Thursday, July 31, 2014

Shaw Festival 2014

Ten show choices in the 
beautiful setting of Canada’s wine country

Queen Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake
     We used to visit Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL), Ontario, annually until a few years ago.  It’s in the middle of Canada’s wine country and features The Shaw Festival, one of North America’s finest professional theatre companies.  Imagine Napa Valley with the Guthrie or The Goodman smack up in
the middle of it and that gives an idea of how this is.  NOTL has been named Canada’s prettiest town – it’s only twenty minutes north of Niagara Falls – and it looks like an upscale English town (Bath or Bristol, perhaps) circa 1900.  Oh yes, and there are fifty wineries within a ten-mile radius.  Ice wine (too sweet for serious wine connoisseurs, though we love it) was its invention in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but some internationally award winning whites and reds have been developed in the past two decades.  Tourism has increased steadily and become more diverse.

The Court House Theatre Entrance to Shaw Festival
     Those aren’t the reasons we’ve gone.  Instead, we preferred the prospectus for Shaw to that of Stratford’s Shakespeare Festival (NOTL is also a more beautiful setting with more to do).  The real draw is that the Shaw produces scripts rarely presented by other theatres.  The first year we saw a spellbinding The Children’s Hour (1934) by Lillian Hellman, in which I still remember the buzzing bees while the girls changed over the set and the ghostly figures of the characters leaving Karen’s life (an image not specified in the script).  The next day we attended a lunchtime production of Lucille Fletcher’s Sorry, Wrong Number (1943), which emphasized the ensemble philosophy of the company because the leads from the day before played cameos and supporting roles.  It was also scarier than the movie.

Jackie Maxwell,
Artistic Director
     Once Jackie Maxwell became Artistic Director, the choice of plays became more diverse and challenging.  Yes, they perform Shaw’s plays and those of his contemporaries, but they added works about that era (1856 – 1950) and newer playwrights that share philosophical and aesthetic concerns with Shaw.  Over the years, we saw a very inventive production of Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money (1987) and John Osborne’s The Entertainer (1957), which is one of the best productions I’ve seen anywhere ever.  It really is Britain’s answer to Death of a Salesman, except that it is meta-theatrical in thematically linking the decay of the British Empire to the decline of the English Music Hall tradition.  

The Ensemble from A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur*
     This year, we chanced upon Tennessee Williams’ A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur (1978) because we had a free morning and thought we could fit in this one hour one-act.  Lisa was glad we did since it was her favorite of the three shows we saw.  Set in St. Louis in the 1930s, like The Glass Menagerie, Lovely Sunday is the lighter comic version of what might have happened to Blanche DuBois if she hadn’t allowed her illusions to overtake her everyday existence, hadn’t cracked up, and hadn’t had to depend on the kindness of strangers.  Instead, Dorothea re-envisions her future and has the courage to follow the advice of her stouthearted roommate Bodey.  

     The Shaw production, directed by veteran actor Blair Williams, focuses on a perfect ensemble (Deborah Hay, Kate Hennig, Kaylee Harwood, Julain Molnar) and fully mines the script’s humor and potential despair.  The set by Cameron Porteous and Louise Guinand’s lighting really did recall Ben Shahn’s 1930s paintings or works by other WPA artists.  The designers were able to take the small Courthouse thrust stage and use it in a way that made it seem spiky and charming.

The Grand Indoor Set Design for The Philadelphia Story*
     Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story (1939) played in spectacular sets by William Schmuck, head of design at the Shaw and one of its most valuable secret weapons.  Using a revolving stage – shared in repertory with Cabaret – it moves effortlessly from inside the Lord mansion to its exterior terrace/poolhouse and back again.  The props and scenic changes were choreographed precisely, almost as if they were musical comedy numbers, using the actors playing the Lord family’s servants.  

Moya O'Connell as Tracy Lord**
     I wasn’t certain about Moya O’Connell in the first act because she seemed to be very close to Katharine Hepburn’s interpretation, but she made the role her own in the second act.  She certainly looks the patrician goddess in the gorgeous costumes.  Gray Powell, Patrick McManus, and Fiona Byrne gave strong performances.  I’ve always admired Sharry Flett (she was quietly elegant in The Autumn Garden in 2005 and crazily manipulative in the 2007 Summer and Smoke, where Nicole Underhay gave a definitive performance as Alma and probably would’ve been nominated for a Tony if it had played in New York), but Neil thought she was pushing in the first act.  Dennis Garnhum paced the show so that the laughs really built and the romantic possibilities felt like strong choices.

Gallagan, Reid, and Jamieson in The Sea*
     I really wanted to see Edward Bond’s The Sea (1973), set in an English coastal village in 1907.  It’s an adventurous choice because it’s a tonally dark comedy with shifts between drama, high comedy, farce, and elegy.  Fiona Reid energetically performed in the grand manner, while Patrick Galligan and Peter Millard were both excellent.  One of the high points was Patty Jamieson utilizing her extraordinary pipes to wild effect during what became a hymn sing-off with Reid in the second act.  

Fabric is Used in
Every Scene of The Sea*
     Camellia Koo’s scene design was inspired in its use of cloth to suggest sea, storms, and cliffs. I think this productiion got off to a rough start because the play begins during a storm and establishes the three principal male characters.  We couldn’t see them very well because it was so dark and couldn’t quite understand who was drowning, who needed help, who wouldn’t help, and what the drunken guy was doing.  Though difficult, it was a rewarding production of a nearly great play.

*Photos by David Cooper
**Photos by Emily Cooper

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