Getting your kicks on Route 66/Adams street, the Chicagoland edition

Route 66 has two endpoints: one is in downtown Chicago, which many people think of as ‘the start’ of the route (because of the order in the “get your kicks on Route 66”, song), while the other is (currently) at the Santa Monica Pier, just west of Downtown Los Angeles, which is where I started my trip. In Chicago route 66 is a little complicated as it exists on two one way streets, Adams, which travels west, and Jackson, which travels east. SINCE most people take 66 going west, that’s where you’ll find most of the signs…

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Because Chicago is home and I’ve pretty much walked or driven most of these roads at one time or another without realizing they ARE 66, I have to admit that once I did, I opted to fudge it a bit once I passed Dell Rheas’s Chicken basket in Willowbrook IL (a town I’ve only ever passed by while driving on I-55) and felt that I had for all intents and purposes I had finished the route on the 24th of October. (I admit this is largely because I knew the neighborhoods I would be passing through… knew most of them to HIGHLY unsafe ones with nasty traffic. When I go downtown I stick to safe routes and park my car in safe areas.)IMG_0134

So for instance, the above are some photos of me in 2001 having dinner with friends at what was then arguably the best Greek Restaurant in Chicago’s GreekTown (on Halstead between Adams and Jackson … i.e., 66) the now closed Roditites Greek Restaurant, which used to be one of my favorite go to’s (it was open for 45 years). (All of the old Greektown classic restaurants seem to be closing, I think the children weren’t interested in taking over the businesses)IMG_2619.jpgbut on the 31st of October I had business I had to deal with downtown, and as such took the opportunity to finish my 66 trek (only this time on foot, cause driving into the city is NUTS). I was staying at my friend’s home in Northbrook, and took the Metra Train from North Glenview station to Union Station, which is also located between Adams and Jackson (again, both are Route 66, it just depends on which direction you’re going) with exits to either street. IMG_0149Ironically, I have only ever been in this station once before. The Metra train line adjacent to my parents home went to a different station, the Ogilvie Center, a few blocks north. Unlike that station, which only services local lines, this station is where you go in Chicago if you’re taking an Amtrak line. As such, the only other time I was ever here was when I took the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco back when I was in my late 20’s.IMG_0150The odds are you’ve seen this station before, even if you’ve never been to Chicago, as it’s been used more than few times in movies. The list includes Public Enemies (with Jonny Depp), My Best Friend’s Wedding (with Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz and Rupert Everett), Man of Steel (one of the Superman movies), Derailed, and most prominently in the movie The Untouchables, about Al Capone (Robert De Niro) and Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) … with a scene steeling Oscar worthy supporting performance from Sean Connery… which had a LOT of Chicago locations in it.

IMG_0071From the station I went straight to my 11am appointment, and then double backed to have lunch at Lou Mitchell’s Restaurant & Bakery (click link for my blog post about it), which is located a half block west of Union Station, and is probably the only historic Route 66 eatery to be in the Michelin guide. After lunch I walked back east, along Adams (Route 66 west bound) past Union station and to the Chicago River which forms the station’s eastern boundary.

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The Jackson street bridge (Route 66 eastbound), opening to allow ships to pass

If you ever come to Chicago I strongly suggest taking one of our Water Taxi’s from Union Station (i.e, Route 66) to Navy Pier (the Orange line on the map above) which travels to where the Chicago River meets Lake Michigan… that said I’m about to go a bit off topic, but really… you have GOT to try the water Taxis

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Pics of me and my Chinese friend when she visited Chicago in 2013

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While at Navy pier, before switching to the next Taxi, you might want to go up on the Ferris Wheel (which is sometimes referred to as the Chicago Wheel, as it actually served as an attraction back in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition, i.e., the White City, which was held along the lake on Chicago South’s side) which offers some great views of the city

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The skyscraper behind me is the John Hancock (grin) center, where I used to work for about a year back when I was in my 20’s, 

but then make sure to take the Water Taxi that travels from the pier via Lake Michigan to Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum, even if you don’t want to go to the Museums.

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The skyscraper on the left is the Big Willy (see below), the one in the middle is the Standard Oil building — no self-respecting Chicagoan refers to it as the Aon center and if you asked them where the Aon center was I doubt they’d know, and one to the right is the John Hancock (where I used to work back when I was in my 20’s)….. again, NO ONE calls it 875 North Michigan Avenue. Apparently the John Hancock building, the corporate headquarters for the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co, at around 2013 ceased to be their headquarters, and just a few months ago the name got changed to its address. The pics above were from when I did this back in 2013 when my friend, who I knew from when I was teaching in S. Korea, came to visit during a summer break.

But I digress…  returning to Route 66….

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From there I continued my trek down Adams (the west bound 66). The above picture is looking west down the street, across the bridge I had just passed over… and, the ‘small’ white building just above the black van is Union station.

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Again, this photo is looking west. The sky scraper in the distance is the same one shown in the picture from the Water Taxi. Which I referred to as “The big Willy.” It was originally called the Sears Tower (my best friend from high-school has worked there for almost 15 years), and when first built in 1973 (I remember it going up) it was the tallest building in the world. But Sears then sold it to Willis Insurance in 2009, who renamed it as The Willis Tower. Many Chicagoans to this day absolutely refuse to use that name, but I, personally, LOVE IT… because it allows me to call it “the big Willy” (Willy being a British slang word for penis) and just how great is that?! The GORGEOUS historic building in the foreground of the picture is the SIDE entrance (if you can believe it) of the Rookery Building, which designed by deeply important architectural firm of Burnham and Root in 1888. If you have ever read the best-selling novel The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, about the Chicago world’s fair, you know who they are. I didn’t take any pictures inside, but the lobby was design by Frank Loyd Wright. If you’re an architecture enthusiast you will LOVE Chicago.

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Another thing Chicago is famous for, one of which is visible on Route 66, is our collection of public art. The above is Alexander Calder‘s Flamingo (sculpture). I remember when it was first unveiled in 1974, none of us could make heads or tails of what it was… but it’s pretty.

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After this I pit stopped off at the historic Berghoff Restaurant (click the link for a fully review of the place) for a mug of their root beer (they brew it themselves). For some reason this iconic German restaurant which is a landmark of downtown Chicago, its been there since 1898… is NOT in the Michelin guide… shrug?… I remember the first time my mom took me here, I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old. If you look at the image above, and look down the street between the tall building you’ll see the roof of the Art Institute of Chicago, which is not only one of the FINEST art museums in the world, it’s also my Alma Mater. If you love German food, EAT HERE, this place has been rocking my socks off my whole life… if you don’t… at least try the root beer and look around, the interior is just amazing to look at and reeks of Chicago history (photos and murals of Chicago Exposition line the walls)

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AND THIS is also a route 66 establishment — and I never realized it was that until this trip. Did I mention I have been eaten here my whole life.

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If you look carefully at the building, you’ll see how the sign above… which I’ve never seen before, and keep in mind the roman looking building is Art Institute of Chicago, were I went to school for four years….. and this one below are on either end of the same city block…

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The Iconic Berghoff Resturant in Downtown Chicago, Illinois

The Berghoff Restaurant is a MUST visit traditional German restaurant in downtown Chicago, which is also one of the city’s landmarks. First opened in 1898 by Herman Joseph Berghoff, a recent immigrant from Germany, this restaurant has been run by successive generations of the founding family until it first closed 2006. Unrecognized by the family, the restaurant was so iconic to Chicago residents that its closing created something of major scandal, with outcries of horror and loss so resounding and vociferous that one of the great-grandchildren of the founders, who had not wanted to run it, changed her mind and reopened it shortly there after.

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In 2016 that same great-granddaughter (who REALLY had not wanted to run) sold it to her brother, but other than laying off the entire staff and only rehiring the ones who were NOT cantankerous old farts (I will say service has improved MARKEDLY since they did it) nothing has really changed.

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They have essentially kept the menu full of its old artery clogging classics, but have added some new newer, healthier options (when people ask me what German food is like I describe it thus, “meat, meat, meat… more meat, a bit more meat… and something white on the side.”). So if you look at the images below it is photos from two different visits one in 2013, with a friend visiting from China, and the other with a one I’ve known my whole life (I actually just went to the Shiva for her mother in law last night) where we got healthy food.

