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Stratford Festival reviews

Cylla von Tiedemann/Handout

Billy Elliot is an electric exploration of community versus individual, ensemble versus star

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Sparks fly throughout director and choreographer Donna Feore’s kinetic new production of the 2005 musical Billy Elliot, about a working-class British boy discovering an artistic passion at the same time his father and older brother are out on the picket line during the 1984-85 miners’ strike.


David Hou/Stratford Festival

In Wajdi Mouawad’s Birds of a Kind, nothing succeeds like excess

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Birds of a Kind, a vivid and vaulting multigenerational Middle East-set drama, has marked a major comeback for the Governor-General’s Award-winning playwright Wajdi Mouawad. The play centres around a young Arab-American historian named Wahida (Baraka Rahmani), who has travelled to Israel with her boyfriend, Eitan (Jakob Ehman), a Jewish German geneticist, on a journey to learn more about his complicated family’s history. On the bridge between Israel and Jordan, the two found themselves in the middle of a terrorist attack – and Eitan was seriously injured.


David Hou/Handout

The Merry Wives of Windsor is a much wiser, less romanticized show about jealousy

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The wives of The Merry Wives of Windsor – Meg Page (Brigit Wilson) and Alice Ford (Sophia Walker) – come up with a series of merry pranks to play on the “fat knight” Falstaff (Geraint Wyn Davies), who has sent both well-to-do women love letters, believing they might open up their purses along with their beds to him. They plot revenge underneath hair dryers at a 1950s salon in this production directed by Antoni Cimolino.


Emily Cooper

The Neverending Story is a triumph of theatrical imagination

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The Neverending Story is a story about the power and peril of imagination – so it’s fitting that it is receiving the most imaginative staging of any show at the Stratford Festival so far this season. Director Jillian Keiley and designer Bretta Gerecke have created a dazzling glow-in-the-dark vision of a metafictional land that delights anew each time another creatively crafted creature walks or floats on stage.


Emily Cooper/Handout

Michael Healey rewrites The Front Page with insight – and in-jokes

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Canadian playwright Michael Healey’s new version of The Front Page has kept the story pretty much the same in a production directed with farce-like fluidity by Graham Abbey. The Chicago Herald Examiner’s star reporter Hildy Johnson (Ben Carlson) has quit the business and bought tickets on an overnight train to New York, where he plans to get married and go into advertising. But when he stops by the courthouse to say goodbye to his old colleagues, a story breaks that’s too big for the journalism junkie to resist.

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Emily Cooper/Handout

Martha Henry takes on Henry VIII, and different shades of dissatisfaction

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Henry VIII may be the hottest ticket at the Stratford Festival this season. The history play is rarely done even at theatres dedicated to Shakespeare, and canon completists are coming from far and wide to see it. Director Martha Henry’s production won’t convince anybody that this is unjust neglect, but her off-beat and sometimes downright goofy take on the play features a few extraordinarily realized scenes that show us different shades of human dissatisfaction.


David Hou

Mother’s Daughter finally gives Bloody Mary her due – or does it?

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Mother’s Daughter is an ambiguous conclusion to Hennig’s Queenmaker trilogy, which explores modern questions about women and power by looking back at Tudor history. The plays have been rolled out in two-year intervals at the Stratford Festival, in productions directed by Alan Dilworth.


David Hou

Nathan the Wise’s plea for religious tolerance could use fireworks

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The Enlightenment-era German-language playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was a controversial crusader for religious tolerance in his time. In our time, however, his 1779 parable Nathan the Wise can seem about as contentious as a Tim Hortons commercial. What it does have is a transcendent central performance by Diane Flacks in her Stratford debut.


David Hou/Handout

Private Lives stars a superb Lucy Peacock, but leaves a hangover

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In a new production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, Stratford veterans Geraint Wyn Davies and Lucy Peacock star as lovers Elyot and Amanda – who, as the saying that would be far too cliché for the two British sophisticates to utter goes, can’t live with and can’t live without each other. Married for three years then divorced for five before the play begins, the pair end up honeymooning with new spouses in the south of France.


Brent Gooden/The Globe and Mail

Q&A: Tackling a modern Othello for the age of Donald Trump

Nigel Shawn Williams is the first director of colour to tackle the Shakespeare tragedy at Stratford, and rising star Michael Blake plays the title character this season.

I’m not going to ignore the racism in it. But, also, my politics is such that I’m not going to ignore the misogyny, or the power of patriarchy in the play.

— Nigel Shawn Williams

David Hou/Handout

An Othello with no heroes, or set, to lean on

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Is Shakespeare’s Othello a tragedy about racism – or misogyny? In the new modern-day production directed by Nigel Shawn Williams, it’s the way female characters are put down, pushed aside or ultimately “put out” like a light that makes the play a deeply perturbing one.

