Benedict Campbell and Glynnis Ranney in Mack and Mabel
(© David Cooper)
Benedict Campbell and Glynnis Ranney
in Mack and Mabel
(© David Cooper)
A Christian saint, a driven filmmaker, a half-crazed king, and a wronged Jew. This summer, many of the shows at Canada's two largest repertory theaters -- the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario -- focus on compelling individuals who change their worlds.

Among the many highlights of the Shaw Festival -- which has the theme "Matters of the Heart" -- is its namesake's play, Saint Joan, about the crusading 15th-century teenager who responded to voices she said were from God. While Joan (played by Tara Rosling) led successful military campaigns to reunite France, she was ultimately betrayed by both her monarch and her church.

"The play is about the beginning of nationalism and religious fervor and what people fight for. It's more and more pertinent each day," says artistic director Jackie Maxwell. "But it is about her heart and her spirit. Twice, they say in the play (after Joan is executed), 'Have you burned her?' 'Her heart would not burn.' "

Shaw veteran Benedict Campbell has been drawing enthusiastic reviews as the Canadian-born film director Mack Sennett in a revival of Jerry Herman's 1974 Broadway musical, Mack and Mabel, which originally starred Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters. The "heart" in this story is Sennett's love affair with both silent pictures and with his leading lady, Mabel Normand (played by Glynnis Ranney). While the score is said to be Herman's favorite, staging the musical has proved problematic over the years, notes Maxwell. "Scenes in the movies are usually done as films on a screen. Instead, our director, Molly Smith [the artistic director of Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage] and designer William Schmuck are doing those scenes live onstage; it makes the piece more cohesive and gives it a real weight," she says.

Brian Bedford in King Lear
(© David Hou)
Brian Bedford in King Lear
(© David Hou)
The festival's 10-play program also includes a restored version of an early Shaw play, The Philanderer, featuring his very pointed views on the follies of love and courtship, Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke, W. Somerset Maugham's The Circle, and Canadian writer-director Morris Panych's adaptation of George Feydeau's farce, Hotel Peccadillo. "It still has doors banging and a lot of middle-class people trying to get sex and never getting it, but it's been reset to reflect the consciousness of the age of AIDS," says Maxwell of the production.

At Stratford, where the theme is The Outsider," the mainstage offers two Shakespearean stalwarts, King Lear and The Merchant of Venice, both of which handily fit that heme: Lear, whose disastrous desire to give away his kingdom to his three daughters eventually leads him to wander literally outside in a raging storm, is being played by the veteran star Brian Bedford (who also directs the production). "Shakespeare wrote for particular actors and you can't do these plays without a particular actor in mind," says artistic director Richard Monette. "It was time for Brian to do Lear."

In Merchant, Canadian actor Graham Greene, who is of Oneida heritage, plays Shylock, the Jewish moneylender crushed in conflict with Christian society. "I offered Graham several titles and he chose Merchant. I think it's the first time a native-born actor has played a leading Shakespearean role at Stratford," says Monette. (Greene is also playing another outsider, Lennie in Of Mice and Men, later in the season.)

However, for Stratford's 200th Shakespearean production, the 54-year-old theatrical institution has chosen to mount the much lighter The Comedy of Errors, to be directed by Monette. "What you are going to see is slapstick. It's Shakespeare's only farce and there is nothing more difficult and less respected than farce, but it has a heart," he says. "Our setting is a takeoff on the library in Ephesus. When I was there recently, I saw the theater where St. Paul delivered his talks to the Ephesian people, and the play is full of quotes from St. Paul's epistle to the Ephesians."

Rounding out Stratford's Shakespearean offerings is Othello, with Philip Akin, the artistic director of Toronto's Obsidian Theatre Company, starring as the ill-fated Moor. Other shows on tap include a stage adaptation of Harper Lee's 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which examines a small Alabama town riven by the drama of a white lawyer defending a black man wrongly accused of rape, as well as Edward Albee's dysfunctional family drama A Delicate Balance and Oscar Wilde's classic comedy An Ideal Husband.

Meanwhile,the two musicals on the Stratford stage this year, Oklahoma! and My One and Only, don't quite fit the festival's theme, admits Monette. "You can't get Cinderella's shoe on every foot, and Oklahoma! is one of those major titles that will sell tickets."

Looking back on his soon-to-end 14-year tenure as artistic director -- the longest in the festival's history -- Monette says that audiences are enthusiastically responding to live theater, even in the midst of our electronic age. "Stratford is one of the few places you can meet real actors in a real room with real people watching," he says. "When I took this job, I said, 'There is nothing wrong with what Stratford is doing; it just needs a paint job.' We just needed to bring the excitement back."