NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONT. - World class theater is available for roughly half of every year, at the Shaw Festival, about two hours' drive away, across the Canadian border.
This year, the festival has produced 10 different plays, divided among four different theaters. I always delight in what I see there, and always carry a bit of regret that I have to see whichever plays are being performed when I can get away, rather than having the ability to see my first choices. Interestingly, I often come away as delighted - or more so - by the ones which wouldn't be my first choices, as I am by those which I would choose first.
This year, we were able to go up to the festival on a Tuesday morning, and by the time we returned on Thursday, around dinner time, we had seen six productions.
Laurie Paton as Duchesse de Surennes, Claire Jullien as Lady Pearl Grayston, Julia Course as Elizabeth (Bessie) Saunders, Neil Barclay as Thornton Clay and Wade Bogert-O’Brien as Fleming in “Our Betters.”
This week, I would like to tell you about what we saw, and about our experiences in the magical little village on the Niagara River, in easy sight of our own New York State. The productions I couldn't see, this year, for your information are these: ''Lady Windermere's Fan,'' by Oscar Wilde; ''Major Barbara,'' by George Bernard Shaw; ''Faith Healer,'' by Brian Friel; and ''Arcadia'' by Tom Stoppard. I would have happily attended all of them, but it's a case of ''You can't have all the candy in the store.''
For a period of about 30 years, around the turn of the 20th century, it became very common for daughters of American millionaires to sail for Europe with the intention of marrying an earl, or a baron or someone with a prestigious title. If they did so, they found themselves bowed to and invited everywhere, while Mummy became a leader in society at home, and Daddy made additional business contacts and was treated with more respect in his business dealings.
For the Europeans, this was nothing especially new. I remember reading about a 17-year-old man in the reign of England's Henry VIII, who sought after and married an 82-year-old woman, thereby inheriting her late father's title and property.
The nobles, in addition to the money to keep up their castles and their lifestyles, got a young wife who could have children, as they needed an heir to secure their titles, and who could preside over the parties and balls which were expected of them because of their position. If they already had someone with whom they were in love, they could simply have an affair.
Author W. Somerset Maugham is known for his writings about marriages not formed for love. His ''Our Betters,'' currently playing in the Royal George Theatre, centers on a circle of Americans who find that their money opens doors in European society. The plot is set in motion by the arrival in London of Bessie Saunders. She is young, attractive, educated and possessed of a dowry worth, in 2013 currency, more than $13 million.
Her sister has already made the crossing. She is Lady Pearl Grayston, and she is an advanced leader in English society. Pearl barely knows her husband, but an affair with the wealthy Arthur Fenwick provides her with all the fashionable clothes, jewels and other luxuries of which she can dream. She sets out to find a suitably noble husband for her sister, and soon has assembled a house party to which she has invited her major candidate, the pleasant but quite bland Lord Bleane. Also on the guest list is an Italian princess, a French duchess, a leader in London Society from the States, whose invitations to expensive events and servings of elegant dinners make him a wanted guest at the inner social events, and a young man who has recently graduated from college in America.
Gradually, as the production unfolds, Bessie sees the misery of nearly everyone in her sister's circle, and the brittleness and uselessness of their lives, and she decides not to become the next victim - if only she can stand up to everyone she knows and everything she has ever been taught.
Lovely Claire Jullien is perfect as the ambitious Pearl. It is easy to see how people could fall under her influence, and find themselves doing what she wants, rather than what is best for them. Julia Course performs well as the naive Bessie, needing to overcome the pressing weight upon her, by virtually everyone she has known for her entire life. The playwright wisely doesn't choose to make love for the young American the reason for her rejection of a lifetime of training. She truly understands what's wrong with the way of life.
Director Morris Panych has the patience to allow the play to unfurl, without needing to manhandle his audience. The rejected Lord Bleane, for example, could be presented as an unappealing person, but in the production, he is nice looking, young, and seems a pleasant fellow.
The sets, by Ken MacDonald, and the costumes by Charlotte Dean are works of great beauty. This isn't a production which will change your life, but it is beautiful and very human, and can open your eyes to elements of life which you may not have considered before. I enjoyed it very much.
PEACE IN OUR TIME
Irish-born playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw, who gives the Shaw Festival its name, lived for nearly a century. As a young man, he had been active in politics, and a big believer in democratic principles. As he got older, though, he went through situation after situation in which people not only voted completely against their own interests, they often donated money and worked hard to elect people who then used their elected office to the harm of the people who supported them, and continued to support them.
