Shaw and Stratford theater festivals in Ontario celebrate two bards

The six-month season already is underway

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The six-month season already is underway at the Shaw and Stratford festivals, two of the half-dozen finest repertory theaters in the English-speaking world. Better yet, they just happen to be within easy reach of Pittsburgh, close enough to be part of what makes this a great place to live.

Both companies have big permanent acting ensembles, four theaters and true repertory, meaning each of their theaters has two or three shows alternating in any given week season-long. The Shaw, a five-hour drive from Pittsburgh (depending on tail winds and border delays), would be major festival enough, if it didn't happen that the even bigger Stratford Festival lies just two hours farther on.

As impressive as the Shaw's four theaters are, Stratford's are bigger, sustaining larger stars. There's also the question of their house dramatists. Stratford was started by Tyrone Guthrie in 1953 as a Shakespeare Festival, and the Bard is still No. 1, providing four of this year's 12 major shows. Stratford calls him its "foundation" as it "aims to set the standard for classical theater in North America," while bringing "classical and contemporary theater alive."

Although the Shaw was started in 1962 to showcase the works of George Bernard Shaw, this year he provides only two of its 10 shows. The company "mandate" has long been "plays about the beginning of the modern world" -- roughly, those written in Shaw's long lifetime, 1856-1950. Recently, that definition stretched to include later plays set during Shaw's life. Now, artistic director Jackie Maxwell defines the Shaw more simply as "a contemporary theatre" staging "a potent and diverse mix of plays from the past and present."

So at Stratford, they take all world drama as their province. This year, that means Coward, Beckett, new plays, the "Three Musketeers" and two musicals in addition to the Bard.

But at the Shaw, the mandate still pretty much holds sway, with Wilde, Maugham, Glaspell and O'Neill in addition to Shaw, plus two musicals and a modern play all set in Shaw's lifetime. That leaves only Brian Friel (a modern Irish classic) and Tom Stoppard, whose "Arcadia" is set both before and after Shaw's life -- but so what, since Stoppard is as close to a modern Shaw as you could find?

For undisputed stars at Stratford, there are Brian Bedford, Brian Dennehy and Martha Henry: Mr. Bedford is playing Shylock, Mr. Dennehy is in "Waiting for Godot" and "Mary Stuart," and Ms. Henry is in "Taking Shakespeare." But Seana McKenna and Lucy Peacock are also stars in that sphere, facing off as Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart.

At the Shaw, this year's starriest is Benedict Campbell (Undershaft in "Major Barbara"), and some will know Nicole Underhay (Major Barbara herself), who came to Pittsburgh a few years ago as Salome for PICT.

Regulars also will recognize many company stalwarts, such as Tom McCamus, Stephen Ouimette and Geraint Wyn Davies at Stratford and Jim Mezon, Patrick Galligan and Diana Donnelly at the Shaw.

Even the most casual theatergoer should know you don't want to miss anything by Mr. Bedford, so Stratford's "Merchant of Venice" is a must, even if you don't like the play. Also at Stratford, don't miss Ms. McKenna and Ms. Peacock going head-to-head in "Mary Stuart" (and again in "Dear Mary, Dear Elizabeth," a selection of letters), and "Tommy" has the advantage of being directed by its originator, Des McAnuff. "Blithe Spirit" is always a tonic and "Godot," good for the soul.

At the Shaw, I'm most anticipating the big Wilde and Shaw plays, but also Somerset Maugham's comedy "Our Betters" ("Downton Abbey," but better) and Stoppard's "Arcadia" in the tiny Studio. Often small things are best at the Shaw. So I happily await "Peace in Our Time" (an adaptation of Shaw) and the two lunchtime tidbits, "Trifles."

With so much to choose from, you can hardly go wrong.

But travel is more than just theater. Niagara-on-the-Lake is the prettier town with more vineyards, but Stratford has more variety. In planning a trip, get their guidebooks or visit their websites to research the many extras, especially extensive at Stratford.

Buried in our summary listings are such attractions as a series of cabarets led by Ms. Peacock, Q&A with Mr. Dennehy, dinner and talk with New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, reading of the epic play "Jerusalem" and dozens of panels, tours, talkbacks, solo shows, you name it.

In your planning, notice that previews (which sometimes go on for several weeks) are a box office bargain. Thankfully, the U.S. dollar is back up to less than a penny from par with the Canadian.

The Post-Gazette sponsors two motorcoach tours: the first (July 9-13) to both Shaw and Stratford, including seven shows plus one option, two hotels, welcoming dinner, etc., and the second (Sept. 11-14) to just the Shaw, including seven shows, welcoming dinner, etc. For prices and fuller information, call Gulliver's Travels, 412-441-3131 or 800-848-4084.


Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson is at 412-216-1944. First Published May 12, 2013 4:00 AM


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