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Chris Young/Handout

Little Shop of Horrors and the horror of musical theatre as a joke

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Last season, the Stratford Festival let its hair down with a fantastically crass production of The Rocky Horror Show directed by Donna Feore, a hit that extended all the way into December. But lightning hasn’t struck twice with its followup Little Shop of Horrors, another sci-fi, B-movie-inspired musical with a retro score. This similarly second-tier musical is misdirected, losing what little charm it ever had by being blown out of proportion.


Cylla von Tiedemann/Handout

Perhaps Arthur Miller’s The Crucible should be mangled, but not like this

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Director Jonathan Goad has mounted a high-decibel version of The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s 1953 tragedy about the Salem witch trials, with an onstage hysteria that threatens to topple into the audience at any moment.

Where to eat and drink in Stratford

Restaurants come and go and chefs shuffle around fairly frequently in Stratford, Ont., so Stratford Festival theatregoers have to mourn each season. Here are four of my favourite food and/or drink spots.

Pazzo, 70 Ontario St.

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Fine dining upstairs, pizzeria in the basement – I’ve eaten at this restaurant more than any other in town. Pazzo won’t blow you away − but it’s reliable and affordable (if you go downstairs) and always packed. My go-to is the Vatican pizza: gorgonzola, mushrooms, roasted garlic and fresh herbs.

Foster’s Inn, 111 Downie St.

You can’t go wrong at Foster’s. Steaks are their specialty and they do them right − but I’ve never brought a vegetarian who’s been disappointed by the rest of the menu. The cozy bar’s worth a visit, too. Warning: Don’t try to match Brian Dennehy drink for drink if you run into him here. A mistake made by this critic in his rookie season back in 2008.

The Red Rabbit, 64 Wellington St., and Okazu, 85 Downie St.

There are many fine bistros in Stratford, but Red Rabbit has the perfect pretheatre prix fixe, based around local ingredients and artisan products with a surprise or two. (Try the Son In Law Egg appetizer.) Co-owner Jessie Votary has really saved the local scene, however, with the recently opened Okazu, which finally brought a reliable late-night spot back to town. She cultivates an after-show atmosphere that pulls in both audiences and artists with funky cocktails, tasty tapas and pork dumplings that are insanely addictive. If you’re sneaky, you can order a round for intermission – and pop over from the Avon Theatre next door to eat or drink between acts.


Shaw Festival reviews

Shaw Festival

Why Shaw revived Mae West’s racy Broadway hit Sex

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The Shaw Festival is up to its old tricks again this season – unearthing a forgotten play by a female playwright that premiered during the lifetime of the festival’s namesake Bernard Shaw. But while Sex, a melodrama/musical comedy about the international misadventures of a Montreal prostitute named Margy LaMont, has only had a couple of small productions since it first premiered on Broadway in 1926, the woman who wrote it has hardly been forgotten.

I walked into this whole world of a Mae West that I didn’t know about.

— Peter Hinton-Davis

Shaw Festival

Sumptuous, unsettling Sex makes a compelling case for Mae West, the playwright

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The memory of Mae West as a film star is fading, but director Peter Hinton-Davis’s smart and unsettling new production of an early play of West’s at the Shaw Festival suggests there may still be life in the old girl yet. Sex is a 1926 Broadway hit largely remembered for culminating in West spending a week in jail on obscenity charges.


Emily Cooper/Handout

The romantic Cyrano de Bergerac will make you swoon

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While he has all the wittiness and bravado needed for the part, Tom Rooney is above all a sensitive, wounded Cyrano in director Chris Abraham’s production of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac. His semi-requited passion for and chemistry with his cousin Roxane (Deborah Hay, even more doe-eyed than usual) creates the most swoon-worthy romance of the summer stage so far.


David Cooper

The Glass Menagerie is polished clear and cruel

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This production of The Glass Menagerie is polished hard enough to make Tennessee Williams’s 1944 memory play gleam anew, but also to allow you see right through it. André Sills plays Tom Wingfield, the play’s narrator and stand-in for the playwright. He’s the first actor I’ve seen play Tom who made me see all the layers to this narrator figure, and made me entirely forget about Williams and his real-life family.


Emily Cooper/Shaw Festival

In Rope, horrors are hidden in plain sight

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The Shaw Festival opened its 2019 season with a murder play that is not a mystery play. We know who killed whom and why right off the bat in Rope, a 1929 thriller by the underappreciated British playwright Patrick Hamilton that is, despite the overtness of its dramatic gambit, surprisingly gripping.


David Cooper/Handout

The Russian Play is executed with style and skill

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In her directorial debut, long-time Shaw Festival ensemble member Diana Donnelly works the stage at the Royal George Theatre better than most long-time pros. There are a dozen moments in The Russian Play where Donnelly and her designers have found clever or poignant images to intersect with and expand this short, simple play by Hannah Moscovitch.

