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'Ragtime' highlights Shaw this summer

On the doorstep of the U.S. bicentennial in 1975, E.L. Doctorow wrote a novel about the American experience at the turn of the 20th century. It wove together loose narratives, some fictional and some historical, on the era's converging cultures, the melding of religious, socioeconomic and cultural mores. Three prominent ethnic groups -- African-Americans in Harlem, WASPs in New Rochelle and Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side -- challenged one another's sensibilities, bent traditions and defined a new way of coexisting in the same city and under the same national flag.

"Ragtime," the centerpiece of the Shaw Festival's 51st season, was musical before it became a musical. Doctorow's language was lyrical, dancing about the page like a player piano. His characters were driven off course, syncopated like the popular musical style of the day. There was rhythm in his New America, even if it sometimes missed a beat.

A prominent lyric from the 1996 musical adaptation, by Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens and Terrence McNally, summarizes the mood: "It was the music of something beginning. An era exploding, a century spinning. In riches and rags, and in rhythm and rhyme, the people called it ragtime."

When Shaw Festival's artistic director Jackie Maxwell first read Doctorow's book years ago, she was moved.

"It pushed me into looking at a different period of American history. I'm Irish, so my American history has big, blank chunks in it. I'm always kind of catching up," Maxwell said in her office at the Canadian festival's headquarters in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. "I was a big fan of the book. I can see why people want to adapt Doctorow's work, because it's so colorful and rich. It's populist but serious at the same time."

This democratic outlook fuels much of Maxwell's production at Shaw, which is itself a dialogue in cross-national perspectives. The layers here are harmonic, and not at all lost on Maxwell.

"As an Irish person directing a Canadian company, I love it," she says. "I love the fact that we are doing this play literally on the doorstep of America. I think that it has a wonderful kind of tension and irony, I suppose. There's no doubt that of course it is a quintessential American story, but we can't deny that here in Canada, that these stories, and these events, and these people, and these cultures and clashes, have hugely affected us. So in a sense, our familiarity with the stories is immense. We haven't experienced them in the same way, so for us, we really do have to go, OK, let's really look at this and let's talk about it."

The plot is full of ragged character sketches and incomplete storylines. It is like a moving postcard, a diorama of both a singular moment in American history and a sweeping brushstroke of an era's epic shifting tide. There are no fewer than a dozen important characters, most of whom are fictional, even generic. Central characters Sarah and Coalhouse, two African-Americans spinning on the wheels of their American dream, are wrapped up with the buttoned-up Mother and Father, nameless heads of a conservative well-to-do family. Some attitudes within this foursome evolve, while others remain tethered to the past.

Historical figures like escapist Harry Houdini, carmaker Henry Ford and murderess Evelyn Nesbit come into view, too, interpolating with fictional characters and winking to the audience with foreshadowing commentary. The birth of that other American dream -- celebrity, fame and notoriety -- had begun. Facets of modern life were changing, but not always in tandem, and not always for the better.

Actor Thom Allison, who plays the hopeful but embittered Coalhouse Walker, notes the emotions that plague these characters' transformations. Like Maxwell, his Canadian perspective informs his American character.

"It's interesting, the good and bad versions of aggression that we talk about Canadians and Americans lacking or having. Americans have an aggressive personality, which is actually not a bad thing. The assertiveness of standing up for what you want and what you need. Canadians lack that assertiveness, [but] the good side of that on our end is a politeness," says Allison, ever gracious so as to not offend. There are many commonalities between the two cultures, he adds. A shared belief system.

"With a show like this, we get the story of it. We understand wanting something so much," Allison continues. "I think for us, it's the exploration of the human level. People who want so much to be a part of something bigger. To belong. To be accepted. To be respected. So certainly, as Canadians we have that desire.

"We have a different sense of American Dream, but certainly we have so many immigrants coming here, more so every day. It's a cultural mosaic."

The timing of this production is hardly surprising to followers of the Shaw Festival, which includes in its mission plays by George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, contemporary plays depicting Shaw's era, and works that speak more broadly of the modern American narrative. The 2009 Broadway revival of the acclaimed Kennedy Center production connected obvious dots to the 2008 election of President Obama. Much has changed, in just the last 16 years. With a new century, a new hope. With a pioneering leader, a new acceptance.

"Who ever thought, even when the show was originally done, that would ever happen? It felt so surreal that even we as Canadians believed that Americans would never let that happen somehow. So it was kind of a shock. I think miracles happen all the time," says Allison. "Nothing is set in stone. Things can change. Don't hedge your bets. You never know what's going to happen in 10 years, 20 years."

The turnstile of one century is the same as the next.

"America is a country of extremes. The good, the bad and the ugly of that. Because of that, when you have a country of extreme passion, extreme emotion, you're always going to have ups and downs, highs and lows, people living on the edges of everything," says Allison. "I think that because of that we'll always have a 'Ragtime' happening."