Now in its 50th year, the Shaw Festival of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada, has zigzagged its way though a half-dozen artistic directors, always coming out ahead. The repertory enterprise is still named for George Bernard Shaw, and, sure enough, each of the three stages there has a Shaw play, one of them almost never performed. Production values of what you see usually exceed the standards of Broadway and the West End, and it’s commonplace to hear applause for the sets and lighting before the action begins. But whether the presentation is comedy, drama or, more recently, the musical, sheer, jaw-dropping surprise is the company’s best asset. That can be a familiar or shopworn item refitted anew or, more often, a little-known delight plucked from obscurity.
The show you don’t want to miss is an hour and five minutes of ecstatic giddiness revived from summer 2008, when the entire run was immediately sold out. That’s Ferenc Molnar’s madcap takeoff on Shaw’s Pygmalion story, here called The President (through Oct. 9 at the Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen St.). Under its original title, One, Two, Three opened in Budapest just before the Depression and was then performed everywhere in a dozen languages, despite the limited market for one-act plays. The dialogue, delivered at a speed that tests the human capacity to speak and comprehend, might well run twice as long if slightly slowed down, as it was in the Billy Wilder-Jimmy Cagney movie comedy One, Two, Three (1961), reset in Berlin during the Cold War.
This version, revised by Welsh-Canadian playwright Morwyn Brebner, moves the action to Manhattan sometime in the 1930s. We can see that art deco icon the Chrysler Building outside the window. In his private office, financial power broker Norrison (Lorne Kennedy) is trying to leave town when trouble falls into his lap. Lydia (Julie Martell), the reckless and visibly libidinous daughter of one of the most conservative clients, has married scuzzy-looking cab driver Tony Foot (Jeff Meadows), who is a member of the Communist party. Within an hour, Norrison must polish this zircon-in-the-rough into a gentleman of high station acceptable to the parents. By comparison, Henry Higgins’ task looks small time. The slum boy needs a complete makeover, head to, um, foot, inside and out. Otherwise, Norrison’s reputation and fortune are at stake.
With words geysering out in every direction, Norrison takes charge, sometimes talking to six characters at once. Actually, there are 21 supporting characters coming and going, played by 14 actors. In a delicious conceit, director Blair Williams has cast actors with distinct presences, like roundfaced William Vickers, the shortest player in the company, or wide-cheeked Ken James Stewart, so we know exactly who they are when they show up a few minutes later with a different name and false mustache or a skirt.
Lest this sounds as though Molnar is making a case for the resourcefulness of the capitalist manager, the playwright throws pies in the faces of both ends of the political spectrum. He deftly pries the cabbie loose from feckless Marxists, and just as easily secures him a title from the no-account Count von Schottenberg (Michael Ball). As with Liza Doolittle, the young man must be taught to speak, but also to dress, and to eat. Toute de suite! All this while Norrison must also keep the young marrieds out of each other’s pants, and, we realize, his own unseen wife, sweetie pie Begonia, is making other plans.
Even with 21 supporting characters, Lorne Kennedy’s Norrison spouts more than half the lines. No comment is ever made about his diminutive stature, apparently shorter than Cagney or the late Peter Falk. But in a director’s trope, Norrison is often seen communing with a bust of Napoleon. Indeed, the triumphant role makes Lorne Kennedy into the emperor of verbal velocity.
A perfect fit for the 328-seat Royal George Theatre, The President’s breath-stopping hilarity would be dissipated in a larger space. For theatrical exhilaration no other company we know can touch it.
A few blocks up the street sits the 327-seat Court House Theatre (26 Queen St.), where the festival likes to put on riskier fare, such as Shaw’s absolutely least-performed play, On the Rocks (through Oct. 8). It appeared just once before in Niagara, in 1986, drawing small audiences. Shaw wrote it at age 77 in 1933 when Western democracies were on their backs economically, and the playwright uttered some of his most chuckleheaded public pronouncements, including kind words for dictators Mussolini, Stalin and even Hitler. Characters in On the Rocks are all fictionalized, fortunately, and all speak better, if rashly, than the playwright did himself. So the problem for the festival is something like what Shakespeareans face with Titus Andronicus: how to extract the author’s gold from all this muck.
