Sunday, August 29, 2010

Shakespearapalooza

As the last hurrah of summer, Cosimo and I spent a couple of days at the Stratford Shakespeare festival. Since I'm not really a Shakespearian and I wasn't a drama geek in high school or college (I was a band geek, which is totally different), I've never before seen the phenomenon of the summertime Shakespeare festival up close and personal, and my exposure to the mass-market Shakespeare Industry has likewise been relatively limited.

It was equal parts delightful and slightly depressing.

The delightful parts had to do with what happens when a small, largely rural community gives itself over to live theatre for almost half the year: how it makes it happen, where it makes it happen, and the sweet, wacky, unpretentiousness of the endeavor. Stratford has a handsome historic downtown of four or five blocks, perched prettily on a river (the Avon, natch, and filled with swans, double natch). But it's encircled by aging strip malls that are in turn surrounded by cornfields, and some of the incongruity of the festival's location was summed up by the sign that ushered us into town:

("Welcome to Stratford: home of the Stratford Festival and the Ontario Pork Congress")

The theatre in which we saw our first play, a production of The Winter's Tale, felt similarly improvised: it was the repurposed Stratford Kiwanis Club, adjacent to the Stratford Lawn Bowling Association (whose bowlers were quite active the two days we were there). But although I was dubious about the space, based on the building's unhandsome exterior and lobby, the theatre was smartly designed, with not a bad seat in the house--and, more importantly, the production itself was fantastic.

In fact, the best parts of the festival were the most amateurish, in the best sense of that word: though the actors were all professionals, there was a palpable sense that they and the audience (even the annoying lady with the dyed-red hair in the row behind us, who was loudly showing off her Shakespearian expertise before the show and during intermission) were there out of love for the plays, for Shakespeare, and for live theatre. And if you have to be a tourist in a tourist town, it's pleasant for it to be one with three bookstores on the main drag, where you can saunter to a tasty post-show dinner at midnight, and where all the other tourists also have rolled-up programs popped beneath their arms.

But the less amateurish stuff was less agreeable. The mainstage production--the one in the fancy theatre, with the big-name star, and with lots of special effects--was dreadful. I don't mind an expensive spectacular that's calculated to appeal to people less familiar with the play, as long as the play itself is done reasonably well. But I do mind when a couple of actors in major roles phone in terrible performances (messing up cues, delivering their lines as if they were in a language they didn't actually understand, mugging rather than acting) and most of the rest of the cast is so wooden and lifeless it's hard to believe they are professionals. I'd have said that productions like the second one we saw were why some people hate Shakespeare. . . except that the audience around us plainly loved it.

But that's what funds the smaller productions, I guess: the fact that there wasn't a vacant seat even at a midweek matinee in a theatre that seats almost 2,000; that charter buses disgorged tourists all day long; and that the gift shop had lines longer than those for the ladies' restrooms. And if that's the bargain, I'll take it.

14 comments:

Fretful Porpentine said...

Is the Falstaff restaurant still there? I remember wanting to go into that place and order a ha'pennyworth of bread and an intolerable deal of sack, except I figured they must get a lot of that :)

The mainstage productions were quite good both times I was there, but that theater is just too darn big; I liked the smaller one much better.

Flavia said...

No! Or at least, we didn't see such a place. But there was an Othello's restaurant. (Which I suppose is better than Othello's B&B, but still. . . no.)

And yes: the mainstage is much too big. There were a couple of actors who I suspect were quite a bit better than the performances they gave, but who got swallowed up by all that space.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Heh, better Othello's B&B than Titus's Restaurant!

Renaissance Girl said...

LOL. FP: I'm hoping you've seen _The Compleat Works of Wm Shakespeare, Abridged_, which turns Titus into a Julia Child-type cooking show!

Stratfordfest said...

Thank you for sharing your comments on the two productions you saw while in Stratford and about your trip in general. I know that the Festival Theatre seems large and given the number seats I supposes it is large. However, many people don't realize that in the grand scheme of things everyone is close to the stage, almost as close to the stage as the smaller theatres (the last row is only 65 feet away from the stage).
But I guess it's all a matter of taste, I enjoyed the show you disliked more than the one you really enjoyed.
Thank you again for your comments.
Aaron Kropf
Social and Online Media Coordinator
Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Renaissance Girl said...

Wow. That's some serious social and online media coordination.

Historiann said...

Yeah, I'd delete that comment from the Stratford PR hack. It smells spammy, because you didn't complain about the seats in your post, just about the acting in the main stage production. In fact, you specifically complimented an improvised venue as offering "not a bad seat in the house."

Screw spam. I'm glad you had a great time in Stratford, and I like the points you're making about the tradeoffs at this intersection of art and commerce.

Sisyphus said...

I went to see Shakespeare stuff in England at Stratford and they had a lot of the same problems.

BTW, I was a band nerd AND theatre geek in high school! Talk about the overlapping venn diagram of weirdness!!!!

Moria said...

Oh, jealous! I really want to go to Stratford, if only to have a deeper understanding of Slings and Arrows. Because, honestly, that would be enough for me.

Though I do kind of fear an organization that has mobilized its blog-commenting apparatus so ... "effectively"?

Flavia said...

Moria: it's exactly like S&A. But even more so.

Richard Smith-Jones only dreamed of having a social and online media coordinator.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Come to think of it, I also got a visit from the social and online media coordinator on the one occasion when I happened to mention the Stratford Festival on my blog. I feel so ... surveilled.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Glad you had a good time, Flavia.

And Mr Kropf: Please reconsider doing this sort of thing, which makes the Stratford Festival look extremely bad.

It is counterproductive to go around the blogosphere trying to refute every critical comment about the Festival's productions. And only a fool would go around the blogosphere carping about every small criticism in what was overall a warm endorsement. When you get four stars out of five, have the good grace to accept it.

This is Flavia's blog, and Flavia's readership. I read her because I value her opinion. I won't value it less because you tell me not to. I've been reading her for years. Why on earth should I listen to you?

Worse, you have made the Stratford Festival look small, petty, and terrified of criticism. A festival confident of its productions (as Stratford by ought to be) doesn't have an employee dispute every personal review of specific productions. And when you behave in such a thin-skinned way, it makes people wonder what's wrong in Stratford to make its PR staff so nervous and defensive.

Stratford shouldn't be that place, and you shouldn't make it look like it is.

Stratfordfest said...

Flavia, I would like to say that I'm sorry that my simple comment hijacked everything you had to say about the festival in this blog post. I assure you this was not the intent, rather it was to get involved with you as a patron and talk to you about some of the items you discussed in your post.
Since it seems to have been missed by many of the other commentators on here I'd like to thank you again for what you had to say about the festival and your trip to Stratford.
Aaron

Flavia said...

Aaron:

I had a lovely time, overall, and I'll certainly return; But this is indeed a pretty ham-handed way to connect with patrons in social and online media.