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Ontario's theater festivals set the stage for entertainment

| Sunday, July 16, 2006

For cultural pilgrims in search of cosmopolitan theater in a small-town setting, the direction to head is north.

Across Canada's border, within an easy day's journey of Pittsburgh, they'll find not one, but two Ontario towns where theater is the main attraction.

The Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake is closest -- just less than 250 miles from Pittsburgh. Founded in 1962, the Shaw Festival is the second-largest repertory theater in North America and the only theater in the world that specializes in plays written by George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, plus other works from and about Shaw's lifetime (1856-1950). This season, two Shaw plays are offered in the 10-play season that runs through mid-November.

Travel another 115 miles into the Ontario interior, and you'll come to Stratford, where the Stratford Festival has operated since 1952. The largest classical repertory theater in North America, the festival originally was dedicated to performing the works of Shakespeare.

He's still prominently produced -- four of his works are included in this year's 11-play season that runs through Nov. 12. But the theater's mission has expanded to include classic European and American plays and musicals as well as some new or contemporary works by Canadian playwrights.

Both theater companies perform in revolving repertory, a system that allows insatiable theatergoers to see as many as six or seven plays within a three-day visit.

Both offer a broad range of plays from big, song-filled musicals -- such as "High Society" at the Shaw Festival and "Oliver!" or "South Pacific" at the Stratford Festival -- to smaller, more contemporary plays -- Lillian Groag's "Magic Fire" at the Shaw and "The Blonde, The Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead" at Stratford.

Even when a play is less than outstanding, the productions and performances are of the highest quality -- seldom faltering in their dedication, attention to detail and fine acting skills.

The revolving repertory system means that actors also rotate roles. A performer might appear in two plays on the same day, giving audience members a chance to see the scope and range of his or her skills. It's entirely possible for Shaw attendees to see Benedict Campbell playing John Proctor at a Festival Theatre matinee of "The Crucible," and then on the Courthouse Theatre stage that evening as Col. Tallboys in "Too True to Be Good."

Both towns are set up to accommodate theatergoers.

Niagara-on-the-Lake is more compact and devotes its downtown area almost exclusively to tourists. Most restaurants and shops line the strip of Picton/Queen Street, which runs from the Festival Theater to the Shaw Cafe. Detours from the beaten path offer nice diversions -- a pint at the pubby and historical Angel Inn, glimpses of well-tended historical houses, and flower-filled yards or sailboats skimming across Lake Ontario. If you're staying in town, once you're settled in, you'll find almost everything is within walking distance.

Stratford is larger. It's the seat for Perth County government and was once home to railroad repair shops and furniture factories. Theaters and lodging are spread around the town; you might prefer to use a car more frequently here.

But even on mid-summer weekends when traffic is high, there's enough parking available near theaters and in the downtown area that you easily can find a space.

Whether you're making your first visit or returning, planning your trip to will be easier if you start with a copy of the theaters' season brochures. In addition to plays and services offered by the companies, each thick brochure contains details on accommodations, restaurants, shops and activities in and near the towns.

Newcomers will find necessary information for booking rooms and/or meals. Veteran attendees can refresh their memories or discover new lodging and eating opportunities that have sprung up since the last visit.

Each town has a plethora of lodging choices from larger hotels to cosy bed and breakfast operations as well as a handful of motels that sit on the outskirts of the towns.

It's best to secure reservations for lodging before committing to theater tickets.

Savvy travelers reserve accommodations when they purchase tickets, often as soon as they go on sale -- as early as November for members and early January for everyone else. The more popular places fill up early.

Last-minute vacancies can turn up when tour groups release unneeded rooms, but don't count on it. However, if you're willing to be flexible you can almost always find somewhere suitable to stay through the accommodation services available in both towns:

  • For accommodations near the Shaw Festival, try www.niagaraonthelake.com or niagarabedandbreakfasts.com .

  • For accommodations near the Stratford Festival, try www.stratfordfestival.ca or www.sabba.ca .

    It's not a bad idea to secure restaurant reservations ahead, too, especially if you have a favorite place in mind.

    And even though the play's the thing that draws visitors, reserve a little down time to spend and the orchards, wineries and vineyards, art galleries, historical sites and other activities that each area offers.

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