The 2023 Stratford season was our first full summer back at Canada’s biggest repertory company since 2018. After the bittersweet strangeness of the 2021 outdoor season and missing a bunch of last year’s late openers, it was a pleasure to return to a full Stratford schedule no matter how the productions themselves shaped up. So the joy had twice the impact when not only did the 2023 productions not disappoint, they collectively formed the greatest single season of work in Antoni Cimolino’s decade-long tenure.
No matter how strong or flashy or memorable the other work may be, the heart of any Stratford season is and will always be the Shakespeare. It is the first and foremost thing they have to get right, there cannot be a truly great Stratford season without it. 2023 is the first year since 2010 that I’ve really enjoyed all four Shakespeare productions (there are usually four, it bothers me to no end when there are fewer than four). They didn’t all work for me on every level, but every last one of them worked for me on some level and I was particularly impressed with the programming savvy of how they work in concert.
On the festival stage, King Lear and Much Ado About Nothing pair beautifully with seemingly deliberate synchronicity. Two fan favourite texts directed with depth and humour, balancing modern sensibilities and classic designs, Lear & Much Ado form a rock solid base for the season to welcome Shakespeare casuals and sceptical students without boring the experts or alienating the newbies. The productions share a practical clarity without abandoning thoughtful choice and key cast members known for their unwavering proficiency help elevate what are already relatively fool proof texts.
The productions share the ever-wonderful André Sills and Michael Blake playing comedy/tragedy parallels of hero/villain brothers Dons Pedro & John and Eds gar & mund, respectively, a fun casting reward for anyone doing the double bill. Sills & Blake hold the supporting ensembles steady in both plays while some other cast members struggle. Déjah Dixon-Green is a squeaky, over-sexualized Regan, Allison Edwards-Crewe a forced and generic Hero. David W Keeley takes all of Kent’s lines at uniform lightning speed, which delights when ranting at Oswald but is far too easy to tune out in more emotional moments. Austin Eckert brings irresistible (and thematically useful) earnest charm as the problematic Claudio and Akosua Amo-Adem is a brilliantly funny Ursula while Josue Laboucane’s irritating Dogberry grinds the action to a halt.
I’m decidedly not a fan of adding additional text to try to rescue a script with dated attitudes and director Chris Abraham’s Much Ado is unfortunately bogged down with annoying lectures about how Hero wasn’t cheating on Claudio but, even if she had been, who are we to judge?! It’s an understandable but frustrating choice that doesn’t trust the performers and director to be able to craft a feminist message out of the text as is, particularly frustrating because they absolutely do just that over the course of the play proper. The game of modern Shakespeare performance is to find new and modern truths within what’s already there. I don’t want added text explaining why Claudio’s behaviour is unacceptable, I want the performers to convey in their reactions that Claudio’s behaviour is unacceptable. An angry hero, a distant Benedick, a Leonato who will never earn his daughter’s trust back- capable actors and directors can get those things in without an over-explaining speech written in weird faux-Shakespeare.
And these are absolutely capable actors and director. In fact, they are the best of the best; well-earned reputations. There are moments in this Much Ado (which I paid to see on a return visit, so anxious to experience it again) when I found myself thinking that this might be the platonic ideal of Shakespeare.
Having essentially grown up on the Festival stage, Graham Abbey speaks Shakespeare’s text as if he was born to it, his casual nuance and clarity of meaning literally second to none. Trusting his stable backstop of leading man charisma, Abbey dares make his Benedick wildly obnoxious, throwing his dirty socks around the stage and taunting the audience with frat boy misogyny in fourth wall breakage that is comically effective if inconsistent in its rules. Deliberately off-putting and brazenly physical, Abbey’s no-holds-barred delivery of act two scene three is, with no exaggeration, the funniest piece of Shakespeare performance I’ve ever seen. Much Ado is written in prose but it’s still Shakespeare so take all of the high art boring high school baggage in mind when I emphasize that the pure accessibility and universal comedy of not just Abbey’s 2.3 but Maev Beaty’s mirrored scene that follows is a miraculous feat and surely a game-changer for students lucky enough to have had this production as their introduction to Shakespeare.
