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A CurtainUp Feature
The 2008 Shaw Festival makes Niagara-On-The-Lake a Wonderful Town

With phographs by L. A. Saltzman

Shaw Poster
The posters for the three theaters rotates daily-- here, it's heads up for the sisters from Wonderful Town.
It's not just that Wonderful Town is one of the ten productions being offered by the commendably productive Shaw Festival this season that makes N.O.T.L one of the most exciting places in the world for theater lovers to spend a few days or a full week (as we did). Since the mid 1970s, the presence of the Festival has turned this former garrison town into one of the most beautiful, tourist friendly vacation spots in North America. Our decision to see all ten productions, save an upcoming concert reading of Sondehim's Follies, was not a folly. As suspected and as it turned out, there isn't a play among the ten that didn't exemplify the continuing excellence that has defined the Festival since Jackie Maxwell assumed the reins as the artistic director of the Shaw Festival in 2002.

For those still unfamiliar with the Shaw Festival, one of the two largest repertory companies in the Americas, and for those who may fear that the plays of GBS dominate the festival, the mandate here has evolved over the years to include plays set in the time that Shaw was alive, as well as the work of Shaw's contemporaries. This leaves a wide berth for some of the best dramatic world literature. The season runs from April to November.

The following is part of the daily mid-summer madness of an obsessive/compulsive critic cum self-ascribed maven, one who hopes that you may also opt to immerse yourself in a world of theater as ferociously as did my wife LucyAnn and I during the week of August 11 to 17.

Monday, August 11: We arrive late afternoon at The Open Door, our favorite B & B in NOTL (There are a number of fine hotels as well as hundreds of B&Bs and cottages to rent in the vicinity). After being greeted warmly by our hosts Janice and George Schachtschneider (we stayed in their homey B&B with whirlpool bath last summer), we regain our strength quickly after a short rest in our sunny room. First destination that evening is dinner at the modestly priced but excellent Niagara Golf Club. On the restaurant's al fresco terrace, we enjoy the unobstructed view of historic Fort Niagara on beautiful Lake Ontario. As we dine, we wonder if we made a mistake to book 10 shows and whether it is not going to be more than the body and brain can endure. We shall find out.

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Tuesday, August 12: Saying to yourself not to eat too much for breakfast lest you get lethargic doesn't work when you stay at a B&B that prides itself in serving four courses. We allow ourselves plenty of time to stroll down NOTL's main thoroughfare Queen Street, shop and browse in the countless boutiques and specialty stores before the 2 PM matinee of An Inspector Calls, at the Festival Theater, the largest of the Shaw's three in-town theaters. Can it be that the lure of an ice cream cone at Cows, Canada's famously rich and delicious ice cream, is about to overwhelm us before curtain time? It does. NOTC is a town with an ice cream store on every block and where a cone is clutched in the hand of every other pedestrian.

Shaw Statue
Curtainup's intrepid reporters, take time out for lunch at the lake.
As expected J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls is heady and rewarding dramatic fare. Set in 1912, it is about a police inspector who questions the various members of a privileged family about what they may know and how they may be connected to the death of a young working class woman. This mesmerizing staging, under the direction Jim Mezon, is very different but every bit as stylishly designed (by Peter Harwell; lighting by Kevin LaMotte) and effective as the National Theater import that came to New York in 1994. Benedict Campbell is standout in the titular role.

A feature at the Festival Theater this is a lobby exhibit of enlarged drawings by famed caricaturist Al Hirschfeld depicting Shaw's plays and players beginning in 1928 with Dudley Digges in Major Barbara. The display spans more than 50 years of Shavian history on Broadway and provides a guess-who game for buffs. A pamphlet that lists all the actors is also available in the event you don't recognize legends Katherine Cornell in Candida, or that other Katherine of filmdom in The Millionairess. The funniest is Barbra Streisand and Steve Lawrence in Saint Joan, part of Hirschfeld's Unlikely Casting series for Playbill. And yes, it is fun to count the Nina's while you are at it. The free exhibit is open to the public.

