Back to the Tent: Canada’s Stratford Festival Goes Retro During the Pandemic

Martin Morrow*

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare, directed by Peter Pasyk; June 22–July 25, 2021. R+J, by William Shakespeare, directed by Ravi Jain; Aug. 12–Sept. 26, 2021. The Rez Sisters, by Tomson Highway, directed by Jessica Carmichael; July 13–Aug. 15, 2021. Three Tall Women, by Edward Albee, directed by Diana Leblanc; Aug. 10-Oct. 9, 2021. All shows at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada.

Canada’s Stratford Festival, North America’s largest Shakespearean repertory theatre company, famously got started in a tent in 1953. Sixty-eight years later, the COVID-19 pandemic had it going back to its roots. After the global health crisis caused the cancellation of the entire 2020 season—15 productions in five indoor venues—the festival, led by artistic director Antoni Cimolino, was determined to mount some form of comeback in the summer of 2021.

The original Stratford Festival tent in 1953. Photo: Peter Smith & Company. Courtesy of the Stratford Festival Archives
The canopy erected in the Tom Patterson Theatre’s parking lot, used for outdoor performances in 2021. Photo: Martin Morrow

Its solution was a scaled-back, outdoor version: six plays and five cabarets, presented mostly in a pair of purpose-built, open-sided canopy tents erected in the parking lots of two of its theatres.

Happily, the COVID numbers in Ontario declined as hoped—the small city of Stratford is in the southwest part of the province, 150 km west of Toronto—and as the provincial government’s public-gathering rules consequently loosened, the festival was even able to increase its audience capacity. Shows initially played to no more than 100 masked and socially distanced spectators at each performance, but in August that limit was doubled to over 200 in its largest tent.

The shows I was able to take in included the season’s two Shakespeare plays—that ever-popular duo A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet (restyled here as R+J)—and a pair of modern classics, one Canadian (Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters) and the other American (Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women).

The festival’s determined efforts to put on a season amid the pandemic’s uncertainties, coupled with the thrill of finally seeing live theatre again after more than a year of digital fare, were enough to make a critic feel especially generous. Still, when I look back at Stratford’s 2021 in-a-tent Midsummer Night’s Dream—the first show I saw—I know I’ll remember it for the novel experience rather than for the production itself.

On the other hand, R+J turned out to be memorable quite apart from the unusual performance conditions. Although it was of interest primarily as an experiment in deconstructing and reinterpreting the familiar tragedy.

To begin with R+J, of which I have more to say: The show was directed by Ravi Jain, whose Toronto-based company Why Not Theatre scored a hit in 2017 with its reinterpretation of Hamlet. Jain loves to explore unusual perspectives in Shakespeare’s stories, motivated by a desire to de-colonialize western narratives and give a voice to the underrepresented and marginalized, including the disabled. His Prince Hamlet not only switched genders—Hamlet was played by a woman, Ophelia by a man—but subordinated Shakespeare’s text to a narration delivered in American Sign Language by deaf actor Dawn Jani Birley, in the role of Horatio. For R+J, he chose to retell the tale of the doomed young lovers through the memories of their older enabler, Friar Laurence, reconceived as a blind character and played by blind female actor Alex Bulmer. (Bulmer, Jain and actor Christine Horne—Jain’s Hamlet—crafted this adaptation.)

As Bulmer’s gumbooted friar moves about his rustic cell, tending his plants, he recalls the events of five years before, when he solemnized the secret wedding of Romeo and Juliet and then rescued Juliet from marriage to her family’s chosen fiancé, Paris, with tragic consequences. The show has us experience many of these recollections as the blind friar would—through sound rather than vision. Much of the play’s violence, both the swordfights and the lovers’ physical passion, is heard but not seen, with the actors standing still and often far apart on the stage. As well, the stage directions are often spoken to make the play more accessible to the visually impaired.

From left: Dante Jemmott as Romeo, Alex Bulmer as the friar and Eponine Lee as Juliet in the Stratford Festival’s production of R+J. Photo: David Hou

Recounting Romeo and Juliet’s woes as their chief adult confidante might remember them proved an intriguing premise, even if it didn’t go as far as exploring the presumed guilty feelings of the good friar, whose well-meaning ruse with that sleep-like-death drug inadvertently leads to the real deaths of both kids. And they are kids in Jain’s production. This was the first time—maybe outside of school productions—that I’ve seen the soon-to-be-14-year-old Juliet played by an actor who actually is that age (or close—the actor, Eponine Lee, was 14). She and her gangly adolescent Romeo (Dante Jemmott) were also given a contemporary spin pitched at young audiences. When they experience their coup de foudre at the Capulet masked ball, Lee’s appealing Juliet, rocking a Billie Eilish look, sings a pop song that the actor composed herself. Their famous “pilgrim” sonnet is delivered musically too, with Jemmott’s Romeo rapping Shakespeare’s poetry before switching to a Bruno Mars-style romantic mode. They’re a cute couple, even if their love seems less of the tragic and more of the puppy variety.