Frequent collaborators who’ve had these roles on the books for a few years now, Abbey and Beaty, with the help of fellow frequent collaborator Abraham, build a ton of backstory into Benedick and Beatrice’s interactions, perhaps a prime example of extra-textual exposition an actor can convey with just the script as written. A downward glance, an extra breath, a little more oomph on “I know you of old” and we’ve got everything we need to know. In making Benedick less of his usual debonair self in the early comedic scenes, Abbey and Abraham give the character somewhere to go; he’s straightened up by the play’s tragedy, a rarely played arc that deepens the play on multiple fronts. Much of Much Ado’s contemporary problem comes from the impression that Hero is put through hell then it’s all swept under the rug (the terrible title doesn’t help matters). Ok, so don’t sweep it under the rug. Abbey’s Benedick is shaken by the behaviour of his friends and it changes his own behaviour towards women moving forward. At the end of the play, and only at the end of the play, is he worthy of Beatrice’s love. By pulling the subplot’s tragedy more fully into the main plot’s romance, both storylines are heartier and the ado is understood to be about something after all.
Lear is a less revolutionary production (perhaps an odd word considering Much Ado’s beautiful but far from boundary-pushing aesthetic, designed by the ever reliable Julie Fox, but that’s how it feels at its most joyfully accessible) but it vibrates with energy and interest, largely coming from its powerhouse leading man. Despite not having an overwhelming amount of Shakespeare on his resume, Paul Gross is strangely one of the artists most closely associated with Shakespeare in all of North America. He played a fictional Stratford-ish Artistic Director in the much-loved TV series Slings & Arrows and as such solidified himself in the memories of theatre lovers as a sort of mythic creature we subconsciously measure all Shakespeare directors against. In the series, Gross performs a fair amount of Shakespeare but never more than a few lines at a time and always played to the appropriate size for a screen medium. It’s a thrill and honestly somewhat of a relief how well those skills make the jump to leading the Stratford flagship in one of the most difficult roles ever written (Gross previously played Hamlet at Stratford in 2000 but I’ve only seen it through grainy archival footage). His Lear begins quiet, stately, and concerningly capable. Still every inch the strapping and energetic King, this Lear is retiring early out of desire rather than need. The casting of too young an actor is a chronic problem with Lear so I was nervous in the early scenes but the trick of Gross’ Lear is his degeneration. The actor ages Lear before our eyes, his competence following behind his loss of purpose rather than the other way around. He widens the performance as well, physically and vocally growing wilder and less controlled as the former King struggles to hold on to himself. It’s a sublime star turn even if some of the supporting players leave something to be desired (the daughters in particular don’t even approach the edges of their father’s shadow, a crucial flaw in any production).
Together, Much Ado About Nothing and King Lear form a perfect foundation of thoughtfully interpreted but relatively conservatively staged Shakespeare that tackles the depth of two of the canon’s greatest plays without ever getting bogged down by the pedestal where they so often sit. The undercard Shakespeare programming blows up the pedestal entirely, creating a perfect balance with the big ticket shows while matching their technical excellence and approaching the concept of reinvention with love and affection for the material.
