Canada’s most famous theatre town is famous for the company that bears its name. To “go to Stratford” means to attend a play at the Stratford Festival, North America’s most prestigious classical institution. But the real lifeblood of a theatrical landscape is not the most established, wildly well-funded companies with their bus stop advertisements and celebrity cameos. Independent theatre is where the chances get taken, the talent gets spotted, the work is right in front of your nose and the managing director tore your ticket. It’s the theatre that gets made despite it being easier to not make the theatre. A theatre town can’t be a theatre town unless it has indie theatre, at least it can’t be a particularly interesting one. Which is why Stratford is lucky to have Here for Now, an ambitious and clear-eyed independent counter-point to the brand name down the street.
Here For Now’s 2023 season takes place in a well-appointed tent behind the Stratford Perth Museum where a small stage backs onto a field that seems to stretch into eternity. If you catch a matinee, you’re spared the brutal mosquitos; but an evening performance’s mid-show sunset is better than any lighting design (for the record, there is also lighting design- Sarah Lappano’s work on Queen Maeve is particularly memorable). Actors appear on the horizon as if genuinely walking from the train station as their character claims, or they stroll hand in hand into the darkness at the end of their story. The wind at a particularly stormy matinee whipped through the set of The Fox, at the very least an engaging immersive element, or/also potentially a metaphorical reflection of subtextual turmoil if that’s the sort of thing you’re inclined to read into wind.
The sets are simple (though Darren Burkett’s for The Fox contains some creative delights), the staging for the most part straightforward, the stories incredibly complex. I caught the final three productions in the company’s six-show Season of Mercy and was uniformly bowled over by the emotional intricacy of the work. In her beautifully written program note, Artistic Director Fiona Mongillo artfully considers the difference between forgiveness and mercy, highlighting the latter’s painful contradictions. In the productions I saw at Here for Now, heroes and villains and rights and wrongs were all muddled up into a mess of ugly honest humanity. It’s so much easier to be allowed to write off the wrongdoers, but each of these plays challenge the audience to reckon with them instead. It’s as beautifully conceived a season theme as I’ve ever seen and the overall quality of the work suggests a level of thoughtfulness in the company’s leadership that spans both the crucial metanarrative level and the practical realities of human resources (to say nothing of the smaller details- their custom season artwork by actor Mark Uhre is a treat).
Over the course of three plays (Life Without, The Fox, and Queen Maeve), only one performer stood out as anything less than exceptional. Proximity to the Stratford Festival surely helps, with so much talent committed to living in the community but not necessarily actually employed there this season (stars of past Stratford seasons as well as spouses and offspring of current company members can be spotted throughout Here for Now’s season) but credit still goes where credit is due and Here for Now’s casting sports consistency far above indie standards, especially notable considering the difficulty level of some of the roles.
Judith Thompson’s Queen Maeve, for example, requires an actor of staggering presence, skill, and stamina at an extremely advanced age (something you cannot fake). Clare Coulter is literally the only person in Canada I would have thought of for the role (she played a shorter version in an earlier stage of script development); Here for Now got her. Conversely, Daniela Vlaskalic’s The Fox requires a debut performance of uncanny charisma for the role of mysterious stranger Henry. Into company regular/Managing Director Siobhan O’Malley and Allison Plamondon’s beautifully lived-in and natural dynamic steps Callan Potter whose trustworthy charm with perfectly pitched mercuriality is the lynchpin of the play’s tension. The casting plays tricks on you: he’s a new face, but you’re sure you’ve seen those eyes somewhere before.
But as much as The Fox relies on star quality, some of the season’s most intriguing work goes the other way. Queen Maeve was stolen for me by the brilliantly understated Caroline Gillis as a thankless caregiver, snarky and steadfast in an impossible job, kindly but firmly holding the hand of an impossible woman and tethering her to the real world. In a similar vein, it’s maybe Robert King’s devastatingly plain performance in Life Without that stands out as the season’s best. In Steve Ross’ heartbreaking and surprising rumination on the limits of compassion, King is so naturalistic and nuanced it feels as though he’s wandered in from the audience to just tell us the truth.
A mix of new works that feel like big gets and existing but under-produced gems, Here for Now’s Season of Mercy is an incredible achievement of programming and production. The balance of the season does seem a bit strange with all of the comedies pushed towards the beginning of the summer but that quirk meant that my August-heavy schedule brought me to three dark and complex pieces that stayed with me long after I left that tent in a field on the outskirts of Canada’s most famous theatre town.