It's too soon to tell if the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's 2012 season is a momentary departure from previous years or an accelerated veering off in new directions. It's also fair to assume that some things won't change. It's still the same four and a half hour drive to the small (and often hot and humid) city in south central Ontario, and the town is still dotted with dozens of restrained Canadian versions of Queen Anne-style B&Bs best known for their unrestrained breakfasts and their determinedly "Victorian" furnishings.
Several of the plays opened in mid-April and the last ones to close hang on through October. Finally, the season still includes three plays by the eponymous Mr. S, plus 11 more that keep the Festival's five stages busy, from the expansive 2100-seat Festival Theatre to the tiny, steeply raked Studio and an even tinier Studio Annex.
But the predictable can distract you from the changes. This year's offerings range from Ancient Greek tragedy to new Canadian plays, Gilbert & Sullivan to Thornton Wilder, and tap-dancing chorines shimmering in spangles to the superb Christopher Plummer alone on stage. What's unusual about this season is the presence of five recent Canadian plays and four musicals. With only a few exceptions, the plays are either Shakespeare or modern. It's essential to attract younger audiences, but do I detect a whiff of pandering in the air, based on the specious assumption that young people won't go to anything that isn't "sorta like now"? Depending on your point of view, Artistic Director Des McAnuff, beginning his final season at Stratford, is an innovator or a vulgarizer. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
McAnuff has been directing a major Shakespearean comedy each year for the last three years; for 2012 his choice is "Much Ado About Nothing" – another opportunity for superb romantic comedy with the inimitable Benedick and Beatrice crossing verbal swords before they figure out they're nuts about each other. Audiences find McAnuff's approach to classical comedy a breath of fresh air or self-important interference. He finds his inspiration in sketch comedy, sitcom, and baggy-pants burlesque, and leaves it to Shakespeare to hold the play together. His versions of Shakespeare are often fast-paced and more than a little wacky, and I fully expect "Much Ado" to proceed the same way. You may also feel free to wonder why McAnuff works so hard to fix Shakespeare when he isn't broken.
The other two by Shakespeare fill out the typical bill of a comedy, a history, and a tragedy: perhaps the greatest, certainly the noblest and most energetic, of the histories, "Henry V," and one of Shakespeare's more convoluted stories, "Cymbeline." In the former, Aaron Krohn plays King Henry leading the English army to defeat the French "upon St. Crispin's Day," and heads a strong cast to do it – Lucy Peacock, Ben Carlson, James Blendick, and Keith Dinicol, among many others.
If you like musicals, this is the summer for you. The chronology starts with Sir Arthur Sullivan's thumping melodies and W.S. Gilbert's brilliant lyrics in full regalia for "The Pirates of Penzance," followed by the Broadway brass of "42nd Street," Charles Schultz's take on childhood dramatized in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," and the world premiere of "Wanderlust," Morris Panych's new musical based on the poems of Robert Service. The original movie version of "42nd Street" is far superior to the disappointing Broadway adaptation, but you still get Harry Warren's pulsating tunes and Al Dubin's snappy lyrics. Songs like "You're Getting To Be a Habit with Me" and the title number are gritty urban lullabies for the naughty, bawdy "little nifties" who'll do almost anything to land a job in a Broadway chorus or snatch up a sugar daddy during the darkest days of the Great Depression.
If I could afford to buy only one ticket this summer, I'd blow the budget on "A Word or Two" to see Christopher Plummer, one of our greatest actors, stand on stage to talk about works of literature that have stirred his imagination since he first discovered them – and then he reads from them. Don't confuse Plummer with his best-known role, Captain Von Trapp in the movie version of "Sound of Music." He is a superb actor, and he will carry you from A.A. Milne to Ben Jonson with his engaging charm and his wonderful voice.
The most conventional fare for Stratford leads to Greek tragedy and American comedy, the kinds of plays the Festival typically mounts. In the Sophoclean tragedy "Elektra," Yanna McIntosh has the title role of the powerless Elektra who awaits the return of her brother, Orestes, to avenge the death of her father at the hands of her mother and the man who is now her stepfather. If you didn't know better, you might think it was the original soap opera. Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker" is best known these days as the source of the musical, "Hello, Dolly." It is the original story of Dolly Levi, a woman who arranges marriages including one, eventually, for herself.
The remaining plays are the most recent and the most unusual, and their small casts fit nicely in the Studio Theatre and its Annex. Although they're largely unknown, most of them insist on eccentricity as a virtue. The two plays that sound the least likely for Stratford are Michael Hollingsworth's "The War of 1812," in which everybody dumps on everybody, especially those who were here first, and Rick Miller's "MacHomer," a one-person anarchic tour de force that combines "Macbeth" with 50 different characters from "The Simpsons" that ran only during the month of May.
Finally, In Daniel MacIvor's "Best Brothers," two very different brothers mourn their unconventional mother, while in Alon Nashman and Paul Thomspon's "Hirsch," a young man survives the Holocaust and finds safety in Canada, where he combines talent and a stormy temper to become a major theater director. John Hirsch was artistic director of the Festival in 1967-1969 and 1979-1981.
There really isn't a moral to the story. And it doesn't need one. "Assassins" is part history lesson, part black comedy, and wholly enjoyable.