Thursday, April 10, 2008


Thoughts on the Stratford Shakespeare Festival/Shaw Festival 2008
By David Grapes – Arts Journalist
April, 2008

Those of you who are passionate about quality theatre here in the U.S. should consider a trip North across the Canadian border into Ontario and spend some serious time exploring North America’s two largest theatre festivals – The Stratford Shakespeare Festival and The Shaw Festival. While the American dollar is near an all time low, the entertainment value when compared to Broadway or London is high. And if you search the web, there are still some excellent airfare deals into Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson airport for about $450.00 to $600.00 from most major US airports. Rental cars are readily available at the Toronto airport. (Try for the best airport rental rates) Driving time from the airport to either of the two festivals is less than two hours on four lane highways.

The Stratford Festival
Located in the bucolic hills of Southern Ontario in the working class town of Stratford, The Stratford Festival has grown from its humble beginnings in 1953 (two Shakespearean plays produced in a tent) to one of the largest and most respected theatre festivals in the world. Once in financial peril during the late 1980’s, the theatre has enjoyed a remarkable rebound both artistically and financially under the capable stewardship of Richard Monette (who officially retired last year) and Executive Director Antoni Cimolino. Now nearing the completion of a 50 million dollar capital and endowment drive, long time patrons have enjoyed improvements to all four of the Festival’s theatre venues, an upgrade in electronic services, and enhanced production quality on stage. Exciting indeed was the addition of a fourth stage known as the Studio Theatre located above the Avon Theatre. This small flexible space, which opened three years ago, is now home to new work by Canadian playwrights, workshops, and other more experimental productions. However, the Studio Theatre only seats 260 patrons which means that many many theatre goers will be shut out of tickets for Brian Dennehy’s two one act plays unless they purchase their tickets months in advance.

While the spring of 2008 got off to inauspicious start with the resignations of two out of the three artistic triumvirate Don Shipley and Marti Maraden, the lone artistic survivor Des McAnuff seems to be taking the bull by the horns and forging ahead despite all of the negative press.

Variety has always been a hallmark of the Stratford Festival, where works by Shakespeare, Marlowe, Moliere and Ibsen share the stage with Broadway musicals and the comedies of Noel Coward and although Shakespeare will dominate the large Festival Stage and American musicals the Avon stage the 2008 season remains eclectic and engaging. Before their departure Maraden, Shipley along with McAnuff programmed a stunning and visionary season for 2008. We have more Shakespeare than we have seen in years complimented by Shaw, Lope de Vega, Euripides, Beckett, and O’Neil. And while Shipley (who was to direct Dennehy in Krapp’s Last Tape and Hughie) has jumped ship, Maraden (a fine director) remains long enough to stage All’s Well That Ends Well and The Trojan Women. McAnuff, who has been traversing the world staging permutations of the hit Broadway musical Jersey Boys, will somehow find time to not only pick up the artistic pieces but also stage Romeo and Juliet and Caesar and Cleopatra (with Christopher Plummer as perhaps the oldest Caesar on record). Having seen a number of McAnuff’s directorial work at LaJolla and on Broadway, there is no question that he can have flashes of brilliance. However, he was never known in California as a believer in the importance of a true acting ensemble and his hiring of Americans to play pivotal roles like Juliet has already rankled many of the old guard in the acting company. It will be interesting to see if he pursues this course for 2009, or returns to a more tradition approach to hiring the company. Whatever happens, I certainly wish him well. Stratford needs a strong focused artistic leader and the world needs a theatre like Stratford. You can’t run the largest theatre festival in the world from a cell phone or a seat on an airplane.

While the US dollar has suffered this year against the Canadian dollar, this trip remains an outstanding value. With Broadway prices soaring to $100-$200 a ticket, it is hard to imagine that you could get more “bang for your entertainment buck” anywhere in the world than in Ontario, Canada.


