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THE PLAY'S THE THING

Those who persist in thinking of the Stratford Festival as exclusively devoted to Shakespeare's work are missing out. For many years the festival has been expanding its audience by mounting musicals, comedies and other non-Shakespearean fare. It might be frivolous, dark, absurd, a work fresh from some contemporary playwright, or maybe a bit of British farce -- anything.

This year there are six Shakespeare plays ranging from the little-performed "Cymbeline," a Shakespearean soap opera if there ever was one, to the bloody "Macbeth" with its assorted ghosts and prophetizing witches. Right along with the Shakespeare -- and with the same care and attention lavished on them as on the Bard's plays -- are two terrific musicals, Frank Loesser's "Guys and Dolls" and Cole Porter's "Anything Goes."

And proving that the festival isn't just messing around with the lighter stuff, it has the great Brian Bedford, a Stratford legend, directing Michael Frayn's sex farce about a sex farce, "Noises Off."

That covers just about all tastes, except perhaps those that haven't gone much beyond "Boy's Life Adventure Stories." But wait -- that's covered as well. Alexandre Dumas' novel "The Count of Monte Cristo" is one of the magnificent adventures stories of all time (presented here in a stage adaptation by Marshall Borden). Botkins are replaced by broadswords and rapiers in this classic swashbuckler.

The festival often makes great efforts to make Shakespeare more accessible by introducing illustrative music, novel settings and extravagant staging. An extreme case this season is "A Midsummer Night's Dream." It's set in an Amazon rainforest and has actors hanging from the ceiling from bungee cords.

"Macbeth," on the other hand, is a more conventional production (and more powerful for it), except for an astonishing rendition of the "out damn spot" scene that involves a gigantic bed sheet.

I grant you that, to me, it seems a little ridiculous to come to place renown around the globe for its productions of Shakespeare and not see any. But then again, why not? This season offers an alternate theatrical experience that is potentially highly rewarding. I'm guessing that nowhere else in the world will you be able to see the same performer -- the marvelously voiced Cynthia Dale -- go from the goody-goody Sarah Brown of "Guys and Dolls" to the red-hot Reno Sweeney of "Anything Goes." And, if you time it right, you can see it happen all in the same day!

Stratford Festival

Queen's Park, Stratford, Ont.

Info: (800) 567-1600; www.stratfordfestival.ca

In the Festival Theatre: "A Midsummer Night's Dream," through Oct. 31; "Guys and Dolls," through Nov. 7; "Macbeth," through Oct. 30; "King Henry VIII (All is True)," opens Aug. 20.

In the Avon Theatre: "The Count of Monte Cristo," through Oct. 30; "Anything Goes," through Oct. 31; "Noises Off," through Oct. 30.

In the Tom Patterson Theatre: "Timon of Athens," through Sept. 25; "Cymbeline," through Sept. 25; "King John," opens Aug. 20.

In the Studio Theatre: "The Triumph of Love," through Sept. 25; "The Swanne: Queen Victoria (The Seduction of Nemesis)", opens Aug. 19; "The Elephant Song" and "The Human Voice," open Aug. 21.