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'Magician's Nephew' delights, Shaw comedies struggle at Shaw Festival

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. — Adapting the classics of children's literature for the stage is tricky business. It requires a child's embrace of the human imagination, an expert's grasp of the tools of the theater, and the ability to fuse these disparate ideas into one cohesive story.

The task is triply difficult when that stage is the Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a grand space that seems to call for elaborate production designs and a precisely engineered grandiosity somewhat opposed to the stylistic simplicity most great children's theater possesses.

After a misguided attempt to bring a new adaptation of "Alice in Wonderland" to that stage two years ago — too many cooks in the kitchen, it seemed — the Shaw Fest has struck gold with its charming take on C.S. Lewis' tale of childhood imagination run amok.

"The Magician's Nephew," rendered on Douglas Paraschuk's abstract set of rearrangeable cardboard boxes with impressionistic projections by Cameron Davis to match, is a delightful piece of family theater.

Michael O'Brien's straightforward adaptation, brought to life by director Tim Carroll, transports us into Lewis' thrilling world of evil witches and eccentric uncles.

Travis Seetoo is perfectly cast as young Digory, a bright-eyed boy who chases his curiosity to dangerous places. There he finds figures such as the White Witch (Deborah Hay, hamming it up beautifully) and his bizarre Uncle Andrew, given one of the more fully fledged and memorable interpretations imaginable by Steven Sutcliffe.

If you've got kids — or nieces, or nephews or young cousins — grab them and head to this show. Or just bring your own fond memories of reading Lewis. You'll feel like a kid again.

4 stars (out of 4)

"The Magician's Nephew" runs through Oct. 13 in the Festival Theatre, 10 Queen's Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Tickets are $25 to $117. Call (800) 511-7429 or visit


Andrew Lawrie, left, Martin Happer, Kelly Wong and Fiona Byrne appear in the Shaw Festival's production of "The Man of Destiny" (Photo by Emily Cooper)

Two Shaw comedies are not necessarily better than one.

This is being proven several times a week this summer as George Bernard Shaw's "How He Lied to Her Husband" and "The Man of Destiny" creak across the stage of the Royal George Theatre.

It was an inspired choice to enlist director Philip Akin (of the 2015 season's marvelous production of "Master Harold... and the Boys") to help these two pieces, one about a deceptive husband and wife team and the other about an imagined tête-à-tête between Napoleon and a clever female soldier-spy.

Alas, neither "He Lied to Her Husband" or "Man of Destiny" registers on anything beyond a superficial level, a fault we can lay mostly at the playwright's feet rather than the director's or his cast.

Far too often, the lesser Shaw comedies can seem like one great speech surrounded by a great deal of fluff. This is the case in both of these pieces, each of which contain redeeming insights and pieces of dialogue — one extended Napoleonic disquisition on what it means to be English stands out — but lack the emotional grounding to make much of a lasting impression.

The festival's description of the evening as "knee-slapping" is true in at least one respect: Your companion may have to slap your knee to keep you from nodding off.

2.5 stars (out of four)

"Of Marriage and Men" runs through Sept. 9 in the Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Tickets are $25 to $117. Call (800) 511-7429 or visit


Fiona Byrne and Martin Happer star in the Shaw Festival's production of Sarah Ruhl's comedy "Stage Kiss." (Photo by David Cooper.)

It's one thing to understand the rules and regulations of a well-told story or a well-made joke. It's quite another to make the story or the joke seem natural.

Few contemporary playwrights grasp the intricacies and requirements of a well-made play as well Sarah Ruhl, whose backstage comedy "Stage Kiss" is nothing if not meticulously constructed and drenched in clever dialogue.

But the story, which finds a veteran actress (Fiona Byrne) unexpectedly tied up with a long-forgotten love (Martin Happer) in a pair of bad plays, is too clever by half. You can see all the wires, and you can see where things are going: You sense from the outset that Byrne's character is going to get dangerously involved with Happer's, that the plays in which they are cast by an outrageous director (Neil Barclay, brilliant as usual) are chintzy backdrops for a doomed second version of their love affair.

Even so, you get so many genuine laughs from Barclay and Jeff Meadows as a gay actor who cannot bring himself to kiss his co-star in anything resembling a convincing manner, that it almost makes up for the play's lack of heart. What's more, the two plays in which the actors are cast are both wonderfully awful, each one a shot at the misguided tendencies of Broadway and off-Broadway directors.

But aside from a few glimpses into the main duo's former lives, we don't ever learn much about them: She is yearning in a general way, he is tortured in a general way, and that's about all Ruhl feels we need to know.

For the story to stick, we need to know more.

3 stars (out of four)

"Stage Kiss" runs through Sept. 1 in the Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Tickets are $25 to $117. Call (800) 511-7429 or visit

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