As he got older, Shaw found himself attracted more and more to dictators - leaders who could step in and do what they thought was right, without needing to appease uneducated public whims. After World War I, the victor nations created the League of Nations, an organization which it hoped could prevent future wars by creating a forum in which countries could solve their problems with discussion. The organization had its headquarters at Geneva, Switzerland.
Shaw wrote his play ''Geneva,'' dealing with the conflicts between dictators such as Hitler and Stalin, and an inefficient forum, subject to public pressures. Sadly, as real life revealed truths about those dictators which wasn't as pleasant as making the trains run on time, Shaw's view of his own play unraveled. He re-wrote the play eight full times, and never was happy with the results. Texas-born author John Murrell has taken another go at Shaw's idea of the dictators on trial in an international court. He calls his version ''Peace in Our Time,'' and it's now playing in the Court House Theatre.
Since the United States originated the idea of a League of Nations, then withdrew from any participation in it, due to our domestic politics, Murrell has placed us back into things by putting the action of the League into the hands of an American secretary, named Liberty Belle Browning. She knows little about the world, nor about the organization which employs her, yet when people come to her with complaints they would like the League to deal with, she actually listens to them and fills out the forms to make something happen, rather than fobbing them off, which is what her employers really want her to do.
The result is an international trial, with Hitler, Mussolini and Spain's Francisco Franco on trial at Geneva. Shaw gave his dictators disguised named, calling Hitler by the name ''Battler,'' for example. Morrell calls them ''Fuehrer,'' and ''Duce,'' and names closer to a direct identification. Ric Read, Neil Barclay and Lorne Kennedy have the difficult job of dealing seriously with roles as the dictators, who are presented here like characters in the Three Stooges comedies. Diana Donnelly is a wonderful actress and wrestles courageously with a role as a loopy American woman whose only positive quality is the ability to follow the rules.
Director Blair Williams seems uncertain where the play is heading, so he uses excellent actors, an attractive set by Camellia Koo, fine lighting, sound and other qualities, and lets the chips fall where they may.
Nothing at Shaw is badly done, but my personal recommendation is that if it comes to a choice between this play and another one in the season, go the other way.
It has long been a tradition at the Shaw Festival to do a short production - usually approximately an hour in length - and to perform it a few days per week near noon, so theater goers can fit three plays into the same day, if they wish.
This year's brief lunch time production is called ''Trifles.'' It is made up of two very early, very short plays by Susan Glaspell and Eugene O'Neill. The production is showing at the Court House Theatre, and begins this year at 11:30 a.m.
Usually, the lunchtime performance is a light comedy, but this year's pairing is grim and tragic. Both are set in isolated places, places with no running water and bare boards, rather than paint on the walls.
Glaspel's play starts the performance. It concerns a poor farmer on a barren, isolated farm, who has been found dead in his bed, with a rope tied around his neck, while his wife rocked on the porch with her quilting in her lap. While the sheriff and a government investigator run around the house, looking for evidence, the sheriff's wife and a neighbor woman, by noticing things about the housekeeping of the house, solve the crime. Every time the men pass through, they make snide comments about whether the women are doing anything important, and about how trivial their interests are, the women advance their reasoning, until the case is solved.
O'Neill's play, ''A Wife for a Life,'' is about two men who are panning for gold in an isolated site. One is a handsome young man, while the other is of more mature years. The younger man is trying to get some money together, in hopes of creating a life for himself, eventually, while the older man is running from a situation, back at home. As the play unfolds, and as the two strike gold on their claim, the older man gradually learns that he has things in common with his comrade more important than just a partnership.
Both plays are well directed and well acted. Their subject matter and their entire atmosphere is grim. If you're up to facing that, there is much to be learned from the production.
''Enchanted April'' by Matthew Barber, based on the novel of the same name by Elizabeth von Arnim, is a play about the connection between our inner lives and our outer circumstances. It's now running in the Festival Theatre, the largest of the four.
Essentially, Lotty Wilton, a housewife in gray London, sees an ad in a newspaper offering for rent a castle on the coast of Italy for the month of April. A big believer in making the life one wants for oneself, she places an ad of her own, inviting other women to share the expenses of the trip with her, for what she believes will be an experience of renewal and return to nature.
She is joined on her adventure by Rose Arnott, a woman whose loss of a baby has made her withdraw from the world and eventually drive her husband to seek other women. Also, Caroline Bramble, a beautiful, spoiled young woman looking to practice her eccentricities where her mother's society friends won't see, and Mrs. Graves, an austere, older widow with a strong sense of entitlement.
