Sunday, July 25, 2010

Shaw Festival, 2010

THE SHAW FESTIVAL 2010…worth the ride!

The lovely village of Niagara-on-the-Lake is the home of The Shaw Festival. A generally excellent season of theatre, lovely flowers, classic home architecture and inviting well-stocked shops and galleries allow an inviting experience.

The Niagara area is dotted with wineries, many of which, besides offering wine tastings and sales, have fine dining restaurants.

There are some wonderful restaurants including Niagara Culinary Institute, 905-641-2252, ext. 4619 (, at which student chefs hone their skills. A new favorite is The Grill on King Street (905-468-7222, 233 King St.)

Because of the economy, there are more empty storefronts than in the past, but downtown still has an abundance of stores to satisfy shopping needs. Though the Canadian and US dollar are about on par, there are some good buys. I purchased a Corragio leather jacket for two-thirds off at Leonardo's (33 Queen Street). The Prospect, 92 Queen Street, has a vast collection of Crocks, not the ugly garden digger variety, but fashionable and comfortable ones for both men and women.

Our home away from home is the beautiful and well-placed Wellington House (, directly across the street from The Festival Theatre. For information on other B&Bs go to

For theatre information, a brochure 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 day-of-the-show rush tickets and senior matinee prices.
To satisfy border requirements carry your passport.

REVIEWS OF SHAW 2010 productions:

HALF AN HOUR’—thirty-six minutes very well spent!
(Royal George Theatre through October 9)

Have 36 minutes to spare? If so, and you are in Niagara-on-the-Lake, go see J. M. Barrie’s ‘HALF AN HOUR.’

Barrie, who is known to many for his examination of boys who refuse to grow up and the women who are their caretakers, as expressed in his classic, PETER PAN, has a philosophical side as well.

In ‘HALF AN HOUR’ he illustrates how life can change in thirty minutes. Ironically, those precious few minutes are not only the subject of his play, but also approximately the play’s length, which is counted off to the audience.

The story concerns Lady Lilian Garson, described by the author as a “frozen flower,” who decides to escape from her confining husband. Is she successful? The plot includes a run for Egypt, a civil engineer, a left note, a wedding ring, a necklace, a taxi, and a case of hidden identity. It would ruin the experience to tell you the conclusion, but the route to the ending is compelling. But, as a hint to how this all turns out, remember the author’s words, "Those who risk all and lose have to face the consequences."

The cast is universally excellent. Michael Ball delights as the gentleman butler, Diana Donnelly is properly rigid and perplexed as the wife, Peter Krantz is excellent as the unflexible and controlling husband, and Peter Millard adds the correct confused and controlled characterization as Dr. Brodie.

Tyler Sainsbury’s set design is cleverly conceived.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘HALF AN HOUR’ is a lovely pastiche that proves that a lot can be said in thirty six minutes, and in the hands of a creative director and a talented cast, it doesn’t take a lot of time to entertain.

‘JOHN BULL’S OTHER ISLAND’ examines British and Irish relations
(Court House Theatre, until October 9)

George Bernard Shaw is noted for his caustic humor and strong political views. Being an Irishman, he had strong opinions about the Irish, the Brits, the church, socialism, the role of women and businessmen. His 1904 play, ‘JOHN BULL’S OTHER ISLAND,’ is a comedy centering on Larry Doyle, who was originally from Ireland, who has moved to England, become a successful civil engineer and has returned to his home town in order to obtain land and build a golf course and other facilities.

Doyle, who has forsaken an Irish lass, brings Tom Broadbent, his English partner with him. Broadbent is taken in by the romance of the place and soon is displaying the Irish ability to talk-the-talk. He becomes a candidate for Parliament , and steals away Nora Reilly, who has been pining many years for Doyle. Peter Keegan, a defrocked priest, is Shaw’s moral voice in the script.

The term John Bull is the name of a character in British satire, Law Is a Bottomless Pit. He is represented as a stout Englishman wearing a top hat, waistcoat, knickers and high boots and has become the symbol of the British empire. In the case of this play, he is the stereotype of the Brit who thinks it is his duty to take care of and guide the Irish for “their own good.”
This play played an important role in Shaw becoming a major theatrical writer. The story goes that a command performance was given for King Edward VII. He laughed so hard he broke his chair. This incident was widely reported, the play became a “must see.” and Shaw’s reputation was set.

