Paddle With Swans, Debate Shylock in Stratford: Travel

It’s the swans as much as the Shakespeare that has me driving each summer 90 minutes west of Toronto to the middle of nowhere.

Here in Bard-crazed Ontario, I can paddle on the Avon River by day and renegotiate my uneasy relationship with Shylock at night.

North America’s largest theatrical showcase, the Stratford Festival offers visitors first-rate productions of Shakespeare along with, this season, Noel Coward and Pete Townshend, among other stellar practitioners of the theatrical arts.

When Sir Tyrone Guthrie founded the Festival in 1953 (a decade before the theater that bears his name in Minneapolis), he purposely chose a country spot that gave patrons space for talk and contemplation absent big-city distractions.

The setting offers beautiful gardens and an array of dining choices, from coffee houses (Revel Caffe and Slave to the Grind for outstanding Joe and pastries) to adventurous cuisine (at the top-rated Rundles and Bijou).

There are plenty of accommodations at every level, from basic motel to the refined pampering at Langdon Hall, a country hotel and spa in Cambridge (40 minutes away by car) rated best in Canada by the readers of Conde Nast Traveler.

Perfect Hiking

For a more modest experience of the nature Shakespeare held a mirror to, there’s the Wildwood Conservation Area just a few minutes’ drive away, with its winding paths through forests and fields of wild flowers perfect for hiking.

If you want to shoot the moon in town, stop by the extraordinary Gallery Indigena, whose owner, Erla Boyer, will guide you through her dazzling collection of Canadian art from tribal to urban contemporary.

You can stay there, too, in sunlit art-filled suites ($200 to $400 per night) above the gallery, some with whirlpool bath, king-size beds and kitchen. The location is perfect for the festival’s three main venues.

This season is Stratford’s first under artistic director Antoni Cimolino, who follows the very high-profile Des McAnuff (“Jersey Boys”).

An acting student who arrived 26 years ago and never left, Cimolino came up through the ranks. He has the confidence of a rare institution where actors and designers can actually earn a living while raising families and working alongside such regulars as Christopher Plummer, Brian Dennehy and Seana McKenna.

Cimolino staged “The Merchant of Venice” (*****), one of the most compelling productions of the play I’ve seen.

Holocaust Memorial

Updated to the late 1930s, the play’s themes of exclusion and anti-Semitism predict the Holocaust, a point Cimolino wisely underplays until the final scene. In a conversation after the show, he told me that his staging of “Merchant” was influenced by a recent visit to Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe that left him stunned.

Scott Wentworth’s Shylock was all the more gripping for his simmering bitterness as a man asked for help by someone who has previously treated him as a pestilent.

Remarkably, Wentworth starred that same day as Tevye the milkman, in the matinee of “Fiddler on the Roof” (****). Crazy, no?

I also saw Martha Henry’s exquisite staging of “Measure for Measure” (*****) a play about sex, politics and abuse of power that might well have been written for the Eliot Spitzer/Anthony Weiner era.

And Jennifer Tarver’s beautifully shaped, riveting production of “Waiting for Godot” (****) with Dennehy as a garrulous Pozzo. (This is a festival that welcomes women directors).

Cimolino also staged a fine version of Schiller’s “Mary Stuart” (***) starring Lucy Peacock as the doomed Scottish queen and McKenna as her nemesis, England’s Elizabeth. Dennehy was in this one, too, as a thoughtful Shrewsbury.

Finally, there was the adrenalin-blasting “Tommy” (****) a revival that brought McAnuff back with the same team that rocked Broadway two decades ago.

Not Dead Yet

Although the revival was stripped of a few of the pinball bells and whistles of the original, it more than compensated in energy and ferocity.

Of course, both Tommy and I are 20 years older -- too old to rock and roll, too young to die. What sounded like revolution then felt like nostalgia today. I loved it.

Shows at the Stratford Festival run in repertory through Oct. 20. In addition to ticket information, the Festival website offers comprehensive information about accommodations, dining and shopping in Stratford, Ontario. Information: +1-800-567-1600;

Gallery Indigena and bed-and-breakfast is at 69 Ontario St., Stratford. Information about the gallery, artists and accommodations: +1-519-271-7881;

Wildwood Conservation Area is in St. Marys, Ontario. Information: +1-519-284-2292;

Langdon Hall is at 1 Langdon Dr., Cambridge, Ontario. Information: +1-519-740-2100;

What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include movies and New York Weekend.