Sunday, October 14, 2018

Reflecting on the 2018 Stratford Festival Season

Michael Walton and Bretta Gerecki's light and set design
for later scenes in The Tempest.
This was a particularly strong season for the Stratford Festival, visible in the extension of at least four shows into the beginning of November and in the case of Rocky Horror, even to the end of November (which I don’t think has happened before). With today’s performance of Julius Caesar, I have now seen every show. Here is how it has settled for me, as the season winds into its autumn days, and the gold light and leaves along the river remind us that all glorious things must transition on. I don’t believe in “bests” because all criticism is subjective. I choose to use here “Favourite” instead.

Favourite Opening:
The opening sequence from Music Man, where more than a dozen performers simulate the movement of a train with its passengers, and the train itself, while involved in very complex repetitive song/dialogue. This was my first show and a knockout way for me to begin my season. Donna Feore has become increasingly formal, to my mind, in her quest for perfection, but this is an amazing example of what can be achieved by it.

Favourite Production Design Moment:
The Tempest, in which a catastrophic storm reveals an impressive webbed net of tree roots to be swarming the balcony and its passthrough underneath. This moment formed part of an opening that was a beautiful combination of both lighting (Michael Walton) and production design (Bretta Gerecki) and one of the only times in a production of this play that I truly felt the terror that we are meant to have. Without that terror, the magic of the island and the capacity for transformation cannot happen.

Favourite Ensemble Acting Work:
Hands down, Long Day's Journey Into Night. The torturous realities of the addictions which both mask and stimulate family dynamics has never been (to my viewing) more beautifully realized by a company of actors: Seana McKenna, Scott Wentworth, Gordon S. Miller, Charlie Gallant and Amy Keating, directed by Miles Potter. Without meaning to really single anyone out, this was a moment of awakening for me about the gifts of Miller. James Jr. is a thankless role that he brought a capacious and broken heart to. (As a note: for me Coriolanus and Long Day's Journey are opposite ends of the spectrum of what theatre can be: exhiliratingly innovative and traditional in the very best sense.)

Favourite Subversive Moments:
The Rocky Horror Show in about ten places. This incredibly tight and beautifully realized production opened the lid on all of the subversive undercurrents of the play and the film, while losing none of the playfulness. In an era when gender identity and the malevolence of inappropriate human sexual behaviour are in the public discourse, this production marvellously freed us from the strain of that, to laugh at the ‘horror’ that exists within us all and perhaps, as a result, making us a bit more in touch with it. Runner up on favourite ensemble work.

Favourite Supporting Performance & Overall Set Design:

I was moved by Tom Rooney’s quiet beautiful indignation as Riccardo Spasiano in Napoli Milionaria, the physician who is oppressed by the family matriarch and suffers deeply at her hand, but offers redemption later. This set by Julie Fox was also my favourite design of the season, ranging from the exquisite clotheslines of the opening to the cave-like home of the family which changes over time but never quite loses its sense of humble beginnings. I loved the presence of the street behind the door, with its votive Mary alcove always visible.

Favourite Unexpected Pleasure:
An Ideal Husband belongs to a genre of theatre that typically I don’t enjoy as much as others: the drawing room comedy. I was compelled to it by the Oscar Wilde factor and Wilde himself is mocking the form here — gently and with affection. The use of doors opening and closing, secrets concealed and exposed reminded me of the best of Ernst Lubitsch films, and Lezlie Wade’s production underscores the idea that revelations of plot are as much about character depth as they are about the webbings of intrigue. I sat very close at this show, and was also enchanted by production design — such a strong year for design at Stratford!

Favourite Innovation:
Coriolanus was astonishing in its scope and vision, its desire to re-invent a very complex and challenging piece of the Shakespeare canon into a multi-layered (and not just multi-media’d) revelation on the escalating and rapidly dangerous consequences of ambition. Loved the rolling sets, but in particular the moment where Coriolanus’ son plays with army soldiers while we see a projection, video game style, of what such ‘play’ truly represents. Robert Lepage also made the play remarkably contemporary, not just through modern settings, but modern contexts and cultural idioms. A sports bar will never be the same for me again.

Favourite Iconic Moment:
The death of Julius Caesar is one of the most telegraphed scenes in all of Shakespeare and yet in today’s production, it took me completely by surprise. The sudden cascade of rose petals in an otherwise spare production design, and the subsequent dipping hands in blood by the murderers isolated this event from its surroundings exactly as it should be. It is not just a plot point but an upheaval, a shifting of tectonic plates. The casual anger with which the men have planned it is disrupted by the event itself, ramping up the sense that we are in for ’consequences’. The ‘Et Tu Brute?’ had an unusually subtle pathos, as staged by Scott Wentworth and acted by Seana McKenna and Jonathan Goad. A tip of the hat to the large number of understudies in play today — but for the programme notice, we would not have known.

Favourite Non-Traditional Casting:
Comedy of Errors. I personally find the Studio at the Avon quite challenging to make work well for all audience members. The absence of the Patterson this year caused the festival to rely on this atelier space more than it might have usually. It is often highly priced as well, reflecting the production values that have been squeezed into its dynamics. Productions have to climb a higher rope to succeed there, to my mind, and this year I thought that only Long Day's Journey and Comedy of Errors made the space work. Keira Loughran’s direction in the latter, and particularly the use of levels, and the pacing of her production, allowed us to let go of some of the baggage of expectation with this old warhorse comedy of Shakespeareanna. The non-traditional casting seemed less intentional than in other productions (like Caesar and Paradise Lost) and somehow more natural and effective. We were allowed to just revel in the absurdities of relationships. I was particularly illuminated by this production in understanding that the play is indeed about relationships and how we perceive each other, in our close bonds, more than anything else. I believe the casting was a big part of that illumination.

Favourite Explorations:
Theatre should be about trying things on that are difficult and new, and not everything can work fully, or right away. We live in a thumbs-up and thumbs-down era, in which we seem to need to judge art immediately, tweet out our opinions, and be conclusive. Criticism needs to learn to be more constructively encouraging and reflective. Productions do not fail audiences, they challenge us to think about what has been unsatisfying and why. Audiences are not consumers, they are upholding their end of the bargain of being patient listeners and investors, people who still walk away thinking, even when not fully happy. This was my experience of Paradise Lost, Brontes: A World Without and To Kill A Mockingbird, though I have had conversations with individuals this summer who passionately loved each of these shows for good reasons. There were good ideas being explored by them all. I appreciated the desire to illuminate the nature of darkness and light in Paradise Lost. I loved the desire to make the Bronte sisters feel more like people we know and recognize and not just suffering geniuses. I thought the desire to keep vivid for us the historical context of Mockingbird was worth exploring, in contrast to the presence of the storyteller in the drama. All of these ideas were important to investigate.

The Stratford Festival offers us a chance to play in the imagination of contemporary creative artists. I am so grateful for how much this year they have educated my own imagination.