A Dutiful and Desirable Summer at Stratford Festival 2023

Paul Gross, appearing in King Lear. Stratford Festival 2023. Photography by David Hou.

The Ontario, Canada Theatre Experience: Stratford Festival announces 2023 season

13 productions and a theme of Duty vs Desire

It’s going to be an exciting summer for Frontmezzjunkies. That is for sure. Filling up my summer months, I’ll be fortunate beyond words to be attending so many Stratford Theatre opening nights and a whole heap of lively, thought-provoking production across the four theatres that make up this famous Ontario theatre festival. The excitement and energy of this 2023 season announced by Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino will be almost overwhelming. And this theatre junkie feels as lucky as can be, as I get to fully experience this world-renowned summer event. And, of course, share it with you all moment by moment, opening night after opening night.

Festival Theatre. Photo by Krista Dodson.

Inspired by the theme of Duty vs Desire, the 2023 season will run from mid-April through October, featuring four Shakespeare plays, King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, Richard II and Love’s Labour’s Lost, and two musicals, Rent and Monty Python’s Spamalot, along with Les Belles-SoeursA Wrinkle in TimeFrankenstein RevivedWedding BandGrand MagicCasey and Diana and Women of the Fur Trade.

The plays examine both sides of the Duty vs Desire debate, some through irreverence and comedy, others through the catharsis of tragedy. They look at social stigma and societal pressures, at selfishness and selflessness – at a time when we are all reexamining our place in the world. They also entertain and offer a healthy dose of laughter.

We’ve always been told to follow our hearts,” says Cimolino. “But that hasn’t been so easy over the past few years. The pandemic has left us in dire need of pleasure, eager to fulfill our desires but often with no way to do so. At the same time, it has brought us face to masked face with the vital importance of social responsibility. Here in the West, many of us have had the luxury of pursuing romantic notions for decades. Desire has fueled our economy. But what do we do when suddenly we must sacrifice our comfort for the greater good when our heart’s not in what we do anymore when we want to shirk responsibility even though we know that could have dire consequences? These are the questions and ideas that inspired the plays of the 2023 season.

FESTIVAL THEATRE

The season opener will be Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Festival Theatre, directed by Kimberley Rampersad. Perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, King Lear is the story of an aging king, who, in demanding a show of devotion from his three daughters, leaves his kingdom divided, his family destroyed, the faithful banished and the hateful left to wreak inhuman havoc in the realm.

Rampersad’s production of Serving Elizabeth was a highlight of the Festival’s 2021 season. She currently serves as Associate Artistic Director at the Shaw Festival, where she directed a resonant production of Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman in 2019, and Chitra in 2022, both of which were featured in The New York Times. She has also directed and choreographed at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and other theatres across the country.

Nestor Lozano Jr. (centre) as Angel Dumott Schunard with members of the company in Rent. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by David Hou.

Rent, the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical by Jonathan Larson, will be directed on the Festival Theatre stage by Thom Allison and choreographed by Marc Kimelman. Set in Manhattan in the 1990s and inspired by Puccini’s opera La Bohème, the musical follows a group of young East Village artists, performers, and philosophers as they struggle through the hardships of poverty, societal discord, and the AIDS epidemic in the search for life, love, and art. With a song list that includes the iconic “Seasons of Love,” Rent tells a story as relevant today as when it took Broadway by storm more than 25 years ago.

Allison’s personal connection to the show stretches back to 1997 when he was a member of the original Canadian company of Rent, which premièred in Toronto and went on to play in Ottawa and Vancouver. He returns to the Festival for his seventh season after directing the irresistible cabaret You Can’t Stop the Beat in 2021. His other credits as a director include YPT’s Seussical The Musical, and the record-breaking production of Mary Poppins, as well as Million Dollar Quartet at Theatre Calgary. 

Marc Kimelman will return to Stratford for his fifth season. He served as choreographer for Man of La Mancha in 2014 and as assistant choreographer of 2011’s Jesus Christ Superstar, which went on to Broadway, where he continued to work, including as associate choreographer for A Bronx Tale

From left to right: Maev Beatty and Graham Abbey, appearing in Stratford Festival’s Much Ado About Nothing. Photography by Ted Belton.

Director Chris Abraham continues his work at the Festival with Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. The story follows Beatrice and Benedick, two quick-witted and sarcastic individuals who are happily single, but whose friends believe would make a great romantic match. Set in the Early Modern world, an era of ever-changing attitudes towards marriage and power, the play presents a society at once filled with progressive feminist impulses and countervailing forces rooted in traditional patriarchal values. With his astonishing wit and insight, Shakespeare explores the complexities that underlie these growing social tensions.

