Tonight I saw the opening of Guild Festival Theatre, an ambitious company taking the stage in The Greek Theatre in Guildwood Park.
This is the former site of the Guild Inn, in Guildwood Village. There really was a “guild” at one time, a colony of artists working at the edge of the Scarborough Bluffs. Alongside this earnest group, there used to be a hotel and a terrific restaurant. The site boasts wonderful scenery, with an aura of history.
For me it was surreal to watch a play on this stage. I was married there in 1989. We had planned to actually use the theatre stage for our ceremony but we were rained out (instead we used a covered space on the steps of the hotel), so this performance was like a long-postponed consummation. My wife and I used to come back regularly for dinner, then brunch, and finally, just to walk the grounds when they closed the hotel & restaurant. I felt a bit like Pu Yi the Last Emperor, walking in the Forbidden City among the tourists, in a place of great personal significance; and like Pu Yi, I’ve become just like everyone else, this time in my admiration for what the Guild Festival Theatre have accomplished. What’s more, I believe there are lots of people just like me, who were either married there or had their pictures taken on the grounds, who feel that space is part of their personal mythology. It’s truly magical to come back and see the theatre finally come to life!
I wasn’t joking when I put that headline, a misquote from Field of Dreams. A disembodied voice says “if you build it they will come,” speaking of a baseball field in Iowa. This magical field of dreams–a replica of a Greek amphitheatre –was built in the 1960s, utilizing some wonderful neo-classical remnants from old downtown banks in Toronto that had been demolished except for their delicious facades. I remember reading somewhere that Herb Whitaker had been consulted on the design, that the acoustics were remarkable; or maybe that was just what we surmised from playing around on the stage.
Back when the theatre was built, perhaps Toronto wasn’t ready for outdoor theatre, but in the meantime we’ve had over a quarter century of the Dream in High Park. Originally Shakespeare’s A Midsummernight’s Dream, we’ve been getting lots of other plays since. They were a summer incarnation of an existing company. In the downtown there are other companies performing outdoors, such as the Canopy Theatre who have been at it for a decade plus.
And now Scarborough is ready for its own company. And why not? The venue is spectacular. But unlike The Dream, they are not an offshoot from an existing company, but a new undertaking, which makes this an even bigger mountain to climb.
We were not just outside, but situated very close to the lake. While there was still light in the sky, the play was accompanied by a chorus of birdsong, especially welcome in the second act when we have the most lyrical moments of the play, including reference to birds. Behind the stage is a tall stand of trees. We’re not far from the edge of the bluffs, with a steep edge going down to the lake perhaps a hundred feet below. When you dress for this venue, remember the lake, which creates a microclimate a few degrees chillier than what you get downtown; bring a sweater.
And how about Chekhov? I’d say The Cherry Orchard comes off very well. Director Sten Eirik chose to treat the work as a comedy, with a terrific pace, lots of energy, yet a keen ear for the ebb and flow of the dialogue. This is not one of those attempts to mine the profundities people sometimes see in Chekhov: thank God. And yet all the key moments got their due. Dawna Wightman was a sweet mess as Lyubov Andreyevna, grieving over what she was losing while seeming to throw it away before our eyes. Alongside her, John Jarvis was lovably inept as her brother Gaev, verbose and unsure.
Eirik’s casting struck me as cinematic, reminding me less of the histrionic warhorse I have sometimes seen (where “Chekhov” is said in hushed tones of awe), and more of a good comedy of manners. I enjoyed Paul Amato’s take on Lopakhin, a more likeable version of the self-made man who’s at the centre of the story than one sometimes gets in other interpretations, where the political subtexts hijack the gentle comedy. And perhaps the most memorable portrayal came from Bryan Stanish as Firs, the ancient servant who extracted every wonderful laugh in his part and then some.
The Cherry Orchard presented by Guild Festival Theatre continues at The Greek Theater in Guildwood Park until July 30th.