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Tug of war over Stratford mission

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 1, 2005



STRATFORD, ONTARIO

Each spring when the snows of another Canadian winter recede, Stratford, Ontario, springs to life again like Brigadoon. The busy commercial city of 50,000, about midway between Detroit and Toronto, transforms into a theater lover's paradise. Thousands of tourists stroll the shady banks of the Avon River, watching the swans and ducks glide about, or wander the Shakespeare Gardens, filled with plants and flowers mentioned by the bard.

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They also flock to the Stratford Festival to see productions ranging from the works of Shakespeare (the "house playwright") and Broadway musicals, to other comedies and dramas. During a week at the height of the season, with four theaters pumping out matinee and evening performances, a zealous fan could, in theory, see a dozen different shows.

It's as if one of the largest theater districts in North America suddenly plopped down onto the Ontario prairie.

But behind the scenes, all is not quite so idyllic. In recent years, the number of ticket buyers has been flat. The reasons aren't clear: Possiblilities include a shaky North American economy, high gasoline prices, and poor exchange rates for American dollars (some 40 percent of Stratford tickets are sold to Americans).

Canadian theater critics have not always been kind, either, which may have dampened local enthusiasm. Disagreement persists over whether Stratford's attempts to fill seats compromises its artistic quality. Some critics have also pointed to a paucity of new work by Canadian playwrights.

Richard Plant, a drama professor at the University of Toronto and a specialist in the history of Canadian theater, grew up near Stratford and has attended the festival frequently since childhood, though not as much in recent years. "It's a bit too much 'museum theater' for me," he says.

Whoever replaces Stratford's artistic director Richard Monette, who steps down in 2007, will have to answer critics' cries that the festival is a mere "tourist attraction" that fails to employ its considerable resources to stage groundbreaking new works or promote Canadian playwrights (three of the 14 plays this season were written or adapted by Canadians). In a recent review, Toronto Globe and Mail critic Kamal Al-Solaylee compared the festival to the character of Big Mama in Stratford's current production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" by Tennessee Williams. Both, he said, were in a state of "full-blown self-deception."

Lavish musicals are important for the bottom line, accounting for about half the revenue the festival brings in. But critics argue that musicals have plenty of other commercial venues and that Stratford has better things to do. Such purists urge the festival not to "put on shows for tourists," but rather "be the representative of the absolute best that theater has to offer," says Martin Kohn, the Detroit Free Press theater critic, who has covered the festival for the past seven years.

That high-sounding goal may not be practical, however. "I don't think they're going to become a festival of all new plays," Mr. Kohn says. "They just have too many seats to fill to do that."

This year, "Hello, Dolly!" is being revived at the 1,824-seat Festival Theatre, the largest of Stratford's four theaters. It's a dazzling production with galloping, acrobatic waiters, glittering costumes, and grand entrances for Dolly on a life-size streetcar and down an impressive staircase.

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