Photo / Courtesy of the Shaw Festival

The Shaw Festival

By Bob Abelman

Theater critic Bob Abelman has returned from Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario, Canada to report on this season’s offerings at the Shaw Festival. Here are his reviews-in-brief of five of the shows that have opened thus far and are running through October.

“Saint Joan”

The cast of "Saint Joan". Photo | Emily Cooper

The cast of “Saint Joan”. Photo | Emily Cooper

The 2017 production of Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan” marks two milestones and one millstone for in-coming artistic director Tim Carroll.

It is his Shaw Festival directorial debut, his first undertaking of a work by the Festival’s namesake, and his obligation to follow the tradition of former artistic directors Christopher Newton and Jackie Maxwell, who staged “Saint Joan” in 1981 and 2007, respectively.

The play examines the exploits of French military visionary Joan of Arc (Sara Topham in her Festival debut) – a 15th-century peasant girl proclaiming herself to be on a divine mission to save France from England.

Shaw made a conscious choice to focus on the private moments in her story rather than the big public events. We witness the prelude to but never see Joan’s siege of Orleans. Charles is crowned King in Rheims Cathedral, but we only overhear a conversation in a side chapel afterwards. We sit in on Joan’s trial but never observe her capture, imprisonment or execution. As a result, Shaw’s prose and poetry take center stage, which draw attention to the humanity behind the history and the ideas behind the idolatry.

Shaw also intended the play to be produced with simple staging, plain clothes and contemporary language to release the tale from its medieval moorings.

In response, scenic designer Judith Bowden and lighting designer Kevin Lamotte have created a dark, stark and wonderfully abstract performance space occupied by just a few hollow geometric objects that drop from the rafters. A narrow, vertical and translucent rectangle, for example, serves as Joan’s prison.

The action on stage seems untethered to any particular time or place, with only Claudio Vena’s sound design – which includes occasional medieval chanting from the cast members – hinting at the play’s historical context.

The performers are as comfortable with the rapid rhythms of Shaw-speak as classically trained actors would be with iambic pentameter at a Shakespeare festival. Everyone, particularly Topham as Joan and Festival mainstay Benedict Campbell as the Archbishop of Rheims, is interesting, engaging and adds the final ingredient to the production that turns “Saint Joan” into a show that should not be missed when visiting Niagara-on-the-Lake.

“Me and My Girl”

Kristi Frank as Sally Smith and Michael Therriault as Bill Snibson in "Me and My Girl". Photo | David Cooper

Kristi Frank as Sally Smith and Michael Therriault as Bill Snibson in “Me and My Girl”. Photo | David Cooper

“Bernard Shaw’s first impulse was to entertain,” notes Tim Carroll in his online Artistic Directors’ Message. “And that is the drive behind this whole season.” It is certainly the end-result of this season’s absolutely delightful showcase musical “Me and My Girl,” which was inspired by Shaw’s “Pygmalion.”

This frothy 1937 confection, with music by Noel Gay and book and lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber, is set in England where a family of snooty aristocrats discovers that the legitimate heir to the title of Earl of Hareford is a smooth-talking cockney hustler named Bill Snibson (Michael Therriault). Before the estate can be passed to young Bill, he must be made into a proper gentleman and deemed worthy by the Duchess of Dene (Sharry Flett) and Sir John Tremayne (Ric Reid) of marrying Lady Jacqueline Carstone (Elodie Gillett).

In the end, Bill and his girl Sally (Kristi Frank) – like Eliza Doolittle before them – learn that becoming gentrified has its advantages and the upper-crust discover the simple joys of regular people.

As is the case with so many of the musical comedy romps of the 1930s, “Me and My Girl” is a thoroughly enjoyable compilation of fast-paced dialogue laced with rapier one-liners (Lady Jacquie: “I am not one to be simply tossed aside.” Bill: “No, you are to be thrown with great force.”), saccharine-sweet ballads, and huge madcap ensemble numbers that seem to surface out of nowhere and with little provocation.

