The late, great classical actress Dame Judith Anderson once said about the theater that “When the lights go down, the pulse goes up.” It’s apt, for actors and audiences alike.
Anderson’s belief fits Canada’s famed international Stratford Festival perfectly, particularly for its new season – 13 plays in four theaters in this western Ontario village through late October. Some celebrate 400 years of William Shakespeare’s legacy, others are an American classic, a journey to Narnia, Moliere at his funniest, a Stephen Sondheim musical and a “reworked,” Henrik Ibsen drama that sounds dour but intriguing.
Here’s a snapshot of Stratford’s 2016 slate of plays:
• Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino likes to build his season around a theme. This year it is “Victories of all kinds – military, personal, spiritual or moral, some over others, a few over adversity, even one or two over our own human nature.” There might be an “OK, I’ve won …now what?” edge to some of the plays, Pyrrhic victories, too costly. And so, to Cimolino, it’s “not the struggle against an external foe but the conflict within,” adding that “humanity is the ultimate battlefield.”
Thus, there is a dark and murderous “Macbeth” now playing on the Festival mainstage, along with the frothy, cross-dressing, Forest of Arden romp, “As You Like It.” The highly anticipated “Breath of Kings” follows. The two-part “distillation” by Graham Abbey, titled “Rebellion” and “Redemption,” have Richard II and a pair of Henry’s, IV and V, at war with themselves. Both open both June 22 in the Tom Patterson.
• Continuing Shakespeare’s season-long tribute, Declan Donnellian directs the North American stage bow of “Shakespeare in Love,” based on the screenplay. It’s young Shakespearians here, aiding The Bard in the throes of writer’s block; it’s now at The Avon.
• There are two musicals. Now on the mainstage is a “re-imagining” of “A Chorus Line,” Buffalo-born Michael Bennett’s brilliant paean to dance and dancers. Donna Feore directs and choreographs. Composer Sondheim sends in the clowns at The Avon with “A Little Night Music,” opening June 21.
• Wonder, awe and imagination are on stage at The Avon, with “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe,” the C. S. Lewis allegory, performed here by Schulich Children’s Plays. It’s directed by Tim Carroll, the newly appointed artistic director of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival who takes the reins in 2017.
• American playwright Arthur Miller’s intense story of unspoken family secrets, “All My Sons,” is now at the Tom Patterson with festival favorites Joseph Ziegler and doyenne Lucy Peacock. The estimable Martha Henry directs.
• Four diverse plays open in August. Cimolino directs the marvelously foolish Stephen Ouimette in a mainstage Moliere farce, “The Hypochondriac,” opening Aug. 18. One of Ibsen’s last plays, the realistic “John Gabriel Borkman,” disgrace and greed at the core, has an all-star Stratford cast. It opens Aug. 19 at The Tom Patterson. “The Aeneid,” a story of survival (Aug. 19), and the world premiere of “Bunny” (Aug. 18) about a woman’s quest for fulfilment, are both at The Studio, home for the experimental and the new.
In addition to the 13-play season, nearly 200 forums, lobby talks, lectures, discussion groups and workshops – “songs, speeches and scenes” – are available throughout the summer and fall.
Stratford is about a 2 hour, 30 minute drive from downtown Buffalo, a series of highways, culminating in some bucolic surroundings. For information (ask for a brochure), call (800) 567-1600 or visit stratfordfestival.com