Friday, June 13, 2008

Stratford Looks Better Than Shaw
From Richard Ouzounian at the Toronto Star:

"Each of our two major theatre festivals – Stratford and Shaw – has by now launched 50 per cent of their seasonal programming, making it a good time to take stock of things.

"The bottom line? This year, Stratford is offering its most exciting season in recent history, while over at Niagara-on-the-Lake it's just more of the same old – maybe even a little more so than usual.

"The simple fact is that, in this era of high fuel prices, lengthy border crossings and shrinking vacation budgets, you've got to do something spectacular to draw tourists to these theatrical destinations.

"Stratford seems to have found the right stuff to do it, but things in Niagara are looking increasingly problematic.

"Last season was Jackie Maxwell's fifth at the Shaw, replacing Christopher Newton after the latter had provided 23 years of prosperity and quality programming.

"Maxwell immediately ran into trouble. Although she could try to point to the SARS crisis as the major reason for declining audiences, that's not enough to explain the multi-million-dollar deficits she incurred in her first two seasons.

"No, the trouble was – and still is – her programming of the flagship Festival Theatre, which is the money engine driving the company.

"It doesn't matter that shows on the smaller stages like Rutherford and Son and Floyd Collins were huge critical hits.

"What's more to the point is that audiences stayed away in droves from Canadian plays like The Coronation Voyage and Nothing Sacred.

"In fact, the sole year in the past five during which Maxwell achieved a modest five-figure surplus from audience attendance (rather than fundraising) was when she introduced a mainstage musical in 2005 with Gypsy.

"But the following season, even though High Society was a huge audience favourite (despite universally appalling notices) the major reason for the festival's only near-million-dollar surplus in Maxwell's tenure was a 15 per cent increase in fundraising activity.

"Last year, the musical was Mack and Mabel, which failed to draw a crowd, and the deficit was close to $1 million again.

"This year? Maxwell opened with a drably cast, poorly staged, strangely directed version of An Inspector Calls that is not going to generate any excitement at the box office.

"The musical Wonderful Town got amiable reviews from most critics, but it, too, won't light any revenue fires. And the final show of the mainstage trifecta won't bow until July 18 when Maxwell's production of Mrs. Warren's Profession has its debut.

"It could be brilliant, but without any box office stars in the cast, I'm willing to predict it will face an uphill audience climb as well.

"Any trace of real invention seems to have vanished from the current programming. Remember those years when Shaw provided us with must-see shows like Cavalcade, Cyrano de Bergerac or The Women?

"Also, some of Maxwell's best actors (Ben Carlson, Evan Buliung, Trish Lindstrom, Mike Shara, Nicole Underhay) have defected to Stratford, television or other theatres.

"Well, as the beleaguered parson shouts out to the heavens in John Ford's Drums Along the Mohawk, 'Ammunition's getting mighty low, Lord!'

"Up in Perth County, there is considerably more buzz going on. Despite the nightmare events of mid-March when two-thirds of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's artistic directorate resigned, things have been chugging along nicely.

"Even when the shows haven't completely succeeded (like Romeo and Juliet or Cabaret), the productions have displayed the kind of enthusiasm and new ideas that are the lifeblood of theatre. And any week that can boast three triumphs like Hamlet, The Music Man and The Trojan Women has certainly earned my admiration.

"Even though Michael Langham's Love's Labour's Lost was a boringly mistaken proof that what might have worked in 1961 was not so hot in 2008 and Peter Hinton's The Taming of the Shrew looked more like a graduate student's thesis than an actual production, the overall feeling was still high.

"So far this season, Stratford has contented itself with showcasing Canadian stars and I doubt anyone, anywhere, will get better reviews this summer than Ben Carlson, Jonathan Goad and Seana McKenna have earned so far in Hamlet, The Music Man and The Trojan Women.

"To stir up audience interest further, Brian Dennehy opens three shows in late June, while August brings Christopher Plummer back to home ice. There's also an exciting work by Lope de Vega, two new Canadian plays and Simon Callow in his one-man show about Shakespeare's sonnets.

"Think star power like that doesn't matter? The owner of one of Stratford's most prestigious restaurants told me that from the first preview of Plummer's Caesar and Cleopatra to the end of the season, he's almost fully booked.

"Let's make it clear. I'm not saying that every show being done at Shaw is bad and every one being staged at Stratford is good.

"But the new regime of Antoni Cimolino and Des McAnuff at Stratford is already looking like the start of a very promising theatre company.

"While over at Maxwell's House, the only thing stronger than the scent emanating from Niagara-on-the-Lake's fudge shoppes is the Eau de Masterpiece Theatre floating off its stages.