Abraham has had many memorable productions at Stratford, including 2013’s Othello, 2014’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and 2017’s Tartuffe. He is the Artistic Director of Crow’s Theatre in Toronto, where he has programmed and directed a string of acclaimed productions.

From left – Allison Edwards-Crewe, Lucy Peacock, and Seana McKenna, appearing in Stratford Festival’s Les Belles-Soeurs. Photography by Ted Belton.

The late-opener at the Festival Theatre is Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-Soeurs, directed by Esther Jun. After 32 years, Tremblay’s masterpiece, which revolutionized Québécois theatre and is renowned the world over, returns to Stratford on the Festival Stage. Written in 1965, Les Belles-Soeurs portrays 15 Québécois women expressing their anger, desperation, and frustration loudly, rudely, and audaciously. Germaine Lauzon has won a million stamps in a contest. She invites her family and neighbours into her kitchen to help paste them into booklets. Fighting for any power in their suffocating lives, the women yell, backstab, dream, and steal in grand theatrical style.

Jun, the Director of the Festival’s Langham Directors’ Workshop, created a delightful and touching production of Little Women at the Avon Theatre this season, as well as the hugely entertaining 2021 production of I Am William. Her work has been seen across the country, including at the Shaw Festival, Soulpepper, Tarragon, The Belfry, and GCTC.

Liam Tobin (left) as Sir Dennis Galahad and Jennifer Rider-Shaw as Lady of the Lake in Monty Python’s Spamalot. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by David Hou.

AVON THEATRE

And now for something completely different: over at the Avon Theatre, Monty Python’s Spamalot offers up a hefty share of irreverence in a hilarious spoof of the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table as they go in search of the Holy Grail. This outrageous comedy lets us look at our flaws and foibles and in doing so allows us to laugh at the things that make us human. It will be directed by Lezlie Wade and choreographed by Jesse Robb.

Wade’s production of HMS Pinafore had audiences in stitches in 2017, as did her delightful 2018 production of An Ideal Husband. Wade served as assistant director on 2011’s Jesus Christ Superstar, which went on to Broadway, and she has directed productions for Luminato, the Shaw Festival, the Grand Theatre, and Musical Stage Company.

Robb is a New York City-based choreographer, serving as associate choreographer for the Broadway revival of Miss Saigon. In Toronto, he was the dance captain for the world première of The Lord of the Rings, associate resident choreographer for We Will Rock You, and resident choreographer for Dirty Dancing, all Mirvish Productions. 

The Schulich Children’s Play is A Wrinkle in Time. This new adaptation directed and written by Thomas Morgan Jones is based on the classic fantasy by Madeleine L’Engle, in which a young heroine leads her brother and a friend on a spectacular journey through space and time, from galaxy to galaxy, to save the world and rescue her father who mysteriously disappeared while working on an astounding scientific concept. 

Jones, the Artistic Director of Prairie Theatre Exchange, returns to Stratford after a decade, having served as assistant director on The Winter’s Tale in 2010 and The Grapes of Wrath in 2011. He most recently directed Darla Contois’s The War Being Waged and Hannah Moscovitch’s Post-Democracy, and is the playwright of A Dance to the End of the World, currently featured on Stratfest@Home.

Laura Condlln, appearing in Stratford Festival’s Frankenstein Revived. Photography by Ted Belton.

From Morris Panych, co-creator of the landmark movement piece The Overcoat, and internationally acclaimed composer David Coulter, comes a thrilling new work: Frankenstein Revived. Panych will direct the production on the Avon stage, with movement choreographer Wendy Gorling and dance choreographer Stephen Cota. Focussing on Mary Shelley, who at just 18 wrote the most celebrated horror story in English literature, this exuberant and passion-filled theatrical movement-based piece explores the big question at the heart of her work: what does it mean to be human?

Panych wrote and directed The Trespassers for the 2009 season, and was the director and librettist for the world première of the musical Wanderlust in 2012. He also adapted and directed 2008’s Moby Dick, another movement-based work he created for the Stratford stage. Frankenstein Revived has been in active development in Stratford since 2016.

Gorling co-created The Overcoat with Panych and created the choreography for the 2008 Stratford production of Moby Dick, as well as for Trojan Women that same season. Based in Vancouver, she is an in-demand choreographer and a highly respected instructor at Studio 58.

