Friday, July 7, 2017

First show of the season at The Foster Festival closes tonight

Tonight is your last chance to catch the opening show of the second season of The Foster Festival in downtown St. Catharines, and if you have not already done so, you really should go.  My far better half and I did just that on Wednesday night, so I thought I would offer up a few thoughts on the production before it closes.

As you no doubt know by now, The Foster Festival celebrates Canada's greatest living playwright, Norm Foster, who rarely goes through a summer without several of his plays in production somewhere in Canada on the summer theatre circuit.  But until last season there was not an entire festival dedicated to his theatrical genius.

Festival co-founders Patricia Vanstone and Emily Oriold changed all that when they announced in June of 2015 they were starting The Foster Festival, set to launch last season at the brand new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.  It was a gamble of course, hoping locals would come downtown on a summer afternoon or evening for a performance of a funny play and maybe spend a few bucks while down there on dinner before or after the show.

Last year got off to a bit of a slow start, I think, as people had to warm to the notion of not going to Niagara-on-the-Lake for their summer theatre fix, but at least the novelty of the brand spanking new theatre space would work in their favour during the first season.

This year, expectations are raised after the successful first year and the novelty of the new space has now worn off.  So, are we in a better position than we were this time last year?

The answer is an unequivocal vote in the affirmative.

Hey, we may not have Shaw, but we have Foster.  And if I had a choice for who I would want to see at an after-theatre party, I think Foster would be way more fun.

Norm Foster has a way of taking everyday situations and making them funnier.  He knows human nature better than most and translates that into plays in which we often see ourselves and in so doing, allows us to discover that in fact, we as Canadians can be a pretty funny lot.

Having said all that, the first of two World Premieres this season is vintage Norm Foster sure, but left this reporter a little disappointed at the end.  Oh sure, Screwball Comedy is funny all right, but I don't think it's his best work, really.

Not taking anything away from the production, which is magnificent, but this comedy doesn't hold a mirror up to us quite as much as past successes do, and as such I found the comedy quotient not quite as high as we are accustomed to.

Screwball Comedy is set in 1938, an era when jobs were hard to come by for many and even more so for women, especially in the male-dominated world of journalism.  Back then the so-called 'ink-stained wretches' were almost always hard-nosed, hard-drinking males and adding a woman to the mix would simply cramp their style.

That is exactly what Foster set out to do by introducing Mary Hayes to us:  she is the grand-daughter of legendary newspaperman Charlie Hayes, we're told, so her journalistic background is solid even if her work experience is sparse.  Hayes applies for a job at the local newspaper and comes face-to-face with crusty newspaperman Bosco, who after initial reticence decides to give Mary a chance.

Bosco decides to pit young Mary up against the paper's star reporter, the aforementioned hard-nosed newspaper reporter Jeff Kincaid.  They would both cover an important society event involving the female owner of the paper and may the best story teller win.

From there we are introduced to a host of characters as both Mary and Jeff uncover more details about the society wedding that is planned, and they discover a lot about themselves, too.  For one thing, they discover Kincaid may not be quite as hard-nosed as he makes himself out to be.

In the end, one of them will win and either get the job or get to keep his job.  I won't give away the ending here, but suffice it to say both players in this exercise get some good lines and have a lot of fun bringing the story home, as it were.

The cast assembled by director Vanstone could not be better.  Cosette Derome as Mary is winsome, a little bit sexy (this is 1938, after all) and street smart.  Her adversary cum love interest Jeff Kincaid is played by Darren Keay, who returns from a successful run last season at the Festival.  Kincaid is full of himself, sure, but has a vulnerability young Mary mines for all its worth.

The rest of the cast, all two of them, play the remainder of the seven characters.  If nothing else, that tells you something about the quality of the cast assembled here.  Kevin Hare displays exceptional comic timing as Bosco, Reginald, Peter and Chauncey, and Eliza-Jane Scott gets lots of mileage out of her comic turns as Jones, Delores and Gloria.  From four actors we have nine finely defined and very funny characters.

Peter Hartwell's set is an evocative art deco marvel of economy and the lighting of Chris Malkowski is just right.

Based on the quality of the first season, my wife and I decided to become season subscribers this year and we are very happy to be so.  This is exactly the quality of theatre we need to bring people downtown in the summertime.  Not just theatre-goers per se, but those who have never experienced live theatre on this level before.

The Shaw Festival has nothing to worry about here:  they will still be a destination in Niagara for quality theatre as they have been for years.  But The Foster Festival is the new upstart in town, into a second season and doing just fine, thank you very much.

Last performance of Screwball Comedy is tonight at 8 pm at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  If you have plans, change them.  If you don't have plans, you owe it to yourself to go.  It will be time well spent laughing with like-minded souls.

Call the box office for tickets or go online to

Have a great weekend!

July 7th, 2017.

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