Enter Canadian comic playwright Michael Healey, best known in these parts for his Drawer Boy, a big hit at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company four years ago. He slashes the top-heavy exposition, changes one character’s gender and transposes most of the second act to go before the first. Talk about a play doctor. To the extent that the remodeled creature now gets up and dances intellectually (to a witty original score by Paul Sportelli), the surgery can be declared a success.
Action begins with the English government paralyzed in acrimony. (Healey’s rewrite could be pointing to the administration to his south.) A well-meaning but ineffectual Liberal, Sir Arthur Chavender (Peter Krantz), leads an all-party coalition in which every faction shouts and no one listens. Shaw and Healey try to put plausible speeches into the mouths of all points of view, but characters given to stridency tend to sound shallow, not unlike life.
Working-class hellion Aloysia Brollikins (Marla McLean) chews out a doddering but obviously enlightened peer, the Duke of Domesday (David Schurmann), because his ancestors drove tenants off the family property centuries ago. The Tory leader, Sir Dexter Rightside (Steven Sutcliffe), speaks loudly for positions close to what we hear today from Reps. Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor. As his rage multiplies, he blows his integrity in a racist slur against an elegant Anglo-Indian woman, Dame Adhira Pandranath (Cherissa Richards). Her righteous, stinging response equals the power of Shavian grand rhetoric written in his top works.
Simply for bragging rights, On the Rocks will rank high for steady theater-goers. Its themes can be discussed side-by-side with those of the much admired Heartbreak House (1920), also in Niagara this summer. The pared text still retains an abundance of Shavian zingers, such as Chavender’s comment, “I see the art of oratory prevents the advent of thought.” The production boasts some of the company’s best talent: Mary Haney, Norman Browning, Guy Bannerman, Claire Jullien and especially Peter Krantz as Chavender, melding Jimmy Stewart’s self-mockery with Henry Fonda’s purity of purpose.
The 869-seat Festival Theatre (10 Queen’s Parade) at the east end of town is the favored venue for the poshest productions likely to attract the largest audiences. That’s what happens to the No. 1 draw of the summer, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady (until Oct. 30), once known as the musical version of Pygmalion. It seems strange that the company never mounted it in 50 years, especially after artistic director Jackie Maxwell declared her admiration for classic Broadway about 10 years ago. As one might expect, the company pulls out the stopper to make sure Lady’s a whopper.
Dramatic star Benedict Campbell as Henry Higgins both knows how to sing and speak as an elocutionist. As Liza, diminutive Deborah Hay (Billie in Born Yesterday two years ago) can make any accent her own and still make you think she’s struggling to learn. Her labor-averse father Alfred is rotund, bumptious Neil Barclay, whose high-kicking “Get Me to the Church on Time” will make a cardiologist gasp. Company favorites Patrick Galligan (Pickering), Sharry Flett (Mrs. Higgins), Mark Uhre (Freddy) and Patty Jamieson (Mrs. Pearce) can do no wrong. Molly Smith’s direction, especially of the ensemble numbers, Paul Sportelli’s musical direction, Daniel Pelzig’s choreography and Ken MacDonald’s sets all meet the highest professional standards.
Two cautions. The script follows George Cukor’s 1964 movie rather than the original book, so “I Could Have Danced All Night” is now in the first act. And the first act does not end with Liza, Higgins and Pickering’s exit, but rather with the challenge from Zoltan Karpathy (Jeff Irving) at the ball. Secondly, Judith Bowden’s costumes, sure to erase the memory of Cecil Beaton’s black-and-white frocks for the movie’s “Ascot Gavotte” number, have turned the hoity-toity horsey people into so many macaws and Carmen Mirandas. Order a ticket if you can get one.
A second big production at the Festival Theatre is the once-admired, now little-seen The Admirable Crichton (until Oct. 29) by J.M. Barrie. With the undying popularity of Peter Pan (1904), we sometimes overlook what a huge success the rest of Barrie’s career was. The 1902 Crichton, with its provocative things to say about status and class, sounds from a distance like a Shaw play, only Barrie’s agenda points in a different direction. The Earl of Loam (David Schurmann), a radical peer, lives in Mayfair, London’s most fashionable quarter. To demonstrate his commitment to his own view of egalitarianism, he obliges his entire household of cooks, chauffeurs and dishwashers to share tea with the family, forcing everyone into extreme discomfort. Unruffled but concerned is the takecharge butler, Crichton (Steven Sutcliffe), who avers that nature tells us certain people were meant to be in charge.
