One of my favourite summer activities is theatre, not just the performance, but the stretch of time before the show. Some years ago, we decided to fill that space with picnics rather than prix fixe dinners. We set a picnic table with a checked tablecloth and coordinating plates and then feast on hors d’oeuvres and large salads. There’s wine, of course, discreetly poured into glassware.
In Stratford we nosh by the Avon River, watching the swans drift, and the scullers pull. In Niagara-on-the-Lake, the scene is different: The Niagara River empties into Lake Ontario, so our view is that of sailboats tacking their courses in the distance and kayakers paddling closer to shore. During COVID, I missed our pre-theatre picnics as much as I missed theatre. Picnics set the mood for a romantic date with my favourite guy. Al fresco dinners feel spacious, languid, and intimate; they were and still are the foreplay to the main event.
And let me say that this summer’s theatrical offerings are luscious. The ensembles and the artistic companies at both Stratford and Shaw are talent powerhouses. Each production brings together the skills and creativity of set, costume and lighting designers to support the performers and their telling of stories.
Our first play of the season was Cyrano de Bergerac, a poignant and compassionate portrayal of unrequited love; Tom Rooney played the lovelorn, self-effacing Cyrano to Deborah Hay’s self-absorbed, ingénue Roxanne. I’ve seen Cyrano before, but this performance by Rooney made it the best ever. The set changes were remarkable: a theatre, courtyard, army camp, and convent. Sadly for you, dear reader, we saw the last performance on May 8th, but there are many more superb plays to see this season.
Damn Yankees was one of them, but it was not as we expected. Because some cast members had been injured or fallen ill, we were to see a ‘concert performance,’ a phrase I’d not heard before. What it means is no set and minimal costume changes. As we took our seats, my less than generous thoughts went something like this: Hmmm. We drove for 90 minutes to see the actors sitting on the stage? My expectations were low; the cast roles for the evening had been vigorously shaken and stirred (see inset). But it’s in situations like this where ensembles excel. Yes, the actors were arrayed in a semi-circle of chairs at the outset. But, they did sing, act, and did so with vigour. It wasn’t evident that several actors who had been plucked out of their assigned roles and plunged into their understudy roles, might have experienced tachycardia for the duration. A measure of the performance was that the audience gave the cast and crew a standing ovation. I, too, was on my feet, and that was unusual; I’m not a fan of musicals or baseball.
Everybody is the penultimate expression of ensemble excellence. If you were to attend every production of it this season, it’s unlikely you would see the exact same play. That’s because the role of Somebody is fourteen different roles which are played by six actors on a lottery basis each night. That’s right. Early in the show, a raffle drum is produced, and the six actors choose their roles for the evening. The play is about Death, its capriciousness, and how it ultimately comes for the good and the bad, ready or not. It’s funny and serious and absolutely life-affirming.
Chitra – Shaw Festival Theatre is a Bengalese play that addresses a tale as old as time: How to marry the ecstasy of sexual desire with a serene, mature spiritual love? When this theme is blended with women’s empowerment in a repressive society, it becomes more layered. Chitra has an astonishingly simple yet effective set. I want to say that the actors danced, but they didn’t; they moved poetically across the stage and up and down the set. Chitra is a lunchtime performance. If you book it, you will have time to play nine holes at a local golf course and still make time for dinner and an evening performance. We did precisely that and purchased a new Tilley hat at Beau Chapeau. It was the perfect summer’s day.
That evening’s performance was Gaslight. I first heard the term gaslighting as I listened to an NPR production decades ago on a long car trip. The story was so vivid, and the theme so sinister that I had the sense of seeing it as I drove. This production at Shaw does a similar job of creating menace and foreboding. It reminded me of another play I saw years ago at Theatre Aquarius, Wait Until Midnight. The evening I saw that performance was one where I returned to our home in the country…by myself. Kenn was on a business trip; I slept with a knife under my pillow. Without giving anything away, Gaslight works anxieties equally well but does let one have a good night’s sleep.
At Stratford, we’ve seen Little Women and Richard III, and Chicago. Chicago hadn’t made my original list because I thought the Hillfield-Strathallan 2018 performance was perfection. Why would I want to see it again? However, I changed my mind when I learned that Stephan Dickson was the play’s associate director and choreographer. It turns out Stephan is related through marriage to some good friends. How could I not see it? As I expected, the performance was superb; the energy was infectious, and now if I see Stephan over the next year, I can tell him that I enjoyed the choreography and staging. Up next at Stratford is Death and the King’s Horsemen and The Miser. And there are still several more plays to see at Shaw.
I’m often asked, “Which play should I see this year?” and it’s a question that I find hard to answer. Each one has its merits, and some tick all my boxes (script, staging, set, costumes, performance, teamwork). Kelly Nestruck, the reviewer from the Globe and Mail, sees plays at the beginning of their runs and his assessments often agree with mine. His reviews are proper and timely. Check them out if you want an informed opinion. My comments are colour, with the intention of creating a community much like a book club.
For me, live theatre is as much a celebration of talent and teamwork as basketball and soccer. There’s something quite enjoyable about discussing favourite plays with a fellow aficionado. That’s an experience I had a few weeks ago, between Chitra and Gaslight, on a golf course of all places. Not only did I have fun at the game, but I had a fine conversation with another golfer about the productions and actors we had both seen at Shaw over the past many years.
We left the St. David’s golf course and wended our way down to the river past fields of orderly and trellised grape vines. By the time we had set up our picnic, the sailing club had begun its nightly race.
The curtain would rise in one hundred and twenty minutes, but until then, we had much to eat and more to say. Al fresco dining and stimulating conversations are indeed theatre foreplay.
Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend.