Monday, April 6, 2009


Thoughts on the Stratford Shakespeare Festival/Shaw Festival 2009 Seasons
By David Grapes – Arts Journalist
April, 2009

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. The American dollar has improved this year against the Canadian dollar so the entertainment value when compared to the costs of theatre tickets for Broadway or in London is high. And if you search the web, there are some excellent airfare deals for the upcoming summer into Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson airport for about $250.00 to $500.00 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 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 continues to have its artistic and administrative struggles, the Shaw Festival managed to thrive last summer under some very difficult economic times. Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell (now in her fifth season as Artistic Director) continues to produce excellent work as she explores the Festival’s expanded artistic mandate including newer musicals and American classics.

While the acting ensemble remains strong for 2009, Maxwell did lose several of her best actors (Ben Carlson, Kelli Fox) to Stratford last season and with McAnuff still at the helm at Stratford, I fear that this will be an ongoing issue, as he will no doubt attempt to “cherry pick” a few of Shaw’s best actors. The good news for 2009 is that Jim Mezon is set to return to the Festival acting company appearing in Moon for the Misbegotten with the talented Joseph Ziegler directing) and The Devil’s Disciple.

Maxwell has proven herself to be a capable producer and savvy administrator. Her programming of the entire one-act canon (across three theatres) of Noel Coward’s Tonight at 8:30 could prove to be a true stroke of genius - a marvelous blend of artistic opportunity and marketing potential. The Shaw audiences should eat this up. It promises to be a “once in a lifetime event” - DO NOT MISS IT!

Another exciting development is the addition of an intimate fourth performance venue – The Studio Theatre (which will seat 176 patrons). The new facility will be christened with a production of John Osborne’s The Entertainer starring Benedict Campbell, who as many of you remember delivered a stunning performance in last summer’s An Inspector Calls.


Festival Theatre
Tonight at 8:30:
Brief Encounters – April 11 to October 24
Still Life, We Were Dancing, Hands Across the Sea
Born Yesterday – May 5 to November 1
The Devil’s Disciple – June 14 to October 11

Royal George Theatre
Tonight at 8:30:
Play, Orchestra, Play – June 9 to October 31
Red Peppers, Fumed Oak, Shadow play
Sunday in the Park With George – April 1 to November 1
In Good King Charles’s Golden Days – April 17 to Oct 9
Tonight at 8:30: Star Chamber – June 25 to October 11 (lunchtime)

Court House Theatre
Tonight at 8:30:
Ways of the Heart – July 21 to October 11
The Astonished Heart, Family Album, Ways and Means
A Moon for the Misbegotten – April 28 to October 9
Albertine in Five Times – June 24 to October 10

Studio Theatre
The Entertainer – July 31 to September 20

David’s recommendations for the 2009 season
Noel Coward’s Tonight at 8:30 series (DON’T MISS)
Born Yesterday (starring Deborah Hay)
A Moon for the Misbegotten (Directed by Joseph Zeigler and starring Jim Mezon)
Sunday in the Park With George
In Good King Charles’s Golden Days (Shaw’s seldom seen Restoration comedy)
The Entertainer Directed by Jackie Maxwell and starring Benedict Campbell)

Contemporary Play Reading Series
Educational Seminars, Workshops and Symposiums
Summer Camps
Teacher Days
Niagara Falls
Old Fort Erie/ Old Fort Niagara
Wine country excursions
Lake activities


Range from $30.00 to $110.00 (Canadian $)
Rush seats are available day of show
$30 rate for patrons under 30 years of age at any theatre
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 $95, weekly from $650.

Watch this space in August for reviews of many of the 2009 Shaw Festival productions.

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 passed away suddenly last year just as he was starting his retirement) 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 meant that many theatre goers were shut out of tickets for Brian Dennehy’s two one act plays last summer. The lesson here is that if you want to see a popular production in the Studio Theatre you need to purchase your tickets well in advance

While the spring of 2008 got off to an inauspicious start with the resignations of two out of the three artistic triumvirate Don Shipley and Marti Maraden, the lone artistic survivor Des McAnuff managed to survive his first season. To be sure, there were problems with the quality and often the quantity of productions (Romeo and Juliet) but there were some successes (Hamlet) as well. And while I did not see it, the critical and audience response to Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra with Christopher Plummer was quite positive.

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 not dominate the large Festival Stage as he did last year. The Bard is still well represented and remains the artistic heart of the festival. For 2009 a large scale American musical (West Side Story) will return to the Festival Stage and another musical (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum ) takes up residence at the Avon. While there are many who would like to see musicals banned from the traditional repertoire they just pay too many bills. And last year’s banishment of a musical from the Festival Stage had a very negative impact on Stratford’s bottom line.

Maraden (a fine director) who upstaged McAnuff for the majority of the 2009 with her critically acclaimed and powerful stagings of All’s Well That Ends Well and The Trojan Women will not return. Instead the directorial duties will fall to McAnuff, Martha Henry, American Cary Perloff and Brian Bedford among others. McAnuff, who has been traversing the world staging permutations of the hit Broadway musical Jersey Boys not to mention a Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls must somehow cement his artistic footprints at Stratford this summer or I fear for the long term stability of the company. He is certainly capable if he chooses to concentrate his energies in Stratford rather than in New York or London. The large ensemble needs a “leader in residence,” and it is time for McAnuff to demonstrate that he truly believes in the importance of a true acting ensemble and not just star power. Whatever happens this season is sure to set the tone for many years to come.

While the US dollar has suffered the past three years against the Canadian dollar, this trip remains an outstanding value. And the US dollar has shown some renewed strength in recent months. 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
Macbeth – May 22 to October 31
West Side Story – April 11 to October 31
Cyrano de Bergerac - May 29 to November 1
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – August 7 to October 30

Avon Theatre
The Importance of Being Earnest – May 9 to October 30
Julius Caesar– May 23 to October 31
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – June 11 to November 1

Tom Patterson Theatre
Three Sisters May 9 to October 3
Bartholomew Fair – May 27 to October 2
Phèdre – August 6 to October 3

Studio Theatre
The Trespassers – July 26 to October 4
Rice Boy – August 11 to October 3
Zastrozzi – August 12 to October 3

David’s recommendations for the 2009 season
Julius Caesar (starring long time Shaw Festival company member Ben Carlson)
Cyrano de Bergerac (starring Colm Feore)
Phèdre (starring Seana McKenna and Roberta Maxwell)
The Importance of Being Earnest (starring Brian Bedford)
Bartholomew Fair (directed by Antoni Cimolino)

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 $25.00 to $111.00 (Canadian $)
Rush seats are available day of show
There are also excellent student discounts and group rates available



I recommend the Swan Motel

Watch this space in August for reviews of many of the 2009 Stratford Festival 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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