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A mind-blowing season at the Stratford Festival

STRATFORD, Ont. – Antoni Cimolino, artistic director of the Stratford Festival, home to North America’s largest classical theater company, has built his 2014 season of a dozen plays around themes of madness, “minds pushed to the edge” over love, family, power, war, desire and money.” Tall order but not impossible when considering Cimolino’s lineup of dreamers, itinerants, schemers and crazies. A listing:

• Five works by William Shakespeare dot the May-through-October calendar: “King Lear” and “King John” – the latter a surprising early-season hit – “Antony and Cleopatra” and two versions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” One is an over-the-top, contemporary adaptation directed by Chris Abraham, the other, a “chamber piece” directed by the iconic Peter Sellars.

• Two musicals in revival: “Man of La Mancha” and the Gershwins’ “Crazy for You.”

• A fantastical “Alice Through the Looking-Glass,” Sir Noel Coward’s 1925 “trifle,” “Hay Fever,” and a world premiere, Michel Marc Bouchard’s “Christina the Girl King.”

• Bertolt Brecht’s sprawling, fascinating “Mother Courage and Her Children.”

• Finally, the late July opening of “The Beaux’ Stratagem” by George Farquhar.

Here is a quick look at five plays currently playing at three Stratford venues:

"King Lear," by William Shakespeare. Festival Theatre through Oct. 10. 4 stars

Colm Feore, one of our time’s finest classical actors, is superb as the mad monarch Lear in this darkest of Shakespearean tragedies. A realm in rift, a family in ruins, treachery and worse unleashed by hubris and haughtiness – “Pride goeth before a fall” never so true.” – Lear responsible for his actions and paying for his impetuousness mightily before rediscovering his compassionate humanity much too late.

With a kingdom in disarray, murder and torture afoot, civility out of synch and inhumanity the watchword, nature’s fury is unleashed – lightning, thunder, an eclipse – angry and violent storms that force Lear and others to look into their hearts and souls as their world turns upside down.

Feore is a younger Lear – which has spawned forums around Stratford on early-onset dementia – but he is marvelously effective in his disintegration, a wandering, occasionally lucid child in late play. He had earlier asked his muse, The Fool, “Who am I?” “Lear’s shadow,” came the reply. It’s a career role for Feore; memorably played. Also featured are Stephen Ouimette, Scott Wentworth, Sara Farb – as the loyal Cordelia – and Mike Shara, familiar to Shaw Fest and Irish Classical Theatre audiences, as the sadistic Cornwall.

Festival leader Cimolino directs. In his hands, this “King Lear” remains a masterpiece.

“Crazy for You,” music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, with a book by Ken Ludwig. Festival Theatre through Oct. 12. 4 stars

Josh Franklin as Bobby Child and Natalie Daradich as Polly Baker in "Crazy for You." Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Josh Franklin as Bobby Child and Natalie Daradich as Polly Baker in "Crazy for You." Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

High-energy, nonstop toe-tapping production based on the vintage “Girl Crazy” and sprinkled with Gershwin melodies from six other shows.

Josh Franklin – a genuine song and dance man – and pert Natalie Daradich star, but there are many others to watch and enjoy, including the rubbery Tom Rooney and the oozing-talent Robin Hutton. Not to mention an awe-inspiring dancing ensemble, Follies Girls and Cowboys from the unlikely show-biz haven of Deadrock, Nev., where star-struck Bobby Child and the feisty Polly Baker band together to “put on a show!” And how.

Wonderful songs help them: “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm,” They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “But Not For Me,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and a dozen others, lesser Gershwin but great fun. “Rhythmic tonic for the chronic blues,” says it all for “Crazy for You.”

"Mother Courage and her Children," by Bertolt Brecht. Tom Patterson Theatre through Sept. 21. 3.5 stars

A gray, acid-tongued, profane and often humorous antiwar epic by Bertolt Brecht. It features Seana McKenna in the title role and a large acting ensemble that includes the estimable Geraint Wyn Davies and Ben Carlson.

Lifetime Marxist Brecht used the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) as a backdrop for a seller of essentials – belts, brandy, bandages. Anna Fierling, aka “Mother Courage,” is an opportunistic vendor who pulls her wagon over ravaged European lands, three children in tow, changing sides as needed, surviving, wheeling and dealing. A “hyena of the battlefield,” someone called her. Mother hated peace, loved her profiteer status.

Brecht uses her to denounce modern reasons for warfare; he wrote this play when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. The late Brecht hated the 20th century; he would surely be livid about the 21st. There are songs here, quirkily ironic ones in this streamlined translation by David Edgar. McKenna is brilliant, owning the stage. Festival doyenne Martha Henry directs.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream," by Shakespeare. Festival Theatre through Oct. 11. 3 stars

Shakespeare purists beware if you choose to see this often immature, given-to-excess “Dream,” adapted to attract young audiences but succeeding in aggravating their elders. It is fresh, feathery and funny, a gender-bending romp, flower-bedecked and overdone. Yet with its eclectic score (Bruno Mars, John Fogerty, Henry Purcell), males playing females and vice versa, a food fight and other inanities, there are surprises and entertaining moments.

The production polarizes; you’ll love it or hate it. There’s a huge cast, including a cadre of terrific, elementary-aged kids – cute, disciplined and vital.

"Hay Fever," by Sir Noel Coward. Avon Theatre through Oct. 11. 2.5 stars

Playwright Coward used real-life actress Laurette Taylor as the model for Judith Bliss in “Hay Fever,” a play that he wrote in three days – with no editing, he said. Alisa Palmer directs the story. A hyperactive, nauseating, self-absorbed family – led by theatrical Dame Judith who is always “on” – invites a variety of house guests and proceeds to embarrass and denigrate them. It’s all in great fun, of course. ,

Actress Taylor was forever miffed at Coward after “Hay Fever” bowed for suggesting that the family sometimes inadvertently behaved badly. “We never did anything unintentionally rude,” Taylor boasted. Festival favorite Lucy Peacock stars. The play is supremely well acted, the set is a wonder, the recurring jokes infantile.

Madness prevails at Stratford 2014. All in all, a thoughtful and stellar season.

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