Each summer for more than half a century, theater lovers have been making the trek to the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, located at the southern end of Lake Ontario, to attend the Shaw Festival. What was started in 1962 with eight weekend performances to commemorate the great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw has now become a sixth-month season of 10-to-12 productions each year. Programming at the festival has evolved from presenting only the works of Shaw and his contemporaries to include work about the period 1859 to 1950, offering a modern lens, as it were, through which to observe Shaw’s nearly century-long lifetime. More recently, the festival has expanded its mandate further to incorporate work by what they term contemporary Shavian playwrights—writers who continue in the spirit of the Nobel Prize-winning socially conscious, provocateur.
For the theatergoer, the Shaw Festival offers the increasingly rare opportunity of seeing a large repertory acting company at work. The repertory model, with its single pool of performers, doesn’t always allow for ideal casting of supporting roles, but seeing this talented group of actors switch effortlessly from period to modern day, musical to drama and lead to supporting role, often in the space of a single day, is a real treat. The 10 productions at the festival this season provides the actors with a great range and the audience, a rich variety of theater. Last month, I was able to take in seven of these productions in four days. The experience was somewhat mixed, but production values all round were of excellent quality, with Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windemere’s Fan, Matthew Barber’s Enchanted April, and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia particularly standing out.
The Shaw play for this season, Major Barbara, directed by the festival’s artistic director, Jackie Maxwell, and staged in the smaller jewel-box venue, the Royal George Theatre, was surprisingly, one of the less satisfying experiences. The play is difficult to pull off (Shaw himself was said to have been dissatisfied with his ending), but Maxwell’s stated attempt to give full focus to Barbara, the idealistic Salvation Army crusader, without letting her get eclipsed by the heroine’s father, the more compelling written character, Andrew Undershaft, the munitions manufacturer, isn’t helped by Nicole Underhay’s less than stellar performance as Barbara. Benedict Campbell, on the other hand, as Andrew, strikes all the right notes in making his case as the “Prince of Darkness.” Still, with GBS’s trenchant observations about the hypocrisies of Christian charitable institutions and the pervasiveness of a capitalist system that thrives on a flourishing war industry, the play remains disturbingly relevant even a hundred years after it was written.
Money and the American bad manners are key themes in W. Somerset Maugham’s rarely seen social comedy Our Betters, directed by Morris Panych. The play, which originally premiered on Broadway in 1917, and later turned into a 1933 George Cukor film, is a satirical take on the Edwardian era phenomenon of young American heiresses marrying into the British aristocracy. For the young ladies it was the glamor of possessing a title, for their impoverished husbands, much needed cash. Unlike the American duchess in the popular television series Downton Abbey, where a similar marriage took place, the women in the play are apparently too bored and too rich and incapable of taking any interest in running their country estates, or doing anything with their lives other than cause trouble for everyone else. Maugham hits his target relentlessly, making it difficult to stay interested in this group of characters through three full acts, but Laurie Paton, who plays Mrs. Undershaft in Major Barbara, is fun to watch as Minnie, the predatory older woman with a penchant of English boy toys. (Our Betters plays in rep at the Royal George with Major Barbara and a production of Brian Friel’s trio of monologues Faith Healer.)
Three productions are playing at the Court House Theater, the original 1840s venue where the first Shaw celebration was inaugurated: Trifles, a lunchtime pairing of two one-acts by Eugene O’Neill and Susan Glaspell; Peace in our Time, a freewheeling adaptation of Shaw’s Geneva by Canadian playwright John Murrell; and The Light in the Piazza. In Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’s poignant musical, Clara and Fabrizio, the mismatched young couple—American girl and Italian boy—who fall in love in Florence are affectingly played by Jacqueline Thair and Jeff Irving. The staging is intimate, in a tight space that requires the actors to make their entrances and exits through the audience; Guettel’s swirling score is performed by a quartet on piano, harp, violin, and cello.
