JWR Articles: Preview - Shaw Festival at 50 (Director: Jackie Maxwell) - May 18, 2011

Shaw Festival at 50

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A version of this article also appeared in the May 19-25, 2011 edition of View Magazine
Golden anniversary looks like a gem

The Shaw Festival’s 50th season is something to celebrate around the globe. Theatre lovers on the peninsula and savvy cultural tourists from all over the world have a delectable menu that redefines “something for every taste.”

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the sometime music critic (famously, “Brahms, what are Brahms?”) expanding his domain and influence by writing for the stage rather than reporting on what takes place there.

Ireland’s extremely prolific playwright (five dozen, more or less) has delighted, enraged, entertained and puzzled audiences since the 1890’s. In 1962 two works began to play in Niagara-on-the-Lake over eight weekends. No one could have predicted how that noble initiative would grow to become one of the finest repertory companies on the planet.

It was Candida that started the journey.

“Do you think that the things people make fools of themselves about are any less real and true than the things they behave selfishly about? They are only more true: they are the only things that are true.”—typical multilayered food for thought from the master surveyor of human foibles.

For this special season, artistic director Jackie Maxwell has put her considerable programming skills to work, fashioning a buffet of productions that will keep the golden anniversary festivities going full tilt until the final curtain October 30.

Director emeritus Christopher Newton will begin the parade with his current take on Shaw’s Heartbreak House. The British upper class is pilloried as self-indulgent and oblivious to global storm clouds (WW I). More than one heart is broken even as the play’s universality remains readily apparent in 2011.

Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof will bring a heady dose of sultry heat and dark despair to the Royal George Theatre. After Neil Munro courageously broke the ice, staging the revered playwright’s Summer and Smoke in 2007, associate artistic director Eda Holmes will bring her wide experience to bear on the comings and goings of Maggie the Cat, beau Brick and Big Daddy’s bucks.

New to Shaw and much of Canada is Lennox Robinson. The lessor-known Irish dramatist will have his Drama at Inish – A Comedy brought to hilarious life under Maxwell’s keen eye, William Schmuck’s ever-inventive design and the comedic ensemble, including Ric Reid, Mary Haney and Thom Marriott. Since the play centres on another theatre troupe (De La Mare Repertory Company) bringing art to the seaside, the combined experiences of the Festival’s past fifty years playing to Niagara are bound to inform every scene.

Most appropriately, Candida is also back in the mix. Five decades later, the timeless love triangle (Candida must choose between her man-of-the-cloth husband or the much younger poet whose words capture more than her mind) will be directed by Tadeusz Bradecki.

Without a doubt the musical jewel in this year’s crown will be the inaugural performances of Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady. It takes not a little bit of courage to stage this magnificent show which was so magically brought to the screen (in 1964, a worthy Academy Award for Best Picture winner) with Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle and Rex Harrison as Professor Henry Higgins. Those images and sounds still swirl happily in memory (not least of which the sun umbrellas and society hats at Ascot). No worries. With director Molly Smith’s impressive ability to draw excellence from cast and crew coupled with Deborah Hay’s spectacular triple threat (sing/dance/act) no seat should ever go unsold.

The other musical will be a world première. Composer Paul Sportelli (also the Shaw’s music director) has once again teamed up with writer/lyricist Jay Turvey (an ensemble member of the highest rank). In 2007, Tristan (based on Thomas Mann’s short story) was the focus; for 2011, Maria Severa delves into the life of “the mother of fado”—Portugal’s famed music that can be as beguiling as the show’s star: bullfighting abounds, twelve-string guitar a must. Sounds like another sure thing.

As the renaissance of J.M. Barrie continues (Peter Pan last year at Stratford; the miniature Half an Hour at Shaw), Morris Panych has taken on the assignment of directing The Admirable Crichton. Butler/master relationships are at the heart of the tale. This time the cast features Steven Sutcliffe, David Schurmann and Nicole Underhay.

Stop the presses. Must attend: Ferenc Molnár’s The President, returns (first seen in 2008) as the lunchtime play. With Blair Williams at the helm and Lorne Kennedy reprising the title role, anyone who is in need of a riot of belly laughs must make tracks to this farcical confection.

Rounding out the offerings are Shaw’s On the Rocks and a pair of works that will be performed in the highly-flexible Studio Theatre (Suzan-Lori Parks’ edgy Topdog/Underdog and Andrew Bovell’s magical history, When the Rain Stops Falling).

This anniversary season is a marvellous testament to the diligence, determination and vision of the Shaw Festival’s artistic trust. Here’s to 50 more! JWR

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Director - Jackie Maxwell
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