Deranged pirates. Young lovers. Big spenders.
All 10 productions, from well-worn classics like George Bernard Shaw's "You Never Can Tell" to jarring contemporary shows like Caryl Churchill's "Top Girls" and Tony Kushner's riveting play "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures," are now officially up and running.
Shaw Festival productions run in repertory across four theaters in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., about a 50-minute drive from Buffalo, depending on traffic. Use this map to plot your trip, and to see what's playing where:
Shaw Festival tickets range in price from $25 for student matinees to $116 for good seats to opening night and weekend performances. Check out this page for a list of available discounts, and look here for more detail on the price range.
Below, you'll find capsule versions of my reviews of the shows that have opened so far, with the remaining shows to be added in the days after they open. If you're entertaining a trip to the festival, bookmark this page and check back in early August for reviews of the three remaining productions.
"The Lady From the Sea," through Sept. 13 in the Court House Theatre. ★★½
The one-act, which plays out in a surprisingly fast-paced 90 minutes, centers on the plight of Ellida Wangel (Moya O’Connell). Every morning, she swims in the fjord where she lives with her adoring husband Wangel (Ric Reid), dreaming of a three-day fling she had with an American stranger (Mark Uhre) three years before. For Ellida, every morning is a thrilling dance with death, every afternoon a numbing reconciliation with life on dry land.
In exchange after exchange between Ellida and her husband, this production hammers home the idea of the sea and its irresistible pull as a metaphor for freedom and death. It contains more than its share of eye-roll-inducing dialog pertaining to that allure, from Ellida’s constant declarations of her fidelity to the sea to her husband’s diagnosis of her mental malady: “She seems calm, but there’s something brewing underneath.”
"You Never Can Tell," through Oct. 25 in the Royal George Theatre. ★★★½
There are few better plays about commitment-phobia than George Bernard Shaw’s “You Never Can Tell,” a seaside fantasia frothing with wit and infused with Miley Cyrus-level quirkiness now on stage in the Royal George Theatre. If you’re a 20- or 30-something mulling over the pros and cons of a long-term relationship – and chances are if you inhabit that demographic, that’s exactly what you’re doing – look no further for solace. Well, solace and a kick in the pants.
You’ll find it in the electrically charged air between a small-town dentist by the subtle name of Valentine (Gray Powell) and the object of his conflicted desire, a buttoned-up feminist Gloria (Julia Course). Their relationship – frustrated at times, madly passionate at others – will resonate with any young couple engaged in the delicate and often impossible negotiation between the ephemeral ideals of love and the grim practicalities of life.
"Sweet Charity," through Oct. 31 in the Festival Theatre. ★★½
“Sweet Charity,” one of the strangest but most inspired musicals of the 1960s, demands an awful lot of its cast. Even if a production hits all the humorous notes of Neil Simon’s book – and even if the title character is cast with an affable and gifted actress in the title role of a dance hall hostess with a heart of gold – a dozen other elements need to line up perfectly in order for it to truly sing.
The humor and the irresistible lead actress are present in the Shaw Festival’s production of the classic show directed by Morris Panych and designed by Ken MacDonald, but the rest of those elements never quite fall into place.
"Peter and the Starcatcher," through Nov. 1 in the Royal George Theatre. ★★★★
It appears that the Shaw Festival has gone out of its mind. At least that’s the immediate impression one gets after the lights go up on Jackie Maxwell’s production of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” the pun-laden “Peter Pan” prequel written by the mad genius Rick Elice and executed by a cast of complete maniacs on the stage of the Royal George Theatre.
This show, fueled by an inspired backstory for one of the most famous children’s characters of all time involving insecure pirates, angry natives and a few resourceful teenagers, is one of the more refreshing pieces of theater the festival has produced in the past decade. It takes place on Judith Bowden’s fine nautical set, but also, as the playbill notes, “in the glorious space between reality and your imagination.”
"Top Girls," through Sept. 12 in the Court House Theatre. ★★★★
Caryl Churchill’s remarkable 1982 play “Top Girls” is a searing deconstruction of the myth of post-feminism... It is, aside from the shoulder pads and pastels, as fresh and as frightening as the day it debuted in London’s Royal Court Theatre
In terms that are never anything but explicit and devastating, Churchill demonstrates with perfect economy the daily struggles women face in the working world that might never occur to their male counterparts.
"The Twelve-Pound Look," through Sept. 12 in the Court House Theatre. ★★★½
J.M. Barrie’s play, which explores the boredom-inducing effects of money, centers on the psychic travails of a woman who leaves her rich but soulless husband behind for a menial job as a typist. By a fluke of the sort that only happens in the minds of playwrights, that aloof man (the reliably haughty Patrick Galligan) unwittingly hires his ex-wife to type replies to hundreds of letters congratulating him on his upcoming ordination as a knight.
All this pours over the audience like a puff of perfume after a jaunty period song about the folly of man sung with consummate skill by Neil Barclay and Harveen Sandhu, who play the butler and maid in Sir and Lady Sims’ well-appointed house. (William Schmuk’s sumptuous set and costumes point up the period feeling without making it feel inaccessibly snooty.)
"Pygmalion," through Oct. 24 in the Festival Theatre. ★★★
Canadian director Peter Hinton, whose retina-burning productions of “Cabaret” and “Lady Windemere’s Fan” at the Shaw Festival in recent seasons have raised the institution’s already sky-high bar for visual allure, has been let loose on George Bernard Shaw’s most popular play, “Pygmalion.”
This is risky business for the Shaw Festival, whose old-school patrons and some of the critics who represent them have not historically taken very well to overly assertive directorial “visions” for classic productions. But with his curiously cinematic “Pygmalion” – part PBS “Frontline,” part “Frasier” and part “Devil Wears Prada” – Hinton has achieved a modest success by staying largely true to Shaw’s class critique while pushing it through a fine 21st century filter.
"The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures," through Oct. 10 in the Studio Theatre. ★★★½
“The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures,” now playing in the Shaw Festival’s Studio Theatre, is a spectacular battle of wills, wits and ideas that unfolds in what might be the same kitchen where Willie Loman once poured out his tortured soul or where Blanche DuBois finally disintegrated into a dream. It concentrates a century of social and political struggle into a family dispute of pyrotechnic proportions.
It is dizzying, intoxicating, unsettling and thrilling – all those things the theater promises but too rarely delivers. It is also flawed, painting some characters less believably than others.
But in a production directed with characteristic verve and profound sensitivity by Eda Holmes and delivered by a superb cast led by Jim Mezon and Kelli Fox, we get a snapshot circa 2007 of a fractured America dragging itself, exhausted, into a terrifying new century.