STRATFORD, ONT. – The Stratford Festival’s 61st season is well under way with eight plays open at four venues and a quartet of works in rehearsal or preview mode, gearing up for late July or mid-August debuts. Four plays by William Shakespeare highlight the summer-fall schedule: “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Merchant of Venice,” “Othello” and “Measure for Measure.”

The slate also includes Samuel Beckett’s modern masterpiece, “Waiting for Godot”; Sir Noel Coward’s ghostly comedy, “Blithe Spirit”; two musical revivals, “Fiddler on the Roof” and the Who’s “Tommy.” The swashbuckling “The Three Musketeers” returns in a special children’s presentation, and Anton Cimolino, newly appointed artistic director of the Festival, leads a rare production of a Friedrich Schiller play, the historical drama, “Mary Stuart,” with festival favorites Lucy Peacock and Seana McKenna, along with award-winning actor Brian Dennehy. Completing the season agenda will be a Bard spin-off, “Taking Shakespeare,” and a new Canadian play, “The Thrill,” by Judith Thompson.

Here are reviews on a diverse trio of 2013 Stratford Festival offerings:

“Romeo and Juliet”

Through Oct. 19 in the Festival Theatre.

“For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.”

And so we are warned at the very beginning of Shakespeare’s definitive play about star-crossed lovers, “Romeo and Juliet,” that something bad will happen to two teenagers we meet in the province of Verona, circa 1596. Juliet, pretty, wise beyond her years, is of the Capulet family. Romeo, a Montague, is young and handsome and handy with a sword. The Capulets and the Montagues have feuded for years –they don’t speak, they fight, the fathers and sons get stern warnings from town leaders. As is often the case in these matters, no one remembers when or why the animus began.

Juliet and Romeo meet at a Capulet party, sort of across a crowded room. Romeo shouldn’t have been there, but from behind his mask he saw Juliet and, well, the rest is history. A short history, though. From first glance, to fitful wooing, to secret nuptials, to their joint deaths, five days pass. As someone says, never so much woe.

The play, of course, is a centerpiece of the Stratford Festival season. As such, it is a huge disappointment. British director Tim Carroll has mounted the production according to what he calls “original practices,” how the tale would have been staged in Shakespeare’s time, at the fabled Globe Theatre. So, lighting and set pieces are minimal, house lights remain on, costumes have a hand-me-down look, props are few, and there is some cast-audience interaction. I had no problem with any of that.

In fact, because there are few distractions or frills, some of Shakespeare’s most poetic language is again a joy to hear.

The cast is the problem. Romeo is played by Daniel Briere – no, Sabres fans, not that Daniel Briere – and overall, he is not effective. Nonchalant, emotionless at the wrong times, doltish in the late going, he’s likeable enough and brash. After that first Juliet kiss and first, furtive touch, he is believably smitten.

Historically, the role of Juliet is played by someone much older than the suggested 14. Sara Topham, sweet, quick and wise, almost convinced me she was a young teen. Almost. The 19th century actress Ellen Terry once said that by the time you understood Juliet, you were too old to play the role. Topham is excellent, though, and the age dilemma regarding Juliet is nothing new.

Veterans help an uneven ensemble; Jonathan Goad as the fiery Mercutio is stellar.

Man has always had a desire to hear a story and have a dance. But, after the tragic ending for Romeo and Juliet – together, dead, on a sepulchre, the result of others’ bigotry, arrogance and stubbornness, the prince of Verona eulogizes: “The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head.” The story has been told. The mood is somber. Not a time to dance.

Until the chilling scene quickly segues into a sprightly cast reel. Ridiculous.

“Blithe Spirit”

Through Oct. 20 in the Avon Theatre.

What a difference a director makes.

Sir Noel Coward’s 1941 ghostly comedy of manners, “Blithe Spirit” – which he wrote in a frenzied week holed up in London’s bomb shelters during the German blitzkrieg – had an initial run of 4½ years, was made into a teleplay, went Hollywood and later surfaced as a Broadway musical, “High Spirits.” Coward called his original script “an improbable farce in three acts.”

So, “Blithe Spirit,” a typical Coward story of verbal sparring, biting repartee, clashing wits and a suave, monied man-of-the-world saying things like “That’s perilously close to impertinence!” to someone he considers a lesser human being, has impressive lasting power. Revivals are frequent, sometimes deadly. Still, the play has legs.

Brian Bedford, the British classical actor who is nevertheless known well on this continent for a recurring role on television’s beloved “Cheers,” knows perfectly how to get the last drop of foolishness out of “Spirit.” Back at Stratford, where he has summered for many years with Shakespeare, Moliere and Chekhov, he has assembled a first-rate cast, shaken off the play’s cobwebs and convinced all involved to run at breakneck speed through the impossibly foolish tale of an ectoplasmic first wife returning from the dead to haunt and taunt – her remarried husband, the new wife, the rumpled and eccentric Madame Arcati, a medium hired to mediate with the specter – and generally cause havoc. A séance that went haywire caused all of this but the participants swilled so many martinis, it’s no wonder visions appeared.

The cast is superb. Ben Carlson, urbane but aghast at the goings-on, is a flawless Charles Condomine, incredulous at the sight of the summoned Elvira (Michelle Giroux), stealthy and stately at once. Second wife Ruth (Sara Topham) is not thrilled by the intruder, and she is the victim of many barbs, because only Charles can see Elvira and so conversations go awry. Seana McKenna’s Madame Arcati is unpredictably zany, and there are fine supporting performances from James Blendick, Wendy Thatcher – finding her way west after 27 years at the Shaw Festival – and Susie Burnett, as house girl Edith.

A lesson learned here is that you should never get a ghost, or ghosts, as it turns out, angry. It wasn’t gin and vermouth after all. Not a happy ending for Charles – or his house.

“Blithe Spirit” creaks infrequently. It’s great escapist fun. Bedford sees to it.

Costumes by Katherine Lubienski dazzle; the set by Simon Higlett is a wonder.

Note: Actor Bedford has had to bow out of his role as Shylock in this season’s “The Merchant of Venice” due to an undisclosed illness, deemed “treatable,” but nevertheless demanding his leave of absence. Scott Wentworth will take his place.

“Mary Stuart”

Through Sept. 21 in the Tom Patterson Theatre.

Antonio Cimolino, Stratford’s artistic director, besides hiring play directors, usually directs a play or two himself during a season. This year, he’s readied and led Friedrich Schiller’s “historical drama of here and now,” “Mary Stuart,” and is preparing William Shakespeare’s always-controversial “The Merchant of Venice” for an opening in August.

“Mary Stuart,” written by Schiller in 1800 and brilliantly adapted recently by Peter Oswald, is, according to Cimolino, a story about “religious extremism, fanatics willing to die for their God, gender politics and a society trying to find its way to democracy.”

Whew. Tall order, major challenges. Not to worry, though. The play has opened with a cast for the ages and it is the hit of the early Stratford season. The Tom Patterson Theatre, with its huge thrust stage, is a superb fit for this fascinating, if not entirely factual, tale of power struggles in the days of Elizabeth I of England and Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Backstabbing, feigned fealty, coups and cruelty take center stage.

Schiller (1759-1805), a history scholar and playwright (“Wallenstein,” “The Maid of Orleans,” “William Tell”) who evolved from his early “storm and stress” days as a storyteller to a lover of fast-moving dramatic action, apparently had few qualms about correct chronology or tampering with the facts. History tells us that Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart never met face-to-face, despite many opportunities to do so: Elizabeth had Mary imprisoned for 19 years before issuing the order for her beheading.

In Schiller’s intriguing “Mary Stuart,” the cousins meet and clash contentiously, reopening old suspicions and arguing about Catholic Mary’s claims for Protestant Elizabeth’s throne. They take each other’s measure, chase each other down, refute, accuse. It’s an astounding few minutes. Mary’s attitude seals her fate and sets the date for her execution. The plotting, whispering, conniving male-dominated advisers, lovers and confidants in attendance alternate between shock, dismay and unfortunately, glee. Elizabeth learns much about the men around her; a few have given their last counsel.

Cimolino has assembled one of Stratford’s best casts in years. Doyennes Lucy Peacock and McKenna are Mary and Elizabeth, respectively, both plotters and penitents. Peacock, in her solitude, discloses much about Mary, her checkered past, praised and damned, idolized and detested at once, never doubting for a second that she was England’s rightful heir. Peacock is potent right up to her last, ethereal moments.

McKenna paints a vivid portrait of Elizabeth – as she did a year ago as a distaff Richard III – wary, wise, devious but likeable – best in the moments away from pomp and politics. Superb. She’s surrounded by a cadre of outstanding actors: Ben Carlson (loyal but menacing), Geraint Wyn-Davies, Ian Lake (as the fictional Mortimer, a Schiller creation to tie conspiracy, fanaticism and double-cross together) and the estimable, formidable Brian Dennehy, as the voice-of-reason Earl of Shrewsbury. There are many excellent others, including Patricia Collins, as Mary’s attendant and friend, Hanna.

“Mary Stuart” is dark and smart and the best of Stratford’s young season.