Sunday, July 2, 2017

Shaw Festival in full swing with Tim Carroll as new Artistic Director

Last week I wrote of the impending opening of the second season of the Foster Festival at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines, and how that fledgling festival is making believers out of those who might have doubted the wisdom of starting a live theatre festival in the city during the summer months.

In a way, it is history repeating itself as many will recall the heady days of 1962 in once-sleepy Niagara-on-the-Lake when local lawyer and playwright Brian Doherty along with Buffalo's Calvin G. Rand persuaded influential locals to support a "Salute to Shaw'.  The inaugural season of the fledgling Shaw Festival began on June 29th in the Assembly Room of the historic Court House, featuring four performances each of Don Juan in Hell and Candida.

For season two, the Shaw Festival Theatre Foundation was established as a non-profit organization with Calvin Rand becoming the first Chair of the Board of Governors, and the Festival acquiring their first Artistic Director in the person of Andrew Allen.

Over the years there have been ups and downs with the Festival, and for the past 35 years or so I have been fortunate to document many of those either on the air during my radio days or in this space for the past several seasons.  Happily there have been far more ups than downs at the Festival, and the current season appears to provide many more of the former and very few of the latter.

The 2017 edition of the Shaw Festival is the first with new Artistic Director Timothy Carroll at the helm, succeeding Jackie Maxwell who did an admirable job since taking over for long-time Artistic Director Christopher Newton back in 2003.

Each incoming Artistic Director pays homage to the building blocks added by their predecessor in building the Festival, yet imprints the first season with their own particular vision and where they plan to take the Festival in the future.  Mr. Carroll is no different.

Timothy has stated he wants to introduce Shaw patrons to what he calls "two-way theatre", an experience where the audience's engagement begins before they even arrive in Niagara-on-the-Lake and continues throughout many of the plays with a certain degree of "interativeness" built in to some of the offerings.

Still and all, some things you simply cannot change and that is certainly the case with the flagship musical at the large Festival Theatre.  It has to be a crowd-pleaser and fill theatre seats in order to ensure a profitable theatre season, and from what I've heard Me and My Girl is doing just that.  Featuring a book and lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber with revisions by Stephen Fry and contributions by Mike Ockrent, the musical is a comic romp harkening back to the 30s.

Music is by Noel Gay with musical direction by Paul Sportelli and choreography by Parker Esse.  Director Ashlie Corcoran has assembled an all-star cast including long-time Stratford Festival star Michael Therriault joined by Kristi Frank, Neil Barclay, Donna Belleville, Julia Course and a host of others.

Me and My Girl runs at the Festival Theatre until October 15th.

A more problematic Shaw play also appears at the Festival Theatre until October 15th:  Saint Joan is directed by Tim Carroll and stars Sara Topham in the title role, along with Gray Powell, Wade Bogert-O'Brien, Benedict Campbell and Tom McCamus among others.

Saint Joan is arguably Shaw's greatest play and has been produced at the Festival at least a couple of times before that I can recall, and provides a calling-card of sorts for Carroll in his first directorial role at the Festival.

Rounding out the offerings at the Festival Theatre is Bram Stoker's Dracula, adapted for the stage by Liz Lochhead.  Eda Holmes directs this Gothic classic with a cast that includes Allan Louis, Marla McLean, Ben Sanders, Martin Happer and several other Shaw regulars.

Dracula previews begin July 8th and it opens officially July 29th, running until October 14th.

Over at the Court House Theatre, Philip Akin directs Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Muraille's 1837:  The Farmers' Revolt.  This modern Canadian classic dates from 1973 and traces the trials and tribulations of immigrant farmers struggling to turn Upper Canada's forests into farmland.

The play, appropriate for our 150th anniversary year, stars Shaw stalwarts Donna Belleville, Sherry Flett, Rick Reid, Marla McLean and a host of others.  It runs to October 8th.

The second Shaw offering of the season is also one that takes audience participation and interaction to a new level.  Androcles and the Lion is the second play this season to be directed by Tim Carroll, who promises every performance will be a little different thanks to the audience involvement.  Just warning you, if you are the more reserved type...

