Saturday, August 27, 2016

Shaw Festival announces 2017 season

Earlier this month the Shaw Festival announced their 2017 season, the first under the direction of Artistic Director Designate Tim Carroll.  2017 will be the 56th Shaw Festival season.  So let's take a look at what's in store next year before some observations on this year.

The upcoming season will include 11 plays, two of which will be by Shaw:  Saint Joan and Androcles and the Lion.  Tim Carroll will direct both Shaw offerings next season.  Being a self-professed Shaw "newbie", Carroll says in the 2017 season press release he is "hoping for a season of plays that will entertain and provoke our audience as much as Bernard Shaw did his."

Carroll has readily admitted one of the reasons he took the job was the opportunity to work with what he calls "the best acting company in North America."  There's little argument there; the Shaw Festival has prided itself on exceptional ensemble work and individual star turns for many years now and quite often, they produce what could be considered a definitive interpretation of a particular play.

Still and all, with a new Artistic Director comes changes to said ensemble as some new faces appear and familiar faces depart.  It is inevitable, and happened at the end of Christopher Newton's long tenure at the helm several years ago as well.

Next season's lineup looks like this:


Me and My Girl, featuring music by Noel Gay and book and lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber.  Directed by Ashlie Corcoran, the musical is a reworking of the familiar Pygmalion story by Stephen Fry.

Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw, directed by Tim Carroll.  Shaw's 1924 masterpiece has been staged to great acclaim at the Festival before, so this new production will have a tough act to follow.

Dracula by Bram Stoker, adapted for the stage by Liz Lochhead and directed by Eda Holmes.  Holmes hit a home-run with this season's lavish production of Oscar Wilde's A Woman of No Importance, so it will be interesting to see what she does with this new retelling of the gothic classic.


1837:  The Farmers' Revolt, by Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Murialle, directed by Philip Akin.  The first stirrings of nationhood are retold in this Canadian classic and it will be good to see this staged once again.

Androcles and the Lion by Bernard Shaw, directed by Tim Carroll.  The actual fable is more than 18 centuries old, with Shaw's take on the tale highlights the unholy alliance of religion and power.

Wilde Tales (Lunchtime One-Act), featuring Stories for Children by Oscar Wilde, adapted by Kate Hennig and directed by Christine Brubaker.  The four tales will be suitable for adults and children alike, and each show will be different, we're told.


The Madness of George lll by Alan Bennett, directed by Kevin Bennett.  Bennet's political comedy that proved to be a hit at the National Theatre and inspired an equally successful film.

Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Freel, directed by Krista Jackson.  Irish playwright Brian Friel tells the story about the lives and dreams of five sisters in rural Ireland.

An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Peter Hinton.  The play is an edgy take on Dion Boucicault's 19th-century play about slavery.


Middletown by Will Eno, with a director yet to be named.  If you enjoyed Thornton Wilder's Our Town this season, as I did, this modern American classic is a rather surreal response to that earlier work and should prove quite interesting to see.

1979 by Michael Healey directed by Eric Coates, in a co-production with the Great Canadian Theatre Company.  Here's your eyebrow-raiser for the season:  the play deals with former Prime Minister Joe Clark and the battle between idealism and dirty politics.  It proved at the time to be a defining moment in Canadian history and I for one remember vividly the political fallout from that tempestuous period.

Looks like an intriguing and challenging season, aimed at "stretching (the ensemble) in new directions" as Carroll notes in the press release.

Carroll has been a director of theatre and opera for more than 25 years now, beginning with the English Shakespeare Company in 1990 and including a stint as Associate Director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London.  His work with the Stratford Festival here in Canada has resulted in several critically-acclaimed productions, including this season's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which has been extended at Stratford once again.

Carroll will take the helm of the Shaw Festival officially on December 1st, and present Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell will make her exit after a season with some highs and lows to end her very successful tenure in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

I've enjoyed the challenges Maxwell has presented audiences with over the years, and will miss her take on some tried and true theatrical masterpieces.  But don't be surprised if she returns in the future to direct a Shaw production again as did her predecessor Christopher Newton.

As for this season, although I've only seen three of the plays on the bill, Our Town, A Woman of No Importance and Uncle Vanya, the season has largely been an artistic success from my vantage point.  It's a nice way to end a lengthy and generally successful tenure at the helm of the Shaw Festival.

Thanks for the memories Jackie Maxwell; Tim Carroll, the stage is yours...

Have a great weekend!

August 27th, 2016.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Shaw production of A Woman of No Importance very important indeed

It is perhaps a bit of serendipity that brought Shaw Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell to programme Oscar Wilde's play A Woman of No Importance during her final season at Shaw.  After all, how was she to know what would happen in British politics during 2016?

What happened, of course, was the largely unexpected outcome of the Brexit vote and the resulting upheaval that will see England ultimately leave the European Union.  That same vote resulted too in the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron and the entry of a woman once again as Britain's Prime Minister, Theresa May.

In the first act of Wilde's play, Fiona Reid's Lady Hunstanton casts a knowing glance at the audience when she asks Martin Happer's Lord Illingworth if he is in favour of "uneducated people be allowed to have a vote?"  There was more than a little laughter in the audience at the performance we attended, with the outcome of the Brexit vote still fresh in our minds.

But there is so much more to this lavish production at the Festival Theatre than just being timely.  Director Eda Holmes has moved the action of the play from the original 1894 Victorian England to 1951, when the country was recovering from the outcome of the Second World War.  There was political fallout that particular year as well, as the Conservatives under Winston Churchill bested the Labour government of Clement Atlee at the polls.

The year 1951 also saw women fashionably turned out courtesy Dior's celebrated New Look, and that offers designer Michael Gianfrancesco a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the feminine silhouette with a wide array of extravagant costume designs.

His set design, too, is lavish - there are large windows and floor-to-ceiling curtains as a backdrop to the elegant set design.  Together, sets and costumes almost steal the show from the cast assembled by Holmes.

Almost, but not quite.

This cast is strong all around, spearheaded by Fiona Reid as Lady Hunstanton.  Reid is always worth seeing no matter what the play, and in this particular case we benefit from her character's social standing and knowledge of affairs happening all around her.

But it is not a one-woman show.  Holmes has surrounded Reid with a strong cast that includes the aforementioned Martin Happer in the pivotal role of the rake Lord Illingworth, who loved and left Fiona Byrne's Mrs. Arbuthnot as an unwed teen mother years ago.

Byrne is the so-called Woman of No Importance, and she finds a strong ally in the American girlfriend of her son, Gerald.  As Miss Hester Worsley, Julia Course presents a sensitive portrayal of the role, offering moral support for Byrne's character.

Her son Gerald, of course, creates an untenable situation for his mother when he brings Lord Illingworth to meet her and announces he has accepted a position as Illingworth's new secretary.  The new job brings with it social standing Gerald is quite looking forward to, but it is his mother who has to deal with the reality of the situation at hand:  Illingworth is actually Gerald's father.  So, should the two continue with plans to leave for India on business, or does this new dilemma take that off the rails?

Wade Bogert-O'Brien's Gerald is earnest and sincere, while Happer's Illingworth is much less so.  They are a bit of an odd couple, actually, leaving the audience to question if the job offer to Gerald was genuine or there were other motives involved.

Early on, Jim Mezon wanders the stage snapping pictures as a sort of one-man paparazzi in his role of Sir John Pontefract.  It's a delightful turn, but certainly one of the smaller roles we've seen from the talented Mezon over the past several seasons.

Overall, this is a satisfying production of Wilde's play, not at all mired in the past.  It still speaks to audiences today in this new production by Holmes.  The lavish sets and costumes just add to the pleasure.

A Woman of No Importance continues at the Festival Theatre until October 29th and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

August 21st, 2016.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Shaw Festival brings Our Town to life in Old Towne Niagara

There is a certain sadness surrounding this season at the Shaw Festival, as everyone involved from cast, crew, office staff and theatre patrons acknowledge this will be Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell's final season at the helm.

With that in mind the gentle, bittersweet production of Thornton Wilder's classic Our Town is a perfect vehicle to capture that feeling of longing many are experiencing this season while attending the Festival.  Director Molly Smith has given us - and the Festival - the perfect sendoff for Maxwell.

As Smith mentions in her Director's Notes, Our Town remains one of the greatest American plays.  "It's plainspoken," she reminds us, "and is a deep meditation on love, family, marriage and death."  Set in turn of the century America, the play actually takes place in mythical Grover's Corners in New Hampshire, and mirrors what life was like at the time throughout most all of small-town America.

This is not an exciting play, if you equate excitement with suspense, fast pacing and computer-generated special effects.  That, of course, is what many people today are accustomed to while going to the movies these days.

No, here the pace is anything but fast and there is not even a computer in the script to generate anything, really.  But what we do have is the fatherly Benedict Campbell as the Stage Manager, talking directly to the audience throughout the play, describing the action to come and keeping everyone grounded at the same time.

