The spring runoff may still be under way, but the Shaw Festival and the Stratford Festival, Ontario’s two big destination theatres, are already off and running.
Shaw, located in historic Niagara-on-the-Lake, got a head start on its repertory season on April 1 with the first performance of Prince Caspian, its latest stage adaptation of a classic C.S. Lewis story set in Narnia.
Stratford, named after the charming cultural city where it is situated, will follow close on its frenemy’s heels on April 8 with its first performance of Rent, the resilient Jonathan Larson rock musical.
Last year saw theatre-lovers return to Shaw and Stratford at about two-thirds of prepandemic levels, and both companies kept their balance sheet clean thanks, in particular, to many millions in funds from a federal support program.
With no new financial aid on the horizon, the festivals, which run in rep into the fall, are aiming to lure back audiences en masse with packed playbills for 2023.
Stratford has 13 shows on offer – the most since 2017 – plus a rich accompaniment of events and performances that are part of its Meighen Forum. Shaw, meanwhile, has 10 indoor shows this summer, augmented by two more staged in a new spiegeltent and a variety of other outdoor programming.
To help you sort through those schedules, here are four slightly under-the-radar shows that seem worth betting on this season (beyond the one where they sing Seasons of Love).
Much Ado About Nothing in the Festival Theatre
IN PREVIEWS FROM MAY 29; RUNS JUNE 16 TO OCT. 27
There’s Shakespeare to suit many tastes in Stratford this year, from a King Lear starring Paul Gross that’s going to pull in the crowds to a Richard II adapted by provocative playwright Brad Fraser that is certain to start conversations.
But be sure not to miss out on this much delayed Much Ado, directed by Chris Abraham, and with Graham Abbey and Maev Beaty paired as Benedick and Beatrice. These are actors with both classical and comedic chops who are at the top of their game, matched with a director who rarely disappoints.
Grand Magic in the Tom Patterson Theatre
IN PREVIEWS FROM MAY 6; RUNS JUNE 3 TO SEPT. 29
Stratford artistic director Antoni Cimolino has been Eduardo de Filippo’s greatest champion in North America, mostly recently directing a memorable production of the major 20th-century Italian playwright’s comedy Napoli Milionaria! This staging of Grand Magic – with a new translation by the late John Murrell and Donato Santeramo – promises to be just as funny and moving. It centres on a master illusionist named Otto Marvuglia (Geraint Wyn Davies) now performing at a seaside resort.
Casey and Diana in the Studio Theatre
IN PREVIEWS FROM MAY 23; RUNS JUNE 1 TO JUNE 17
This year the festival is programming plays in its Studio Theatre for short, straight runs, so be careful: Blink and you’ll miss these smaller shows that are often a highlight of the season. This promising-sounding new play by Dora-winner Nick Green sees Casey House, a Toronto AIDS hospice, getting ready for a 1991 visit by Diana, Princess of Wales (played by the equally charismatic Krystin Pellerin).
Wedding Band in the Tom Patterson Theatre
IN PREVIEWS FROM JUNE 20; RUNS JULY 14 TO OCT. 1
There’s been a massive revival of interest in Alice Childress over the past few years, with Trouble in Mind – her long-neglected, ahead-of-its-time 1955 race-inflected rehearsal-room drama – performed across North America of late (including in fine form at the Shaw Festival in 2021).
Wedding Band, the groundbreaking Black playwright’s 1962 drama about an interracial relationship in the time of anti-miscegenation laws in the United States, just (re)won over New York critics with a recent Theatre for a New Audience revival. Sam White, founding artistic director of Shakespeare in Detroit, is coming up to direct its Stratford premiere.
On The Razzle in the Royal George Theatre
IN PREVIEWS FROM APRIL 16; RUNS MAY 25 TO OCT. 8
Tom Stoppard’s never really gone out of style, but the extent of his enduring popularity is particularly evident at the moment with his latest hit, Leopoldstadt, proving that the pandemic didn’t kill plays on Broadway.
Stoppard completists will be flocking from across North America to see On the Razzle, his rarely produced pun-filled 1981 farce about two shop assistants who go out for a night on the town. If the plot twigs, it’s because it’s adapted from an Austrian play that is also the source of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker and the musical Hello, Dolly!
The Playboy of the Western World in the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre
IN PREVIEWS FROM MAY 25; RUNS JUNE 23 to OCT. 7
An Irishman walks into a bar announcing that he’s killed his father …
Jackie Maxwell, former artistic director, is coming back to the intimate theatre space now named after her to direct this 1907 comedy by J.M. Synge – one which famously sparked a riot at its premiere in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, and subsequently at productions in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Synge’s influence has been long-lasting, extending to, for instance, the Oscar-nominated film The Banshees of Inisherin – the riot-free reception of which shows that Irish folks, diaspora included, are more chill about representation in dark comedies these days.
The Amen Corner in the Festival Theatre
IN PREVIEWS FROM JULY 30; RUNS AUG. 17 TO OCT. 8
James Baldwin is best known for his essays, novels and stylish public persona – but he wrote a pair of plays, too. The Amen Corner, his 1954 drama full “of cantankerous characters and operatic emotions,” per a review of a recent revival in The Washington Post, is set in an evangelical church in Harlem and the apartment of its pastor, Sister Margaret Alexander. It made two short appearance on Broadway: as a play in 1965, and as a musical adaptation in 1983. The Shaw Festival’s Kimberley Rampersad is splitting the difference, incorporating a gospel choir directed by Jeremiah Sparks into her production.
The Clearing in the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre
IN PREVIEWS FORM AUG. 3; RUNS AUG. 18 TO OCT. 6
Shaw artistic director Tim Carroll likes to throw audiences a curve ball every so often. This year its this 1993 play by Helen Edmundson that concerns an English-Irish mixed marriage at the time of Oliver Cromwell’s ethnic cleansing campaign against Irish Catholics. Two reasons to see it: It’s directed by Jessica Carmichael, who knocked it out of the park with The Rez Sisters at the Stratford Festival two years back, and the cast includes festival-circuit favourite Tom Rooney.