And like so many of the musicals staged at the Festival, this show’s Broadway quality choreography (Parker Esse), sizable and stellar orchestra (directed by Paul Sportelli), eye candy design (set by Drew Facey and costumes by Sue LePage), and high-energy performances are nothing short of spectacular. “Me and My Girl” is certainly one of the highlights of the season’s offerings.

“1837: The Farmer’s Revolt”

The cast of "1837: The Farmers' Revolt". Photo | David Cooper

The cast of “1837: The Farmers’ Revolt”. Photo | David Cooper

And then there’s “1837: The Farmer’s Revolt,” a dramatized history lesson where attendance is the due diligence one pays for shows like “Me and My Girl” and “Saint Joan.”

First performed by Toronto’s upstart Theatre Passe Muraille in 1973, the play tells the story of the Upper Canadian resistance against British imperialism and the unsuccessful 1837 rebellion that was fueled by American frontier democracy and led by a Toronto-based newspaperman William Lyon Mackenzie (Ric Reid).

It was originally told through simple folk art storytelling with an ensemble of six male and female actors playing dozens of characters regardless of gender. It is told here in a similar vein with eight actors, but is adapted by director Philip Akin to include color-blind casting and meet the high performance standards of the Festival.

After many seasons of watching the Shaw ensemble putting on accents to portray Dubliners, Brits and Americans, it is only right that a company of English-speaking Canadian actors play English-speaking Canadian characters in a patriotic drama by a Toronto-born – albeit Hebrew University of Jerusalem-educated – playwright, Rick Salutin.

Still, with a 2 hour and 15 minute run time, sitting through “1837: The Farmer’s Revolt” feels like homework.

“Dancing at Lughnasa”

The cast of "Dancing at Lughnasa". Photo | David Cooper

The cast of “Dancing at Lughnasa”. Photo | David Cooper

Brian Friel’s deeply personal, Tony Award-winning memory play takes place in the summer of 1936 when the now-adult narrator, Michael (Patrick Galligan), was just 7 years old.

It revolves around five unforgettable women – his aunts Kate (Fiona Byrne), Rose (Diana Donnelly), Agnes (Claire Jullien) and Maggie (Tara Rosling) and his unwed mother Christina (Sarena Parmar) – who try but fail to eke out an existence in a small village in Ireland.

The elements that have slowly but efficiently eroded these women’s lives – their deep-rooted heartache and isolation, the hurtful gossip of the unseen community, and the advancing industrial revolution – are relayed through an undercurrent of longing and melancholy provided by the playwright’s novelistic and economic storytelling.

It is given physical form in Sue LePage’s simple scenic design that decorates the Royal George stage with the dull dark wood furnishings and serviceable artifacts of a modest home against a dramatic gray backdrop.

So thick is the sadness in this production, as directed by Krista Jackson, that it keeps the women’s intuitive and healing spirit of the dance from welling up as it should in the play’s most memorable and powerful scene. It also keeps the play at a bit of a distance despite the best efforts of the actors playing the Mundy sisters to be engaging and walk that fine line found in memory plays between what is actual and what is illusory.

“Wilde Tales”

Kelly Wong as Swallow, Marion Day as Happy Prince and Jonathan Tan as Worker in "Wilde Tales". Photo | David Cooper

Kelly Wong as Swallow, Marion Day as Happy Prince and Jonathan Tan as Worker in “Wilde Tales”. Photo | David Cooper

Oscar Wilde’s genius never blazed more brightly or in such short-form as his 1888 collection of children’s stories. Incoming associate artistic director Kate Hennig has cleverly adapted four of these stories – “The Happy Prince,” “The Nightingale and the Rose,” “The Remarkable Rocket” and “The Selfish Giant” – for the stage, featuring actors Marion Day, Emily Lukasik, PR Prudat, Sanjay Talwar, Jonathan Tan and Kelly Wong.