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Eating at the Berghoffs with friends: 2013 left, when we got a corned beef sandwich… and the difference in 2017, a healthy plate of grilled fish and veggies with very little oil, on the right

I remember the first time my mom took me here, I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old. If you look at the very first image of this post (see above), and look down the street between the tall building you’ll see the roof of what is the Art Institute of Chicago, which is not only one of the FINEST art museums in the world, it’s also my Alma Mater. Every time my mom took me there, that visit was almost always followed up by a meal the Berghoff.

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This time, like EVERY other, I got a mug of their Root-beer. I LOVE their root beer, it has a licorice taste to it which you don’t normally find in root beers. That said, during this last visit I noted they were installing a microbrewery INSIDE the restaurant. This place has ALWAYS had their own brew, but I guess having the huge brewing vat sitting in your place makes you a bit trendier (and hopefully more profitable) … but again, no substantial changes.

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All through the restaurant are murals and photographs of the Chicago world’s fair, including this one bottom left of the ORIGINAL Ferris Wheel (sometimes referred to as the Chicago Wheel), which served as an attraction back in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition, i.e., the White City, i.e., the Chicago world’s fair, which was held along the lake on Chicago South’s side. In its honor Chicago has opened up one on Navy Pier by the lake, which offers some great views of the city

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One thing that I had never realized and this is one of my favorite places to go to where I have eaten at my whole life… is that the Adams street, where the Berghoff is located, is also one of the end points for Route 66… who knew?

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The Rock Cafe on Route 66, in Stroud Oklahoma

Per the suggestion of a friend, and one of those “places you need to check out on Route 66 lists” I stopped for a meal at the Rock Cafe in Stroud, Oklahoma. Not only is the Cafe original to the 66 experience (the place has been there since 1939, and used to be a Grey Hound Bus stop), but when the Pixar folks were doing their Route 66 road trip as research for the animated movie Cars, they came here, and so fell in love with the place’s owner, Dawn Welch, a Route 66 restoration activist who had moved to Stroud and bought the restaurant in large part to help resurrect the town…  that they based one of the main characters for the movie on her; namely, the animated character Sally Carrera (shown as a blue, 2002 Porsche 911) the owner of the Cozy Cone Motel, who serves both as the love interest of/and protagonist against Lightning McQueen,  was based almost entirely on .

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I found YouTube video by her, where you a taste of what the Pixar folks saw

That said, she wasn’t there the day I visited, and odds are you won’t meet her either… so lets talk about the restaurant she owns.

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I found the menu of the Rock Cafe to be far more upmarket/chef driven than I would have expected based on most of the other historic eateries in town (and more than a few of the dishes made me wonder about the German Heritage of Stroud)

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Of course anyone know knows me well knows which of the items on this menu I went for (although I admit the Jagersnitzel & Spaetzle with cheese were calling to me)…. but I opted for food more in line with my dietary restrictions (low fat)

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One Buffalo Burger with mustard

The Buffalo burger was ok. The meat patty was thin and crunchy rather than thick and juicy, and the amount of mustard they put on completely overwhelmed the flavor of the meat (which should have been the star of the dish).  But it had a good bun…

After eating I checked out the gift shop and IF they had offered this T-shirt on a more feminine cut shirt (a V neck or a scoop neck) I would have purchased it…. but they didn’t.

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It’s the Sally Carrera character that’s based on the Rock Cafe’s owner, in front of the cafe and a route 66 sign. (I’ve emailed the owner and she’s agreed she needs some women’s versions, hopefully she’ll get back to me when she has one and I’ll buy it on-line).

 

 

The Grove (shopping mall) & The Original Farmers Market, Los Angeles California

These two shopping areas, The Grove at Farmers Market & The Original LA Farmers Market are directly adjacent to each other, are built on what was initially one property, are radically different from each other and still, should be done as one visit. The Grove is a VERY upscale open-air shopping mall that is frequented by locals, and out-of-town tourist flock to in hopes of seeing movie stars. The Farmers Market, by comparison is a historic landmark, is a far more down-market, mostly indoor facility where the locals go to buy fresh produce and to grab very tasty but affordable meals from over 100 small vendors … that also sells a lot of affordable tourist stuff (T-shirts, mugs, etc).IMG_0168.JPGAnyone who watches TMZ is familiar with The Grove; it is supposedly frequented by Actors and stars; and as such, it’s just a major draw for tourists hoping to run into said stars. According to a friend of mine who is movie star adjacent (he grew up in Beverly Hills and has worked in the film industry his whole life, not an actor) they in actuality NEVER shop there… with the caveat that if they do, they’ll usually call the photographers before they get there to let them know they’re coming. Usually they have a project about to be released that needs press, or their marriage is rumored to be in trouble so it’ll be a “happy family” outing, etc. My friend went so far as say that the mall has a sort of copacetic (you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours) relationship with said actors, singers, etc., to make sure that they choose The Grove as the location for said ‘upstaged out-on-the-town ‘ photos. And it’s “outdoor” venue is highly useful in that respect.

[I have to admit, I watch TMZ live regularly, as in almost every night. I load their pod cast, put it next to my pillow; I don’t usually really listen to it closely, so much as it lulls me to sleep. Occasionally it holds my attention and is genuinely interesting and informative, but more often than not — on the days when there’s no real “news” of any note, they’ll start with something about the Kardashians or Kanye West and I’m out like a light. So, that said, I was a bit excited to see it. (AND, my cousin lives walking distance from it so it was it was walking distance from the Airbnb I rented in order to be near her.)]

But, now that I’m here, I don’t get what the big deal is…

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In the middle of the mall area is a water feature, that does the dancing waters thing

it’s an outdoor mall, a bit like Old Orchard in Skokie, near where I grew up… maybe a bit nicer/newer.. but similar… although a bit more upmarket… unlike the Grove, Old Orchard does NOT have its own trolley that runs INSIDE the mall area

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The Trolley only runs during the daytime, probably for safety reasons

Among the stores was this desert place called Dominique Ansel Bakery that was kind of to die for from the looks of it. It makes all sorts of very fancy looking deserts and ice cream concoctions that look like other kinds of food. IMG_0179.JPG

I got the water melon thing, which was made with a non-dairy ice-cream… but in retrospect I wish I’d gotten the avocado sandwich, because the other than the little chocolate seeds and the actual hollowed out melon, it was a major let down. (The non-dairy ice-cream kind of seriously sucked. It didn’t taste good, nor did it taste like watermelon… I ended up dumping it into the trash and just eating the fruit and the chocolate)

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—OK then, I had to go to the bathroom and discovered it is the NICEST mall bathroom I have ever seen, it is far more like a 4-star hotel’s bathroom.

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… and after that, as I was standing at the roundabout where you’re supposed to get picked up by “Taxi”‘s (including Uber and Lyft), the valet guy offered me two bottles of water one for myself and one for the cab driver… (this is NOT a level of service I’ve ever encountered at a mall before) …so, that said, I think I’ve discovered what the big deal is

The Farmer’s market was (with the exception of the Grove’s bathroom) far more my speed. I went there one night on my own, and discovered it has a music scene

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The night that I was there (a week night) a game of trivia was being hosted

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Note all the different food stalls surrounding the area

There were SO many tasty choices… I could eat here over and over and go months before I had to repeat a dish.IMG_0182.JPG

But I found this Afghan/Middle eastern place called Moishe’s — known by most for their Falafel, but they were also selling one of my favorite things, so I bought it, and it was good… I got a doughnut at Bob’s for desert, as they were described as baked and not fried (it was too bready/cakey for my taste).

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A Afghan/Turkish sort of ravioli that covered in yogurt, spices, and a some spicy oil

and then my cousin and her spouse brought me here for dinner. They’re vegetarians, so they got the Falafel from the vender I had eaten at the night before, and I opted for this seafood place which I discovered puts all the food that’s already out in their case for sale at half price starting at 7pm on weekdays. I got a very large lox and bagel sandwich — tasted like they were using Costco purchased lox and bagels, but I love that stuff. Afterwards we got ice-cream from Bennet’s, which they promised me was handmade. I got one of those cones dipped in chocolate and topped with nuts. It was very good.

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Like I said my cousin lives nearby, and she and her wife come here to eat regularly and buy produce — which she did again that night.

