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The Shaw Festival
and reviews Major Barbara, You Never Can Tell, Autumn Garden & Gypsy
By James Moore
Shaw's gesture for posterity was no doubt an expression of his love of the English language and a final attempt to leave a lasting imprint upon it. He needn't have bothered. The substantial body of work that Shaw left behind remains one of the most influential in English literature, and his stature as one of the world's great playwrights is assured. And Shaw would undoubtedly derive some satisfaction from knowing that the Shaw Festival Theatre Company is devoted to honoring his works and those of his contemporaries.
The Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario has been producing Shaw's works for 43 years. Led by the talents of Artistic Director Christopher Newton, the Festival rose from the ranks of well-run summer stock theatre to become one of the premiere theatrical venues in North America. After 23 years Newton retired in 2002 and was succeeded by Jackie Maxwell, a former director of the Factory Theatre in Toronto. Now that Maxwell has logged enough seasons of her own to imprint her personality onto the Shaw she has proven herself to be a worthy successor to Newton. The tradition of theatrical excellence continues at Niagara-on-the-Lake and there are many who consider the Shaw Festival is now home to the finest repertory theatre company in North America.
The Festival's roots can be traced to 1962 when Ontario lawyer and playwright Brian Doherty staged a summertime "Salute to Shaw" in the town's courthouse. For eight weekends Doherty and his crew produced Shaw's Don Juan in Hell and Candida. The "Salute," with its mandate to promote the works of Shaw and his contemporaries, was an immediate success and a little more than a decade later the company managed to build its own theatre. Queen Elizabeth II, Indira Gandhi, and Pierre Elliot Trudeau were among those who attended performances at the Shaw Festival Theatre during its inaugural season in 1973.
When Newton took the helm in 1980, he refined the Festival's charter to focus on works that were written during Shaw's lifetime, the years 1856 to 1950. He declared that works from that period are "plays about the beginning of the modern world," and that phrase has been the Shaw's motto ever since.
During Newton's tenure he managed to recruit a number of world-class directors and to build an outstanding resident acting ensemble. The Shaw is one of the few theatres in North America to host a permanent acting company, and it has gained an international reputation for its innovative theatrical designs.
In 1980 the company acquired Niagara-on-the-Lake's Royal George Theater and it continued to stage productions in the town's courthouse. In 2000 Newton expanded the Festival's charter to include works that are set in the period of Shaw's lifetime, which now allows Maxwell the flexibility to offer works by contemporary playwrights. Today the Festival produces ten to twelve plays during its eight-month season and often draws more than 300,000 people s to its three theatres each year. Newton continues his association with the Shaw as Artistic Director Emeritus, and in 2005 he is directing a production of R.C. Sherriff's Journey's End.
I managed to see four Shaw productions in July -- Autumn Garden, Major Barbara, You Never Can Tell & Gypsy. In the course of viewing four plays over two days I expected to see a few soft spots, but found none. Everything about the Shaw's productions was consistently excellent. My personal favorite was You Never Can Tell, simply because of the way that director Morris Panych managed to bring a touch of modern freshness to Shaw's irreverent comedy about love and the beach life in Victorian England. To read the full reviews of each play I saw, follow the links at the end of this page.
With a bit of luck I may be able to return to the Shaw Festival later this season. If so I'll add reviews to new shows as they become available. In any event I certainly look forward to my next visit to the Shaw. Its productions are equal to the best theatre that I've ever seen anywhere in New York, London, or continental Europe.
Besides playing host to the Shaw Festival, the charming little town of Niagara-on-the-Lake is itself a major tourist attraction, and some refer to it as "the prettiest town in Canada." The well-manicured village on the southern edge of Lake Ontario offers its visitors an abundance of flowers, early nineteenth century architecture, and the produce of a burgeoning wine industry. The micro climate of the Niagara region also permits a number of other fragile fruit crops to grow there.
In early battles during the War of 1812 American invaders burned most of Niagara-on-the-Lake to the ground, a historical fact that Canadian hosts rarely fail to mention to their American guests. As the war grew to a stalemate British and Canadian forces recaptured nearby Fort George and the surrounding villages, and Niagara-on-the-Lake was quickly rebuilt. Many architectural gems from that early period survive in the town today. Most of those buildings are now home to shops, restaurants, and a variety of elegant Bed and Breakfast inns. The Falls of Niagara lie a short distance away, and the impressive restoration of Fort George gives tourists the chance to relive the War of 1812 and the early colonial days of North America. A visit to Niagara-on-the-Lake is a worthwhile venture, and fans of live theatre should not miss the opportunity to attend the exceptional offerings of the Shaw Festival. Travel information is available from the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce, 905.468.1950, www.niagaraonthelake.com.
LINKS TO PLAYS REVIEWED
You Never Can Tell
You may also want to check out CurtainUp's Shaw Page
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