Shaw Festival 2014

peach_celebrationThe picture-postcard-perfect town of Niagara-on-the-Lake was abuzz with shoppers and theatergoers when we arrived on a resplendent summer day. You could be very happy just strolling the streets of this upscale village, admiring homes straight out of a glossy magazine, or shopping in the chic boutiques, or dining in the many fine restaurants, or visiting the shore of Lake Ontario. But most people had come for the theater, as had we.

The Shaw Festival was founded in 1962 with the mission of paying homage to the prolific British playwright George Bernard Shaw. Perhaps one motivation was to provide a counterbalance to the older Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s concentration on “The Bard of Avon,” but that’s mere conjecture on my part. The Festival’s purview was later refined to encompass plays written during Shaw’s long lifetime (1856 to 1950), although lately the bounds have been stretched a bit with the inclusion of popular musicals of more recent vintage as well as some contemporary plays.

The Festival comprises four theaters, from the grand, 856-seat Festival Theatre to the compact, 200-seat Studio Theatre. All are within a short stroll of one another and the plays on offer rotate daily with frequent matinees so that during a short stay a visitor can see a good many plays.

For theater of this caliber, ticket prices are surprisingly moderate and, since prices are in Canadian dollars, American visitors in 2014 will enjoy a discount of about eight percent thanks to a favorable exchange rate.

For the 2014 season, the Festival is mounting ten productions, including two by Shaw, The Philanderer and Arms and The Man. We managed three in two days during a brief layover en route to Stratford.

Cabaret, the Kander and Ebb smash, is getting a solid revival under the direction of Festival veteran Peter Hinton. Deborah Hay is terrific as Sally Bowles and Juan Chioran’s Emcee is very much his own, borrowing nothing from his storied predecessors in the role. Not every element of the production works as well, however, and – let’s face it – the subject matter is downright depressing. So if it’s a lighthearted musical you’re looking for, look elsewhere.

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Another offering on the heavy side is Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, about the trials and tribulations of a family during Ireland’s Civil War – not the one fought against the British but the one the Irish fought against each other after winning a peace that partitioned Ireland. Not everyone thought that was a good idea then; some still don’t think so.

Shaw_Juno_WebGallery3

If you thought the “dysfunctional family” was a recent invention wait until you get a load of the Boyles. Dad (the “paycock” or peacock) is a drunken braggart, son Johnny’s a shattered IRA veteran with PTSD, daughter Mary is looking for love in all the wrong places. Mother, the Juno of the title, is a tower of strength.

It helps to have a grounding in the history of the period and the program notes are a must-read for those who don’t. For those who think the Irish are a hard-drinking but jolly race, this play will be an eye-opener. It’s a glimpse into the darker side of the national character, one that continues to divide families to this day. A laugh riot it ain’t and because of its length it can be heavy going for some; a good number of folks packed it in at the intermission. Those who stick it out, however, will be rewarded with some truly solid acting.

Fortunately, we ended on a happier note with a blissful production of Arms and the Man, one of Shaw’s most popular plays, and deservedly so. This romantic farce requires a sense of high style to work just so and the cast, under the sure hand of Morris Panych, deliver nicely.

Man (and woman) does not live by great art alone, of course, so we were glad to get an usher’s recommendation for Il Gelato di Carlotta, a few doors down from the Royal George Theatre on Queen Street. This is the best gelato I’ve had this side of Rome. It’s on the pricey side, but once you tuck in, I doubt you’ll be complaining.

For dinner, we were lucky to chance upon Grill on King, which has a sidewalk seating area perfect for people watching and spotting the occasional Festival star at a nearby table. They adhere to the locavore aesthetic that seems to be de rigeur at most of Ontario’s better restaurants these days and their Village Salad, a sort of Greek salad minus the lettuce, was impeccably fresh.

I succumb too often to Tagliatelle Carbonara on menus and am usually disappointed. This was the best I’ve had since a memorable meal in Chamonix in the French Alps. My wife’s mahi-mahi was also tasty, with the lightly grilled vegetables giving the fish some strong competition. The lamb shank, meltingly tender, was roundly praised by a fellow diner.

Niagara-on-the-Lake is one of those ever so slightly out of the way destinations that keeps luring us off the Queen Elizabeth Way, the main route from Buffalo to Toronto. I have every expectation that it will do so again.

The Shaw Festival
Tickets from $35 to $113
(800) 511-7429
www.shawfest.com

Il Gelato di Carlotta
59 Queen Street
(905) 468-8999
www.gelatodicarlotta.com

Grill on King
233 King Street, just off Queen.
(905) 468-7222
www.grillonking.ca

‘Mary Stuart’ at Seattle’s A.C.T. – A Review

Friedrich Schiller’s 1800 drama, “Mary Stuart,” is receiving a smashing production at Seattle’s A.C.T., A Contemporary Theatre, and reminding New Yorkers like myself to never get snooty about how much better theater is in the Big Apple than anywhere else.

In fact, after spending an evening with this splendid company, Gothamites might find themselves wondering why they have to make do with empty calorie musicals instead of the raw meat of Schiller’s disquisition on power politics, religious hatred, and humankind’s seeming inability to ever do the right thing. [Read more...]

