Shaw Festival 2016

The Shaw Festival delivers a worthwhile Dance Of Death

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Dance of Death - 2016 Shaw 888

Photo: Emily Cooper.

There’s a peculiar moment in the Shaw Festival’s production of The Dance Of Death when a character arrives on stage carrying a head of cabbage.

But that moment has purpose. And it does have a connection to the emotional mayhem engulfing the stage. It’s also a reminder of director Martha Henry’s crafty approach to this potentially troublesome play. Given its volatile sensibility, why not introduce an an element of absurdity into a dramatic situation mired in marital discord? But no — perhaps “discord” doesn’t really describe the scalding enmity existing between Edgar, this perpetually soured artillery captain, and his resentful spouse, Alice, on the eve of their silver wedding anniversary.

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The Shaw Festival season triumphs again with Fugard play

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

masterindex  Photo David Cooper. 

Master Harold and the Boys, by Athol Fugard, directed by Philip Akin

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. — It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when the racism that has been quietly simmering beneath the surface begins boiling over in the Shaw Festival’s superb production of Master Harold And The Boys.

But that very difficulty is one of the points of Athol Fugard’s painfully nuanced play, set as it is in South Africa in 1950 when apartheid was tightening its grip. Fugard has a particular fascination for the conventions of day-to-day living in an entrenched racist environment, and for those moments when the conventions crumble and the veneer starts to crack. South Africa’s apartheid government had no problem spotting Master Harold’s lurking sub-text — which is why it banned performances of Fugard’s play in 1982 when it first came out.

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A Woman of No Importance: The Shaw Festival lays an Egg with Oscar Wilde play.

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

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Photo: David Cooper. A Woman of No Importance.

It seemed welcome news when the Shaw Festival announced that it would be tackling Oscar Wilde’s A Woman Of No Importance this season. One hoped that the festival would be redressing the  wrong done this play in a previous production in 2004. After all, this current revival would be in the capable hands of Eda Holmes, a director responsible for some of the finest moments in the festival’s history.

How quickly can one’s high expectations be dashed. The production now on view at the Festival Theatre seems intent on baring the play’s weaknesses and diluting its strengths. It’s hard to be believe that the same director who unveiled a brilliant production of Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession in May could follow up with such a mish-mash.

To be sure, A Woman Of No Importance has long been considered the slightest and most problematic of Wilde’s plays. It begins with an extended upper-class gathering,  the sort of situation that allowed the playwright to indulge himself with barbed and witty epigrams about society. But it’s a scene fraught with hazards — the most immediate of which is the challenge of keeping the endless talk, talk, talk from turning static.

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Bernard Shaw’s Black Girl Arrives at the Shaw Festival

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

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Photo David Cooper.  Featuring Natasha Mumba

It might best be described as a 60-minute explosion of zaniness.

It comes to us courtesy of the Shaw Festival, which — in the immortal words of the Monty Python guys — wanted to program “something completely different” for this summer’s lunchtime theatre slot.

At the same time it wanted us to remember the bearded playwright who has provided the essential mandate for one of the largest theatre festivals in the world.

So it commissioned Canadian playwright Lisa Codrington to prepare a stage version of George Bernard Shaw’s controversial 1932 novella, The Adventures Of A Black Girl In her Search for God.

The result, now on view at the venerable Court House Theatre might best be described as inspired mayhem.

To say that Codrington plays fast and loose with the GBS original is to put it mildly. It’s a slyly subversive reworking of an already subversive text, but she doesn’t dishonor the rationalist sensibility that led Shaw to write this satire about the young African girl who offends her missionary mentor by asking too many unanswerable questions about the nature of God and then sets out to find the answers for herself. Instead, Codrington holds Shaw in mischievous affection to the extent of giving the old boy his own place in the script.

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Gilbert without Sullivan takes the stage at the Shaw Festival

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

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Photo: David Cooper . Engaged

The Shaw Festival has decided to sprinkle a bit of nonsense into a Niagara summer — but it’s nonsense with a satirical agenda.

William S. Gilbert’s Engaged is an 1877 farce about marriage and money — not an unfamiliar theme but one that has proved of abiding interest throughout centuries of drama.

In this instance, it inspired Gilbert to filter it through his own somewhat sour prism, and the result is perhaps his most enduring stage comedy.

The playwriting half of the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership had a view of the universe that ranged from barbed whimsy to outright scorn, and that viewpoint finds particular utterance in this scathing send-up of human greed. Morris Panych’s new production at the Royal George Theatre takes due note of Gilbert’s jaundiced disposition, but he also ensures that Engaged is an airborne delight in performance.

Panych can do frivolity very well, and Engaged is no exception. But he also sustains an undercurrent of irony. At one point in the proceedings, a key character bemoans the mercenary culture of the day: “What a terrible thing is this insensitive craving after money,” he tells us.

