NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONT. - The finest theater in the English-speaking world is near enough for us to go there and return on a single tank of gas: The Shaw Festival.
Each year from spring through late fall, the festival operates three theaters, as much as three times per day, and this season's offerings are many and delightful. We recently saw six terrific productions.
For me, no summer is complete without at least one visit to Shaw and another to the other great Canadian theater festival at Stratford. They renew my faith in humanity.
Goldie Semple, left, as actress Desiree Armfeldt, finds that an afternoon in the country can easily turn to conflict in “A Little Night Music.” With her are Nichaela Bekenn, Justin Stadnyk and Robin Evan Willis.
Put a mother and daughter on a stage, and you have a drama. Mary Haney as Mrs. Warren and Moya O’Connell as her daughter prove it in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,’’ by George Bernard Shaw.
There is so much to do at Niagara-on-the-Lake that it would be a tourist attraction even if there weren't wonderful theater. It's a beautiful little town located exactly at the spot where the mighty Niagara River, fresh from its dramatic leap over Niagara Falls, flows gently into Lake Ontario. You can get a sense of all there is to do, as well as the festival's theatrical offerings, by going to www.shawfest.com. If you phone (800) 511-7429, they will send you a color brochure jam packed with information about what is there and when it's available.
At Shaw, they've built a community of actors, singers, musicians, technicians, directors, designers and other professionals who produce work which will blow the average person's mind, and they do it with such ease and grace, one never feels one is being tolerated.
The hard core theater lovers will surely enjoy ''Belle Moral'' by contemporary Canadian playwright Anne-Marie MacDonald. The play had an earlier production in 2005 and attracted so much interest that it is being repeated this season. There are no easy answers in this play, so it isn't the place for the ''all I want is to be entertained'' play goer.
It's set in an ancient stone home on the coast of Scotland at the turn of the 20th century. It begins with an image of a beautiful woman in a bridal gown, coming face to face with a jackal-faced Egyptian god.
There is something remarkable about the MacIsaac family. Sister Pearl and brother Victor are total opposites. She is a scientist, buttoned-down, level headed. He is a poet, and prone to spontaneous acts such as pulling off his clothes and jumping into the sea.
The siblings' mother died when Victor was born. There are stories about her: she was French, she was an artist, she used to wander all day alone through the isolated moors.
Judith Bowden's sets constantly feed questions to the audience. Don't the arms of that couch seem to sprout antlers, where normally there would be no such thing? Don't the legs of that desk begin to look like something very different than a piece of furniture? Don't the elderly aunt and the mysterious doctor constantly suggest there are secrets which are better not known? Don't sounds emerge from the attic at night, suggesting that someone is up there?
The mystery is cleverly interwoven with some pointed humor, including that there is another old Scottish house called Balmoral, where the family who lives there is known for some genetic peculiarities of their own.
If you enjoy a different vision and the opportunity to let your intellect wander, and if you can tolerate rather more preaching than is comfortable, it's a great choice for you. It's at the Courthouse Theater.
Leonard Bernstein wrote three Broadway shows detailing his love for New York City - ''On the Town,'' "Wonderful Town'' and ''West Side Story.'' Shaw Festival is presenting a big, colorful and very entertaining production of ''Wonderful Town'' at its largest venue, the Festival Theatre.
This show is based on the play ''My Sister Eileen,'' about an intellectual writer from Ohio who moves to Greenwich Village in the colorful 1930s with her beautiful younger sister, Eileen.
The sisters rent a one-room apartment in the basement of an apartment building, occupied by a menagerie of colorful types, including a struggling football player who is popularly called The Rambling Wreck, who loves his young lady even though her wealthy mother is determined they will separate.
Ruth tries to get work as a writer, despite the fact that men can't remember her name once they've gotten a look at Eileen.
Everyone in the cast sings and dances very well. The orchestra is good. The music is not just bright and entertaining, it's also musically very good. The night we saw it, the show rather bogged down throughout the first half and seemed tired and lacking in energy, up to the moment at which Ruth tries to interview sailors from the Brazilian navy, while the young sailors are only interested in dancing the Conga. From then on, it really soared.
Lisa Horner is betrayed a bit in her performance by her wardrobe, which relies too much on old-lady shoes and mannish hats, but when she finally opens up to the world, she was spectacular.
Chilina Kennedy was certainly beautiful enough to make us believe every man she met would drop every thought in his head to try to engage her in conversation.
Jay Turvey sang beautifully as the editor who gradually grows to appreciate Ruth's talents. Thom Marriott's lament about being expected to go to places like classrooms, when all he wants to do is play football, was especially fun.
Almost everyone I talked with said they loved the show. The few who didn't like it really didn't like it.
Mrs. Warren's Profession
The festival is dedicated to Irish author, critic and intellectual George Bernard Shaw. Every production they offer must either have been written during the near-100 year period of his life or must be about that period.
Shaw was a brilliant man who foresaw much that would or should take place in the world. Sadly, he was terribly impressed by his own brilliance and never grasped the meaning of the word ''enough.'' Shaw realized things about society which his peers had never considered.
''Mrs Warren's Profession'' is a play about the meeting of a ''modern'' young woman who has graduated from the university and gone to work as a lawyer, with the woman's mother, who has remained at a distance, but has paid the very high cost of her daughter's upbringing and education through a career as a prostitute and procurer.
Director Jackie Maxwell is that rare Shavian director who understands that the true focus of Shaw's plays is the events. The conversations are a distant second.
