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To Shaw or to Shakespeare? That is the question

Ah, spring. When a theatregoer's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of Southern Ontario's festival season.

The Shaw Festival's 50th-anniversary celebrations sprouted on Thursday with the first preview performance of George Bernard Shaw's Candida, while a little northwest of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's first shoots pop up next Saturday with a sneak peak of Lerner and Loewe's Camelot.

If you must limit yourself to a single theatre trip in the region over the next seven months, the choice between Shaw and Stratford is an agonizing one, on par with Archie having to finally decide on Betty or Veronica.

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To help determine which fest is your true love - this year, anyway - we've put together a quick quiz. Add or subtract points as you go along: If you end up with a positive score, Niagara-on-the-Lake will be more to your liking; if you end up in the negative numbers, Stratford has your heart.

1. Who would you rather be, G.B. Shaw or William Shakespeare?

A. Shaw's the man for my sensitive, argumentative soul. I love an anti-vivisectionist vegetarian who enjoys long talks on the beach. (Add four points.)

B. Shakespeare! The way he gets into his characters' heads suggests he'd be a compassionate partner. He can invite me to share his second-best bed any time. (Subtract four points.)

Point breakdown: Both Shaw and Stratford are fully honouring their namesakes this season. At Shaw, Heartbreak House and Candida are on the bill. Stratford's season is four parts Bard: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Twelfth Night, Richard III and Titus Andronicus.

2. Your romantic partner surprises you with tickets to a musical. You hope it's:

A. A real classic from the golden age of musical theatre. (Add one point.)

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B. A musical with a score that acknowledges that, you know, rock happened. (Subtract two points.)

C. Something new! Just because I like musical theatre doesn't mean that I live in the past. (Add two points.)

Point breakdown: This season, both Shaw and Stratford are dipping into the oeuvre of lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe: The Shaw has My Fair Lady - based on Shaw's Pygmalion, of course; Stratford is staging Camelot. Also on the musical menu, Stratford artistic director Des McAnuff tackles Jesus Christ Superstar with stars Chilina Kennedy, Paul Nolan, and Brent Carver as Pontius Pilate. Shaw head Jackie Maxwell premieres Maria Severa, a new musical by Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli, and about the mother of Portuguese fado music.

3. Which international city is your ideal romantic theatre getaway?

A. New York. It's still a sign of success if a play has made it on Broadway. (Subtract two points.)

B. London. Broadway's been deadly for ages. The English have always owned the stage. (Subtract one point)

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C. Dublin. Most of the best English playwrights were Irish, actually. (Add three two points.)

Point breakdown: Broadway stars - homegrown or otherwise - abound at Stratford. Tony-winner Brian Dennehy and Canadian treasure Stephen Ouimette, who was recently seen in La Bête in New York, team up for Harold Pinter's The Homecoming and for Twelfth Night. What's more, Brian Bedford and Sara Topham return from their Roundabout restaging of The Importance of Being Earnest to tackle Molière's The Misanthrope. Anglophiles, meanwhile, will also be pleased not only by the preponderance of Shakespeare, but by the menacing presence of the late, Nobel-winning Pinter on the bill for the first time.

Over at the festival named after a son of Ireland, Belfast-raised Maxwell revives Lennox Robinson's Drama at Inish, a lost and rediscovered comedy first produced at Dublin's Abbey Theatre in 1933.

4. How saddened were you by Elizabeth Taylor's death?

A. I cried and cried and cried, and then donned my Cleopatra costume for a week of mourning. (Subtract three points.)

B. I've never really understood the sex appeal of Taylor. Or sex, for that matter. Can't I just be a child all my life? (Add three points.)

Point breakdown: Stratford revives Michael Tremblay's 1973 classic Hosanna, with star-in-the-making Gareth Potter playing the Liz-worshipping transvestite of the title. Meanwhile, Shaw is showing Tennessee Williams's sex-soaked Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with scorching stars Moya O'Connell standing in for Liz as Maggie, and Gray Powell as Brick; Shaw also offers noted Scottish asexual J.M. Barrie's comic fantasy The Admirable Crichton, directed by the indispensable Panych, Morris.

5. What do you think about casting women in male roles?

A. Actresses ought to have a chance to play great classical parts, regardless of the gender the roles were penned for. (Subtract four points)

B. I don't care if actresses play male or female parts, but would it kill the festivals to program a play written by a woman? (Add two points)

Point breakdown: Stratford's got the most gender bending this summer - and not just in Hosanna. Seana McKenna takes on the title role in Richard III, under the direction of Miles Potter, while Andrea Runge is in ambiguous mode playing Viola in Twelfth Night. Shaw, long a supportive home to female directors and playwrights, has the only woman-written play this summer, however: the long-awaited Canadian premiere of Suzan-Lori Parks's 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Topdog/Underdog.

6. How do you feel about Canadian-written plays?

A. I love them. We have so many underappreciated playwriting talents in this country. (Subtract three points.)

B. To be honest, I'm not a big fan of Canadian playwrights, though I suppose I could stomach a new adaptation. (Add two points.)

Point breakdown: This season, Stratford premieres a rewritten version of John Mighton's thoughtful time-warping play The Little Years as well as reviving Hosanna. At the Shaw Festival, Dora Awards dominator Michael Healey ( The Drawer Boy, Courageous) updates Bernard Shaw's provocative 1933 political satire On The Rocks.

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