STRATFORD, Ontario -- It's a seven-hour drive to English-speaking North America's greatest classical repertory company, this year offering 12 plays in its four distinctive theaters. In a couple of days you can see a choice handful, or plan a six-day visit carefully and you could see them all.
This year's offerings include four by Shakespeare, the festival's raison d'etre -- two great tragedies and two comedies so dark they could almost be. In addition, there's a play about the effect of Shakespeare, featuring the marvelous Martha Henry (a Carnegie Mellon University grad, to boot).
The remaining seven are all over the theatrical map, from Beckett to "Fiddler," Schiller to Coward. I suppose you wouldn't call "Tommy" and "The Three Musketeers" classics, let alone a world premiere of "The Thrill," but even a classical theater has to pay some bills and nurture the future.
Last month, conducting a Post-Gazette Critic's Choice theater tour, I saw a juicy cross section that happened to miss the heavyweight Shakespeares but made up for that with a dark comedy and Schiller's near-Shakespearean "Mary Stuart."
Noel Coward, 'Blithe Spirit'
Dessert first. This is not one of Coward's handful of great comedies, but it's clever, featuring Madame Arcati, one of his more eccentric creations. She is the medium hired by writer Charles Condomine to conduct a seance so he can get some material for his next novel.
He gets more than he bargained for in the ghost of his dead wife, Elvira, who moves in with him and his more conventional second wife, Ruth. Conflict ensues. Much of the fun is in Charles' daffy enjoyment of the situation, although it eventually turns intolerable and he engineers a clever solution.
Mainly, "Blithe Spirit" offers two juicy roles on the insouciant, stylish side, while the third lead plays an offended, unimaginative straight woman. This is Coward mining the mannered upper-middle class in a comedy of much manner and little matter.
Seana McKenna is a bustling Madame Arcati, more like Julia Child tackling a recalcitrant roast, say, than Margaret Rutherford waggling her jowls over a puzzle. I've seen funnier (Rutherford, for one), but this Madame Arcati also wins our sympathy, further accentuating Charles' selfishness (he must be a very ordinary novelist) and Elvira's whining -- along with Ruth, three examples of the insufferable.
It's wonderful to contemplate the double casting that repertory occasions. Ben Carlson, here the stuffy novelist, also plays the scheming Burleigh in "Mary Stuart," where Ms. McKenna plays the isolated Queen Elizabeth.
More amazingly, Sara Topham, who plays the utterly conventional Ruth, doubles as the tragic Juliet! And Michaelle Giroux goes from Elvira, the feckless ghost, to that puzzling logician, the Portia who defeats Shylock.
Friedrich Schiller (adapted by Peter Oswald), 'Mary Stuart'
In this showdown between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, Schiller deals with big issues of liberty, political morality, religious extremism and gender politics, as director Antoni Comolino points out in his program note.
But it registers even more as a juicy conflict on the personal level, as two women face off with the fate of nations at issue (unusual in the real 1587 or Schiller's 1800). Here, I felt myself grumbling over the stalwart, self-sacrificial, even quasi-sacred self-awareness Schiller gives Mary and the conniving, evasive political strategizing he portrays in Elizabeth. It's as though he makes Mary the hero because she has the advantage of dying, while Elizabeth is stuck in the unsympathetic position of pretty much having to put her to death.
As this Mary, Lucy Peacock is essential casting. She has a luminous glow as the self-dramatizing martyr. How could such a woman be scheming (as history says she did) her cousin's death? How could religious fanatics not fall desperately in love with her?
As her opponent, this Elizabeth, Seana McKenna, has a dour competence that rises eventually to isolated grandeur, but stringent and cold, unsympathetic in juxtaposition to Mary's warmth.
They are surrounded with some fine supporting work: Ben Carlson as the careful and indispensible right-hand, Lord Burleigh; Brian Dennehy as the fading Earl of Shrewsbury; and Geraint Wyn Davies as the charismatic but foolish and eventually peripheral Earl of Leicester. There are a dozen more -- a whole Holbein's-worth of stolid faces.
Shakespeare, 'Measure for Measure'
We are in Vienna, where "corruption overruns the stews." The previously negligent Duke disappears, leaving the puritanical, book-learned Angelo in his place. In the course of cracking down on the whore houses, Angelo falls for a novice nun, Isabella, and propositions her carnally. She turns for succor to a mysterious Friar -- the Duke in disguise. Rather than unveil Angelo's hypocrisy, the Duke stage manages a complex train of revelations that almost goes awry.
There are various subplots, mostly involving comic lowlifes. But the focus is on how Isabella handles her solitary trial -- whom to believe and how to behave. She's one of those great Shakespearean women, young, smart, beautiful, strong, and she comes through the murk with flying colors until, at the very end, the Friar reveals himself as the Duke and out of nowhere proposes marriage.
How does she react? Perversely, Shakespeare gives her no lines or even stage directions. If the play is a (dark) comedy, as it seems, she must indicate acceptance. If it's a stringent moral parable, she might stand shocked and undecided, or even decline. And how do we feel about this Duke who allows corruption to flourish then cracks down and seems to have secrets of his own?
Director Martha Henry and company don't really answer those large questions. That irritates me, but still, it's a wonderful, perplexing play. Director and designers present a vivid world, vaguely mid-20th century, and the acting company rises to the many challenges, more in the supporting roles than the leads. As the Duke, Geraint Wyn Davies is just having too much fun to make clear his own moral complexity. I wish someone would give him his comeuppance, but neither playwright nor director choose to, and no one else (not even the gadfly Lucio) has the power.
As Isabella, I saw an understudy, Sarah Afful, who played the predicament without showing much of the personality. Tom Rooney's tormented Angelo was the most successful of the leads. And the supporting roles were strong throughout, especially Randy Hughson's great Pompey.
So the play solves none of the moral issues it raises. That's an answer of sorts: human behavior remains unknowable, Isabella perplexed and the Duke, an irritating enigma.
Bock and Harnick, 'Fiddler on the Roof'
This is certainly the robust crowd-pleaser of the festival, most engaging in its sense of ensemble, an entire village spilling out over the edges of the Festival Theatre's great Shakespearean thrust stage.
There are only 32 in the company, but it seems like hundreds. Scott Wentworth's very capable Tevye holds his own, but director-choreographer Donna Feore (it's no accident that this director is a choreographer) is the real star. Different members of the Post-Gazette tour cited different aspects as their favorites, but for me it was "To Life," the essential expression of life in the face of adversity and change.
For all its own changes of personnel and the tides of public response, however, Stratford still rides high in its 61st season.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944. First Published August 25, 2013 4:00 AM