Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Extra! Packers fan caps visit to great theater festival

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Stratford Theatre Festival _-2407403785613590146

PHOTO: Stars in the 2015 Stratford Theatre Festival take a “selfie” during opening festivities. Warren Gerds photo

STRATFORD, ONTARIO, CANADA (WFRV) – A major international theater festival is an unlikely place to hear a Canadian TV personality go gaga over the Green Bay Packers. Especially at season-opening festivities, with stars on the red carpet and limos and high-octane race cars and the presence of money and ramrod-stiff soldiers dressed in poke-in-the eye red and an entourage of TV reporters/cameramen and a parade with a bagpipe band and a newbie star to the festival saying, “This is a wild event.”

The Stratford Theatre Festival is right up there among the giants of theater festivals in the world.

This season, it is presenting 589 performances in seven months.

Since 1953, the festival has been built around the plays of William Shakespeare. The festival is in the midst of a 10-year project of presenting and recording all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays.

But the festival does not live by Bard alone. This season, the musicals “The Sound of Music” and “Carousel” are key attractions, amid other high-level play fare.

Everything is presented professionally all around, and to a T – as best as humans can get to crossing T’s, which is subject to interpretation and foibles and choices and personal preferences. In sum, quality is the goal.

The Packers became an accidental topic this way: I’m hanging around the Festival Theatre – the main one of four theaters – for the gala whoop dee do and to take photos for a piece I will write about the festival. My wife chats with a townie who has come (again) to take in the excitement. The townie chats with me, and I give him my business card that has the WFRV website for him to check for the festival piece. The townie chats up a TV guy he seems to know and mentions I’m from Green Bay. Suddenly, from the TV guy I’m hearing about…

Aaron Rodgers and Lambeau Field and Brett Farve and Vince Lombardi and Super Bowls and how special the Packers ownership is and about Packers fans (of which he counts himself a loyalist) and having been to Green Bay and how wonderful the experiences were and on and on and on.

This is the biggest night of the festival, and he is covering it.

Stratford is 650 miles southeast of Green Bay in another country. (Yes, parts of Canada are south of Green Bay).

The situation is like – finally – this Packers fan can talk to someone about the Packers on his home turf and have that someone understand how much he loves the team.

The TV guy is totally smitten.

He is touching my left arm all the while he is rhapsodizing about the Packers. It’s like he is connecting with the Packers through this person from Green Bay as some sort of transcendent experience.

I finally ask if I am taking him away from his job.

He mentions something about finding his photographer, who is somewhere in a throng outside the entrance.

Off he goes, I think a happier person.

Oh, yes, Nick Paparella got his job done. He was on the news the next morning on the station in London, Ontario, Canada.

He reported on the opening of the festival, not what was in his heart. (Go Pack!)

Of course, for the vast majority of festival theatergoers (462,000 in 2014), the Packers come no where close to upstaging Shakespeare, et al.

The festival is a source of Canadian pride. It is an amazing thing. It was started because of the name “Stratford.” A local guy figured something like this: “Shakespeare was born in Stratford-Upon-Avon in England; we’re Stratford, so we should have a festival of Shakespeare plays.”

It was an early version of the movie, “Field of Dreams.”

If you build it, they will come.

A unique stage was built (a thrust), a big British star was brought in (Alex Guinness) and a big British director was hired (Tyrone Guthrie). Fast forward: The stage is famous for its opportunities beyond the traditional flat-front stage (proscenium), Guinness became an international star (Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Star Wars,” for just one role) and Guthrie has a respected theater named for him in Minneapolis.

The festival has a stunning archive of all its productions – designs, costumes, fabrics, variations on scripts, ad infinitum.

Its printed programs include thoughtful (though not always great) considerations of the play by a scholar or expert and lively notes from directors. The programs are Class A – what you hope for.

Most of the eight plays I saw in five days – an experience more fascinating than daunting – were still in previews, and three of the directors were on hand in the audience. One director (seated across the aisle from me) took notes furiously for every scene (I hope some were reminders to say complimentary things). At the end, a huge cheer burst from the audience and curtain calls were awash with glowing feelings. Maybe the director would do some tweaking, but the audience clearly liked what it saw.

This season, the festival will eventually encompass 13 productions.

Most actors are in more than one play, so getting folks to the right place on the right day at the right time must be a logistical nightmare. Plus, the sets must be taken down at least daily, if not from afternoon to evening, so the set for the next play can go up. This, indeed, is a tricky festival.

The only production I was not riveted by was the festival money maker, “The Sound of Music,” but that was because I had seen productions done by Abrams Spotlight Productions in December and The Sheboygan Theatre Company in May. Too much of a good thing, you know?

Speaking of too much of a good thing, imagine performing the same show 90 times. That’s how may times “The Sound of Music” will be done at the festival through Oct. 17.

Other big titles are “The Diary of Anne Frank,” with 63 performances, and “Hamlet,” with 49 performances.

While I was not attending the festival to write reviews, I did come up with a “best performances” list (couldn’t resist) among the pieces I saw.

– “The Diary of Anne Frank” – the actor playing Otto Frank, Anne’s father, who cries at the end and hands over a copy of Anne’s book to a member of the audience in the front row – giving that person responsibility to carry this story forward.

– “She Stoops to Conquer” – the director, being so precise with this comedy that first saw the light of day in 1773.

– “The Physicists” – the actor playing Mobius, a scientist who is crazy. Not.

– “The Taming of the Shrew” – the leading male actor, for a surprise I cannot yet write about.

– “Carousel” – the actor playing the leading male character, Billy, a big, masculine force.

– “The Sound of Music” – the actress playing Maria, adding details not often portrayed as being there.

– “The Adventures of Pericles” – the actress playing the daughter, Marina, so strong that she can out-argue even the basest human urge.

– “Hamlet” – the actors playing Hamlet and Polonius (Ophelia’s father), proving what Hamlet actor Jonathan Goad said in a newspaper interview, that he is in league with others to be effective.

– Biggest “best performance” – Shakespeare, so profound and revelatory of the soul – still.

Among the many highly effective elements in the festival was the opening of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Individually, all the actors described important parts of their lives, with most telling something of their vulnerability at age 13, when Anne Frank started her diary.

School was still in when I attended the festival, so many performances included large numbers of students. What a tremendous resource – top-flight professional productions for literature to come to vivid life.

Detroit and Toronto are the nearest major cities, but “nearest” is used advisedly – three and two hours, respectively. From Green Bay, Stratford is 650 miles by car.

Stratford is in the proverbial “middle of nowhere.” Vast farms are all around. Big windmills. Acres and acres of farmland. A few small towns. Two-lane provincial highways. Not many gas stations. You drive and drive across flat land. At the city limits, you see the sign that says Stratford has a population of 32,000 and is the “proud home of the Stratford Theatre Festival and the Ontario Pork Congress.” The joke in our car about the latter: The congress – consisting of pigs for the sake of the joke – again voted down bacon. Imagine laughing so hard you oink.

Aside from the fluke Packers thingie, this year’s festival provided another Green Bay-connected kick. “She Stoops to Conquer” is attributed with being the first play performed in what was to become Green Bay. That was in the early 1800s, and all the performers were male – soldiers at Fort Howard. In a bookstore, I glanced at the first few lines of the play, and it was funny. So, it was funny then, and it still is quite funny at the wondrous festival.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air segments on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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