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STRATFORD, Ont. – The Stratford Festival has boldly premiered three new works for its July round of openings _ but with mixed results.One, a potentially exciting musical about Klondike poet Robert W. Service, is a damp disappointment. Another reveals a fine Canadian playwright merely marking time.  The third offering, a one-man show called Hirsch, is a triumph.

Yet, how many theatergoers will even recognize the name of Canadian theatre icon John Hirsch? Well, even if they don`t they`ll quickly realize they`re in the presence of an arresting personality _ the sort of man who will demolish an enemy with the lofty declaration that “your intellect is nothing compared to my intellect .

The man who led the Stratford Festival in the early 1980s really did speak this way, and his volatile spirit inhabits Alon Nashman`s uncanny one-man show about a remarkable artist`s turbulent life and times. In reprising some of Hirsch`s more notorious boasts, Nashman is strikingly insightful, delivering them without even a tinge of irony while revealing that arrogant matter-of-factness which many who knew Hirsch found supremely irritating.

The play, written by Nashman in association with its tactful director, Paul Thompson, could easily have degenerated into hagiography, given Hirsch`s status as a seminal, albeit controversial, figure in Canadian theatre. Instead, it remains clear-sighted.

Hirsch often acknowledged he was not a nice man, and he says so here. “I don`t want to be nice,” he adds defiantly. And during a moment when Nashman stops being a Hirsch impersonator and turns into a cool-headed appraiser, he tells the shade of this man he clearly reveres that he could be a “vindictive” human being who left the nerves of his victims “in tatters.”

If the play seems fragmented, moving backwards and forwards in time, that`s perhaps appropriate, because so much of Hirsch`s terrible past informed his often-tormented present. The memories are potent: the Hungarian child who survived the Holocaust, an event which shaped his always dark vision of the cosmos; his arrival in Winnipeg as a new Canadian after other immigration doors had been closed to him; his historic founding with Tom Hendry of Canada`s first regional playhouse, the Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC); his time at the helm of Stratford; his stint as the dynamic head of drama for CBC television . . .

We eavesdrop on his directing style _ a mixture of abrasiveness and almost messianic inspiration. We are confronted with harsh life lessons: mere survival is the greatest crisis facing a human being; great theatre shouldn`t have to make money any more than a public sewer system should; not to have nightmares represents an incredible act of will. And always there is this intense moral passion from a man who saw great art as a moral priority.

For those who remember Hirsch from those pioneering Winnipeg years, the evening`s perfunctory and somewhat confusing account of the birth of MTC will seem regrettable. And perhaps it`s too much of an “insider” piece: playgoers who know little about John Hirsch, and may not even be aware of his Stratford connections, would benefit from more context _ at the very least from the printed program notes which currently aren`t that helpful.

This is much a meditation as a play, a shifting kaleidoscope of impressions. And incidentally an actual kaleidoscope proves a unifying factor in this human drama: it was John Hirsch`s treasured childhood toy before the Second World War that destroyed his family. And the memory of it becomes a tearstained symbol during the final months of his life before succumbing to AIDs in 1989. (Hirsch continues at the Studio Theatre to Sept. 14.)

* The festival`s other two world premieres are more problematic…..READ MORE…..

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