News Column

Shaw Festival is a theater-lover's buffet

September 29, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 29--NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ontario -- The Shaw Festival keeps on giving. Many think of it as a summer theater, because that's when they go, but it actually opened way back in April and continues well into October, sometimes extending even longer.

Anyway, "summer theater" is hardly the name for a theater festival of this size and complexity, unrivaled in English-speaking North America except, ironically, just up the road a few hours at the Stratford Festival. I led a Post-Gazette bus tour to both festivals back in early summer, seeing just a few shows at each. So it was a pleasure to return to the Shaw to finish off the buffet.

We earned our stripes, you could say, seeing seven plays in 51 hours, including two three-play days. Only one play was a quickie. It probably came to about 17 hours of theater -- a lot for some of the amateurs on the trip, but hey, I'm a professional.

And who's counting? What's time when you're being served up such rich variety? If you go, you could plan yourself an equivalent marathon, but you'll probably tackle something less ambitious. So here are a few notes (I'd hardly call them reviews) about your options -- or to whet your appetite for next year (see interview below with artistic director Jackie Maxwell).

In July, I discussed the lively "Guys and Dolls," saturnine "Our Betters," prickly "Peace in Our Time" and modest "Trifles," a duo of one-acts by Eugene O'Neill and Susan Glaspell. Seeing the latter again, I was struck more deeply by the quiet feminism of two frontier women who figure out the sad story of a third, while their officious husbands bustle about, oblivious to evidence visible only to women.

G.B. Shaw, 'Major Barbara'

This is one of the master's half-dozen or so best known provocations, a parable wrapped around (or in?) a family drama. When Andrew Undershaft, a plutocrat of the international arms trade and a grandly innovative capitalist, meets his grown daughter, a passionate major in the Salvation Army, sparks fly. The Army's motto, "Blood and Fire," could be his, as well. We're off on a robust debate about how best to serve mankind, and although the paradoxical industrialist gets the better of the argument, Barbara has youth and seemingly the future on her side.

But while festival artistic director Ms. Maxwell argues, in the program and in her directing, that Barbara remains the heart of the play, Shaw's own heart goes out to Undershaft. Unfortunately, there was no inkling in 1905 how the "progress" of the machinery of war over the next several decades would outpace the social progress both Shaw and Undershaft envision.

So the cleverly managed (if sometimes interminable) debate often seems quite beside the point, given what we now know of what lies ahead. However, Shaw remains a fine comic dramatist of the family and a canny observer of fossilized attitudes: For a lengthy (nearly three hours) play of ideas, "Major Barbara" is surprisingly sprightly with its comedy of generational squabbles and conventional attitudes.

Benedict Campbell is a robust, articulate Undershaft worthy to stand with his many famous predecessors. He's a master of Shaw's voluminous text. But the feisty, appealing Nicole Underhay, who once played Salome in Pittsburgh, verges on strident as Barbara, playing the ideas at the expense of the person.

Shaw is always a mind worth engaging, but for once his content is lost in his argument.

Oscar Wilde, 'Lady Windermere's Fan'

I chose not to see "Lady Windermere" on my earlier trip to the Shaw, because I was seeing the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre production the following week and didn't want the bigger company to steal its thunder. In retrospect, that was wise, because although the PICT version was very capable, it couldn't match the size and gorgeous, painterly panache the Shaw provides.

Visually, Peter Hinton's production is fabulous, drawing on images from, among others, Sargent, Whistler and Cassatt -- three transplanted Americans, as Wilde was transplanted Irish, appropriately so for a play about dancing on the knife edge of social acceptance. The effects are all the more gorgeous for being realized on a grand vertical scale, with a restrained palette of grays and browns. Sliding panels reveal the stage in tantalizing slices, visual metaphors of the complex illusions on which an exclusive society depends.

It is the perfect setting for Wilde's tale of the dangers of both conservatism and rebellion -- stifled in one case, rejected in the other. Wilde plays a dangerous theatrical game, picturing the eponymous hero as a naive prude, so sure of what she really doesn't understand, that he can make us care about her only at the very last, when she barely escapes social death.

The more interesting role is the "bad" woman, Mrs. Erlynne, played with both command and plaintive appeal by Tara Rosling. Jim Mezon is a delicious booby as Lord Augustus, and Kyle Blair is a fine Wildean epigrammatist as Cecil Graham. But the real hero, the point of fascination, is the very society that would soon turn on Wilde and hound him to death.

Matthew Barber, 'Enchanted April'

What a charmer, this familiar tale of two Englishwomen, trapped in gray 1922 London and stale marriages, who rent an Italian villa for a month and find themselves challenged and revived by the experience. So, more improbably, are the men in their lives.

This play, too, gives the Shaw artists a chance to knock us out with a set, purposefully drab in Act 1 and then as impossibly beautiful in Act 2 as any dreamed of Italian escape could be. These contrasting designs parallel the culture clash at the heart of the play's comedy, which is far more escapist than realist.

But the play also gives the Shaw's most important artists a chance to work their magic: the acting company. Because everyone plays roles in two plays during the season, there is the added fun for the audience of spotting the femme fatale of one play in the mousey soul of another. Call this casting the meta-play in which the acting company is the hero.

Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas, 'The Light in the Piazza'

Having this large musical miniaturized in the small Court House Theatre argues it is closer to a play with music than to Broadway. This is almost in spite of the sophisticated score, charmingly realized by a five-piece combo, which has a sophisticated life of its own but mainly serves pretty directly to express character and emotion.

Once again, Italy is a refuge and a challenge for Anglo-Saxon visitors, this time Margaret and Clara, a mother and daughter from America. It's 1953 (the Shaw specializes in theater written or set in the century of Shaw's lifetime, roughly 1850 to 1950), and the emotionally challenged daughter finds what seems a storybook love. Perhaps she isn't as underdeveloped as the naturally protective mother believes; perhaps, in any case (see "Enchanted April"), she has the right to discover her own life.

Once again, the star is the acting ensemble, as a hardworking cast of just 11 creates the busy town and the tempestuous family into which the Americans enter. The contrasting shortfall of an ensemble can be in the leads, and here Patty Jamieson brings no special distinction to the role of the mother. But the Italian family, led by Juan Chioran as the father, is robust and precise, funny and sympathetic -- a pleasure.

Brian Friel, 'Faith Healer'

Brian Friel's spare, richly enigmatic and shocking tale of an itinerant faith healer who works the small country towns of the Celtic British Isles (Wales, Scotland and Ireland) is really a poetic ritual. It's told in four brilliant monologues, two (first and last) by the man himself and one each by his wife and his manager.

In one of the great acting coups of the festival, Jim Mezon, who played the foolish lord in "Windermere," takes on the title role, Francis Hardy, who speaks to us, we realize only at the climax of the play, from beyond the grave. So, apparently, does Grace. Only the garrulous Teddy is living at the end, the most bewildered of the three, secure in his own prejudices and delusions.

Peter Krantz seems to me somewhat lost as Teddy, and hardly the Cockney he is written to be. Corrine Koslo is better as the bewildered Grace. But Mr. Mezon is magnificent as Hardy, playing him with a realistic zest very different from the contemplative mystic I have seen in other productions of this great play. It boils down to a spare modern version of the final scenes in "King Lear," playing with destiny and fate.

Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.

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