Friday, August 13, 2004

Shaw Festival--2004 review

Late summer/fall, a perfect time to visit Shaw Festival

One of the loveliest little cities in the world, Niagara-on-the Lake, the home of the Shaw Festival, is snuggled in the Niagara region of Canada, an easy 4 hour ride from Cleveland. The trip takes you through the wine region of New York and past the wondrous Niagara Falls.

Those who not only love theatre, but natural beauty are in for a treat whether just wandering around the area which includes the Welland Canal, visiting Fort Niagara, stopping at an early Loyalist settlement which was part of the Underground Railway or zooming into the whirlpool of the Niagara river on a jet boat. An added attraction is the new Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort which features 3,000 slot machines, 150 gaming tables and overlooks the thunderous cascading water.

But the reason for theatre buffs to visit the area is to attend the Shaw Festival. The Festival is the only theatre in the world that specializes exclusively in plays by Bernard Shaw and plays about the period of Shaw’s lifetime. It also embraces a full-range of American classics.

This is a special year at Shaw. Jackie Maxwell is in her second year as the company’s Artistic Director, actually the first in which she has had total control over the season. She states, “In 2004, we’ll discover rich and vibrant new worlds, with wonderful plays that our brilliant acting ensemble will enter, explore and present to you.” And what a season it is. Every single play I saw on a recent trip was worth attending! It’s hard to beat that for sheer theatrical joy.

It’s a rainy evening in London in the early years of the twentieth century. An opera at Covent Garden has just let out and people are crowded together for shelter from the rain. A cockney girl tires to sell flowers to passers-by. Someone warns her that a gentleman is eavesdropping and writing down her every word. The girl is Eliza, the man is Henry Higgins, and yes, we are about to be enthralled by G. B. Shaw’s ‘PYGMALION.’ Many who have loved the musical ‘MY FAIR LADY’ may not know that it was based on a Shaw play, and the nonmusical is in many ways superior to the Lerner and Loewe version. The Festival production is marvelous in every aspect. Tara Rosling makes a letter-perfect Eliza. She balances that fine line between being both strong and vulnerable. Jim Mezon is such an unfeeling bully as Henry Higgins that there are times when you’d like to slap him aside the head. But in reality, the interpretation keynotes his total devotion to his linguistic profession and his obtuse devotion to Eliza. Patricia Hamilton is wonderful as Henry’s mother and Simon Bradbury is a hoot as Eliza’s father. This is a must see production.

Eugene O’Neill is widely regarded as one of America’s greatest playwrights.
‘AH WILDERNESS’ is O’Neill’s only comedy, his only foray into heartwarming nostalgia. Many of his admirers think the play represents the youth O’Neill wished he had had, with an idyllic family that faces their problems with love and understanding. Flowing beneath the warmth of the words of the script is a revelation of deep longing. This is a near flawless production highlighted by the most absolutely hysterically funny father-son “birds and the bees” talk ever performed on a stage. The play centers on Richard, the very serious 17-year-old with the weight of the world on his skinny shoulders. Every one of Richard’s overblown emotions is finely honed by the very talented Jared Brown. His father, portrayed by Norman Browning, an Art Carney look and act-alike, could not have been better. The same is true of William Vickers, a Danny DeVito duplicate, as Richard’s spinster aunt’s alcoholic “special friend.” What a wonderful evening of theatre director Joseph Ziegler has created.

In contrast to local Cleveland productions, where audience’s jump to their feet at the end of any production, good or bad, the theatre-wise Shaw audiences guard their praise. The standing ovation at the conclusion of ‘WAITING FOR THE PARADE’ was well earned and deserved. John Murrell’s play is a seldom performed piece. The story concerns the experiences of women left on the home front in wartime. The place is Calgary, Alberta, the episodes in the play cover most of the six-year period that Canada was involved in World War II. The five women in the play embody a cross-section of experiences and attitudes of the time. The production, under the watchful eye of director Linda Moore is both seamless and flawless. The ensemble cast of Donna Belleville, Kelli Fox, Laurie Paton, Helen Taylor and Jenny Wright are excellent. Each develops a clear and meaningful character. The play is well summarized by a quote from Shaw, “women know instinctively, even when they are echoing male glory stuff, that communities live not by slaughter and daring death, but by crating life and nursing it to its highest possibilities.” This is a unique theatre experience that if not seen in this venue, will probably be missed, and that would be a shame for this is a lesson worth learning.

