Play and Replay

Ontario’s Stratford Festival offers total immersion in theater

by Gene Burns

WHEN I found myself rehearsing my remarks in the shower. I realized that perhaps I was taking my assignment, to lead a discussion of the production of King John at Ontario’s Stratford Festival, too seriously. Nonetheless I continued, telling myself that once the six of us were seated around the breakfast table, there would be little time for restructuring arguments. I thought that after making a general observation that the company had performed well in this, its first effort with Shakespeare’s King John since 1974, I would bring up the perennial topic of the use of alternate-period costumes. Should not a play set at the end of the twelfth century be staged in the dress of that period? What was the point of dressing King John and his fellow characters in high Edwardian or low Victorian?

But when the discussion opened, one man in the group couldn’t wait to talk about the thrust stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre (named for the festival’s founder), where the play was being presented. Long and narrow, the stage extends three quarters of the depth of the auditorium, almost splitting the room in two. In a tone that made it clear he was not happy with this innovation, the man exclaimed, “What about the stage?” And we were off.

We were six very different people sharing the Cottage at 66 Queen, a bed-andbreakfast; assembled around the elegant table of our host. David Lester, we enjoyed eating fresh fruit, drinking coffee and tea, munching “bakes,” and discussing the merits or lack thereof of the previous night’s performance. Only four of us had seen that production, but no matter: the other two had seen things produced at the Tom Patterson and were eager to participate.

This breakfast debate suggests both the joys of good repertory theater and the enduring charm of Stratford, Ontario, and its annual festival, now (through November 13) in its forty-second season. Indeed, I would argue that choosing an intimate B&B rather than a larger hotel helps one partake of the Stratford Festival experience. This experience encompasses far more than just traveling to Stratford and seeing plays. There arc three performance venues in Stratford— the 2,300-seat Festival Theatre and the smaller Tom Patterson and Avon theaters—and in the same way that the thrust stage dominates its theater, the festival permeates the community. making all of Stratford a stage.

Everything from cutesy Shakespeare-related names of dishes on local menus to the winding presence of the Avon River reminds one that this is not just another industrial city in southwestern Ontario. Since the festival’s heady beginnings, in July of 1953, with a production of Richard III starring Alec Guinness, Stratford has gradually attracted the largest repertory company in North America. To no one’s regret, plays are no longer exhibited in a tent; to mixed reviews, what was once called the Stratford Shakespearean Festival has enlarged its vision.

On my friend’s and my most recent visit we saw a well-staged revival of Gypsy, an effective and engaging masked version of Euripides’ The Bacchae, a strangely costumed Antony and Cleopatra, and the aforementioned King John. In addition, the festival had invited Christopher Plummer to present his one-man show, “A Word or Two, Before You Go,” which played to a packed house; many in attendance had seen Plummer in his early years as a member of the company. Had time permitted, we could also have seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Imaginary Invalid, The Mikado. The Importance of Being Earnest, The Wingfield Trilogy, Fair Liberty’s Call, and The Illusion. But though we acted like addicts, running off to Toronto (a scant two hours east) on Monday, when the festival’s stages were dark, to see Miss Saigon in the new Princess of Wales Theatre (it has, alas, since eliminated Monday shows), there are limits to one’s theater appetite. One could stay in Stratford for two or three weeks and see all the plays, but that might be too much of a good thing. Besides, there are other things to see in and around Stratford.

For example, antique shops abound in the community of Shakespeare. Local crafts at reasonable prices hide in Bayfield, on the shores of Lake Huron. To be sure, there is kitsch—but on our most recent visit I found a turnof-the-century Bohemian glass decanter with extraordinary, creatively designed glasses for a price substantially less than I would have paid at home. Repertory theater by definition allows a visitor great flexibility in scheduling, so excursions to places such as Shakespeare and Bayfield are quite easily worked into a stay. A thriving, quaint Mennonite community in St. Jacobs holds a huge and crowded Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday market. There’s a farmers’ market in Stratford itself, too. and though it is smaller, it still affords many choices. Our excursion to it turned up a large, yeasty rye loaf, farm-made summer sausage, and sweitzcr cheese, which, with the addition of Perrier, we converted into a lovely picnic on Tom Patterson Island, in the Avon River, before the matinee of Antony and Cleopatra. Incidentally, the island, our bed-and-breakfast. and the theater that staged our play that afternoon were all within easy walking distance of one another.