But this is not a piece of children’s theater, not with Wilde’s acerbic wit and satiric tonality and the infusion of Victorian sensibilities and symbolism that adults will find intriguing. If anything, this production’s introduction of Mike Petersen’s puppets, enchanting audience participation, and John Gzowski’s charming music to the power of eloquent speech bestowed upon a caring statue, selfless bird, egotistical firework and selfish giant are necessary to make these stories more accessible to children. And it does so brilliantly.

Jennifer Goodman’s set and costume designs, inspired by Victorian-era illustrations and toys, transform the Court House Theatre’s intimate performance space into an inviting garden. And at 55 minutes in length, “Wilde Tales” will easily hold the attention and stir the imagination of young and old alike.

Since its inception in 1962, the Shaw Festival has offered theater for two circles of audience – the hardcore theatergoers who come to Niagara-on-the-Lake for professional productions of provocative plays and the cultural tourists who come for the water sports, the wineries and the shopping but are drawn to the musicals or the more populist and familiar fare. This season, like the ones before it, offers world-class storytelling and exceptional production values that will please everyone. cv

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at 2017 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on June 26, 2017.

Lead image: Photo / Courtesy of the Shaw Festival

The cast of "Me and My Girl". Photo | David Cooper

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

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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on April 20, 2017.

Lead image: The cast of “Me and My Girl”. Photo | David Cooper

Comfort is key in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.” PHOTO | David Cooper

Theater critic Bob Abelman reviews a handful of productions from the 2016 Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario, Canada

By Bob Abelman

‘Mrs Warren’s Profession’ still provocative

Comfort is key in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.” PHOTO | David Cooper

Comfort is key in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.” PHOTO | David Cooper

“Mrs Warren’s Profession,” under Eda Holmes’ direction, is superb in so many ways that a few demand discussion.

Bernard Shaw’s play centers on the relationship between Mrs. Kitty Warren (Nicole Underhay) and her 22-year-old daughter Vivie (Jennifer Dzialoszynski), who just completed a degree at Cambridge and is transitioning to a career as an actuary in London.

Vivie learns over the course of the play that her mysteriously single and long-estranged mother is a former prostitute and current brothel owner. When confronted, Kitty boldly defends her career choice in light of the limited employment opportunities available to poor women in Victorian Britain. Prostitution, she argues in one of Shaw’s most commanding monologues, is not a moral issue; it’s an economic one. Vivie calls her mother “stronger than all of England.”

But when she learns that her mother continues to work in this profession, driven by the social standing her wealth provides, Shaw — through Vivie — offers biting commentary on the hypocritical state of the Union Jack.

Though Shaw completed the writing of this play in 1893, it was banned by censors and rejected by at least 12 theaters, two music halls, three hotels and two picture galleries because of its focus on — and sanctification of — the oldest profession.

That is, until 1902, when a private performance was presented at a small London theater club exempt from The Lord Chamberlain’s Examiner of Plays.

This private performance becomes the dramatic device for Holmes’ current production. We discover this upon entering the theater as the four well-dressed gentlemen already on stage — present-day members, we are told, of the New Lyric private men’s club (Thom Marriott, Wade Bogert-O’Brien, Gray Powell and Shawn Wright) — welcome us to their performance of “Mrs Warren’s Profession.”

This clever conceit immediately places all of Shaw’s social commentary into a contemporary context without the obvious and often strained artifice of setting the play itself in a more modern time (see my review of “A Woman of No Importance”).

And it gives license to the actors to disregard the Victorian stereotypes on which their characters are drawn and find something more interesting, honest and profound in their portrayals. Underhay’s powerful Mrs. Warren is more savvy entrepreneur than battle-worn whore, and Dzialoszynski’s wonderful Vivie is an intelligent, young pragmatist rather than a morally rigid New Woman.