Begging plausibility, the second act finds the earl’s family and much of his household marooned on a desert island, a la Swiss Fam-ily Robinson. All the aristocrats, not surprisingly, turn out to be maladroit, unable to feed or dress themselves, and are dependent on the servants. They are led by the redoubtable Crichton, the man who knows how to get things done. His flash and moxie attract the affections of the eldest Loam daughter, the flame-haired Lady Mary Lasenby (Nicole Underhay), who has herself become a Diana-like huntress, bagging wild game to turn over to Crichton. The social order is completely inverted, and it’s the doers who win the beautiful girls.
When the entire party returns to Mayfair, there is some ambiguity about just what happened. A lazy, self-satisfied toff, Ernest Woolley (Kyle Blair), has published an outrageously dishonest account of the adventure, in which the privileged are seen as prevailing. Clearly chastened, the Earl of Loam announces his switch to the Tory party. And what of the island lovers, Crichton and Lady Mary? In his notebooks Barrie writes of two contrasting endings, unsure which audiences would prefer. In this version, director Morris Panych allows for both.
A Canadian playwright with an international reputation (Seven Stories), Panych did far more damage to Georges Feydeau’s golden farce Hotel Paradiso three years ago. Here he introduces a host of zoomorphic, kabuki-like characters to comment on the action and also deliver musical interludes. Six men and women, dressed in formal wear and sporting animal half-masks such as a wolf, hare, fox and crow, speak with Cockney accents as they introduce and comment on the action. This means reading Barrie’s witty stage directions when characters enter, although Barrie’s own exposition clearly tells us what they are about.
J.M. Barrie speaks wonderfully well in his own voice, thank you. Audiences should add this version of The Admirable Crichton only if the time at Niagara allows for an open matinee or evening.
The most disappointing of the five items seen during a recent Syracuse New Times visit is one of Shaw’s early “pleasant” plays, Candida (until Oct. 30 at the Royal George). The title character (Claire Jullien) is a beautiful if mature wife of a liberal clergyman, Morell (Nigel Shawn Williams), and the daughter of a reactionary but ironic businessman father, Burgess (Norman Browning). Into her life comes an unexpected admirer, the young poet Eugene Marchbanks (Wade Bogert-O’Brien). The love triangle has long been one of Shaw’s more popular plays, happily produced by Syracuse Stage in 1978 and musicalized as A Minister’s Wife by Austin Pendleton at Lincoln Center last spring.
The touch of Krakow-based director Tadeusz Bradecki, alas, is ponderous and slow. Many wonderful performances, including Kate Colosimo as the reverend’s secretary, and enchanting lighting effects from Jock Munro are not enough. The prime mistake is making Marchbanks a dithering fool instead of an obsessed romantic. Decades ago Marchbanks was the first important stage role of two adolescents named Orson Welles and Marlon Brando. Not recommended.
Word on the street in Niagara-on-the-Lake argues that two other best bets are a little-known Irish play and an American classic. Lennox Robinson’s Drama at Inish—A Comedy (until Oct. 1 at the Court House) explores what happens to the population of a seaside community when a visiting theater company introduces the soul-rending dramas of Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (until Oct. 23 at the Royal George) is now one of Tennessee Williams’ three most-often performed works, and for good reason. The Festival gives the show its best with company favorite Jim Mezon as Big Daddy and porcelain-skinned beauty Moya O’Connell as the vulnerable Maggie.
Also at this year’s fest: Shaw’s Heartbreak House (until Oct. 7 at the Festival Theatre), the Portuguese-themed musical Maria Severa (through Sept. 23 at the Court House), Topdog/Underdog (through Aug. 27 at the Studio Theatre, 10 Queen’s Parade, in the Festival Theatre complex) by Syracuse-linked Suzan-Lori Parks, and When the Rain Stops Falling (through Sept. 17 at the Studio).
The shows will be performed in repertory, Tuesdays through Sundays, 2 and 8 p.m., with performances of The President at 11:30 a.m. Admission is $32 to $106 (Canadian), with discounts for seniors, families, students and groups. The Shaw Festival is in Niagara-on-the-Lake, north of Niagara Falls, Ontario, about a 3-hour drive from Syracuse. Tight accommodations require advance planning. Call (800) 511-SHAW or visit www. shawfest.com for details.