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Antoni Cimolino, Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

The Stratford Festival is returning to full force next season for the first time since COVID-19 knocked it off course – with a rich, 13-play lineup that features several productions that look back on the early decades of another global pandemic that has had a profound and heartbreaking effects on the world, and the world of theatre.

Rent, Jonathan Larson’s popular Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical set in 1990s New York and an artistic community hard hit by HIV/AIDS, will light a candle for those lost on the Festival Stage, while Shakespeare’s Richard II, in an adaptation relocated to the late 1970s and early 1980s by the groundbreaking Canadian gay playwright Brad Fraser (Poor Super Man), will get pride of place in the glittering new Tom Patterson Theatre.

Then there is Casey and Diana, a brand-new work by Dora-winning playwright Nick Green about the visit by Diana, Princess of Wales, to Toronto’s Casey House, a hospice for people living with HIV, in 1991. It will premiere in the Studio Theatre and be directed by Andrew Kushnir.

In an interview, artistic director Antoni Cimolino said the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic – the fear and lack of understanding, the stigma that affected certain groups – brought back the events decades earlier for himself as so many others in the theatre community, who watched so many friends and colleagues, primarily gay men and others in the queer community, become sick and die of AIDS.

While Casey and Diana was in development before the coronavirus pandemic, Cimolino said Green’s play had matured over the past years because of a renewed understanding of the weight of caregiving. “The cost that’s there for people caring for the afflicted, the people caring for the people who might in turn make them sick, was really deepened,” says Cimolino, whose official theme for next season is “Duty vs. Desire.”

On Stratford’s Festival Theatre stage in 2023, pandemics will be not only be represented in Rent, which will be directed by Thom Allison, but referenced subtextually by King Lear, the great tragedy that, because of an early COVID-19 meme, now everyone believes Shakespeare wrote during a plague. Kimberley Rampersad, associate director of the Shaw Festival in Ontario, is set to direct.

Also filling the famed thrust stage next season will be Crow’s Theatre artistic director Chris Abraham’s production of Much Ado About Nothing (postponed from the COVID-cancelled 2020 season) and Michel Tremblay’s Quebecois classic Les Belles-Soeurs, to be directed by Esther Jun.

Les Belles-Soeurs is the first Canadian-penned play that is not an adaption to be staged on the main stage in a very long time; according to Cimolino, the last was Donald Jack’s The Canvas Barricade (which won a new play contest run by The Globe and Mail and the Stratford Festival) all the way back in 1961.

That’s a decision that suggests a new fluidity to what programming lands where in the wake of the opening of the gorgeous, but more intimate Tom Patterson Theatre this season. Indeed, its elongated thrust will feature less Shakespeare than its inaugural (and continuing) season next year.

Aside from Richard II, which will be directed by former NAC English Theatre leader Jillian Keiley, the Tom Patterson will see Cimolino return to the great Italian playwright Eduardo De Filippo for the third time in his Stratford career with Grand Magic, described as a play about a “once master illusionist, reduced to performing magic for money at a seaside resort.” (As with 2018′s Napoli Milionaria!, the De Filippo play is being presented in a translation by John Murrell, who completed it not long before his death in 2019.)

And, rounding out the bill there, Sam White, founder of Shakespeare in Detroit, will direct Alice Childress’s 1962, rarely staged Wedding Band, a story of interracial love in South Carolina in the wake of the First World War and the flu epidemic of 1918. Childress, a Black American playwright who died in 1994, is riding a new wave of popularity – with her play Trouble in Mind getting its overdue debut this season on Broadway (and being seen, the season before, at the Shaw Festival).

While the Stratford Festival returned to presenting shows in all its indoor theatres this season, it did not run a full slate at the Avon Theatre. Next year, it will again – with a family-aimed adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle beloved sci-fi/fantasy classic A Wrinkle in Time (written and directed by Thomas Morgan Jones) joined by two productions that were originally programmed for 2020.

They are Monty Python’s Spamalot, a Broadway musical based on classic comedy IP which will be directed by Lezlie Wade and choreographed by Jesse Robb, and Frankenstein: Revived, a new work from playwright Morris Panych in the vein of his movement pieces The Overcoat and Moby Dick that he will direct and that will be choreographed by Wendy Gorling and Stephen Cota.

Stratford’s Studio Theatre will be home to not just the world premiere of Casey and Diana (which promises to erase theatrical memories of the 2021 Broadway flop Diana: The Musical), but a new production of Frances Koncan’s satirical Women of the Fur Trade directed by Yvette Nolan, and a Love’s Labour’s Lost directed by Peter Pasyk that will once again be used as a Shakespearean showcase for the young(er) talents in the festival’s Birmingham Conservatory.

Casting – who’s playing Lear, who’s going to play Diana? – is still being locked down and will be announced separately this fall. Tickets for the Stratford Festival 2023 season go on sale Nov. 6 (for members of the festival) and Dec. 12 for everyone else.

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