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Kingman Arizona

I’ve only been in this town for two days and I already don’t like it. [Postscript… if you can only stay at one, spend a few days in Williams, AZ, rather than this dump of a town]

Firstly, the Airbnb owner who I had initially booked with had double booked the room — apparently she was advertising it on multiple sites and got confused — and was trying to manipulate ME into cancelling the reservation. In airbnb the person who cancels using the web site, is the person who pays their fee, so sketchy. THEN she expressly tried to trick me into NOT doing was calling them, saying she’d already spoken with them and it wasn’t necessary … which of course I called bullshit on… and call them is what I did. She knew (and I knew) that once they read the emails they would set the cancellation as though SHE had done it even if I initiated the phone call, so not only was she going to have pay their fee for using their site, but as a hostess, she was going to loose a lot of points in their “trustworthy” rankings. IF she’d done it herself, she’d have lost them anyway (unless she lied and said a death in the family or some such) plus the fee. So, I called them and explained the situation in full, they cancelled it and gave me a full refund. [Now one person is not a town, but unfortunately, this did ultimately prove to be the “culture” of the town… to my experience.]

Her home was in the historic section of town, which is where I wanted to be. All other rentals were in the new parts … and if I was going to be there I’d rather be in a hotel since there are SO many of them in this town that rooms here are well within my budget (A quick look on google found about 120 motels/hotels in 34 square miles, with the next largest employer being the hospital… I think its safe to say that tourism is their main industry). I opted for Ramada.

That said, no one comes to Kingman to see Kingman. Kingman is on I-40, Route 66, and its a about a two hour drive from here to either the west ridge of the Grand Canyon and/or the Hoover Dam (… so it’s a good base location for short stays while seeing other things.

When I got here, my hotel room had no wifi… it turns out that whole side of the structure has no wifi and they’ve known about it for a while and haven’t bothered to fix it. What killed me was how nasty the staff was to me about it. Orlando has a lot to teach Kingman about customer service when your whole economy depends on on it.

Oh, and I’ve decided that REALLY there’s no reason to stay in downtown Kingman or even on route 66 (which is where my hotel is). The hotels in the other side of town are cheaper, newer, and most likely nicer… and the food there is better… although still not good.

That said, I tried FOUR different locally owned restaurants only to be DEEPLY disappointed. I even tried the steak house on 66 .. my fish smelled bad and tasted off. The Chinese couple at the next table were clearly really unhappy with their steaks, as in DEEPLY unhappy.

The sad fact is that in this town … with the exception of Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner which not only came highly rated on every site I looked at, but I noticed it was full of the local high-school kids on their high-school’s homecoming night … but that didn’t have one healthy thing on it’s menu (it really is all about the burgers, fries and milk shakes)

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The girl with the sash is part of her high-school’s homecoming royal court

…. you really are better off eating at any of the plethora of national chain restaurants in town.

I even tried the Garlic Clove, which is supposed to be one of the better Italian mom and pops in town, and having done so, I seriously question if ANYTHING they serve isn’t frozen, or from a can. That and I had the WORST case of gas and acid reflux afterwards.


OK, I found someplace NOT horrible. It’s totally out of the tourist area. It’s past the hospital and out by the car dealership (I have a feeling it’s the affluent part of town)… it’s called the Kingman Chophouse (king of steak). I got a baked not fried crab cake, a bowl of bean medley soup and a baked sweat potato… and everything tasted just fine.

Stratford, Ontario (Shakespeare Festival)

A cute enough town with many of its buildings dating back to the 1880’s or 1910, with a lot of top of the line yet affordable resturants; the fact remains that the only real reason to come to Stratford — and MANY people do, is to attend the internationally recognized, Shakespeare festival, which runs yearly from April through October (i.e., not during Canada’s winter).

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Normally when I blog, I break up an extended visit like this — 23 days — by the day or by specific things I’ve seen or done, but since Stratford is not that kind of town… people come here for one reason, the theater, I’m going to do it as one extended post …. with the caveate of a day trip I took to Niagra Falls (in part because I had a day off and some business I had to do early the following morning in Toronto, before returning to Stratford that night for another play)


The Town


Originally a railway junction (and you can still hear the train as it passes) Stratford’s main industry (which collapsed) had been furniture making. Today the town has a population of around 31,000 and has a new main industry — theater. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival began in 1952 as a way to stimulate the local economy, with its first production (Richard III, starring Alec Guinness) being staged the following year, the festival is now held in such high regard that they often attract the best of Canada, the US and Britain to take part in their productions, and their company has nurtured Canadian talent that has gone on to be world famous. While the central theme of the festival is to produce the plays of “The Bard of Avon,” they also produce musicals and plays ranging from the ancient Greeks to modern works. In fact this year only half of the shows were by Shakespeare, although one of the non-Shakespeare plays was about him.  And they offer all sorts of deals, which vary based on if you are purchasing well in advance, or during the festival, so that if you plan it strategically you don’t have to pay through the nose to see every play (which is exactly what I did).

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I was here for slightly over three weeks, I stayed at the home of a friend Dayna Manning, a local musician (and someone whose been successful enough that she’s been able to support herself fairly comfortably just on her music — which is a hell of an achievement). In fact while I was visiting she and a friend put on a ‘test’ concert at a local venue. They’d only played together once before, at the request of a friend, enjoyed it, and decided to work together to build material for a gig to take on the road. This concert was performed mostly in front of friends and family (and local fans), with the aid of some friends who just joined them to jam.

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Granted, most people might not have a local friend but not to worry; the town sports plenty of proper B&B‘s & Airbnb‘s — in fact practically every block seems to have one or the other, as well as various hotels (some chain, some historic) serving the town’s visitors. While here I met a LOT of older (usually retired, or semi-retired) people visiting from Chicago. I also discovered that there is in fact a dedicated bus line (of the air conditioned tour bus sort) that runs from Toronto to Stratford that only costs about $25, saving people a drive back late at night.

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Like I said, Stratford’s main industry is the Theater, and as a result the local schools have a very STRONG arts mandate. I’m constantly running into packs of local teenagers who all claim to be theater nerds, and the streets are full of VERY YOUNG musicians (most often found providing entertainment to folks waiting for their plays to begin) whose parents can always be found standing guard just across the street or down the block. According to Dayna, Canadians with musically gifted children will in fact move to Stratford, just to take advantage of the musical programs there. The overall quality of the music these kids were preforming was very high.

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I did not discover this until about half way through my visit but apparently Justin Bieber hails from Stratford. (There are t-shirts for any visiting Beliebers) when I mentioned it to my friend Dayna, this is actually her home town, she said that his mom was a year ahead of her in high school and had been the only teen mom in their school, and that she used to bring him to class.

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Architecturally the historic downtown of Stratford is very cute; most of the building were built in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s, spiral out from the central point of the town hall, and sport a strong emphasis of multicolored brick work as their main form of decoration.

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Running through the center of Stratford and offering a pretty walk between the Patterson and Festival theaters is a very cute river, with loads of ducks and swans (not to mention a plethora of Pokemon stops).

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Locals and visitors both make active use of the river for boating (rowing), picnicking, and just enjoying it.

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On nights when there is a play being performed, and the weather is fine, there’s a boat that travels up and down the river, performing live music.

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Right across from the main (largest) theatrical venue for the festival is Tom Patterson Island, which is a pleasant place to hang out, and had the benefit (from my perspective) of being a Pokemon hub — a place where three poke-stops are so close together that assuming you’ve got active lures in place Pokemon emerge rapidly — and the more players there are taking advantage of the spot at one time the even more rapidly they emerge… its not uncommon to find groups of young adults playing the game there at 3:00am

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Right along the river along one of my favorite areas — and it was only two blocks from the house where I was staying — was the lawn bowling club.

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The Theaters


Currently, the festivals takes place in four venues scattered around the small town: The Festival theater, The Avon theater, The Tom Patterson Theater (named after the guy who had the idea of creating the festival in the first place), and the Studio theater (I will describe each in detail later on). And, if you have the good sense (as I did) to find digs that are centrally located to those, you can quite easily walk to any of them (assuming normal mobility and reasonable weather). There are taxis in the town, but they are few and far between (I’ve rarely seen them), so if you’re going to need one I strongly suggest contacting the companies directly and reserving them in advance (there is no Uber or such in the area, although you think the locals would push for it as a way to earn an extra buck during the festival season). Otherwise, parking at these locations is at a premium, and you will actually have to RESERVE parking in advance if you’re going to need it, or try to find street parking nearby, which won’t be all that easy.

