(AP Drama Critic Michael Kuchwara's review appeared July 6. For reviews of all the Stratford shows, please visit Stratford Festival Reviews:  http://stratfordfestivalreviews.com/ )

 A Ben Jonson rarity sparks Stratford Festival

They may call it the Stratford Shakespeare Festival but it is one of the Bard's contemporaries — Ben Jonson — who gets the most unexpected and satisfying showcase during the first half of the renown repertory theater's 2009 season.

The play is called "Bartholomew Fair" and one hesitates to describe director Antoni Cimolino's sprawling yet clearly focused production as a revival, particularly since probably very few sitting in the Tom Patterson Theatre have ever seen the early 17th century comedy on stage. Supposedly this is the work's professional North American premiere — nearly 400 years after it was written.

Big nonprofit theaters are the only places a play such as "Bartholomew Fair" can be done these days. And Stratford, despite an economic uncertainty that doesn't seem to be ending any time now, has managed to give the play the full production it deserves. A gargantuan cast — more than 40 characters — swirl through Jonson's slice of high and low life during a hot summer carnival day in London.

The Patterson's lozenge-shaped playing area is ideal for this long parade of people. The space resembles a city street, a thoroughfare where the pious and the profane can mingle, not always with civility. Just don't expect much plot. But Cimolino's fine cast has a way with the language, both poetic and scatological, that will make you forget that not much of anything is going on.


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