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The must-see season: A guide to summer's hottest cultural events Add to ...


By J. Kelly Nestruck

Edmonton Fringe Festival, Edmonton

Aug. 16-26

“What is your No. 1 theatre event in Canada this summer?” I asked Twitter. The most frequent response: the Edmonton Fringe. The grand-pappy of the Canadian circuit of off-the-wall urban theatre festivals officially enters its fourth decade of existence in August. And yet, at 31, the Fringe still doesn’t show any signs of being ready to settle down. Expect 180 unjuried and uncensored plays to take over Old Strathcona for this year’s “Village of the Fringed.” No specific recommendations here – as with all Fringe festival happening from Charlottetown to Victoria this summer, you've got to keep your ear to the ground ( fringetheatre.ca).

Festival TransAmériques, Montreal

May 24 to June 9

Lovers of the avant-garde (or what one colleague less charitably calls “Eurotrash theatre”) flock each year to the city that stays up until the wee hours or this three-week long festival of theatre and dance. The big name this year: Italian provocateur Romeo Castellucci, who brings On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God to the Place Des Arts – a show about a son and his incontinent father (one clean-up occurs in front of a large image of Christ). During a performance in Paris last fall, the show was disrupted by egg-throwing Christian protesters. Canadian artists with must-see, less scatalogical shows this year include Olivier Choinière ( Chante avec moi) and Emmanuel Schwartz ( Nathan) ( www.fta.qc.ca).

The Canadian Badlands Passion Play, Drumheller, Alta.

July 13 to 22

This Drumheller-based theatre company has been performing works based on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the past 19 years, but they only appeared on my radar when an actor recently forwarded me an audition notice looking for an understudy for Jesus. (Most surprising part: “Stage combat experience essential.”) A mixed professional/volunteer cast of about 200 stages the greatest story ever told in a 2,700-seat outdoor amphitheatre. Apparently the “remarkable similarity of the site to the Holy Land” adds to the experience. Certainly, it’s an original event ( canadianpassionplay.com).

Much Ado About Nothing

Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Ont.

April 26 to Oct. 27 (official opening May 28)

What would happen if the Shaw Festival did Shakespeare? We'll get an idea when former Shaw artistic director Christopher Newton directs two ex-Shaw stars in Much Ado on the Festival stage. Real-life couple Ben Carlson ( Hamlet) and Deborah Hay (Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady) engage in a “merry war” as Benedick and Beatrice, the original will-they, won't-they couple. Elsewhere, two one-man shows promise to be highlights this season: Hirsch, created by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson, tells the story of mercurial former artistic director John Hirsch; and newly minted Oscar winner Christopher Plummer takes us through a few of his favourite writings in A Word or Two ( stratfordfestival.ca).

La Belle et la Bête: A Contemporary Retelling

Luminato Festival, Toronto

June 8-12

Yes, international superstars Robert Wilson and Robert Lepage are coming to Luminato, but the below-the-radar buzz is all about this high-tech Beauty and the Beast created by Montreal-based artists Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon. After Toronto, this homegrown hit heads to Boston and Paris. In its French-language debut last year, critics were mesmerized by the interplay of live actors with virtual sets and characters – and that a year before Hologram Tupac rocked Coachella. Stratford vet Diane D’Aquila stars as The Lady, a mysterious character who narrates from the sidelines – let’s just hope her lines are translated with a little more oomph than the title was ( luminato.com).

Hedda Gabler

Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

July 25-Sept. 29

The highway between Southern Ontario’s two big theatre festivals goes both ways: Long-time Stratford star Martha Henry shows up at Shaw this year to direct Ibsen’s great play about a passionate woman who is described as a heroine, a victim and a villain from different angles. The always alluring Moya O’Connell (from last year’s sizzling Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) takes on the title role, while Shaw standbys Jim Mezon and Gray Powell support her. The festival’s mainstage this year is Bernard Shaw-free, the namesake having been forsaken for the musical Ragtime, movie-turned play His Girl Friday, and Noel Coward’s Present Laughter ( shawfest.com).

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