Cota returns to Stratford for his 15th season. He most recently served as choreographer for 2021’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, assistant choreographer, and assistant director for Little Shop of Horrors, and associate choreographer for The Music Man and Billy Elliot the Musical

Geraint Wyn Davies, appearing in Stratford Festival’s Grand Magic. Photography by Ted Belton.

TOM PATTERSON THEATRE

At the Tom Patterson Theatre, Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino returns to the work of one of his favourite playwrights, Eduardo De Filippo, with Grand Magic, a funny, thought-provoking, and deeply moving play, presented in a new English translation by John Murrell. In this comedy, we find Otto Marvuglia, a once master illusionist, reduced to performing magic for money at a seaside resort. When one of his tricks seems to go awry, a guest tumbles into a world of illusion as another escapes an unhappy reality. 

Cimolino is working with dramaturge Donato Santeramo on this production. The translation was a very special gift to Cimolino from Murrell, completed not long before his death and delivered by mail just before the pandemic.

Cimolino and Murrell collaborated on a funny and touching production of De Filippo’s Napoli Milionaria! in 2018. It was one in a string of appealing comedies directed by Cimolino, including The Merry Wives of WindsorThe School for ScandalThe HypochondriacThe Alchemist, and The Beaux’ Stratagem. This season Cimolino directed Richard III and The Miser.

Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, appearing in Stratford Festival’s Richard II. Photography by Ted Belton.

Jillian Keiley returns to the Festival to direct Shakespeare’s Richard II. In a revolutionary adaptation by Brad Fraser, this Richard is the story of a king who believes that God gives him the right to live above the rules and who ultimately suffers the consequences. The story is embedded in a time of great freedom that is soon crushed – the late 1970s and early ’80s: when lives were lived at great volume against a suffocating strain of conservatism and fear. Fraser’s adaptation maintains Shakespeare’s text but draws on sources beyond Richard II. The choreographer for the production is Cameron Carver.

Keiley’s Stratford directorial credits include Alice Through the Looking-GlassThe Diary of Anne FrankAs You Like ItBakkhai, and The Neverending Story. She has just completed her tenure as the Artistic Director of English Theatre at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

Fraser, one of Canada’s best-known playwrights, has a string of successes to his name, including Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of LovePoor Super ManMartin Yesterday, and Snake in Fridge. He has also written and produced a number of episodes for the Showtime hit series Queer as Folk

Sam White directs Alice Childress’s rarely-produced play Wedding Band. This stellar work, written with great precision and powerful storytelling, gives an emotional portrayal of a relationship between a Black seamstress, Julia, and a white baker, Herman, in the shadow of the First World War and the 1918 flu epidemic in Charleston, South Carolina. The couple’s deep love and commitment face the cruel racism of the Deep South in this revealing portrayal of interracial love. They are forced to navigate the societal racism of laws and culture, along with heartbreaking judgment from their own families and communities. Written during the Civil Rights era, the play resonates in our modern times of racial reckoning with movements such as Black Lives Matter across North America, and at a time when a new pandemic is tragically altering lives. 

White has directed and taught classical theatre across North America and is a respected arts leader in Detroit, where she founded Shakespeare in Detroit in 2013. In 2018 she served as assistant director for Antoni Cimolino’s production of The Tempest. She is currently working on a commission for The Old Globe in San Diego, in addition to serving as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Acting/Directing at Indiana University in Bloomington. 

Sean Arbuckle (left) and Krystin Pellerin, appearing in Stratford Festival’s Casey and Diana. Photography by Ted Belton.

STUDIO THEATRE

The Studio Theatre will feature two new plays and a Shakespeare comedy.

Casey and Diana, a Stratford Festival commission by Nick Green, will be directed by Andrew Kushnir. As the Toronto AIDS hospice, Casey House, prepares for the historic visit of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1991, residents and staff are inspired to beat the odds as a plague continues to ravage a generation. This potent and moving drama vividly captures a moment in time when a rebel Princess, alongside less famous caregivers and advocates, reshaped the course of a pandemic – and how those stricken by the virus found hard-won dignity, community, and love in the face of astonishing hardship. 

Kushnir, a playwright, dramaturge, actor, and director, is the Artistic Director of Toronto’s Project: Humanity, which uses the arts to raise social awareness. Here at the Festival, he served as assistant director for Cimolino’s productions of Napoli Milionaria! and The Merry Wives of Windsor

Green, a prolific playwright and actor, won the 2017 Dora Award for Outstanding New Play for Body Politic, which dramatized the history of the Canadian LGBTQ newsmagazine of the same name. His work includes Happy Birthday Baby JIn Real LifeEvery Day She Rose (co-written with Andrea Scott), Dinner with the DuchessFangirlLiving the Dream, and The Fabulous Buddha Boi

Joelle Peters, appearing in Stratford Festival’s Women of the Fur Trade. Photography by Ted Belton.

