Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 30, 2013

Canadian Mission: To visit the Top 10 English-speaking theatre cities in the world

By Shera Cohen

My mission was not an easy task for a white-knuckle flyer. Yet, after my journeys to New York City, then London, Toronto was next. There were many weeks of arrangements: booking the cheapest, direct flight on a name-brand airline; travel within Canada that included every mode of transportation except boat; lodging in Tripadvisor recommended hotels; and most important, choosing the plays and other cultural destinations.

I had always wanted to attend the Stratford Festival, near Toronto. In googling the particulars, I discovered the Shaw Festival, also near Toronto and at the same time of year. With Toronto in the middle, as Stratford and Shaw were each 90 minutes travel on either side, the trip beckoned to me.

There were no “falls” to be seen from Niagara-on-the-Lake, home of the Shaw Festival. Who needed a noisy water backdrop when enjoying one of the quaintest towns and best theatre series on the continent? Shaw’s two venues, within walking distance of each other, offered plays by George Bernard as well as other writers whose works were of the same era and/or style.

Having traveled all day, we started with only one play, Shaw’s classic “Major Barbara” at the Royal George Theatre – an ornate venue built in 1915. Onto “Our Betters” the next day and “Lady Windermere’s Fan” that night. After the matinee, it was a thrill to receive a private tour by Shaw’s publicity director, particularly to see the inner workings of changing sets. Shaw is a repertory company, meaning that actors perform in at least two plays and sets transform from one to another within hours. This task is so well choreographed that the “dance” does not skip a beat in presenting a perfectly crafted stage. Overnight, “Barbara” turned into “Guys & Dolls.” In a rush to catch a train, we thought of skipping “Guys,” but that would have been a shame, as this was the best production of the musical that I’d ever seen. Shaw Festival hosts 10 plays and ends October 27, 2013.

Onto Toronto to primarily visit some “buildings”; i.e. the world-famous Royal Museum of Ontario, the Bata Shoe Museum (not-just-for-shoe-lovers), the Toronto Reference Library (largest in the world), and “the castle around the corner” – Casa Loma. BTW, you know those hokey double-decker tour buses? We tried it, finding the trips fun and funny, depending on your effervescent college-age guide. Fitting in at least one play was a must. The Young Arts Center’s performance of a shaved-down Broadwayesque version of “The Barber of Seville” was a hoot.

We trained it to Stratford Festival for five plays, two of which were by the Bard. Like Shaw, the actors are in repertory, as is the crew. Performing two plays, some on the same day, is a task for only the best stage actors, and Stratford is a standout in this respect. First up at Stratford was “Fiddler on the Roof.” As with “Guys & Dolls,” I wondered how I could ever appreciate yet another “Fiddler”. And, as with “Guys,” this was the best version of “Fiddler” I’ve ever experienced. Next, the matinee of “The Three Musketeers.” Perhaps planned as a play for school kids (there were a lot in the audience), “Musketeers” was every bit as much for adults, myself included, who enjoyed the plot, scenery, humor, and intricately designed sword fights.

Shakespeare, of course, was a must see. The afternoon’s depiction of the tried and true “Romeo and Juliet” was followed by the evening’s execution of “Mary Stuart.” No lavish staging was necessary for either production, as the scenery was minimal in each to focus on the performances. Although the two women rivals lived some 500 years ago, Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scotts could not have been more real. Stratford presents 12 plays on four stages and ends on October 19, 2013.

If this reads like a whirlwind 11 days, it was. I will schedule some down time in the future, not to mention time to eat at a real restaurant. BWT, the Canadians are sincerely the nicest people on this or any other continent. Not only did they give us directions (we frequently got lost), but usually took us to our destinations.

Sydney, Australia is #4 on the list of theatre cities, but that’s a flight that I don’t think I’m ready for. Maybe I won’t travel in chronological order?

Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
We begin the Shaw Festival with Shaw. Not to be repetitive, but that seems the best place to start.

“Major Barbara,” penned in 1905, and set in that era, compares a family of means with the lower classes. Our heroine Barbara, is idealistic, stubborn, and/or na├»ve about her ability to make a difference in the world. She scoffs at her trappings to become a soldier in the Salvation Army. The subject is money, how it’s made, and what it can and can’t do. Could one’s bank account save a soul? Toss politics and war into the mix, as Shaw not so subtlety comments on social differences.