Shaw Statue
Shaw's Statue
Back into the light of day, we consider the twenty-minute drive to the forever awesome Niagara Falls. As we've been there, we opt instead for a long walk through the artistically landscaped park and gardens that face the glorious Victorian Prince of Wales Hotel. Is it time already for a quick bite and another cone as 8 PM approaches and our return to the Festival Theater. One becomes aware soon enough how quickly and efficiently the Festival crews strike the set in each of the three theaters. All three accommodate two different productions every day.

We are ready for the gleeful giddiness of Wonderful Town, the musical about the two sisters — one pretty, one not— who find love and some great songs to sing in Greenwich Village. Forget any preconceived notions you may have about this admittedly dated 1953 musical comedy with a score by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by the incomparable Betty Comden and Adolph Green. It's a fast-moving, often hilarious, bit of nostalgic fun. Think Eve Arden by way of Patsy Kelly as Lisa Horner gives Ruth a winning comic edge. Chilina Kennedy, as her sister Eileen is equally delightful. The exuberant, visually impressive production, under the direction of Roger Hodgman, more than holds it own against the 2003 Broadway revival that starred Donna Murphy.

Wednesday August 13. It's another perfect day with temperatures in the mid-70s. Breakfast conversation includes my question as to why there are no traffic lights in town. There are stop signs (sometimes four-way) on the side streets. More amusing is the automatic right of way for pedestrians who cross the streets at a whim and barely take notice that cars politely come to a stop. I questioned our hosts as to why there are no police in town? "Oh," answered Janice, "The town just hired two policemen. They usually hang out at the Red Rooster Diner but can't be seen with the naked eye." Interesting.

Our matinee performance is The Stepmother, at the Royal George. This is a rediscovered gem by Githa Sowerby that hasn't had a production in 84 years. What a treasure! It turns out to be intense and emotionally gripping play set in 1920s London about a devoted stepmother and successful dress designer, who fosters a loving relationship between herself and her two stepdaughters only to have to bear the burden of a deceitful and despicable husband who brings the family to financial ruin. Claire Jullien elicits cheers as the valiant stepmother even as the splendidly querulous Blair Williams deservedly provokes boos (at the curtain call). Jackie Maxwell directed this must-see play that also uses selected piano pieces by Philip Glass to great effect.

We don't anticipate any surprises with the evening play, The Little Foxes. that finds us back to the Royal George. Wrong! Laurie Patton turns in a chilling performance as the monstrous and mercenary Regina in Lillian Hellman's much admired 1939 play. All the players, under Eda Holmes direction, conspire brilliantly to reveal the greed and avarice that motivates the siblings of a 1900 Southern family.

Thursday August 14: This is the day designated to test our stamina and fortitude. There is an 11:30 AM performance of Ferenc Molnar's Marx Brothers styled farce The President, as adapted by Morwyn Brebner. A motor-mouth chief executive (played by Lorne Kennedy with the imperative of a maniacal control freak) takes on the challenge to transform a common and coarse cab driver into a smartly tailored, well-mannered and polished aristocrat in one hour. Bravo to Kennedy who just two nights before delighted us as Speedy Valenti, the beatnik club owner in Wonderful Town. Chilina Kennedy (whom we eventually recognize as Eileen in Wonderful Town) is equally terrific as the cab driver's comically sexy wife, who also happens to be the chief executive's ward. It's a hilarious exercise that keeps its 15 superb breathlessly on the go for one hour. It is directed by multi-talented Blair Williams, the superb actor who made us boo him in The Stepmother. Now we cheer him.

The matinee of A Little Night Music is at the Court House Theater. It's an intimate and musically rapturous staging by Morris Panych made more so by hearing glorious voices without the use of electronic enhancement. After a vigorous walking tour of the many historic homes that comprise the town, we are well-prepared for Belle Moral, a very challenging and mysterious play by Canadian Ann-Marie MacDonald. Full of ghostly and gothic resonances, it is set in a Scottish manor house in 1899. A brilliant scientist Pearl MacIsaac (Fiona Byrne), in pursuit of truth and evidence in the shadow of Victorian patriarchy, finds herself confounded by her duplicitous suitor and by a weird family with a dark secret. Just the ticket before calling it a day. It is good to report that virtually every seat has been filled by extremely responsive and appreciative audiences at every performance we have attended.