And by creating a play within a play, the actors start each act by reciting the long narrative stage directions that Shaw is known for, which are often as insightful, interesting and eloquent as the writing that comes after. This also allows the set and scenery to be described rather than constructed, using the New Lyric Club drawing room — gorgeously rendered by Patrick Clark using dark woods and rich leather, and dramatically lit by Kimberly Purtell — as the play’s central location.

All this serves to place our attention on the immensely talented actors on stage and the provocative words Shaw has conjured for their use.

Which is how it should be at a festival that bears his name. CV

On stage

WHAT: “Mrs Warren’s Profession”

WHERE: The Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario

WHEN: Through Oct. 16

TICKETS & INFO: $35-$117. Call 800-511-7429 or visit

‘Alice’ curiouser but none the wiser

Quite a range of characters populates this “Alice.” PHOTO | David Cooper

Quite a range of characters populates this “Alice.” PHOTO | David Cooper

It may be one of the most published books in history, but Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” — with its literary nonsense, disorienting rhythms and fantastic characters — does not translate well to the stage. At least not in the production currently on stage at the Shaw Festival.

Director Peter Hinton’s musical adaptation, which has been three years in the making, embellishes the surreptitious imagination that drives young, Victorian-era Alice’s journey into a rabbit hole and the upside-down world she encounters there. And he does so by using state-of-the-art technology and brilliant design to create visually stimulating and often astounding images.

But the story gets blinded by the dazzling special effects, sacrificing emotional resonance for theatrical extravagance. And then it gets blindsided by the original but mind-numbing songs by music director Allen Cole.

The show opens in true Shaw Festival fashion — with the performance space filled with glorious stagecraft that immediately establishes a vivid sense of time, a profound sense of place and a singular perspective. And it displays painstaking dramaturgy, for the curtain rises to reveal a recreation of the origin of this now-classic tale.

We find Charles Dodgson (Graeme Somerville), an Oxford mathematician and clergyman who would call himself Lewis Carroll in his writings, improvising his surreal story while rowing down the Thames on a lazy summer afternoon with the daughters of his employer — one being 10-year-old Alice Liddell (a terrific Tara Rosling).

The mechanized boat floats across the stage as if on water, which is a remarkable illusion created by the reflective surface of Eo Sharpe’s set, Kevin Lamotte’s lush lighting, John Lott’s ambient soundscape, and Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson’s animated, pastoral projections on a rear screen. The scene is further enhanced by William Schmuck’s perfectly period costuming.

And when Alice tumbles into the rabbit hole, the illusion is manifested by a combination of these elements plus flight rigging and another layer of animated projection on a transparent scrim that drops in front of the action. The effect of deeper, richer dimensionality on stage is absolutely mesmerizing.

As the play progresses, more of the same follows — more elaborate staging, more exquisite costuming, more layered projections — which soon overpowers the story and draws our attention away from those who populate it. And the music, which contributes nothing to the play’s progression and even less to the development of its characters, sucks some of the life out of the room.

The production also offers moments of truly inspired and understated artistry, such as constructing the Caterpillar Alice encounters out of six actors (headed by Jay Turvey) who move in synchrony by way of Denise Clarke’s imaginative choreography. But such moments are too few and far between to carry this show or keep those overstimulated but underserved souls who left during intermission from doing so. CV

On stage

WHAT: “Alice in “Wonderland”

WHERE: The Festival Theatre, 10 Queen’s Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario

WHEN: Through Oct. 16

TICKETS & INFO: $35-$117. Call 800-511-7429 or visit

‘Our Town’ hits home

A scene from Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” PHOTO | David Cooper

A scene from Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” PHOTO | David Cooper

The poignancy of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 classic “Our Town” — its ability to inspire reflection on what the show’s narrator refers to as the “way we were in our growing-up and in our marrying, and in our living, and in our dying” — is particularly present in this Shaw Festival production.

