Each summer for the past 15 years, my wife and I have trekked to the heart of southern Ontario pork country to attend the largest classical repertory theatre in North America, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

It’s a strange place to put a major international theater, midway between Buffalo and Detroit—not the middle of nowhere, but a good distance from anywhere. That isolation is part of the point. Away from the distractions of home, body and mind can reorient around the theatrical experience. And that experience isn’t confined to the stage. Most everybody else in town has some connection to the theatre, and has seen the same shows you have. You see the actors around town, behaving remarkably like normal people. Though you leave the theater at the end of each performance, the theater never really leaves you.

Continuity stretches through time as well as space. Over the years, a jejune Romeo matures into Hamlet, then ripens further into Prospero; a beloved Rosalind hardens into Lady Macbeth, then mellows into Mistress Quickly. You evolve alongside them. Shakespeare often analogized life to stage performance, but seeing familiar actors move through these roles and reflecting on how you yourself have progressed (or declined) through your own seven ages, it begins to seem less an analogy than a literal truth.

Stratford, celebrating its 60th anniversary season this year, is itself moving into a new age. The incoming artistic director, Antoni Cimolino, announced the 2013 season with a promise to “put the actor and the text firmly at the centre of what we do. … In a culture that has become so visually oriented, I think people crave the kind of storytelling that relies above all on the uniquely compelling power of the spoken word.” The comment was interpreted by some as a rebuke to his predecessor, Des McAnuff, who famously adorned a production of “Twelfth Night” with a flying refrigerator and interrupted a scene to have John Lennon deliver a pizza.

Advertisement

I enjoyed that production of “Twelfth Night”—as I have many of Mr. Cimolino’s as well. From where I sit, what distinguishes our culture is not its visual emphasis but its restlessness and the mediated nature of our experience. We watch movies we can barely see on our iPads, but we are also assaulted by text from our RSS and Twitter feeds. What we experience too infrequently is inescapable intimacy with another human being. Alone among the narrative arts, live theater can help us achieve that intimacy. And everything else in a production—striking images or perfect diction or Shakespeare’s poetry itself—should properly serve to aid that achievement.

The current season, running through the end of October, provides ample opportunities for a theater-goer to achieve that intimacy, with some of the greatest characters portrayed by some of the most accomplished classical actors in North America, particularly in the three Shakespearean offerings: “Henry V,” directed by DesMcAnuff; “Cymbeline,” directed by Antoni Cimolino, and “Much Ado About Nothing,” directed by Christopher Newton.

Productions of “Henry V” tend either to present a patriotic pageant or a scathing critique of war. McAnuff aimed for something different. Before the play has properly begun, the cast makes its way onto the stage in rehearsal clothes. Finally, Tom Rooney comes out and declares, “O, for a muse of fire.” Another actor picks up the chorus; the narrator role is passed from hand to hand across the cast. The message: this is the story of our community and how it came to be.

I was excited by this opening, the promise that this tale of long-ago war would be brought home by actors dressed like us, speaking directly to us, asking us to imagine our own kinship with our distant ancestors. But what it turned out to portend was just another pageant, only without the usual airbrushing. So: a parade of sails rolls off the stage and down the aisles to signify the expeditionary crossing of the Channel; a parade of archers launches their arrows upstage to signify the triumph of the English longbow at Agincourt. But Henry also orders the French prisoners marched into the traps, to be burned alive.

The trouble with this approach is that pageants, by their nature, are not terribly dramatic. Showing us so much undercuts the main point of the play’s prologue—the call to awake our own imaginations, to come to really feel we are there, in Agincourt. And without the airbrushing, what we get is a parade we can’t quite march to.

Almost lost in the spectacle, Aaron Krohn delivers a subtle and disconcerting portrait of the warlike king. I found myself thinking of our former president, Krohn’s fellow Texan, who proclaimed himself “the decider” yet was assiduous about disclaiming responsibility for anything that happened as a consequence of his wars.

I noticed how Krohn’s Henry never seemed to get a crease in his uniform, never seemed to get a spot of blood on him (at one point, he wipes his sword fastidiously), seems not so much to be hiding his emotions as never quite feeling them in the first place. Even in the famous “upon the king” speech, where Henry is forced to confront the extent of his responsibility, Krohn seemed to evade that recognition. And I could easily imagine President Bush teasingly bullying an inferior the way Krohn’s Henry did Williams, a soldier the disguised king encountered the night before battle and who expressed a lack of enthusiasm for fighting, perhaps dying, under Henry’s banner.

