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Theatre & Performance A brand-new theatre, Colm Feore and Spamalot: How the Stratford Festival reboots in 2020

Colm Feore, pictured at the new Tom Patterson Theatre Centre, will play Richard III at the Stratford Festival in 2020.

Chris Young/Handout

The Stratford Festival will open its brand new, $70-million theatre complex next season with a glance over the shoulder – and an eye on the future.

In the spring of 2020, acclaimed actor Colm Feore will step onto the stage of the new 600-seat Tom Patterson Theatre to speak the same words Alec Guinness did to inaugurate the Stratford, Ont., repertory theatre festival in 1953: “Now is the winter of our discontent ...”

Richard III, starring Feore and directed by Stratford’s artistic director Antoni Cimolino, will play alongside a Scott Wentworth-directed production of All’s Well That Ends Well, the other play from Stratford’s inaugural season, in the Tom Patterson, in addition to three world premieres of Canadian shows.

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“I wanted to both build on the foundation of the past when we open up this new space and also look to new work,” Cimolino said in an interview ahead of Tuesday’s announcement.

Here’s What It Takes, a long-in-development musical about a band breaking up, with songs by former Barenaked Ladies frontman Steven Page and script by Siminovitch-winning playwright Daniel MacIvor, will have its world premiere in a production directed and choreographed by Donna Feore.

Well-known Canadian playwright Morris Panych will premiere the latest of his movement-based adaptations of classic books and short stories: Frankenstein Revived.

And improviser Rebecca Northan will present An Undiscovered Shakespeare – a new “spontaneous theatre” creation that will see a cast make up a play by the Bard on the spot based on audience stories.

This last show is perhaps the most significant as it will play in a brand-new 200-seat cabaret space called Lazaridis Hall in the larger Tom Patterson complex, and will be performed at unusual hours: 2 p.m. on certain days, 8 p.m. on others and at 11 p.m., a slot usually past the festival’s bedtime.

With the Tom Patterson, the festival will finally have a dedicated morning-to-night centre for its forum events and lectures, as well as late-night concerts and cabarets and after-show drinks overlooking the Avon River.

“We never really had public spaces, because I think the idea was you open the doors [after a show] and you go onto the grass,” Cimolino said. “But we need a spot where people can congregate, find out what’s going. … It takes an investment of time to come to Stratford, so you want a very rich environment.”

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While the focus will be on its new building next year, the 2020 season will be the largest of Cimolino’s tenure as artistic director, with 15 shows in total.

The Festival Theatre, the biggest of the repertory theatre company’s venues, will feature two more Shakespeare plays: Hamlet, directed by acclaimed Toronto director Peter Pasyk in his Stratford debut; and Much Ado About Nothing, to be directed by the festival’s critical darling, Chris Abraham, who has enlisted playwright Erin Shields (Paradise Lost) to augment the evening in a yet-to-be-revealed way.

The Stratford Festival has also received permission for Donna Feore to direct and choreograph a new Festival Theatre production of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Chicago – which has been running in a revival on Broadway since 1996.

Rounding out the Festival Theatre programming will be Cimolino’s production of Molière’s The Miser in a version by Ranjit Bolt (the Brit responsible for the translation of Tartuffe used in a 2017 hit production).

Meanwhile, in the Studio Theatre, the smallest but often most exciting of the venues, Tomson Highway’s modern classic The Rez Sisters will be mounted – only the second time an Indigenous playwright has been produced at the Stratford Festival. Jessica Carmichael, former artistic director of Carousel Players, is set to direct.

Diana Leblanc will direct Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women in the Studio, while Alisa Palmer will direct a new play there set at a student matinee of Hamlet called Hamlet-911 by Ann-Marie MacDonald, playwright of another Shakespeare-inspired Canadian classic, Good Night Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet).

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Cimolino confirms this latter play is the final version of a project that was originally to include music from the band Stars and its lead singer and songwriter Torquil Campbell: “There was beautiful music in it from Stars, but we never managed to fully integrate music into the piece; it always felt like it was a play.”

Over at the Avon Theatre, director Keira Loughran will tackle the North American premiere of Ella Hickson’s Wendy and Peter Pan, adapted from the book by J.M. Barrie; Ted Witzel and Geraint Wyn Davies will co-direct the first part of Mike Poulton’s stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall; and director Lezlie Wade will direct Spamalot.

Yes, Spamalot. While there will be many aspects of this mostly enticing 2020 season that will be debated – the nostalgic aspect of the Patterson programming; the lack of women directing Shakespeare; a classics-for-dummies line-up limited to Shakespeare and Molière; and a Hamlet programmed, once again, out of duty rather than with a lead performer in mind – including the revival of a Broadway musical that self-describes as “lovingly ripped off from the motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail” on the bill will be the most contentious.

This is the second year in a row that Stratford will be putting on a musical that has been done, within a five-year time span, by nearby Drayton Entertainment, which, unlike Stratford, does not receive operating funding from the Canada Council. Would you ever see Spamalot at some of Stratford’s world-class repertory colleagues such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre or even The Chichester Festival?

“I think it’s going to be a lot of fun,” Cimolino said. “We aren’t a museum. We are a great theatre experience festival that should have a real variety of experiences.”

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