Thursday, August 29, 2013

Christian Baines on Stratford's 2014 season

We’re All Mad Here
Stratford flies over the cuckoo’s nest with 2014 season.
by Christian Baines

He’s finally cracked!

Stratford Festival Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino is set to turn the theatre-loving rural community into his own personal funny farm next season with a program that dwells firmly in the realms of madness and drug-induced hallucinations.

Not that that's a bad thing.

The theme of ‘Madness: Minds Pushed to the Edge’ pretty much grants Cimolino open slather on most of the Shakespeare canon. Indeed, on the 450th anniversary of the Bard’s birth, any Shakespeare company worth its salt had better have something a little special up its sleeve. For Stratford, that means a double dose of fairy dust, with A Midsummer Night’s Dream hitting the stage in two separate productions, with directors Chris Abraham and Peter Sellars at their respective helms. I must confess, the latter announcement got me very excited in my pre-caffeinated, more-than-slightly-hung-over state, before remembering that not only was the name spelt differently, but the poor man I was thinking of had been dead for 33 years!

Still, I dare you to picture it and not smile.

Uh… King John?

Eschewing the obvious choices, Cimolino will bring his own directing talents to King Lear, reassuring theatre-goers who secretly resent their children that it could indeed be much, much worse. Cimolino is set to explore a certain ‘madness as liberation’ theme here, which ties in nicely to as a tragic flipside to Midsummer. If the comedy of fairies indulges madness as the beginnings of love, Lear inflicts it as a cruel end as family falls apart. It just wouldn’t be a season of Shakespeare without a good train-wreck in the halls of power, and if it’s delivered well, this looks set to be one of 2014’s highlights.

The Shakespeare season is rounded out by two plays marking their fifth productions at Stratford. Antony and Cleopatra… I’m not sure if the ‘madness’ theme applies so much here, except as a euphemism for misguided romance. Still, it represents one of the most complex and well developed roles for women – at least within the tragedies. Then there’s King John. 

Uh… King John?

In fairness, this is probably an underrated play that could use another revisit. Bard on the Beach took it out for some fresh BC air last year, otherwise it’s largely fallen on Stratford to keep the moths away. With its antihero described as a ‘dangerous combination of ambition and insecurity’ King Steph… John is as relevant as ever.

On balance, I’m cautiously optimistic.

Speaking of relevance, let’s talk musicals. Now, I absolutely applaud both Stratford and Shaw for their dedication to including musicals in their respective seasons, and I’m sure the inclusion of Crazy for You will thrill many. I’m just not particularly one of them. Even as a confirmed musicals fan, I find the shows of the pre-R&H era (familiar song book with a contrived plot weaved around it) to be hit and miss at best and they do seem to be a bit of a ‘thing’ right now. Okay, yes, Crazy for You hit Broadway in 1992, but as a reworking of the Gershwins’ 1930 musical Girl Crazy it still falls into this category. The show also seems an odd choice with the corpse of Broadway’s Nice Work If You Can Get It still on ice awaiting its national tour. Still, if the currently touring revival of Anything Goes proves one thing, it’s that all it takes is the right production to make these dinosaurs sing, and Stratford has put the show in the excellent hands of Donna Feore, the director behind one of their biggest successes this year, Fiddler on the Roof. On balance, I’m cautiously optimistic. 

Then there’s Man of La Mancha, a terrific choice for the festival’s theme, and with it, another small confession. I’ve never seen this show. I’m fully aware of its success on Broadway in no less than five productions. Some might even be a little tired of it by now. But for whatever reason, the sails have just never aligned to get me to it. Stratford brings out Robert McQueen to direct, which promises great things based on his production of Caroline, or Change for Acting Up Stage last year.

The season ploughs into Brecht with Mother Courage, the writer’s 1939 response to Germany’s invasion of Poland – madness at its most destructive and transparent, to be sure. ‘By the end’ we’re promised, ‘having lost everything she loves and almost everything she owns, she has been truly driven to the edge (one assumes she got a lift, or was her car part of the ‘almost’ everything?) – yet somehow she finds the will to carry on.’ Anyone else notice the borderline Russian tone Brecht’s plays often take on? I foresee many patrons of Mother Courage seeking some liquid courage at intermission. Anyway, what could be a more suitable ‘modern’ companion piece to King Lear, particularly with Stratford favourite Martha Henry as designated driver? Pair it with Lear, or pair it with the English-language debut of Michel Marc Bouchard’s Cristina, The Girl King. In this Québecois original, the protagonist’s father is a key player within the 30 years war – the setting of Mother Courage. 

On the subject of sensory abandonment, let’s talk Alice in Wonderland. This would be the Disney heroine who went on the bad LSD trip while all her peers were off marrying handsome princes. A show close to Stratford’s heart, I doubt very much I need to reiterate the plot here, but its particular brand of fresh, child-friendly crazy should please most and one assumes, given the theme of madness, that director Jillian Keiley won’t be shying away from the story’s darker elements.

The Beaux’ Strategem is a Restoration comedy described as a ‘romp’. Curiouser and curiouser. Has anyone actually tried to define the word ‘romp’ lately? ‘A lively and boisterous frolic’ say the Google gods. Well, Stratford in summer does indeed lend itself to ‘frolicking’, though the activity central to this particular play might be described as ‘cougar hunting’. Finally, there’s Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, which brings the concept of madness into its most natural environment – the family home. Personally, I spend most family occasions trying to avoid as much ‘romp’ as possible, but I get the impression this frustration will be exactly what the play speaks to.

Tickets for Stratford 2014 go on sale to Members on November 11 and to the general public on January 4, 2014.

See also the official press release announcing the season.
See also David Sklar's interview with Antoni Cimolino, prior to the season announcement

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