Three days at the Shaw Festival is good for the soul, the mind and the smile on your face. The drive (or flight or bus ride) is more than worth your time and effort, especially when four out of five plays attended are of consistently high quality. The festivalís range of styles continues to expand from the familiar drawing room plays to include large-scale musicals and less traditional approaches to traditional plays that could otherwise be predictable fare.
Mack and Mabel, the major musical of the season, is a risky choice. The show does not precede itself with audiences humming tunes and with memories of earlier productions or the people who made them famous. In fact, the original Broadway production closed almost immediately after it opened and, aside from the original cast recording beloved by many musical theatre fanatics, vanished from sight. The Shaw Festival production is upbeat, fast-paced, brilliantly orchestrated and conducted and boasts an eager-to-please company on and offstage. However, thereís nothing that all these efforts can do to save a script that is ragged and piecemeal, a series of scenes that fail to reveal any character development between the principals or of the separate characters themselves. An odd choice, perhaps, and certainly not a commercial insurance policy. What strikes me most, now that Jackie Maxwell, the festivalís artistic director, has programmed a Festival Stage musical for the third consecutive season, is that her economic resources seem just too thin to produce the works she has chosen for that large and beautiful venue. Is she lacking the background in musical theatre to make more suitable choices? Is she trying too hard to fill a space that is too greedy for resources that the festival cannot secure or invest? Is audience loyalty to each seasonís musical a risk or an educated certainty? Can last yearís demonstrated enthusiasm for High Society (a box office winner and critical casualty) be compared to this seasonís response to Mack and Mabel (cautious audience interest and strong critical praise) with valid long-term conclusions?
The Circle, by Somerset Maugham, also at the Royal George Theatre, reinforces one of the festivalís greatest strengths – the early twentieth century drawing room play. Christina Poddubiukís exquisite set and costume designs pitch us into the heart of Maughamís world. Neil Munro, directing with no less insight than he brought to Summer and Smoke, serves the text and is content to leave the actors to hypnotize the audience. Grace, wit and unerring intellectual precision make the most of this play. The first act charges ahead and makes the audience keep up with it, in the very best way. The second-act writing is less engaging. But the second act has a scene with three of the companyís senior actors – Wendy Thatcher, Michael Ball, and David Schurmann – that could be boxed and used as a lesson in what stage acting can be but so rarely is. This trio simply sit and talk to each other – one or two may even stand from moment to moment -- but the sheer ease of delivery washes over us and, drawing room artifice aside, we are transported to a time when language was the key to communication.
The Cassilis Engagement, a hardly-known play by hardly-known playwright St. John Hankin (his play, Return of the Prodigal, was produced at the Shaw Festival previously) is a standout. Christopher Newton directs a powerful ensemble that inhabits William Schmuckís masterful design. The Court House Theatre, my favourite of the festivalís three venues because of an intimacy that doesnít choke the people living and working in it, frames Hankinís world, his characters and his ideas. Among others, Goldie Semple, Mary Haney, Laurie Paton and Patrick Galligan re-assert the value of true repertory theatre. The actor you saw the day before in a supporting role is now a leading player, and vice-versa. Over a long history, the Shaw Festival demonstrates consistent devotion to theatre as community. How lucky we are that Niagara-on-the-Lake has the Shaw and we, in turn, have them both.
Hotel Peccadillo, a farce by Georges Feydeau that has been adapted by Morris Panych, also the productionís director, is playing at the Festival Theatre. Of the five plays that I include here, Peccadillo is the one I cannot strongly recommend. Panych has worked overtime, or far too hard, to make something funny that may have been funny without all his assistance. In this he has been aided and, at the same time, hobbled, by his long-time design partner, Ken MacDonald, whose love of forced perspective, successful in some of his previous work, requires the actors to bend and squeeze through entrances and exits that serve only to highlight their discomfort. The standard boulevard sex farce that made, and makes, Feydeau one of the champions of this impossible-to-solve genre, is here adapted in a crude and crass fashion. I donít refer to obscene language or vulgarity. I do refer to Panychís attention to the obvious and the pedantic. He has created a new character for the play, Feydeau himself, who enters and exits throughout with asides tossed to the audience. On occasion these asides are funny, but their sum in no way adds to the playís value or the productionís purpose. Furthermore, Panych has provided several characters with their own to-the-audience asides that remind us that they are, after all, actors trapped in a play from which they cannot easily exit. Moments into the second act, I felt much the same way sitting in my seat. But notwithstanding my lack of enthusiasm for the production, members of the ensemble -- Goldie Semple, Patrick Galligan, Laurie Paton and Lorne Kennedy among others --.fuel their high-powered performances with invention.
These five productions are only half of the seasonís offerings. Two more plays, Tristan, a musical premiere, and The Kiltartan Comedies, are about to open. The season carries on through the fall. Please do yourselves a great favour by checking out the festivalís web site – www.shawfest.com – and book an experience you will not soon forget.