This year, the Shaw Festival is celebrating 50 years of presenting some of the very finest theater, anywhere on earth, and you can join them almost any day, until early November.
Each year, the festival starts in April, first doing a few preview performances of each show and finally, beginning around Memorial Day, opening them officially, one by one, until visitors can choose from 11 different productions of plays, each performed in one of four different performing spaces, ranging from the most modern and well-equipped to the quaintly historical, to the experimental and original.
Each year, some readers demand to know why we don't hurry up to the very first presentations, in April, so they can have our reviews to help them choose what to see. Each year I try to make them understand that journalists may not review plays before they have officially opened.
She could have danced all night, sings Deborah Hay as Eliza Dolittle, while Benedict Campbell, as Henry Higgins, sings her praises in the Shaw Festival's production of “My Fair Lady.”
However, this year we were able to make a visit to the Shaw Festival less than a week after the productions began to be open, and I am now ready and eager to tell you about five of them. Meanwhile, I'm happy to remind you that it is almost impossible to be disappointed by a Shaw Festival performance. Even on the rare occasions in which they fall short of what you might hope for, they're always so interestingly presented and have such high production values that it is well worth the drive and the ticket price to go and see things, anyway.
I envy those who are able to pick specific plays which they especially want to see, and look those titles up in the Shaw program, to choose a date to attend. I always find myself with a small hole in my schedule, and I have to go up and see what they're presenting on that date or those dates, whatever they might be.
You can see their entire season of performances, spread out in calendar pages, on their web site, or if you phone them, they will mail you a beautiful, full color printed season brochure, which has descriptions of the plays, cast lists, information about places to eat in the community, suggestions of places to stay, etc.
The festival's theaters are all located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. That community is located at the spot where the Niagara River flows into Lake Ontario. You can get there from Jamestown in about two hours of driving, plus whatever time you might need to cross the Canadian border and to deal with highway repairs and that sort of delays. Remember that you now need a passport or some other legal document for crossing an international border, to make the trip.
It's possible to drive up, see one production in the afternoon and/or one in the evening, and then to drive back home the same day. It's much nicer to book a place to stay in the community, and to enjoy the benefits of that elegant little village, as well as the theater. There are beautiful gardens and plantings, health spas, winery tours, gorgeous hiking and bicycle trails, gorgeous scenery, exotic shops, daredevil boat rides into the whirlpool of the Niagara, and more. The community tends to be a bit pricey and the Canadian dollar is now worth more than the U.S. dollar, so the happy days when we got an extra, sort-of, discount are gone, but it's still a great treat and not unreasonable.
To check out the Shaw Festival's web site, go to www.shawfest.com. To phone and buy tickets or request to receive a program guide, phone (800) 511-7429.
MY FAIR LADY
Often described as the finest musical comedy ever written, ''My Fair Lady'' combines a story by George Bernard Shaw himself the man for whom the entire festival is named with a well-known and well-written score by Lerner and Lowe.
The play begins outside London's greatest opera house. A common flower girl named Eliza Dolittle encounters a wealthy language instructor named Henry Higgins. He and his friend, another linguist named Col. Pickering, get on the topic of the importance of language. Higgins makes a bet that he could take this common, uneducated young woman and teach her to speak correctly, whereupon she could easily fit among the highest orders of society.
Eventually Higgins' lessons are successful and Eliza is a ravishing success at an embassy ball, but now that she is educated and cultured, she cannot return to the life she lived before. Shaw loves dwelling upon the inability of the operating rules of British society to adapt to the real needs of real people.
The music is wonderful: ''Wouldn't It Be Loverly,'' ''I Could Have Danced All Night,'' ''On the Street Where You Live,'' and many more familiar titles can get themselves stuck in your memory, if you're not careful.
Shaw's version of the show is problematic, but it is light and beautifully costumed and lighted, and it can make for a very happy afternoon or evening.
My greatest discomfort was with the sets, designed by Ken MacDonald. The sets for Shaw productions are usually stunning and wonderfully correct for the show. MacDonald did brilliant settings for plays such as ''The Coronation Voyage,'' for example, and ''Hotel Pecadillo.''
What doesn't work here is the element of abstraction. These people live in front of walls which are made to look like dozens of birdcages, for example. This is in no way an abstract play, and it plays uncomfortably in front of abstract scenery.
Musical Director Paul Sportelli and his show orchestra were spot-on, never overwhelming the cast, but maintaining an energy and a near-perfect accuracy.
My favorite character was Eliza's spunky old father, portrayed by festival regular Neil Barclay. A big man, Barclay danced and rushed around with great energy, and surprising grace, and his character was the comic spice which defined the central action.
Deborah Hay is a lovely woman and her voice is solid, if not as celestial as that of Julie Andrews, who has become the benchmark Eliza in the memory of anyone who has ever heard her. She was a spunkier Eliza than one is used to hearing, which made her utter horror on realizing that once Higgins won his bet, he had no more plans for her, less of a shock than we are used to receiving.
I liked Benedict Campbell's performance as Higgins. His costume and makeup made him resemble the younger Henry Kissinger, making him the British equivalent of Detective Columbo. He lost mastery of the wealthy, coddled expert Shaw described, who can't understand why everyone can't manage all the advantages he has received since birth, but he did enunciate wonderfully and he actually sang his songs, while so many actors speak/sing the words.