Campbell strings together the scenes of love, marriage, life and yes, ultimately death coming to Grover's Corners with the skill of one who has been there, lived the life himself and relay that depth of knowledge to the audience.  He strikes the perfect balance of information, commentary and gentle humour as he keeps Our Town moving along at that leisurely pace people knew all too well over a century ago.

We also know so many of these people in the play:  people like Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs played by Patrick Galligan and Catherine McGregor, and Mr. and Mrs. Webb, played by Patrick McManus and Jenny L. Wright.  These two households form the basis for much of the action in the play, as their children George and Emily fall in love and marry.

As George Gibbs and Emily Webb, the real-life husband-and-wife team of Charlie Gallant and Kate Besworth exude genuine love and affection that crosses the footlights and reaches out to touch your heart.  They are real, they are as grounded as the rest of the residents of the town, and they plan to raise their children here.

The rest of the cast is equally strong, with special mention going to David Schurmann in the dual roles of Professor Willard and Joe Stoddard and Sharry Flett as Mrs. Soames.  Really though, there is not a weak link in the cast to be found anywhere.

Not exciting enough for you?  Take a long look in the mirror and ask yourself if this is not what we all sort of long for from time to time in our own lives:  a simple life in a small-town free of the hectic schedules we are ruled by every day in the 21st century.

That is why this play appears as comfortable as a cardigan you put on at the end of a hard day at work, and why this particular production works so well.  It rings true in a world that today often clangs with dissonant noise all around us.

Director Molly Smith has crafted a beautiful play, rich in sentiment and melancholy, yet not at all maudlin or depressing.  Set design by Ken MacDonald and costumes by William Schmuck are exquisite in their clean simplicity of design, echoing a far simpler time so long ago.

Emily asks at the end of the play, "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?  Every, every minute?"  Probably not, but Our Town seems like the perfect place to live your life at any time, and you might very well long to spend part of your life in a town like this while watching Our Town.

Our Town is about as perfect a theatre piece as you're likely to find anywhere, and rates a very strong 4 out of 4 stars.  It runs at the Royal George Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake until October 15th.

Have a great week!

August 17th, 2016.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Final offering of the first Foster Festival season is a must-see

The third and final offering of the inaugural season of The Foster Festival at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre opened this week, and it's a fitting finale to the season.

The Foster Festival has the rights to premiere any and all new Norm Foster plays, and given the fact Mr. Foster, easily Canada's most-produced living playwright, has already churned out about 60 plays during his career we could be seeing several more World Premieres in the coming years.

Norm Foster has managed to take a funny situation many of us may have found ourselves in, make it even funnier with his knack for clever dialogue, and imbue the characters with a human vulnerability you don't always see in plays on the traditional summer stock circuit.

No wonder Foster plays have been the mainstay of these summer stock theatres for years now - he knows how to entertain an audience and allow them to see themselves or at least someone they know in each and every one of his plays.

This last play of the season, the World Premiere for the inaugural Foster Festival, is entitled Halfway to the North Pole.  The play is set in Stewiacke, Nova Scotia, a real-life town whose claim to fame is the fact the town is exactly half-way between the Equator and the North Pole.  How you can parlay that into a tourism industry is a little beyond my comprehension, but the play should, if nothing else, make people want to stop by on their next trip to the East Coast and check it out.

Our esteemed Mayor, Walter Sendzik in fact, visited the town on his recent summer vacation down east, and the Mayor of Stewiacke Wendy Robinson was in the audience on opening night to enjoy the show.

So what's to see in town?  Well, according to the play there's the town diner, the local watering hole down the street and...well, lots of interesting people to get to know.

Enter Dr. Sean Merritt, who happens into Stewiacke to fill-in for the regular doctor at the local clinic for a month, and he stops by the diner known as Junior's Cafe for a bite to eat.  He's from Toronto, and that provides fodder for the requisite "We hate Toronto" laughs.  He soon discovers each order at the diner comes with a heaping helping of curiosity on the part of the locals when someone new wanders into town.

Dr. Merritt gets the once over by the three ladies in town who gather at the diner every day promptly at 4 for discuss life in town, Vi, Rita and Mary Ellen.  He seems to take an immediate liking to the fourth member of the group, Janine, who runs the diner.

When the four ladies, played respectively by Lisa Horner, Sheila McCarthy, Helen Taylor and Kirsten Alter gather each day in the diner, it is sort of a Stewiacke version of The View.  Nothing escapes their attention, and they have an opinion on most everything and everyone who crosses their path.

