Monday, August 29, 2011

The Shaw Festival @ 50

Heartbreak House

Written by Bernard Shaw
On the Rocks
A new version of Shaw’s play by Michael Healey
My Fair Lady
Music, lyrics & book by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, based on Shaw’s play Pygmalion

Performances of Heartbreak House through October 7; On the Rocks through October 8; Candida through October 30; My Fair Lady through October 30
Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada

Since 1962, the annual Shaw Festival has consolidated its reputation as an unparalleled repertory company, presenting a dozen plays (and, more recently, musicals) by Shaw, his contemporaries and other writers.

Nestled in picturesque Niagara-on-the-Lake, one of Canada’s loveliest towns, the Shaw is a premier summer theater destination. And its current season is crammed with must-see works, including a trio of Shaw comedies and a classic musical based on a Shaw play.

Heartbreak House, one of Shaw’s supreme masterpieces, is a bitter, biting display of vitriol aimed at what the playwright perceived as Britain’s stupidity during World War I. In his obvious allegory about ignorant, deadly behavior, Shaw creates an arresting comic drama about clueless characters who, tellingly, are reluctant to admit their own moral failings.

Christopher Newton’s adroit staging brings out Shaw’s keen senses of humor and irony. Thanks to the usual excellent Shaw Fest ensemble, led by Michael Ball’s Captain Shotover and Benedict Campbell’s Boss Mangan, Shaw’s lacerating depiction of an empire in eclipse is vividly on display.

Too bad Leslie Frankish’s visually ingenious but heavy-handed set pointlessly literalizes Shaw’s description of the play’s setting as a rotting ship. And in Shaw’s astonishing final act, the house’s “hull” makes Shaw’s finely-tuned dialogue explicitly metaphorical instead of deeply probing.

On the Rocks, Shaw’s penultimate play, is an impenetrably dense anti-government screed with characters that are mere mouthpieces for the playwright’s unapologetically leftist politics. Canadian playwright Michael Healey has streamlined the play to make the dialogue more straightforward and the motivations of the British prime minister, associates and opponents more palatable. While the story moves faster and more succinctly, I have doubts about flip-flopping the action so the second act becomes a flashback to what occurs before intermission, but I guess it’s permissible to toy with lesser-known Shaw.

Joseph Ziegler’s staging works well enough on Christina Poddubiuk’s smart 10 Downing Street set, with the skillful comic cast giving its all to this prescient clash between conservative capitalism and utopian socialism. It would be instructive if the Festival presented Shaw’s original play, denseness and length be damned, but for now Healey’s version will do.

Candida, Shaw’s splendidly sophisticated chamber comedy about a minister and his wife whose relationship is complicated by the presence of an 18-year-old poet who adores her, is given an adequate if unilluminating revival by director Tadeusz Bradecki.

As Candida, Claire Jullien catches the subtle nuances of one of Shaw’s most charming, independent and intelligent female characters, but she’s the center of a lopsided trio: Wade Bogert-O’Brien overdoes the quirky teenage poet Marchbanks and Nigel Shawn Williams is a woefully unconvincing Reverend Morrell, whose speaking brilliance in the pulpit is at odds to his neediness at home.
An inspired musical choice this season, My Fair Lady is Lerner & Loewe’s masterly adaptation of Shaw’s Pygmalion about cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle and her stern mentor, the arrogant linguist Henry Higgins. The staging by directors Molly Smith and Paul Sportelli is sometimes too frantic, as if they wanted to ensure their spectacle would fill the large Festival Theater stage.

But the show itself (with classic songs ranging from “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” to “The Rain in Spain” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”) is foolproof, and the leads are performed with animated gusto and strong, clear voices by (above) terrific Deborah Hay and always astonishing Benedict Campbell (perhaps the most versatile of the Shaw’s talented troupe). My Fair Lady remains as indisputably great as the plays by the Festival’s namesake.

For those who want to take a piece of this memorable Festival home, the new coffee-table volume, The Shaw Festival: The First Fifty Years, is an indispensable trip down memory lane. Written by L.W. Conolly, the book recounts the Festival’s humble origins as “Salute to Shaw” in 1962 right to the 4-stage, 12-production, 6-month-long juggernaut it is now. The photos of the eminent actors and actresses who have graced the Shaw’s stages in the master’s plays over the past half-century are worth the price of admission by themselves.

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