Ensconced in the history of University of Toronto's Hart House is a small theater on the ground floor, the Hart House Theatre. Place yourself there for a matinee or evening show, and you'll be glad you made the trip across the border.
Located in the center of U of T's beautiful and historic St. George campus in downtown Toronto, the theater opened in 1919. A 1921 production of George Bernard Shaw's "Brothers in Arms" is memorialized by a bronze plaque in the theater lobby. The theater's season includes five semiprofessional plays, including Shakespeare, classic contemporary and world premieres, as well as performances by U of T's drama, film and dance groups.
On stage now is "The Night of the Iguana," by Tennessee Williams, which continues this week on Wednesday through Saturday.
March brings the annual U of T Festival of Dance to Hart House Theatre. U of T has many dance groups. Some have their own performance venues; those that don't have the opportunity each year to audition for the Festival of Dance, a student-run production. In the last few years, most of the groups at the festival have been ethnic, including Indian and Chinese, but ballet and modern dance have also been represented. The festival runs March 23 and 24.
An exhibit by DanceCollectionDanse, an organization dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of Canadian dance history, is currently on display in Hart House Theatre's Macdonald Heaslip Walkway of Theatre History. The exhibit is presented by Theatre Museum Canada (www.TheatreMuseumCanada.ca) and runs through Sept. 14.
There are photographs, posters and programs of modern dance, ethnic dance and the avant-garde. Free exhibit guides are available. The exhibit is open two hours prior to any production, and can also be viewed during intermission and after the show. The Walkway is the corridor that leads from the box office to the theater and is wheelchair accessible.
Also this spring, the U of T Film Festival, a presentation of short films of various genres, will be April 5. Admission is free.
>Food for thought
Hart House Theatre collaborates with the Duke of York, a pub located just behind the theater on Bloor Street. The pub boasts a menu that "transcends traditional pub fare" and an "exceptional draught beer selection." It has prix-fixe dinner before the show for $20, and a $10 reduction on food purchases for patrons with ticket stubs after the show.
But French is the language of dance, and on our visit, my husband and I headed south on Spadina to West Wellington for dinner at Le Select Bistro. It is oh so French, and opportunities to speak French with the wait staff and maitre d' abound. The menu, to my pleasant surprise, features French Canadian specialties as well as French favorites, and true bistro food. There is sow's ear, pork belly and tripe; marinated cabbage with smoked sausages, duck leg confit with crispy skin and warm, friendly cassoulet. Mushroom fricassee is among the vegetarian offerings. The dessert cheese plate offers three selections from Quebec in the traditional range of mild to strong, including the blue Benedictin.
A note on the menu states "Le Select is an LFP 'Committed Partner' to certified local sustainable food and farming," and notes that most of its ingredients are either organic or come from traditional farming. Almost all seafood offerings are recommended by the Vancouver Aquarium as ocean-friendly choices. Le Select is pricey, but worth it.
The restaurant is in Toronto's historic Garment District. There is not much to see in this neighborhood late on a Saturday afternoon, but the Bar Wellington on the corner of West Wellington and Portland Street looks interesting, and like Le Select, is housed in a beautifully renovated historic building. It offers take-out if you are eager to get in the car for your return trip to Buffalo or to stroll through Victoria Memorial Park just across the street during nice weather.
If you attend a matinee and need a quick lunch before the show, there is Sammy's Student Exchange, also in Hart House, next to the theater. It is a cafeteria, with an interesting range of cafeteria food, including eggs cooked to order and Middle Eastern specialties. The cook was particularly friendly the day I was there and tossed a couple pieces of turnip pickled in beet juice onto my breakfast combo when I asked about the hot pink vegetable. Being in a beautifully renovated century old building with high ceilings and hardwood trim, surrounded by students and faculty working in groups or alone on their laptops, adds charm to what would otherwise be a quick cafeteria lunch. And the price is right.
Hart House is only one of many historic buildings on U of T's St. George campus. Even those not interested in attending the university would enjoy a tour of the campus. General tours are offered year-round, Monday to Friday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., and on Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. (except for holiday weekends). Historic tours are Monday to Friday at 2:30 p.m. in June, July and August. Most tours last one and a half hours.
If you are interested in more theater or more French, not far from Le Select is the Theatre Francais, where you listen in French, but read surtitles in English (should you need them). Theatre Francais performs in the 110-seat Upstairs Theatre of the Berkeley Street Theatre on Berkeley Street just south of Front Street on the Esplanade. There is also a 240-seat Downstairs Theatre in this building, which was, until 1971, an abandoned gas station. A lovely courtyard is out back, and a snack bar with sandwich-type offerings is open before a show. Theatre Francais runs through May 5, Wednesdays through Sundays with some matinees.
If you go:
Some useful addresses:
Hart House, 7 Hart House Circle (416-978-8849; www.harthousetheatre.ca; for shows, www.uofttix.ca). University of Toronto, Nona Macdonald Visitors Centre, 25 King's College Circle (416-978-5000; alumni.utoronto.ca/services/campus-tours).
There are many fine hotels in the area near campus. Best Western Primrose, 111 Carlton St. (800-268-8082; www.torontoprimrosehotel.com), is family-friendly and centrally located. It is across the street from the Allan Gardens and Conservatory and is on a streetcar line.