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A Unique Canadian Theatre
by

Arnie Greenberg

I just returned from an exciting long weekend at Canada’s Stratford Festival of Canada. Like the theatre in England, the main thrust in Canada is Shakespeare. But don’t be dismayed. There is something for everyone including the children. It is a magical place set on the shores of the Avon River in Stratford Ontario, only a few hours drive from Detroit. It comes complete with swans floating on the water, trumpeters calling people to witness their performances and stores, hotels, restaurants and venues, all with a Shakespearean name. I have been going to Stratford for over thirty years. It never disappoints.

Over the years I’ve seen nearly all of the Shakespearean works plus Gilbert and Sullivan, Broadway shows like Cabaret and The King And I and plays by Ibsen, Noel Coward, Moliere, Tennessee Williams, Chekhov, Eugene O’Neill, Beckett and Brecht. I’ve been enchanted by such greats as Christopher Plummer, Maggie Smith, Paul Scofield, Julie Harris, Hume Cronyn & Jessica Tandy, Alan Bates and a host of talented Canadians like William Shatner, Len Cariou, William Hutt, Megan Follows, Jean Gascon and the great Lorne Greene.

I’ve seen Loves Labour Lost, Hamlet, Pericles, Macbeth, Taming Of The Shrew in traditional costume and in Western togs. I’ve seen all the Richards, Henry, Romeo & Juliet, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and a whole series of Greek tragic figures. I’ve sat spellbound as these well-trained giants of the theatre have taken me off to mystical forests, through tempests and great battles, through bedroom farces and operettas and a kings thoughts as he toiled through his ‘summer of discontent’. I was there when the long-bowmen, that ‘band of brothers’ brought glory to England at the battle of Agincourt. I laughed, I cried, I sat spellbound in my seat as the greatest players performed the greatest plays in a theatre that I always find awesome.

It started as a dream by Tom Patterson, a native son, who saw Stratford fall on difficult times. His dream was to revitalize this beautiful old town

with a theatre devoted to Shakespeare. The city council and people supported him, as did the legendary British actor and director Tyrone Guthrie, who agreed to become the first Artistic Director.

A giant canvass tent was erected in the parkland next to the river and placed on a concrete amphitheatre built to the specifications of Tyrone Guthrie and the renowned theatre designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch.

Then, from that finished amphitheatre, modeled after the classical Greek theatre at Epidaurus, over 2000 people heard the great Alec Guinness emerge as Richard III and speak of his “winter of discontent”.

It did indeed do something for Stratford as it “made glorious summer’. It made the world take note that Canada had arrived as a serious theatrical country. This stage with a 175-degree arc of seats has brought thrills to millions over the years. It draws over 600,000 people a year and runs from April to November.

Aside from the main Festival Theatre, the old movie house, The Avon, was transformed into a comfortable second venue, smaller by far than the great center near the water, but this mid town theatre has become a happy addition to the Stratford dream. There are stars set into the sidewalk in front of the theatre. I stood close to the Alec Guinness star and thought of how Stratford began.

A ‘Second Stage’ was added years later to give young would be actors a chance to show off their talents. The Festival offers wide programs of educational and enrichment values to teachers and patrons and the training of future classical actors.

The inauguration of back stage visits with the actors, discussions, readings and recitals all add to the offerings of this popular place.

Next year the Festival offers six Shakespearean works such as A Midsummer’s Nights’ Dream, Macbeth and Henry VIII. It also diversifies with Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo and Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. Add Noises Off, Cymbelene, Timon of Athens and the popular Guys and Dolls and you have a season to look forward to.

Stratford Ontario is easily accessible from both Detroit and Toronto. It sits in a lovely part of verdant Ontario and has all of the support systems in place to make your stay comfortable.

There are hotels, guesthouses, bed and breakfast operations and even campsites. The restaurants are plentiful and the price is right with the American dollar buying about $1.40 Canadian.

There are activities for children and wonderful golf courses for the athletes. Add the Shakespearean Garden where one can wander along paths and smell the roses. It was named champion of the Nations in Bloom contest. Don’t miss it.

The swans, ducks and geese add to the wonderful setting. And in keeping with Shakespearean names the arboretum is called Birnham Wood. Shopping is easy in the town. There is even a shop that specializes in items from Scotland. But I wouldn’t call Stratford ‘cutesy’ or cute. It’s a business town with a special flavor and was named the “World’s Most Beautiful City for a town of its size in 1997.