The remainder of the play traces the route that brings this unlikely group together and charts the course for a possible future in Stewiacke for the good doctor when his one-month tour of duty at the clinic is done.

Foster plays explore the human element each time out, and here the verbal give-and-take between the doctor and Janine drives the action from start to finish, with several bumps in the road along the way. I suspect the College of Physicians and Surgeons would have a few things to say about the good doctor's attempts at wooing a local patient, but it provides plenty of comic gold for Foster to mine for a good two hours.

All of the characters get their share of great lines, but none better than Lisa Horner's Vi, whose reference to Neil Young's Heart of Gold in relation to a medical examination provides one of the funniest moments in the play.  You may never think the same way of Neil Young again!

The cast is exceptional, with Horner very nearly stealing the show as a wise-cracking wife who has drunk deeply from the well of life.  She almost does, but Sheila McCarthy's amorous Rita who falls for most any man who will give her the time of day gives Horner a run for her money.  The two are worth the price of admission alone.

I think Darren Keay's Sean Merritt was not quite up to the rest of the cast; he does well with the part certainly but the ladies are constantly upstaging him with their comic timing.

The sets, costumes and direction by Artistic Director Patricia Vanstone all hit the mark perfectly, making this one of the must-see shows of the summer season.

Halfway to the North Pole runs at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre until August 27th and you should really go and see it.  Tickets are available through the PAC box office by calling 905-688-0722.

The Foster Festival would not have happened in St. Catharines if we didn't have the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in which to play, so consider ourselves very lucky to have a festival of such quality right in our own backyard.  If you love good theatre and a great night out, consider supporting The Foster Festival before this season ends.

Have a great weekend!

August 13th, 2016.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Shaw Festival cast shines brightly in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya

There is not a lot of levity in the current Shaw Festival production of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya; in fact, I don't recall ever seeing a production of Uncle Vanya that managed to break more than an occasional smile.

I've seen a few productions over the years, including several at Shaw and going back to the 80s in Toronto when Peter O'Toole appeared in a touring production that played the Royal Alex.

This new adaptation of Uncle Vanya is by Anne Baker, working with a literal translation by Margarita Shalina and the original Russian text.

To put it mildly, this is a pretty grim play with grim characters in a grim country estate and, well, things don't get much better after you sit through the better part of three hours of Uncle Vanya.

That being said, there is an awful lot to recommend this current production, on stage at the cosy Court House Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake until September 11th.  First and foremost, the cast assembled by Artistic Director and the director of Uncle Vanya, Jackie Maxwell is absolutely first-rate.

The two standouts in the production are Neil Barclay as Uncle Vanya, and Moya O'Connell as Yelena Andreyevna.  Barclay finally breaks free from the supporting roles he has so ably been cast in for several seasons and gives a wonderful performance in the pivotal role.  Vanya is infatuated with Yelena, the wife of Serebryakov, played by Shaw mainstay David Schurmann.

Yelena is much younger than her doddering old husband, a fact that does not escape the wandering eye of Vanya, who basically calls it a tragedy her beauty is wasted on the old man.  As Yelena, O'Connell infuses the role with as much grace as can be mustered in such a grim existence, and it is easy to see why Vanya is so taken by her.  But she, alas, has little or no interest in Vanya.

As her older husband Serebryakov, David Schurmann plays a role we don't often see him in:  not a debonair and dashing society gent akin to a Fred Astaire, but rather an old, worn-out and dependent professor who has the great good fortune of having a younger trophy wife by his side.

The rest of the supporting cast is equally as impressive, including Sharry Flett as solid as ever as Marina; Patrick McManus in the role of Astrov, the hard-drinking doctor; Marla McLean as Sonya and Donna Belleville as Vanya's mother Maria.

The characters talk to each other and yes, they do argue, but rarely do they actually communicate with each other.  The appearance of a gun later in the play livens things up a bit but just adds to the tension in the estate.  All in all, they are not a bunch of happy campers.

It appears Jackie Maxwell has been saving Uncle Vanya for this, her final season at the helm of the Shaw Festival.  While it may not be her best effort at Shaw, the cast she has assembled raises the bar for ensemble acting and taking a rather plodding script and elevating it to the point the play becomes highly recommendable this season.

Granted, it is not the happiest production at the Shaw this season, but if you want to see an exceptional cast make a play come alive, this might just work for you.

Uncle Vanya continues at the Court House Theatre until September 11th and rates a respectable 3 out of 4 stars.

August 6th, 2016.