Shaw Festival A Prime Theatre Town

My husband and I recently took in a long weekend at the festival and managed to see four productions over three days. This year the Shaw is producing a season of eleven plays and musicals running in rotating repertory at four different theatres. One of the joys of the festival is seeing an incredible company of actors taking on a variety of roles. The star of one play may be the maid in another. There is a true ensemble feel at the Shaw and the caliber of acting is always of the highest level. And, under the leadership of new Artistic Director Tim Carroll, a diverse selection of contemporary and classic works has been included this season.

Sara Topham as Joan with cast of Saint Joan. Photo by Emily Cooper.

Shaw is still their primary focus, however, and Mr. Carroll’s first production as AD is George Bernard Shaw’s masterwork, “Saint Joan”. This elegantly stripped-down production (set design by Judith Bowden, lighting by Kevin Lamotte) tells with great zeal and a contemporary freshness the timeless story of a young woman who was either the savior of France or a pathetically deluded teenager. The beauty of Sarah Topham’s bravura central performance is that she could be either. Carroll moves this breathless production with the urgency of tomorrow’s headlines and it proves to be a most promising start for his tenure as the festival’s new leader.

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

Those beleaguered folks in Stratford, still trying to make that town a theatre destination with the Shakespeare festival, would do well to pay a visit to Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada. This postcard-perfect Ontario town – just minutes from Niagara Falls – is a theatre destination spot done right. Now in its 55th season, the annual Shaw Festival converts this glorious little town with its unique shops and endless hanging baskets of flowers into a prime theatre venue from April to late October every year. It’s well worth the trip.
The English musical hit, “Me and My Girl” and the historical drama, “The Madness of George III” were also memorable at the Shaw only diminished slightly for me in comparison to earlier productions I’d seen. Still, “Me and My Girl” is a daffy delight and a huge hit playing in the expansive Festival Theatre to happy audiences.  Alan Bennett’s brilliant “George III” was a star vehicle on stage and film for the late, great Nigel Hawthorne. I was lucky to see him in the play’s American premiere here in the early 1990s at the Stamford Center for the Arts. The Shaw has produced a lovely rendering of this modern classic with Tom McCamus bringing authority and comic brio to the role of the maybe-mad king. Directed with restrained elegance by Kevin Bennett, his relatively small company of actors is enlisted to play several roles with the simplest of costume adjustments and often in the blink of an eye.

Tom McCamus as George III and Chick Reid as Queen Charlotte with the cast of The Madness of George III. Photo by David Cooper.

Brand new to me was “1979”, Michael Healey’s lively satire about Canada’s unloved Prime Minister, Joe Clark. Running a brisk 85 minutes, Sanjay Talwar is terrific as the luckless but honest Clark and his co-stars, Marion Day and Kelly Wong, play a host of other characters changing costumes and sexes with ease. American tourists may not appreciate the many Canadian and historical references here, but the three actors, under the precise direction of Eric Coates, deliver the goods and keep the play humming.

Sanjay Talwar as Joe Clark and Kelly Wong as Pierre Trudeau in 1979. Photo by Andrew Alexander.

Also on tap this season is a new play by Rick Salutin, “1837: The Farmers’ Revolt”, Liz Lochhead’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”, Brian Friel’s Irish charmer “Dancing at Lughnasa”, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ controversial “An Octoroon”, Will Eno’s “Middletown”, Oscar Wilde’s “Wilde Tales” and Shaw’s classic “Androcles and the Lion”. Truly, something for everyone! Find your passport, and go! For further information visit: www.shawfest.com.
           
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org

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