Saturday, September 03, 2005

Shaw Festival--2005 review #2


The Shaw Festival is located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada. As I indicated in the first part of my comments about the Festival, which are available on my website:, this is an exceptional production year. I gave raves to ‘MAJOR BARBARA’ and ‘THE CONSTANT WIFE.’ Here are my comments on the other plays I viewed, restaurants to eat in, and places to stay.


It is only fitting that in a season which features Shaw’s ‘MAJOR BARBARA’ that the Festival should offer Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s ‘HAPPY END.’ Too bad the powers that be didn’t also stage ‘GUYS AND DOLLS.’ Basically all three plays center on the Salvation Army and one of its female savers of souls.

Set in Chicago at the turn of the century, ‘HAPPY END," a play with music, centers on Lillian, a Salvation Army worker. She falls in love with Bill Cracker, a hardened gang criminal. When the two struggle to maintain the ideals of their organizations, they find themselves outcasts from the societies in which they believe. Comic situations abound as the virtuous members of the Army invade the territory of the gang and begin a struggle for the criminals’ souls. It plays much like a 1920s gangster flick with the addition of songs.

In viewing the production it is important to remember that Brecht and Weill are products of the era in German theatre when historification, alienation and epic were in vogue. Historification concerns setting the play in a historic time period, but making sure the audience knows that the writers are really asking viewers to think about the implications for today. Alienation concerns staging the play so that the audience is always aware that they are in the theatre by having the actors speak directly to the audience, using fragmentary sets and letting the light fixtures hang in view of the spectators. Epic--bigger than life. The play does not duplicate real life. If you have seen a good production of ‘CABARET’ you’ll understand the concept.

Among the most familiar musical numbers in the show are "The Bilbao Song," "The Sailor's Tango" and "Surabaya Johnny." (No, this is not Rogers and Hammerstein sing along music.)

Why was this German play set in Chicago? Brecht was passionately in love with the Windy City of Al Capone and his gangsters. Weill loved jazz and old-time American hymns. Interestingly, at the time they wrote the show, neither had set foot in the U.S. They did immigrate to the country in 1941.

The show, which premiered in 1929 in Germany, closed quickly. At the final curtain on opening night, Helene Weigel, the star of the show and Brecht's wife, pulled a paper out of her pocket and started reading a full-blast, down-with-everything communist tract. The audience rioted. In a country fearful of the deepening shadow of Hitler's gangsters and the presence of communism, there was less and less room for the free-thinking Brecht or the eclecticism of Weill's musical.

It’s hard to pull off this serious and often abstract musical, but director Tadeusz Bradecki has done it.The Shaw production is excellent. The cast is exceptional. Benedict Campbell makes the role of Bill Cracker his own. The gang members are appropriately hysterically funny and perfectly stupid. Patty Jamieson is one mean lady as The Fly. Glynis Ranney is wonderful as Lieutenant Lillian Holiday. David Leyshon makes the role of the uptight Captain Hannibal Jackson his. The singing and dancing choruses are fine.

This said, the show will not please everyone. This is not a light, happy escapist musical. In fact, most viewers will probably be scratching their heads as to the authors’ intent and purpose. Guesses vary from a Faustian legend, to it foreshadowing the rise of Hitler and the fall of the fragile German democracy, to Brecht wanting to make a strong political statement regarding communism, to it is simply a story of two people from different backgrounds who find themselves caught up in a world that didn’t have room for their contrary life styles.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Dedicated theatre-goes should see ‘HAPPY END’ because their chance of seeing it offered again are very slim. For those people it will be an experience worth investing time and money. Others might look for less daunting fair.


It is rumored that Shaw scripted ‘YOU NEVER CAN TELL’ mainly out of disdain for Oscar Wilde's ‘THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST,’ which Shaw perceived to be a pretentious social mockery that said little of the real problems of society. If that’s the real case, that’s fine, for the play he created is warm and humorous and purposeful. As one critic said, “Angst should have come knocking on Shaw's door more often. This comedy of manners is a charming little piece that entertains throughout its journey to the predictable end.”

‘YOU NEVER CAN TELL’ is a social comedy that centers on what happens when a famous author and her three children encounter the husband she left 18 years earlier. Throw in a daughter's complicated courtship by a penniless dentist, and a lot of hysterical low brow humor, and you have the plot.

As happens in many of Shaw’s plays he states his views concerning love, feminism, politics and marriage. It is interesting that Morris Panych, the play’s director comments on his twenty-five years with his life partner Kent MacDonald as he states, “Nothing can stop the irrepressible force of love. When love is true there is nothing truer, and no perversions of social form, custom, manner, politics or law will undo it.” Obviously, he is taking this forum to comment on the recent approval of gay marriage in Canada. Shaw would have been proud that his ideas about the need for changes have been used in change!