In part, this is because the flower-lined streets of historic Niagara-on-the-Lake just outside the playhouse entry bear uncanny resemblance, in disposition and design, to the early-1900s New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners so beautifully described by the play’s stage manager (the gently authoritative Benedict Campbell).

It’s not just the summer humidity that hits you hard upon leaving the conditioned air of the theater; it’s the nostalgic reverie hitting home while walking through a living, breathing Grover’s Corners equivalent.

But mostly, it’s the artistic vision of director Molly Smith and the outstanding performances of the ensemble cast that bring out the overriding innocence that permeates this play and all the emotion we attach to that quality.

At its core, the quiet and contemplative “Our Town” tells the story of neighborhood playmates George Gibbs and Emily Webb (the charming and very approachable Charlie Gallant and Kate Besworth), who fall in love over an ice-cream soda at Morgan’s corner drugstore, marry in the Grover’s Corners Congregational Church after graduating from high school, and go their separate ways when Emily dies bearing their second child.

This production embraces all the stripped-down and now-clichéd theatricality required of any performance of “Our Town.”

Ken MacDonald’s set design offers the indispensable, dreamlike limbo of an empty stage accented with just a few white chairs, a floor of white wooden planks, a white scrim backdrop, and oversized white stepladders and fly-in fencing that help establish locations.

Lighting designer Kimberly Purtell and costume designer William Schmuck provide just enough color to give life to the phantoms on stage who represent town physician Dr. Gibbs and his wife (Patrick Galligan and Catherine McGregor), newspaper editor Mr. Webb and his wife (Patrick McManus and Jenny L. Wright), and all the others who have been called back into existence for the sake of storytelling.

Actors pantomime props and provide just enough comic relief to reflect the foibles of the human condition deemed particularly noteworthy by the playwright. And performances are pitch-perfect save for a few New Hampshire accents that come by way of Boston.

But director Smith brings just a little bit more to the table, which adds to this play’s poignancy and the gratification of witnessing it.

During introductions of characters and pivotal moments in the narrative, actors briefly freeze in midmotion to create the kind of experiential snapshots that make up our long-term memory.

When Emily, now passed, foolishly chooses to revisit a day in her life and learns the play’s key moral — that no one ever realizes life while they live it — props replace pantomime, which adds cumbersome weight to the land of the living and subtly drives home this point.

And in the graveyard, when we share time with the dead in the final act, the white color of the floor has seeped into the clothing, as if they have blended into their final resting place. Their very existence, it seems, becomes increasingly invisible to the living and the living become increasingly inconsequential to them.

By merely augmenting the world created by Wilder rather than giving into the temptation of re-envisioning it, as many contemporary productions have, all the intended human truths are revealed in all their intended simplicity. As such, this is as fine a production of “Our Town” as one is likely to find. CV

On stage

WHAT: “Our Town”

WHERE: The Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake

WHEN: Through Oct. 15

TICKETS & INFO: $35-$117. Call 800-511-7429 or visit

‘Uncle Vanya’ offers melancholy by the metric ton

A scene from “Uncle Vanya.” PHOTO | Emily Cooper

A scene from “Uncle Vanya.” PHOTO | Emily Cooper

Anton Chekhov sure is a buzz kill.

It’s been said that, through stories like “The Seagull” and “The Three Sisters,” the late-19th-century Russian playwright explores the depths of human nature by crossing the fine line between comedy and tragedy.

Perhaps, but his “Uncle Vanya” certainly tilts toward the tragic.

It takes place on the deteriorating country estate of the widower Serebryakov (David Schurmann), an aging academic who now lives in the city. Running the estate are his daughter Sonya (Marla McLean) and his brother-in-law Vanya (Neil Barclay), who use the earnings from the property’s farm to support Serebryakov. He returns with the intention of selling the estate to help support his new, much younger wife, Yelena (Moya O’Connell), whose beauty and disengagement entrance everyone.