The Shaw’s production, under the adept direction of Christopher Newton, consistently develops the plays intent and purpose. Though a little long, it grabs and holds attention.
The cast is very strong. Especially effective are Jim Mezon as Keegan, Graeme Somerville as Doyle and Benedict Campbell as Broadbent.

William Schmuck’s stage design is excellent, considering that the numerous scenes are done on a three-quarter round stage which, due to sight-line requirements, restricts the placement of set pieces so that all the audience can see.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: While not being one of Shaw’s great plays, ‘JOHN BULL’S OTHER ISLAND’ is filled with laughs and makes its well-conceived points. It is well worth attending and is a must-see for Shavians as the script is seldom staged.

‘THE WOMEN’—poorly directed and acted!
(Festival Theatre through October 9)

Clare Boothe Luce’s ‘THE WOMEN’ became a cult hit when it was made into a 1939 film starring Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine. The author’s acidic wit and overdone caustic realism featured catfights never seen before on screen.

The story concerns the pampered lives and power struggles of wealthy Manhattan socialites and the backstabbing chitchat that propels and damages their relationships. In both the play and the film, Luce probes into the role of the modern woman, marriage and divorce, female friendship, the power of gossip, beauty standards and socio-economic class.

The original Broadway production opened on December 26, 1936 and ran for 666 performances, making it a major box office hit.

For a production of ‘THE WOMEN’ to be successful takes unbridled realistic exaggeration. It must show the nasty underbelly of dialogue that has been described as “sparkling” and “glittering.” Unfortunately, the Shaw production has none of that.

Director Alisa Palmer does not seem to understand Luce, the New York society women who are present, or the necessity of using correct accents to stress the language that Luce writes.

The actresses don’t seem to get it either. Maybe they should have watched the 1939 film to see how US Americans took on these roles. The problem may well be that Canadians are too nice, they don’t understand and can’t duplicate the likes of caustic New Yorkers.

The results of all these missteps is a disastrous production which is too slowly paced, misses the pointed wit, and seems dated.

Though they seemingly try hard, none of the cast is character correct.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: While walking down the street, I overheard a discussion between two women who had just left ‘THE WOMEN.’ One said to other, “That was probably the worst production I’ve ever seen!” I wouldn’t go that far, but from my perspective, she wasn’t far from wrong.

‘DOCTOR’S DILEMMA’ makes effective house call
(Festival Theatre through October 30)

George Bernard Shaw was a social critic. His prime targets were the church, the political establishment, the lack of women’s rights and the British class system.

In ‘THE DOCTOR’S DILEMMA’ he chooses to skewer the medical establishment. Of course, this wouldn’t be a Shaw play without some socialist and anti-vivisectionist viewpoints as they relate to the topic.

Unfortunately, his 1906 complaints are still present today. Less so in England and Canada, who have universal health care, but still a major issue in the United States. Shaw’s antipathy for doctors may have been caused, in part, because as a young man he had a bout of smallpox which left him scarred on his right cheek, leading him to grow his signature beard to cover the mark.

The theme of the play centers on what treatments should be used, how doctors decide on treatments, and who should pay for medical care. It is thought that the passage of the British National Health Service Act of 1946 was passed, in part, because of Shaw’s strong stance for the service.

The story’s core centers on a doctor who has developed a cure for tuberculosis, but has only enough serum for one patient. Should he chose a poor medical colleague who treats the needy for very little personal gain, or an extremely gifted but very unpleasant young artist whose attractive wife the doctor wants for his own?

In spite of some extra-long monologues and excessive pontification on the part of the author, the Shaw production works well. Director Morris Panych points the actors in the right direction, paces the show well, and creates clarity of purpose.

The cast is excellent. Patrick Galligan is believable as Ridgeon, the doctor who developed the tuberculosis treatment. Jonathan Gould is excellent as the self-centered conniving artist, Thom Marriott (Bonington) and Michael Ball (Cullen) play the doctors more interested in individual profit and ego-satisfying than cure, with the right amount of humor and guile.

