I had the pleasure of traveling into the heart of Ontario, Canada on Saturday to attend the Stratford Festival for a day. Stratford, named after Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare, hosts the Stratford Festival from April to November each year, which is one of the most celebrated and top-caliber theatre festivals in North America. The festival features nine productions this season, though only being in the Great White North for one day, I was able to catch only two: the Eugene O’Neill opus “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”, and Shakespeare’s whimsical farce “The Comedy of Errors,” both presented in Stratford’s Studio Theatre. Though shows of polar opposite tone and content, both are connected through the festival’s theme of “freedom.” Festival Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino marshalled a diverse collection of theatre pieces that all share this theme, from “Coriolanus” to “ The Rocky Horror Show” to “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Freedom is being explored deeply and comprehensively in Stratford, through characters and stories old and new.
First up was “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”, O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical 1941 play which is commonly considered to be his finest work, and one of the 20th century’s most important pieces of theatre. The play spends one day and night with the dysfunctional Tyrone family. Mary Tyrone (Seanna McKenna) is an unstable mother addicted to morphine that recalls moments of her life in the past to escape from her reality. The Irish patriarch James Tyrone (Scott Wentworth) is a cheap and alcoholic man and former successful actor. The older son Jamie Tyrone (Gordon S. Miller) is an alcoholic idle man that loves and envies his brother and is blamed by his mother for the death of his younger brother. Edmund Tyrone (Charlie Gallant) is an aspiring writer that has consumption (tuberculosis) and tried to commit suicide. Throughout the course of the play (a marathon three and a half hours), the Tyrones grapple with the morphine addiction of Mary, the illness of Edmund, and the alcoholism of Jamie. As day turns into night, guilt, anger, despair, and regret threaten to destroy the family.
Director Miles Potter presents this iconic masterpiece in the mostly conventional manner that the show is seen everywhere; after all, the show’s content is so rooted in the early-20th century Northeast U.S that it’s nearly impossible to take liberties with setting or time period. The entire show was set in the living room of the Tyrone’s Connecticut home, with minimal set pieces and extravagance. The intimacy of the Studio Theatre allowed the audience to really get to know the Tyrones, and was essential to the chemistry that these characters displayed, particularly McKenna and Wentworth, who were both mesmerizing.
“Long Day’s Journey” often elicits groans from theatre-goers, as it is astoundingly long and the themes are unrelentingly grim. However, in the right hands this show soars, which is the case with Stratford’s production. The audience was captivated from beginning-to-end, through two intermissions and the family’s deep dives into their past, their relationships with each other, and ultimately their place in the world. Mary says it best: ““The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us.”
After spending the afternoon immersed in O’Neill I grabbed a bite to eat (try the Bacon Avocado Burger at Downie Street Burgers, it will change your life), strolled through Stratford’s scenic downtown shopping district for a bit, then headed back to Studio Theatre at 8pm for “A Comedy of Errors”, presented on the same stage that “Long Day’s Journey” was.
Full disclosure: I am not a Shakespearephile. Though my love for theatre and drama are strong, I’ve always struggled with the language of Shakespeare (which is my fault, not his), and seeing a Bard play has always felt more like homework than pleasure. It’s my own cross to bear, and I try my best to see Shakespeare whenever I can, hoping one day that he’ll grow on me like he has for so many others.
That being said, I’m happy to report that Keira Loughran’s production currently running in Stratford is a riot, bizarre, and tremendously fun. “The Comedy of Errors” tells the story of two sets of identical twins who were accidentally separated at birth. (Shakespeare was father to one pair of twins.) Antipholus of Syracuse (Jessica B. Hill) and his servant, Dromio of Syracuse (Beryl Bain), arrive in Ephesus, which turns out to be the home of their twin brothers, Antipholus of Ephesus (Qasim Khan) and his servant, Dromio of Ephesus (Josue Laboucane). When the Syracusans encounter the friends and families of their twins, a series of wild mishaps based on mistaken identities lead to wrongful beatings, a near-seduction, the arrest of Antipholus of Ephesus, and false accusations of infidelity, theft, madness, and demonic possession.
The production weaves together a tapestry of conventional Shakespearean language and staging with 80’s techno music, chaotic lights, dancing, and drag costuming, in what culminates in an oddball 80’s slapstick Rocky Horror-in-pantaloons production that was distinctly unique, full of great physical humor, and hilarious performances. While the whole cast was great, notable standouts include both Dromios (Bain and Laboucane), Angello the jeweler (Rodrigo Belfuss), and Adrianna (Alexandra Lainfiesta). If a dense Shakespeare-adverse shlub like me has a ball at this performance, everyone will.
While it’s a bit of a hike for us WNY-ers (around 2 hours 45 minutes), the Stratford Festival is worth every minute that it takes to get there. Theatre is in the air in the small tucked-away town, and while I can only speak for the two performances that I saw, the artistry that the actors, directors, producers, and technicians bring to the festival’s shows is unparalleled.
The Stratford Festival is running until mid-November (with some shows ending sooner), with “The Comedy of Errors” and “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” playing at the festival’s Studio Theatre. For more information and tickets, click here.