From the Pinafore to the Hispaniola, the Franklin Expedition to the Komagata Maru, the Stratford Festival will celebrate Canada's sesquicentennial with tales of ships and seafarers, comic, fantastic, tragic and historical.
For the 2017 season in Stratford, Ont., an all-Canadian roster of directors has signed up to tackle a wide range of European classics and new plays that take place on sea (and many on land, too) – though artistic director Antoni Cimolino says the common nationality is a coincidence rather than a consequence of Canada's 150th birthday.
"All of the directors in this season are Canadian – but that wasn't by design, I wasn't hitting a quota," he says. "I was thinking about the development of the community – and there were specific people I wanted to bring in. I'm very excited about the new directors."
William Shakespeare, of course, has pride of place at the Festival Theatre. There, living legend Martha Henry will direct Twelfth Night (the tale of shipwrecked twins Viola and Sebastian) and Scott Wentworth will helm Romeo and Juliet (which, as we learned in this season's Shakespeare in Love, was originally titled Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter).
Also on the thrust stage: Chris Abraham will return to the site of his acclaimed Taming of the Shrew to direct Molière's Tartuffe, while good ol' reliable Donna Feore will take on Guys and Dolls.
Cimolino, who likes to theme his seasons, says 2017 is about exploring questions of identity to mark Canada's 150th birthday – and his reasoning will no doubt make perfect sense in the brochures. But, especially at the company's Avon Theatre, a nautical theme seems immediately clear.
There, director Lezlie Wade will captain HMS Pinafore by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, while in the family-show slot, Mitchell Cushman is on deck to steer R.L. Stevenson's Treasure Island, or the Mutiny of the Hispaniola into the 21st century. (The School for Scandal – the 1777 comedy of manners by Richard Brinsley Sheridan – rounds out the Avon programming, directed by Cimolino himself.)
Perhaps the most exciting programming will be in the Studio Theatre – where three Canadian plays, two new, one improved, will dock. Sharon Pollock will be revisiting and reworking her 1976 play The Komagata Maru Incident, about the Japanese steamship full of citizens of the British Raj turned away from Canada in 1914. Keira Loughran is directing. Then there's an ambitious new play by Colleen Murphy called The Breathing Hole, a 500-year saga that follows a polar bear from the time of First Contact to the Franklin Expedition and all the way to a cruise in the near future.
Featuring a cast of 20, it will mark the Stratford directorial debut of Reneltta Arluk, an Inuvialuit-Dene actor and playwright who was raised on the traplines in the Northwest Territories. "The play takes place in the North – and I felt it was very important to have someone who understood the North," Cimolino says.
The third play in the Studio is The Virgin Trial, a sequel to 2015 hit The Last Wife that will continue playwright Kate Hennig's exploration of the Tudor queens. Alan Dilworth, who directed the first play, returns for the second – and I have high hopes that either he or Hennig will add some swashbuckling into this one.
At the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford will take a break from high-seas adventures to explore a trio of infrequently seen classics that will be a draw for the most fervent festival-goers.
Euripides's Bakkhai – you may know it as The Bacchae – is being tackled by Jillian Keiley, the director of the National Arts Centre's English Theatre and now a Stratford regular. Jackie Maxwell, outgoing artistic director of Ontario's Shaw Festival, defects to direct The Changeling – the first time Stratford has tackled this Jacobean tragedy by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley since 1989. And Donna Feore will direct The Madwoman of Chaillot, a 1945 satire by Jean Giraudoux.
Rounding out the bill is a rarely produced Shakespeare: Timon of Athens. Stephen Ouimette's 2004 production of the play starring the late, lamented actor Peter Donaldson was a real revelation – and, while it's sad to see it return without Donaldson, it's great that Ouimette is taking a second stab at this unusual play.
"I'm looking at filming these [Shakespeare] productions – and his Timon is the one I'd like to have on film," Cimolino says.
You may note that for the second season in a row, Cimolino has hired as many female directors as male ones – indeed, more. "One of the benefits of having more female directors and more culturally diverse directors at the table is that you get different perspectives," he notes.
Tickets for the 2017 Stratford Festival go on sale to members as of Nov. 26 and the general public on Jan. 6 – so mark your calendars or set an iPhone alert now, if you are so inclined.