The upper classes of Victorian England were taken aback by Oscar Wilde’s attacks on their frivolous way of life and meaningless existences. Since, as only Wilde could do, the plays were hysterically funny, he got away with it. Most critics agree that ‘THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST’ is Wilde at his best. His tongue is sharp and his quills piercing as he attacks French drama, the British upper-class, honesty, education, relatives and fiction. The play centers on a suitcase, two men named Earnest, who aren’t named Earnest at all, a cigarette case, and an imaginary brother. Director Christopher Newton does a creditable job of creating the mirth, but fails to pace the production quickly enough or draw the characters as completely as possible. Though enjoyable, this was the weakest of the Shaw productions I saw. Now, don’t take that as a “don’t see.” This is probably a better production of Earnest than you’ll see in most venues, but it is not of the high quality level of the rest of the productions in this season’s Shaw offerings.

‘THE TINKER’S WEDDING’ is a short J. S. Synge exploration into Irish class warfare. It centers on Michael, a tinker, who is a traveling handyman and vagabond. He lives on the road with his mother Mary and his companion, Sarah Casey. The play centers on a revelation about a local priest and questions the value of marriage and the methods and motives of the Catholic Church. Synge, in contrast to other Irish writers who portray their people through sentimental spectacles, is a realist. Because of the directness of his plays, and the riots which greeted the opening of his ‘THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD’ in Dublin, Tinker did not premiere until 1909, ten months after the playwright’s death. It was not performed again in Ireland until 1971. The Shaw production is excellent. The usual difficult to discern accents were held in check, allowing for clarity of message. The ensemble cast, consisting of David Leyshon, Trish Lindstrom, Nora McLellan and William Vickers were excellent.

Githa Sowerby’s ‘RUTHERFORD AND SON’ is a seldom done play. It takes place in an industrial town in the north of England a few years before World War I. Rutherford is a widower who lives with his spinster sister and three grown children, his son’s wife and their newborn baby. Rutherford is a tyrant. He dominates all. He is stubborn and won’t see the handwriting on the wall which will soon lead to financial doom for the family business and destroy his family unless he changes his ways of operation. When his son invents a method to increase production, Rutherford steals the idea and in the process destroys the son’s remaining emotional stability. He drives his daughter away after her life of frustration is relieved by an on-going affair with the firm’s employee. His other son flees. Only his daughter-in-law sees how to manipulate the old man to meet her needs. This is a full-frontal attack on a paternalistic society. As a 1912 reviewer stated, “No play has ever been written that in the truest, stronger sense was so really a ‘suffrage’ play, although the word is never uttered and the thought never enters the minds of the people portrayed. My favorite offering of the season, the performance values are excellent, the acting superb, the pacing perfect, the emotional twists and turns highly developed by director Jackie Maxwell.

Other offerings running from now to the end of the season are ‘THREE MEN ON A HORSE,’ ‘PAL JOEY,’ ‘MAN AND SUPERMAN,’ ‘NOTHING SACRED,’ ‘HARLEQUINADE,’ and ‘FLOYD COLLINS.’ The latter, is a small scale musical written by Richard Rodger’s grandson.

Places to eat and stay? My favorite restaurant is Inn on the Twenty, located in historic Jordan Village (, about forty minutes from Niagara-on-the Lake. The service is always wonderful, the facility is beautiful, the gardens behind the facility lovely, and the food is outstanding! The Queenston Heights Restaurant, located in a park just over the Canadian line, is another favorite. The facility has a breathtaking view of the Niagara River gorge. We also had an excellent meal at Hillebrand Estates Winery.

The area has many excellent hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. We have found Abbotsford House Bed and Breakfast to be our home-away-from-home. Owner Margaret Currie is a total delight. Her breakfasts are scrumptious, she gives a new meaning to the word “clean,” and the antiques and decorations are impeccable. Return guests are the rule here. For reservations and/or information call 905-468-4646 or e mail Splurge places include The Prince of Wales Hotel, Queen’s Landing Inn and The White Oaks Conference Resort and Spa.

Make sure you get to the theatre in advance to spend time reading the company’s programs. The program notes get you in exactly the right mental place to appreciate every aspect of the show. Also don’t overlook attending the many noon time lectures, tours of the facilities and Festival special events.

For theatre information, lodging suggestions or tickets call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to Ask about packages that include lodging, meals, tickets, spa escapes and golfing. Also be aware that the festival offers Sunday night specials, rush tickets and senior matinee prices.

Friendly people, good value and wonderful theatre awaits you hosted by our neighbors to the north.