Reflections on the 2023 Season
It’s not a horserace, it’s not a competition, and there are a lot of apples vs. oranges considerations when it comes to discussing the very different theatre companies that call southwestern Ontario home.
And yet . . .
Now that the 2023 season is more or less over (Stratford has extended its successful musicals) I found myself mulling the 43 plays I saw during the season, what I thought of them, and what I thought about the companies that presented them. This is what I came up with.
The best all-round 2023 season programme was presented by the Blyth Festival. There wasn’t a clunker in the bunch, from the hysterically funny and devilishly clever Liars At A Funeral to the terrific ensemble of actors presenting James Reaney’s magisterial Donnelly trilogy as abridged and adapted by Gil Garratt.
Next, in my estimation, was Here For Now Theatre’s slate of one-act plays presented under their modest tent tucked away in the woods behind the Stratford-Perth Museum. Here For Now is a woman-led company that presents plays for the most part written by and about women. They have a keen artistic vision and (at the risk of using a sexist metaphor) they stick to their knitting. They also manage to attract some of the best acting talent Canada has to offer.
The Shaw Festival’s 2023 season in far off Niagara-on-the-Lake once again outpaced, in my opinion, the Stratford Festival with another solid season. It was almost an embarrassment of riches, beginning with the splendid two-part Mahabharata and continuing with Kate Hennig’s remarkable turn as Mama Rose in Gypsy. Tom Rooney scored once again in The Apple Cart and Kimberley Rampersad made up for her stumble at Stratford with a wonderful production of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner.
Stratford landed in last place this year with a 2023 season that, despite triumphs like Casey and Diana and Wedding Band, was uneven. I especially regretted the fact that Antoni Cimolino chose not to direct any of the Shakespeare plays. Fortunately, Chris Abraham, a reliable interpreter of the Bard, turned in a fun rendition of Much Ado About Nothing, starring Maev Beaty and Graham Abbey. But even that production failed to impress some Shakespeare purists; I had some nits to pick but felt its virtues far outweighed its faults
Otherwise, the Shakespeare at Stratford was lackluster at best, including Rampersad’s disappointing King Lear starring the beloved Paul Gross.
The musicals Rent and Spamalot were well done and popular but not up to the standards of previous seasons in my estimation. Of course, both have been extended due to popular demand, which says something about the value of my estimation!
As always, there were productions beyond the four companies mentioned above that made a side trip from Stratford worthwhile. I will have fond memories of Mark Crawford’s The Gig at Hamilton’s Aquarius Theatre, Norm Foster’s Outlaw, staged in a barn outside St Catherines, and Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story at Drayton.
So all in all a decent summer season, one that will provide warm memories during the winter as I look forward to 2024.
Before the Covid pandemic, like the plague of Shakespeare’s time, shut down theatres across Canada, the Stratford Festival still seemed to have a genuine reverence for the Bard. One might have quibbled with the gender bending liberties taken with 2018’s Julius Caesar, but it was still recognizably Shakespeare.
After the pandemic, directors at the Festival have shown an increasing distrust of old Will. Peter Pasyk has mounted cut-to-the bone versions of Hamlet and Love’s Labour’s Lost that failed to retain the magic of the originals.
In the 2023 season Jillian Keiley (who admitted in her Director’s Note that she didn’t understand the play) and her chosen adaptor, Brad Fraser, rendered Shakespeare’s Richard II utterly unrecognizable.
Kimberley Rampersad, who has done such splendid work at the Shaw Festival, couldn’t seem to get a handle on King Lear. Even Chris Abraham felt the need to hire a feminist playwright to paper over Shakespeare’s faults.
So the question arises: if the emerging crop of directors finds Shakespeare so problematical and so incapable of reaching contemporary audiences without major revisions that often run counter to the playwright’s original intent why bother doing him at all? Why not turn their not inconsiderable talents to fresh material that better reflects contemporary concerns and interests?
The Stratford Festival has long since dropped the word “Shakespearean” from its name. Why not take the next logical step dump the Bard altogether? Or at least relegate him to a vestigial role with abridged and “reimagined” takes like the R&J of 2021? Why have just one blockbuster musical on the festival stage when you could have two?
You may have a different take. Please don’t void your rheum upon my beard, but feel free to vent your spleen in the comments.