A scene from R+J: Eponine Lee as Juliet (centre) duets with Dante Jemmott’s Romeo (right) as Alex Bulmer’s Friar listens. Photo: David Hou

As was the case in Stratford’s last Romeo and Juliet production, in 2017, a veteran actor in the role of Juliet’s prattling nurse almost stole the show. Back then, it was Seana McKenna; for R+J, it was Tom Rooney. One of the festival’s finest comedic performers, Rooney made the most of that fond but logorrheic old thing, playing her with such affection and insight that you wondered if perhaps another take on the tragedy might be to tell the lovers’ story from her maternal point of view.

Eponine Lee as Juliet and Tom Rooney as the nurse in R+J. Photo: David Hou

Ironically, this radical reimagining of Romeo and Juliet had the most traditional décor. Under the Festival Theatre’s canopy, Julie Fox designed a cozy cell for the Franciscan friar that said “Italian,” “medieval” and “modern” all at once. Perhaps that was Jain’s sop to his sighted audience members, something for us to feast our eyes on.

Director Peter Pasyk took as less adventurous approach with his Midsummer Night’s Dream, presented at the tent outside the Tom Patterson Theatre. It wasn’t what I’d expected. After all, Pasyk was originally going to make his Stratford debut in 2020 with a Hamlet starring Amaka Umeh, who would be both the first Black and the first female actor to play the title role in the festival’s history. That milestone put on hold, Pasyk instead provided a sexy, cartoony take on the Dream more notable for its lively performances than for any flashes of inspiration and insight.

The first appearance of Trish Lindström’s Puck, popping out of a trunk in painted face and bowler hat, like a cross between a Beckett tramp and a Cirque du Soleil clown, was our cue to expect another circus-like treatment in the time-honoured Peter Brook tradition. And indeed, we were served up enough colourful costumes (designed by Lorenzo Savoini), broad acting and funny props to feel as if the Tom Patterson canopy had morphed into the Big Top. Pasyk’s approach was aimed straight at the groundlings, from the rendering of Titania’s attendant fairies as Muppet-like foam heads stuck on the ends of sticks, to a scene where Titania (Bahareh Yaraghi) and the donkey-headed Bottom (André Sills) simulated coitus—much to the disgust of an eavesdropping Oberon (Craig Lauzon), who apparently had a low tolerance for semi-bestial sex.

Bahareh Yaraghi as fairy queen Titania, with Trish Lindström’s Puck in the background, in a scene from the Stratford Festival’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Hou

There was also a scene where the four lovers—the Hamlet-to-be Umeh as Helena, Eva Foote as Hermia, Jonathan Mason as Demetrius and Micah Woods as Lysander—emerge from under an enormous sheet, cross-dressed and holding sex toys. A nod to our increasingly fluid notions of sexuality, it also reminded me of the festival’s last Dream production, Chris Abraham’s more richly conceived LGBTQ+ version of 2014. Pasyk’s interpretation was slight in comparison, enjoyable to watch and easily forgotten.

Trish Lindström as a provocative Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Hou

One brief moment of mischief, however, did stand out: When Lindström’s Puck, flirting with the audience, suddenly pointed to someone and asked provocatively, “Are you single? . . . Are you double . . . vaxxed?” It was a neat little pandemic joke.

The shadow of the pandemic was cast again, more sombrely, on the same stage in the opening moments of The Rez Sisters.

In Jessica Carmichael’s creative (if at times chaotic) staging of Highway’s comedy-drama, the character of Nanabush (the trickster figure in Anishinaabe and Cree folklore, played here by Zach Running Coyote) appeared in a silent prologue wearing a medical mask and a hospital gown. It was a foreshadowing of the cancer-stricken fate of one of the play’s eponymous “sisters,” but I’m sure I wasn’t the only audience member who immediately thought of the virus and those packed intensive care units.

The Rez Sisters (or Iskoonigani Isksweewak in Highway’s native Cree), first produced in 1986, has become a landmark work in Canadian Indigenous theatre. Inspired by another Canadian theatre landmark—Michel Tremblay’s Québécois classic Les Belles-soeurs—Highway’s rude, raucous, hugely funny and, finally, quietly poignant play follows the adventures of seven women from a fictional northern Ontario First Nations reserve. To borrow, apologetically, a European Christian metaphor, these poor but feisty ladies have their sights set on a Holy Grail—a financial windfall at a Toronto bingo event reputed to be “the biggest in the world.”

