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100 Things: See Shaw Festival play, check out Niagara-on-the-Lake

Oh, Canada! How many times, on our 100 Things journey, have we toasted our friendship with you?

At KeyBank Center, we braved the raucous rivalry between the Buffalo Sabres and the Toronto Maple Leafs. We explored Toronto and Crystal Beach, Ont. And on the Miss Buffalo, we gazed up at the Peace Bridge, the stately symbol of peace between our two nations.

Today we toast the most eloquent bi-national collaboration of all, the Shaw Festival.

The famous festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., was co-founded by Buffalo businessman Calvin Rand. He began it with Brian Doherty, a Canadian playwright and lawyer. In 1962, in Niagara-on-the-Lake's historic Court House, they staged two dramas by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. They called it "A Salute to Shaw."

Now, the Shaw Festival – which bills itself as bi-national – offers a wide variety of plays every year, both Shaw and Shaw-in-spirit. The productions, in four theaters, stretch from April through November. Many sell out. The hushed audiences have included such world leaders as Indira Gandhi and Queen Elizabeth II.

[PHOTOS: Sharon Cantillon's visual exploration of Niagara-on-the-Lake before "St. Joan"]

Before or after the show, tourists may enjoy the quaint village of Niagara-on-the-Lake, which is lined with trees and filled with beautiful flowers. The restaurants and shops are housed in its well-preserved 19th century buildings. The Shaw Cafe & Wine Bar is a popular place. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Well might we wonder: Why didn't Rand and his friend found this festival in Buffalo? Why Niagara-on-the-Lake?

Go and you'll know.

Cross the border, swing onto the parkway that leads to Niagara-on-the-Lake, and you will gradually find yourself in another world. On a beautiful day, it's pretty much perfect in a British Isles way.

You pass Queenston Heights with its statue of General Isaac Brock, killed in battle there in the War of 1812. The road continues, with picturesque vineyards to your left and the Niagara River to your right. You get gorgeous views of the river, which on a recent afternoon was a deep blue green.

All along the route are picnic tables, and people are actually picnicking at them with baskets and tablecloths. Signs appear that you would never see back home. "Frogpond Farm." "Van de Laar Orchards." "Tea Room Open."

The restaurants and shops at Niagara-on-the-Lake are housed in well-preserved 19th-century buildings. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Maybe you are already in that Shaw play. Maybe Shaw himself is going to step out of that tea room.

By the time you reach Niagara-on-the-Lake itself, the enchantment is complete. This picture-perfect town, home to 17,000 lucky people, is the only town in North America to have an, ahem, Lord Mayor. The town boasts the oldest apothecary in Canada, as well as Ontario's oldest Catholic and Anglican churches.

Two of us from The News visited on one of our first glorious summer days. Flowers were everywhere, tumbling from window boxes, rambling over walls, blooming in the median of the town's main street. People from all over the world dined al fresco under the benevolent gaze of Shaw, whose statue graces the garden of the Shaw Café and Wine Bar.

Tourists and theatergoers walk by outside the Shaw Cafe & Wine Bar. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The Festival Theatre, where a full house awaited a matinee of Shaw's "Saint Joan," was ringed with gardens. Patrons relaxed on benches with tea coffee, and wine. This paradise is what, 45 minutes from Buffalo? It's unbelievable.

Even in the dark theater, the bright mood continued.

"Saint Joan" is about St. Joan of Arc, who led armies to victory in 16th century France, was condemned for heresy and burned at the stake and was canonized in 1920. It's a stark, heartbreaking story. But it shows Shaw's genius that it is also very human, and very forgiving. One-liners hit you when you least expect it. I laughed and cried, literally.

Tim Carroll's minimalistic production of "Saint Joan" opened the Shaw Festival's 56th season on May 25 in the Festival Theatre. (Photo by David Cooper)

"There are no villains in the piece," Shaw wrote about "Saint Joan." "Crime, like disease, is not interesting: it is something to be done away with by general consent. ... It is what men do at their best, with good intentions, and what normal men and women find that they must and will do in spite of their intentions, that really concern us."

How many of the play's themes resonate today? You may well find yourself discussing such heavy matters with strangers at intermission. Carl and Debbie Porter, retired Roswell Park researchers from East Aurora, were sitting next to me. We talked about how powerful and relevant the drama was and, as the Porters beautifully put it, the juxtaposition between the modern and ancient.

"It's a play you could catch twice," Debbie Porter said after the performance. She and her husband congratulated me on my Shaw Festival beginner's luck. "You caught a good one," they said.

Tim Carroll's minimalist 'Saint Joan' resonates at Shaw Fest

Outside, people stood blinking in the sunlight.

"I thought it was fabulous," said Ellen Shenk, of Ottawa, Ont. She sat blissful, surrounded by breathtaking foliage. "It was modern, but not modern."

She added affectionately: "For once, Shaw was coherent. We saw 'Androcles and the Lion' and he was all over the map." "Androcles" is another play in play this season.

Patrons enjoy the intermission in the courtyard of the Festival Theatre. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

In a few hours, a new crowd would fill the Festival Theatre, for the musical "For Me and My Gal." The "Saint Joan" audience began thinking about dinner. My new friends, the Porters, were heading to Tiara Restaurant, at Queen's Landing.

Shenk lingered, marveling at the magic of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

"This place is so marvelous. It's so non-20th century. So non-21st century," she corrected herself, smiling.

"It has its own dignity, and its own time."

Look back at last week's 100 Things:

100 Things: Try Lockport Cave Tour & Underground Boat Ride


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