Ontario’s Shaw Festival

Happy Niagara-on-the-lake, Ontario, is said to be the prettiest town in Canada, and boasts to boot the Shaw Festival, where from spring well into fall you can see savory productions of plays by Shaw and his contemporaries, plus, every season, one musical. To spend a theatergoing weekend or so in these charming purlieus is a warmly recommended experience. I caught five shows, missing a sixth only because of Amtrak’s unconscionable lateness of two and a quarter hours. Shaw, the genius loci, is unfairly believed by some to have lost his edge in his later plays. In the very last ones perhaps, but not at all in The Apple Cart (1929), written when Shaw was 73 and in full command of his mischievous magnificence.

The theme of the piece, set in the future, is the Cabinet’s desire to depose King Magnus of England in favor of a republic with Proteus, the prime minister, as its head. Magnus has a very wise queen, Jemima, and, also living in the palace, a wildly ambitious mistress, Orinthia, who wants him to make her his queen. Magnus extracts a brief reprieve before declaring his abdication, and finally outsmarts his Cabinet, which also includes two women, resoundingly. He further contends with the American ambassador, who announces that the United States has decided to rejoin the British Empire, and with Boanerges, an angry man of the people and union leader, who, appointed to the Cabinet, becomes almost more traditionalist than the king.

The Apple Cart is a buoyant mix of astute sociopolitical observation and impish burlesque. Like most plays, it loses by being presented in the round. Still, it benefits from smart set design by Kelly Wolf, who, however, does not come up with credible costumes for the future. Richard Greenblatt has directed a trifle stiffly but not unhumorously; the acting was professional, with David Schurmann (Magnus), Peter Millard (Proteus), and Michael Ball (Boanerges) especially on the ball. The only weak link was the mannered shenanigans and preposterous elocution of Pamela Rabe’s Orinthia.

There was some unfortunate gender-bending (the U.S. ambassador as a dizzy blonde), sundry unnecessary updating, and pandering to the feminists with a totally uncalled-for final bit of pantomime. Even so, the harm was minor and could be indulged.

Less satisfactory was a revival of Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance, which desperately needs a proscenium with its opportunities to make clear the respective modus vivendi of the upper and middle classes and set the right tone. The designer, William Schmuck, was unable to solve this problem, but his costumes, except for the far too glamorous one for Mrs. Arbuthnot in the end, were appealing. Susan Ferley intelligently directed a cast in which the women – particularly Jennifer Phipps as canny old Lady Pontefract – sparkled. The men – especially Jim Mezon’s Lord Illingworth and Mike Wasko’s Gerald – didn’t, except for delicious cameos by Tony van Bridge and Norman Browning.

Noël Coward’s Still Life (the basis for the film Brief Encounter) was curiously botched. Jan Alexandra Smith was too beanpole-ish and young for Laura, Simon Bradbury too puny and grubby for Alec, and Nora McLellan annoyingly smug as Myrtle. Time and the Conways (1937) is one of J. B. Priestley’s “time plays,” in which the invisible but relentlessly felt protagonist is time itself. It offers a typical middle-class family, the Conways, in the industrial north of 1919, with two sons who have survived the war, four equally promising daughters, and their recklessly optimistic, domineering mother, all looking forward to a bright future. Act Two takes place in the then present, in which terrible blows and disillusion have been visited on the family; Act Three picks up the thread in 1919, showing with sobering irony what made almost all go so wrong. Priestley’s social criticism and mystical beliefs commingle provocatively. Neil Munro’s cogent direction combines with good design and largely fine acting, in which Peter Krantz, as the patiently enduring son, and Bruce Davies, as the idle, philandering one, are caught just right, and Simon Bradbury, as the chilling arriviste who marries into the family, steals the show. But everything works except, again, the performance of Nora McLellan, whose smarmily self-serving manner as the mother nearly wrecks the production.

Best of all was the admittedly post-Shavian She Loves Me, the season’s hit extended to December 10. This almost equals the Roundabout’s recent smashing New York revival, and proves yet again that the Masteroff-Bock-Harnick musical is a modest masterwork. Engagingly directed by Roger Hodgman, pungently designed by Patrick Clark (very Budapest!), and mainly well sung and acted, the show had three minor flaws. Cameron MacDuffee looked right as Kodaly, the slick seducer, but gave an unduly toned-down performance; the subaltern Sipos (Jay Turvey) should have been more touching; and the romantic trysting place, the Café Imperiale, could have featured fewer gay couples and threesomes in William Orlowski’s otherwise clever choreography. But Glynis Ranney, Ben Carlson, and Patty Jamieson were winning in the leads, and a palpably good time was had on both sides of the footlights.

Ontario’s Shaw Festival