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ONTARIO'S STRATFORD FESTIVAL. Shakespeare has to settle for supporting role

Ever since the lights went up on the first performance in Queen's Park - a circus-tent production of ``Richard III'' starring Alec Guinness - the Stratford Festival has been a curious mixture of commerce and art. For most of its 35 years, the world's second-largest Shakespearean theater company has focused on that art, turning an impressive star-laced legacy into global renown.

Recent years, however, have seen a much-beleaguered festival. During the past five years, Stratford has been racked by civil war, riddled with deficits, and ruled, on occasion, by xenophobia. As a result, Canada's ``flagship theater'' is casting a keener eye to its commerce.

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Some might call it commercialism.

For the second year in a row, Stratford is witnessing an erosion of its traditional Shakespearean repertoire. Only four of this year's 14 productions are of Shakespeare's authorship, and only one of them - the ``Othello'' coming up, starring Howard Rollins - is on the main stage, that sacrosanct arena once reserved for the Bard.

What is offered instead is a theatrical grab bag that mixes Brecht with Sheridan, pits ``The Cherry Orchard'' alongside ``Cabaret,'' and consigns much of Shakespeare to the festival's young training company.

It's a season producing curious results. For what plays well with audiences and on balance sheets (box office receipts are running ahead of last year) is not necessarily translating into great art on stage.

While some festival selections (which run in repertory from May to November) are eliciting critical controversy - ``Troilus and Cressida'' has been panned as theatrical camp in the extreme - most of the season to date is commanding little more more than a yawn. There is an interesting ``Cherry Orchard,'' a solidly performed ``Romeo and Juliet.'' But there is an unexceptional ``Mother Courage,'' and the ``Cabaret'' production verges on the embarrassing.

Stratford artistic director John Neville, a British-born actor and director, is being credited with performing a near-miracle behind the scenes.

Now in the second year of his three-year contract, Mr. Neville has trimmed deficits, wooed audiences, and assuaged internal strife. Nonetheless, on the boards there remains a discernible lack of excitement. It's an ennui felt within and without the company. Critics, both local and foreign, speak openly about a ``triumph of style over content.'' And some company members rankle under a lack of directorial risk.

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``There is so much money but no mandate,'' one company actress says. ``We should be doing something exciting. ... [But] this is just boring theater.''

Other observers are more sanguine. If not quite defending the inclusion of musicals and popular shows, they are at least acknowledging their possible raison d'^etre. ``Stratford just has too many seats and too much [theatrical] competition these days,'' says one longtime critic. ``There is a real question about [the festival's] future.''

Facing such criticism, Neville points to his company's ever-precarious bottom line. ``Unlike the heavily subsidized theaters in Europe and Britain, such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, we must earn 70 percent of our income in ticket sales,'' says Neville. ``[Our] government funding is only 10 percent - a figure that is far, far too low.''

Despite such voracious demands on his box office, Neville last year courted danger, not to mention criticism, with a lineup that included the difficult (read unpopular) Shakespearean romances - ``Pericles,'' ``Cymbeline,'' and ``The Winter's Tale.''

Stratford ran a surplus for the first time in years (owing largely to the trimming of $1 million from the company's $14 million annual budget). Neville is seeking even greater pay dirt this season by dishing up a far more palatable spread. (It is also the summer in which Neville's contract is expected to be renegotiated.)

Indeed, ``Cabaret'' is being touted as the mainstage production this year. (Stratford, like the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, is divided among three theaters.) The musical, which is already doing extraordinarily well at the box office, is scheduled to play more performances than any other festival show.

It is directed by Brian Macdonald, the Tony-nominated director of ``The Mikado'' and creator of other past Gilbert and Sullivan hits in Stratford's Avon Theatre. One might have expected a similar magic here.

Well, old chum, come to the ``Cabaret'' - if you dare. Those who recall the original 1966 Broadway version (directed by Harold Prince and starring Joel Grey) - a revival of which is currently touring the US - or even those who don't, are in for a disappointment.