Mary Haney as the scandalous mother and Moya O'Connell as the feminist daughter make this production work very well. Ric Reid was the audience's favorite, as a social-climbing, bibulous clergyman who believes he must keep his son away from the daughter of such a mother at any cost.
The sets and costumes at Shaw are nearly always brilliant, and in this production, every time the curtains opened on a new set, the audience burst into applause. They were beautiful, yet did not distract from the plot in any way. The designer was Sue lePage and Kevin Lamotte lighted everything flawlessly.
There are no car chases in this one. If you can enjoy it without them, you'll enjoy it very much.
A Little Night Music
Stephen Sondheim's ''A Little Night Music'' is alleged to be the hardest ticket to get at this year's festival. It's a popular show with a well-known score, especially the song ''Send in the Clowns.'' It's a story of people who own too much and do too much, and only at long last come to realize that they need to act to succeed in life.
It's based on the tender film ''Smiles of a Summer's Night'' by Ingmar Bergman and, of course, it's set in Sweden around 1900.
Widowed and aging, Attorney Fredrik Egerman has married a beautiful 18-year-old woman, but she is shy and frightened and he cannot bring himself to consummate the marriage. His wife is adored by his young adult son, who seeks to be a Lutheran clergyman and fights his inclinations with all his strength.
The lawyer is a former lover of a famous actress, Desiree Armfeldt. They parted, but that flame still burns for both. She has a new young lover, a hot-tempered and self-important count, but Fredrik is increasingly on her mind.
Her aging mother is wheeled onstage from time to time to tell stories of her youth as mistress to kings and companion to grand dukes.
The Shaw production is set in the tiny Courthouse Theatre, so every member of the audience is only a few rows from the cast. Ken MacDonald has designed the beautiful abstract set, made largely of freestanding birch trees which are quickly twisted into place by the chorus so that each new setting appears in moments. Alan Brodie did the lighting, which produced candlelight, starlight, moonlight and other perfect lighting.
The magnificent Goldie Semple portrayed Desiree. She has such elegance and presence I would buy tickets to listen to her ordering a pizza.
Donna Belleville portrayed her mother in a manner which left little doubt that she could have entranced kings and dukes.
Patty Jamieson was most moving as the wife of the fiery young count, entering into his plots because she couldn't bear to deny him, even though he ignored her and valued her not at all.
The whole cast is very good. Again, this one isn't full of action, but if you care about people and what they do and what they should do, this is a very fine show.
One of the great strengths of the festival is its search for and profound scholarship of the writers of the period from 1850 to 1950. One great discovery is the plays of a woman named Githa Sowerby, whose considerable oeuvre has either never been performed before or perhaps only once or twice.
Women in the 19th century had very little choice in life. A woman could become virtually the property of a husband, and live or die by his energy and effort, or she could seek the support of a brother or nephew and be a burden and bother to him for the rest of her life.
Stepmothers have a very bad reputation in western culture. If a woman married a man who already had legitimate children, chances were that his children would inherit everything he owned, and she and her children would be thrown onto their mercy when her husband died.
It wasn't unusual that stepmothers tried to woo their husbands away from the children of the earlier marriage.
Sowerby's play shows us a stepmother who has married a truly vile man, and who dedicates her life and energy to supporting and providing for her stepchildren.
Claire Jullien gives a valiant performance as the woman in question, astounding us with her concern for and deference to her husband, while she pays his debts and covers up his wrong doings.
Blair Williams gave a perfect portrait of the husband, one who believes his own lies the moment they're out of his mouth, and who truly believes he is the wronged victim of every person who comes into his life.
Just to grasp how society can entangle people, despite hard and repeated efforts on their part, is reason enough to see this play, but it's insightful and sensitive as well.
Sometimes it is wonderful to watch a person juggle chain saws or walk on a wire across Niagara Falls, just because it's wonderful to see someone do something rare and brilliant.
''The President,'' by Ferenc Molnar, is exactly such a feat, performed by actor Lorne Kennedy. He plays a tightly wired executive in a major business firm. Norrison lives at top speed, keeping four secretaries, two assistants, several junior executives and a board of directors, running in and out of his office, then dashing off to do his bidding.
The play suggests that Norrison wants a wealthy midwestern farmer to invest in a business scheme. He has even volunteered to look after the farmer's young adult daughter while the man is out of the country.
Lovely Lydia has been leaving the house and going to the library every day, and Norrison has been filling her evenings with opera, theater and culture. Today, he learns the farmer will return in one hour, and Lydia picks that moment to announce that she hasn't really been at the library. Instead, she has fallen in love and married an unwashed communist taxi driver.
Norrison decides to mold the driver into an ideal son-in-law in the one hour which remains. He talks, non stop, through the entire play. He orders up clothes, haircuts, a new profession, an adoption by a suitable father, a legal name change, and everything the young man will need to impress his beloved's father.
Mingled with all these rapid-fire orders are concerns for the health of his staff, comments meant to charm them and make them want to work for him, a wailing lament for the discovery that his mistress is cheating on him, and a whole menu of other subjects.
This one is the equivalent of a car chase, and it had the audience holding their sides from laughing so much.
It's performed in the Royal George Theater and is one of the festival's famed ''Lunch Hour'' productions, which begin at 11:30 a.m. and run only one hour. I can't imagine there's a person who is grumpy enough to resist the charm of this one.