by Bernard Shaw,
directed by Helena Kaut-Howson
April 16 to November 1
by Christopher Fry,
directed by Christopher Newton
May 6 to September 27
Court House Theatre
by Edward Percy,
directed by Joseph Ziegler
April 15 to October 31
Royal George Theatre
by Kaufman and Hart,
directed by Neil Muro
May 2 to November 1
A weekend with Shaw is always the first celebration of the arrival of summer, as there is perhaps no better place in Canada to enjoy a taste of that too-short season than at Niagara-on-the-Lake and with the Shaw Festival. We've been going there for years and are perhaps a little immune to the appeal of NOTL's main street of quaint shops. Famous now for its fudge and fridge magnets, the street still manages to tempt us into an extra calorie or knickknack we didn't really need but couldn't resist. We like to browse, too, to see if the Niagara Bookshop's volumes are still as forbiddingly wrapped in cellophane, and if the Theatre Store's coffee mugs are still as overpriced as we remember (both situations firmly in place - sought but unbought).
What we have found even more irresistible is The Bridge -- that Queenston checkpoint between 1812 and 1998 that separates the tightly controlled merchandising of NOTL (no chain stores or franchises allowed!) from the wide-open commercialism of the 150-store Niagara Outlet Centre. The complete trip, from Festival Theatre to Outlet Heaven, is under 30 minutes, even with a modest holdup on the bridge, making it an easy jaunt between matinee and evening performances (NOTL closes their shops at 6pm or earlier!).
But it is just a jaunt, between the main attractions of any weekend in NOTL: the unparalleled excellence on the three stages of the Shaw Festival. Nominated for 20 Stage Door Awards last year (and winner of three), the Shaw Festival is second only to the equally esteemed Stratford Festival in audience popularity. Shaw's artistic director of nearly two decades, Christopher Newton, goes for more than popularity, however, with his selections of works contemporary with the life of George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950).
Each season holds, among its dozen or so productions, a fair share of proven audience-winners, a major musical, a whodunit (or more often, a Willy Getawaywitit), and a sprinkling of obscure pieces that have, for one reason or another, not been performed as often as Newton realizes they should.
Then a company of artists (the second-largest repertory company in North America) goes to work on them, breathing fresh life and new meaning in Victorian mores and the coming of the modern age. Moreover, while every production is unique, splendid, uncompromising, there is always something comfortably familiar about the Shaw's mixed-bag-of-tricks. The company of actors, for example, is largely the same as it has been for years; new faces are welcome, but rare. The sets, always beautiful and meticulously detailed, are usually inviting sitting rooms and cluttered back offices - never a shocking array of mirror shards and minimalist suggestions that rival Stratford does so well.
Our first weekend at Shaw included four of this year's eleven offerings, sampling everything except the Big Musical (A Foggy Day, a posthumous collaboration of George & Ira Gershwin and P.G. Wodehouse). Saturday we took in the season's big number and Festival Theatre showpiece, Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara, then to the intimate Courthouse Theatre production of the fringier medieval piece by Christopher Fry, The Lady's Not for Burning. Sunday greeted us with a matinee mystery in the Royal George Theatre by Edward Percy, The Shop at Sly Corner, and we closed out the weekend back at the Festival Theatre for the rollicking comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, You Can't Take It with You. Our instant scoreboard: 3 for 4. A winning average in any book.
Major Barbara, written in 1905 by the Festival's namesake, is a witty and wise discourse on politics, arms, greed and poverty; indeed, one might say it encompasses the gamut of Shaw's philosophical views of his world. Major Barbara (Kelli Fox) is a young woman who has joined the Salvation Army and works tirelessly in its East End shelters to help the poor. She is joined in this work by Adolphus Cusins (Richard Binsley), a young professor of Greek, who admits he has joined he Army only because he is in love with Barbara. Barbara's estranged father, Andrew Undershaft (Jim Mezon), is one of Europe's richest munitions manufacturers and practices the "religion of capitalism." As the play begins, her mother (Sharry Flett) has summoned Undershaft to meet his grown children. Barbara and Cusins are intrigued by the wealthy Undershaft, who is not the devil incarnate they had expected him to be. Barbara dares her father to visit her at her East End shelter, and he accepts -- on condition that family visit his armaments factory.
This Shavian extravaganza is famous for its heavy-handed themes of poverty and propriety but director Helena Kaut-Howson ensures the comedy shines without detracting from the social issues the playwright explores. The depth of festival talent is evident here, with Fox displaying her brilliance and painting marvelous colours with Shaw's prodigious palette. Binsley, always a delight, plays her admirer to charming effect, quickly winning over Barbara, and the audience. The surprise of the evening is Flett's marvelous interpretation of Lady Britomart Undershaft (with a name like that, the role couldn't be serious). She has a blast with the haughty, self-absorbed mother-from-hell in a role that is her best in years. Mezon tries hard as her estranged husband but we found little depth in the interpretation and his uneven accent creates further problems for this Shaw stalwart.