Peter Pasyk’s Love’s Labours Lost is a sharp and joyful modern staging of one of Shakespeare’s trickiest comedies. Cutting the sometimes longwinded text down to under two hours presented without intermission in the intimate studio theatre, the production beautifully captures the whirlwind romance of the story and creates space for the harshness of the twist ending to land with appropriate melancholy and whiplash. The quartet of women who drive the action of the play are a standout ensemble led by Celia Aloma & Amaka Umeh, fierce and funny as the Princess of France and Rosaline respectively, and Steve Ross steals the show in the usually overlooked role of their assistant Boyet. The rhyming couplets aside, the trickiest aspect of Love’s Labours is balancing the tone between the witty rom-com at the story’s heart and the broad silliness of the Don Armado subplot. Gordon S Miller who has carved a strange niche for himself at Stratford as a purveyor of broad silliness finds a decent balance of purposely ridiculous without being too annoying and the text cut smartly minimizes the subplot as much as possible to keep the focus where it should be on the main romances. Sim Suzer’s perfect costumes are beautiful, colourful, and fantastically character-specific and the detail of Pasyk’s modern interpretation gives the show constant interest and momentum.
But it’s the company’s big swing at Richard II that’s made the most headlines. Like with Much Ado, I was slightly put off by the text changes when I felt that the concept could have been creatively grafted on to the play as-written (the changes to Richard II are much more substantial and relevant to the plot than those in Much Ado, to the point where it’s really more of an adaptation than an interpretation with additional text) but in theory alone this production is a thrilling thing to see at Stratford.
A tired sports metaphor I use often when talking about Shakespeare production is the concept of the big swing, the sort that usually results in either a home run or a strike. Especially in a balanced season with some really reliable hitters, I love to see a big swing production. I’d so much rather see a strikeout than a bunt that gets thrown out at first. Richard II is the biggest swing in Stratford Festival history, a crucial move whether it resulted in a run or not (your mileage may vary but I certainly wouldn’t call you wrong for loving this production).
Setting the usually pretty lugubrious text in a New York nightclub in the late 1970s, adaptor Brad Fraser and director Jillian Keiley inject much-needed energy and downplay the importance of tracking confusing court machinations between various men all named Henry. New focus is placed on the Duke of Aumerle (Emilio Vieira) whose expanded role capitalizes on existing subtext in really moving ways before veering a little soap opera when he’s handed a plot point that usually doesn’t belong to him. Not everything about this production worked for me but I love that it exists, importantly expanding audiences’ understanding of how Shakespeare can be done. There is nothing in the original R2 text that says he can’t be a club-hopping party boy with a penchant for glitter, a dancing angel entourage, and a male lover. These plays are 400 years old, it’s all fair game as long as you can find something (anything) in the text to support the choices (adaptation aside, I think pretty much all the big swings here are fully supported). The reputation and cultural importance of Shakespeare has been on a downward trajectory for years; without productions like this, that can only continue.
Richard II this season famously saw walk-outs and I imagine Cimolino took a great many calls from outraged subscribers who believe Shakespeare should only be for them. There’s no way when programming this production that he didn’t know that would happen. He did it anyway. This season has a lot of good programming and smart staffing decisions but it’s Cimolino’s greatest season ever because he was brave, he was tough, and he was willing to take the hits in order to let the artists make the art.
Even the musical programming, always Cimolino’s weak spot, is bolder than usual this year. The very generic production of Rent on the Festival Stage is under-thought and over-directed but it’s cool that they’re doing Rent at all when it’s rare for the company to perform any musical written after 1980. The cast is a very strange mix of underwhelming (Roger) and fantastic (Joanne) singers but the show furthers the feeling that theatre is for everyone that is crucial in general but especially this season and Lee Siegel’s performance of “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” is not only one of the best things onstage anywhere in 2023, it might be my favourite rendition of that show-stopping song I’ve ever seen (and Jesse L Martin is sacred so that’s saying a lot). Siegel tears out his heart then forces himself back to his feet and those 3 minutes and 39 seconds are more than worth any price of admission (and Stratford does actually put a decent amount of effort into making that price accessible).