This ``Cabaret'' is ringingly sentimental (at least partly by virtue of Joe Masteroff's book), bereft of the bite and menace so intrinsic to the original and so necessary to the success of this love story set against the growing threat of Nazi Germany.

Certainly Brent Carver, as the ringleading master of ceremonies - and one of the show's few standout performances - leers and sneers with the best of them through the saucy Kit Kat Klub numbers. But on the whole, this ``Cabaret'' is more demure than decadent, more cute than campy.

Its success is sabotaged by directorial missteps and a woeful performance (miscast and misperceived) by Sheila McCarthy as Sally Bowles, the cabaret's sultry star chanteuse. Hers is a gamin-ish portrayal verging on squeaky. She is a torch singer on the scale of a match stick, hardly hot enough stuff for Cliff, her American beau, let alone the Festival Theatre's 2,000-plus-seat house.

But it is Mr. Macdonald's direction that most skews the production. His bouncy, tongue-in-cheek touch that worked so well with the doggerel fun that is Gilbert and Sullivan does not capture the underlying malevolence that is ``Cabaret.'' This is a cleaned-up ``Cabaret'' that is, nonetheless, cleaning up at the box office.

A more tenable but less interesting mainstage production is Neville's version of Brecht's ``Mother Courage.'' Neville has never cut a particularly wide swath as a director (although the opening of his ``Othello'' next Wednesday may disprove this), and ``Mother Courage'' doesn't do much to offset the impression. When Susan Wright, as Ma Courage, lumbers on stage with her proverbial wagon, one senses the onset of a long evening of textbook Brecht.

Certainly there is a clarity and intelligence to the production, but, as was true in ``Cabaret,'' there is a decided lack of bite to this political theater. Some good supporting work, though, is turned in by Kim Horsman, Brent Carver, and Anne Wright (sister of Susan Wright, in an interesting casting decision). It is Susan Wright's performance in the title role that ultimately undermines the production. Her Mother Courage is gruff no-nonsense doyenne. Despite persistent personal tragedy - the disappearance and death of her three children - she tosses away her lines with a refreshing but inappropriate breeziness. Wright's performance catches the ear but goes wrong down the road.

Far more successful work can be found tucked away on the festival's smaller Avon stage and in the intimate Third Stage. In John Wood's direction of ``The Cherry Orchard,'' the real stars are designer Ultz's striking minimalist set and English playwright Trevor Griffith's new translation of this Chekhov chestnut. Mr. Griffith has subtly shifted the play's emphasis from Madame Ranyevskaya's economic demise to the ascent of Lopakhin, the peasant-cum-bourgeois-businessman who buys her estate and decimates the totemic cherry orchard. James Blendick's skillful man-on-the-rise performance goes a long way toward cementing Griffith's fresh philosophic point.

It remains the province of Ultz's artful set - a masterly concoction suggesting empty room upon empty room upon empty room (no easy task within the traditional confines of the Avon's proscenium arch) - to capture Chekhov's traditional tristesse.

One of the play's final scenes, a sea of slowly extinguishing glowing lamps, is breathtaking in its visual power.

The brightest spot in this year's festival, however, is found in the aura surrounding director Robin Phillips. A former Stratford artistic director, Mr. Phillips has returned to head up the festival's Young Company this season.

After directing the critically acclaimed ``Cymbeline'' last year (despite its failure at the box office), Phillips is cranking out four productions. Although his mainstage version of Sheridan's ``School for Scandal'' has been described as boutique-like, his work with the apprentice actors on the Third Stage shows a snap and verve sorely missing from the rest of the festival. His ``Romeo and Juliet'' smacks somewhat of acting-school technique. But Susan Coyne's intelligent and well-reasoned performance as Juliet carries the production beyond the basics.

Some of the supporting cast is still green around the edges, but the entire ensemble crackles with directorial surety - one of the most welcome signs of a return to artistry at Stratford this season.

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