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Fear of SARS and less-than-stellar critical response to their opening weeks is causing some tense times at Canada’s Shaw and Stratford Festivals.

Both organizations rely on American audiences for 40%-50% of their attendance, and the combination of a sluggish economy and the war in Iraq, as well as disease-related concerns, combined to send both organizations into their late-May openings with advance sales considerably behind their 2002 figures.

“It’s like ‘The Perfect Storm,’ ” is how Stratford’s executive director, Antoni Cimolino, describes the cumulative effect of the various outside forces.

The SARS effect isn’t just taking a toll on the annual summer events, either. Last week the long-running Toronto production of “The Lion King” announced it would end its run in September, after 3½ years and more then 1,300 perfs. Producer David Mirvish blamed falling tourism due to SARS fears for the closing, and suggested that by announcing the September shuttering he hoped to boost interest in visiting the city this summer.

And another Mirvish show, the long-running production of “Mamma Mia!,” will shutter for the summer, taking a holiday for July and August before resuming perfs at the end of September.

The Shaw Festival still hasn’t overcome the initial sales decline it met this season, and publicity director Odette Yazbeck says the fest still is running “10%-15% behind our budgeted figures.” If uncorrected, that would result in at least a C$1.5 million ($1.1 million) deficit at year end.

Stratford began strongly this year, coming off a record-breaking 50th-anniversary season. According to media director Kelly Teahen, “We were actually running considerably ahead of projections until SARS hit.”

Teahen said Stratford had recovered from the first wave of concern over the disease, but when a second batch of cases surfaced over the Memorial Day weekend, “We began sustaining losses again.”

Stratford is officially unwilling to release more specific figures, saying fest officials are “hopeful that we will erase any shortfall by the end of the season,” but many local merchants say their bookings are down considerably.

Neither organization can take much comfort in the generally lackluster critical reaction to their initial shows.

This season at the Shaw Festival is the first under the artistic directorship of Jackie Maxwell, who succeeded Christopher Newton after 23 seasons.

Maxwell opened five plays from May 20-4, without one solid hit in the bunch. A revival of Shaw’s first play, “Widowers’ Houses,” performed in the intimate Court House Theater, received the strongest response, and Sharon Pollock’s thriller about Lizzie Borden, “Blood Relations,” also drew a generally positive reaction.

The latter play was performed in the 328-seat Royal George Theater, and was intended as a substitute for the British thrillers Newton had always programmed.

Also at the Royal George was a revival of the 1978 Broadway musical “On the Twentieth Century,” which drew mixed notices that pointed to flaws in its staging and cast.

But it was in the flagship 869-seat Festival Theater that the greatest problems were noticed.

Director Neil Munro revived a production of “Misalliance” he first mounted at the Guthrie Theater in its 1999-2000 season. He staged it literally as “a debate in one sitting,” Shaw’s ironic subtitle. The result received severely mixed notices, with few showing unreserved enthusiasm.

The major disappointment was Maxwell’s own production of Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters.” A new adaptation from Toronto writer Susan Coyne came in for most of the criticism due to its jumble of styles, while Maxwell and her cast were generally panned for not having brought this masterpiece properly to the stage.

Things weren’t any better the following week at Stratford, where six shows opened from May 26-31.

The only one that drew a general thumbs-up was British director Leon Rubin’s inventive staging of “Pericles” as a spectacular voyage throughout Asia, with young company member Jonathan Goad breaking through in the title role.

The festival began with a broad Wild West staging of “The Taming of the Shrew,” featuring heavy doses of low comedy. While some critics praised the Petruchio and Katherine of Graham Abbey and Seana McKenna, almost all went after Miles Potter for his directorial excess.

That was also the charge leveled at artistic director Richard Monette for his production of the stage reincarnation of tuner “Gigi,” a broadly comic affair that jettisoned charm for laughs.

A second musical was the lavishly designed version of “The King and I,” directed by Susan H. Schulman. While praising the look, most critics found Lucy Peacock’s Anna and Victor Talmadge’s King struck insufficient sparks.

Lack of chemistry also plagued Martha Henry’s staging of “Antony and Cleopatra,” starring Peter Donaldson and Diane D’Aquila, which many reviews damned with faint praise as “worthy.”

The low point of the week was local author Rick Whelan’s version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which received the most universally negative notices in recent memory. Although it was sold as a “family” show, director Dennis Garnhum laid on the kinky sex and gratuitous violence to the point where just about everyone found it distasteful.

Both festivals still have tricks up their sleeves (Stratford launches 10 more plays, Shaw six), but their opening shows are the ones expected to generate the most revenue.

While everyone professes to be optimistic, the combination of SARS and a weak lineup may not necessarily yield a “glorious summer.” That may cause both organizations to wind up lamenting “the winter of our discontent.”

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