Zach Running Coyote as Nanabush in Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters. Photo: David Hou

They all have big dreams for their imagined big win, whether using it to buy a state-of-the-art stove or a luxury toilet or—in the case of the most pragmatic and community-minded of the ladies, Pelajia Patchnose (Jani Lauzon)—to pave the reserve’s cruddy roads. Highway’s characters are as delightful as their names: Pelajia Patchnose, Philomena Moosetail, Marie-Adele Starblanket, Emily Dictionary . . . They were vividly embodied in director Carmichael’s Stratford production by an all-Indigenous ensemble, from seasoned actors such as Lauzon to young up-and-comers—notably Befny Caribou as the teenage Zhaboonigan, whose excruciating description of being raped by white boys with a screwdriver is all the more painful for her ingenuous delivery. That monologue, the play’s darkest passage, has only gained in power since the 1980s. Highway was touching upon a hidden human-rights crisis—the ongoing victimization of Indigenous women and girls—that was finally formally acknowledged three decades later by the Canadian government with a national public inquiry.

The Rez Sisters is also an important play in Canada’s LGBTQ+ canon—although not always appreciated as such, Highway’s identity as a gay playwright being inevitably overshadowed by his role as an Indigenous trailblazer. Yet, this play has another moving monologue, delivered by the bisexual ex-biker Emily Dictionary, about her fierce love for a fellow rez sister, which struck me more than ever this time, thanks to Kathleen MacLean’s tough-but-tender performance.

From left to right: actors Befny Caribou, Christine Frederick, Kathleen MacLean and Nicole Joy-Fraser in a scene from The Rez Sisters. Photo: David Hou

The late Edward Albee insisted that he wasn’t a gay playwright but a playwright who happened to be gay. But his sexual orientation was one of the barriers that kept him from a close relationship with his adoptive mother, who insisted on expressing her homophobia whenever they were together in later years. After she died in 1989, he wrote Three Tall Women, a play based on her life that is unsparing in its depiction of her unappealing qualities, even as it attempts to understand and feel compassion for her.

After watching the multi-racial and otherwise diverse casts of R+J and Dream, and the fully Indigenous one of The Rez Sisters, coming to a play in which three white actors portray three stages in the life of a wealthy, deeply prejudiced and entitled WASP felt like a shock. I’d never thought of Three Tall Women as being a play about white privilege (maybe Albee didn’t either), but it was blatant this time. And director Diana Leblanc seemed keenly aware of it. When the oldest of the tall women, A (played by Martha Henry), casually uttered the N-word, the other two—in their dual roles as her lawyer and caregiver—turned to the audience with an expression of horror and disgust.

That’s in the realistic first act, which finds Henry’s elderly and semi-senile A alternately weeping and giving grief to said young lawyer, C (Mamie Zwettler), and middle-aged caregiver, B (Lucy Peacock). In the fanciful second act, after A has had a stroke and is ostensibly confined to a hospital bed, all three women reappear, this time representing her in youth, midlife and old age, and engage in a lively dialogue.

As each one speaks of her life as she’s lived it thus far—and gives the others a preview of what is to come—a full portrait emerges of an essentially shallow woman, whose greatest pleasures were riding horses and collecting jewelry. Her long-time estrangement from her son—who is a silent presence onstage, sitting at his mother’s bedside—appears to have caused her greatest emotional upheaval. And yet, as A calmly reassures a bitterly intransigent B, that too will pass.

Left to right: Mamie Zwettler, Martha Henry and Lucy Peacock in the Stratford Festival revival of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Photo: V. Tony Hauser

We may not care for this tall woman, but we couldn’t really despise her—not when she was portrayed by the 83-year-old Henry, Stratford’s beloved grande dame. Performing in what would be her final role—she died of cancer only 12 days after the show closed—the iconic actor, in her 47th season at the festival, where she also served as director and teacher, displayed all the fire and wit that audiences knew her for. In her latter years, she brought a serene glow to even the crustiest roles; here, we shared in her evident pleasure as she artfully delineated A in all her prickliness and pathos. It was even more remarkable in retrospect, when we later learned that she’d been acting while gravely ill and, at times, in pain. She was well-supported by Peacock (also one of the festival’s great actors, from the generation after Henry) as a smug B and a girlish Zwettler, who had played Miranda to Henry’s female Prospero in Stratford’s 2018 production of The Tempest.

The only play performed indoors, at the festival’s Studio Theatre (to a masked, socially distanced audience, of course), Three Tall Women also felt like the only one out of step with the times. This was a season shaped not only by the pandemic but also by current events, from the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests to Canada’s reckoning with its treatment of its Indigenous peoples—a social awareness that was reflected in its other plays and in its cabarets, too. In that context, Albee’s drama, superbly written though it is, could only be excused as a final acting showcase for Henry. Or, perhaps, as a reminder of the kind of white narratives privileged by Stratford and other major North American theatres for far too long. 

*Martin Morrow is the President of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association and a two-time winner of Canada’s Nathan Cohen Award for excellence in critical writing. He has served as chief theatre critic of the Calgary Herald (1988–2000), Fast Forward Weekly (2003–06) and The Grid (2011–14). Since 2010, he has been a theatre critic and arts writer for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. He is also the author of Wild Theatre: The History of One Yellow Rabbit, a chronicle of the seminal Canadian avant-garde company.

Copyright © 2021 Martin Morrow
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