Androcles and the Lion looks at a group of early Christians in ancient Rome, waiting to be thrown to the lions in the Colosseum.  The show stars Neil Barclay, Kyle Blair, Julia Course, Patrick Galligan, Patty Jamieson and a host of others and it is the depth of this strong cast that pulls off this theatrical high-wire act with aplomb.  It runs to October 7th.

The final offering at the Court House Theatre is the Lunchtime One-Act offerings, this time four Oscar Wilde stories collectively billed as Wilde Tales.  The stories, The Happy Prince, The Nightingale and the Rose, The Remarkable Rocket and The Selfish Giant are all geared towards a younger audience, but adults will not be bored by the offerings either.  Christine Brubaker is the director and the stories are adapted for the stage by Kate Hennig.

Children are being invited to attend a pre-show one-hour workshop with actors for an additional fee, and it will appeal to those in the 6 to 12 age group.  Wilde Tales continues at the Court House Theatre until October 7th as well.

Over at the Royal George Theatre, the must-see show appears to be Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III, directed by Kevin Bennett and starring another fabulous 'get' from the Stratford Festival, Tom McCamus.  It's been several years since Tom last appeared at Shaw, and this time he is joined by the likes of Lisa Berry, Rebecca Gibian, Martin Happer, Patrick McManus and Jim Mezon, among others.

For all performances of The Madness of George III, there is limited on-stage seating available, by the way, where you will be encouraged to be part of the show.  Madness runs through to October 15th.

Another Brian Friel play is being staged at Shaw this year:  Dancing at Lughnasa is directed by Krista Jackson and in spite of the title, it is nothing like the carefree dancing movies of Astaire and Rogers we grew up with.  Rather, the play is set in 1930s Ireland, and traces the lives of five women trying to eke out an existence in a land where no tears are without laughter and no laughter is without tears.

The Tony Award-winner for Best Play, Dancing at Lughnasa continues at the Royal George until October 15th as well.

The final offering at the Royal George is An Octoroon by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by the always challenging Peter Hinton.  The original play by Dion Boucicault dates from 1859 when it was considered a masterpiece.  It's a story of a plantation owner who falls for a woman of mixed race; at the time it was seen as a plea for racial tolerance but today modern theatre-goers have a different take on the subject matter.  Still, this modern telling of the tale by Jacobs-Jenkins won an Obie Award for Best New American Play in 2014.

Be forewarned, though, the play is full of strong language and challenging ideas.  Previews start July 16th and the play opens July 28th and closes October 14th.  Cast members include Andre Sills, Lisa Berry, Ryan Cunningham and Diana Donnelly, among others.

The Studio Theatre has been renamed the Maxwell Studio Theatre in honour of former Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell, of course, and there are two offerings in the smaller space this season.  The first is Will Eno's Middletown, directed by Meg Roe and starring Moya O'Connell and Gray Powell, along with Fiona Byrne, Benedict Campbell, Jeff Meadows and several others.  Middletown looks at average people in an average town in North America living average lives, yet all looking for love in their own way.

Middletown previews begin July 13th and it opens July 30th, running until September 10th.

The second offering at the Maxwell Studio Theatre is Michael Healey's play 1979, a co-production with the Great Canadian Theatre Company.  Directed by Eric Coates, 1979 tells the story of  Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark, whose inability to bend the rules resulted in his time in office being incredibly short.  I lived during those days and remember the furor over the gas-price hike that ultimately resulted in his government's downfall, and I remember vividly working the election night when he lost the office to the returning Pierre Trudeau.

1979 stars Sanjay Talwar with support from Marion Day and Kelly Wong and runs from October 1st to the 14th.

There is lots to see and do at Shaw this season, including so-called 'Secret Theatre' performances scattered throughout the season, and lots of pre-theatre discussions and such as well.

Intrigued?  You should be.  More information on the entire season can be had by going to, and you can also order tickets online or by calling the box office at 1-800-511-SHAW.

Enjoy the rest of your Canada Day weekend!

July 2nd, 2017.

No comments: