Show the Way

The idyllic town of Stratford, Ontario, sets the stage for performances the whole family can applaud.

Several years ago, I fell in love with the Canadian TV series Slings & Arrows. The show, set in a fictional Shakespearian repertory theater, follows actors, producers and residents in a small town dedicated to theater six months a year. The series, based on the internationally known Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, prompted me to look at my map: only six hours away.

But would my 11-year-old son want to spend a weekend seeing theater? And would it be affordable? Among the 12 shows the Stratford Festival was producing in 2011, Camelot was an easy sell for my knights-loving son. When I discovered the great discounts on children's tickets, I was sold, too. We were on.

The Stewart House Inn is one of Stratford's many lovely and often affordable B&Bs, which typically range from less than $100 a night to $250 a night. When we pull into the drive, we're met by the proprietor, who shows us to an elegant room that, Simon is amazed to discover, comes with fresh-baked cookies on the nightstand. Stewart House is on a sleepy residential street, but it's a quick 10-minute walk to town. As we walk, I wonder if the city offered residents a tax break on perennials: Almost all the Victorian houses are fronted with blooming cottage gardens.

When we get to the Avon River (get it?), banked by stone walls, comparing the Canadian town to an English village does not seem absurd. We pass a garden planted with flowers mentioned in Shakespeare's plays and a dock where you can take a boat ride down the river. The town itself has a European feel, too, walkable and tourist-friendly. For dinner, we have gourmet pizza at Pazzo's, an Italian trattoria.

The next day is all about drama. The matinee of Camelot is sold out, and the crowd is expectant as the lights dimmed. The next two and a half hours are utterly transporting, the performance superbly acted. The sword fights and hawks flying through the rafters make it kid-friendly to boot. Afterward, Simon says: "I hate musicals, but that was amazing."

Before the evening show, we buy a great picnic dinner at the theater and eat it on a bench by a statue of the Bard in another beautiful garden. (There are four theaters in Stratford, but we went to the same one twice.)

For The Merry Wives of Windsor, the Shakespearean comedy we chose, the stage has been transformed, as have some of the actors: King Arthur had turned into Falstaff at some point, perhaps during our between-shows naps.

Simon finds Merry Wives of Windsor a snore (I have to agree), and we agree we should have chosen the meatier Richard III instead. Going to two productions in one day was a mistake, too: Simon is falling asleep by intermission. The next day, after our enormous Stewart House breakfast, back in the car and on our way to Niagara Falls (just two hours away), we make two decisions. One, we will only go to matinees next time. And two, there will be a next time.

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