Monday, July 5, 2004

Stratford Diary

Thursday, July 1, 2004

Stratford, Ontario is the home of the Stratford Festival of Canada, producing some of the best theatre in North America. It started out in 1953 under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie, doing one Shakespeare play under a tent on the banks of the Avon River and has now grown to an annual event that lasts seven months (April – November) each year. It used to be they did only classic plays – Shakespeare and the like – but today you can see all manner of theatre from avant-garde to frothy musicals like Gigi. I’ve been attending regularly since 1970. I’ve missed a few years here and there, but my parents, who started coming in the 1960’s, haven’t missed a year yet, sometimes coming more than once a season. In 2002 they had reservations to come back in October and see Christopher Plummer in King Lear. But a visit to the doctor in September revealed that my father needed surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm; not something you could put off. He had the surgery moved up so that he was in good enough shape to make the trip and see this production. The show must go on.

Late evening: We saw a fantastic production of Noises Off directed by Brian Bedford. It being Canada Day, we watched the parade up the main street of town, replete with local marching bands and Shriners driving around in their little cars. Before the curtain, they played “O Canada!” and we rose to our feet and joined in. One thing I’ll give the Canadians…their anthem is sure a lot easier to sing, and it isn’t about bombs bursting in air.

Friday, July 2, 2004

Even a world-class operation like the Stratford Festival can, on occasion, produce a clunker. Back in the early 1970’s I saw a production of Othello with an Israeli actor by the name of Nachum Buchman. He looked the part and the set and costumes were great, but Mr. Buchman’s accent was so thick that it was nearly impossible to understand him, and the show clunked along like it was running through a swamp. But rarely have I seen a play at Stratford fall flat. Today, unfortunately, was one of those rare occasions. We saw a lifeless and oddly uninteresting production of The Count of Monte Cristo. I expected a swashbuckling tale of adventure and revenge, but in spite of some spectacular sets and very well choreographed swordplay, the acting was stiff, the dialogue cheesy, and the payoff at the end was a real letdown. I know that it is hard to turn a 1,400-plus page novel into a two-act 100-page play, but there was something missing… like real energy. I’m hoping that today’s show was the only turkey in our lot.

After the show I stopped at a shopping mall and loaded up on contact lens solution. It sells for about $9.49 a bottle here versus the $10.49 in the US, and with the exchange rate, that comes in at about $7.15, so I cleaned them out of their last two bottles in stock. Come and get me, FDA. As I was leaving the mall I passed by a travel agency. They were offering real deals on vacations in the Caribbean – yeah, I know that July is not the high season for trips to the tropics, but still…. They were offering a seven-night stay at an all-inclusive resort in Varadero, Cuba, for $649 (US $488) per person, along with other bargains at other places on “that imprisoned island.” It seems ironic that citizens of “the freest nation on Earth” can’t take a trip to Cuba without getting in trouble with their government. What is sad is that Cuban-Americans, who have valid reasons other than vacation for traveling there, are under even tighter restrictions than before. This is just to keep a bunch of political cronies in Miami in the Republican camp.

A note on Marlon Brando, who died today at the age of 80. There are going to be a lot of tributes paid to him for his amazing portrayals of classic roles, such as Stanley Kowalski and Don Corleone. But he also brought Method acting to the forefront of film work, which is no mean feat. Method acting, by which actors do everything they can to assume the character they are playing, was pioneered by Konstantin Stanislavski in the late 1890’s at the Moscow Art Theatre and brought a naturalism and honesty to the portrayal of characters in tune with the new movements of realism and naturalism on the stage. Brando’s use of Method acting in film was revolutionary. Films are made out of sequence and done in short bits with long waits between shots. There are often numerous takes, and putting two minutes of film together for one scene can literally take all day. For an actor to maintain his character in the Method style requires discipline and concentration beyond that of working through two acts for two hours on the stage. Marlon Brando set the example for many actors on the stage and screen, and while he had an eccentric personality and made his share of flops, he was true to his craft and his art. And he also had the ability to laugh at himself – witness his performance in The Freshman. All in all, he was a great man and his contribution to the art was just as great. The real tragedy is that he did most of his best work fifty years ago.

Saturday, July 3, 2004

The hotel delivers a copy of the National Post to my door every morning. This seems to be Canada’s version of the Wall Street Journal in terms of its editorial content – slightly to the right of Der Volkischer Beobachter. Their editorials are snooty towards the Liberals, they gleefully ran Christopher Hitchens’s spittle-flecked review of Fahrenheit 9/11, they toady up to the Americans (their editorial today on the observance of the Fourth of July was sycophantic), and in today’s edition they reprinted Charles Krauthammer’s defense of Vice President Cheney’s use of the F-bomb. I’m used to seeing suck-up editorials to Bush in the American media, but seeing it in the foreign press is a little disconcerting.

Afternoon: We had a leisurely picnic on the banks of the Avon River and watched the ducks and swans dabbling in the creeks that run around the islands that make up the shore parks. Before lunch we stopped at a bookstore where I avoided spending any money – a first for me, I’m sure. Tonight we’ll be seeing “the Scottish play.” (Why do I not mention the title? Theatre superstitions die hard. Anyone familiar with both Shakespeare and the theatre will know what I’m talking about. Those who aren’t won’t care.)

Late night: The Scottish play was excellent. We saw it in the Festival Theatre, which is located on or near the space where they first performed the plays under the tent. This production had everything a good play should have – intrigue, politics, romance, and good special effects that didn’t overwhelm the characters.

Stratford brings back a lot of memories. The town has grown a lot in the last thirty years, but it’s still maintained its small-town charm. There are still small bookshops where you can browse to your heart’s content or just wander through some of the riverside gardens. This weekend, being a holiday weekend in both the USA and Canada, you’d expect to find large crowds, but it’s not been overwhelming. The theatres have had good turnouts but not full houses, and you can usually find a seat in a good restaurant. And the weather has been great – clear and not too hot.

Sunday, July 4, 2004

Morning: We’re seeing Anything Goes this afternoon before heading home. Before that we’re having lunch at a little restaurant called Bijou.

One of the things that makes this trip fun is not just the theatre but going to some of my parents’ favorite restaurants. They have formed friendships with some of the local restaurateurs, including Jim Morris, the owner of Rundle’s, which is a fantastic place with an amazing menu. We also visited another favorite, The Old Prune (where its name came from I have no idea). These places make going to Stratford as much a festival in the gastronomic sense as they do in seeing the plays.

After the show: The production of Anything Goes was fantastic; probably the best musical I’ve ever seen done there. Of course, having fourth-row center seats didn’t hurt. I have a special affinity for the show, seeing as how it was the last play I was in where I actually “trod the boards.” I played Lord Evelyn Oakleigh in a community theatre production in Harbor Springs, Michigan in July 1995. The guy who played the part in today’s production is a better dancer that I am. Not surprising.

Late that night: We returned home, stopping on the way at Chili’s for a burger – what a change from the food we’ve been getting for the last four days. And back in the USA. There was no line at Customs at the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit – a few perfunctory questions, a cursory glance at our passports, and we were back on I-75 going 65 miles per hour instead of 100 km/h. It’s good to be home. Now I just have to find out what kind of mess we have to clean up back here in terms of what Bush and his gang have done while I’ve been gone, and start to plan for next year’s trip.

I hope everyone had a safe and happy Fourth of July.