our first trip to stratford: a report

In brief: absolutely lovely.

The town itself, in the central "Heritage District," is a sweet tourist town almost absent of kitsch and cutesy. Both sides of the Avon River are parkland with walking and biking paths, and you can rent paddle boats. Swan and ducks paddle by, many with their little puffball babies in tow. (The swans are cared for by the city itself.) The gardens are all immaculate. The town of Stratford obviously takes pride in its physical appearance and works hard to groom and maintain it. Good for business, sure, but also just good.

(I'm really sorry I didn't bring a camera. I would have liked to add Stratford to my Ontario collection on Flickr. I thought of the camera as we pulled onto the 401.)

All four theatres are in walking distance from the "heritage district". One theatre is best reached by the riverside walking path, which seems really special to me. Once we parked at the B&B, we didn't drive again until we left.

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The Across the Bridge Bed & Breakfast is a fabulous place. Although this time our stay was by invitation, from the incredible generosity of Eric and Kelly, when we return to Stratford, we won't stay anywhere else.

There are four guest rooms, all appointed with immaculate, comfortable washrooms; one room is a suite with a sitting area. The hosts have thought of their guests' every need, from toiletries you may have forgotten to pack, to earplugs for a loud show, to a vast selection of teas for morning or afternoon. What is it about white pure-cotton sheets that is so inviting and luxurious?

Across the Bridge doubles as an art gallery. Eric and Kelly are both artists and have experience running galleries. Throughout the house, the walls are hung with original paintings, lithographs and photographs, and there are a few objects displayed on the furniture. The art is all for sale, but also just there for you to enjoy. As they settle into their new life, Eric and Kelly hope to include their own art on display, too. The art's presence makes the house so much more alive and interesting than an ordinary B&B.

Breakfast is sumptuous. One morning there was homemade banana-poppy bread and poached eggs with pesto and fresh mozzarella. Another morning it was fresh-baked scones, potato pancakes and light, crepe-like omelets. And every morning, there is freshly prepared fruit salad, freshly squeezed orange juice and all the finishing touches that make a special breakfast.

Eric and Kelly are excellent hosts - attentive and friendly but never intrusive.

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Both the productions we saw were superb.

I was fairly neutral about seeing Julius Caesar but I got a lot more out of it than I expected to. The production highlighted the play's many themes that are as relevant in our time as they were in Shakespeare's: the quest for power, the questionable morality of justifying violence by the ends it may achieve, the re-packaging of power and violence to win public support, and indeed, the ease of winning that public support with a golden tongue. I found it very stirring, and very relevant.

I remember when I mentioned to my friend M@ that we were seeing Julius Caesar, M@ said it was his favourite Shakespeare. I was surprised, but now I completely understand why.

I enjoyed the creativity and ingenuity of the production, but we later found out that it was controversial - many audiences have hated it. The director and designers emphasized the play's modern parallels and classical roots with a combination of modern and classical dress. Caesar wore a ceremonial tunic, as did the Senators when in their formal capacity, but men also wore suit jackets with their skirts, and the plebeians were in modern dress. In the battle scenes, soldiers wore modern-day camouflage and bandoleers, and carried guns, even though death comes by dagger. When Cassius hands around the conspiratorial knives, he brings them in a steel briefcase.

I find this kind of production fresh and inventive. As long as the language is unchanged, I regard it as an enhancement. I'm also certain Shakespeare and the other actors of his day would have loved it. But some people can't watch Shakespeare unless everyone is running around in tights and doublets. It's a shame. I think it speaks to a certain close-mindedness and rigidity around art.

The acting was very good - although the next day's play would make it look pedestrian by comparison. And the script... well, that is genius.

Cyrano de Bergerac was dominated by the performance of Colm Feore, a towering tour de force that was by turns hilarious, moving and heartbreaking, and always riveting. It's an extremely demanding role - relentlessly verbal, but also very physical, with swordplay and fight scenes. (Those were excellently choreographed.) Feore held the audience completely enraptured. It was a truly memorable performance of an excellent play.

And get this: Feore is also playing Macbeth in Stratford this season!

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Other than theatre, we browsed (and bought) in bookstores, I picked up a new pair of earrings (ever my quest), we had two nice dinners, and were generally very relaxed and happy.

After Julius Caesar, we went out for a drink and the pub had the All-Star Game on TV. So we got the score (go AL!) and saw a couple of our guys play. We're never completely baseball-free!

One morning after breakfast we chatted with our hosts, and learned more about their decision to leave the US for Canada, and their long journey to get here. (It took them a full year longer than it took us.) And one evening, coming home from dinner, they invited us out to their deck for a sip of wine and conversation. A neighbour of theirs joined us, and many glasses of wine and some single-malt scotch later, we finally said good night. It was a fun evening, and I felt like a nice friendship had formed.

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Note that this post is titled "our first trip to Stratford". If we can afford it, I'd love to make it an annual All-Star Break tradition. It's less than two hours away, it practically guarantees me some very high quality theatre at least once a year, and the ASB is the perfect time for us to go. Here's hoping we can make that happen.

Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Ontario

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