NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ontario – Although the Niagara-on-the-Lake region is known primarily for its booming wine tourism industry, this bustling little tourist town is also home to the Shaw Festival, which despite its humble beginnings has grown to become the second largest summer theater festival in North America with a budget exceeding $27.8 million.
Originally founded in 1962 to promote the works of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, the artistic mandate was expanded in 2003 and 2009 to include the work of “contemporary Shavians” – writers whose work, like Shaw’s, continues to question the status quo in new and different ways. This years schedule is an eclectic mix of plays that includes two Shavian classics (Arms and the Man and The Philanderer), an American classic (The Philadelphia Story), a lost gem from playwright St. John Hankin (The Charity That Began at Home), a classic Broadway musical (Cabaret), Sean O’Casey‘s Irish masterpiece Juno and the Paycock, Tennessee Williams’ one-act comedy A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur and Edward Bond’s rarely produced black comedy The Sea among others.
The ten-show season is produced in a repertory format in Shaw’s four beautiful theater spaces, which allows the avid theatergoer the opportunity to see two plays a day or five plays over a weekend. And come they do – last year’s attendance topped 270,000 patrons with over 31 percent coming from the USA.
Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell, now in her 12th year, has chosen the theme of “theatrical surprise” for the 2014 season. “All really good theatre contains an element of surprise,” she says. “Be it large – say an unforeseen political upheaval – or small – perhaps a personal moment of discovery – the effect is the same. We entered the theatre with a set of expectations and suddenly they have shifted. We must now sit up in our seats, lean forward and follow a new idea – just like the characters onstage.” And judging from the eight productions I had the pleasure of attending in early August, she certainly delivers on her promise. I found this year’s productions to be fresh, highly imaginative and often surprising in their concept and/or staging.
The Sea **** Four Stars!
Bond’s satanic little farce surprised me on many levels, from its quirky characters to its hilarious over the top funeral scene. The production featured the great Fiona Reid in a tour de force performance that gave weight to this unusual and poetic play.
Juno and the Paycock **** 4 Stars!
O’Casey’s depressing and unrelentingly sad Irish wake of a play is anchored by the glorious acting ensemble of Jim Mezon, Mary Haney and Ben Campbell and they handle this monster of a play with humor, pathos and style. Watching this play felt a little like being out on a theatrical pub crawl and I have to admit I felt the hangover from this production for several days. The surprise here was how much you can like a play that at its heart is so innately unlikeable.
A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur *** ½ Three-and-One-Half Stars!
This little gem of a one act by Williams featured radiant performances by Deborah Hay and Kate Hennig. Better known for his dramas Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I was amazed at how funny and sweet this little slice of life play could be. I left the theater feeling optimistic and hopeful and that was a surprise.
Cabaret *** ½ Three-and-One-Half Stars!
Having seen this musical many times over the past three decades, I was pretty sure that I had seen just about everything that could be done to or with this John Kander and Fred Ebb gem. However, I was certainly surprised by the three level all metal revolving set, the garish Felliniesque cabaret girls and Juan Chioran’s freakish yet engaging Emcee.
Arms and the Man *** Three Stars!
The Charity That Began at Home *** Three Stars!
The Philadelphia Story **1/2 Two-and-One-Half Stars!
The Philanderer **1/2 Two-and-One-Half Stars!
If you go: There are a number of convenient non-stop flights from Nashville to Toronto with numerous rental cars options available at the airport. Niagara-on the-Lake is located at the Northern end of the scenic Niagara Parkway about fifteen miles from the Canadian Falls and eighty miles South of Toronto with easy access from the QEW.
Ticket Prices: Ticket prices range from $24 to $113 CAN. There are many ways of saving on ticket prices, from Super Sundays to preview tickets to $30 tickets for patrons under the age of thirty. In 2013, the average cost of a theatre ticket at The Shaw was $64.62. The season runs now through October 26th.
Tickets and Information at: www.shawfest.com
*Production photos by Emily Cooper and David Cooper courtesy the Shaw Festival.