As we crossed the well-named Blue River Bridge over the St. Clair River from Port Huron, MI to Sarnia, ON Canada, we breathed the clean gun-less air of our northern neighbor. Sister-in-law, Norah, and I were on a five-day jaunt from Chicago to the eponymous Stratford Theater Festival. Leaving the pot-holed, patchwork that is interstate in Michigan, we cruised along the forever smooth asphalt of rural Ontario.
Agriculture is the main product of SE Ontario – fields are neat and fertile, full of corn still to be harvested in mid-October. There is nary a billboard or piece of litter. Large barns are badged with quilt symbols, proclaiming family heritage. It’s just about two hours from the crossing to our destination.
We’d reserved a two-bedroom Airbnb at the Bradshaw Lofts in Stratford. It’s an old factory converted into apartments – some occupied by real folks; others housing people like us, in town for culture and poutine.
We were about two miles from the main Festival theater, one mile from the in-town Festival theaters. The apartment was not very large, but it was quiet and ok. It was located right on the bus line, offered plenty of parking, and a wonderful small café/coffee shop in the lower level. We did not need to eat anywhere else, though we did.
The event offers good theater, all the time. I recall friends telling me about Stratford 30 plus years ago. Back then it seemed Shakespeare oriented and not my interest. But three years ago, my DBH (Dearly Beloved Husband) and I escaped into the world of Tim Horton and Stratford.
Vowing to do this at the lowest cost, we stayed at a cheap and cheerful motel, a brief drive away from the theaters. We bought the cheapest seats possible – and had a wonderful time.
We took a sheep dip in Stratford culture, binged on theater, and vowed to return. We booked tickets early in 2021 (saves $$) rented an Airbnb within walking distance of the theaters, and Covid took away our joy. My husband passed away before we could return, so sister-in-law, Norah, and I scheduled a 2022 visit. And we both came down with Covid. Cancelled again.
The folks at the Stratford Festival are the best. As are the Airbnb folks in Stratford. They made everything easy-peazy. We finally made it in October 2022. Here’s a sampling of our theater adventures.
This was the world première of Jordi Mand’s new stage adaptation, directed by Esther Jun.
We were fortunate to attend a matinee on a weekday – high school heaven. Leave it to the Canadians, whether from private or public schools, the teens were well-behaved, appreciative, and polite. They seemed to enjoy the musical. We didn’t have close seats, so at the interval, the usher seated me mid-orchestra center. Great seat in the middle of the teens. Aside from a few whispers, it was heaven. (Yes, the ushers in Stratford do things like ask you if your seat is ok, and if not, they try to reseat you!)
Mand breathed a lot of life into 2.5 hours, radically simplifying the plot of Little Women. But, a picture is worth 1,000 words, and on the stage, not much was missed. The music added impact to what could have been dry narrative. Recommended, especially for teens and inexperienced theater goers. I expect this will become a favorite for high school theater groups.
That evening (we try to double up each day), we saw Richard III – one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains. Remarkable staging. Dramatically thrust stage, with steeply raked seats on three sides. When the play opened, the stage was littered with construction paraphernalia, plastic sheets attached to scaffolding, and dirt.
A TV reporter and cameraman stood by a deep hole and interviewed an archeologist who had just verified that the body buried in the carpark is indeed that of King Richard. And, as they left the stage, Richard III, in his battle armor ascended the steps from the hole and the play began.
It was a brilliant production. We were in the Tom Patterson Theater, constructed with every bell and whistle that contemporary productions could want. And the Stratford staff knew how to use them.
The next day, we did the matinee of Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka. This is the story of the death of a Nigerian king in colonial-era Nigeria. His right-hand-man, Elesin, the King’s Horseman, returns to the community per the death ritual. Elesin must commit suicide and be buried with his leader.
At the same time, his son returns from school in England. He knows the fate that awaits his father. The local British District Officer, Simon Pilkings, learns of the intended suicide, arrests Elesin and prevents what Pilkings considers to be barbaric sacrifice. It’s a classic case of white-man’s logic and the law of unintended consequences.
This play was long and lugubrious. Much attention was paid to ceremony, especially among the women who praise Elesin, even giving him a virgin for his last sexual expression. I admire Soyinka’s intent in the play but felt like I was stuck in my Catholic Church in the 50s during Good Friday’s three-hour service.
Perhaps no one had the fortitude to tell her she spent too much time building the cultural stature of Elesin, a less than stellar person, and not enough on the Colonial British/Nigerian disparate sense of person, place, and history. I did learn from the story.
The Miser by Moliere was fun. And who should be playing the Miser, but Richard III, Colm Feore, a star of Canadian stage and screen. The action took place at The Festival Theatre on a large, deep stage, with balconies, entrance and exit steps – lots or room for activity.
Updated to the early 20th century, the tale of the miser’s children, the unknown young stranger who falls in love with the daughter, the suspicious heiress, and the uncovering of new wealth and happiness came together nicely in this period piece. Nothing heavy but satisfying none the less.
Every day we were at the theaters, fellow patrons asked, “Have you been to Chicago?” Since we are from Chicago, I always answered, “Yes,” unaware they were asking if we had seen Chicago, the musical.
It was a big, rock ‘em, sock ‘em musical. Way overmiked, so every voice and instrument blared at the same level. Though Chicago is written to be performed a bit “over the top,” it has its subtle moments of emotion (Mr. Cellophane) which were lost in the chaos. So rather than discuss my lack of satisfaction with this production, when folks continued to ask if I’d been there, I’d respond, “That’s where we live.” And turn away from their questioning looks.
Lessons in Temperament, an Outside the March Production, monologue written and performed by James Smith, directed by Mitchell Cushman – a brief and tender dive into a difficult family.
We closely surrounded James Smith as he began to tune a piano on a slightly raised platform. The instrument was out of tune and with tuning fork and tuning wrench, he began the tedious process of pulling and releasing the stings. This became analogous to the pushes and pulls in his family.
He is the youngest of three boys – all grown. The oldest is schizophrenic, and leaves the family when James is still a child. The middle boy is autistic and remains in the family’s nest. James appears to be the sanest (what a joy for the parents), but he is strongly influenced by his brothers, their absence and presence.
If you read the book Hidden Valley Road, about a family of mostly schizophrenic boys, 10 of the 12 children, you get the drift. This is just kinder and gentler. An interesting hour to cap our six plays in four days.
Is Stratford worth a visit without the festival? Probably not worth an eight-hour drive, but there are lovely shops (especially at the theaters), fun restaurants (we ate vegan poutine), delightful residents, and in October, magnificent fall colors. If you are goofy about theater, this is a highly recommended trip. You can fly to Toronto, where you can catch one of the frequent busses from the airport and the city. Best of all, you can skip Tim Hortons.
The Stratford Festival 2023 calendar is out. See you there!
Have you been to a theater or film festival? What was the experience like? How many plays/films did you see? What event are you looking forward to this year?