Artistic director stirs Shakespeare fest

STRATFORD, Ontario — There’s one thing you can say about Des McAnuff’s first season as artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival: There’s been plenty of drama, onstage and off.

Resignations, replacements, and a varied repertory of plays have caught the public’s eye and attracted the attention of a large number of the American press for the first time in many seasons.

McAnuff was originally appointed in 2006 to be part of a trio of artistic directors that would run the fest under general director Antoni Cimolino.

But in March, the two other artistic directors, Don Shipley and Marti Maraden, suddenly resigned over artistic and personal differences among them, Cimolino and McAnuff.

Cimolino moved quickly and offered McAnuff a solo artistic directorship, which he accepted, even though his work around the globe on his Tony-winning hit “Jersey Boys,” as well as other new projects, kept him more than busy.

While adjusting to his new position, McAnuff had to cope with the departure of one of his stars, Anika Noni Rose, who was scheduled to appear opposite Christopher Plummer in his production of “Caesar and Cleopatra” in August, but left to work on a television series for HBO.

And he had to find someone who could replace Shipley as the director of Brian Dennehy’s double bill of “Hughie” and “Krapp’s Last Tape.”

McAnuff moved rapidly and decisively, replacing Rose with Nikki M. James (La Jolla’s “The Wiz”), who was already rehearsing “Romeo and Juliet” for him.

He hired Dennehy’s long-time artistic colleague Robert Falls from the Goodman Theater in Chicago to mount “Hughie” and tapped Toronto alternative director Jennifer Traver to helm “Krapp’s Last Tape.”

Then, while directing his own “Romeo and Juliet” and supervising the Las Vegas remount of “Jersey Boys,” he tried to make sure all 16 shows on the Stratford playbill would open on schedule.

The smoothness and overall quality of opening week was a tribute to his stamina, with Toronto critics praising the majority of the work and commenting favorably on the overall rise in quality.

Ben Carlson’s performance in the title role of Adrian Noble’s “Hamlet” (a role he had played in 2006 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater) was widely acclaimed, as was Susan H. Schulman’s bright-as-paint production of “The Music Man” and Marti Maraden’s powerful reading of “The Trojan Women,” while less successful, but still intriguing, was Amanda Dehnert’s surrealistic production of “Cabaret.”

More negative was the response to Peter Hinton’s overly serious “The Taming of the Shrew” and Michael Langham’s old-fashioned “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”

Interestingly, McAnuff’s own production of “Romeo and Juliet” was one of the coolest received shows, with the bulk of criticism falling on James and Gareth Potter in the title roles.

Later openings have included Dennehy’s rapturously received double bill, an exciting production of Lope De Vega’s “Fuente Ovejuna,” Simon Callow’s one-man show, “There Reigns Love,” and a tepid “All’s Well That Ends Well.”

There are still five more shows to open, with the most eagerly awaited being Plummer in “Caesar and Cleopatra.”

But despite the considerable buzz and the favorable reviews, the price of gas and the declining economy have been causing ticket sales to drop 14% from the U.S. market and 7% from Canada.

A lot can happen between now and when the festival plays its last performance for the season Nov. 9, but in all probability, it will be facing its first deficit in 15 years.

Still, with a strong endowment fund to help with the deficit and the kind of media support that the festival hasn’t seen in a long time, it will be interesting to see what the 2009 season, which will truly be the first one McAnuff has planned on his own, will be like.

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