Summer at the Shaw Festival
Theater festivals define themselves by mission statements, by historical legacies, by thematic focuses. But while the great festivals may carry specific mandates and use specific parameters to create their programming, what characterizes them more than anything else is a sense of escape, of experiencing an event that takes you out of the cultural norm. You travel to—or at least commit in aggregate to—a festival. It’s not a random ticket you buy a few days in advance or your usual Tuesday night subscription seat; it’s a happening that defines a specific time slot in your cultural journey. Theater festivals are a destination, a detour from everyday space and time.
Canada’s Niagara-on-the-Lake, 15 minutes north of the Falls and the U.S. border, is just such a destination: a lovely town, filled with flowers, parks, and shops, on the picturesque shores of Lake Ontario. It’s a bit touristy—stores on the main drag focus on ice cream and souvenirs—but once you get on the side streets you’re rewarded with old mansions and a real sense of history (the town played a key role in the Canadian/American skirmishes during the War of 1812). Niagara-on-the-Lake is the home of the Shaw Festival, one of the two great Canadian theatrical institutions (the other being the Stratford Festival, about a two hour drive due west). With a seven-month span, the Shaw is technically more a regional theater company with a full-fledged season than a festival, but its relative isolation and its concentration—by which I mean the lack of anything else of substance to do in Niagara-on-the-Lake—qualify it as a festival in spirit. Most Shaw productions are in the large Festival Theatre, built in 1973. An adjacent black-box space, the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, opened in 2009. The Festival’s third and most special venue is the Royal George Theatre, a reclaimed Edwardian-era vaudeville house in the town center, with ideal acoustics and sightlines. I saw shows in all three venues during a visit last summer, from August 1 through 5.
Like many such festivals, the Shaw began with a specific mission—the presentation of the plays of George Bernard Shaw—and then gradually expanded that mandate over the years. Three years after the Festival’s founding in 1962 came the first non-Shaw play, a contemporaneous and rather Shavian work by Sean O’Casey, The Shadow of a Gunman. Later expansions included more works by the playwright’s contemporaries, then works set in Shaw’s lengthy lifetime (1856–1950), and eventually modern works inspired by his verbose, dialectical, status-quo-questioning aesthetic. This year, the Shaw presented its first-ever Shakespeare play, a reconceived version of Henry V performed as if by a group of soldiers and nurses during World War I and set in the trenches and hospitals. World War I was, in fact, a special theme of the 2018 season, in observation of the centenary of that conflict’s end. The company operates under a repertory system, wherein groups of actors appear in multiple plays which run concurrently. In 2018, the Festival produced 14 plays and employed 60 actors. The company is extravagantly multicultural; color-blind casting is the norm, no matter the play’s setting or subject matter. The Festival also celebrates inclusiveness at an institutional level. At several performances I attended, the show began with an actor stepping onto the stage and announcing that “The Shaw wishes to acknowledge and honor the land upon which we gather as the historic and traditional territory of First Nations peoples. In particular, we recognize and thank the Neutral Nation, the Mississauga and the Haudenosaunee for their stewardship of these lands over millennia.”
Does the Shaw Festival still derive inspiration from its namesake? I’d argue that in aesthetic approach, at least, it still operates under Shaw’s influence. The playwright is a challenging founding figure. Even in his lifetime, his reputation swung wildly. A socialist rabble-rouser at first, he rode waves of controversy to become the most popular British playwright of the Edwardian era. During World War I, his brave pacifism led to his becoming a national pariah but, by the end of that ruinous war, most recognized that his stance had been not only principled but entirely correct. In the 1920s, he became a worldwide symbol for intellectual achievement and progressivism, and halfway through that decade he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. His later output declined in quality, but he never lost his public persona as a witty, rascally contrarian. That persona sometimes overshadowed his brilliant, loquacious, idea-driven plays, which are out of step with today’s focus on concision, character, and subtext. Yeats famously saw Shaw as a demonic sewing machine, cheerfully clicking away without cease, and the image resonates for anyone who has sat at one of his works and wondered if the characters will ever stop debating, arguing, pontificating, and just endlessly talking. Yet if you connect to his (admittedly capricious) wavelength, the experience of this overflowing discourse can become exhilarating. The ideas fly fast and furious in a Shaw play, and virtually every character is preternaturally eloquent.