Frances Koncan’s Women of the Fur Trade will be directed by Yvette Nolan. It is set in eighteen hundred and something-something, somewhere upon the banks of a Reddish River in Treaty One Territory, where three very different women with a preference for 21st-century slang sit in a fort sharing their views on life, love, and the hot nerd Louis Riel. This lively historical satire of survival and cultural inheritance shifts perspectives from the male gaze onto women’s power in the past and present through the lens of the rapidly changing world of the Canadian fur trade. 

Nolan is a playwright, director, and dramaturge. She has worked extensively as a director for Gwaandak Theatre, Gordon Tootoosis Nīkānīwin Theatre, Signal Theatre, the Globe Theatre, and Western Canada Theatre. She was the artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts from 2003 to 2011. 

Koncan is an Anishnaabe-Slovene playwright, director, and journalist from Couchiching First Nation. Her 2015 play The Dance-off of Conscious Uncoupling was shortlisted for the Tom Hendry Award for Best New Comedy. Her other plays include zahgidiwin/love and Space Girl. She is a winner of the REVEAL Indigenous Arts Award and the Winnipeg Arts Council’s RBC On the Rise Award.

Peter Pasyk will helm a production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. In this beloved early comedy, Shakespeare delivers a touching and funny coming-of-age story with a twist ending. Seeking self-improvement, the King of Navarre and his three best friends swear off sex and love for three years, just as the Princess of France and three other women arrive on a diplomatic mission. Pasyk will give this classic play a fresh and modern take.

Pasyk directed this season’s thrilling production of Hamlet, as well as the 2021 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A two-time Dora Award nominee for outstanding direction, Pasyk was at the helm of the pre-pandemic hit production of The Nether, a Coal Mine Theatre and Studio 180 production. He was part of the Festival’s Langham Workshop for Classical Direction and served as assistant director on Cimolino’s productions of Birds of a Kind and The School for Scandal

Buckle up, it’s gonna be a busy summer for Frontmezzjunkies.

Tickets for the 2023 season go on sale to Members beginning November 6. More information is available at www.stratfordfestival.ca.

SEASON AT A GLANCE

FESTIVAL THEATRE

Déjah Dixon-Green, appearing in Stratford Festival’s King Lear. Photography by Ted Belton.

King Lear

By William Shakespeare

Director: Kimberley Rampersad

Rent

Book, Music, and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson

Director: Thom Allison

Choreographer: Marc Kimelman

Much Ado About Nothing

By William Shakespeare

Director: Chris Abraham

Les Belles-Soeurs

By Michel Tremblay

Translated by John Van Burek and Bill Glassco

Director: Esther Jun

AVON THEATRE

Monty Python’s Spamalot

Book and Lyrics by Eric Idle

Music by John Du Prez and Eric Idle

A new musical lovingly ripped off from the motion picture “Monty Python and the Holy Grail

From the original screenplay by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin

Director: Lezlie Wade

Choreographer: Jesse Robb

World Première Adaptation:

Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah, appearing in Stratford Festival’s A Wrinkle in Time. Photography by Ted Belton.

A Wrinkle in Time

By Madeleine L’Engle

Adapted for the stage by Thomas Morgan Jones

Director: Thomas Morgan Jones

World Première

Frankenstein Revived

By Morris Panych

Based on the novel by Mary Shelley

Music by David Coulter

Director: Morris Panych

Movement choreographer: Wendy Gorling

Dance choreographer: Stephen Cota

TOM PATTERSON THEATRE

World Première Translation:

Grand Magic

By Eduardo De Filippo

In a new English translation by John Murrell

Director: Antoni Cimolino

Richard II

By William Shakespeare

Cyrus Lane (left) and Antonette Rudder, appearing in Stratford Festival’s Wedding Band. Photography by Ted Belton.

Adapted by Brad Fraser

Conceived by Jillian Keiley

Director: Jillian Keiley

Choreographer: Cameron Carver

Wedding Band

By Alice Childress

Director: Sam White

STUDIO THEATRE

World Première

Stratford Festival Commission

Casey and Diana

By Nick Green

Director: Andrew Kushnir

Women of the Fur Trade

By Frances Koncan

Director: Yvette Nolan

Love’s Labour’s Lost

By William Shakespeare

Director: Peter Pasyk

Tom Patterson Theatre. Photo by Ann Baggley.
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