Having chosen to surround themselves with beauty and adventure, the women have the opportunity to re-examine their lives, and to make different choices about how they will live, when they return. Moya O'Connell is refreshing as Lotty, never allowing herself to sink to the role of chirpy optimist, which could kill a production. Marla McLean is a charming young eccentric as Lady Bramble, and Donna Belleville, one of the festival's finest actors, gives a meaningful examination of someone who has turned off on life and now has the ability to turn her life back on.
Director Jackie Maxwell, artistic director of the festival, as well as director of this play, clearly understands the material, and gives a consistent and meaningful look at these women. There is much more than a nice vacation involved, and while she makes the most of the comic Italian housekeeper, the handsome landlord, and the other interactions which shape the women's experience, she stays with their interactions and their development, leaving her audience with a wish we could all rent a castle in Italy for a month, and wondering what we would change about ourselves.
William Schmuck's sets are wonderfully inviting, and the ease with which they changed gave the production a shot of energy which made it the success it is. Kevin LaMotte's lighting and Schmuck's costumes are icing on the cake. If you need a happy experience - and we all do, from time to time - this is an excellent choice.
GUYS AND DOLLS
''Guys and Dolls'' with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows - all based on characters from the stories of Damon Runyan - is one of the most popular musical comedies in the history of American theater.
The play is set among the gamblers, showgirls and other denizens of New York City's Times Square, during the 1930s. The story is one of sacred and profane love. The profane pairs are a colorful gambler named Nathan Detroit, who runs a floating crap game, and Miss Adelaide, a headliner in a small nightclub. They've been engaged for 14 years, and she's becoming more insistent, every day.
The ''higher love'' is between Sky Masterson, one of the most respected of the city's gamblers, and Sister Sarah Brown, an officer in a Salvation Army-like organization which seeks to save the souls of the city's population.
Masterson makes a bet that he can convince the moralistic Sister Sarah to go with him on an overnight trip to Cuba, which was a popular vacation spot for Americans before its 1959 revolution.
This is a most enjoyable production. One of the best elements is the orchestra, conducted by Paul Sportelli, which revs us up and cools us down as the production progresses.
Shawn Wright plays the role of Nathan, probably most associated with Frank Sinatra, who played the role in the film of the plot. Matched with his wife, Jennie L. Wright as Miss Adelaide, the couple has an easy back-and-forth style which makes them fun to watch, whenever either of them is on stage.
Kyle Blair is a fine actor and has a rich and versatile tenor voice, but he appears too young and too much the boy scout to play Masterson. The scene in which he walks up to a major gangster who is brandishing a gun and punches him in the face, just didn't wash. He's vastly better than anyone you'll see in a community production, but it's a small downside to the masterful Shaw production.
In similar vein, Elodie Gillett is a beautiful woman who both acts and sings very well, but she came across too sophisticated for Sarah, the sweet but determined girl, out to save the world. Director Tadeusz Bardecki turned her from a prude to a bar fighter too fast, with too little motivation.
Thom Allison who broke everyone's heart as Coalhouse Walker in last year's production of ''Ragtime,'' stops the show, with his singing of ''Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat,'' and he finds a new and very workable way to approach the well-known song.
The entire cast is talented and strong. If you go up for this show, you'll enjoy it and leave humming the tunes. Indeed, the lobby was filled with people, humming the tunes, during intermission, and after the closing curtain. What better praise can a musical show get?
THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA
My personal favorite of the six shows I saw this year was ''The Light in the Piazza,'' by composer Adam Guettel and book author Craig Lucas.
The plot centers on a wealthy American matron, who is taking her daughter to Italy, in the years shortly following World War II. Margaret Johnson fell in love with her husband in these same cities, although he is now so involved in his business that the two have become virtual strangers. She has brought with her their only daughter, Clara, who is a lovely young woman, but one who has suffered developmental problems. She appears healthy and alert, but she has the emotional life of a young child.
Margaret wishes her daughter could find love, as she once did, only with a longer shelf life, but she believes Clara is undefended against life's potential cruelties. Soon, Clara meets a handsome young Italian man named Fabrizio, and Margaret's ability to control her daughter's life may have reached its end.
Patty Jamison did a fine job as Margaret. Her voice was a bit pale for the role, but her acting was excellent. Jacqueline Thair was sweet and believable as the child/woman.
Jeff Irving spoke Fabrizio's Italian lines like a native, and the actors playing his family helped make the portrayal spot-on. Particular praise to Kaylee Harwood, who brought depth to the role of Franca, the wife of Fabrizio's brother.
Jay Turvey directed with real sensitivity and a devotion to reality which made the production's overall success. The music may be a bit modern for your tastes, but it is a beautiful production and well worth the trip up, all by itself.
The richness available to us, with only a little bit of effort, is something for which we ought to offer thanks, on a daily basis.