NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ontario -- This flower-bedecked town in the middle of fruit and wine country north of Niagara Falls is a fit setting for the welcoming Shaw Festival. Along with the Stratford Festival (about which more soon), the Shaw is one of the two great theater festivals in North America, an easy five-hour drive from Pittsburgh.
The Shaw began in 1962 with a focus on the prolific G.B. Shaw and other plays written within his era-spanning life (1856-1950). Under longtime artistic director Christopher Newton, it added more recent plays set in Shaw's lifetime, and under current leader Jackie Maxwell, plays by "contemporary Shavians" who share his provocative exploration of society.
A season at the Shaw runs from April to October and features 10 or more plays in rotating repertory in four theaters, scheduled so you can see up to three plays in a day and as many as eight in a three-day weekend. Last week, a Post-Gazette theater tour had a good taste, seeing a musical, a social satire, an adaptation of a late political provocation by Shaw and a lunchtime "trifle," all in just two days.
(That leaves plenty more to explore on the Post-Gazette's longer, Sept. 11-14 visit, including five plays and two optional extras. See box at right.)
"Peace in Our Time: A Comedy" (Court House, through Oct. 12).
American-born Canadian playwright John Murrell has adapted Shaw's late "political extravaganza," "Geneva" (1938, revised up to 1947). This was probably my favorite on this visit, even though it's a mess and bad politics, as well.
The chief target of satire is the hapless League of Nations and the various appeals Shaw imagines made to it in a topsy-turvy world. Mr. Murrell has changed a League secretary into an equally appalling and appealing (because of the way the part is played by Diana Donnelly) young American from Ohio; and a seeker for justice is turned into a Canadian, facilitating jokes that may be boring to Canadians but entertained me a lot.
There are doubtless many other changes, which is fair enough, since the elderly Shaw was never satisfied with the play himself. You could well be upset by how lightly Shaw treats the "Jewish question" and by the leeway he gives dictators. But the play really lives for what is played as Act 2, when a blustering, pratfalling and hectoring Hitler, Mussolini and Franco appear before a powerless international court at the Hague.
Here, the play owes a lot to the Marx Brothers and even more to actors Neil Barclay (Il Duce), Ric Reid (Der Fuhrer) and Lorne Kennedy (El Generalisimo). In the process, serious issues are simultaneously raised and ignored: intellectual vaudeville indeed.
"Our Betters" (Royal George, through Oct. 27).
If "Peace in Our Time" is a quirky entertainment and "Guys and Dolls" an embraceable classic, the true discovery of my first dip into this year's Shaw Festival is this social satire by W. Somerset Maugham (1917). The story is about the buying and selling of English aristocrats and American heiresses in marriage, and the play's dark heart is bitter indeed. The title is of course ironic: these are not really our betters, unless we are as crass as they. The one-tenth of one percent of their day, they provide an obvious parallel to the social imbalance of today.
But it takes a while for this to become clear. Initially, we are taken up with the societal politics, seeing much of it through the eyes of two young Americans, an heiress (delighted with it all) and a young man (dubious). Then in Act 2, our eyes open, and in Act 3, we realize we've been watching one of the lesser circles of Hell where the wealthy go to stew in their own rich juices.
I just wish Maugham didn't take so long to let the satire develop, and I wish he had some less obvious way to bring it to a conclusion. Intellectually, the play is like lesser Henry James, but as drama, it has a gritty comic disgust you have to applaud.
"Trifles" (Court House, through Oct. 12).
The Shaw's annual 50-minute late-morning treat is usually a polished farce. But this year it is a pair of dour plays linked mainly by marital mystery, overlapping casts and the importance of both playwrights to the groundbreaking Provincetown Players, a century ago. Both are also first plays.
The pleasant surprise is "Trifles" (1916) by Susan Glaspell (1876-1948), a Pulitzer Prize-winner too little remembered. A man has been murdered in a desolate cabin. His wife is suspected. As the sheriff and two other men bustle about collecting evidence and condescending to two of their wives who have come to help, those two observe the details that tell the tale. The proto-feminism is sharply drawn, given poignancy by Kaylee Harwood and Julain Molnar as the frontier women.
Unfortunately, "A Wife for a Life" (1913), the first surviving play by Eugene O'Neill (who went on to better things), doesn't measure up. Its tale is narrated, not dramatized, and I can hardly remember what happens, it leaves so little impression.
"Guys and Dolls" (Festival, through Oct. 12).
The lifeblood of a repertory company like the Shaw is its ensemble, and it is at its best in this great musical, staged in the large Festival Theatre. You can tell they're all actors, down to the merest walk-ons, all realizing the zest of this melodic love letter to quasi-mythic mid-century Manhattan.
The male ensemble is best, a satisfyingly robust group of gamblers. Some of the leads are also very good, especially Jenny Wright's juicy, comic Miss Adelaide, and Thom Allison's surprisingly three-dimensional characterization of Nicely-Nicely. What fun.
Information: Get a 52-page schedule and visitors guide from the Shaw Festival, Box 774, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada L0S 1J0; phone 1-800-511-SHAW (7429); www.shawfest.com. Tickets: $45-$110.theater
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson is at 412-216-1944.