Canada's Stratford festival faces slings, arrows

Wed Apr 23, 2008 1:39am EDT
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By Julie Mollins

TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival begins its new season this week with themes to do with money, power and jealousy being played out behind the scenes as well as onstage.

The festival, based in the bucolic southwestern Ontario town of Stratford, the namesake of William Shakespeare's birthplace in England, is the largest classical repertory theater in North America based on both budget and attendance.

And while Hamlet, played by Ben Carlson, confronts the ghost of his father in a preview performance of the great Shakespearean tragedy on Wednesday, the festival's general director, Antoni Cimolino, will be confronting a specter of a different sort.

He will be tackling the financial fallout from recession fears, high gas prices, and a weaker U.S. dollar.

Beyond economic anxieties, the theater company is also trying to bounce back from backstage warfare, which provoked the resignation of two of its three artistic directors in March after a power struggle, leaving director Des McAnuff at the creative helm.

Neither McAnuff nor Cimolino would comment on the disarray generated by the backstage dramatics -- apparently over division of work -- that led to the resignations of Marti Maraden and Don Shipley.

"It's now weeks and weeks ago," McAnuff said. "It's time to really focus on the future."

Although Canadian ticket sales for 17 plays to be produced this season are only modestly down from last year, the festival is facing some real challenges in maintaining the previous high level of attendance from U.S. theater-goers, Cimolino said in an interview. About 35 percent of the festival's audience in previous years has come from the United States.   Continued...