Festival Theatre
Romeo and Juliet – May 26 to November 8
Hamlet – May 27 to October 26
The Taming of the Shrew - May 31 to October 25
All’s Well That Ends Well – June 27 to August 23
Caesar and Cleopatra – August 17 to November 9

Avon Theatre
The Music Man – May 28 to November 1
Cabaret – May 29 to October 25
Emilia Galotti – November 6 to November 9

Tom Patterson Theatre
The Trojan Women – May 30 to October 5
Love’s Labour’s Lost – May 31 to October 4
Fuente Ovejuna – June 27 to October 4
There Reigns Love – July 13 to August 3

Studio Theatre
Krapp’s Last Tape and Hughie – June 28 to August 31
Palmer Park – August 16 to September 21
Moby Dick – August 17 to October 18

Festival Pavilion
Shakespeare’s Universe – July 25 to September 28

David’s recommendations for the 2008 season
Hamlet (starring long time Shaw Festival company member Ben Carlson)
All’s Well That Ends Well (directed by Maraden and starring American theatre icon Brian Dennehy)
The Trojan Woman (starring Martha Henry))
Love’s Labour’s Lost (directed by Richard Monette subbing for the ailing Michael Langham)
Fuente Overjuna (starring Jonathon Goad, Severn Thompson and Scott Wentworth)

Family Series Events
Stageside Chats
Festival Tours
Celebrated Writers Series
Night Music – Special concerts each Monday evening June to August in the Festival Theatre
A wide assortment of classes, workshops, special events.


Range from $22.00 to $109.00 (Canadian $)
Rush seats are available day of show
There are also excellent student discounts and group rates available



I recommend the Swan Motel

The Shaw Festival
Located in historic Niagara on the Lake (30 miles North of Buffalo 120 Miles South of Toronto) along the beautiful Lake Ontario shoreline The Shaw Festival is the only theatre in the world that specializes exclusively in plays by George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries. During the last two decades, under the artful and highly creative leadership of director/actor Christopher Newton, the Shaw not only earned a reputation for innovative programming, stunning visuals, but also witnessed Newton assemble one of the finest acting ensembles on the planet.

And while Stratford struggles to find who has a hold of the wheel of the artistic ship at Shaw, Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell (now in her fourth season as Artistic Director) continues to produce excellent work as she explore the Festival’s expanded artistic mandate including newer musicals and American classics.

While the acting ensemble remains strong, Maxwell did lose several of her best actors to Stratford this season. Certainly as issue that will need to be addressed, if she wishes to maintain the festival’s reputation for true ensemble performances. You can’t afford to lose actors like Jim Mezon, Ben Carlson, Nora McLellan and Kelli Fox. Fortunately, at least Mezon is set return to direct An Inspector Calls now that Neil Munro has been taken ill.

Maxwell, who was only partially successful with her staging of Shaw’s Saint Joan last year will tackle Shaw’s more accessible social commentary Mrs. Warren’s Profession and the first Canadian production of Githa (Rutherford and Son) Sowery’s play The Stepmother.


Festival Theatre
An Inspector Calls – April 17 to November
Wonderful Town – April 1to October 5
Mrs. Warren’s Profession – July 6 to November 1
Follies: The Concert – August 29, September 12 and27, October 4

Royal George Theatre
Getting Married – April 11 to November 1
The Little Foxes – May 3 to November 1
After the Dance – June 25 to October 5
The President – June 7 to October 4 (lunchtime)

Court House Theatre
The Stepmother ¬– April 29 to October 4
A Little Night Music – June 1 to October 4
Belle Moral – July 12 to October 5

David’s recommendations for the 2007 season
An Inspector Calls (Directed by Jim Mezon and starring Benedict Campbell)
Mrs. Warren’s Profession and The Stepmother (Directed by Jackie Maxwell)
Getting Married (Directed by Joseph Ziegler and starring Peter Krantz)
The Little Foxes (Featuring a great ensemble cast)

Bell Canadian Reader’s Series
Niagara Falls
Old Fort Erie/ Old Fort Niagara
Wine country excursions
Lake activities
A wide assortment of classes, workshops, special events.


Range from $25.00 to $105.00 (Canadian $)
Rush seats are available day of show
There are also excellent student discounts and group rates available


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ACCOMMODATION ALTERNATIVES NIAGARA A fine selection of licensed cottages, apartments and homes in Niagara, suitable to those who prefer privacy and self-catering accommodations. Nightly from $85, weekly from $550.

Watch this space in August for reviews of many of the 2008 productions.
David Grapes has been a theatre producer/director/playwright and freelance theatre journalist for over thirty years. He holds a BA in Theatre from Glenville State College and an MFA in Acting/Directing from the University on North Carolina at Greensboro.

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