Monty Python’s Spamalot is also smart programming, insightfully tapping into nostalgia for a segment of the audience (white boomers, essentially) who are crucial to Stratford’s bottom line but maybe haven’t to date associated the festival with an easy good time. With a reputation as smart satirists but actual output that satisfies the base human love of fart jokes, Monty Python is a clever way to pander and please and somehow feel not so far off brand. I’m not much of a Monty Python lover but those who are will absolutely eat up this production that is incredibly tight in act one but is let down by extremely dated humour in act two.
The only two productions that didn’t really work for me on any level this season were Grand Magic and, to a lesser extent, A Wrinkle in Time. The latter is another in Stratford’s recent trend of lackluster children’s book adaptations that just don’t seem to capture the magic I’m looking for from TYA. With real illusions performed live onstage, Grand Magic somehow had even less magic. Directed as broadly as possible, this dreadful play that’s as boring as it is obvious is the second underwhelming Eduardo De Filippo text to make it into a recent season (after 2018’s Napoli Milionaria). With few slots for mid-century plays in each season and an overwhelming number of contenders, I sincerely hope this is the last we see of De Filippo.
But there is better news elsewhere in the modern drama category. Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-Soeurs gets a sturdy production featuring excellent supporting turns from Shannon Taylor and Seana McKenna, and Alice Childress’ Wedding Band stuns in the new Tom Patterson theatre with a bright and heartfelt production from director Sam White, a Langham Workshop graduate who has been smartly recruited from the US and brings a very welcome fresh eye to Stratford’s directorial stable. Leading lady Antonette Rudder is also a new discovery. Technically in her third season but in her first major role, her performance here is one of the best of the year, a true star turn with that special remember-her-name thrill.
Morris Panych’s Frankenstein Revived is another oddball highlight and daring piece of programming that challenges the audience to embrace a different kind of theatrical experience. Performed entirely through a hybrid of dance and mime, Panych’s visually stunning production tells the famous tale with creativity and tenderness led by Marcus Nance’s beautifully felt performance as the Creature (Frankenstein is the Monster).
If I stopped there, I would still remember Stratford 2023 as a pretty great season of theatre, a remarkable reality considering I’ve been putting off addressing the very first show I saw. 98 productions later, Casey & Diana remains the best show I saw this summer. It may be the best show I’ve seen this decade.
Commissioned by the festival in 2018, Nick Green’s masterpiece tells the story of Princess Diana’s 1991 visit to Toronto’s Casey House, a hospice for AIDS patients. A strong ensemble of complex characters populates the intimate drama swirling around an astounding performance from Sean Arbuckle, a longtime favourite who has been underutilized with heartbreaking consistency during his 21 years at the festival. In Thomas, he finally finds the perfect role to showcase both his acerbic humour, bold but measured theatricality, and sensitive dramatic work.
Arbuckle’s performance alone would have made Casey & Diana a hit but it’s Green’s writing that marks the play as a particular triumph. The development of new work has long been a part of Stratford’s mission but it rarely makes much of an impact, churning out mostly middling adaptations of famous stories. An excellent script by any measure, Casey & Diana is by far the greatest Stratford commission to date. Using real events as a backdrop for imagined emotional truths and playing with form and structure to surprising and cathartic effect, Green has crafted a truly memorable collective experience that deserves to be seen far and wide.
The show ran a strategic but frustratingly brief three weeks in the small studio theatre. That unique programming strategy meant it was nearly sold out before it even began so when the word of mouth started to build it created a scarcity economy that only comes about in theatre maybe once every ten years.
Stratford recorded the show for their subscription platform and I hope it has a life far beyond that. Cimolino showed a level of ambition with this season that I’ve never seen from him. I’d love to see that continue, maybe even so far as borrowing a page from some of the more megalomaniacal artistic directors who’ve dared to think New York might care about their Canadian-born work. In a world that made sense, Sean Arbuckle would have a Tony.
This summer, the usually cautious Cimolino swung for the fences. With Ontario Theatre finally fully on its feet and a lot of what-ifs to make up for, 2023 proved a healing and emotionally charged summer. What a perfect time to knock it out of the park.