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One of the slightly odd things I noticed about the productions here was that extreme ‘Color Blind Casting’ seems to be the rule, to the extent that it can sometimes be disconcerting with absolutely no thought to reality … so that thought of race does not even happen in casting family units, forget about historical likelihood. As such, I saw a Caucasian actress as the mother, with an actress of African decent (who appears to lack any mixed heritage) as her daughter, and then a granddaughter played by an Asian actress (in this case Vietnamese)… whose father was played by a Caucasian actor…. in a play set in the 1850’s in Sweden, a place and time where even brunettes were a rarity. While I appreciate the need and desire for color blind casting, I wish they’d at least integrate some deniable plausibility…. otherwise its much harder for the audience to suspend disbelief and enter into what I refer to as the magical transformation of theater… where you forget it’s a play and stop seeing it as actors on a stage.

I had heard about the Stratford Festival in Canada all my life, but growing up — as much as my family LOVED theater,  we never came here. (In fact we never crossed the northern border to Canada… I came once on a business trip as my father’s assistant, and once for an academic conference when I was in grad school, but that was it). We did however go to London almost yearly to visit with relatives (at least until most airlines stopped offering the “kids fly free” deals in the mid 1970’s) and that’s where we would gorge ourselves on government subsidized theater, sometimes seeing as many as three shows a day in our attempt to see EVERY possible production before heading home to Chicago; that, or we’d attend local student productions at Northwestern University (which has always been one of the top ranked drama programs in the country), getting the specially priced for staff tickets (dad was a professor at the business school). So, what drew me to decide to invest almost a full to the Stratford Festival this year? It was a school friend who has been coming here almost yearly with her mother, and listening to her going on and on and on … and on… about how great it was.

As previously stated, four venues make up the festival:

The Avon Theater: Let me admit right now (to my utter embarrassment) that I completely missed the punny nature of this till my cousin by marriage pointed it out… The Avon in Stratford? Get it?

Anyway, it is located in the heart of downtown (which is only about four blocks square), so its very convenient in terms of you go, you eat dinner, and then you wander over to the theater.

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The Avon Theater, and its upstairs lounge area
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The theater’s interior

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This theater seems to get the shows expected to do well, but not SO well that they will require the festival theater; during my stay I saw Shakespeare in Love, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (a musical); and Sondheim’s a Little Night Music.

Festival Theater:

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The Festival Theater is the main venue for the Festival; it is where all of the ‘classic’ Shakespeare plays are performed, as well as any performance expected to bring in the crowds — which this year was A Chorus Line.

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It is the venue located farthest from the Historic downtown of Stratford, alongside the Tom Patterson Island (located in the river).

Hidden within the building (by the stairs on the way down to the bathroom) is a real find, a chair that is strongly believed to have belonged to the Bard himself.

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Tom Patterson Theater:
The building that this venue is in doubles as the Kiwanis Community Center. It’s one of the smaller theaters, with a full in the round construction. It’s located directly adjacent to the river, and when there are performances (and good weather) musicians will perform on a small dock.

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This is where they host the Shakespeare shows they’re not expecting as much interest in — in this case a mashup of four of the historic plays, as well as serious dramas from top play-writes. In this case I saw “All my Sons” and one of the lessor plays by Ibsen.

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Studio Theater:

The studio theater, which is 3/4 in the round, is located directly behind The Avon Theater. It doesn’t even have a proper lounge area, just a little stand which doesn’t even take credit cards. Most of the audience ends up hanging out at a book store located across the street (about where I’m standing when I took this picture).

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It is the smallest of the Stratford venues. It’s where they display experimental theater or new plays that have never been seen before. As in, at my high school we had an in the round theater for when we put on Shakespeare plays and the like, which was bigger.

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The Eats


The Good:

Bijou (midpriced Farm to table, French gourmet):
Located smack in the center of Stratford’s downtown. The food is French/ Farm to Table & prix fixe… and MOST of what’s on the menu I can’t eat. I explained my dietary issues to the waitress, who GOD BLESS turned out to be a dietician. She immediately agreed I could only eat the main and changed the price to adjust for that. I had trout on a bed of grilled veggies, which was delicious.

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And then she brought me a little champagne cup full of fresh blueberries for my desert — and didn’t charge me for them.

CrabbyJoes (chain type):
Located outside of the downtown on the main road from Toronto. I came here under the mistaken assumption that it would include crab… it doesn’t. Its sort of like a TGIFridays, or a Chilies, type place… only the wait staff is actually HELPFUL and KIND and CONSIDERATE. First time I came in I explained my medical conditions and asked for a suggestion. The waiter said, “well to be honest most of what we serve you can’t eat… but there’s this one page in the back of the menu you should look at.” (which had healthy options I decided I would try at some later point — the fish dinner was delicious with lots of raw veggies as the salad, not boring lettuce)

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But I wasn’t hungry enough for that at the time, just wanted a snack, so I asked if I could have the grilled chicken breast that comes on the salad… but without the salad. The waiter immediately pointed out that they normally brush it was garlic butter, and should they not do that? HALLELUJAH, the man earned his 20% tip.

I later had their Mediterranean Chicken from the skinny menu, sans the dressing on the salad (because it was pretty much oil). That was NOT as good as the fish, for a lot more calories — 500+ instead of 300+

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Foster’s Grill (mid-priced Gastropub):
Center of downtown, almost next door to the Avon & Studio theater: I had tried this place before for dinner and was highly unimpressed with their “healthy” options… ended up eating the mussels which (this being the heart of the Midwest) were uninspiring. However, friend Dayna whose house I’m staying at, suggested that they’d be among the best local place for me to get breakfast, so I gave that a try. BINGO…

The dish is normally two pouched eggs on steamed spinach for $9 (Canadian), but I asked if I could only have one egg as I have high cholesterol, and they accommodated me, dropping the price to $6 … add one slice of dry toast which they didn’t charge me for, and a cup of coffee. Now THAT’S a breakfast! … For a grand total of $6.97 in US currency. The DOWNSIDE is that with the exceptions of Sunday Brunch, the breakfast menu goes away at 11am, and that’s about when I’m waking up — that said I found it pretty easy to get other local breakfast diners to make me the same thing (usually sans the avocado which these other diners don’t seem to ever have on hand) for a few dollars less.

The Prune:
Firstly, reservations are a must. The restaurant is in a converted house, on a street off to the side of downtown (with a bunch of other homes also converted into businesses — you get the feeling downtown is bursting it seams, but that the homes are considered historic so they can’t be torn down and replaced with business appropriate buildings).

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This place is a fixed price only, two courses minimum restaurant. As I’m on a diet and have gotten used to small portions, $55 for two small portions and no vedge didn’t bother me, but I could see it pissing off a lot of people wanting US sized portions (see Demetre’s below). That said everything was tasty, and they were able to accommodate my dietary needs. The appetizer was smoked trout on a green apple vinaigrette (the assured me almost no oil), with one little bit of crisp bread with trout row on it (forgot to take a picture before I started eating), there was another large piece of fish where the fork is.
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The main was Skate wing, which I’ve only had once before as it is most definitively NOT kosher (it’s a form of shark), so my parents never ordered it for us at restaurants. (I discovered it while eating out with a friend in Brighton, UK).  You all know what Skate looks like, there’s barely a major aquarium that hasn’t got them in the main tank… they are the fish who look like they are flying through the water, rather than swimming… The wings are tasty.

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Demetre’s Family Eatery (Greek owned Diner)
And in the best bang for your buck (but not necessarily all that tasty) category: Again, located away from downtown, this is a place that apparently all the elderly folks already know about (based on the average age of the customers) and that locals like (according to the person whose home I’m crashing at). They have smaller “elderly” portions, but on average their portions on MASSIVE. Where normally (for the same price) I’d get one blackboard eraser sized portion of grilled fish, here I got four of them. Also, as they have a predominantly elderly clientele they had NO issue with adjusting the dish so that the fish was almost bone dry when it arrive (barely any oil was used while cooking)

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Unfortunately what the restaurant seriously lacks is vegetables. The fish came with baked, mashed or fried potato, or rice… no veggies. They didn’t even have them in the kitchen to make compromises with (the girl told me they’d have to unfreeze them, always a ‘good’ sign, NOT). When I explained my situation they compromised and gave me salad. When it arrived the fish tasted frozen…

Looking around EVERY portion for every dish was massive. Additionally I spotted two deals:

So gourmet food it isn’t… but if you want a family owned place comparable to any of the major ‘diner’ chains… think Perkin’s … with a lot of Greek style dishes, this is the place.

Revival House:
This is converted church is the most architecturally “interesting” restaurant in town, and is also a favorite of my friend Dayna (although I found relatively little that I could eat on their menu).

