Canadian summer theatre dominated by the Bard and the no-holds-barred

Canadian summer theatre dominated by the Bard and the no-holds-barred
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In Vancouver, Bard on the Beach’s 2023 season centres on a revival of director Daryl Cloran’s hit Beatles-infused production of As You Like It (June 8 to Sept. 30) – a show back for a victory lap after success all around North America.Handout

The Globe and Mail mainly turns its critical eye on the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival in the summer – a couple of classics-plus destination theatre companies in Ontario among the most prestigious in North America. But there’s so much more going on in the performing arts between June and September.

Canada’s city stages are dominated by the Bard and the no-holds-barred – that is to say, William Shakespeare and the Fringe Festival circuit – but there are ample opportunities to see circus and musicals and ultramodern miscellany, too.

Shakespeare from coast to coast

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The Dark Lady is a collaboration between Winnipeg’s Shakespeare in the Ruins (June 1-July 2) and Saskatoon’s Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan (July 7-Aug. 20).Leif Norman/Handout

Shakespeare is, of course, produced on the largest of scales at the Stratford Festival (where former TV Mountie Paul Gross headlines as King Lear to Oct. 29). But while the weather is nicest, the uncancellable Bard of Avon can also be found in tents and on outdoor stages coast to coast.

In Vancouver, Bard on the Beach’s 2023 season centres on a revival of director Daryl Cloran’s hit Beatles-infused production of As You Like It (June 8 to Sept. 30) – after successful iterations all around North America.

In St. John’s, Shakespeare by the Sea celebrates its 30th season with a lineup that includes Romeo and Juliet (July 28 to Aug. 12) directed by Andrew Tremblett; not to be confused with Halifax’s Shakespeare by the Sea – also celebrating its 30th season with Romeo and Juliet (July 19 to Sept. 1) directed Drew Douris-O’Hara.

In between the coasts, you’ll find Winnipeg’s Shakespeare in the Ruins (June 1 to July 2) and Saskatoon’s Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan (July 7 to Aug. 20) collaborating across provincial lines this year on the world premiere of The Dark Lady. Stratford Festival regular Jessica B. Hill’s two-hander is about the Bard and poetess Emilia Bassano, believed by many to be the “dark lady” of the sonnets.

In Toronto, the most intriguing alt-Shakespeare comes from Shakespeare in the Ruff (Aug. 17 to Sept. 3): This year, a Richard Three multiverse adaptation by Patricia Allison is played with only three actors; Alex Bulmer and Alexia Vassos are duelling Richards, and Christine Horne plays everyone else.

Fringe Festivals – everything, everywhere, all at once

The first Canadian-style Fringe was started in Edmonton in 1982 – and the idea of an accessible-to-all, almost-anything-goes performing-arts festival has since spread to every city worth its salt. Major shows birthed on the Fringe include Kim’s Convenience and The Drowsy Chaperone and the artists who cut their teeth there are too numerous to even start to name. But it’s the eternal outsiders – the performance poets, the horror clowns – who are the Fringe’s heart.

The circuit kicks off with FringeMTL (May 29 to June 18), weird and wild in both official languages, before travelling players head east to the Ottawa Fringe Festival (June 15-25) and the Toronto Fringe Festival (July 5-16). The biggest ones, as always, are the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival (July 19-30) and the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival (Aug. 17-27).

Fresh new Fringes highlighting how the format is evolving include the Nogojiwanong Indigenous Fringe Festival (in what’s also called Peterborough, Ont., June 21-25) and the Mississauga Multilingual Fringe Festival (Aug. 14-27).

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Artists perform during Cirque du Soleil’s Echo show in Montreal on April 26.ANDREJ IVANOV/AFP/Getty Images

Circus: From boom to bust to Echo

Hometown heroes Cirque du Soleil run a big-top show in Montreal’s Old Port all summer amid the city’s myriad cultural confabs. This year, it’s Echo (to Aug. 20) – an original offering after a year of reboots – providing one of the first glimpses of how the company might evolve after its near-death pandemic experience.

Echo’s built on the bones of an earlier show created by Es Devlin – the brilliant British theatre designer who’s worked with Beyonce, too – that nearly opened in 2020. Mukhtar Omar Sharif Mukhtar took over as writer and director, but elements of Devlin’s original concept, notably a two-storey cube that Cirque’s performers defy gravity around and inside, remain.

If you’re truly circus obsessed, plan a trip around Montréal Complètement Cirque (July 6-16) which brings forward-thinking companies from across Quebec and around the world to town, too. The lineup this year includes a queer hybrid of circus and drag called Dirty Laundry from Australia’s Briefs Factory International and a cross-over of circus and classical cello called Sarabande from France’s Jörg Müller & Noémi Boutin.

Musicals about and/or in the Atlantic provinces

Come From Away, Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s hit about kindness amid chaos, is getting a brand-new Canadian production sooner than expected this summer at the Joseph R. Smallwood Arts & Culture Centre (July 7 to Sept. 3) in Gander, where, of course, the show about 9/11-stranded travellers is set.

Director Jillian Keiley’s fresh take features a host of Newfoundlander actors playing the Newfoundlanders for the first time – as well as original Broadway cast Petrina Bromley and Astrid Van Wieren trying out new characters.

If you can’t get a ticket, but still hanker for a musical trip to the Rock, perhaps try out an untested tuner in St. John’s. The growing Terra Bruce company will be opening its renovated Majestic Theatre in August with The Wild Rovers, featuring music by the Irish-Canadian band the Irish Rovers. (Exact dates TBD.)

Not quite as far east, large-scale new musicals are the focus of the revivified Charlottetown Festival in Prince Edward Island. Maggie is the big ticket this season (June 21 to Sept. 2), telling the story of a 20th-century single mom in working-class Scotland with a tuneful score by Scottish-Canadian country star Johnny Reid. It’s already proved exceedingly popular in Hamilton – and has a post-Charlottetown run lined up in Glace Bay, N.S. (Sept. 28 to Oct. 8).

State of the performing art

For seekers of the state-of-the-art, Montreal’s Festival TransAmériques (May 24 to June 8) is the country’s most significant annual event bringing in the best from around the world and placing it in conversation with Canadian work; under new co-artistic directors Martine Dennewald and Jessie Mill, it’s seamlessly transitioned to new times.

Large-scale 2023 productions include Encantado (”an irresistible force,” said the Financial Times in its Paris premiere) by veteran Brazilian choreographer/activist Lia Rodrigues; and Creation Destruction, climate-change choreography by Montreal’s Dana Gingras featuring a 12-musician band that includes local legends Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

Luminato Festival Toronto (June 7-18) is a festival of an ever-shifting size and identity. This year, its must-see is Treemonisha, Toronto-based Volcano’s resurrection of Scott Joplin’s legendary semi-lost 1911 opera by a team that includes playwright/broadcaster Leah-Simone Bowen, in-demand director Weyni Mengesha and Panamanian-American conductor Kalena Bovell.