In the preface to his biography ‘GEORGE BERNARD SHAW: MAN OF THE CENTURY,’ Archibald Henderson tells us that on February 24, 1903, a friend invited him to attend a performance of a play entitled, ‘YOU NEVER CAN TELL,’ by a dramatist he had never heard of. Reluctantly, he went. He wrote, "I sat through that performance, being moved to gales of laughter, feeling as if I were being subjected to some sort of mental electrification." The Shaw audience mimicked Henderson. They laughed and laughed and laughed.

Under the solid direction of Morris Panych, the outstanding Shaw cast acts out the tale with simplicity and comic grace, using underplay to great effect. Mike Shara is delightful as Valentine, Nicole Underhay was fun as Dolly, Harry Judge won the audience as Philip. David Schurmann’s Butler portrayal was right on. Goldie Semple is so perfectly very, very proper as Mrs. Clandon.

Ken MacDonald’s set design is both beautiful and practical. Nancy Bryant’s costumes are elegant and era-perfect.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘YOU NEVER CAN TELL’ is a delightful piece of farce fluff with underlying messages. It is a perfect summertime piece of theatre.


Since the Broadway premiere of her first drama, ‘THE CHILDREN'S' HOUR’ in 1934, Lillian Hellman has generally been considered US America’s leading woman playwright.

Her ‘THE AUTUMN GARDEN,’ which was first staged in 1951, is considered one of Hellman’s lesser plays as she doesn’t take her usual strong political or social active stand. This is more a low-key personal play in which she looks upon the frailties of human existence.

‘THE AUTUMN GARDEN’ is also different from Hellman’s other plays which tend to be plot driven. This script is character driven. The story is really about individual characters who are often persons from Hellman’s own life. For example, Hellman had a thirty-year liaison with Dashel Hammett. Much like two characters in the play, she and “Dash” never married. And, like Hammett , all of the men seem to be running from something. The women are much like Hellman’s own mother and other female relatives.

In the play we view an elegant summer boarding house run by a wellborn, middle aged spinster. The guests are largely frustrated people. They include a woman who runs the establishment and her long time “special” male friend, a cynical drinker who has never married; a general who is married to a fool; a confused young man half heartedly about to marry a woman he does not love.

Hellman creates characters who fail to meet that challenge of breaking their patterns and moving on. That is all except Sophie, the young European maid, who has been brought to America by her well-intentioned aunt supposedly to save her from the difficult life she was living. Unfortunately, the aunt’s plan is for Sophie to marry and live the same kind of life as the other frustrated people in the story. It is Sophie alone who makes the decision to move on, not to take the easy way out. Maybe it is Sophie who does what Hellman was incapable of doing...moving on to a happier and more fulfilling life.

The Shaw production is finely directed by Martha Henry. As with all of the productions this season, the cast is excellent as are the set and costume designs and renderings.

Sharry Flett is properly aloof and frustrated as Constance, the owner of the guest house. Jim Mezon is right on target as Edward Crossman, the drunk who Constance wants to marry. Mike Shara correctly develops Frederick, Sophie’s intended, as a believable rudderless and spineless mamma’s boy. Wendy Thatcher is properly pathetic as the General’s clueless wife. David Schurmann effectively develops the character of the General who can lead men into battle, but can’t forge his own life in a productive way.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE AUTUMN GARDEN’ is not a great script, but in the hands of the Shaw Festival’s cast it is an intriguing study in character development that is well worth seeing.


The Niagara area is dotted with wineries, many of which, besides offering wine tastings and sales, have fine dining restaurants. I find the best of these to be the Hillebrand Estates Winery. The food is marvelous, the wines excellent, the service first rate. Manager Amy Gibbs sees that patrons have an excellent dining experience.

There are some other wonderful restaurants including my favorites, The Inn on the Twenty (, located in historic Jordan Village about forty minutes from Niagara-on-the-Lake, and the Queenston Heights Restaurant ( The latter is located in a park just over the US-Canadian border. The facility has a breathtaking view of the Niagara River gorge. Try and get seated at one of Christine’s tables. She’s a total delight and a wonderful server. The management of Inn on the Twenty has opened Twelve (, a moderately priced waterfront restaurant in St. Catherines, about 20 minutes from Niagara-on-the-Lake. The food is excellent, as is the service. The ride down takes you over the Welland Canal.

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. Return guests are the rule here. For reservations and/or information call 905-468-4646 or e-mail

Tired of waiting for a casino in Cleveland? For those so-inclined, Niagara Falls has the new Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort which features 3,000 slot machines, 150 gaming tables and overlooks the thunderous cascading water. There is also a large outlet store complex for the bargain shopper. And, of course, not to be overlooked are the attractions connected to the magnificent falls.

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