The reason it does is because everyone in this play is needy and hopeless and yearning for the one thing they will never obtain, and they see Yelena as the source of their satisfaction: Serebrayakov seeks respect, Vanya wants to be appreciated, Sonya desires love, the country doctor Astrov (Patrick McManus) pines for any kind of connection, and so on.

As for Yelena, she wants everything she has sacrificed by marrying this old, ill, self-involved man, which is nothing that can be supplied by anyone in the room.

Shakespeare famously wrote “all the world’s a stage.” For Chekhov, all the world’s a stage of chronic depression.

Artistic director Jackie Maxwell not only selected this challenging play for her final season at the Shaw, placing herself as director, she also chose Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Annie Baker’s adaptation of the work.

Baker contemporizes “Uncle Vanya” — that is, she turns classic melodrama into rich and weighty melancholy, translates Russian values into something more universal and modern, and transforms things that are acidic into bittersweet. This requires a superb core of actors to pull it off and a game director to steer them in the right direction.

She does and they do.

Free of accents and exaggerated affectations, performances are honest and accessible. While the original story and text remain intact, Baker provides greater opportunities for humor and tenderness, which the cast handles with aplomb and, no doubt, an immense sense of gratitude.

One such opportunity comes on a sleepless night in the second act, when Astrov shares a late-night meal and intimate conversation with Sonya, and then Sonya drunkenly shares her attraction to the doctor with Yelena. Both the actors and the audience get to exhale for the first time in this play.

Rambling speeches, of which there are plenty and most often assigned to Astrov, play easier on the ear with their newfound modern vernacular and contemporary cadence.

And Chekhov’s proclivity for pregnant, overly dramatic pauses is better used to capture the boredom of life on the farm and the overriding dissatisfaction characters feel in each other’s miserable company, which is where more humor resides.

Sue LePage’s simple costuming and set design decorate the Court House’s open performance space with heavy wools and just enough dark wood furnishings and period artifacts to set the scene. This grounds all that is innovative in Baker’s writing and Maxwell’s direction in things traditional, which helps maintain the integrity of the original.

Chekhov is still a buzz kill. But here, there’s more pleasure in the pain. CV

On stage

WHAT: “Uncle Vanya”

WHERE: Court House Theatre, 26 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake

WHEN: Through Sept. 11

TICKETS & INFO: $35-$117. Call 800-511-7429 or visit

‘A Woman of No Importance’ undermined by its updating

“A Woman of No Importance” runs quite the elegant gamut. PHOTO | David Cooper

“A Woman of No Importance” runs quite the elegant gamut. PHOTO | David Cooper

No, Oscar Wilde’s “A Woman of No Importance” is not the best of the four society comedies he wrote between 1891 and 1895.

It’s been said that while “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” “An Ideal Husband” and “The Importance of Being Earnest” swim in melodrama, this one fails to come up for air.

And while Wilde’s plays typically offer a handful of likable characters, this one has none and everyone’s lines are lessons in conventional Victorian morality.

But no play better chronicles the pleasure of belonging to the best of high society and the pain of being cast from it, which evocatively reflects the public shaming Wilde was experiencing while this was in performance at London’s West End.

Being found guilty of subversiveness and sodomy destroyed Wilde’s career — a career that too quickly went from poetry to prose to prison — and, ultimately, destroyed the playwright himself.

But not before Wilde penned this portrait of the shame of an unwed mother desperately trying to conceal the truth from her son and an unforgiving society.

At a gathering at the Hunstanton estate in England, a group of high-society friends is celebrating the presence of the much-adored Lord Illingworth (Martin Happer) and his recently appointed secretary, Gerald Arbuthnot (Wade Bogert-O’Brien). This is a big promotion for young Gerald, who grew up without resources, prospects or a father. But when his mother Rachel (Fiona Byrne) realizes that her son’s new boss is actually his father — the man who abandoned her as a pregnant teen — she tries to put a stop to it.