Friday August 15: A tangy taste of Shaw was inevitable. But what a treat it is to sit through Getting Married, one of his rarely done and lesser known plays at the Royal George. It's about a couple who have second thoughts about getting married on the big day. As you would expect, their family members, friends and others have a good deal to say on the subject that is in turn witty, profound, and provocative before a satisfying conclusion is reached. A drive along the Lake Shore Drive beyond to the countryside with its numerous farms and vineyards refreshes us for the return to town.

We are back to the Royal George to see Terrence Rattigan's After the Dance, a romantic tragedy about the "beautiful young things" who frittered away their frivolous lives even as the specter of war looms over London in 1939. Christopher Newton directed this somewhat quaint, but eminently insightful play by a playwright considered one of the best of his generation. In it, Patrick Galligan gives a impassioned performance as David Scott-Fowler, a third rate writer and a first rate alcoholic who unwittingly allows his marriage to a woman who loves him (Deborah Hay) fail and allows his self-centeredness to break up the relationship between his young naïve relative (Ken James Stewart) and his ambitious fiancée (Marla McLean). Under Christopher Newton's direction, traces of melancholia are carefully stirred into the mirth that defined this affluent fringe of society. Another rarely produced play that deserves our attention.

Saturday August 16: Although it was too true to be good (apologies to GBS), we frittered away the afternoon shopping, deciding where to have dinner. It is the Irish Tea Room on Queen Street, of course. What better way to end the Shaw Festival than with one of his best, Mrs. Warren's Profession. Under the direction of Jackie Maxwell, the cast brings a bold new unsentimental resonance to the play and to the conflicted relationship between the scandalous mother and the morally upright daughter. What continues to astonish is the often dazzling casting agility of the Festival's resident actors. Mary Haney, whom we recall from playing the haughty Sybil Birling in An Inspector Calls, takes no prisoners as a tough-as-nails Mrs. Warren. You can almost see the sparks fly between her and her spirited daughter (played with an equally explosive energy by red-haired Moya O'Connell) particularly during the play's climactic confrontation scene. And what a fitting way to leave the Festival than to see Benedict Campbell, who was so bracing in An Inspector Calls, appear here as Mrs. Warren's crafty and cunning business partner Sir George Crofts.

If a common theme runs through the plays this season it is the options of a woman in a man's world. We are sated with plots that have embraced greed, power, manipulation, treachery, deceit, plus sex, politics, and murder. If a common dramatic thread can be discerned from this season's plays, it is an awareness of how many of the plays feature strong, determined, self-empowered women provocateurs such as the conniving Regina, in The Little Foxes; the self-assured Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music; the social-climbing Helen Banner in After the Dance; the provocative Mrs. Warren, the fearlessly independent Pearl MacIsaac in Belle Moral; and even the adventurous Ruth and Eileen in Wonderful Town More importantly, the season's plays resonate with Shaw's feminist slant and with Maxwell's notable support of women directors and playwrights.

A word about the playbills: It is impossible not to rave about the information packed into them. Each has a cover design worthy of framing. Included are director's notes, a production history of the play, a history of the playwright and a background essay that considers the time, political and social conditions at the time the play was written. These are invaluable and add to our enjoyment. There are also enhancing notes by the Shaw's resident composer Paul Sportelli, who has written some impressive original music for many of the plays. As many tourists have departed, September is a perfect time for visiting NOTL and the Shaw Festival and more likely that plays that have been sold out will now have tickets available.

Because some of the plays end their runs before the official end of the season, it is suggested that you call the box office at 1- 800-511-7429 or check the web site:

Editor's Note: For previous coverage of this as well as the Stratford Festival see our features in: 2007, 2006 and 2005 .

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©Copyright 2008, Elyse Sommer.
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