Antoni Cimolino is an interesting figure in the history of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. He began his career there as an actor in the late 1980s, before shifting to a combination of administration and stage direction. He’s now the General Director of the Festival. He is, like his mentor, the late Richard Monette, a home-grown leader, someone who has spent his career at the Festival. But Monette left the Festival to establish himself as an artist elsewhere – around and outside of Canada. He returned to become a stage director and then Artistic Director only after that career.

It is widely assumed that Cimolino would like to be Artistic Director one day, and he has much to recommend him – ample administrative experience, a good relationship with the donor community, intimate knowledge of the Stratford stages and the artistic operation of the Festival. His close partnership with current Artistic Director Des McAnuff hopefully has enabled him to establish his own connections with McAnuff’s far-flung collection of contacts in the theatre world.

I’m not terribly concerned about the fact that Cimolino has spent basically his whole career at Stratford. I worry a bit about what that means for the breadth of his contacts, but the guy’s got hustle. He’s not going to let the place stagnate.

But what I’ve noticed, thinking back on his career, is that, as an artist, I don’t really know who he is. That is to say: I don’t know his vision.

I’ve seen, if I recall correctly, five productions directed by Antoni Cimolino over the years: a Twelfth Night from a decade ago, an As You Like It, Coriolanus, Bartholomew Fair. Every production has been solid. Every one showed an understanding of what keeps an audience with the play. (Even his Bartholomew Fair did what it could with an impossible text.) He works well with actors (he was an actor himself, after all). And he’s got some clever directorial tricks up his sleeve – I recall his decision, in his Coriolanus, not to have new scenes begin as the prior ones were still ending by having new people coming on-stage talking – the traditional way to keep the action moving through scene changes in Shakespeare – but by having the players for the next scene come onstage and take their places literally right behind the actors of the previous scene, so that the action can shift in an instant from one scene to another. It was effectively the theatrical equivalent of a cinematic “cut” and it did a great deal to make those scenes more immediate.

But I was still waiting for the play that feels like something he absolutely had to direct. Something bursting with passion, with a fire to tell a particular story, now, in this way; a note of inwardly-driven urgency. I want to know what he’s passionate about.

Richard Monette’s directorial debut at Stratford, his 1988 Taming of the Shrew, which I have seen on film but was unfortunately unable to see in person (since I hadn’t heard of Stratford yet) showed me his passion. I saw a real commitment to comedy, to earning the laugh – but also a director who had the text thoroughly embedded in his fingertips, so that every joke sprang from a deep understanding of the line, sight gags and brilliant line readings fruitfully interpenetrating each other. But more than that, I saw a love story, and a director who believed in telling a love story. (And Shrew is arguably Shakespeare’s best love story, deeply moving if properly executed, as it was in this production.) It felt like a story he passionately wanted to tell. And he told it beautifully.

The first few Shakespeare productions Des McAnuff directed at Stratford didn’t make a similarly grand impression. There were certainly things I liked about his Romeo and Juliet, but I didn’t love the production or feel like he had something compelling to say about the play. I thought the central performances in his Macbeth were strong and unusual, but the directorial concept left me cold. His Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum was very enjoyable, but not transforming (I wouldn’t expect that show to be), and his production of Caesar and Cleopatra was thrilling, but I felt less that this was a story he needed to tell than that he wanted to create an amazing theatrical space for Christopher Plummer to, well, be Christopher Plummer in. (I felt somewhat similarly about his Tempest last year.) It wasn’t until I saw his As You Like It that I understood where his true passions lay. The fusion of music and theatre – not in the form of a traditional musical comedy, but more in the sense of creating a whole world suffused with music – that’s one aspect of the passion. The other is his affinity for Shakespeare’s mature comedies, love stories in which the relations between the principals are soaked in melancholy, and the delights of the world are a kind of fruitful distraction from the sad truth of ultimate loneliness, even in love. This came out very strongly in his As You Like It, and again in this year’s marvelous Twelfth Night, which I still need to review. (And his Jesus Christ Superstar and Caesar and Cleopatra can be understood as inversions of his favorite theme: stories about men who will not let themselves be loved, or really known, because they need to protect their uniqueness, rather than stories about women who long to be loved, and known, but kind of know that the love they will get won’t quite measure up to that desire. So perhaps Caesar was a story he needed to tell after all, and I just didn’t understand it yet at the time.)

This year, Cimolino’s contribution to the Festival program is The Grapes of Wrath as adapted from the Steinbeck novel by Frank Galati. And while the production doesn’t answer every question I had about who, theatrically, Antoni Cimolino is, I think I’m starting to get an inkling.