Since Stratford is close to a large Amish community, there are handicrafts such as traditional quilts. For those collectors of Inuit sculptures, Stratford is a must. There is manufacturing here too with local wares available everywhere.

I couldn’t count the number of Bed & Breakfast operations, many with cute country names like Brigadoon, The Chisholms, The Cat’s Pajamas and a cozy hotel within walking distance of the main theatre called The Victorian Inn.

Over the years I’ve have tried different ones. They are usually cozy, welcoming and have superb breakfasts. But you must book early. With 600,000 visitors, rooms book early, especially on summer weekends.

This year we selected the Essex Guest House, owned and operated by the affable Lester and Viola Huntington. The Huntingtons are transplanted from rural Quebec. Their homey touch and traditional atmosphere was worth the stay. I would select the Robin Room with its large balcony. All rooms have air conditioning, bathrooms ensuite and the choice of breakfast is wide. I had some of the best scrambled eggs I can remember on each of the mornings I spent in this warm, family atmosphere. The cost is about $100 per room. There’s ample free parking and a lovely quiet balcony out front.

ESSEX GUEST HOUSE is located 4 minutes from the Avon by foot at 243 Wellington Street.

Call for a reservation at 519 273 7785 or Fax 519 273 9191, for a very satisfying experience among good people.

One of my other meals was taken at the bustling Fellini’s Italian Café and Grill. Here in an atmosphere of warmth and service, I tasted the Eggplant Parmigiana, baked with marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese while my wife enjoyed the well-prepared stuffed Chicken Marsala with prosciutto, Fontana and Marsala sauce.

I debated over the traditional Tiramisu or Cioccolata al Massimo but decided that a rich chocolate mousse cake would wait for another day.

Fellini’s is at 107 Ontario Street. Phone: 519 271 3333.

Then, one day, we wandered into the Bistro 104 at 104-108 Downie Street across from the Avon Theatre. We opted for the lunch section where the carrot and cinnamon soup was delightful. The other half of this truly wonderful eatery is a more sophisticated but unpretentious dinner restaurant with enough mouth-watering ideas to satisfy any gourmand. Here we were greeted by the happy smile of owner/operator Paula Stock who, although overworked by her own admission, made us feel at home while April took our orders with a smile and a special sense of hospitality and good humor.

I tried their Grilled Chicken Supreme with ginger lime glaze, Coconut Jasmine Rice and Asian Greens. It was pure pleasure and at $20.95 Canadian, a true bargain. My wife had the Tortiglione Pasta with Charred Tomato Sauce and local goat cheese, black olives and fresh basil for only $14.95.Would I go back again? You bet. This place is comfortable and only a few seconds from the delights of the Avon Theatre, just across the road.

A reservation is suggested. What they call ‘casual bistro fare’ can be enjoyed with plenty of time to get to the theatre for the opening curtain. Call ahead at 275-2929 or check out their web site at www.bistro104.com

Stratford, Ontario began as a settlement in 1832. The incorporated village became a town in 1854 and was divided into five wards—Avon, Falstaff, Hamlet, Romeo and Shakespeare. The Shakespearean connection has always been present.

The railroad started in 1856 when the Buffalo and Lake Huron line and the Grand Trunk Railway established themselves in 1871.  The city grew but it was the creation of the Festival that put the city on the map. If what I saw continues (and I’m sure it will), it will be a Mecca for theatregoers for years to come.

It is the ‘stuff that dreams are made of’. Visit soon.

Let the play begin!

#   #   #

You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at

Email:  Ultours1@gmail.com

Over the past few years, Professor Greenberg has traveled with groups to France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and both Sorrento and the Bay of Naples plus most of Sicily. His tours traveled to the far reaches of the globe including Italy and most of China (Beijing -Hong Kong) and to Russia where his group cruised the waters from St.Petersburg to Moscow. 

"He took a group to Greece and another to northern Russia. In Nov 07 he took a tour group to much of India and ended his tour groups by revisiting France. He now travels with his wife and friends. They winter in Argentina or San Miguel Mexico.  His newly found spare time is taken up with his painting and writing. "I must write every day." His current work is a cautionary manual for would-be tour leaders..  "So You Want To Be A Tour Leader." 

Arnie now travels with friends. He continues writing Travel articles about unusual places but often concentrates on novel writing. Two books based on French Art will be published this year.  Keep reading his web for travel ideas.  His next novel HELLSTORM'S Folly, will be available this fall. He now lives in British Columbia.

Go to:  www.top-travel-ideas.com or contact him directly at ultours1@gmail.com.

(More about the writer.)

 

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