Wilde most succeeds in this play when he moves from preaching about social injustice, albeit with delicately rounded sentences, to pleading for tolerance in a world that is apt to be harsh. He gives Rachel a voice and a platform for it.

Where this otherwise well-acted, beautifully produced production falters is in director Eda Holmes’ decision to take this play out of Wilde’s time and into 1951.

The purpose of this temporal transportation is to bring this work closer to our own time in the hope of revealing how similar social injustices still exist. Wilde’s England was experiencing an end to Victorianism and the crumbling of the most formidable conventions and firmest convictions. In the early 1950s, when the Conservatives ousted the Labour government after the end of the World War II, gender roles and moral codes also were in transition.

Going from 1883 to 1951 also gives license to designers Michael Gianfrancesco (set and costume), Kevin Lamotte (lighting) and John Gzowski (music and sound) to stretch and strut their craftsmanship, which they do marvelously.

But this time shift is a distraction considering how the words, wit and exposed hypocrisies are so deeply tied to Wilde’s era. And, of course, it draws the play away from Wilde’s own turmoil.

The thing is, those in the audience are more than capable of drawing parallels between Wilde’s timeline and our own — on our own. Case in point: Early in the play, estate owner Lady Hunstanton (Fiona Reid) observes that “politics are in a sad way everywhere … they certainly are in England.” In light of Britain’s recent withdrawal from the European Union, the audience laughed larger, louder and longer than the line would otherwise have warranted.

If you can get past this production’s creative misstep, there’s still plenty in this play and its presentation to relish. CV

On stage

WHAT: “A Woman of No Importance”

WHERE: The Festival Theatre, 10 Queen’s Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake

WHEN: Through Oct. 22

TICKETS & INFO: $35-$117. Call 800-511-7429 or visit

Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News from June 29 through July 3, 2016.

Lead image: Comfort is key in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.” PHOTO | David Cooper

Quite a range of characters populates this “Alice.” PHOTO | David Cooper

Curtain rises on 10 plays at annual Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake

By Bob Abelman

The Shaw Festival, which runs from April to October, is in full bloom. Since 1962, our neighbor to the north has offered plays that range from the provocative to the traditional, from musical to melodrama, and from the hands of George Bernard Shaw (who wrote 65 plays from 1878 to 1950) and his contemporaries to modern-day Shavians who share Shaw’s incendiary exploration of society, love of language and celebration of humanity.

Ten plays, produced in staggered repertory, are built from scratch and performed by a residential, 62-member ensemble under artistic director Jackie Maxwell’s creative vision.

Designers William Schmuck and Kevin Lamotte lead teams that collaborate with each production’s director to create set, sound, costumes and lighting 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.

The playhouse in which it is staged further enhances each production. The four theaters, 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, seating 452 in its main theater; and the 200-seat Studio Theatre with its flexible stage 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 four-hour drive from Cleveland — is filled with boutique shopping, fine dining and small hotels, and surrounded by bike paths, B&Bs and wineries.

Here is a description of this season’s 10-play repertoire. After 13 years at the helm, this is Maxwell’s final season as artistic director and quite a few creative gambles have been taken. Whether they’ve paid off will be explored in future reviews.

Quite a range of characters populates this “Alice.” PHOTO | David Cooper

Quite a range of characters populates this “Alice.” PHOTO | David Cooper

“Alice in Wonderland”

This is a newly commissioned musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic tale of 10-year old Alice’s trip down a rabbit hole into an astonishing world populated by remarkable characters like the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, the Mock Turtle and the Queen of Hearts. The result merges a deep love and knowledge of the Victorian period with truly innovative contemporary technology. On stage through Oct. 16. Read the full review.



“A Woman of No Importance” runs quite the elegant gamut. PHOTO | David Cooper

“A Woman of No Importance” runs quite the elegant gamut. PHOTO | David Cooper

“A Woman of No Importance”

In Oscar Wilde’s witty and piercing look at social order, we join the women on the terrace at Lady Hunstanton’s country house to learn how public values affect private lives. It chronicles the pleasure of belonging to the best of society and the pain of being cast out from it. On stage through Oct. 29. Read the full review.




