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Antoni Cimolino, artistic director of the Stratford Festival, unveiled a six-play, five-cabaret playbill for the festival's summer season.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

Despite Ontario being on a so-called “emergency brake” lockdown, the Stratford Festival is going full-speed ahead toward the summer, announcing a comeback season to be presented under custom-made canopies starting in late June.

Thank goodness for that. Artistic director Antoni Cimolino’s unveiling of a six-play, five-cabaret playbill provides much-needed hope for the province’s ravaged theatre industry less than a week after performing arts centres were shut down again, in some places for a fourth time this pandemic, because of a third wave of COVID-19.

“We believe we will eventually be able to get plays on the stage this summer,” Cimolino told The Globe and Mail in an interview in advance of Thursday’s announcement.

“We all need something to look forward to, and I can’t tell you how good it feels to be planning a season, even if it ends up being changed slightly.”

As with the festival’s inaugural season, held in a tent in 1953, there will be just two plays by William Shakespeare presented by the destination theatre company in Stratford, Ont., this year.

Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a tragedy and a comedy about young lovers kept apart by their elders respectively, both share a source in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Cimolino notes. “Vibrant change as a response to enforced isolation at the heart of our season,” he says.

R + J, as the first production will be styled, will be directed by Ravi Jain and produced in collaboration with the Why Not Theatre company under a canopy installed on the outdoor terrace at the Festival Theatre. As with the rest of the programming, the cast has been capped at eight performers, the play’s running length at around 90 minutes and audiences at 100, spread out in physically distanced pods of one to four individuals.

R+J, starring Dante Jemmott as Romeo, Eponine Lee as Juliet, Alex Bulmer as the Friar and festival favourite Tom Rooney as the Nurse, is billed as “intended for blind, low-vision and sighted audiences alike.” It promises to theatrically explore the idea of love being blind that Mercutio cites in the show. (With Why Not, Jain previously directed a notable Hamlet that centred on Horatio, played by deaf actor Dawn Jani Birley.)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be helmed by Peter Pasyk, another director due for his Stratford debut, and has a cast that includes top-tier theatrical André Sills as Bottom. The dream-like, streamlined production will be presented in a canopy set up behind the new Tom Patterson Theatre, a $63-million building completed last year that will have to continue to wait for its official opening.

Two shows with small casts that were to be a part of the cancelled 2020 season have been resurrected for 2021.

The Rez Sisters, a modern classic by Tomson Highway, will be directed by Jessica Carmichael, with well-known Indigenous actors such as Jani Lauzon, Nicole Joy-Fraser and Michaela Washburn in the cast.

According to Cimolino, Highway was happy to hear that his play would be presented under canvas, saying, “I love tents, I was born in a tent!” (The 69-year-old Cree playwright was, indeed, born on his father’s trap-line in Northern Manitoba.)

Also originally scheduled for 2020, Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women will be presented in two parts, as two separate performances scheduled to be seen on the same day. It is slightly too long a play to be done in 90 minutes as the rest of the shows will, in staggered performances set to start at 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Martha Henry, the veteran Stratford star, is still on board to perform in this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama alongside Lucy Peacock, Mamie Zwettler and Andrew Iles, under the direction of Diana Leblanc. “Martha got her first dose of, I think, Pfizer mid-March, so well before she begins rehearsals, she will have got her second,” Cimolino says. “There are perks to being over 80.”

The final 2021 shows are I Am William, a play for young audiences by Quebec rising star Rébecca Déraspe that imagines the life of William Shakespeare’s sister, Margaret; and Serving Elizabeth, a play by Marcia Johnson set during the Queen’s visit to Kenya in 1952, and among screenwriters in England in 2015 writing a TV series about the Royal Family.

Esther Jun, former assistant artistic director at Tarragon Theatre, and Kimberley Rampersad, associate artistic director of the Shaw Festival, will direct those two, respectively.

Cimolino will not direct a production this year, and cites his desire for Stratford to provide as much employment as possible despite its current reduced circumstances (and record-size deficit). He also hints at the need for a multitude of directors to show their stuff at Stratford before he, likely, leaves as artistic director at the end of his contract in 2024 and the board of governors considers possible successors.

In the place of musical theatre, the Stratford Festival will premiere five cabarets with high-profile performers lined-up including Beau Dixon (Passing Strange), Sara Farb (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), Robert Markus (Dear Evan Hansen) and Vanessa Sears (Caroline, or Change).

As with the plays, each cabaret with have its own cast. This will be Stratford’s first season in stock (with different actors for every show) rather than in repertory (with casts shared between shows). It’s being done to reduce the risk of contagion, and so that rehearsals can be speedier than usual. In anticipation of the third wave, Cimolino set a start for rehearsals in late May, and strict COVID-19 protocols have been developed for all the theatre’s inward- and outward-facing activities.

Tickets for 2021 are not yet on sale – and will be difficult to obtain when they are. Stratford Festival members and those who donated the value of their 2020 tickets or put the value on account will have priority access on May 24, before sales to the public begin on June 4. But, for the first time, Stratford’s season will also be accessible in digital form to those who can’t get tickets or don’t want to travel through “paid viewing parties” online, details of which will be announced in the summer.

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