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Sophia Walker as Mrs. Ford and Geraint Wyn Davies as Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Chris Young/Handout

The Stratford Festival has always been a bit difficult to define – is it really a festival, or just a theatre company in disguise? – but its recent online ventures have made it even harder to pin down.

Here we have a theatrical destination that now has content accessible from anywhere (except on its actual stages); an operation that normally operates spring to fall that is about to launch a new slate of work in the middle of the winter.

Whatever you want to call it, the Stratford Festival is bringing back its free Thursday night viewing parties. Launched as the start of the pandemic, they are back after a holiday hiatus as of Thursday, Jan. 21.

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This week’s showing is more of what regular online attendees have come to expect: Shakespeare, from the vaults. For 36 hours starting at 7 p.m. ET, the film of artistic director Antoni Cimolino’s 2019 production of The Merry Wives of Windsor will be available to stream around the world from the festival’s YouTube page. (It is also available on the Stratfest@Home subscription streaming service for Canadian viewers, but won’t arrive there for international viewers until summer 2022.)

A couple viewing notes on this one: Prior to Cimolino’s take, I’d always thought of Merry Wives as a Shakespearean B-side – an unnecessary Falstaff-focused spin-off from the Henriad that I’d have to patiently sit through every five years or so due to my professional obligations.

But now I view this comedy as more of a Frasier than a Joey in terms of spin-offs. In this production, at least, it’s a warm-hearted depiction of a small town to rival Schitt’s Creek – but with all the scatological jokes that sitcom title promised and never delivered. (Here’s my full 2019 review.)

Starting next week, the viewing parties switch gears and will consist, most weeks through March, of an hour of entirely new programming specifically created to be watched online during the pandemic.

The Undiscovered Sonnets kicks things off starting Jan. 28. In this show, expert improviser Rebecca Northan and a team of seven “Sonneteers” will spontaneously create sonnets to celebrate the love of real-life couples.

Marcus Nance in Up Close and Musical for Stratfest@Home.

Handout

It will be followed by Up Close and Musical, a new series of intimate cabarets performed by some of Stratford’s biggest musical-theatre stars and filmed on the Festival Theatre’s famed thrust stage this fall. Marcus Nance will be the first performer – and Robert Ball, Dan Chameroy, Cynthia Dale, Alexis Gordon, Chilina Kennedy, Robert Markus, Vanessa Sears and Kimberly-Ann Truong will follow in the months to come.

Both programs are also available (or will be available) on the Stratfest@Home streaming service.

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This week, I’ll be taking another virtual trip to the Cultch in Vancouver to watch The Cave, “an interspecies song-cycle” told through the perspective of animals and created by composer John Millard, lyricist Tomson Highway and book writer Martha Ross.

The creatures in the show (played by Alex Samaras, Derek Kwan, Neema Bickersteth and Andrea Koziol) are all taking refuge in a cave during a forest fire, where they reflect on their lives and impending doom in songs sung in English and in Cree. Presumably the great playwright Highway’s well-known sense of humour will make this more funny than it sounds.

Unlike many shows being streamed online these days, The Cave, which was developed at Toronto’s Soulpepper and premiered at the 2019 Luminato Festival, was always intended to be watchable over the Internet through webcast or livestream. Indeed, the Cultch is presenting a recording of the show from its Luminato run, streaming it “live” three times: on Jan. 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m. PST, and on Jan. 24 at 12 p.m. PST. Tickets are $29 for solo viewing or $58 for your whole bubble.

The Pivot Festival launches at the Nakai Theatre in Whitehorse this week, and the whole country (and, indeed, world) can join in for streamed events such as stay-at-home karaoke and online comedy taking place from Jan. 20 to 30.

For those who live in the area, a festival project that sounds intriguing is called Drive Along Stories. These are narrative podcasts made by Yukon artists to listen to while driving specific routes around or in and out of Whitehorse.

An accessibility touch I admire: If you drive a car too old to hook up to a smartphone, you can pick up a CD or audiotape of these Drive Along Stories at Well-Read Books, universally acknowledged as the Yukon’s best used bookstore (because it is the Yukon’s only used bookstore).

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If you’re looking for some international theatre to watch this week, the Old Vic in London is starting to rerun some of the shows it streamed live earlier this fall starting with, from Jan. 20 to 22, Irish playwright Brian Friel’s Faith Healer – a triptych of monologues easy to perform in these physically distanced times.

The draw here is Michael Sheen, the Welsh actor known these days from such small-screen shows as Good Omens and The Good Fight, but who has always given his best performances on stage. Friel’s play itself is often heralded as a masterpiece, but I’ve yet to see a production that has convinced me that it is.

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