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For myself, I thought the food was OK but nothing to write home about…

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The bad:

Mercer Hall (mid-priced Japanese influenced Gastropub):
HIGHLY overrated in my humble opinion. Yelp had this listed as one of the best places in town… my experience did not support this. First, they had run out of the mussels and it was barely dinner time. Then I asked them if instead of deep frying the fish option could they bake it or grill it or steam it as I have fatty liver and oil is poison to me …they flatly refused (I should add that this is a request no restaurant has EVER before had an issue with unless they also unblushingly admitted that they’d already fried everything up in advance and are just re-frying it to warm it up — mercer made no such admittance) finally I opted for the only low fat item left on the menu (its a VERY unhealthy menu), which was a smoked salmon appetizer platter, and it was unimpressive and massively over priced. In general the wait staff treated me like “how dare you come to a restaurant if you have medical problems, you’re weird.” (And let’s keep in mind that elderly people are the majority of the tourists that come into this town for the yearly festival.)

Annie’s Seafood Restaurant (Diner):
One of the reviewers on YELP had described this as a greasy spoon fish place, and wasn’t kidding.  It’s an inexpensive mom and pop looking place outside of the center of town, but on one of the main roads into town — the one you’d take coming from Toronto. I had come in before actually eating there, to check it out, explaining my health issues and telling the waitress I could only eat there if they ALSO served up the fish as a healthy option, not just fried… she assured me they did and pointed to their grilled and steamed options… When I finally went there to eat I specifically told the waitress I had diabetes and liver disease, and that’s why I was getting the grilled haddock, and I couldn’t eat the potatoes, rice, or bread either … So, for $17 what I got was a tiny sliver of fish sitting in a puddle of fat (and I’m not overstating it), and then a mass of steamed carrots (high glycemic-index — lots of natural sugar, and cooking it breaks down the fiber so you don’t even get the benefit of that) with some broccoli… so, I separate out the carrots … I eat the fish, first letting the oil drip off of it as much as possible and when I get to the broccoli I realized that even though it had been steamed, they then DOUSED IN BUTTER!!!! WHY bother to claim you have healthy options only to serve them up swimming in fat? So I couldn’t eat that either cause its impossible to get fat out of broccoli once it’s doused in it. And then… not even an offer to reduce my bill because the mostly served me food I could not eat after I had been more than clear about my medical condition when ordering.


The Shows: All 13 of them — or at least that was the plan


 

I’m now going to give my take on the shows I saw, as this will only be helpful to anyone showing up in the 2016 season, I’m putting it at the end of the post. The shows I saw were (in order of viewing):

LOVED it! I will admit that the politically correct/racially blind casting threw me for a while, and kept me from turning my brain off and just ‘entering the magic’ created by highly talented and skilled actors. (The grandmother was white, her daughter was pure African Black, and HER daughter.. the granddaughter.. was Vietnamese… and the show was is set in Sweden during the beginning of the industrial revolution, a time and place were even being a brunette was a rarity.) Ultimately however my brain was able to suspend disbelief and I enjoyed this production of the Sondheim classic greatly.

And my $58.50 (achieved by utilizing their half price Tuesday night ticket deal) got me great 4th row/ center orchestra seats…

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I think the last time I saw this show I was maybe 14 going on 40, and it was with my mother on the London stage; and, at that time I did NOT enjoy it half as much. I really do think it’s ‘adult’ material, in that you really can’t appreciate the full depth of the humor till you’re a bit older.


It was good. I found the staging of it to be really impressive. They had constructed a stage within a stage where they could move sides back and forth so that sometimes you were looking at the “back stage” events (which were being performed stage front) while the play was being performed (stage back), and visa versa… IMG_5636

Other than the innovative staging however, it was good but not great, and to be honest, I think the movie was better. One major change from the movie is the increased role of Christopher “Kit” Marlow, who is played as much more Gay (many historical scholars suggest that this is anachronistic, as sexuality was a much more fluid thing back then, with bi-ness being almost normative) — and strongly suggesting to the audience that he was in fact responsible for many of Shakespeare’s best lines, plot ideas, etc. (something that historians argue about — one theory being that Shakespeare’s early works were in fact written by Marlow — which is true in the movie as well, but not to the same degree — here Kit plays a ‘Cyrano’ in the garden to William’s ‘Christian’ with Kit even helping William climb the wall by literally “boosting him on his shoulders” … as Will initially woes Viola — in the balcony scene that will… according to this tale.. later ‘inspire’ the one in Romeo & Juliet…. .

My $32.77 ticket ($29 US, achieved by utilizing a deal where you waited till a specific date, and then bought a ticket where you had no choice as to where you’d be seated) got me a ticket in the upper balcony — the nose bleeds if you will — but once the doors had closed and the “please turn off your ring tone” reminder had been issued, the Jewish couple from Chicago seated in front of me – he was a professor from Loyola – and I all picked up our stuff and moved forward about 6 rows, as almost all of the rows before us were empty seats (they tried to stop us but, hey, they were empty!) … and then during the break the couple had even gone down to see if there were better empty seats in the orchestra level but then decided that where we now were was actually much better, especially considering the fact that 1/2 the play took place elevated up on a balcony


  • As You Like It – by William Shakespeare (Festival Theater, August 11th, 8pm)

This was a ‘modern’ interpretation of the show with a high level of audience participation.

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According to the advertising the show was supposed to be set in 1980’s Newfoundland (a part of Canada), a concept that sounded cute in theory but kind of died in execution. To be blunt about it, had I not read the inserts all I could have told you was that the actors seemed a bit confused as to which accents to use, most of them starting off the show as an accent I was unfamiliar with (it sounded garbled, and made it very hard to hear them) but by about 1/2 way through they were all back to their regular accents or something a bit more British sounding. Also, the 1980’s time period was mostly identifiable by the MTV inspired fashions and one character wearing a Walkman. But the whole gender bending aspect of the show, women being able to hide their gender just by wearing pants, kind of dies in a time period where women in men’s clothing is normative. So in my opinion, this switch of location and time period was a bit of a fail.

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Other than that, the show was a lot of fun with a lot of physical humor and singing and dancing thrown in. I also enjoyed the interactive elements. As we walked in each of us was given a bag of items. All the people in orchestra seating were given an artificial pine branch, a laundry pin, a poem, and a green party hat; the people in the balcony were given stars instead of branches and some other items but I forget what as I wasn’t sitting there. Any time the scene was set in the forest we were supposed to hold up our branches, and before the scene where the romantic lead Orlando litters the forest with poems to his love we were instructed to pin our poem to our branch, and the actors as they came through plucked various ones off the branches… the fans (where were all blue) were supposed to represent the sea with the audience creating waves… and at one point a massive rabbit was passed around the audience as the characters went shooting for rabbits, etc. And then everyone on the lower level was instructed to put on our green party hats (I noticed only about 1/2 the people were willing to play along with this), and we were bathed in green light… I think we were supposed to be a meadow.

Ticket price: $60.60  ($46.72 US)


 

Very cute show; I was expecting it to be a play, but it was a musical and there were some cute songs in it. It is of course an adaptation of Lewis’s children’s book by the same name (while many think of the book as just a harmless piece of fantasy fiction, for those who don’t know, Lewis was lay theologian and story is in fact allegory of the death and the resurrection of Jesus, ‘who died for the sins of man’).

That said, whoever did the set design did a really amazing job; the curved screens altered images as needed, some animated, some not. For the animals they did every thing from hand held puppetry to a massive oversized Aslan the Lion (that looked to be deeply influenced by the oversized puppet-horses that practically breathed, that I saw used in the London production of Warhorse a few years ago), and the little podiums in the photo are constructed of what looks like over sized books — A design touch that I really liked.

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… and there were a few more”adult jokes” thrown in — so for instance among the books Lucy spots in fawn’s home in Narnia was “how to train your unicorn” and “50 shades of fun” — followed by, “we don’t have these books in my world”

I was able to snap a few decent images of the show (once I noticed other folks in my row doing the same)

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For the White Witch, better known these days as Elsa from Disney’s Frozen, and I think partly to avoid the confusion of one with the other, the same actress who had played the part was same one who had played the actress in A little Night Music (see above), who is most definitely black… as in ebony skinned. (Again, race blind casting, but in this case I think it might have helped distance the character from the Disney version, helping to reduce confusion in little kids.

One thing I found rather odd was while the local candy stores are selling Turkish delight, a confectionery that most American and Canadian kids have probably never tasted… and that is central to the story… it was NOT being sold at the food and drink counter during intermission… MARKETING FAIL!!!

