Wonderlust 2: O Canada

Touring the world-class theater in Toronto and the Stratford and Shaw festivals

By JON KRETZU

Whenever I mention to friends that I am heading off to Canada for one of my frequent visits to Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, or the Shaw and Stratford theater festivals, I get this sort of glazed-smile response from many of them. The kind of fixed approval I would get if I said I was taking up macramé or thinking of giving up theater to get into macrobiotic farming.

I spend a lot of time explaining the multiple charms and satisfying delights of spending time with our neighbors to the north – and I don’t mind a bit. Canada is an undiscovered treasure to many Americans, and I am happy to share its considerable attributes.

Jared Grove/ikimedia Commons

Jared Grove/Wikimedia Commons

Canada is like a looking-glass world: it looks like many parts of the United States, but it very clearly isn’t the U.S. The landscape seems more wide and open. The people are full of bonhomie: refreshingly open and truly welcoming. Nature is in beautiful abundance, and the country’s politics and way of life are humane and intelligent. It is a country that still reads and enjoys healthy debate and engaging conversation. It is also deeply respectful of the performing arts. It is indeed a wonderful place to visit for pleasures large and small.

Canada is vast, and I have only scratched its surface, but it is definitely one of my favorite travel destinations. Vancouver and Victoria are both beautiful cities close by – and there is nothing quite like the gorgeous expanse of the Canadian Rockies and Banff National Park, as well as the charming, surprisingly arts- and theater-centric cities of Edmonton and Calgary.

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But it is Ontario that truly has my heart. It is a uniquely vibrant and lovely province that is filled to bursting with wonderful cities and artistic centers. I keep going back because of the warmth and generosity of my many friends there, the natural beauty of its surroundings, the excitement of its unique cities, and the world-class quality of its theaters.

Toronto's refurbished Nathan Phillips Square, with City Hall and Old City Hall. Photo 2011 by Paolo Costa Baldi. License: GFDL/CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons

Toronto’s refurbished Nathan Phillips Square, with City Hall and Old City Hall. Photo 2011 by Paolo Costa Baldi. License: GFDL/CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons

Toronto has stood in for so many major American cities in the movies and on television that it instantly feels familiar. It is an extraordinary city with everything you could want in a major metropolis: vast parks, glittering downtown areas, awesome restaurants, delightfully quaint neighborhoods in every possible urban style, fun and fanciful architecture, and a multitude of venues that celebrate the performing arts.

Toronto is also home to one of my favorite repertory theaters – the Soulpepper Theatre Company. Founded in the late 1990s by a talented group of actors and directors (many of them from the Stratford Festival), it has grown into a unique and thrilling company led by its charismatic and passionate artistic director, Albert Schultz. Soulpepper presents an ambitious season of classics and new works by playwrights from around the world, with a definite focus on Canadian writers. The season is presented in a true rotating rep, similar in feel and style to London’s Royal National Theatre, in two lovely, intimate theatres within the welcoming surroundings of the Young Performing Arts Center in the city’s bustling Distillery district.

Raquel Duffy and Damien Atkins in "Angels in America" at Toronto's Soulpepper. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Raquel Duffy and Damien Atkins in “Angels in America” at Toronto’s Soulpepper. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

I have seen a lot of beautiful work at Soulpepper, including a detailed, multi-layered Angels in America (last year’s widely praised production has just returned for a limit engagement); searing productions of Death Of A Salesman, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and The Crucible; and the most heartbreaking and gorgeous production of The Glass Menagerie I ever hope to see – a production that danced circles around this season’s overhyped and overpraised Broadway production. The actors and directors at Soulpepper believe with their very core that theater is created by individuals who come together to create an ensemble with honesty and passion. They believe that theater matters, and their work is a constant inspiration.

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If you love France, as I do, then I urge you to explore the Gallic delights of Montreal and Quebec City, two unique cities that celebrate the French Canadian way of life and sensibilities. Both cities feature a striking contrast between an ultra-modernist feel with Old Town areas full of atmosphere and charm. The Old City center of Quebec is particularly lovely – the closest thing you will find to a quaint little French town on this continent. This walled city on top of a picturesque mountain is honeycombed with cobblestone streets, shops, bars, patisseries, cafés, and multiple places to explore: it is a city to lose yourself in and find romance at every twist and turn.

