Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Shaw Festival 2013

Guys and Dolls
Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser

Lady Windermere’s Fan 
Written by Oscar Wilde
Our Betters 
Written by M. Somerset Maugham

Performances through November 3, 2013

Niagara on the Lake, Canada 
The Shaw Festival—Behind the Curtain 

At Canada’s eminent Shaw Festival, Bernard Shaw’s plays always receive pride of place—until this year. Only one Shaw play, Major Barbara, is being staged, along with an update of his Geneva to something called Peace in Our Time. I skipped both on my annual visit to the most picturesque small town in Canada, instead taking in a top-notch Oscar Wilde comedy, an obscure Somerset Maugham play and a great American musical. I (mostly) made the right choices.

Guys and Dolls (photo: David Cooper)
The musical, Guys and Dolls, is far more enjoyable than the recent Broadway revival. Most importantly, director Tadeusz Bradecki keeps the tough yet tender tone of Damon Runyon’s original New York stories—coupled with Frank Loesser’s first-rate, immediately hummable songs (like “Luck Be a Lady, “A Bushel and a Peck” and “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat”), this is a delightful production from start to finish, with a good cast in top form, highlighted by Jenny L. Wright’s hilarious yet vulnerable turn as Miss Adelaide. Her rendition of “Adelaide’s Lament” is the ultimate showstopper.

Lady Windermere's Fan (photo: David Cooper)
Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, subtitled A Play about a Good Woman, is so artfully crafted that one never realizes until the end how subtly it treats what seems an hackneyed theme: how gossip morphs into scandal, which was especially true in Wilde’s era. Why director Peter Hinton has cluttered such a sly, straightforward classic with unnecessary baggage like models posing as if in Whistler or Sargent paintings and epigrams written on curtains during scene changes or ludicrously blasting Katy Perry’s vapid pop song “Firework” as a coda is beyond my comprehension. Luckily, his largely compelling cast (Marla Mclean is especially lustrous as Lady Windermere and Tara Rosling splendidly scandalous as Mrs. Erlynne) does its utmost best to keep the play in our sights. For that, we (and Wilde) are grateful.

Our Betters (photo: David Cooper)
In Our Betters, a 1923 M. Somerset Maugham play receiving its first Shaw staging  (I’ve neither seen nor read it), Americans in England are a desperately social-climbing lot hoping to be taken seriously by their “betters”: the English men and women whom they want to impress, maybe even marry. Although it sounds farcical, Maugham has sympathy for these people, giving them a dignity amidst their flaws that would be missing from a nastier portrait. In director Morris Panych’s nicely-paced staging, Claire Jullien and Catherine McGregor—two of the festival’s best—give vivid portrayals of American women who have been in England so long they’ve come to accept their position. This bittersweet play is beautifully played.

For those who can’t get to the Shaw for enriching and entertaining theater (or for those who’d like a
souvenir of their visit), a new DVD, The Shaw Festival: Behind the Curtain, is not only a fine primer on the festival’s plays, theaters, and lovely Niagara on the Lake ambiance, but also an arresting demonstration of the rigor with which North America’s greatest repertory company develops its creative process for the dozen or so shows put on each season. Watching plays come to life in the hands of luminous performers as Moya O’Connell—whom I didn’t see in person this time around, alas—makes this well worth watching.

Shaw Festival 2013
Performances through November 3, 2013
Niagara on the Lake, Canada

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