My $32.77 ticket (Again, $29 US, achieved by utilizing a deal where you waited till a specific date, and then bought a ticket where you had no choice as to where you’d be seated)  got me a seat in the 2nd row of the balcony, just off center. I overheard a conversation among the folks sitting right next to me. The show was completely sold out and they had been unable to get tickets just a few days before, but had been able to the day before and day of… cancellations I assume. They asked me how much I had paid, and when I told them one of them actually gasped, “we paid three times that amount of our tickets!”

Let’s heard it for planning in advance.

One very cute thing at this show was this couple, I passed them on the stairs before the show started:

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“Did you guys just come from a wedding? ”
“Yes ” … light bulb goes on if my head
“Was at your wedding? ”
“yes ”
“You guys are my kind of theater nerds “


 

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All my sons (1947) is an Arthur Miller play(author of such crowd ticklers as: Death of a Salesman (1949), The Crucible (1953) and A View from the Bridge (1955) — or Marilyn Monroe’s ex-husband for those of you who know nothing about the theater). It is set in the aftermath of World War II (and costuming and hairstyles placed the piece in the period as written). The central family has a son who died in war, Only the mother refuses to accept it. The surviving son now wants to marry his brother’s “girl” … That is  the initial conflict. Over the course of the play we learn that the girl is actually the daughter of the fathers old business partner and that they were next door neighbors, so the kids had grown up together. Then we learn that both fathers had been initially found guilty of producing faulty airplane parts that resulted in the deaths of 21 pilots, they had both gone to jail but the father central to the show (we never see the other one) had on appeal been found not guilty, while the other father is still in jail.

Like I mentioned before, Stratford likes to play fast and loose with the racially blind casting.But a play is not a TV show, if you’re going to change the racial profile of the characters then you are changing backstory and motivation… And you have to do it without actually changing the script, so it has to be far more strategically done in order to work, especially if it’s set in a certain time and place.

In this show, however, it actually worked powerfully. The casting of the show the main in central family is cast with white actors while most of the neighbors are actors and color. This did not bother me, In fact I think it’s made the story line stronger… In that, firstly, the liberalism (for the day) of the relationship between the father and his black neighbors strengthened the inability of the son to believe his father’s guilt, and it brought in modern-day concerns about how the justice system is not in fact colorblind. The white business partner (who we ultimately learn is the guilty party) gets off Scott free, while his black business partner who had actually tried to do the right thing ends up spending years in jail. That brought a modern relevance to the play. That totally worked.

That said, Stratford has in one aspect of the show done the beyond all reason blind racial casting again. This time there’s a black family with a white son and a white family with a black son. Now I can perfectly understand let’s say replacing one of the white families in the show with a black family or a Asian family or a mixed racial family even, but if you were going to cast two black adults as the parents and you’ve got a black kid in the cast wouldn’t make sense to have the black parents have a black child? There is a point where political correctness becomes absurd.

That said, at least they cast a black actor to play the brother for the black actress– I was seriously worried till he came out that he’d be white, like in a little night music. That said its a very good production. In fact, in this play I think most of the actors of color acted the pants off of the white actors. 

The woman sitting next to me was really bothered that there was an interracial relationship going on in the 1940s and nobody said boo about it. I don’t agree with her; as Arthur Miller wrote the script these families have a backstory that goes back years and the deceased brother was involved with his African American Neighbor — if there had been any race issues it stands to reason that these families would’ve already worked all of that shit out years ago, before the son who died had even gone off to war. So that I’m not saying anything about it now is utterly reasonable.

However, the fact that the African-American couple (that had moved into the house that used to be the home of the family whose father is now imprisoned) have a white son…. That’s just lazy casting. You’re casting a kid who basically runs across the stage II or three times and has no lines…. They could’ve picked up anybody to do that.

After I got home I bounced this off my friend Dayna, the local woman whose home I’m staying at, and she laughed and said, “Rebecca, this is the whitest town I’ve ever seen, they probably couldn’t find two black 8-year-olds to play the parts.” So she might be right, it may have just been a practicality issue.


 

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Molière is considered by many to be the creator of modern French comedy. He was successful enough in his day that his troupe performed for the king, but his works didn’t really become popular with the public and the critics until the 19th century. Known for comedies that so scathing in their criticism of social norms (as to border on impossible to not realize that “respected members” of the highly class structured, and patrilineal french society were being made to look like fools), in his day he was often getting into trouble with censors (French media back then was HIGHLY censored — which basically meant the ONLY way you could publicly criticize the status quo was via humor, etc.).

The Hypochondriac, which premiered in 1673, or to use its original French title, “The Imaginary Invalid” is a three-act comédie/ballet by the French playwright Molière with dance sequences and musical interludes (which is NOT an innovation of the festival but rather is true to its original design). The story centers around a very rich, but miserly, merchant who produces all of the carpet pads for King Louise XIV’s carpets, and his hypochondria. Add to the mix a much younger unfaithful wife, who is a professional black-widow, who is constantly conniving to disinherit his daughter while refusing him sex… and is just waiting for him to die, who he none the less loves blindly; a daughter he uses as a tool, who none-the-less loves him dearly, but is also completely in love with one of his apprentices (who is also smitten with her); a maid who treats her boss with a completely disrespectful tough love… so more like a son than her boss; and the father’s obsession with marrying off his daughter to a doctor (no matter how much of an idiot) so he doesn’t have to pay doctors bills (and Molière’s complete disrespect for pre-Enlightenment doctors) and what you have is silly farce whose real objective was probably to function as a revolutionary document intended to upend many of the values of French cultural norms during the reign of Louise XIV (who reigned from 1643 until his death in 1715), otherwise known as the Sun King.

Now to put this in context, I have a post graduate certificate in history and one of the courses I took was on French history, specifically the years leading up to the french revolution (and got an A) … So I’m well versed in the culture of the time and how the Enlightenment reversed a lot of it… which means when I was watching the show my brain, rather than perceiving it based on current social norms (and laughing along with the audience, who were laughing a lot) was busy interpreting it based on what the author was trying to communicate to the audience of his day… and just how radical and sociopolitical a lot of what was happening in the scenes would have been to them (which is why it was fine comedy for the court to see these shows, but not “appropriate” fare for the common man).

When intermission rolled around I started to try to discuss what I was thinking with the British woman seated next to me. At that point, even though she admitted she couldn’t actually hear what the actors had been saying, and had been enjoying it more for the physical comedy than because of any of the ideas hidden in the text…  so I got her to follow me (she required a cane and some assistance), and took her to where they passed out the hearing aid devices. Apparently, she and her Hubbie had been coming to the festival for years and didn’t know they were even available, let alone that they were free. She got one for both her and her husband (thanked me repeatedly) and they were both laughing the whole way through the second part and thanked me a lot after the show was done for pointing out the hearing aid option

One of the really CUTE touches was how they reminded the audience to turn off their phones… At all the theaters in Stratford what they do is play this recording of highly annoying ring tones right before the play starts, often followed by a voice saying “thank you.” Here they had some actors dressed in the doctor’s robes of the time, examining this odd thing they had found and trying to identify it… (a smart phone)… and they’re arguing about it in a sort of mini play when suddenly it starts to ring … freaking them out, and they start attacking it and claiming it is a devil item, or demon spawn, or what have you… and stomping on it trying to kill it… The audience all enjoyed this a lot and gave them a round of applause.


 

  • Macbeth – by William Shakespeare (Festival theater, Aug. 20th, 8pm — $32.77)

Very well done, very scary and spooky from first special effects of lightning and fog, and very well acted… and I had great seats (2nd row balcony just off center)

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I am a bit embarrased to admit this but…. 

… I left at intermission. I packed up my stuff, returned my heard of hearing headphones and went home.


To be honest, I bought the ticket more as a “any self respecting adult going to see the Bard should of course want see his master work The Scottish Play … it’s expected. It’s adult.” Not, to be honest, because I “wanted” to see it… That and I had decided to see EVERY play, and that included the ones I had not enjoyed as a kid.

