Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Shaw Festival--2007 review #3

AND STILL MORE ON THE SHAW FESTIVAL--play reviews and places to stay, eat and tour

Considered by many theatre experts as the best repertory company in North America, the G. B. Shaw Festival, located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada, a short distance from Niagara Falls, offers an excellent season of productions. In addition there are some excellent restaurants and sites to visit.

In my other columns in this series I reviewed ‘SUMMER AND SMOKE, ’‘HOTEL PECCADILLO,’ ‘MACK AND MABEL,’ ‘THE PHILANDERER,’ ‘LILLIES’ and ‘THE CIRCLE.’ If you missed those reviews go online to

The two other plays I saw were: ‘THE CASSILIS ENGAGEMENT’ and ‘THE KILTARTAN COMEDIES.’


Sr. John Hankin, one of the most admired comic writers of the Edwardian era, is generally unknown to present day theatre-goers in spite of the fact that his good friend, G. B. Shaw, once referred to him as “the Mephistopheles of the new comedy.”

Part of the reason for Hankins’ anonymity was his suicide at age 40, as an escape from a life of ill health. It is ironic that his life came to its final curtain, as his plays often do, without a happy ending.

His two major plays were ‘THE RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL’, subtitled “A Comedy for Fathers’ and ‘THE CASSILIS ENGAGEMENT,’ referred to as “A Comedy for Mothers,” which is now in production at the Shaw.

Hankins’ plays, though they are all comedies, are governed by “aesthetics of negativity.” The plots lead toward the dissolution of familial ties and love relationships, toward closure marked by disharmony.

The plot of ‘THE CASSILIS ENGAGEMENT’ centers on three uniquely different mothers. Though the story appears to be a conventional comedy of manners, it proves to be nothing of the kind. The wealthy Mrs. Cassilis dotes on Geoffrey, her unmarried son. The very uptight Countess of Remenham has always assumed that Geoffrey was going to marry her daughter. Foiling the plans, Geoffrey has become engaged to Ethel, a cockney, lower class and crass city girl. Ethel and her mother, Mrs. Borridge, are invited to visit Mrs. Cassilis’s house. What plays out are a series of events which move the plot through one hilarious conflict after another, and toward an obvious ending.

The Shaw production, under the direction of Christopher Newton, turns out to be out and-out fun. Much of this centers on the hysterical performance by Mary Haney as the uneducated and blunt Mrs. Borridge. Her exact opposite, Mrs. Cassilis, played by Goldie Semple, is cool, collected and bright. Semple builds a clear character who manipulates all around her in a passive aggressive manner. David Leyshon (Geoffrey) plays the perfect pawn, caught between mother and fiancee. Donna Belleville so perfectly portrays the uptight Countess of Remenham that, after-a-while, the audience started to groan each time she opened her mouth to speak.

Played in three-quarter round in the intimate Court House Theatre, the production is well-paced and draws a healthy round of laughs.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE CASSILIS ENGAGEMENT’ is a fun walk along the path of humor. You won’t learn anything much, but you will have a good time watching a master of language and plot development weave his web.

Lady Augusta Gregory was an Anglo-Irish dramatist and folklorist. She dedicated much of her life to collecting Gaelic folklore and keeping the Irish language viable. She published a series of books related to Kiltartan history. She also wrote plays of questionable value. As a fellow Irish writer stated, “"the presentation of her plays nearly ruined the Abbey [the national Irish theatre venue]".

Shaw has chosen to present two of Lady Gregory’s short writings. The first part of the program is ‘THE RISING OF THE MOON.’ It is based on a ballad of the same name by famous Irish balladeer John Keegan. The song remains popular and the tune widely recognized in Ireland today as a protest song against British control.

The ballad-opera tells the tale of a rogue who tries to escape from a town after committing some crimes, but is caught by a policeman. Through Irish charm and guile, he talks his way to freedom. Gregory intended the message as an attack on England in Ireland’s fight for freedom, though this is not overly evident in the play’s actions, but a careful listen to the words of the song reveal her purposes.

‘SPREADING THE NEWS’ is a delightful bit of fluff which illustrates how rumors are created and spread. This is relevant in spotlighting the Irish as great story tellers and exaggerators. What starts as an act of kindness, the return of a pitch fork that has been left behind, is manipulated into a story of death, infidelity and a potential immigration to America. Mary Haney is riotous as an apple saleswoman who is the hub of the wheel of the rumor. This is fun, fun fun!

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The hour-long production of ‘THE KILTARTAN COMEDIES’ is worth going to just to see Mary Haney in ‘SPREADING THE NEWS’ and relive your own experience with how rumors are spread. The first show, ‘THE RISING OF THE MOON,’ will probably be of less interest.


Besides the plays themselves, the Festival includes a reading series, coffee concerts, seminars, backstage tours and pre-show chats.

The city has a golf course, speed boat rides and carriages that travel the streets. Just wandering the small town and looking at the beautiful flowers and gardens can be a wonderful experience.

There are some excellent places to eat including my favorite, The Queenston Heights Restaurant ( It is located in a park just over the US Canadian border. The facility has a breathtaking view of the Niagara River gorge. A new addition to my favorites list is the Restaurant at the Niagara Culinary Institute, located about twenty minutes away from the theatres. Here, student chefs and restaurant management majors hone their skills. The food is excellent and the venue attractive. Remember, these are students, professional wanna’ be’s, and the service may be a little erratic.

Tired of waiting for a casino in Cleveland? For those so-inclined, Niagara Falls, which is near Niagara-on-the-Lake, has two casino resorts. 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. Be aware that the festival offers day-of-the-show rush tickets and senior matinee prices.