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The Shaw Festival Takes Alice Down A Dismal Rabbit Hole

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo: David Cooper

Photo: David Cooper

Alice in Wonderland

Adapted for the stage by PETER HINTON
Based on the book by LEWIS CARROLL
Directed by PETER HINTON
Musical direction by ALLEN COLE

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. —  Briefly — very briefly — you’re thinking that the Shaw Festival’s expensive new version of Alice In Wonderland will be a thing of wonder and delight.

Director Peter Hinton and designers Eo Sharpe (sets) and Kevin Lamotte (lighting) begin by giving us startling visuals that transform the Festival Theatre stage into a miracle of shimmering, pastoral  beauty. We’re entering the 19th Century world of Lewis Carroll and witnessing the genesis of a classic work of children’s literature. And the  very fact that Carroll (in reality Oxford cleric and mathematician Charles Dodgson) is in a boat, gliding tranquilly through a watery landscape that isn’t really there, provides early assurance that we will, in fact, be entering a truly make-believe dimension.

A pity that it soon proves to be the wrong kind of make-believe. (more…)

The Shaw Festival Triumphs with Bernard Shaw’s once notorious Mrs. Warren’s Profession

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo: David Cooper

Photo: David Cooper

Mrs. Warren’s Profession

Written by Bernard Shaw

Directed by Edna Holmes

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. — It’s an explosive mother-daughter confrontation — and it’s a lulu.

It happens near the end of the Shaw Festival’s marvellous revival of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, George Bernard Shaw’s once-banned play about the economic benefits of brothel-keeping. On the one hand, you have feisty young Vivie Warren (Jennifer Dzialoszynski) coming to terms with the knowledge that she owes her   university education and her place in society to her mother’s illicit earnings. In the other corner, there’s Mrs. Warren (Nicole Underhay) defiant in the face of her daughter’s scorn and scarcely able to comprehend that she’s about to be shown the door by her ungrateful child.

It’s a moment of high drama in an outstanding production that shows how pertinent many of the issues raised by this late Victorian play remain today. Director Eda Holmes underlines its continuing relevance through an audacious device. At the beginning we’re in the kind of private men’s club that still exists in today’s London and is notorious for resisting change. The four males we encounter are clearly of the present — there may be an ancient gramophone in the corner of the panelled drawing room (designed by Patrick Clark for this production with a bow to the sumptuous trappings of class and privilege) but this is also a world of text messaging and mobiles. (more…)

The Shaw Festival Delivers a Worthy Uncle Vanya

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo: David Cooper

Photo: David Cooper

Written by Anton Chekhov

Adapted by Annie Baker

Directed by Jackie Maxwell

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONT. —  Jackie Maxwell, the Shaw Festival’s retiring artistic director, has always shown a concern for mood and texture in her productions. To be sure, she’s adept at engineering sharply defined dramatic contrasts, but she also understands the subtle power of an extended moment of silence and — unlike more timid directors — is bold enough to utilize it. There’s a musical sensibility at play here: yes, we can embrace the thunder and lightning of the allegro passages, but let’s also heed the more reflective nuances of the adagio movement.

Maxwell is no hurry in the opening moments of her new production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. She wants us to become attuned to the lethargy and languor of this remote Russian estate, a place not so much idyllic as it is psychologically and intellectually stifling. Inertia is unmistakably in the air here, along with the whisperings of a collective sense of loss and failure.

So we must be made conscious of the flickering tensions beneath the surface. Real anguish lurks in the lives we encounter in Uncle Vanya — and it will erupt before the evening ends. The production takes great pains to establish atmosphere and to anchor the play to a particular time and place. At times, however, it is thwarted by Annie Baker’s adaptation. Baker may be the flavour of the month in American theatrical circles, and at its best, her script honours Chekhov’s delicate emotional weavings. But there are also inexplicable lapses into the vernacular of our own day, and the effect is jarring. (more…)

Our Town: A testament to the ensemble glories of the festival acting company

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo: David Cooper

Photo: David Cooper

Our Town

By THORNTON WILDER

Directed by MOLLY SMITH

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. —  It’s doesn’t take the Shaw Festival’s production of Our Town very long to establish its kinship with Thornton Wilder’s sublime play. This not so much a case of the festival asserting its authority over the material as it is one of achieving harmony with a script that seeks to work its wonders on a virtually bare playing area with a minimum of props.

By the time that those two famous step-ladders are centre stage and the young George Gibbs and Emily Webb have mounted them to share with us a few endearing moments of their early courtship, the community of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, is taking shape. We’ve started to know the townsfolk as they were at the beginning of the last century — be they Emily’s father, the local newspaper editor who disarmingly informs us that Grover’s Corners is a rather dull place, or Simon Stimson, the drunken church organist, or Howie Newsome, the local milkman who is always ready to pause for a chin-wag during his local deliveries. (more…)