I blame this on a certain degree of intellectual pomposity and lack of self awareness on my part … As a kid, my parents took me to ALL the Shakespeare plays (Dad was British, and we went to London every year), and as part of my ‘education’ I got heavy douses of Shakespearean theater; and, at a certain point I began to realize that there were certain plays they just stopped taking me to and I knew it was because I didn’t like them … I just didn’t remember why I didn’t like them (assuming that at that age I would have even been able to understand why I didn’t like them). They did however supplement this with repeated viewings of the shows I did like, “As you like it,” “Midsummer’s night dream,” Etc… There’s even a family story of my being like maybe 7 and attending one of the comedies at a Shakespeare in the park performance in London, my laughing to it… and a stranger commenting to my dad, “she can’t possibly understand it, she’s too young.” So my dad had him quiz me about what was happening and to his amazement I TOTALLY understood it… I had by then been exposed to so much Shakespeare that I had no difficulty following the language.

So … when buying my tickets for the festival I figured, “hey, it’s ONLY $35,”… I’d give it a try. Basically, I’m 51 now and I think the last time I was the Bard’s Play I was maybe 8…   So …

Anyway, all through the first half while intellectually appreciating the acting and the staging, and the special effects (of which there are many) I was uncomfortable and uncontrollably yawning through the whole thing… I disliked it for the same reason I don’t go to see horror films and fast forward through the star trek episodes that are all about violence… To be blunt I am quite simply NOT a fan of blood and gore and violence, no matter how well written

— A few days later, watching A Chorus Line, the woman next to me told me that in fact the reviews for Macbeth had NOT been good, and as such, that I shouldn’t based my feelings on this production… we’ll see


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I didn’t like Aeneid either, but mostly because they veered away from the original story of the founding of Rome, and made it into a really pompous and self indulgent lecture to the audience on the current refugee crisis. I had known when I bought the tickets (based on the description) that they were going to modernize it and play on it’s parallels to refugee crisis… I just had no comprehension of how heavyhandedly they were going to be about doing it. At half time, while struggling with the decision of should I stick it out or leave (as I had the night before with Macbeth) I walked around looking at the audiences’ dour faces and overheard bits of conversations by multiple folks, each trying to convince their friend or partner that, yes, they really were in fact enjoying it (and sounding like they were really working hard at also convincing themselves). Personally, I think it fell more in the category of they didn’t want to admit they didn’t like it — more than a bit of the Emperor’s New Cloths (only smart and wise people can in fact appreciate how beautiful and fine his clothes were).

At the very end of intermission, and walking around the crowd and hearing the same sorts of comments from multiple directions — I decided I wasn’t enough of a masochist to slog it out till the end, went home and loaded the romantic comedy NottingHill into my Netflix in order to clear my brain of my annoyance before going to sleep.

That said, the play was sort of a cross between 1930’s modern theater (the type Hollywood movies love making fun of because of how self indulgent it was – often is more about making actors feel important than about entertaining customers) and traditional Greek theater. I did notice that 90% of the lines were delivered by men, which I found ironic considering how hard they were pushing liberal politics. When I got home, I had decided to pull up reviews of the show (I had purchased my tickets WAY before the season had even started, so I couldn’t check reviews then) and found this inconsistency noted by a few of the reviewers who didn’t like the show either.

**As a side note, one of the things I’ve noticed during my stay north of the US border is that Netflix while your Netflix account works across borders, the options of what is available changes; and in Canada there are fewer TV series available, but a lot more/better movies on streaming, including stuff that in the US you’d actually have to get a DVD shipped to you in order to see).

 


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No one familiar with Ibsen attends one of his plays expecting to do any laughing. Ibsen, sort of by definition is about dysfunctional people behaving dysfunction-ally, hence his designation as “the father of realism” in that he put skeletons onto the stage of the sort of stuff most families kept stuffed firmly in the closet — a tendency that in 1896 (when this play was written) was pretty radical stuff. The fact is without Ibsen you might never have had plays like Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” which I had seen on the same stage back on August 16th — which in a way runs thematic parallels to this show (both have fathers who had been thrown in jail for committing fraud that destroyed the lives of others, both involve adult children breaking free from parents who want to live through them, etc.)

Also, this is pretty much by any standard one of Ibsen’s lessor plays (most folks probably haven’t ever heard of it, unlike A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, or Peer Gynt) and as such you just can’t expect it to be a great play, even if it was by a great playwright…. and this wasn’t. But, that said, it was OK. It dragged a bit in places, and they managed to make the audience laugh in a few others, but to be honest it was bit like going to the dentist to get your teeth cleaned, you go because you know it’s good for you rather than because you expect to enjoy it.

The only racially blind casting in this show was the son’s girlfriend was black — in turn of the century Norway (again, a place and time where just having dark hair would make you stand out).


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Good thing I went to the bathroom before the show. Apparently, there will be no intermission; that, and they warned us that if we left for any reason we would not be allowed back in. 

So here is an admission, I forget who introduced me to a chorus line in high school (1980?), but my girlfriends and I, we all, as a group, memorized ALL the songs and used to walk around singing them. However this is the first time I’ve actually seen the show in its entirety on the stage. I remember there was a movie version (1985) and I saw that, but I’ve never seen it on the stage before this.

That said, I was mouthing along to every song. And felt that this is a great production (although I would have recast about three of the characters). The girl who performed “Tits and Ass” one of my favorite songs stole the show… the only weak point was the girl who played Cassie couldn’t dance.

Both me and the woman sitting next to me bonded over this; we agreed that Cassie had all the grace of a bouncing elephant. — When I got home my friend Dayna (who had already seen the production although she wants to see it again) said it was because they had updated the whole show, but NOT that one dance… so the dance was really outdated, but personally I also think it was also that the girl playing the character lacked grace



  • Breath of Kings — (part 2 redemption) – adapted by Graham Abbey, based on the Henriad plays by William Shakespeare (Aug., 26th, Tom Patterson Theater, 8pm)

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This play is a mashup if you will of Shakespeare’s Henry IV part 2 and Henry V (think Battle of Agincourt). You’re supposed to see the part 1 ‘Rebellion’ play before you see the part 2 ‘Redemption’ one, but I had set a low priority on seeing this one, and bought the tickets last (at the $35 sale), and had been unable to fit it into my schedule in the correct order — I HAVE to leave here on the 31st of August because I have two friends getting married on the 4th in Chicago, and needed to leave myself spare time (in case) for the drive there.

2 min before show — place is 1/2 empty

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Intermission — I slept through most of the first 1/2, just couldn’t keep my eyes open.

Freezing ! I think the Aircon was set to accommodate twice as many people it’s freezing in here — I did not sleep through the second half, battle of Agincourt

During the show last night there was a scene where actors walk through the stands and sit on the lapse of audience members in the far right corner (the part elevated above the doorway); I now realize, looking at the photos, that only four of the five seats had audience members seated in them when the show started, but were full when the actors showed up there; so the staff must’ve moved people into the empty ones right after intermission so that the gag would work.


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Dayna, the friend whose home I stayed at, and I discovered we both had tickets to the same show tonight so we decided to do dinner together. Granted we are almost on opposite sides of the theater. That said, according to Dayna our next door neighbor is playing the title character, and is a very nice woman. Apparently that home is rented out by the festival as housing for visiting artists, so that Dayna has met quite a few of the actors that way.

That said, I think bunny was probably the best play I’ve seen so far from all of the plays at Stratford. The title character, Bunny, was an incredibly relatable character, both Dayna and I were like, “we know this woman we would be friends with this woman.” The character seems to be ever so slightly autistic, but cursed with the looks of a model. Women don’t like her and she doesn’t understand why, men drool over her. She is the daughter of two academics, and ultimately becomes a professor of romantic period literature. The story begins with a confused scene that in retrospect is her running an event over in her mind trying to come to grips with it, and then jumps to her childhood, running through the major events of her life (often in soliloquy) so that we can get to know her and understand her when the events happen again at the end of the play.

It was very funny, very well acted, and poignant.


  • Breath of Kings — (part 1 rebellion) – adapted by Graham Abbey, based on the Henriad plays by William Shakespeare

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Yes, I know, I should have seen part 1 before viewing part 2, but I just couldn’t work it out in my schedule.  As thing evolved I didn’t actually get to see this one either. Essentially the night started with an illness, and ended with one… mine

Before the show started one of the staff members apparently collapsed, and had to be taken away. What was sort of ‘interesting’ was that most of the people waiting outside were more concerned about getting into the theater, than the guy who collapsed. When they reopened the doors to bring his body out they were more concerned with pushing their way in than allowing the emergency staff to bring him out… it was not a pretty picture.

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Finally they let us in, but not long after it started my stomach started to cramp, and I was forced to disturb my neighbors, get up and get out as quickly as possible. Ah the joys of irritable bowl syndrome… spent the next 20 minutes or so in the bathroom, and then staggered home. The staff was all worried about me since I was in there for so long. But this has become one of the downsides of my life, … Growing older, it’s not for wimps.