The problem for many modern thinkers is that Shaw exemplifies a specific artistic paradox: he is generally radical in content but invariably conservative in form, and for this reason his plays never really challenge their audiences, nor do they embody the change they advocate. The conventional, well-made-play-ness of Shaw’s work gives audiences a pass; their politics are essentially benign, thanks to their familiar structures. The truly radical playwrights, those who push their audiences and change the art (if not necessarily the world), are those who break with conventional forms and rewrite the rules: Brecht, Beckett, Annie Baker. Shaw can favor brilliance over conviction. He delights in paradoxes, in playing devil’s advocate. He especially enjoys arguing the counterintuitive side of any question. A typical Shavian conversation goes: [Character A:] “I believe in the importance of honesty.” [Character B:] “Honesty is the worst, most overrated, dangerous quality that exists and here’s why . . .” This sort of exchange appears over and over in his plays. It’s a trope at once charming and exasperating, making for sparkling dialogue but sometimes incoherent morals; I’m sure I’m not the only person who always leaves Major Barbara uncertain as to whose side to take, that of the idealistic Barbara or her practical father, Undershaft. At his worst, Shaw is intellectually lazy and downright gullible. Late in life, his contrary inclinations led him to downplay shamefully the dangers of Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin. Like too many intellectuals of the time, he was slow in recognizing that “making the trains run on time” was not worth any price demanded by a totalitarian regime. To its credit, the Shaw Festival acknowledges this failing and prominently analyzes it in the overview of Shaw’s career that fills the lobby of the Festival Theatre.
This Shavian focus on content over form, on the romance of words and ideas over that of emotion and metaphysics, on progressive ideology but conservative theatrics, strongly characterized the productions I saw last summer at the Shaw Festival. All were admirably right-thinking, but none were astonishing or challenging. Every year there are a few productions of Shaw’s work itself; this year featured a double bill of two of his one-acts, How He Lied to Her Husband and The Man of Destiny, put together into an omnibus called Of Marriage and Men. There is historical precedent for this pairing, going back to the works’ premieres in the first decade of the last century. And there is a thematic connection too as both deal with a husband who must decide what to do when confronted with his wife’s infidelity. The first play is a modern drawing room comedy, cheekily inspired by Shaw’s own Candida, which depicts a dramatic love triangle among a married couple and a young poet. Here, the young lover and the wife are engaged in a dalliance, having been inspired by attending a production of Candida itself. When the husband finds out, the young man denies the affair but soon realizes that the husband is actually delighted that his wife is the object of an illicit romantic obsession.
The Man of Destiny is a period piece, depicting Napoleon as he is about to invade Italy. He meets a mysterious woman at an inn who is holding secret letters implying that his wife may be having an affair with his most trusted lieutenant. The play is one of many in the Shavian canon that depict men who stand above the rules of society and must grapple with how to fulfill their destiny, even at the expense of propriety. Both one-acts received thoroughly conventional productions, and one might argue that since these plays are virtually never done, the best approach is a neutral depiction of the texts, rather than a modern theatrical gloss. Still, there was a deflating lack of theatrical edge, exacerbated in this case by erratic casting. The repertory system felt like a hindrance here, rather than a benefit; the matchup of actor and character didn’t always work. A bit of meta-theatrical fun enlivened the beginning of the second play, which began with a rewind of the last few seconds of the first play and then depicted an ingenious change of scenery. That second set, designed and lit by Steve Lucas, was a doozy, especially in its depiction of a gradual sunset over the course of the play’s 75 minutes.
A new play by Sarena Parmar, based on Chekhov’s immortal The Cherry Orchard and titled The Orchard (After Chekhov), was a delightful surprise. The work, set in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia in the mid-1970s, sticks close to Chekhov’s outline, depicting a land-owning family fallen on hard times who must decide whether to sell their beloved orchard so that it can be turned into summer vacation homes. The author drew on her experiences of growing up in a small but thriving Punjabi community in that region. The first half of the play follows Chekhov almost line by line, exploring the same family tensions with a cast of characters that maps exactly to the original’s dramatis personae. Given the frontier setting of the Canadian West, issues of class are downplayed while questions of immigration and religion come to the fore. The Lopakhin character (here named Michael), a descendant of serfs and therefore not-our-class-dear in the original, is here one of only two Caucasians in the cast, his status as a family outsider more about culture and race than social status. Parmar equates the convulsive social changes limned by Chekhov with the milestone of Pierre Trudeau’s 1971 Multiculturalism Act and subsequent immigration reform, which removed the idea of “undesirable countries” from Canadian policy.