Other excellent performances dotted the production, particularly among the Eastcheap set, Tom Rooney’s passionate Pistol, Randy Hughson’s peace-and-mischief-making Bardolph, and Lucy Peacock’s underplayed, and hence more-moving, Hostess. (Falstaff even gets a last laugh from inside his enormous coffin.) These marchers to their own drums naturally never manage to fall into step with the parade—that’s part of Shakespeare’s point. But McAnuff’s staging tries to press them into file, and rather than giving them proper representation, this only leaves them looking out of place. When the play ends, with the descent of the Canadian flag, the promise of that opening—that this play will tell us how we became who we are—remains unfulfilled.

“Cymbeline” is another story about a war between Britain and a continental power but set within an absurdly complex fairly tale. The play is like a smorgasbord of Shakespearean tropes—the cross-dressed heroine; the husband tricked into jealous rage; the father furious at his daughter’s choice of mate; we even cross the ancient Britain of “King Lear” with the ancient Rome of “Antony and Cleopatra” and, simultaneously, the Renaissance Italy of “The Merchant of Venice.”

The bewildering array of plots, all of which come together in the recognition scene to end all recognition scenes, can be quite a challenge to a director. Cimolino’s approach is to play it fairly straight. His ancient Britain looks Elizabethan, but he lets his Italians be first century or 16th as the scene demands, and his skin-clad rustics could be from any age. He doesn’t distract us with a “concept”; his goal is to let the story tell itself through the poetry, of which there is plenty—and a cast fully capable of making it sing.

 

But this hodgepodge of a story won’t tell itself, and Cimolino knows it. So, as with McAnuff’s “Henry V,” he’s created a frame to help us interpret what we see. His play opens on the king, Cymbeline (Geraint Wyn Davies), in bed, dreaming he is surrounded by the other characters, and crying out his daughter’s name—Innogen! The bed is whisked off, and the play proper begins. Then, at the end of the production, Cymbeline stands spotlighted center stage, suddenly surrounded by a cast who look decidedly skeptical that this fairy tale has reached its apparently happy end.

What are we to make of this frame? Unfortunately for the production, I really don’t know. It appears to be an attempt to re-center the play on the titular character, whereas usually it revolves around his much-more-dominant daughter (played here by the finely vulnerable and strong Cara Ricketts). But though portrayed with more kingly vigor than usual, Cymbeline remains opaque, which makes it difficult for him to anchor the play.

This “Cymbeline” felt to me more like a collection of powerful moments—a superlatively tense seduction, a spectacular battle scene—than a fully persuasive play. The performance that stayed with me longest was Graham Abbey’s exceptionally powerful Posthumous Leonatus, a character who too often comes off as inferior to his royal mistress. And a play that on the surface sides overwhelmingly with the notion that blood will true winds up vindicating the only character not to the manor born.

My favorite Shakespeare production of the season was the third because it most successfully expanded my understanding of the play. In most productions of “Much Ado About Nothing,” the Claudio-Hero plot is something of a bore. We want to get back to Beatrice and Benedick’s badinage. But there’s a back story to their battle, and this is the first production I’ve seen that tied that back story to the plot that dominates the play.

Beatrice and Benedick were in love, once—or, as Beatrice says of Benedick’s heart, “he lent it me awhile; and I gave him use for it.” For some reason, Benedick broke things off. We don’t know why, but Benedick muses, when explaining why he remains a bachelor, about the inevitability of wearing horns—i.e., a fear of cuckoldry. Ben Carlson’s Benedick exhibits a real bitterness in these lines, suggesting they are not merely a pro forma masculine complaint. He thinks he was the wronged party.

This makes his turn toward Beatrice, after the famous overhearing scene, more powerful, but more importantly it lends an edge to his relationship with Claudio, his reluctance to challenge him driven not so much by fellowship as identification. Claudio, after all, thinks he is the wronged party vis-à-vis Hero. And Tyrone Savage may be the first Claudio I’ve ever seen who made the infamous cad at least somewhat sympathetic, because sincere, if stupid. He plays him as the young Sean Penn might have, powerful emotions roiling a shallow pool.

Christopher Newton has set his “Much Ado About Nothing” in 19th-century Brazil, an appropriate locale for the persistent themes of honor, male and female. Others have complained about the giant staircase that dominates the stage (and blocks some sight lines) or have applauded the artful weaving of Latin music and dance through the production. What I valued most was how these two key performances enhanced my understanding of the relationships that drive the comedy.

The Stratford season ranges far beyond Shakespeare, including musicals like “42nd Street” and “The Pirates of Penzance.” For my money, the highlights of the non-Shakespearean portion of the program are Thornton Wilder’s warm and rueful comedy “The Matchmaker,” Sophocles’s astringent tragedy “Elektra,” and “Hirsch,” a one-man tour-de-force portrayal of a flawed giant of Canadian theatre history. But to truly appreciate this continental treasure, you have to go back, season after season, until you become a part of it and it of you.

A complete list of Noah Millman’s reviews of the 2012 Stratford season can be found at https://www.theamericanconservative.com/shakesblog/the-stratford-2012-season/.