Theater

Something's screwy here. The Campaign for the Shaw is trying to raise $30 million to upgrade Festival Theater, the best facility at the Shaw, while nobody seems concerned about the woeful inadequacies of this quaint 328-seat bandbox. Peep in on the current production of On the 20th Century, and the embarrassment is palpable. Large chunks of this Comden & Green musical are supposed to occur in adjoining sleeper cars of a legendary luxury train. Yet the bustling actors in Yvonne Sauriol's impoverished set design must execute their comedy shtick while miming the walls and doors of the adjoining rooms. Thousands of spectators who have never seen this musical before won't comprehend what's going on. Or where. CP Summer Theater delivered a more realistic simulation of the 20th Century train at Pease Auditorium in their 1992 production, and CP's pickup band of paid musicians playing the Cy Coleman score was easily the equal of the ShawFest's 10-man orchestra under Paul Sportelli. The talent level onstage and the directorial style of Valerie Moore and Patricia Hamilton scarcely inspire more confidence. Putting it bluntly, this is second-rate summer stock that deserves to be buried deep in the Catskills. Small stage, small theater, and small budget, hammed up for an audience that's presumed not to know better.

You'll get a smoother ride at the George in the simpler one-set production of Blood Relations. Canadian playwright Sharon Pollock constructs an interesting reprise of the sensational Lizzie Borden murder case, retold in retirement by Lizzie in an encounter with her actress girlfriend at the Fall River, Massachusetts, family home she allegedly axed for. It would be overpraising Blood Relations to say that it was either shocking or profound. But Pollack keeps us engrossed with her research and her convincing portrait of the tensions and personalities in the Borden household. Eda Holmes directs with a sure hand, designer William Schmuck has an unerring feel for the period, and the well-chosen cast are all festival topliners.

Festival Theater

In fact, five of the seven actors who wowed me at a Saturday matinee performance of Blood Relations greeted me in bravura fashion that same evening at the big house in GBS's Misalliance. Design and direction, by Peter Hartwell and Neil Munro respectively, bordered deliciously on the perverse but puzzlingly out-of-sync. While it's often said that Shaw's characters are nothing more than the playwright's mouthpieces (cf. the famed Hirschfeld drawing for the My Fair Lady cast album), the Shaw Festival is the last place you'd expect such sacrilege. Yet Hartwell literally scribbles over his parchment-hued set design for John Tarleton's Surrey home, flooding the stage with meaningless calligraphy. Pointing up Shaw's subtitle, "A Debate in One Sitting," Hartwell deploys two lecterns in perfect symmetry in front of Tarleton's imposing bookcases. At odd moments, Munro deploys his characters to these lecterns, where they discover their next lines by reading them from the script!

Trouble is, Munro neglects this gimmick for most of the first half of Shaw's comedy when it's desperately needed to dispel the talky tedium. Then when an old school buddy and a mysterious Polish aviatrix crash into the Tarleton greenhouse, jumpstarting the plot, Munro can't get enough of his lectern artificiality.

The Shaw ensemble triumphs over the added adversities. After thrilling us as the actress in Blood Relations, Laurie Paton Slavically seduced us as GBS's leather-clad daredevil. The smoldering menace of Jane Perry as Lizzie in the matinee was shed that same evening for the effervescent caprice of Tarleton's beguiling daughter. No less remarkable were the transformations of Sharry Flett, Lorne Kennedy, and Michael Ball as they crossed the Atlantic during dinnertime from New England to Surrey. So while an overreaching director labored to reduce his players to Shavian marionettes, this artful quintet of actors was upstaging him with their versatility. What a delightful reversal!

Over morning coffee, fruit compote, and omelets, the buzz at our bed & breakfast for Chekhov's Three Sisters was more positive. If you've never seen this gem of Russian melancholia, I'd guess it's a better way to make your acquaintance with the Festival Theater.

From July 11 through August 2, there's an interesting pairing at the Shaw as Brian Friel's Afterplay begins a series of performances at the Court House. Given its American premiere at Spoleto last year, Friel's intriguing one-act pairs the dissolute brother Andrey from Chekhov's Three Sisters with the pathetically unloved Sonia from Uncle Vanya. While the Sisters wonder why they suffer for the last time on August 2, Andrey lingers in the lunchtime Afterplay through September 20, 2003.



Key Subjects: 
Canada; Ontario, Shaw Festival, Stratford Festival
Perry Tannenbaum
July 2003
Ontario's Vintage Theater Festivals