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While planning the Stratford Festival’s 2018 playbill, artistic director Antoni Cimolino was faced with an unprecedented challenge.
With the Tom Patterson Theatre slated for reconstruction over the next year, Cimolino had to find a way to preserve the artistic opportunities afforded by that venue without actually having that venue.
There was some frustration — plays that seemed “too big” for the intimate Studio Theatre but not familiar enough to fill the Avon.
“I had to stop and acknowledge why the Tom Patterson Theatre is so important to us,” Cimolino said in a Tuesday afternoon interview.
But Cimolino and his colleagues found a balance, working to place the often-challenging space of the Tom Patterson in the other venues.
“I had to make sure we didn’t drop that really important area of our program,” Cimolino said.
The constraints posed by the Tom Patterson’s planned reconstruction also applied some self-imposed pressure when Cimolino was deciding the 12 plays comprising the new season. He wanted the 2018 playbill to be as exciting and fresh as the new theatre will be when it opens to the public.
The result is a season that mixes the familiar with the very new, blending different voices and genres in a season-long exploration of the theme of free will.
“The whole premise of the playbill is being able to live our lives the way we want to while . . . living in harmony with one another,” Cimolino said.
One of the most exciting aspects of the 2018 playbill is the return of Martha Henry to the Festival Theatre stage after three seasons in the director’s chair. Henry will be starring as Prospero in Cimolino’s production of The Tempest, a project the two have been discussing for months.
“It’s the dream of a lifetime to direct Martha in this part,” Cimolino said. “In part, (this play) is about an accomplished artist looking back and looking forward.
“I think Martha will have so much to say on this piece . . . I’m excited for the results.”
Like Dame Helen Mirren, Henry will be playing the role as the Duchess of Milan, switching the original gender of Shakespeare’s protagonist.
For the 2018 season, the Festival has two large-scale musicals planned, neither of which has graced the Stratford stage for almost a decade.
In what the Festival is describing as a “coup de théâtre,” director Donna Feore will helm both season-long productions: Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man at the Festival Theatre and Richard O’Brien’s cult classic, The Rocky Horror Show, at the Avon.
“The Music Man is a brilliant show about the power of music and the power of art,” Cimolino said. “… It’s a fun book, has great songs and will play to all the strengths that Donna has.”
For the Rocky Horror Show — a musical that Cimolino described as “innocent people who go out and meet a group of vulnerable people” — the Festival plans to preserve the elements that made the original a glam-rock classic. Some of the performances, Cimolino said, will likely be more interactive, allowing audience members to bring props and come in costume.
“We’re going to try to find a way to do that,” the artistic director said.
One of the new voices at the Festival in 2018 — at least in terms of directing — is French Canadian playwright and director Robert Lepage, who plans on an innovative interpretation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus that incorporates real-time video and social-media elements. After years of trying to bring the acclaimed director to Stratford, Cimolino said he is excited about what Lepage will bring to the Avon Theatrestage.
“He talked about the mob in Coriolanus as being social media now — the bullies, the people who shame, the online trolls. I was really intrigued by the idea,” Cimolino said.
Stratford favourite Scott Wentworth, who has directed beautiful realized productions of Romeo and Juliet and The Adventures of Pericles over the past two seasons, will helm a second Roman history plan, Julius Caesar, at the Festival Theatre. The final Shakespeare production for 2018 will be a more intimate staging of A Comedy of Errors at the Studio Theatre, directed by Keira Loughran, who helmed this year’s sensitive production of The Komagata Maru.
Like the two musicals, the “modern classics” coming to the Festival this year have rarely been performed in Stratford.
Another new-to-Stratford director, Nigel Shawn Williams, will be guiding To Kill a Mockingbird, a Christopher Sergel dramatization of Harper Lee’s classic novel, at the Festival Theatre. Given recent events in Charlottesville, Va., Cimolino said To Kill a Mockingbird is a play that still carries a “very important” message about tolerance and the “risk of trying to achieve these ideals.”
“It’s our responsibility to tell this beautiful story,” Cimolino said.
Cimolino will be directing another play that shares an enduring relevance, bringing Eduardo De Filippo’s Napoli Milionaria to the Stratford stage for the first time. Working from a Festival-commissioned translation by John Murrell, this comedy shares the story of a family that becomes involved in the black market during the waning days of the Second World War. While warm hearted, the play — set for the Avon Theatre stage — also boasts some “hard-won lessons” about the world we live in today.
“It’s a play I’ve wanted to do for years,” Cimolino said. “It’s a play I love, and it was time to do it.”
The Stratford Festival will also be presenting a production of Eugene O’Neill’s classic, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, for the first time since the 1995 season. Directed by Miles Potter, who has close to a dozen Stratford productions on his resume, the production is tentatively slated for the Studio Theatre.
“It’s one of my favourite plays,” Cimolino said. “It’s so beautiful and so powerful. Enough time has passed, and the casting for this is going to be amazing.”
The final modern classic being staged for the 2018 season is Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, a story about a blackmailed politician paying for the indiscretions of his youth that shares elements from the playwright’s own troubled life. Lezlie Wade, who has previously directed the play at both the Shaw and Stratford festivals, will be brining An Ideal Husband to the Avon Theatre stage.
The 2018 season will be rounded out by two completely new plays developed through the Stratford Festival’s Laboratory: Brontë: The World Without, written by Jordi Mand, and Paradise Lost, a theatrical adaptation of John Milton’s epic poem by Erin Shields.
“These are two really exciting writers,” Cimolino said. “Erin and Jordy are the most promising of the younger generation of Canadian writers and they have a very exciting voice … We’ve watched (these works) grow over many months and years … and they’ve take some interesting turns.”
Brontë delves into the story of the famous literary sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Directed by Vanessa Porteous, who directed Stratford’s 2014 production of Christina: The Girl King, the play is described as a “profoundly beautiful and detailed exploration” of the three Brontë sisters.
Directed by Jackie Maxwell, the former artistic director of the Shaw Festival, Paradise Lost gives Milton’s classic tale of good versus evil a contemporary “and irreverent” edge.
Tickets for the 2018 season go on sale to members on Nov. 12 and to the general public on Jan. 5, 2018. If the planned reconstruction of the Tom Patterson Theatre does not proceed in the coming months, some of these productions will be shifted to that venue.
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