Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Shaw Festival 2009/review #1


The Shaw Festival is conducted in theatres in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada, an easy four-hour trip from Cleveland. Once you arrive, you will be entranced by the most beautiful little city in Canada. Lovely flowers, classical home architecture and inviting well-stocked shops and galleries make for an inviting experience.

I have contended for years that THE SHAW is the best venue in North America for seeing classical theatre. It is therefore, with frustration that I found some of what I saw this season, less than expected.

‘TONIGHT AT 8:30,’ is a cycle of 10 short plays written by Noel Coward to be performed across three evenings. As Coward explained his purpose for the format, “A short play, having a great advantage over a long one in that it can sustain a mood without technical creaking or over padding, deserves a better fate, and if, by careful writing, acting and producing I can do a little towards reinstating it in its rightful pride, I shall have achieved one of my more sentimental ambitions."

He wrote the series for Gertrude Lawrence and himself in which to star. The Shaw decided to do the entire series, thus using up about half of their performance times. Maybe seeing some of the productions might have been fine. Staging all of them was overkill and may be one of the reasons the Festival’s attendance is down ten percent this year.
Of the seven Cowards that I viewed, I was most pleased with ‘STAR CHAMBER’ and ‘BRIEF ENCOUNTERS.’

‘STAR CHAMBER’ was the last of the ‘TONIGHT AT 8:30’ series written by the author. It is the only one intended to be shown separately. It is being presented as a noon-time offering. The show is a hysterical look at a meeting of the management committee of a theatrical charity to benefit a retirement home for destitute actresses. The committee consists of egocentric actors, who drive the fund’s financial director to distraction through constant interruption of his report by telling stories, breaking into song, gossiping and paying attention to the president’s huge Great Dane. One of the highlights is a songfest of “Mad Dogs and Englishman.” The cast is universally excellent and the direction Kate Lynch is right on the mark. Quickly paced and stressing the humor, this must be one of the season’s highlights.

Of the other Coward’s, ‘BRIEF ENCOUNTERS’ was the most pleasing overall. All three plays, under the adept direction of Jackie Maxwell, were well paced, hit the emotional highlights and captured the right “Coward” balance of sarcasm, ridiculousness and purpose. ‘STILL LIFE’ allows us to view the unexpected love affair between Alex and Laura, who accidentally meet at a train station when he, a doctor, takes a spec of dust out of her eye. Both, obviously in less than satisfying marriages, meet at the station over a period of twelve months. Theirs is a serious affair contrasted with the teasing, flirtatious relationship of Myrtle and Albert, two of the station staff. The ending is filled with pathos. The cast is universally excellent and the setting extremely effective, as we see the trains pull in and out of the station, a parallel to the lives of the transient lovers.

When it opened in 1936, ‘WE WERE DANCING’ was heralded as "a witty little piece.” It is full of ridiculousness and was a perfect acting, singing, and dancing vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence and Coward. The Shaw production is delightful. Two stylish people, Karl and Louise (a married woman), fall in love at a country club dance. They spend the night planning their future. In the morning, when they are tired and hungry, they realize that their love has died, and they have nothing in common. It is so, so British! And, so, so well done.

The last of the ‘BRIEF ENCOUNTERS’ trio is ‘HANDS ACROSS THE SEA.’ Two people “drop in” on a British upper class couple. Who are these guests? Who knows? Who cares? Commander Peter Gilpin and his wife Lady Maureen ("Piggy") Gilpin, have invited so many people to their home on their travels that they can't entirely remember who they invited, so the guests are there, and, as is the custom, are included in the goings on. Among the arrivals, departures, telephone calls and free-flowing alcohol, confusions abound. Rumor has it that the play mirrored the life of Lord Mountbatten and his wife, friends of Coward. As with the two other shows on the bill, this production is delightful, well conceived and acted.

In future reviews I’ll cover some of the less successful Coward productions, several GB Shaw plays (one outstanding and the other frustratingly weak), and a fine Sondheim’s ‘SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE.’


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

The area itself is filled with activities ranging from a golf course within the city limits; an art park (, The Good Earth Cooking School (, the Jordan Village, a diverse blend of fine shopping, dining, and antique treasures (, an international chamber music festival (, learning vacations at Niagara College (www.niagaralearning, bike paths,Mystery on the Lake, a new interactive theatre (, and a Niagara river jet boat trip.

The Niagara area is dotted with wineries, many of which, besides offering wine tastings and sales, have fine dining restaurants. My favorite is Hillebrand Estates Winery. Friends love Peller Estates. Be aware that these are quite expensive, even with the favorable exchange rate.

Helpful hint: To satisfy border requirements carry your passport. Right now, some of the officers are checking them, others are not. But, to be safe, carry it or you might become a resident of Canada.

For information on the Festival and tickets call 1-800-511-SHAW or online, SHAWFEST.COM.