A scene from “Uncle Vanya.” PHOTO | Emily Cooper

A scene from “Uncle Vanya.” PHOTO | Emily Cooper

“Uncle Vanya”

Funny and heartbreaking, Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece about family loyalty lays bare his characters’ passions, hopes and desires with warmth and poignancy. This new version by Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Annie Baker offers a fresh look at this deeply human story. On stage through Sept. 11. Read the full review.



Jesus regards the Black Girl. PHOTO | David Cooper

Jesus regards the Black Girl. PHOTO | David Cooper

“The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God”

When a young African girl is abandoned by her missionary for asking too many questions, she takes the phrase ‘Seek and ye shall find’ a little too literally. She sets out on an adventure to try and find God. But which one? Bernard Shaw’s short story is reimagined as a one-act play by Lisa Codrington in this comic and irreverent adaptation. On stage through Sept. 11.


A scene from Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” PHOTO | David Cooper

A scene from Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” PHOTO | David Cooper

“Our Town”

Grover’s Corners, an ordinary town in New Hampshire, is rendered with extraordinary care in this American classic. In a play stripped to its essence, we are invited into the everyday lives of the town’s inhabitants and through them witness enduring truths of the human condition. First produced in 1938, this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama has become an American classic and is Thornton Wilder’s most renowned play. On stage through Oct. 15. Read the full review.


Comfort is key in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.” PHOTO | David Cooper

Comfort is key in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.” PHOTO | David Cooper

“Mrs. Warren’s Profession”

Kitty Warren has worked hard to provide for her daughter, and now that Vivie is about to strike out on her own, her mother decides it’s time for her feminist daughter to finally learn the truth about her mother’s profession. This is a contemporary look at a classic Bernard Shaw play that still challenges our notions of motherhood and the business of sex. Originally banned from public performance, it was first staged at a private men’s club and the production in New York led to arrests. On stage through Oct. 23. Read the full review.


Bursting into gleeful song in “Engaged.” PHOTO | David Cooper

Bursting into gleeful song in “Engaged.” PHOTO | David Cooper


A comic look at love, marriage and money. We’re in Scotland as yet another train is derailed and the passengers have to stay the night. They include a wealthy bachelor who can’t see a pretty girl without proposing to her and within minutes he’s gotten engaged – twice. And he’s already engaged! Written in 1877, a year before Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore,” the celebrated team’s librettist, Gilbert, created this satire, which went on to inspire the comedies of Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. On stage through Oct. 30.

“Master Harold’ … and the Boys”

Port Elizabeth, South Africa 1950. In a tea shop owned by his parents, on a long and rainy afternoon, 17-year-old Hally (“Master Harold”) and two middle-aged servants of his parent’s household recall fond memories of times spent together. But when news comes that the boy’s tyrannical father is returning home, the personal becomes political. First produced in 1982, the play was initially banned in South Africa and has since become an enduring, modern classic that continues to speak to inequality and injustice. On stage through Sept. 10.

“The Dance of Death”

Isolated on an island in a reclaimed fortress, Edgar, an army captain, and his wife, Alice, have been tormenting each other for 25 years. Their children have fled, no servant will stay, and when Kurt, Alice’s cousin, arrives, he finds himself drawn into their deadly games. August Strindberg’s darkly comic play has been called the forerunner to Coward’s “Private Lives” and Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” in its bleakly comic look at the travails of marriage. On stage through Sept. 10.

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”

Two men arrive in London — one young and hopeful, the other damaged and brooding — and become inextricably linked in a tale of love, revenge and a mysterious secret. Darkly comic and brilliantly unsettling, this is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most celebrated musicals. On stage through Oct. 19. CV

Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on June 27, 2016.

Lead image: Quite a range of characters populates this “Alice.” PHOTO | David Cooper