Author Parmar also acted in the play, portraying the youngest daughter Annie (Anya in Chekhov) with spiky charm. The cast was excellent overall, with Krystal Kiran (as Barminder/Varya) and Sanjay Talwar (as Gurjit/Gaev) particular standouts. The central character in the story is the family’s wistful, impractical matriarch, here named Loveleen and played by Pamela Sinha. In the original play, she refuses to decide the orchard’s future, allowing Lopakhin to buy it at auction, to the family’s resigned disappointment. In a major change, Parmar’s play had Loveleen proactively ask Michael to buy the orchard, even signing the deed over to him before the auction, thus inciting her family’s furor: an interesting twist. The Orchard perhaps tries to cover too many issues: several of the secondary characters have distracting arcs relating to their status as indigenous persons, or as Japanese immigrants dealing with the aftermath of the relocation camps that Canada, like the U.S., implemented during the Second World War. Nevertheless, this was a deeply felt and engrossing new work, lovingly produced.
On the basis of its production of Grand Hotel, this year’s big musical, the Festival does not quite have the resources to pull off a work of this difficulty, which requires superb singing, dancing, and acting from a large cast. The show, based on Vicki Baum’s novel and play, as well as the classic 1932 MGM film, depicts a group of desperate characters in 1928 Berlin. It was originally directed by Tommy Tune on Broadway in 1989, a production that remains, to this day, the single most dazzling staging I’ve ever seen. The piece is drenched in Weimar expressionism and requires a highly precise, virtuosic approach. The Festival’s production lacked Continental sophistication, and most of the actors lacked the necessary stylistic flair, coming off as callow. Only Deborah Hay as the aging ballerina Grushinskaya and Michael Therriault as the dying Kringelein met the challenge. Director Eda Holmes framed the entire show as the heroin-induced fever dream of the show’s quasi-narrator character, Colonel-Doctor Otternschlag, a scarred, embittered Great War veteran. This was an interesting idea that ultimately proved distracting as the character lurked awkwardly on the sidelines of every scene. Steven Sutcliffe, a Shaw Festival regular (and known to wider audiences as the original “Younger Brother” in the musical Ragtime), was neither angry nor despairing enough as the Colonel-Doctor, a failing that robbed the show of gravitas. The show’s thrilling final ten minutes still worked a certain magic, but this was certainly the most disappointing production I saw during my visit.
One of the Festival’s nicest traditions is the presentation of lunch-time one-act plays, wonderful opportunities for gluttonous visitors like yours truly to cram in yet another show. This year’s offering was Shaw’s O’Flaherty V.C., a 45-minute work written in 1915. Shaw referred to the play as “a recruiting poster in disguise,” and it is filled with his usual whimsical contrariness. The title character was inspired by a true-life Irish soldier who received the coveted Victoria Cross (the V.C. of the title) and was subsequently used by the British government as a recruiting tool in Ireland, where the volunteer effort lagged (Britain did not institute a draft until halfway through the war). Shaw’s play depicts O’Flaherty returning to his hometown with his English gentry landlord, who is now his General. They discuss heroism and patriotism, with O’Flaherty shocking his superior by taking the Shavian stance that both virtues are actually dangerous follies. O’Flaherty urges the General to focus his Irish recruitment tactics not on a sense of duty but rather on the appeal of getting away from Ireland and its poverty and boredom. The play turns to farce with the entrance of O’Flaherty’s mother, who shows a demure face to the world but is, in reality, a violently fierce partisan for Irish independence. The soldier’s sweetheart, Teresa, also turns out to have unexpected notions of propriety and love. This small jewel of a play received yet another hyper-traditional production, saving a brief modern prologue, but the acting was impeccable. Ben Sanders in the title role is an actor to watch.
An unusual offering last summer was an adaptation of C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, one of his beloved Chronicles of Narnia. Presumably created to bring in a family audience, the new play was written by Michael O’Brien and directed by the Festival’s Artistic Director, Tim Carroll. Highly faithful to the novel, which is a prequel to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and depicts the founding of Narnia, the production suffered from the decision to play too much to the children in the audience. The two protagonists, Digory and Polly, both meant to be 10 or so, were cast with young adults—a smart decision—but the actors were far too precious, playing an antiquated idea of how children behave. Lewis depicts a rich and bracing relationship between these two, but this telling erased those nuances. The villains of the story, in particular Jadis the witch, were softened to the point of toothlessness. The updating of the story to the time of the First World War was almost moot as there was very little period flavor (all of Lewis’s delightful period jargon, like “blub” for “cry,” was eliminated). Just as damaging was a modern framing story, with two present-day children making up the story which we saw, speaking of it all as a wonderful fantasy. Making The Magician’s Nephew a childish “let’s pretend” tale takes away the grandeur and resonance which infuse the novel, the very qualities that draw children in the first place and keep adults interested long after they’ve outgrown similar stories. The Festival did its best, production-wise, with several clever bits of staging and an intriguing conception of the story’s Lion deity Aslan, who was depicted in a World War I uniform. But Carroll’s work lacked the inventiveness of the best theatrical stagings of children’s books in recent years, such as War Horse and His Dark Materials, not to mention a Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe I saw at the Royal Shakespeare Company twenty years ago.