Designer William Schmuck uses the Festival Theatre turntable to great effect with his creative set, especially in the marching band sequences. His remarkable sets convey a world turned akimbo by the realities of life. The combined talents in Major Barbara ensure a wonderfully entertaining result of this humorous, yet socially thought-provoking discourse on British values in the thirties.
The Lady's Not for Burning
The enthusiasm generated by such an attractive Barbara was not sustained during the next play: The Lady's Not for Burning, written by Christopher Fry (hailed as the 20th century's Shakespeare), which premiered in 1948. It's billed as a romantic comedy set in a kind of storybook middle ages, in England. Into the mayor's house bursts cynical ex-soldier Thomas Mendip (Simon Bradbury), claiming to have killed a pedlar and demanding to be hanged. Meanwhile, other events have already turned the house upside down. The mayor's two nephews (Jason Dietrich and Johnathan Watton) are fighting over which of them will marry the beautiful, young Alizon (Fiona Byrne). Outside, local citizens are demanding the execution of a young woman, Jennet Jourdemayne (Ann Baggley), who they claim is a witch.
The action is set at a frenzied pace by director Christopher Newton, too frenzied, in fact, to develop a "love story for the ages." Instead, we are subjected to harried soliloquies and discourse on...who knows? We can't develop any sympathy for the characters in this production, unlike in others where the director has the lovers' relationship evolving more slowly and with a depth not seen here. Indeed, one neighbour was heard to say, "The Lady may not be for burning...but the play is." The two saving graces are the actors' actor, Bradbury, creating another interesting character to place on his bulging résumé, and the always-weighty presence of Patricia Hamilton, playing the Mayor's sister. (Roger Rowland, who plays the Mayor, is completely swamped by the talent around him and drowns in the act.) We have no fear that Newton's reputation for excellence will be adversely affected by one or two lesser efforts, but we expected more of his normally wonderful touches in this unique play -- a play that could either be a successful romp or a touching love story, but instead has become a disappointing showcase for another of designer Leslie Frankish's beautiful sets and splendid period costumes.
The Shop at Sly Corner
After the doldrums of the Burning, the yearly whodunit beckoned, although this year's opus is more psychological study than murder mystery. Its story, however, is no less entertaining and engrossing.
The Shop at Sly Corner, by Edward Percy, premièred in 1941 (a Broadway production in 1949 starred Boris Karlof). In 1930s London, a gruff, but lovable old jeweller named Descius Heiss (Michael Ball) runs a small antique store that supports him, his daughter (Fiona Byrne), and his sister (Maralyn Ryan). His daughter is engaged to Robert Graham (Simon Bradbury), a successful merchant marine doctor, and Descius couldn't be happier. That is, until shop assistant Archie Fellowes (Jonathan Watton) overhears a secret that sets in motion a chain of events that can only end in tragedy. The nature of the crime and the identity of the guilty party are revealed fairly early in the play, so the real interest lies in discovering what drives characters to violent crime, and what kinds of consequences arise.
Star of the show is the design by David Boechler who creates an antique shop that we wish we had time and license to browse -- it's that real. Combined with Bonnie Beecher's moody lighting, director Joseph Ziegler creates a time and place not soon forgotten. The acting forces presented to Ziegler don't disappoint either, with Ball his blustering, bombastic self, but this time with a softer edge. Scenes with Byrne were warmly effective while Bradbury's proper and correct doctor is oh-so-veddy British, and with arguably the most perfect accent and inflections these Anglos have even seen on stage. Can this guy do nothing wrong? The Shop is so delightfully different and enjoyable, it can be appreciated by everyone.
You Can't Take It with You
There is much in a weekend adventure in NOTL that you can't take home with you (and much you wouldn't want to!), but with our funny bones were tickled so much by the last play of our weekend, You Can't Take It with You, by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, we laughed throughout the play, and all the way home. You Can't is justifiably one of the best-loved and most-produced comedies of the American theatre. It tells the story of an eccentric family who believes in living life to the fullest. Father (Peter Millard) manufactures fireworks in the basement, mother (Mary Haney) writes plays because a typewriter was delivered to the house by mistake, daughter Essie (Jenny L. Wright) dances and trips around the house in a tutu while her husband Ed (Douglas E. Hughes) plays the xylophone and runs a printing press in the middle of the living room. They are a weird, but happy bunch.
When daughter Alice falls in love with the straitlaced son (Mike Shara) of a millionaire, a clash of lifestyle and philosophy could spell disaster for the two lovebirds. Hysterical hijinks coupled with some truly bittersweet moments confirm this play as one of the most enjoyable ever presented on the Shaw stage. Director Neil Munro (whose work, admittedly, we have yet to review positively) does a marvelous job creating a bunch of bizarrely wonderful characters. The play premièred on Broadway in 1936, won a Pulitzer Prize, and is still considered on of the great comedies of the century. The play's theme is implied in its title: life is short, material riches are transitory, and one should live by those values that make life most worth living. The conversion of the conventional Kirbys to this irresistible logic provides the play with some of its most touching moments, and some of its best laughs, too.