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I admit, I am not a huge fan of Steinbeck. I find him preachy and dull. I couldn’t bring myself to tackle the book before the show, and I feared that I might be in for an evening of socialist realist posturing dressed up with country tunes and an expensive bathtub.

But I have to give credit to Cimolino, to Galati, and to the entire cast of the show, because what I got was an evening of compelling theatrical spectacle.

The primary star of the show is the set, a set dominated by three key components. First, the backdrop. Essentially featureless, its dark blues and reds invoke a fiery dust-bowl sunset. The blankness of the canvas is on one level realistic – these folks come from flat country; what you’d see behind them isn’t much more than sky – but on another level imparts a kind of Beckettian starkness to their situation. Their drama is playing out in a kind of no-place.

Second, water. Water appears first of all as the Colorado River that Pa’s various sons frolic in on their one real break in the journey, the river that lures the weird son, Noah (played movingly by Steven Ross) on a mysterious journey of his own away from his family. And the water comes back late in the play, returning as a rainstorm that sparks a flood that nearly washes the family away just as Rose of Sharon is giving birth. Water always makes for a lively spectacle on stage, but here again something that could have simply been an effect develops a kind of totemic power.

Lastly, the car. A beat-up jalopy not big enough for six has to cart over a dozen of the Joads and their hangers-on and all their worldly possessions. The car, dominating the stage for much of the middle of the play, begins to evoke Mother Courage’s cart (though Janet Wright’s stoical Ma has precious little in common with Brecht’s force of nature).

This is a story told with pictures, more comparable to a Depression-era mural than to a novel or a play. And looking at it I realized: this is an important part of the way Cimolino works. His Coriolanus, also, was organized around creating a set of iconic images. The glory of his Bartholomew Fair was Lucy Peacock’s performance as the Pig Woman, but that performance was itself anchored by an outrageously over-the-top fat suit. His As You Like It was anchored, as much it was by the music (composed by Bare Naked Ladies for the production), by the arrangement of the bodies of the cast during the numbers, creating 60s nostalgia tableaux that were instantly recognizable. An image – not actually static, but a kind of frozen motion, more photographic than cinematic; that’s an important part of how Cimolino tells stories.

Now, in this case, for all that it was, as I say, a powerful theatrical spectacle, and emotionally affecting, I would argue that it is not, in fact, a compelling story. It’s a story about suffering and endurance, and it’s rather monotonous as such. There are some rudimentary character arcs, but two of the three main ones (ex-con Tom Joad’s and ex-preacher Jim Casy’s) are structurally conversion narratives – stories about how, after seeing or experiencing this or that, a person saw the light and got on the path to salvation. And maybe it’s my bias, but I don’t generally think that’s an effective storyline – or, rather, the storyline’s effectiveness depends on the observer’s preexisting commitment to the faith to which the conversion narrative attests. (A story about the experience of conversion is something different entirely – but that’s not what Grapes is about.)

The main exception is the story of Rose of Sharon. Rose’s narrative isn’t a conversion narrative; hers is a story of maturation, a spoiled girl becoming a life-giving woman. That’s a universal story that doesn’t really depend on anything but human experience. It’s also a gift to Chilina Kennedy, who plays the part beautifully. The journey from brat to madonna seems like one that means something to her, and as a consequence an urgency powers her performance from beginning to end. (That end being one of the great iconic images of the 20th century.)

This isn’t a complaint about the performances. The two principal male characters are played by exceptionally strong actors – Tom Joad by Evan Buliung and Jim Casy by Tom McCamus – who are perfectly cast in these roles. Buliung has been playing Tom Joad for years, and McCamus has just the right faded vulpine charm to make us see the lustful preacher he once was. I’m just saying that the journey from dissipated ex-preacher to “you know, I got to thinking, maybe I need to support this strike” or from “I can’t believe they’d actually foreclose on the farm, that makes me so mad,” to “you know, after what they did to Jim Casy I’m damned if I’m not going to take his place” – these aren’t journeys that reveal a lot about the interior of these characters. A political point is being made – effectively. But that’s about it – which is why Tom Joad’s big “I’ll be there” speech is actually one of the weaker moments for that character in the play.

And all the other characters pretty much are who they are. Grandpa (played by the puckish Ian Clark) is a randy old goat until he dies. Al (an energetic Paul Nolan) is the randy young goat, until he gets married. Noah is otherworldly, Ma is stoical, Connie is no-account, Uncle John is guilty – and so forth. The actors throw themselves into their characters, and make them jump off the stage into our hearts and our minds – they do. But these people don’t change. They suffer. And they endure. And some of them get a notion into their heads that could change the world, maybe. And they make speeches about it. But as characters, they are static. And as a plot, it’s just one damned misery after another. And so, as I say, it’s not a compelling story qua story.

But it’s a magnificent mural. Go take a look.