I had seen the premiere production of Sarah Ruhl’s comedy Stage Kiss in New York several years ago, and it was a pleasure to revisit this charming work. Excellent performances by Fiona Byrne and Martin Happer highlighted this depiction of ex-lovers who find themselves cast as a romantic pair in a revival of an antiquated melodrama. Ruhl’s examination of reality and illusion, and the lines between the roles we play and who we are, is deliciously heightened by the theatrical setting, where the playing of roles is a professional necessity, and the enacting of intimate emotional connection is a clinically analyzed and constructed fabrication—which nevertheless still carries with it the charge of true intimacy. In other words, is a stage kiss always (or ever) just a fake? How do actors who have an offstage connection feel when they must kiss onstage? Director Anita Rochon teased all of these threads with great care, abetted by her cast, including particularly strong support from Neil Barclay and Sanjay Talwar.
Interestingly, perhaps the most successful work I saw at the Festival was the least Shavian, at least in form. The semi-legendary musical Oh, What A Lovely War!, a show I had long wanted to see onstage, is anything but conventional. Devised and first produced in 1963 by Joan Littlewood, the iconoclastic director of London’s Theatre Workshop, the piece is a Brechtian revue, a series of sketches and period English music hall songs which comment ironically on various aspects of World War I, including life in the trenches and on the home front, the major figures of the day, and so forth. The first half of the show is bitterly upbeat, full of ironically presented propaganda songs. The script calls for a running tally of the war’s dead to be kept on a scoreboard on the side of the stage, and the numbers start to grow with calamitous speed. The second act details the despair of the endless battles, as casualties mount with sickening haste. Littlewood developed all of her work via improvisation, and the director of the Shaw’s production, Peter Hinton, noted that, “she cautions the reader to look at the text as only a record of what was originally created. She invites us to pay attention to the overall structure of the show as a blueprint for performance.” To that end, the show was significantly revised to incorporate a local point of view, with frequent reporting on the fate of Canadian troops in the war, as well as the history of Niagara-on-the-Lake as a military training ground. In addition, the performers embodied and recounted the experiences of both indigenous and black Canadians, many of whom were denied ability to volunteer for service until halfway through the war, at which point they were allowed to join construction units. Gender and orientation also got revisionist takes: the flirtatious “The Boy in the Gallery,” sung by a woman in the original production, was here sung by a man.
Hinton’s lively yet trenchant staging utilized a cast of ten, all of whom excelled at performing the material with the right blend of period sincerity and acerbic undertone. The singing, supported by Paul Sportelli’s excellent band, was uniformly strong. The designer, Teresa Przybylski, utilized five upright pianos on rollers, which constantly reconfigured themselves to create buildings, ditches, stages, and barricades—a wonderfully clever and supple approach. In the original production, Littlewood put all of her actors in Pierrot costumes, wanting to create a theatrical distance from the reality of the war. Here, in tribute to that approach, one of the actors donned the commedia motley, while the others kept busy switching among multiple period looks.
Oh What A Lovely War is a specialized piece, a musical more in fact than in spirit, and a challenging, prickly work. With this staging, the Shaw fulfilled one of the great functions of a festival in giving a first-class revival to an important work that otherwise is unlikely to have much of a life. And while almost all of the productions I saw at the Festival felt theatrically careful, with everything colored within the lines, I did sincerely appreciate the chance to see full stagings of interesting and worthy plays that otherwise would have virtually no forum. The Shaw Festival is not a place to go to see the cutting edge; it is not Avignon or the Edinburgh Fringe or the BAM Next Wave. Its mandate is not to advance the form, but to curate mostly classic and a few new works, all in an idyllic setting away from the distractions of the major cultural centers. In this, it succeeds.