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Ontario's Vintage Theatre Festivals 

Now that the SARS scare is yesterday's news, you can resume considering Canada as a summer vacation destination. My wife and I did that last month when the paralyzing E-word still dominated the front pages. After a week in Minnesota's Twin Cities attending an annual conference of the American Theatre Critics Association, we saw that the "epidemic" in Toronto was contained and bravely crossed the border.

Sampling the summer theatre festivals of Ontario is an intoxicating pleasure, like tasting the vintage fruit of the region's renowned vineyards. There's no language barrier, the beauty of the facilities is surpassed by the quaint villages where they stand, and the exchange rate on the Canadian dollar is license to steal.

The Stratford Festival of Canada and the Shaw Festival, at Niagara-on-the-Lake, are two of the biggest theatre festivals in North America. Both festivals are partial to the classics but audience-friendly at the same time. This year's lineup is particularly tempting. The Stratford and the Shaw reached full throttle late in May. Then a new event sprang up in Ottawa, a funky Magnetic North Theatre Festival, celebrating contemporary Canadian pieces in the capital city.

Amid the SARS scare, Ontario has put forth an extra effort to make Americans feel at home. Through September, the 5% Provincial Room Tax has been waived. Unfortunately, in tightening their budget to attract tourists, Ontario legislators neglected to set aside sufficient funding to publicize their warm generosity. Tourism continues to lag, with ticket sales down 11% at the Shaw through June 25. With the WHO's all-clear, business will hopefully improve.

As seasoned travelers to Canada already know, you can also get a rebate on the 7% tax on goods and services when you return to the American border. It applies strictly to purchases of $50 or more, and there's no rebate on your restaurant tab. Still after our seven nights in Canada, my wife and I harvested more than $89 by holding onto our bookstore, clothing, and lodging receipts.

We saw 11 of the 19 shows that were up at Stratford and at the Shaw. With that much already on our plates, we scrapped plans to see three of the 11 pieces showcased in Ottawa between June 11 and June 21. That left us with more energy for shopping and sightseeing. Particularly at the Shaw, which is a scant 35 minutes from Niagara Falls even in the thick of Sunday traffic you don't want to neglect the landscape.

We also expedited our return to the States by taking the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge off the Niagara Parkway. Even with the questioning from the border guard, we zipped through in less time than we spent at most of the tollbooths in Illinois and Indiana.

How did we get so smart so quickly? Well, you get a nice head start if you consult the festival websites for places to stay. Then at the bed & breakfasts we chose, our hostess in Stratford and our host in Niagara-on-the-Lake took care of reservations at the best local restaurants and guided our day trips. While we found travel times from to be questionable at times, their directions were flawless for our Canadian travels if you don't mind dealing with kilometers.

Stratford Festival of Canada

On July 13, it will be exactly 50 years since Alec Guinness, under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie, launched a new chapter in Canadian stage history by uttering the first words of Richard III: "Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this son of York." At its inception, Stratford was an exclusively Shakespearean festival with a six-week season designed to infuse new tourist dollars into a town economy crippled by the withdrawal of the railroad industry.

Today the Stratford has expanded beyond Shakespeare and the glorious summer, running from early April through November 9 and claiming to be the largest theatre festival in North America. With four fine performing spaces capable of cranking out two different shows a day, Stratford dishes out a wide repertoire 16 shows this year ranging from the grim Agamemnon to the bubbly Gigi.

Studio Theatre In its second year of operation, this intimate 260-seat space is in the grip of an exciting concept. They're doing a special "House of Atreus Series" sort of an Oresteia with a French twist. Beginning the cycle with Ted Hughes' translation of Aeschylus, the series skips merrily ahead to Jean Giraudoux's Electra and Jean-Paul Sartre's The Flies.

I couldn't resist a preview peep at the Agamemnon a full 10 days before the series officially opened. The Studio's arena configuration and amphitheatre simplicity are ideal for Greek tragedy. Although three different stage directors guide the ensemble, Wendy Greenwood is the constant lighting designer while Lorenzo Savoini handles the sets. Agamemnon was enough to convince me that Savoini and Greenwood are a simpatico team.

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