Canada fests kick off in Toronto

Shaw, Stratford theater fests a mixed bag

TORONTO — The 2007 editions of Canada’s two major theater festivals are up and running with most of their major repertory in place. But while the Shaw Festival is fielding one of its strongest seasons in memory, Stratford is suffering from the kind of inconsistency that has plagued the event in recent years.

In her fifth season helming Shaw, artistic director Jackie Maxwell provided a solid kickoff with her own production of “Saint Joan.” Maxwell turns the windy epilogue into a kind of surreal prologue that sets the action against the background of WWI.

Also impressive are a slick revival of Somerset Maugham’s “The Circle,” a winning look at Jerry Herman’s problem musical “Mack and Mabel” and the first North American perf in 84 years of “The Cassilis Engagement,” a bittersweet entry by forgotten Edwardian author St. John Hankin.

Canadian playwright-director Morris Panych has shaken up Georges Feydeau with a racy new contemporary adaptation of “L’Hotel du Libre Echange,” which he calls “Hotel Peccadillo.”

The only dud in the Shaw season so far has been a plodding look at Brian Friel’s version of Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country,” which failed to impress most reviewers.

Still to come are Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke,” two one-act comedies by Ireland’s Lady Gregory and the world premiere of a new musical, “Tristan,” based on the story by Thomas Mann and written by company members Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli.

After a frightening spring, during which advance sales were running 15% behind last year, Shaw has seen an amazing turnaround since the season opened May 9, with revenues leaping 17% ahead of 2006, making it look like the fest will finish in the black by the time it wraps in November.

Over at Stratford, the mood is elegiac, with artistic director Richard Monette leaving after 14 years at the helm. His pic is displayed prominently in all advertising, an autobiography (“This Rough Magic”) is being published, and the testimonials are coming fast and furious.

Too bad the playbill so far offers little to celebrate. Instead, it’s damaged by weak direction and uneven acting, continuing the slide in quality that began after the triumphant 50th anniversary season in 2002.

Sadly, for a Shakespearean festival, the Bard comes off worst. The best of his four plays on this year’s bill is a good but not great “Othello,” featuring Philip Akin in the title role, the first black Canadian in Stratford’s history to play the part, with rising young star Jonathan Goad making a highly effective Iago.

After that, it goes downhill rapidly. Brian Bedford’s performance in the title role of “King Lear” has its towering moments, but unfortunately, Bedford chose to direct the production himself, and the result lacks consistency and pace.

Still, it’s better than the two major disasters. First is Richard Rose’s embarrassing postmodernist take on “The Merchant of Venice,” set in a high-fashion future that makes no sense and is further hampered by the Shakespearean debut of Graham Greene (“Dances With Wolves”) as Shylock. The native Canadian actor simply has no idea how to perform Shakespeare, and his monotone line readings further damage a production already in big trouble.

Scraping the bottom of the barrel, however, is Monette’s own version of “The Comedy of Errors,” staged in the director’s anything-for-a-yuck mode — full of bad acting, running gags and in-jokes.

The good news is largely reserved for Donna Feore’s fresh and breezy take on “Oklahoma!,” Michael Lichtefeld’s sharp “My One and Only” and Lucy Peacock’s one-woman turn in Australian playwright Robert Hewett’s “The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead.” There’s also a competent but uninspired version of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Still ahead are “Of Mice and Men,” “Pentecost,” “The Odyssey,” “A Delicate Balance,” “Shakespeare’s Will” and “An Ideal Husband.”

Box office is running 3% ahead of last year, but it’s generally been perceived that Monette — even though he’s delivered an operating surplus every year — has long outstayed his welcome. The new team now in transition — Antoni Cimolino as general director, working with the artistic directorate of Des McAnuff, Marti Maraden and Don Shipley — have their work cut out for them in restoring quality control to North America’s largest classical company.

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