"Even though the Stratford Shakespeare Festival isn't presenting Julius Caesar this season, it's hard not to think of that particular play when reviewing the events of the past few days.
"Just before the Ides of March, two members of the Festival's triumvirate of artistic directors resigned suddenly under mysterious circumstances.
"We want to believe the parties involved are, in Marc Antony's words, 'all honourable men.' But the early talk pointing the finger at surviving artistic director Des McAnuff might yet yield to another theory– that the same combination of envy and misguided idealism that motivated Cassius and Brutus is the source of the current troubles.
"Here are the facts: on Thursday afternoon, general director Antoni Cimolino announced that Marti Maraden and Don Shipley had resigned their positions as artistic directors and that the lone survivor, Des McAnuff, would become the festival's sole artistic director.
"Cimolino would remain in charge overall; still, as he put it in an interview with the Star, 'I may be the CEO, but Des and I are going to work as partners.'
"In practical terms, this will have little impact on theatergoers this season. With the exception of Shipley stepping down from directing a double bill of one-act plays, everything is the same. Yet that isn't stopping the swirl of gossip, in Stratford and the Canadian theatre scene generally, all coming back to one question: Why did this happen?
"The terse official reason was, 'artistic differences,' which can mean many things, like – hypothetically – Shipley arguing with McAnuff about whether to have Billy Crystal star in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
"And don't ever forget the classic definition of the term offered by one of murderesses in Chicago: 'I guess you could say we broke up because of artistic differences. He saw himself as alive and I saw him dead.'
"That might be a lot closer to what probably happened at Stratford.
"To look at how this came to pass, you need to understand the four major players and the stage on which their drama played itself out.
"Cimolino heads the list. Make no mistake, he's the final authority at Stratford, despite the easy manner and user-friendly persona he has cultivated in the past few years.
"A triumvirate of artistic directors was his dream. 'I have put myself on the line with this,' he told the Star on Friday, 'and no one wanted it to work more than I did.'
"The first person Cimolino sought out was McAnuff and with excellent reason. The Scarborough boy who made good with Tony Award-winning hits like Jersey Boys is a commercial wizard, but he has also spent much of his career directing classical theatre (including a 1983 Stratford Macbeth). The combination was irresistible.
"Maraden was a logical second choice. One of the finest young actresses in Stratford's history had grown into a respected teacher, director and administrator much in demand across North America.
"But it's a fairly open secret that Don Shipley was not the first, second or maybe even third draft pick for the final slot.
"British directors of note like Mark Rylance and Edward Hall were approached. Hall had even tentatively agreed to the position, only to withdraw later.
"When Shipley's name was announced in 2006 it struck many people as a surprise, though he had strong Stratford connections, being born and raised in the town.
"He had worked as a boy actor at the festival, then carved out a career as an artistic director in several theatres. But it had been over 20 years since Shipley had actually directed a play, spending the intervening time selecting programming for Harbourfront and the Dublin Theatre Festival.
"When the 2008 season was announced it was possible to see all of their influences reflected in the choices. But it had never really been a happy group, Stratford insiders say. Their personalities were too disparate. The razzle-dazzle McAnuff frequently found himself at odds with the soft-spoken Maraden and the brooding Shipley.
"At this point, Stratford itself comes into play. It's a small town, which means gossip is a major activity and it's also a theatre community, which raises the level of rumour exponentially.
"In the weeks following McAnuff's initial appointment, it was possible to encounter normally well-informed people who would swear that the current Stratford season would feature at least two musicals McAnuff hoped to take to Broadway. They even had the names: The Wiz and Dr. Zhivago.
"The truth is that McAnuff is working on those shows for future production elsewhere, but they were never for one minute suggested for Stratford.
"And never forget this: Stratford protects its own. Before too many months had gone by, venom was trickling through the emails and phone lines. The recurring theme was that McAnuff was too powerful. If Shipley and Maraden had to adjust their schedules to match his or fly to New York for meetings when he was directing a show, they made their displeasure known, or so said the gossipmongers.
"'I had a variety of commitments when I took on the position,' explains McAnuff, 'and everyone knew what they were.'
"Cimolino backs that. 'I have never had a moment's problems with Des's other activities. The festival has not suffered because of them.'
"But the whispers continued. 'Did you know that McAnuff missed his first rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet?' the gossips would hiss, conjuring up visions of jet-setting indulgence.
"The truth, it seems, was a lot more prosaic. 'Des was on a research trip for (this season's) Caesar and Cleopatra,' explains Cimolino 'and he gave us three weeks notice of the conflict.'
"The chatter came to a head anyhow on Friday, March 7, when a session held to discuss several issues erupted in acrimony. 'It wasn't any one thing,' says Cimolino.
"Last Wednesday, Shipley and Maraden tendered their resignations. 'I begged them to reconsider, to take a breath, to wait until the end of the season, but they wouldn't,' Cimolino says. (Maraden and Shipley did not respond to requests for an interview.)
"By cocktail time Thursday, the story being told around Stratford was that a mistreated Shipley and Maraden had been forced out by a Machiavellian Cimolino and a power-hungry McAnuff.
A touching tale. But according to Cimolino, not a true one. 'I did everything I could to keep them here. This was a resignation, not a firing.'
"The next day, the gossip grew uglier. 'Many of the board are against Des's appointment,' stated a theatre veteran familiar with Stratford. 'Especially (former chair) Kelly Meighen. Talk to her.'
"Cimolino seemed amazed at that comment. 'There is strong unanimity among the board of governors. And in fact, although Kelly is out of the country, she sent me a message of support saying, Tell Des that he's just about one of the best guys in the world.'
"There are many questions to be asked, but here are one or two worth immediate consideration:
Why did Shipley and Maraden have to quit now, at a highly inopportune moment, if the good of the festival, not personal vindication, was their ultimate goal?
"If Maraden could find the generosity of spirit to stay on and complete her two assigned productions, why did Shipley demand to leave immediately, abandoning his show and leaving Brian Dennehy searching for a director?
"No doubt the rumours alleging transgressions by McAnuff will continue to spread among theatre insiders in any event. Others, though, might start offering a different theory, and they could even quote Shakespeare to do it:
"'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.'"