Stratford plays the field

Monette to step down after 2007 season

TORONTO — In Shakespeare’s history plays, the people who are trying to get the crown are often more interesting than the one who actually has it. It’s not surprising that the same scenario would hold true for the Stratford Festival of Canada.

Richard Monette has been artistic director since 1994 — longer than anyone else in the festival’s 53-year history — and he will step down after the 2007 season.

Several of this season’s directors have been mentioned as possible successors, while others are eagerly waiting in the wings.

When Monette took over the festival, things were in such a weakened fiscal state that his major concern was whether he could pay the theater’s heating bills in the winter.

Now, the organization boasts a C$41 million ($32.7 million) endowment fund and has had an operating surplus for the past 11 seasons.

But while Monette has done wonderful things on the economic front, there is general consensus that things haven’t been so great artistically in recent years.

There have been things to celebrate, such as Christopher Plummer’s King Lear and a dazzling series of Noel Coward comedies from Brian Bedford, but when it comes to Monette’s own work, he’s generally been responsible for some of the more lackluster shows seen at the festival.

The recent opening week serves as a clear indicator of this. The two Monette-directed shows were among the weakest of the bunch. His revival of his 1999 “The Tempest” is notable for a stunning performance from William Hutt,but the rest of it is fairly pedestrian.

And his “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is close to embarrassing: an operatic take on the Tennessee Williams classic that lacks any heat and is filled with mediocre perfs.

Another letdown was a bland adaptation of “The Brothers Karamazov” by Canadian playwright Jason Sherman. Richard Rose, who directed it, was at one point thought a possible successor, but his work in recent years has made him an unlikely choice.

Bedford came to the rescue with a slickly professional staging of Coward’s “Fallen Angels.” Bedford has spent 24 seasons at the festival and has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the a.d. job, but at the age of 70 and with numerous job opportunities in Gotham and L.A. it’s doubtful he could be tempted.

The same applies to Colm Feore, another Stratford vet, who just wrapped a critically acclaimed Broadway performance as Cassius opposite Denzel Washington in “Julius Caesar.” Feore is returning next season to star in three shows (“Oliver,” “Coriolanus” and “Don Juan”), but he also insists he’s not interested in the top job.

Some sources favor avant garde stager Peter Hinton, whose take on “Into the Woods” this season is certainly bold and often effective, but ultimately unsatisfying. Yet Hinton currently lacks enough major credits to make him a likely choice.

Leon Rubin, formerly of the Royal Shakespeare Company, has done some interesting work at Stratford in recent years, and his upcoming production of “Measure for Measure” will undoubtedly warrant major scrutiny.

Most eyes are on Antoni Cimolino, the festival’s executive director, who provided the opening week’s one big hit, a 1960s-set mounting of “As You Like It,” with a score commissioned from the Canadian pop group the Barenaked Ladies.

Officially, Cimolino is ineligible for the a.d. job because of his current position, which places him on the search committee ex officio, but that’s strictly a technicality that could be easily overcome.

Many observers feel that of all the internal candidates, he’s the only one with both the artistic vision and the administrative skill to take Stratford in the new directions it desperately needs to go.

Other names mentioned as possible candidates include Festival actor Stephen Ouimette, Des McAnuff (the La Jolla Playhouse), Joe Dowling (the Guthrie Theater) and Marti Maraden (the National Arts Center).

But as anyone familiar with Shakespeare knows, it isn’t over until the end of the final act. Just keep watching the stage.

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