It's a good production and very entertaining. If it can't compete with memories of other productions, it will beat the pants off anything you've probably seen in the past 25 years. Molly Smith directed.
''My Fair Lady'' runs at the Festival Theatre, through Oct. 30.
I can't really describe what ''Heartbreak House'' by Shaw himself, is about. Instead, the play embodies life for the British upper classes, as the world drifts into World War I and the horrors which we now know followed right after it. These people lead a life which will no longer exist, and each of them either needs to adapt, or to die.
The action takes place in the drawing room of a large English country house, belonging to a sea captain named Shotover. As the play progresses, the room looks less and less like a room, and more and more like a large ship at sea. As the play draws to a close, anytime a character does something which ''rocks the boat,'' the entire room rolls and bucks, like a ship in a storm. The ingenious setting is by Leslie Frankish.
Shotover is a crusty old cuss who either is, or pretends to be, well along the road to senility. His two beautiful daughters are in the house. They bear the unlikely names Ariadne, Lady Utterword, and Hesione Hushabye. Each has the ability to attract any man she wants, convincing them to activities they neither want nor believe in.
Shaw always delights in presenting events in such a way that the audience is forced to reconsider their long-held beliefs and understandings. Hesione, for example, says she has been so delighted in loving her husband that she cannot begrudge other women for doing so. That is always interesting, but the playwright's fascination with it nearly always outlives the audience's involvement.
The costumes are wonderful, the performances inspiring. The play will compel those audience members who love many, many words, more than anyone who wishes to see something happen. Christopher Newton directed.
''Heartbreak House'' will play at the Festival Theatre through Oct. 7.
DRAMA AT INISH
Irish-born Jackie Maxwell is the Artistic Director of the entire festival, and she has an understanding of Irish people and Irish ideas which have brought many wonderful moments to Shaw stages, including her direction of this play.
A rarely-performed gem, ''Drama at Inish - a Comedy,'' was written by Lennox Robinson, about a small town in Ireland, although it might have been written by a member of the festival, about Niagara-on-the-Lake.
The plot concerns the keeper of a small seaside hotel, on the south coast of Ireland. John Twohig has been losing business in recent years, as patrons are finding more interesting places to spend their scarce resources and their brief vacation periods. He has been in the habit of bringing loud, off-color comedy shows to town, to keep the tourists entertained, but since that hasn't been working, this year, he has hired a company of serious actors, who will present not pies in the face and pratfalls, but plays by Ibsen, Chekov, and Strindberg.
Actors Thom Marriott and Corrine Koslo portrayed the professional actors who come to the small town of Inish to perform the classics. They captured beautifully the way actors, who spend their lives impressing their thoughts and actions onto other people's minds, can become laughably larger than life when off stage, they really only want to get a cup of tea, or have a tear in their jacket mended.
To many people's surprise, vacationers are attracted by the great thoughts of the plays, and both tourists and local residents begin to find themselves looking at life in a different way than they once did, because of what the plays have planted in their minds.
Some live more richly. Some realize how little their lives contain, compared to what they might have done. Some want to become friends with the actors, while others blame the actors for their new dissatisfaction with their lives. Some find the courage, from watching the great characters of literature, to make important changes, while others accept their failure.
The production is beautiful to look at, fascinating to listen to, and entertaining, on top of all. From William Schmuck's capturing of not only the look but the feel of the common room of a small Irish hotel, to the overpriced dresses with which the hotel owner's wife decks herself, leaving her looking so much like an overstuffed arm chair, as so many British and Irish women are apt to do, the play is a long series of recognitions and realizations.
''Drama at Inish'' continues in repertory at the Court House Theatre, through Oct. 1.
''Candida'' is perhaps the most human of the many plays by Shaw. In this year's production, director Tadeusz Bradecki has wandered rather far from the many other productions of the play which I have seen.
The story is rather simple, especially for Shaw. Candida Morell is the wife of a wealthy clergyman, who makes his living as a popular lecturer, which makes him the idol of fans.
Always charming and serene, Candida's life becomes complicated when a young poet falls passionately in love with her. She moves calmly ahead, but both of the two men in her life begin to wonder if the husband's wealth and public position and the poet's youth and creative mind won't win her away.
Bradecki seems to have chosen to make the production something of a counter-Shaw.
The playwright delights in picking an argument such as ''one plus one equals three,'' then arguing passionately until one finds oneself questioning whether he is right, then turning around and arguing against his original argument, until one feels one was foolish to have ever agreed.
In every earlier production I have seen, Candida's husband was cast as an older man, seeming sturdy and dependable and calm, while the poet was good looking, adventuresome, and attractive. It made a believable conflict for a wife.
Bradecki has cast Nigel Shawn Williams, a handsome, very physical and intense husband, versus Wade Bogert-O'Brien as the poet, a slender, bookish young man, made to look a bit childish in a red velvet jacket. If Candida sticks with her husband, she gets the physicality, the respectability, and the security, while a choice of the poet offers her little. I waited in vain for the director to produce the arguments which would change my opinion. Claire Jullien is lovely and radiated serenity in the title role, but her director left, with no temptation to stray.
''Candida'' continues at the Royal George Theatre through Oct. 30.