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The Shaw Festival: 7 plays in 3 days

Niagara on the Lake, Canada.  It is a lovely resort town nestled along a river dividing Canada from the US.  It is filled with fudge shops, ice creameries, mounds of gorgeous flowers and simply great theater.

For nearly a decade, we have been spending several days each year immersed in the offerings of the Shaw Festival.  The festival boasts of three very busy and very different theater venues.  The large, modern Festival Theater holds the big productions.  A converted movie house and a rather make-shift arena in the upper floors of the village court house complete the facility description.

What are more difficult to describe are the rich productions which fill the venues.  This season, there are eleven different plays celebrating the works of George Bernard Shaw and his era.  This era is one of elegance of language, settings, magnificent costumes and compelling characters.  

We experience seven plays in three days.  A matinee of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes was the starter.  Hellman’s superb construction weaves a pattern of human struggle which is intoxicating to the audience.  The Little Foxes takes the dysfunctional family into unbelievable permutations.  

A Southern family has emerged from shopkeepers into some wealth and status.  Two brothers and a sister relish their mutual hate and their combined greed.  Their wealth is a product of that greed as they routinely cheated the poor whites and blacks of their little town.  One of the brothers married a daughter of a ruined aristocratic family to gain their land and status.  She promptly became cruelly ignored and verbally abused in one of the only cooperative activities of the rest of the family.

Now, they are ready for their “big kill.”  With a wealthy Chicago investor, they are going to build cotton mills at the source of the cotton.  The profits are to be logarithmic but their vision is clouded by overriding avarice.

The result, typical Hellman, is a tragic stalemate putting each of them into a box constructed of their own malevolence.   The stage result is powerful drama acted and produced to perfection.  The repertory actors of the Shaw Festival are, season after season, examples of the finest of their art.   The Little Foxes even surpassed expectations.

Next was a festival theater production of Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession.  Shaw’s biting wit espouses his political and social agenda with such cleverness that he can twist the views of his audience, puppet-like, into his patent beliefs.

In Mrs. Warren’s Profession, he attacks one of his favorite targets, capitalistic greed. Mrs. Warren, you guessed it, is the madam of a very successful group of brothels in the capitals of Europe.  She has a daughter, raised in schools and foster situations with no knowledge of her mother’s occupation.  In fact, she has little knowledge of her mother.

The daughter, Vivie, has become a beauty with a penchant for accounting.  She, as we discover her, is the ultimate pragmatist rejecting love, the arts, marriage.

Vivie was played by Moya O’Connel, a stunning beauty of such proportions that the audience is rendered helpless by her charms.  The performance was not the most effective Shaw we have seen but steeped in excellent acting on an ingenious set.

The audience was preoccupied by trying to decide which of the male characters introduced was Vivie’s true father?  The conclusion made us realize that it didn’t matter.  Mother and daughter, reconciled, realized that they were devoted to their work no matter how socially diverse it was.

Another electric theatrical experience was next.  Playwright Githa Sowerby is a contemporary of Shaw.  Less well known, two of her works we have seen are coequal to the great master of that age.  In 2004, Rutherford and Son was produced at the festival.  Completely unforgettable!  This season it was The Stepmother.

Meant to be another bombshell social commentary on the plight of women, it succeeds today beyond the author’s goals.  The premise, a manipulating widower with two young daughters is using his guile to “protect” the funds of his aging aunt and his sister.  The death of his sister gives her modest but important estate, not to her avaricious brother, but to her faithful companion and caregiver Lois.

Lois suddenly goes from servant to wife bringing her inheritance with her.  Ten years pass.  Lois is not the evil stepmother but loving mother to the daughters.  She has started her own dressmaking business and labors hard to make a profit.

Husband Eustace continues his financial manipulation with notable lack of success. There is no money to provide a dowry for their daughter.  Lois’ strength overcomes Eustace.  She ends up as head of a happier family sans father but with a long adoring companion.  A wonderful play, done to perfection.  Hopefully, the Shaw Festival will continue to expose us to Sowerby’s works.

A chamber version of Sondheim’s Little Night Music followed.  It suffered by comparison to Wright State’s example of the same.  At WSU, the voices were better, the characters more beautiful and my home town pride greater!

Our final day was a triple header.  An hour adaptation of Molnar’s The President was 60 minutes of riotous laughter. The fast-talk speeches of central character Lorne Kennedy rivaled any Gilbert and Sullivan comedian.

I have never been a fan of mysteries.  J.B. Priestly’s An Inspector Calls could change that personal prejudice.  Rather that a typical “who-done-it,” the play was a “who-is-morally-guilty.”  Set on an effective sparse set dominated by an eerie elevator which opens into the living space, the action begins.

A happy and successful family is celebrating the engagement of their beautiful daughter, played by Moya O’Connell, to a handsome and successful young man. The elevator lights go on and the door opens to reveal a stranger, an inspector.

There has been a suicide of a young woman.  With surgical skill, the inspector dissects the relationship of each of the characters with the unfortunate girl.  So much is revealed.  Each caused distress to her at crucial times in her desperate life.  Each failed to help her at those crises.  None are criminally guilty but each is morally involved.

The inspector leaves the chastened family.  They then discover that there was no such inspector.  Who was this dominating force?  Their collective guilty consciences could be an answer.  A Deus ex Elevator, another possibility.  This perfect thriller was done with perfection and will be remembered as a true Shaw Festival highlight.

The final work was a Shaw Festival rarity.  Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance was a weak play done rather badly.

No matter, we are already making plans for next year’s visit to the fudge, ice cream flowers and, oh yes, great theater.



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September 9, 2008
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