NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. -- In the realm of comic drama, perhaps no two subjects have been exploited for laughs more often than inept policemen and gossiping women.
Hence "The Kiltartan Comedies," two short, one-act affairs at the Shaw Festival in which audiences are treated to a healthy and satisfying sampling of both bumbling policemen and scheming blabbermouths.
For its hourlong lunchtime series, the Shaw Festival has assembled a pair of succinct gems, both bound to provide just the sort of light and digestible diversion the time slot is meant for. The comedies were together named for the western Irish stomping grounds of playwright Lady Augusta Gregory, known primarily for her role in founding Dublin's famed Abbey Theatre with W.B. Yeats.
Gregory's plays, the bite-size "The Rising of the Moon" and the farce "Spreading the News," are given the full Shaw treatment, despite their flighty nature. The set, though simple, is direct and effective. It features a recessed circular cut-out at the back of the Court House Theatre stage; this serves as the moon in the first play and transforms into a scene of lush Irish countryside in the second. Actors are attired in the Shaw's typical spot-on replicas of period dress (we're talking turn-of-the-century here), and the acting, though somewhat rough-hewn in spots, is mostly well-timed and engaging.
"The Rising of the Moon" finds a few bumbling cops keeping watch over a quay at night. They're on the lookout for an elusive felon recently escaped from jail, whose eventual appearance brings up deep-seated feelings of longing in the group's captain.
Both plays are buffered on each end by traditional Irish songs, sung in the first instance by the commanding Patrick McManus and in the second by the entire cast. McManus' soaring, extended version of "Granuaile," like the wry and uplifting song that brackets "Spreading the News," serves to set viewers deeply into the mood of each brief production in a matter of seconds. In "The Rising of the Moon," we really believe that the steps at stage left lead down to the frothy Irish seaside.
In the longer and more raucous "Spreading the News," a town-wide disturbance erupts when the elderly and hard-of-hearing Mrs. Tarpey (the expressive Mary Haney) misinterprets some key facts. That slip-up leads to a wildly misplaced accusation of murder, which the townspeople, including a clueless magistrate (Douglas E. Hughes), must resolve. Many fingers are pointed and fine performances given, especially by Haney and the star of Shaw's "Saint Joan," Tara Rosling. As the tempestuous Mrs. Fallon, Rosling exudes a kind of Jerry Springer, oh-no-you-didn't attitude that seems oddly at home in a century-old Irish comedy.
There's nothing groundbreaking here, but then there isn't supposed to be. This is pure fun, treated with just the right combination of gusto and respect.
WHAT: "The Kiltartan Comedies"
3 stars (Out of 4)
WHEN: Through Oct. 6
WHERE: Court House Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
TICKETS: $25 (Canadian funds)
INFO: (800) 511-SHAW or www.shawfest.com