Montreal's busy Bernard Avenue. © Tourisme Montréal, Mario Melillo

Montreal’s busy Bernard Avenue. © Tourisme Montréal, Mario Melillo

For the true theater maven, though, there is one overriding reason for traveling to Ontario: to make a pilgrimage to those twin bastions of classical theater, The Shaw Festival (in picturesque Niagara-on-the-Lake) and the largest theater company in North America, The Stratford Festival. Yes, it’s a longer trek than driving from Portland to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, and I would never try to talk you out of your annual visit(s) down there, especially during OSF’s current renaissance under the inspired leadership of Bill Rauch. But if you love Ashland, you will adore Stratford and Shaw.

Both are relatively easy to get to. Take a surprisingly affordable Jet Blue flight to Buffalo, N.Y. Then rent a car there and head over the border. Stop on the way for a look at Niagara Falls: it’s truly breathtaking, in a picture-postcard awesome kind of way. If you love kitsch, by all means enjoy the insanity of the tourist megalopolis that is Clifton Hill above the Falls. If cheesy haunted houses, wax museums and super-tacky places to lose money aren’t your thing, then proceed on the 20-minute drive to Niagara-on-the-Lake and find a true Brigadoon of a village. The drive alone is worth the trip: it meanders through lovely valleys dotted with cottages, wineries, orchards, roadside fruit stands, and bakeries.

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At the Shaw: Deborah Hay (Sally Bowler), Jacqueline Thair (Lulu), Tess Benger (Texas), Julian Molnar (Rosie) in "Cabaret." Background: Gray Powell (Cliff Bradshaw), Julian Molnar (Klown). Photo: Emily Cooper

At the Shaw: Deborah Hay (Sally Bowler), Jacqueline Thair (Lulu), Tess Benger (Texas), Julian Molnar (Rosie) in “Cabaret.” Background: Gray Powell (Cliff Bradshaw), Julian Molnar (Klown). Photo: Emily Cooper

The Shaw Festival’s hometown of Niagara-on-the-Lake, with a population of about 15,000,  is a haven for those who love B and Bs, shops, cafés, and parks: undeniably charming and quaint, it is Disneyland for adults.

The festival has just begun its fifty-second season of presenting the works of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries in rotating rep. Its season runs from late spring through fall in the festival’s four beautiful theatres. I have been going there for around 10 years and, and while the work can be uneven and not always inspired, there is usually enough fine work on view to make a visit worthwhile – especially in surroundings as restful and welcoming as these.

The most enjoyable productions I have seen at the Shaw are the smaller or more offbeat ones. In recent seasons these have included such rarely produced gems as Somerset Maugham’s Our Betters, Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble In Tahiti, William Inge’s Come Back Little Sheba, Terrence Rattigan’s After The Dance, and Lennox Robinson’s Drama At Inish. I’ve also seen larger delights such as Deborah Hay’s delicious star turns in Born Yesterday and My Fair Lady; Peter Hinton’s fascinating direction of Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan; a bracing, in-your-face account of Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money; and Noel Coward’s complete nine-play opus Tonight at 8:30.

Shaw at the Shaw: Kate Besworth (Raina Petkoff) and Martin Happer (Major Sergius Saranoff) in "Arms and theMan." Photo: Emily Cooper

Shaw at the Shaw: Kate Besworth (Raina Petkoff) and Martin Happer (Major Sergius Saranoff) in “Arms and theMan.” Photo: Emily Cooper

The 2014 season has just begun and, as usual, it is filled with things I am looking forward to catching. The always fascinating Peter Hinton has directed a production of Cabaret that is already garnering lots of controversy. Edward Bond’s The Sea and J.B. Priestley’s When We Are Married are the kind of rarities the Shaw does well, and the always enjoyable The Philadelphia Story should show the company off well. Shaw is represented by The Philanderer and Arms And The Man, and there are also promising productions of Juno and the Paycock and The Mountaintop in the mix.

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The Stratford Festival is about 90 minutes from the Shaw, in the lovely little city of Stratford, Ontario. The parallels between Ashland and Stratford are striking and fascinating. Both companies were homegrown in small, secluded farming towns in the middle of relatively nowhere by men with a passionate dream: Angus Bowmer in Ashland, and Tom Patterson in Stratford.