Common to each of the Shaw Festival plays is the exceptional qualities of their actors. From star to the smallest role, these are consummate performers. Also, because of the company is repertory, one play’s leading man is the next day’s play’s butler.

“Our Betters,” by W. Somerset Maugham in 1915, is similar in concept concerning social differences and the necessity of pretense and even deceit to climb the ladder of success. Our dubious and clever Bessie is a winsome manipulator ever aware of the social mores and life (everyone drinks tea a lot, then plays tennis), division of the classes and sexes. Women of means go to the highest male bidder. But Bessie is a smart cookie, and it’s fun to watch the gears in her head move precisely as her plans unfold.

Another commonality of the Festival’s Shaw plays (written by Shaw or others) is their staging. “Barbara” and “Betters” take place at the Royal George Theatre. Amazingly, the first play’s set, with lots of scaffolding and steel, is carefully dismantled to be replaced by the next afternoon’s play depicting a full living room of the early 1900’s.

“Lady Windermere’s Fan,” written by Oscar Wilde in 1892, literally graces the stage of the Festival Theatre (the largest and newest Shaw venue). Beginning with tableaus and window-like boxes on a white set, the audience is allowed to slowly examine the lives of three people, first superficially, then under a magnifying glass. The white images become grey, just as the characters morph from flat to detailed and bumpy. Interestingly, Wilde makes fun of himself in the text, as depicted by a bored fop.

“Guys and Dolls,” the musical based on Damon Runyon stories, brings the streets and underground of New York City alive because “in the ring” it’s gambling vs. religion. Once again, the Salvation Army tries to come to the rescue of sinners. Just as the title states, this show’s script is familiar – guy gets girl, guy loses girl, you know the drill, although in this case, there are two pair. I’ve probably seen “Guys” eight times. After enjoying the thrill of the music and exceptional dance, I seem to have forgotten the seven previous productions.

Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ontario
Not that we planned it on purpose, but our scheduled week just happened to be the week of opening nights.

“Fiddler on the Roof,” inspired by stories of Sholem Aleichem, shows off the superior talents of actors, musicians, singers, and choreographer. The audience cares about the life of Tevya and his family living in Russia which is as uncertain and precarious as a fiddler on the roof. I’m not sure what’s in the water in Ontario that makes their musicals so sweet, but this was surely the finest and most emotional “Fiddler” that I have seen. And my “Fiddler” tally is above 10.

Stratford, like Shaw, hosts plays in two main theatres. “Fiddler,” set in the huge Festival Theatre, permits the large cast of leading characters and those portraying town folks to spread out as they create their home – their village of Anatevka.

“The Three Musketeers,” adapted from Alexandre Dumas’ novel, leaps onto the Festival Theatre stage for a fun matinee for all – like the line, “All for one, and one for all.” Stratford could have easily presented a less than lavish show, because kid audiences will like it no matter what the scenery, but they opt for nothing but the best in staging, actor skills, costume design, intriguing lighting, and dexterous carefully plotted sword fights. With 40 scenes, “Musketeers” is a big show.

“Measure for Measure” was the first Shakespeare play that we saw in Stratford. The performance in the smaller Tom Patterson Theatre, offers a different visual perspective on plays, as the stage juts out into the audience. Not one of the Bard’s often produced plays, perhaps because its ending is not a clear happy one (comedy) or one with bodies strewn on the floor (tragedy), it is more difficult. While not a Shakespeare purist, updating “Measure” to the 1940’s is a curious choice. The cast performs admirably.

“Romeo and Juliet” takes us to, perhaps, the most performed of any by Shakespeare. The essentially bare-bones staging focuses on the superior acting. Elizabethan era costumes are sumptuous, and the only nod to modern technology is the tomb scene where Juliet’s body, lying on a bier, rises. Actors play to the audience – the majority high school students – and several were so caught up in the play, they were heard to shout, “No, no, don’t do that,” as Romeo drinks the poison.

Important about Shaw and Stratford is the variety available. On any given day at either venue there can be eight events; i.e. six plays and two forums/lectures/talks.

Photo by Don Dixon
“Mary Stuart,” by Friedrich Schiller, tops off our working vacation with “best in show.” Appropriately staged in the intimate Patterson Theatre, is the fictionalized portrait of the conflict between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots; in other words, Protestantism vs. Catholicism. A tour-de-force by the two lead actresses gives the audience a look into16th century politics and religion. At the crux of the story is the relationship between two women, both strong-willed, yet with human weaknesses which they use against each other.