Tug of war over Stratford mission

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"Into the Woods," Stephen Sondheim's musical fairy tale for grownups, occupies the second-largest theater, the 1,093-seat Avon. Both musicals won standing ovations on their opening nights earlier this season. But critics have been particularly rough on "Dolly!" for placing a veteran Stratford actress in the title role, rather than bringing in someone with more star power to put her own strong stamp on the part, which has been identified with legends Carol Channing onstage and Barbra Streisand on film.

"I think there's a tendency to Stratford bash," says Richard Ouzounian, theater critic of the Toronto Star, who hosted a 13-hour series for the Canadian Broadcasting Company on the festival at its 50th anniversary in 2003 and wrote an accompanying book. "It's a very Canadian thing. Ever since the festival started, the Canadian media have tended to be the people cruelest to it."

Christopher Plummer, Mr. Ouzounian says, once told him that when he was a young actor at Stratford in the 1950s, famed New York critics Walter Kerr and Brooks Atkinson "were raving about what he did," while Toronto critics excoriated him. (In 2004, Plummer returned to Stratford to star in "King Lear," a production that traveled to Broadway and earned both the play and the actor Tony nominations.) The feeling is "if it's happening in Canada, it can't be any good," Ouzounian says.

Perusing a list of the 15 offerings in the 2005 season, Ouzounian points to three Shakespeare plays (recent years have averaged five plays by the Bard); "Edward II," by Shakespeare's contemporary, Christopher Marlowe; and five other serious dramas, including a new adaptation of the Russian novel "The Brothers Karamazov." The lighter fare ("four bon-bons," he calls them) includes the two musicals, a lesser-known Noel Coward comedy ("Fallen Angels"), and a one-man show by Canadian humorist Rod Beattie called "Wingfield's Inferno." "It's not a frivolous season," Ouzounian says. "They're doing some interesting stuff."

With its production of "Measure for Measure," Stratford will have produced Shakespeare's entire canon (the more than three dozen plays generally attributed to him) during Mr. Monette's 12-year tenure as the artistic director - a monumental accomplishment.

After viewing eight of this season's plays (the others open in August), Detroit critic Kohn calls 2005 a middling year with two real winners. He says he'd be happy to pay the top price ($114 Canadian, $90 American) to see "As You Like It" or "The Tempest."

Shakespeare's "As You Like It" is set in 1969 and features folk-rock music evocative of that era written (though not performed) by the Canadian rock group the Barenaked Ladies. At a matinee in June, middle schoolers in the audience cheered wildly when Shakespeare's ballads were given Barenaked treatment, but also seemed moved in general by the story about young love and the nature of true affection.

The play is "a subtle, beautiful motif about the innate reserves of love and kindness in people, whether they're of Shakespeare's day, the age of flower power, or our own," Kohn wrote. (The Globe and Mail's Mr. Al-Solaylee complained,"If you have to lure audiences to Shakespeare by offering the Barenaked Ladies as bait, then the whole enterprise of a classics-based repertory company needs to be reexamined.")

While Professor Plant doubts the 2007 change in artistic director will do much to redirect Stratford ("I'm a bit jaded," he says), Ouzounian is more sanguine. Monette deserves credit for saving the festival from bankruptcy and for some real artistic accomplishments, he says. "It has a very solid foundation," he says; it just needs some fresh thinking.

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