The Stratford Shakespeare Festival of Ontario, Canada, which celebrated its 60th anniversary last summer and has been considered for decades the most prominent Shakespeare festival on this continent, recently shortened its name to simply the Stratford Festival. They haven't necessarily abandoned the Bard. In fact, four Shakespeare plays are being done there this summer, including Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice. But by the same token, it is entirely possible to visit Stratford and attend multiple shows without encountering Shakespeare, as I recently did.
The centerpiece of this year’s season is a supercharged, absolutely exhilarating revival of the rock opera The Who’s Tommy staged by Des McAnuff, who also directed the 1993 Broadway production. It is essentially a redo of the original Tommy with revamped and enhanced visual technology. After attending a Friday matinee of Tommy, I was compelled to see it again the following night, forcing me to skip Romeo and Juliet, which was panned by the local critics earlier in the summer.
Although Tommy is being eyed for a potential Broadway transfer, insiders still remember how McAnuff’s revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, which originated at Stratford two seasons ago, floundered on Broadway. Then again, in light of the relatively recent rebirth of the rock musical on Broadway, Tommy could conceivably fare better now than it did two decades ago.
Two-time Tony winner Brian Dennehy, now in his third season as part of the festival's resident acting company, plays the pompous and mysterious Pozzo in a flawless staging of Waiting for Godot and a nobleman in a similarly strong production of the political thriller Mary Stuart. I hear that Dennehy, who celebrated his 75th birthday a few weeks ago at Stratford, is a frequent visitor at the local Dairy Queen.
Other standouts this summer include an unusually exceptional Fiddler on the Roof – which comes as a welcome relief following that icky Broadway revival from a decade ago with Alfred Molina – and a brisk rendition of the Noel Coward farce Blithe Spirit directed by actor Brian Bedford, who had been slated to play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice but had to bow out due to health reasons.
This marks Anthoni Cimolino’s first year as the festival’s artistic director, having taken over for McAnuff. Here’s hoping that the future seasons at Stratford under his watch are just as eclectic in programming and vibrant in quality.
The 2014 season, which was recently announced, will revolve around a “madness” theme. Although I fail to see how the 90s Gershwin hit Crazy for You falls under that rubric, Man of La Mancha is a fitting choice, as is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which will receive a large-scale traditional staging as well as a smaller, experimental version directed by Peter Sellars.