How to choose between them, the two great repertory theater festivals just north of the border in Ontario, Canada?
The Stratford Festival, now in its 62nd season, features the greatest English language playwright, Shakespeare, this year staging five of his plays among the 12 shows that will hold forth in its five theaters from now until Oct. 12. But it also serves as pretty much the national theater of Canada, drawing its other seven from a dizzying diversity of countries, centuries and theatrical traditions.
The Shaw Festival, the junior sibling in "just" its 54th season, takes its name from that most voluminous and voluble of English playwrights, George Bernard Shaw, this year staging two of his philosophical comedies among the 10 shows in its four theaters from now until Oct. 26. But it focuses more intently than Stratford, drawing its other shows from Shaw's lifetime and after, roughly the past 150 years.
Two great acting companies, but with definite differences. In addition to their theatrical bills of fare, each company reflects the atmosphere of its host town. At the Shaw, that's charming little Niagara-on-the-Lake, a lakeside tourist mecca, certified in international competition as one of the cutest towns in the world, and surrounded by first- class vineyards, as well. At the Stratford, its host town of the same name is really a small city with a greater variety of restaurants and shops.
But in the most important thing, the two festivals are alike, each boasting a large resident acting company performing in true rotating repertory. That means that each company member does at least two different shows, all those shows and theaters scheduled so that with careful planning you could see as many as eight or even 10 different plays in any given week.
So why choose? Plan well, and go to both.
Artistic director Jackie Maxwell finds the theme of this year's festival in what all good theater should offer: transformation and surprise. That's certainly the essence of the comedies that dominate the 10-show season, from the romance-shattering of Shaw's icon-busting "Arms and the Man" and "The Philanderer" to the post-matrimonial whirligig of J.B. Priestley's "When We Are Married" and the prematrimonial shenanigans of Philip Barry's "The Philadelphia Story."
Focusing on those, you could call this year's Shaw Festival a seminar in the comic politics of marriage. But there is also the more general social satire of St. John Hankin's "The Charity That Began at Home" (one of those delicious Shaw Festival discoveries, as it mines the early 20th century for forgotten gold)and Edward Bond's surprising, inexplicable "The Sea." Tennessee Williams contributes the gently lunchtime treat, "A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur."
And beyond these, there are darker themes to pursue. Sean O'Casey's "Juno and the Paycock" might seem like another comic riff on wedded discontents, in their Irish conjuration, but it digs darker and deeper. And to top that there's the surprising magic of Katori Hall, following Martin Luther King Jr. to "The Mountaintop," and the brilliant political parable of Kander and Ebb's musical "Cabaret."
So perhaps there is no theme, per se, just varieties of (mainly comic) introspection and revelation. But what brings its audience back to the Shaw again and again is its acting company, especially strong in its women. Where but at the Shaw could a single play (Hankin's "Charity") boast a cast including such veterans as Fiona Reid, Laurie Paton, Sharry Flett, Donna Belleville and several more, along with such men as Jim Mezon and Neil Barclay?
That's just one play. The acting company of 64 also includes such other men as Benedict Campbell, Patrick Galligan, Lorne Kennedy and Peter Millard, and the incomparable and eccentric Jennifer Phipps. These names may be unfamiliar in Pittsburgh, but a few annual visits to the Shaw and you look forward to see what surprises they will have in the year ahead.
Far more than Shaw at his festival, Shakespeare rules at his, as perhaps he should in this, his 450th year. But of course Shakespeare is a world of variety in himself, a mini-festival of his own. This year that extends from the youthful high jinks of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to the grand, mature tragedies of "Antony and Cleopatra" and "King Lear."
For those who like to collect the more unusual Shakespeares, there's the surprisingly shrewd politics of "King John." And for the collectors of the truly eccentric, this year offers the American auteurist director Peter Sellars (a Pittsburgh native), creator of a four-person version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream: a chamber play," staged outside the festival's usual ambit at the Stratford Masonic Concert Hall.
Beyond the Bard, Stratford reaches back to the early 18th century for George Farquhar's "The Beaux' Stratagem" and into the early 20th for Noel Coward's comic romp, "Hay Fever," and Bertolt Brecht's dour tribute to that indomitable woman, "Mother Courage."
For musicals, Stratford goes dark and classy with "Man of La Mancha" and bright and comic with "Crazy for You," created by rummaging through the Gershwin songbook for such gems as "I Got Rhythm," "Nice Work If You Can Get It" and "Someone to Watch Over Me."
That leaves two more: Michel Marc Bouchard's "Christina, the Girl King," translated by Linda Gaboriau, about that fascinating 17th-century Swedish queen who gave us such other versions as Greta Garbo's 1933 movie. And a children's theater company comes to Stratford with its own version of "Alice Through the Looking Glass."
As at the Shaw, the heart of true rotating repertory is the acting company, this one of 107. Its strength allows some remarkable pairings. For example, the Alice in "Through the Looking Glass" is Trish Lindstrom, not just a child blonde but one who has played Sally Bowles in "Cabaret." Colm Feore, who has played Hamlet, Romeo, Macbeth, Cyrano and Richard III, now tackles King Lear -- and also sidles into the romantic comedy of "Beaux' Stratagem."
There are many such challenging pairings for the audience (and actor) to enjoy. Geraint Wyn Davies plays Shakespeare's Antony and then does Brecht. Seana McKenna goes from "Mother Courage" to "King John." Lucy Peacock straddles the comedy of both the 18th ("Beaux' Stratagem") and 20th ("Hay Fever") centuries.
The veteran Martha Henry, a leading lady of the Canadian stage (and a graduate of Carnegie Tech, as it was then), celebrates her 40th year at Stratford by acting and directing. One guest director is Tim Carroll, direct from his Tony nomination for the London Globe company's visit to Broadway.
The artistic director of all this is Antoni Cimolino, the 12th in a distinguished line that began with the founder, Tyrone Guthrie. Stratford has a rich legacy, but its not content just to rest on its laurels.