Stratford festival fetes 50th anni

'Fair Lady,' return of Plummer lauded

It’s been a golden year for Canada’s Stratford Festival, in more ways than one.

This marks the 50th season for the classical repertory theater located two hours outside of Toronto, and its reasons for celebration include record box office figures, a new performance space and the return of one of its favorite sons, Christopher Plummer.

All in all, big birthday included, it was a time to open the champagne.

The best news of all may be the quality of the fare this season: Most of this summer’s productions have been enthusiastically received by the press, with a few shows falling into the middling category and no total disasters.

The hands-down champ is the production of “My Fair Lady” staged by fest artistic director Richard Monette. It features Cynthia Dale as Eliza, but TV and film requirements made it necessary for her to have three Henry Higginses during the show’s seven-month run.

First up was Colm Feore, a Stratford vet from the ’80s and ’90s, now known for his work in films such as “Pearl Harbor” and currently riding high in Canada for his triumph in the TV series “Trudeau,” about the late Canadian prime minister.

Feore opened the show and then left in mid-July, passing the torch to Geraint Wyn Davies. Wyn Davies was a contemporary of Feore at the festival, and he too went on to TV and film, most notably the series “Forever Knight.”

In the cleanup spot is Monette himself, who plans to take over in mid-September. After rave reviews, ticket sales were so brisk that two holdover weeks were added in November, and Feore is expected to return then.

When the annual musical production is a hit at Stratford, it means money — a lot of money. Executive director Antoni Cimolino won’t release figures, but he does say, “It looks like we’re heading for our best season ever.”

Since the last three seasons all resulted in seven-figure surpluses, some as high as C$4 million ($2.58 million), a final result putting the fest more than $3 million in the black is not hard to foresee.

It’s estimated that nearly half of that audience comes from surrounding U.S. cities, with Detroit and Buffalo proving major markets.

The other big news for the season is the opening of its fourth performance space, the Studio. This mini-version of the Festival Theater’s famous thrust stage seats 250 and is made to be used for experimental work. This year, it’s played home to seven new plays commissioned by the festival (six one-act and one full-length). Although the scripts themselves have been of varying quality, the productions feature some of the fest’s top actors, including Tony Award-winning Brent Carver, starring in the last play by Timothy Findley, who died in June.

The Studio (built on the site of the old Avon Theater scene shop) cost an amazingly low $1.3 million to build, and all the money was donated by two couples: Sandra and Jim Pitblado of Toronto and Jane and Raphael Bernstein of New Jersey.

A nice sprinkling of stardust was placed over the latter part of the season with the Aug. 24 opening of Plummer in “King Lear,” directed by A-list helmer Jonathan Miller.

Plummer featured heavily in Stratford’s early years, scoring as Henry V, Hamlet and Cyrano de Bergerac. But his 1967 “Antony and Cleopatra” opposite Zoe Caldwell was his last Shakespearean appearance. (He returned in 1996 to launch “Barrymore,” for which he went on to win a Tony Award.)

The 73-year-old Plummer was immensely impressive in the role, and earned widespread critical praise for his intellectual strength and his refusal to give in to easy sentimentality.

The press were more divided about Miller’s production, with many of them finding it a bit too austere and lacking strong performances in some of the younger roles, but Plummer’s return was largely viewed as a highly successful one.

As for the rest of the Shakespeare this season, Monette’s “All’s Well That Ends Well” was universally considered a workmanlike but unexciting production; “Romeo and Juliet,” helmed by Miles Potter, got a fair bit of praise along with some wrist-slapping for his overemphasis on comedy; and Leon Rubin’s adventurous two-part version of “Henry VI” was praised for its innovation.

That leaves the 50th-anniversary production of “Richard III.” All eyes were on this staging, because the same play opened the festival July 14, 1953, directed by Tyrone Guthrie and starring Alec Guinness and Irene Worth.

This year’s version was directed by fest veteran Martha Henry and starred returning favorite Tom McCamus. Henry and McCamus approached it as a Monty Python-esque black farce, but the concept didn’t work. Opening on the exact anniversary of the Guthrie-Guinness version, it came in for devastating comparisons.

Productions of “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (the nonmusical version by Beverly Cross) and “The Threepenny Opera” divided the critics, but “Pimpernel” is proving a solid successor to other “family” shows like “The Three Musketeers,” and Stratford hopes “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” will ring the bell next season.

Aside from “Hunchback,” next year is a judicious mix of beloved musicals (“The King and I,” “Gigi”) and less familiar Shakespeare (“Pericles,” “Troilus and Cressida,” “Antony and Cleopatra”). There also will be an experimental season of works inspired by classical Greek themes and still more new plays.

At 50, the Stratford Festival has survived “the slings and arrows” of its harshest critics, and has established itself as that rarest of creatures: a classical theater with a well-balanced repertoire matched by a well-balanced budget.

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