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Stratford Festival

Selecting at Stratford

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Assume you can manage one night at this summer's Stratford Festival. Even then, it will be costly — B&B's, the good restaurants, and tickets have risen dramatically in recent years. But if you're willing to set the alarm for an ungodly hour to make the four-plus-hour drive in time, you can complete a four-play marathon. The information you need is in the booklet available at the festival website. Now for the harder and more important matter of choosing the plays.

That depends on how well you know Shakespeare. It's madness (and maddening) to drive all that way and never see plays by, inarguably, the greatest of all writers in the English language. Never seen "Romeo and Juliet" (Festival Theatre, through October 19)? Then watch one of the most human of all romances, but be sure to give some attention to the other love stories in the text. The curtain rises on the threat of a rape, played for comedy, and moves on to the Capulets' soured marriage and the Nurse's earthy memories. This production looks to be more-or-less traditional so you'll get Shakespeare's play rather than some director's "vision."

It's reasonable to choose a second play by Shakespeare among your four, probably "Othello" (Avon Theatre, August 4-October 19) or "The Merchant of Venice" (Festival Theatre, July 30-October 18). Both address questions of prejudice, one racial and the other religious. Iago, Othello's closest friend and advisor, also turns the play into a study of blinding evil that succeeds, not only because of Iago's brilliance, but because of Othello's flawed greatness. It is a towering play and a great tragedy.

Shakespeare uses one of his old tricks in "Merchant" — he makes a secondary character by far the most interesting. I never found Antonio (the floundering merchant in the title) or Portia (his clever beloved) especially appealing, but Shylock, the usurer they set out to destroy because he's a Jew, brings a level of humanity — a combination of paternal affection, defensiveness, adaptability, and rage — that heats one of Shakespeare's most ponderous plays (at least I think so) until it boils over with life.

For the experienced Shakespeare hands, "Measure for Measure" (Tom Patterson Theatre, through September 21) is a dark play you won't often get to see. It is unsettlingly cynical in its examination of the limits of virtue — because the characters are imperfect and because the most virtuous among them comes closest to doing the greatest harm. It has little poetry but it makes a great deal of trouble for characters who are not easy to like. Most important is Angelo, a character who admires his own rigid virtue but succumbs without hesitation to lust and vengeance he cannot resist.

I assume you're looking for variety for the other two plays you'll see. Here are three to choose from: "Fiddler on the Roof" (Festival Theatre, through October 20), "Blithe Spirit" (Avon Theatre, through October 20), and "The Three Musketeers" (Festival Theatre, through October 19). If you've never seen "Fiddler" except as a plodding movie weighed down by Topol as Tevya, then I suggest moving it to the top of your list. Dating from the mid-60's, it shows us the "concept musical" taking form. Its irresistible score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick begins with the announcement and formation of the concept. "That I can tell you in one word," Tevya proclaims, "Tradition!" The line leads to one of the musical theater's great opening numbers.

Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" is territory usually marked out by the Shaw Festival, but Stratford has been poaching for several years now and sometimes outdoing Shaw at its own game. A novelist hires a medium to conduct a séance, but she inadvertently calls back the ghost of his dead wife. When some people can see her and some people can't, the comedy is out of the bag. Almost any play that stars Ben Carlson and Seana McKenna is worth seeing.

Every now and then, the Festival loves to take a flamboyant story and turn it into a romp of a play. There is no yarn more flamboyant than Alexandre Dumas' "The Three Musketeers," commissioned by Stratford in 1968 and staged this summer for the fourth time since then. D'Artagnan and the gang are already buckling their swashes. Your kids will love it and so will you; just check your skepticism at the door.

I'd be happy to see any of these plays, but if I could manage a second night, I'd consider for my two add-ons Samuel Beckett's absurdist "Waiting for Godot" (Tom Patterson Theatre, June 13-September 20), along with John Murrell's "Taking Shakespeare" (Studio Theatre, July 13-September 22) and Friedrich Schiller's "Mary Stuart," adapted by Peter Oswald (Tom Patterson Theatre, through September 21). "Godot" folds open with greater depths of wit and heart each time I see the ultimately moving story of two rootless men who survive each day by doing what they do because they do it. If you've never seen the play, you'll understand the previous sentence after you do. Don't be put off; it's ultimately as funny as it is heartrending.

"Taking Shakespeare" is a small play in which a jaded professor tutors a foundering freshman who happens to be the son of the university president. It could easily be banal — I haven't seen it — but it stars Martha Henry as the tutor. For anyone who cares about acting, that should be all you need to know.

The fight literally to the death between Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I is one of history's great dramas. One is Catholic, the other Protestant, but the struggle is also for rule and reign, and the power that comes with them. Both women were intelligent, shrewd, and ruthless, but intrigue and betrayal are everywhere. It sounds as if it will crackle, especially with Seana McKenna as Elizabeth, Lucy Peacock as Mary, and Ben Carlson, Brian Dennehy, Geraint Wyn Davies, James Blendick, Patricia Collins, and Brian Tree in other parts. It's hard to imagine a more superb cast in anything.

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