By Bob Abelman
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ontario, Canada – “We need theater more than ever – that wonderful alchemy that takes us out of ourselves and the world,” posts Shaw Festival’s in-coming artistic director Tim Carroll on the company’s website.
He ought to know, having recently served as associate director at London’s reconstructed Globe Theatre, where the tradition of offering theater – particularly the works of Shakespeare and other Elizabethan playwrights – dates back to the mid-16th century.
The Shaw Festival is not nearly as historic, though it has been offering plays that range from the provocative to the traditional and from musical to melodrama since 1962.
And with the Stratford Festival performing classical theater with special emphasis on the plays of Shakespeare just 116 miles to the west, the Shaw Festival has long set its sights on the works of George Bernard Shaw, his contemporaries and modern-day Shavians.
“Bernard Shaw’s first impulse was to entertain,” notes Carroll, “and that is the drive behind this whole season.”
With a staggering 11-play repertory that is built from scratch and performed by members of a residential 62-member ensemble from April to October, Carroll most certainly has his work cut out for him.
Designers William Schmuck and Kevin Lamotte lead teams that collaborate with each production’s director to create set, sound, costume and lighting designs that complement the play’s time and text. Meticulous historical and dramaturgical research is combined with creative instincts and artistic risk-taking. As a result, The Shaw’s production values are celebrated as among the best in the world.
Each production is further enhanced by the playhouse in which it is staged. The four theaters, which are a short walking distance from one another, include the modern 869 seat proscenium-arch Festival Theatre, which caters to large-scale productions; the 327 seat performance space in the Court House Theatre, which was built in the 1840s; the intimate 1913 vaudeville house, called the Royal George Theatre; and the 200 seat Studio Theatre with its flexible performance space.
All this takes place in the heart of the charming, historic town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario. The town – a mere four-hour drive from Cleveland – is filled with boutique shopping, fine dining and small hotels, and surrounded by bike paths, B&Bs and wineries best known for their world-class production of a luscious, intensely flavored dessert wine.
Here is a description of this season’s repertoire, which Carroll notes will not only take us out of ourselves but will be “bringing us together and reassuring us that we have each other’s backs.” Several productions will be reviewed in upcoming issues of the Cleveland Jewish News.
For tickets, call 1-800-511-SHAW or go to shawfest.com.
SAINT JOAN — Opens May 25 ♦ Closes October 15
By Bernard Shaw
Bernard Shaw’s lyrical and poetic play about the most remarkable teenage girl in history. Considered either a divinely-inspired savior of France or a pathetically deluded country girl, Joan is bound to become an embarrassment to the male-dominated world she has turned upside-down.
THE MADNESS OF GEORGE III — Opens May 26 ♦ Closes October 15
By Alan Bennett
A touching love story and political comedy. King George III may have been anointed by God, but when he starts to lose control of his speech and his bodily functions, it’s clear that he’s all too human.
ME AND MY GIRL — Opens May 27 ♦ Closes October 15
Book and Lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber
Music by Noel Gay
Downton Abbey meets Pygmalion in this toe-tapping musical. A delightful comic romp from the 1930s follows the fortunes of Bill Snibson, a proud cockney who is amazed to learn he’s actually the fourteenth Earl of Hareford. But if he wants to claim his title, he’ll have to shed his old life and his love for Sally Smith.
1837: THE FARMERS’ REVOLT — Opens May 27 ♦ Closes October 8
A play by Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Muraille
A handful of immigrant farmers struggle for years to turn Upper Canada’s forests into farmland; now they are told that their land has been dished out to government cronies. With William Mackenzie as their leader, a band of desperate men and women march down Toronto’s Yonge Street in an uprising that paved the way for nationhood.
DANCING AT LUGHNASA — Opens June 23 ♦ Closes October 15
By Brian Friel
In the 1930s, five unforgettable women – Kate, Rose, Agnes, Christina and Maggie – try to eke out an existence in Ireland, the land where no tears are without laughter, and no laughter is without tears. Each woman is filled with passionate longing: and yet they deal with it in their own, different ways – except when they are all equally possessed by the spirit of the dance, welling up from the buried, ancient powers of their native land.
ANDROCLES AND THE LION — Opens June 24 ♦ Closes October 7
By Bernard Shaw
In ancient Rome, a group of early Christians wait to be thrown to the lions in the Colosseum. Some are more eager to be martyrs than others; the Romans just think they are all crazy. Shaw takes the fable of the man who pulled the thorn from the lion’s paw as the starting point for one of his funniest plays. This revival will be a daring theatre experiment: everyone in the room – actors and audience – will have to the chance to get involved in an experience that will be different every time.
WILDE TALES — Opens June 24 ♦ Closes October 7
By Oscar Wilde/Adapted by Kate Hennig
Oscar Wilde’s genius never blazed more brightly than in The Happy Prince, The Nightingale and the Rose, The Remarkable Rocket and The Selfish Giant. In these tales, created to delight and inspire the child in each of us, he conjures a fantastical world in which statues, birds and even fireworks have the power of eloquent speech. Before each performance children can participate in a one hour workshop to help the actors create the magic on stage.
1979 — Opens June 25 ♦ Closes October 14
By Michael Healey
One of Canada’s most celebrated playwrights takes on one of its least celebrated leaders. Joe Clark’s career as prime minister lasted barely longer than Michael Healey’s razor-sharp new comedy. 1979 is a touching portrait of a politician who really wants to serve his country, but isn’t willing to bend the rules to hold onto power.
AN OCTOROON — Opens July 28 ♦ Closes October 14
By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
When Dion Boucicault wrote The Octoroon in 1859 it was considered a masterpiece. Its story of a plantation owner falling for a woman of mixed race was taken as a bold plea for racial tolerance; now it seems embarrassingly racist. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ radical response compares attitudes to race then and now in the funniest and least comfortable theatre experience in years.
DRACULA — Opens July 29 ♦ Closes October 14
By Bram Stoker/Adapted by Liz Lochhead
Stunning, sexy, funny and scary, Bram Stoker’s Gothic classic is all about repressed erotic hunger: in Victorian England, men are as terrified of female desire as they are of blood-sucking vampires. Lochhead’s interpretation shifts the emphasis from the titular demon to the female characters: virtuous Mina, flirtatious Lucy and sensible Florrie. Attempting to protect the women from their blood-thirsty neighbor are the social-climbing Jonathan Harker and the well-meaning Arthur Seward.
MIDDLETOWN — Opens July 30 ♦ Closes September 10
By Will Eno
In the most average town in North America, a group of average people – including Mrs. Swanson and John Dodge – are living average lives of quiet desperation. And yet somehow, in the midst of all this isolation, the most basic human urge persists: the desire to matter to someone else. They may go about it in odd ways, but everyone in Middletown is looking for love. CV
Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on April 20, 2017.
Lead image: The cast of “Me and My Girl”. Photo | David Cooper