Haney (1997 Stage Door Award winner for Will Any Gentleman?) provides scatterbrained charm aplenty as the dim, yet lovable mother, while Wright dances and stumbles into our hearts, and Shara's Tony Kirby is as pure and refreshing as one can get. Stratford vet Lewis Gordon, now treading the Shaw boards, shows why he was revered at the other festival, as his character of Grandfather provides the single voice of solid reason in the zany Sycamore household. Providing strong support are Norman Browning and Jillian Cook as Mr and Mrs Kirby, and the always-hysterical Neil Barclay as Russian-immigrant dance teacher, Boris Kolenkhov.
A wonderful start to a promising season. Major Barbara and You Can't Take It with You play till November 1, The Shop at Sly Corner runs till October 31, and The Lady's Not For Burning sputters to a close on September 27. Phone 1-800-511-SHAW for tickets.
by Oscar Wilde,
directed by Christopher Newton
June 26 to October 31, 1998
at the Festival Theatre
by Bernard Shaw,
directed by Jim Mezon
July 4 to Sept 26, 1998
at the Court HouseTheatre
Lady Windermere's Fan
At the point in Lady Windermere's Fan when the dancers at the ball were gliding through the traveling porticos of the Shaw Festival Theatre's revolving stage I heard myself say to myself, "I hope to God someone's filming this." It was such an absolute privilege to be there, watching what director Christopher Newton and design team William Schmuck (set), Christina Poddubiuk (costumes) and Robert Thompson (lights) had wrought. To say nothing of what the cast had been "wroughting" all evening long. Lady Windermere's Fan is an absolutely top notch, world class production.
Do you know the plot? Given that it's a hundred years old I'm not letting anything out of the bag by telling you that the young Lady Windermere was abandoned by her mother shortly after her birth and that her husband has recently found the mother in a Mrs Erlynne, a woman with whom Lady Windermere has just been told her husband is having an affair. Whereas today's humorists would use this mix up as the basis for the fun of the play, Wilde uses this part of the plot for his drama, and the manners of the late Victorian age for his humour. This choice alone dates the play and therein lies the danger.
Though Oscar Wilde's script cannot help but show its age, it doesn't have to suffer from it, and, under director Newton's treatment, it doesn't. Despite Wilde's legendary clever wit, he is given to using short soliloquies to expose the plot. An acceptable device in 1892, when the play was written, but now a little trite. Under the wrong treatment such a device can seem melodramatic, however Colombe Demers, playing Lady Windermere, handles an early speech about choosing to leave her husband and child, with a conviction that she's not exposing plot at all, just talking out loud to herself. It's great.
In the second act, Mrs Erlynne (Fiona Reid) tells Lady Windermere of her empathy with Lady Windermere's delicate situation. She saves it from melodrama by not wallowing in the self-pity of it all. And listen to the wonderfully clever scene in the rooms of Lord Darlington (Gordon Rand). Against a background of cigar-chatter and brooding menace, the wit flies fast and fanciful and the very music of the different voices (Mike Shara's tenor, Neil Barclay's bass, and Barry MacGregor's varied keyboard) creates a rich port wine of an effect.
Lady Windermere created many new fans on opening night and none of them could be more ardent than this one.
John Bull's Other Island
Not so with George Bernard Shaw's John Bull's Other Island. It opened Friday at the Shaw Festival's, Court House Theatre and, though I am still trying really hard to enjoy Shaw as a playwright, I found this long and tiresome. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with the production, its just Shaw... he does go on so.
John Bull's Other Island is the only play Shaw wrote which deals with Ireland, per se, and Shaw being an Irishman that's something of a coup, I should think. Much of it is very funny. When King Edward the VII saw the play, he laughed so hard he fell off his chair and broke it. Mine remained firmly intact.... and yet.
David Schurmann plays an absolute perfect twit of an Englishman, Tom Broadbent (who isn't a twit at all) and, despite his dour Irish business partner, remains a joy to watch throughout the evening. But his dour Irish business partner, Larry Doyle (played by Blair Williams) has all Shaw's essay lines and it must be a heck of a role to play.
Peter Millard puts in a thoroughly joyous performance as professional Irish barfly Timothy Haffigan, and Alison Woolridge as Nora Reilly has a voice as sweet as an Irish lullaby. It's not the actor's performances I have truck with. Nor is it Jim Mezon's direction or Kelly Wolf's set. It's just that Shaw does insist on talking so much about everything.
To brighten the plot of this play (in which Tom Broadbent travels to Ireland with Doyle to see Doyle's home town and create an urban development project) defrocked priests talk to grasshoppers, pigs take rides in cars and Broadbent falls in love. But it's not enough. The play remains a bit static. Great, anyway, if you're a Shaw fan, or an Irishman, or a politician, or a student of theatre, but unless you have a particular reason to see this particular play, I'd be wary of recommending it. Its a bit of a test of loyalty, I'd say, great performances notwithstanding.
Disclaimer: Nothing here is "official." Everything is a composite of media releases, information supplied by or procured from the theatres by direct or devious means, or downright personal opinion. If you don't like what you see, blame us at Stage Door, not the fine folks in the theatres of Southwestern Ontario.