Alleia (Italian)

Alleia is a very upscale, tasty, romantic, and (by Chattanooga standards) expensive, chef driven rustic Italian eaterie. It is located in a renovated brick industrial building that sits directly behind the historic terminal station for the now defunct passenger railway line that used to pass through town, and was made famous by the Glen Miller mega hit “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” I was invited to dinner here by my Dalton friends, as we were going to go to a Buddy Guy concert that night at the Tivoli Theater (one of the many former vaudeville & movie palaces nationwide that cities have wisely been saving from the wrecking ball). This is one of the oddities of travel, I’d never heard Buddy Guy live in concert before, even though he’s based in my home town of Chicago — I had to come to a much smaller city at the GA/TN border to do it.

Free parking in that part of town is almost nonexistent, and it was raining, so I was incredibly happy to discover Alleia offers complementary valet parking. Directly behind the stand is the entrance to the restaurant, but good luck on finding the door during daylight. The contrast between the outdoor light and darkened space in which the massive ancient-keep-like wooden door sits, makes it almost impossible to see it till your eyes adjust to the difference — and keep in mind it was raining when I got there. As I had arrived a good half-hour before my hosts the restaurant placed me at a table right near the front windows so that I could spot them arriving, and while there I watched one befuddled elderly gentleman walk right past it — twice, trying to find the entrance. Once you’ve lugged open the door (it required grabbing the ring on the front and leaning back to get the thing to move) you enter into a darkly lit space reminiscent of a church, with massive candles that have been allowed to drip their wax to the floor, and hanging gas lanterns.

My meal was nummy. For my appetizer I had a very finely cut carpaccio with truffle and radish, and then for my main I had quail which lay on a fig, onion, and something else purée that was served with a side of sauteed purple cabbage and new potatoes … all of which was wonderful. The star of the show, however, was my dessert, an olive oil gelato (something that sounded incredibly odd but my friend promised me was something to be tried) with bits of salty pistachio in it. The gelato melted in the mouth in a way I’ve never experienced before, and the counterpoint to the pistachio was just amazing.

 

dinner

Helen, GA & Bondesee German Restaurant

Helen, Georgia, a tiny GA town with a local population of slightly over 500, is one very large tourist trap of a town aimed at locals of German extraction trying to reconnect to their ancestral roots, or anyone else in search of a little touch of a Bavaria in the midst of the Appalachian foothills. Not worth visiting unless you’re already in the area and looking German food.

Note: I took this trip BEFORE having set up my blog — although I had been intending to do it for months already, so I didn’t take anywhere as many pictures as I probably should have.

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I had been staying at my friend’s place in Dalton GA for a few weeks, with the intention of staying a full two months (I remember her saying “I have no idea WHAT you’re going to do here for all that time” — suffice it to say I proved her wrong), and this was near the top of her list of side trips I should consider. The drive there from Dalton was very pretty (as directed by my new car’s GPS device — which I have grown to LOVE, never had one before), and took me there via state highways (think two lane roads) that I would never have otherwise had the guts to take.

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For most of the trip I was pretty much alone on the roads, which is both restful and a tad terrifying — when you have no idea where you are. In retrospect (looking at a maps attached to my images) I know now that my GPS took me all along the Richard B Russell Scenic Highway  (which is a National Forest Scenic Byway) up over some nearby foothills, through the Chattahoochee National Forest, and and into the valley where the town of Helen is located.
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View from GA state road 348
The trip took me about two hours and like I said, I was instinctively ‘lost’ but trusting my new GPS system to know where we were going for most of the way …   According to the folks who drove up on their motorcycle (see above image) at this location we are still about 8 miles away from Helen GA.
From a business development perspective what makes Helen interesting is that once they realized that their local industry had failed, rather than kicking a dead horse, they opted for something completely different; taking advantage of their location adjacent to a National Forest they decided instead to become a tourist destination town. Per Wikipedia: “Formerly a logging town that was in decline, the city resurrected itself by becoming a replica of a Bavarian alpine town, in the Appalachians instead of the Alps. This design is mandated through zoning first adopted in 1969, so that the classic south-German style is present on every building, even on the small number of national franchisees present (such as Huddle House and Wendy’s).”
When I arrived I was hungry with a capitol H, having not eaten anything that morning other than a cup of coffee. So, my very first stop was at the first decent looking German restaurant I could find Hofbrauhaus Resturant in the picture at the top of this blog, which at the time also had decent YELP reviews…  BLECH. I had one of my favorite childhood dishes, Weiner schnitzel!! As a kid I was one of those incredibly picky eaters who was 10 lb underweight and could drive my mom crazy by going for a full day on three french fries and a glass of chocolate milk. One summer we were in Austria following my dad around as he presented academic papers at conferences, and my mom had discovered I would actually eat Weiner schnitzel, so the first priority was checking if a restaurant served that, and THEN was there anything else on the menu for the rest of the family. So I know my Weiner schnitzel (which I am said to say I can no longer eat because my penchant for everything fried has resulted – I was diagnosed two months after this trip — in liver disease); and to be bluntly honest I was mightily unimpressed with how this restaurant prepared it … as in, “I drove TWO hours for THIS?”
That said, the place DOES have a good view of the river…
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The next thing I did upon arriving was, using just my phone phone and the various apps I had on it, I tried to find a decent place to spend the night. There were NOT as many choices as I would have hoped (I have since gotten much more skilled at delving those depths from my iPhone), and at that time I had not yet installed the Airbnb.com app into my iPhone (I was still using a iPhone 4s then, which was already four years old, had VERY limited memory and was starting to slow down from old age), so I was forced to limit my search to national chains — I now know better. I ended up with a room at the Hampton Inn, and since the hotel was half empty I was able to convince the staff to upgrade me to a room with a balcony overlooking the Chattahoochee river for no extra fee.
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Once I found out the name of said river I couldn’t help myself, I started singing the Alan Jackson tune, “Way down yonder on the Chatahochee never knew how much that muddy water meant to me…” incessantly. However, looking at the picture, and based on how all the buildings near the river are either on 8 foot stilts or behind equally high restraining walls, I am guessing it floods fairly often.
After having checked in I went to walk around and discovered that this town closes down way early, and from the looks of it most stores don‘t open till noon. Only two stores still open at 5:30 were both owned by what I am guessing are a man and a woman who were both Indian (India) and I am betting are man and wife– work ethic anyone? The whole town looked like it could be part of the German exhibit at Disney-world’s Epcot, the next day when I walked around I discovered that most of the shops have at least one German style hat with a feather in it … only done on the cheap, so that it kind of reminded me of Old Town in Orlando, which I had just lived next door to for about four months, only sans the amusement park rides and haunted houses, etc.

Other than that there were a handful of interesting shops, like this one place that had it’s own hive to produce it’s own honey… but not much otherwise

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Why yes, our honey is Fresh! @Betty’s Country Store

Upon checking in, I had told the staff member there how unhappy I had been with the food at the Hofbrauhaus and could he make a better suggestion for my Dinner. He suggested The Bondesee, saying their were the only place in town with an actual chef from Germany, and that it was the place all the locals in town preferred.

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And now, after having eaten there… Wow!!! I STRONGLY suggest Bondesee German Restaurant to anyone in the general vicinity of Helen GA.

Walking in the 12 cats who seem to believe that the front entrance of the restaurant is their home (so that the covered patio area which they seem to have taken over stinks of cat urine) would NOT normally have been a good sign, nor would my conversation with the grumpy owner when I swung by there at around 6pm … had it NOT been for the recommendation of a local those two things would have sent me scurrying elsewhere…

However, after having now eaten there, the chef is apparently a man after my own heart in that he seems to believe that there’s no such thing as too much garlic. Seriously, I don’t think The Stinking Rose (a San Francisco institution) serves less garlic… I was in garlic heaven. The butter for the bread was amazing enough to eat without the bread, and the mushroom appetizer came in a cream and garlic sauce that was divine (I had it as a side for my Weiner schnitzel because ALL the sides were carbs (I opted for the Spätzle) … and the portion sizes for me (a single) were more than enough for two people.

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The German beer looked dark and a bit scary, but it was very smooth and went really well with the food. Oh, and the OH SO GAY — to the point where he was a caricature of gayness — waiter just CARDED me!!! Talk about how to make a 51 year old woman happy. He looked genuinely shocked to see we were the same age.