STRATFORD, Ontario – Having written extensively about the Stratford Festival since 1983, I have witnessed a number of Artistic Directors (or teams of Artistic Directors) come and go at Stratford. None of these transitions has been more eagerly anticipated that that of home-grown Antoni Cimolino, who took the artistic reins this year from perceived outsider Des McAnuff.
While McAnuff brought some much needed marketing and development savvy to the Stratford organization, he was never able to effectively utilize Stratford’s amazing acting ensemble, preferring to import many American actors and designers he had worked with on Broadway or at La Jolla Playhouse in California. And that would have been okay had he managed to deliver the artistic goods.
It was obvious from his first production of Romeo and Juliet that McAnuff was much better equipped to deliver serviceable productions of American musicals that he was to stage Shakespeare. Thus he gave us some entertaining productions of Forum, Superstar and even this year’s Tommy while struggling badly with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, Macbeth and Henry V. His one triumph came with an excellent production of As You Like It, which ironically he had really developed while still at La Jolla Playhouse. He never fully embraced the company concept and the company never fully embraced him.
So, there was a lot of joy from the established company when it was announced two years ago that Cimolino would become the next Artistic Director. As it turned out McAnuff decided to depart early and left Cimolino to pick up the pieces and quickly cobble together the 2013 season.
While everyone knew that Cimolino had the potential to succeed, I doubt if anyone expected him “to turn around the Titanic” in a single season. However, turn around the artistic and financial ship he did, not only giving us the best first season that I can remember but one of the finest seasons in festival history. And he did it by going back to what makes the Stratford Festival special and unique: Choose interesting plays that challenge the audience, populate them with the correct acting ensembles and then stage them in a true thrust setting instead of trying to turn the Festival stage into a Broadway theater.
Gone are the technical pyrotechnics that McAnuff loved, replaced with simple theatricality and stunning design work that enhances rather than dominates the production. Gone too are most of the outside actors and designers, replaced by company members, who are eager to demonstrate their talent and worth to the company. One need only look at the cast lists for the two productions that Cimolino directed to know that he has the complete support of the acting company.
It is an exciting time again at Stratford. Ticket sales and fundraising are up, the new Forum education program has been an unqualified success and there is a real sense of hope and optimism for the future of classical theater in North America. I for one can’t wait to see what theatrical gems the 2014 season will bring!
Here is my recap of the 2013 season, followed by a similar list for the shows I saw at the 2013 Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Productions are listed in order of preference (red title links go to my full reviews of certain shows):
Mary Stuart (Tom Patterson Theatre) ****
• Strong focused direction from Antoni Cimolino
• Lucy Peacock and Seana McKenna as the two queens
• Interesting mix of modern and period design elements
• Excellent supporting cast
• Powerful scenes that are emotionally charged and well acted
• Beautiful use of the Tom Patterson Theatre
Taking Shakespeare (Studio Theatre) ****
• Compelling new script from John Murrell
• Martha Henry’s beautifully nuanced performance
• Excellent set design
• Makes you realize why Shakespeare still matters
Othello (Avon Theatre) ***1/2
• Stunning visuals
• Amazing aural soundscape
• Excellent cast with a strong command of Shakespeare’s prose
• Beautiful stage pictures
Blithe Spirit (Avon Theatre)***
• Stylish design work
• Strong ensemble acting led by Ben Carlson
• Quirky non-tradition performance from Seana McKenna
• Nice special effects
• Set in the 1930’s during the rise of Fascism
• Well staged on the Festival’s thrust
• Strong ensemble acting
• Contains several innovative directorial choices
WORTH A LOOK
Measure for Measure (Tom Patterson Theatre)
The Thrill (Studio Theatre)
Fiddler on the Roof (Festival Theatre)
Tommy (Avon Theatre)
Romeo and Juliet (Festival Theatre)
NOT WORTH YOUR TIME
The Three Musketeers (Festival Theatre)
DID NOT ATTEND
Waiting for Godot (Tom Patterson Theatre)
Lady Windermere’s Fan (Festival Theatre) ****
Arcadia (Court House Theatre) ***1/2
Our Betters (Royal George Theatre) ***
WORTH A LOOK
Major Barbara (Royal George Theatre)
Trifles (Court House Theatre)
NOT WORTH YOUR TIME
Guys & Dolls (Festival Theatre)
Light in the Piazza (Royal George Theatre)
Peace in Our Time (Court House Theatre)
DID NOT ATTEND
Enchanted April (Festival Theatre)
*Caricature of David Grapes courtesy of the author. Photo of Antoni Cimolino, Stratford Festival logo as well as all production photos courtesy of and copyrighted by the Stratford Festival. (1) Seana McKenna (center) as Elizabeth surrounded by, from left: Brian Dennehy as Earl of Shrewsbury, Ben Carlson as Lord Burleigh and Robert Persichini as Earl of Kent in Mary Stuart. Photo by David Hou. (2) Luke Humphrey as Murph and Martha Henry as Prof in Taking Shakespeare. Photo by V. Tony Hauser. (3) Graham Abbey as Iago and Dion Johnstone as Othello in the Othello. Photo by Michael Cooper. (4) Michelle Giroux, as Elvira, and Ben Carlson, as Charles, are shown in a scene from Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. Photo by David Hou. (5) Scott Wentworth as Shylock and Sara Farb as Jessica in The Merchant of Venice. Photo by David Hou. Shaw Festival logo and The Faith Healer artwork courtesy of and copyrighted by the Shaw Festival.