Every summer, the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., takes another tentative step away from the work of George Bernard Shaw, the prolific Irish playwright, thinker and provocateur whose imposing bronze statue seems to glower at theatergoers as they shuffle past its Queen Street pedestal. § But intellectually, as new plays by the likes of Tony Kushner, Caryl Churchill and Suzan-Lori Parks trickle into theaters once reserved largely for Shaw’s weighty work, the festival actually gets closer to Shaw’s progressive ideals. § That’s the central paradox and survival strategy of the repertory festival, which has gradually evolved from a summerlong tribute to a single playwright to an internationally regarded celebration of classic and contemporary theater alike. § For Jackie Maxwell, who has served as the Shaw Festival’s artistic director since 2002 and will leave the post after the 2016 season, staying true to Shaw’s ideals while trying to build new audiences has been a constant – and constantly fulfilling – challenge. § And this year, it’s resulted in perhaps the most diverse season in memory.
After several weeks of previews, the festival officially opens this week with four productions: Shaw’s lighthearted “You Never Can Tell,” Ibsen’s moody “The Lady From the Sea,” Rick Elice’s 2009 “Peter Pan” prequel “Peter and the Starcatcher” and the popular 1966 musical “Sweet Charity.”
“This year, I wanted to match the past with the present. I mean obviously, that’s what we try to do all the time, but I wanted a mix of contemporary plays together with really new takes on the classical pieces,” Maxwell said. “I really think there’s a lot of interesting kind of edge to what we’re doing, but the content really does traverse, literally, the centuries.”
For example, she said, the festival’s production of Shaw’s “Pygmalion” directed by Peter Hinton, opening June 27 in the Festival Theater, is set in contemporary London and now takes up the issue of race as well as class. Similarly modern takes on classics are everywhere apparent in the season, from Canadian playwright Erin Shields’ brand-new translation of Ibsen’s “The Lady From the Sea” to Jim Mezon’s production of Shaw’s “You Never Can Tell,” which explores the role of women in society in a way that is sure to resonate with the concerns of 21st-century feminism.
A look at the 2015 Shaw Festival lineup follows, in order of opening date. Shows run in discounted previews before their official opening dates, with more information at shawfest.com.
“You Never Can Tell”: Thursday through Oct. 25 in the Royal George Theatre
Oh, the unbearable struggles of readjusting to life on the British mainland after an 18-year stay on the Portuguese island of Madeira. Somehow, George Bernard Shaw manufactures plenty of chuckle-worthy drama and more than a few shockingly modern ideas out of that premise in a production directed by Shaw Fest veteran Jim Mezon and starring Julia Course, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff and Gray Powell.
“The Lady From the Sea”: Friday through Sept. 13 in the Court House Theatre
Of this lesser-known play by Henrik Ibsen, Shaw Fest Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell said, “I guess you could call it a romance in that nobody dies in the end.” This production, directed by Meg Roe and starring Moya O’Connell as a woman haunted by the past and struggling to reconcile herself to the conditions of the present, uses a fresh translation by Canadian playwright Erin Shields.
“Peter and the Starcatcher”:
Saturday through Nov. 1 in the Royal George Theatre
For thousands if not millions of theatergoers, the magic and mystery of “Peter Pan” is what hooked them on the art form for good. Playwright Rick Elice (“Jersey Boys,” “The Addams Family”) extends that magic backward in time for this 2009 “Peter Pan” prequel, which collected five Tony Awards and is directed in an appropriately freewheeling fashion by Jackie Maxwell. She called it “a show where everybody finds something in it, as opposed to a show where parents are sort of sitting, rolling their eyes while the kids are having fun.”
“Sweet Charity”: Saturday through Oct. 31 in the Festival Theatre
One of the great musicals of the 1960s, this collaboration among composer Cy Coleman, lyricist Dorothy Fields, book writer Neil Simon and choreographer Bob Fosse is famous for turning “Hey, Big Spender” into a classic. But it has much else to recommend it. The Shaw’s production, starring Julie Martell as the unlucky-in-love dance-hall hostess Charity Hope Valentine trying to navigate the sexual and social politics of New York City in the ’60s, is directed by Morris Panych and designed by his partner and longtime collaborator Ken MacDonald.
“Top Girls”: June 26 through Sept. 12 in the Court House Theatre
That Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play about the price of success for women is appearing in the Court House Theatre is a prime example of the festival’s evolving mission. Maxwell refers to Churchill as a “contemporary Shavian,” in that she is developing and advancing many of Shaw’s seedling ideas into full-fledged critiques.
“The Twelve-Pound Look”: June 27 through Sept. 12 in the Court House Theatre
Feminist concerns are omnipresent at the Shaw Festival this season, and J.M. Barrie’s short play about marital dissatisfaction is no exception. It tells the story of a man about to be knighted, who hires a typist who turns out to be his long-lost wife. Pointed lessons on love, fidelity and the power balance between men and women follow.
“Pygmalion”: June 27 through Oct. 24 in the Festival Theatre
Director Peter Hinton, who brought such stunning life to the Shaw Fest productions of “Cabaret” and “Lady Windemere’s Fan” is taking on one of George Bernard Shaw’s best-loved shows, about the transformation of a young woman (Harveen Shandu) from working class London into a duchess under the tutelage of a haughty linguistics professor (Patrick McManus). That story, set here in contemporary London and meant to explore issues of race as well as class, inspired the musical “My Fair Lady.”
“The Divine:” July 24 through Oct. 11 in the Royal George Theatre
When Jackie Maxwell first arrived at the Shaw Festival in 2003, she produced a play by Québécois playwright Michel Marc Bouchard on the Festival Theatre stage, sending longtime festival fans into as much of a tizzy as their politeness allowed. Now, she directs one of Bouchard’s new plays, about a controversial visit from the great actress Sarah Bernhardt to Quebec City in the early 20th century. As Maxwell’s productions and Bouchard’s plays are wont to do, it takes up issues of church, state and the transformative power of the theater.
“Light Up the Sky,” in the Festival Theatre: July 25 through Oct. 11
Theater itself is the motivating force of this play by the great Moss Hart, which sends up the art form in as good-natured a way as can be imagined. Described as Hart’s “comic love letter to the theater world,” Blair Williams directs a cast of Shaw Festival favorites in this story of an out-of-town tryout gone awry.
“The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures”: July 26 through Oct. 10 in the Studio Theatre
Few contemporary playwrights have a stronger affinity with Shaw – his intellectual curiosity, his wit, his strongly held political beliefs, his ear for language – than Tony Kushner. Jackie Maxwell said the play, with its title borrowed partly from Shaw, pushes all manner of boundaries, from the social to the sexual. “At heart, it’s a very Milleresque family drama,” she said. “But there’s no doubt that this family is a Kushner family, it’s not a Miller family.”