Martha Schabas: Direct address is having its feminist theatre moment with Hannah Moscovitch’s The Russian Play


Emily Cooper/Handout

Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married is a breezy and entertaining look at marriage

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Getting Married has a reputation as one of Bernard Shaw’s talkier plays, and that’s really saying something, given how talky the Irish playwright’s entire oeuvre is. Having seen a pair of productions now, 11 years apart, at the Shaw Festival, however, I find it one of the breeziest, rather than windiest, of Shaw plays, full of fun characters and amusing chatter that only occasionally lags.


Handout

To hell and back again with a six-and-a-half hour production of Man and Superman

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Written in 1903, Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman is a fairly conventional comedy of manners save for its dream debate sequence (sometimes known as Don Juan in Hell) and its central character of Tanner, an aristocratic anarchist and author of a scandalous book called The Revolutionist’s Handbook, who speaks about 10 times as many lines as he needs to for the plot’s sake.


David Cooper/Handout

The Ladykillers on stage only slays from time to time

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The Ladykillers is a screen-to-stage adaptation of the 1955 British black comedy that premiered in Liverpool in 2011. The scenario is the same as the film: An elderly widow named Mrs. Wilberforce (Chick Reid) rents the upstairs room of her lopsided house to Marcus (Damien Atkins), who turns out to be planning a robbery at nearby King’s Cross railway station in London.


David Cooper/Shaw Festival

Brigadoon revival fails to deliver a convincing love story

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Brigadoon has long had a reputation as one of the mouldier mid-century American musical comedies. This revival’s major flaw is its inability to sell the underwritten love story that the 1947 fantasy musical so heavily relies on.


David Cooper/Shaw Festival, 2019

The Horse and His Boy has nice horses, but little else for the Narnia neigh-sayers

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The Horse and His Boy is not the best, or most beloved, of C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia series. But it does have one thing going for it as fodder for theatrical adaptation: A horse. Two, in fact. But there’s not a lot of magic or invention in the staging or design beyond them, unfortunately.


David Cooper/Handout

Howard Barker’s Victory reveals the British playwright as all bark, no bite

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Victory, Howard Barker’s 1983 play set during the English Restoration, is a meandering affair receiving a low-key production from Shaw artistic director Tim Carroll. It circles around a widow known as Bradshaw (Martha Burns), whose late husband was one of the men who signed the royal death warrant for Charles I a decade before the play begins.

Where to eat and drink in Niagara-on-the-Lake

I’ve had many outright bad dining experiences in Niagara-on-the-Lake over the dozen years I’ve been reviewing the Shaw Festival – overpriced, oversalted, occasionally inedible dinners. For a long time, my rule of thumb was to leave the centre of the town to eat if I had time – and head out to one of the restaurants attached to wineries. Things, thankfully, seem to have changed. Here are three favourite local spots.

The Pie Plate, 1516 Niagara Stone Rd.

Driving in for a matinee? On your way in from the QEW, stop by The Pie Plate, a bakery and café that now serves all sorts of small plates and pizza at lunch and dinner. I usually order the pulled pork tacos when they’re available – and it’s almost impossible to resist pairing them with a black lager from Silversmith Brewing Company, since you can see the brewery out the window, across the street.

Masaki Sushi, 60 Picton St.

Located in the basement of the Moffat Inn, this place recently opened and now saves my life (or my stomach anyway) when out-of-Toronto traffic is awful: You can get an exceptionally high-quality sushi dinner – much of the fish and the rice is flown in from Japan – and you can get it quickly. Then, you’re just a few minutes’ walk from the Festival Theatre. The only danger to eating here as a theatre critic is that the food’s so good it’s a favourite of the artists as well.

Backhouse, 242 Mary St.

Hidden away in a strip mall like an L.A. hot spot, Backhouse landed on a couple of best new restaurant lists in 2015 with its cool-climate cuisine. If you have time, a trip through executive chef Ryan Crawford’s tasting menu is really worth it – but there are quicker options for the pretheatre crowd, too. The wine list is killer (and stretches beyond Niagara) and the room itself is enjoyably eccentric. So is some of the language on its website: “a culinary journey of somewhereness”?

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A final note: What hasn’t changed about Niagara-on-the-Lake is that the town basically shuts down at 11 p.m. If you’re looking for a drink after one of Bernard Shaw’s longer shows, there are not a lot of options beyond the often overcrowded and overlit bar at the Prince of Wales Hotel (6 Picton St.) or the loud local pub in the Olde Angel Inn (224 Regent St.). My recommendation? Buy a bottle from a local winery beforehand and leave it chilling at the hotel or B&B.

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