IN Stratford and environs you can eat grandly or simply. In either case, informality of dress being the order of the day, you can also eat comfortably. After the performance that followed the picnic, we moved to the opposite extreme for dinner, having reserved a table at Rundies, arguably the best restaurant in town. We walked to the restaurant along the river. The pre-theater rush was over, and the restaurant had settled into calm. Rundies is good anytime but best when the meal can proceed at leisure. The room’s design is clever and simple— clean lines devoid of clutter. Nothing detracts from the food, which is splendid.

We had been warned that the warm scallop salad was not to be missed, nor was the salmon wrapped in thin potato slices, but both were edged out for me when I spotted fresh local foie gras as a starter and a confit of duck as a main course. On second thought, though, the two of us ordered the scallop salad as an additional appetizer, which we split, it is without cause that some Canadians tend to be sheepish about their native food and wines. The sense of being in the shadow of their neighbor to the south has made many Canadian food professionals into seekers after some homogenized “international cuisine.”Happily, the chef at Rundles is not among them; instead he shows a passion for fresh Canadian ingredients. In the off season the restaurant collaborates with other Stratford-area restaurants to operate a demanding and acclaimed chefs’ school. Here the best of local field and stream is unabashedly matched with some fine Canadian wines from places such as the Niagara peninsula and Pelee Island.

After-theater suppers at The Church Restaurant and dinner at The Old Prune add weight to an argument for Stratford as a dining destination as well as a theatergoing one. The Church Restaurant has taken over a 124-year-old house of worship long since converted from its original purpose. The food is good, the desserts special, and the wine list well chosen. The Old Prune is a short walk from the Festival Theatre, in a small but functional old house. Its culinary theme is French executed with Canadian simplicity. We had an early Sunday dinner at The Old Prune (there are no late Sunday dinners in Stratford—a long story), which featured the well-known salmon fillet wrapped in thin potato slices.

The range of dining choices in Stratford is broad enough to accommodate almost any taste and budget. The area’s line restaurants are joined by fast-food outlets, several establishments that will put up picnics to order, and also clever innovations such as a takeout sandwich shop (York Street Sandwiches) housed in a closet-sized room where the serving counter is the bottom half of a Dutch door.

In Stratford one can not only see plays but also immerse oneself in the theater. Through September there are discussion groups that meet twice weekly, free of charge, with actors and members of the production staff and administration. Or one may tour the backstage sections of the theaters and wander enchanted through the costume warehouse for a nominal fee. Sunday mornings are reserved for lectures by and discussions with such literary luminaries as Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood. Richard Wilbur. Michael Ondaatje, and Timothy Findley—all booked for the current season. (Call 800-567-1600 for a program of all festival events and ticket-ordering information.) This season will also serve up Shakespeare, of course, along with Gilbert and Sullivan, Moliere, Eugene O’Neill, a new translation of Cyrano de Bergerac, and a new work by the Canadian playwright Jean-Marc Dalpe.

EVERY feast, even a cultural one, needs a digestif that lingers on the palate. Here are two kinds of mementos of a Stratford visit which I find special. The usual kinds abound, but I cannot imagine that anyone would be sorry to pass up a coffee mug or a T-shirt in favor of a particular result of a certain local chocolatier’s art. Rheo Thompson’s Candy Shop, tucked away at 26 Brunswick Street, sells a wide variety of chocolates—but the item for which I make pilgrimages is the mint smoothie, in cither milk or dark chocolate. Rich and meltingly smooth, this sweet induces that sense of well-being brought on by nothing but the consumption of the real thing. Indeed, eat these after the theater, not before, lest you slip into the amis of Morpheus during the performance, nullifying the point of acquiring the ticket. I have learned that after deciding on the size of my order of these delicacies for the trip home, I should double that amount. This ultimately saves the air freight on a telephone order.

As for the second kind of memento, I enjoy adding to my eclectic art collection during my vacation trips, and Stratford offers a unique opportunity. The person responsible for it is Duma Bell, who has been part of the festival scene for many years. Bell is the custodian of the original costume sketches for the annual productions at the festival, and her pro bono contribution to the festival’s future is to sell them. You can get in touch with Bell through the Stratford Festival, at 519-2714040. Fantastical drawings of two costumes and a mask from The Bacchae hang in my collection, lasting reminders of a Stratford visit.

The story within a story is an honored technique of literature and film. The Stratford Festival is in a sense theater within theater, for it offers great repertory theater set in a thriving community. The visitor may often find it difficult to know where the theater stops and the workaday world begins. After all, isn’t the Shakespearean Gardens, containing the range of herbs mentioned in the Bard’s work, or the panache of the chef and staff at Rundles, or the murmuring course of the river through town as much a matter of theater as the lines of the plays themselves? I think so, but perhaps this is a subject for debate. Say, why not meet at the breakfast table . . . ?