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A tale of two Stratfords -- and their struggles; At Canada's festival, the Bard and G&S miss standards expected there

Last year, the Stratford Festival was barely able to open its doors for the season, so disruptive were the inner politics and nationalism that led to the appointment of John Hirsch as artistic director, succeeding Robin Phillips.

Mr. Hirsch did not offer a production that season, invoking insufficient time and strenuous organizational demands, but he promised two for this season - ''The Tempest'' (reviewed here) and, later in the season, Schiller's ''Mary Stuart.'' Presumably, these productions reflect Mr. Hirsch's views on what Stratford represents.

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The season opened with three plays by Shakespeare (''The Tempest,'' ''Julius Caesar,'' ''The Merry Wives of Windsor'') and Gilbert and Sullivan's ''The Mikado.'' Not visible in these productions are the ambitious scope and quantity once taken for granted at Stratford. Also missing is the sense of theatrical inventiveness and excitement. The theater offered this summer to date is no better than fare offered at, say, the American Shakespeare Festival and probably at many other Shakespeare stages around the country.

With theatrical values considerably lower than what was once regularly offered in Ontario, why should theatergoers make the effort to go to Canada? More crucial, however, is the question of how Canadian performers can grow in a vacuum: Without a chance for the sort of cross-fertilization that enriches player and performer, how can progress be possible for a growing theatrical country?

This 30th anniversary season has opened with productions, to quote the Bard himself, ''full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.'' Mr. Hirsch's ''Tempest'' trudged ponderously along, Derek Goldby's ''Julius Caesar'' provided decibels of noise the likes of which have not been heard on the festival stage in many a year. A listless ''Merry Wives'' completed the Shakespeare fare.

Clearly, ''The Mikado,'' a sellout for some 80 performances, is on stage to make money - even though some $100,000 was spent on costumes made from silk specially woven in Japan.

The theatrical invention in this ''Tempest'' production was slight, as was the delineation of social structure, relationships, or even a sense of locale on the Stratford Festival theater stage. The space itself is not well used.

The crucial magic was in limited supply. A sense of Prospero both as master and slave of his enchanted arts was lacking, as was a convincing sense of his control of the master plot of the dramatic action. Instead, audiences are offered a tribe of bitter, corrupted people.

The ''Caesar'' proved even more alarming. One saw little grasp of the issues in the play. Rather, ''Caesar'' was a noisy saga of a people gone wild, a stupid , bloodthirsty rabble that anyone with brains could mold to his will. Behind this crowd - a diluted Peter Brook ''Marat/Sade'' prerevolu-tionary mob - the Roman heroes and rulers are petty, squabbling hollerers themselves.

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Nobility is lacking here, as are complexity and a sorting out of the motives and ambitions of the plotters. Where such delineation might have been projected, director Goldby has merely thrown in a crowd scene, or lots of screaming. There is even a scene in which Cinna the poet is being torn viciously apart, limb from limb, except that the actor so clearly is exchanged for a dummy that the effect is merely risible.

''Merry Wives'' is not Shakespeare's finest effort (nor is it his worst), but the staging by Robert Beard lacks edge, humor, atmosphere. In fact, all three directors tended to let the performers do what they would, with no real guidance. Also, the odd assortment of histrionic styles, and a stentorian delivery verging on mere shouting, make for a new wrinkle at Stratford, and a disturbing one.

Veteran Nicholas Pennell took top honors in the two plays he performed - a fine jealous Mr. Ford, a rather overbearing but well declaimed Stephano, and a splendid Cassius. In fact, this Cassius walked off with this ''Caesar,'' which in a more carefully cast show would not happen.

But then again, Len Cariou was at odds with the role of Brutus, and, for that matter, with the role of Prospero (in ''The Tempest''), too. Brutus is a nobleman whose conscience, high moral sense, and a certain self-importance lead him down a fatal path of political expediency. Mr. Cariou offers a petulant man-of-the-streets whose pettiness, not his high-mindedness, is his less-than-mighty downfall. His snarling, hectoring, rather too-young Prospero caught merely a streak of rancid revenge, rather than the depth of the character's emotions and complexities.

The productions were intermittently well designed. Desmond Heeley's abilities as set designer were hardly taxed in ''The Tempest' until a stunning emergence for Ariel, who suddenly seemed to hover, winged, over a banquet. The device is used several more times, with other characters, until all sense of novelty dissolves into predictability.

Money was certainly soaked into the gorgeous ''Mikado'' costumes - all people in Stratford could talk about was the $100,000 spent on them. But was there no costume designer who could have given the semblance of lavishness on a more modest scale? And why were these costumes framed against such a stark, oppressive black-background set (Miss Benson and Doug McLean)?

Perhaps more disturbingly, few of the cast - many of whom hail from Canada's music schools - could really sing, and just about every lead was seriously miscast.

Director Brian MacDonald offered only a rudimentary sense of what makes G&S humor run. The ensemble work was sloppy in matters as simple as stepping forward together or opening fans crisply and on the beat. Berthold Carriere's musical direction was lively and sure, though the singers kept jumping or missing beats, and some of his re-orchestrations were peculiar, and slightly trivial.

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