Ken MacDonald’s set designs and Charlotte Dean’s costumes aid in the plays development.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE DOCTOR’S DILMEMMA’ gets a strong production at The Shaw. It is a production well worth seeing, especially in regard to recent conflicts over health care in the U.S.

‘ONE TOUCH OF VENUS’—dated show without much of a storyline
(Royal George Theatre through October 10)

It wasn’t until 1943, when Rogers and Hammerstein penned ‘OKLAHOMA,’ that the American musical began to stress the story line and integrated the songs and dances into the script. Before that, almost every musical had no story line or a thread of a plot. Songs and dances could be added and dropped without changing the impact of the show. A classic example of that non-integrated musical is Kurt Weill, Ogden Nash and S. J. Perelman’s ‘ONE TOUCH OF VENUS.’

Loosely based on Thomas Gutherie’s novella The Tinted Venus, the show satirizes newly emerging American suburban values, artistic fads and romantic and sexual mores.

The original 1943 Broadway production, which starred Mary Martin, ran 567 performances. It is most noted for the featured choreography of Agnes de Mille.

The story concerns a long-lost, priceless statue of the goddess, Venus, which is found and placed on display in an art museum in New York. The sculpture comes to life. Complications ensue when human males fall in love with the now “real” Venus. As in all good light fairy tales, all’s well that ends well, and Venus is returned to her natural state and the now real Venus moves to the suburbs and lives happily ever after.

Though it gets a nice production, as directed by Eda Holmes, with choreography by Michael Lichtefeld, the show goes basically no place and there is little to hold the viewers’ attention. The music, which is basically bland, is not-memorable. The show has only one well-known tune, “Speak Low,” and it is so irrelevant to the plot that it is sung three times, all in different contexts.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Shaw’s ‘ONE TOUCH OF VENUS’ is not bad, it’s just that unless you are interested in musical theatre history, there isn’t much of a reason to see the production. The final curtain was met with politic applause and the audience left the theatre without reacting much to what they had just seen.

Wilde’s ‘AN IDEAL HUSBAND’ is ideal!
(Festival Theatre through October 31)

A gifted poet, playwright, and wit, Oscar Wilde was a phenomenon in 19th century England. He was noted for preaching the importance of a grand style in life and art, and of attacking Victorian narrow mindedness. Probably his most famous play was ‘THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST.’ Also of note was his only novel, ‘THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY’ which caused controversy as the book attacked the hypocrisy of England and its aristocracy.

Oscar Wilde, who was married, had an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, whose father did not approve of the gay relationship and accused Wilde of sodomy. Wilde, unwisely, tried to sue the Marquess. His case was dropped when his homosexuality, which was outlawed in England, was exposed. Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labor in prison. When released, he was penniless and died shortly thereafter at the age of 46.

Wilde’s ‘AN IDEAL HUSBAND’ has a close tie to his trial and imprisonment. The play opened on January 3, 1895. In April of that year, Wilde was arrested for 'gross indecency' and his name was taken off the play. When the manuscript was published in 1899, Wilde was not listed as the author.

‘AN IDEAL HUSBAND’ is a comic-farce that tells the story of two women who want their husbands to be perfect. Through wit and pointed humor, exposing blackmail and political corruption, and examining private honor, Wilde exposes the difficulty of living according to limited perspectives.

Wilde said of the play’s purpose, "Sooner or later, we shall all have to pay for what we do." To which it can be added, as the play states, “Truth is a complex thing.”

Shaw’s production, under the meticulous direction of Jackie Maxwell, is superb. From the creative set changes, to the sure pacing, to the stylized character interpretation, the play sizzles with humor.

Steven Sutcliffe fully inhabits the role of Viscount Goring, who is the flamboyant Oscar Wilde, thinly veiled. Wendy Thatcher is delightful as the uptight gossip, Lady Markby. The rest of the cast is equally of high quality.

Judith Bowden’s design, Kevin Lamotte’s lighting and John Gzowski’s original music, all add to the quality of the production.

Capsule Judgement: ‘AN IDEAL HUSBAND’ gets a wonderful production under the masterful guidance of director Jackie Maxwell. It is one of the highlights of this season at The Shaw.

(Royal Geroge Theatre through October 31)

I did not see ‘HARVEY,’ but friends whose opinion I trust raved about the production.