Stratford Shakespeare Festival 2011

I was told the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, has been suffering the effects of the world-wide downturn. Receipts are down by a third, I heard, and Americans, who once flocked there, are staying away in droves, they said, now that the once lowly loonie (or Canadian dollar) is worth about ten percent more than the once almighty U.S. greenback.

Well you couldn’t prove it by what I saw on a visit to the 2011 edition of this showcase of dramatic art that has been going strong since 1952.

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Hosanna at Stratford Shakespeare Festival

I was so captivated by Michel Tremblay’s For The Pleasure Of Seeing Her Again at the 2010 Stratford Shakespeare Festival that I looked forward to seeing Hosanna, a 1973 play that I gather helped establish his reputation as a major French-Canadian playwright.

It turns out I had seen it before. Not this play specifically, but many more like it that filled stages in New York and elsewhere during the late 60s and through the 70s.

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The Homecoming at Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Harold Pinter is a playwright of such profound idiosyncrasy that he has his very own adjective – Pinteresque. And if ever there was a Pinter play that deserves that soubriquet it’s The Homecoming, which is being given a top drawer, if somewhat flawed, revival by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival at their downtown Avon Theatre.

Teddy is returning to the drab working class London home of his youth. Since his unexplained departure he has acquired a PhD, an American academic career, and a wife. His father Max and brothers Lenny and Joey seem less than enthralled to see him back. Only his uncle Sam has a kind word for him. What follows from this sparse set up is a profoundly unsettling sequence of events bristling with casual cruelty and sexual degradation.

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Going to the Theater in Paris

You don't have to brush up on your French to enjoy theater performances in Paris.

Unless your French is good, and I mean very good, theater going is probably out of the question when in Paris. I once got too cocky about my ability to understand spoken French and suffered through an intermissionless production of Brecht’s “Arturo Ui” in which I understood only the names of a few vegetables and a list of American cities.

But on a recent visit to the City of Light my theater jones started acting up, and I managed to see three shows in as many nights in which language was not a barrier. [Read more...]

“Jerusalem” on Broadway, a Review

Jerusalem is irremediably English and not in the comfortably familiar Upstairs Downstairs sense of the term.

Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth’s ambitious and hallucinatory new play at the Music Box, may seem an odd choice for a major New York production. The play is, after all, irremediably English and not in the comfortably familiar Upstairs Downstairs sense of the term.

Butterworth’s bestiary of rural louts and loonies with their sometimes impenetrable Wiltshire accents (the play has reportedly been “revised” to make it more accessible to us Yanks) are types seldom seen on these shores. The play seems to reflect an anomie that has been percolating in Britain for the last twenty or thirty years and of which most Americans are blissfully ignorant. (If nothing else this production will serve to remind many Americans of how well our media protects us from any real familiarity with what’s happening in the zeitgeist of other countries.) Then there are the frequent references to timeless British pastoral traditions steeped in half forgotten folklore, fairies, Druid giants, Stonehenge, ley lines, and ancient gods (Yggdrasil anyone?). In short, hardly a recipe for middlebrow Broadway success.

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“The Pitmen Painters” on Broadway, a Review

British playwright Lee Hall, who wrote the smash hit Billy Elliot the Musical, is back on Broadway with The Pitmen Painters, a small-scale theatrical piece that carries a special music of its own.

The painters of the title were an actual group of Northumbrian coal miners who embarked on an unusual journey that began as an extracurricular exercise in self-improvement and led to minor fame as artists.

In the early 1930s, an educational committee of miners hired an art teacher for a class in “art appreciation.” When their instructor (the excellent Ian Kelly) discovered that none of the men have actually seen a real painting, he decides that rather then discussing Titians they should have a go at creating art themselves.
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‘La Bete’ on Broadway, a Review

la bete on broadway

Voters for the Tony Awards have a major problem on their hands. Can they give Mark Rylance the Best Actor award again, a mere three years after Boeing, Boeing? Certainly they will be unable to avoid nominating him for his astounding comic performance in David Hirson’s masterful La Bête.

La Bête (The Beast or The Fool), first produced on Broadway in 1991 to little acclaim although it went on to win an Olivier Award in London, is something of a tour de force.

Written in rhyming couplets in the manner of Moliere, set in Moliere’s France, and dealing with the sort of cultural hypocrisies that were Moliere’s bread and butter, Hirson’s play seems uncannily of the moment nearly twenty years on, with much to tell us about the current debased state of our entertainment culture. (Are you reading this Snooki?) Perhaps that is the definition of great dramatic art.
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Stratford Shakespeare Festival

The small town of Stratford, Ontario, has charming 19th century homes and the river Avon runs through it. Get it? Stratford? Avon? What better place for a Shakespeare Festival?

That’s what Tom Patterson thought when in 1952 he convinced the town fathers to finance a trip to New York on a quixotic quest to convince Tyrone Guthrie to comes to the tiny burg to start one. To Guthrie’s eternal credit, he agreed and then convinced Alec Guinness to come over to launch the first season – in a tent, no less!
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