Sanjay Talwar as Tweedledee, Trish Lindstrom as Alice, and Mike Nadajewski as Tweedledum in this season's "Alice Through the Looking-Glass" at Stratford. Photo: Sanjay Talwar as Tweedledee, Trish Lindström as Alice and Mike Nadajewski as Tweedledum in Alice Through the Looking-Glass." Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

Sanjay Talwar as Tweedledee, Trish Lindstrom as Alice, and Mike Nadajewski as Tweedledum in this season’s “Alice Through the Looking-Glass” at Stratford. Photo: Sanjay Talwar as Tweedledee, Trish Lindström as Alice and Mike Nadajewski as Tweedledum in Alice Through the Looking-Glass.” Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

Founded in 1953, eighteen years after OSF’s first season and a decade before the Shaw’s, the Stratford Festival presents a wide variety of plays – everything from classics (with a heavy leaning on Shakespeare) to musicals and world premieres – in four wonderful theaters that range from the incomparable Festival Theatre (the model for a multitude of contemporary theatre spaces) to the exquisite gilt-and-velvet candy box of the Avon Theatre, the unique tennis-court setting of the Tom Patterson, and the intimacy of the Studio.

The village-like Stratford, with a population of about 31,000, is as bucolic a place as you could hope for. It has a wealth of bed-and-breakfasts, lodges, shops, and fine restaurants, as well as the romantic expanse of the Avon River with its willows, flower-bedecked lampposts, footbridges, iron benches, and omnipresent swans and ducklings. Strolling along the riverbank before going to see a show at the Festival or Tom Patterson theater is simply one of the best times of my year.

I have been going to Stratford for a decade now and, even though I deeply regret missing many of the company’s past seasons (particularly the Robin Phillips years), I have seen a wealth of world-class work here. Yes, there are a few productions each season that are limp, uninspired or just plain terrible miscalculations. But that is almost to be expected when you are producing 14 to 15 productions a year in four spaces with a huge company of actors, directors, designers, and crew, and also running a professional theater academy.

Tyrone Savage as Simon Bliss in this season's "Hay Fever" at Stratford. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Tyrone Savage as Simon Bliss in this season’s “Hay Fever” at Stratford. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

I have seen a multitude of unforgettable productions during my visits, including The Tempest (with Canadian legend WIlliam Hutt in his final stage appearance), Coriolanus, A Delicate Balance, The Dutchess of Malfi, Hamlet, West Side Story (the finest production of that show I ever hope to see), Dangerous Liaisons, The Importance of Being Earnest (headlined by Brian Bedford’s Lady Bracknell  – transvestism at its glorious height), The Matchmaker, Blithe Spirit, and Peter Hinton’s exquisite Into The Woods, a production that has haunted me ever since.

The current season, under the thoughtful and talented artistic leadership of Antoni Cimolino, is full of promise. The season, which has just opened and will continue through October, reads, as most Stratford seasons do, as a compendium of some the world’s greatest works of dramatic literature. Imagine a single season that includes King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Hay Fever, Man of La Mancha, Alice Through the Looking Glass, the Gershwins’ Crazy For You, King John, The Beaux’ Strategem, Mother Courage, and two, count ’em, two versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: one a “traditional” version (already receiving very controversial reviews) and a sure-to-be-talked-about four-person “chamber” version in a found space, directed by the always fascinating Peter Sellars.

I can’t wait.

And neither should you.

See you at Tim Hortons!

The ubiquitous and very Canadian Tim Hortons fast-food house. This one's in Stratford. Photo: Nate Enyedi/Wikimedia Commons

The ubiquitous and very Canadian Tim Hortons fast-food house. This one’s in Stratford. Photo: Nate Enyedi/Wikimedia Commons

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Jon Kretzu was the associate artistic director at Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland for 20 years, where he had a very enjoyable time directing 50 productions. He is enjoying life as a freelance director, with upcoming productions in Seattle, San Francisco, and Richmond, Virginia, as well as traveling the globe and writing about it for Oregon ArtsWatch. Read his  report from earlier this year on theater in London, New York, and Stratford, England.

 

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