Offstage, Onstage: Inside the Stratford Festival

Shakespeare’s Hamlet might comment that something is not rotten, but lacking in the National Film Board of Canada’s documentary of the Stratford Festival of Canada, Offstage, Onstage: Inside the Stratford Festival.

"We’re a gourmet restaurant creating great feasts of language," a voice-over with at least a whiff of cultural condescension proudly states by way of introduction. Offstage, Onstage offers samples of that feast and takes us backstage into the theatrical kitchen to watch its preparation.

In a brief 83 minutes, director John N. Smith can only show us morsels of Shakespeare, The Seagull, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?, and Inherit the Wind out of the festival’s dozen plays for the 2001 season. A wide selection of actors, directors, coaches and technicians — some novices, others 50-year veterans — represent 1,000 cast and crew members of "the largest classical repertory theater company in the world."

Unless you possess a working knowledge of theater, this documentary is like a sampler of chocolates: Without titles to identify the theatrical tidbits and those cooking them up, you might not know what you’re getting. After a starter of esoteric sessions between a voice coach and a couple actors, a rehearsal in Shakespearean language is followed by a reading of Inherit the Wind’s script. Only at the film’s ending is the coach identified as Stratford’s head of voice training, Janine Pearson, and only those familiar with Shakespeare might identify the rehearsal with Henry IV, Part I.

Smith and company do grant us a privileged backstage tour of Stratford’s linguistic feast. But some of the stops lack flavor. We get a bland taste of a director outlining a piece of staging to his cast and our fill of a technician (props master Frank Holte) fabricating a radio-controlled monkey, a prop for Inherit the Wind.

But there are a few delicacies to be found on the way, as the festival’s directors cut through to the juicy marrow of Shakespeare and put his puns in motion — and as the actors pay a living tribute not just to the words they feel lucky to embody, but to the lessons learned in witnessing their colleagues embody them. This is the rich meat of Offstage, Onstage that deserves to be thoroughly chewed and digested, not just briefly tasted.

Showing exclusively as this year’s Cinema Canada presentation at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, June 24, 7 p.m. Free admission.

E-mail James Keith La Croix, Anita Schmaltz or Richard C. Walls at [email protected].

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