Shakespeare, Shaw on director's list

TORONTO — After turning the work of the Who, and the Four Seasons into smash hits, two-time Tony-winning helmer Des McAnuff is getting ready to tackle a decidedly different pair of authors — William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw.

McAnuff is one of the team of three artistic directors (along with Marti Maraden and Don Shipley) preparing the 2008 season at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival under the supervision of general director Antoni Cimolino.

McAnuff will make his debut next spring with a production of “Romeo and Juliet,” followed by Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra” starring fest vet Christopher Plummer and Anika Noni Rose.

His take on the Shakespeare tragedy, he hopes, will be a different perspective on the play.

“This company should be multiracial,” he said in a recent interview. But McAnuff is thinking of something more profound than a case of black-white gimmick casting.

“I want the stage to look like it might look if you were walking down Yonge St.,” he insisted, referring to the main Toronto street famed for its wildly diverse ethnic mix.

But just in case the purists begin to hear alarm bells, McAnuff also hastens to make it clear that “I’m not attempting any sort of major deconstruction or rearrangement of the text. I love this play too much to do anything like that to it.”

He won’t disclose exact details at this time, other than his belief that “We want people to feel this place is pertinent. We expect these plays to serve as windows to our own times. We’re not just dusting off relics; we want edgy productions that people will find magnetic.”

People who know McAnuff mainly through his Broadway work (which consists of shows like “Big River,” “Tommy” and “Jersey Boys”) or his two terms at the La Jolla Playhouse (1983-94 and 2001-07), which were largely devoted to the development of new plays, may be surprised to hear him discuss the classics with such passion.

But they played a significant part in his early career.

After writing a couple of his own shows, the Canadian helmer in 1976 directed a series of classical plays in Toronto including “The Bacchae” and “Faustus.”

He staged “Macbeth” for the Stratford Festival in 1983, in a production that starred Nicholas Pennell and Roberta Maxwell. That same year, he also staged “Romeo and Juliet” as one of his first shows at La Jolla.

At the time, a critic claimed, “McAnuff didn’t focus on the lovers’ dilemma until the play’s second half, with the first act emphasizing the blood feud between the Montagues and Capulets.”

It sounds as if he’s planning to follow the same course with his Stratford production.

“Yes, it’s a great love story,” he concedes, “but it’s also a great hate story as well. It talks so brilliantly of how personal obsessions and vendettas can destroy people, and I think that’s terribly relevant today.”

As for his production of “Caesar and Cleopatra,” McAnuff sounds equally enthused. “Christopher Plummer is an international treasure,” he says. “He and Anika get on like a house on fire, and I’m thrilled that they will be bringing their very impressive skill sets and depth of talent to these remarkable parts.”

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