The other musical presented this year at the Shaw is Guys and Dolls, which receives a large-scale production at the Festival Theater, the flagship venue with 800-plus seats. The choice of the Frank Loesser’s beloved musical, which brings gamblers and Christian missionaries together in 1950s New York City, is apt, given that one of the Damon Runyon stories on which the musical is based, “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown,” borrows its lead character, a Salvation Army idealist, from Shaw’s Major Barbara. In the production, directed by Tadeusz Bradecki, Thom Allison is outstanding as Nicely-Nicely Johnson; he gives a show-stopping rendition of the standard, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” seemingly making up the lyrics as he tries to con the police into believing that the gamblers gathered at the Salvation Army mission are truly repentant sinners. Some of the dancers lack pizzazz and the musical numbers don’t exactly pop, but the gorgeous Frank Loesser score carries the evening.
Enchanted April, which alternates with Guys and Dolls and Lady Windermere’s Fan on the same large stage at the Festival Theater, is expertly directed by artistic director Jackie Maxwell. The play by Matthew Barber is an adaptation of Elizabeth von Armin’s novel about four English women who take a daring holiday in Genoa, Italy, lured by the promise of sunshine and wisteria, and the absence of husbands or other menfolk. Shaw would have approved of these proto-feminists: the somewhat whimsical Lotty (Moya O’Connell), whose brainchild it is to rent an Italian villa for a vacation; uptight Rose (Tara Rosling); the imperious Mrs. Graves (Donna Belleville); and the unhappy beauty, Caroline (Marla McLean). The set design by the festival’s resident design director, William Schmuck, adroitly uses just a couple of tables and chairs to set up the various gloomy London locations in the first half of the play as well as the train ride to Italy; the set then transforms into glorious color in the second half, where the enchantment of the villa and the Italian landscape weaves its predictable spell on the travelers.
Designer Schmuck is also responsible for the lavish costumes for Lady Windermere’s Fan, which is wittily and stylishly mounted by director Peter Hinton. Oscar Wilde’s scintillating comedy, which subversively mocks at society’s hypocrisy toward women, even as it upholds a tone of morality and prudence, was the playwright’s first major success, hitting the London stage in 1892, the same year that his compatriot Shaw premiered his first successful play, Widower’s Houses. Shaw would go on writing well into the next century, but Wilde’s career, of course, was unfortunately cut short by scandal just three years later. Teresa Przbylski’s sets for this production—grays and whites influenced by the work of Whistler, visual references to the portraiture of John Singer Sargent and a clever incorporation of Aubrey Beardsley illustrations from the period—are a highlight of this production. The cast does full justice to Wilde’s crackling dialogue with Tara Rosling (in a 180-degree turn from her role in Enchanted April) giving a sexy and moving performance as Mrs. Erlynne, the “woman with a past.”
Playwright Tom Stoppard, with his heady mix of ideas and snappy dialogue, is well qualified to be deemed a contemporary Shavian. Eda Holme’s production of his 1993 masterpiece, Arcadia, presented in the Studio Theater, a 176-seat space located in the Festival Theatre complex, moves crisply through its nearly three-hours stage time. The play flips between the early 1800s and the present in an English country home that was allegedly once visited by Lord Byron. In his usual fashion, Stoppard uses the Byron connection to weave a modern literary mystery story, poke fun at academics who take themselves too seriously, expound on the Chaos theory and the laws of thermodynamics, and also offer a quick history of English landscape gardening. But the true heart of this fascinating work—clearly articulated in this intimately staged production—is the passion that drives the protagonists: a passion for the pursuit of knowledge, to solve life’s mysteries. The audience with the benefit of hindsight gets a God’s-view of the proceedings; we learn that, ultimately, it’s the pursuit and not the goal that matters. Kate Besworth gives an excellently judged performance as Thomasina, the 16-year-old mathematical prodigy who comes to a tragic end, a role that can easily become irritating and cutesy. In a charming coup de théâtre at the end, the backdrop of the set rises and the actors exit into a local arcadia: the green meadowland on the grounds of the festival theater complex that opens into the Niagara-on-the Lake commons.
For more information on this year’s Shaw Festival, click here.