Stage reviews: Niagara-on-the-Lake: It's a sweet town, but the play's the thing

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ontario – In my 34 years covering the Shaw Festival, I have often waxed lyrical about this pretty little town where it’s set. Just about five hours from Pittsburgh, NOTL is a bustling main street of theaters, restaurants and shops, crowned everywhere with flowers, surrounded by acres of handsome houses, lots and lots of greenery, and the shores of Lake Ontario.

All very sweet. But the heart of the matter remains the festival – a big repertory company with four theaters, this year staging 10 plays from April through October.

Regulars at the Shaw, or even those who’ve just read my reviews, have watched its “mandate” gradually expand. In its second year it went from staging Shaw alone to include work written by others during his lengthy lifetime, 1856-1950. Then in 2000 it added more recent plays set during that lifetime.

Most recently, it expanded the mandate further. Now it defines itself as “a theatre company inspired by the work of Bernard Shaw. We produce plays from and about his era and contemporary plays that share Shaw’s provocative exploration of society and celebration of humanity.” And it backs that up with theater programs full of essays and photos that enrich the experience of each play.

Some years, it’s been a flood of comedies, sometimes with some sterner stuff, and always a smattering of musicals. Whatever the mix, the festival has been well worth a trip. On a recent Post-Gazette theater tour, we saw the four plays below, but in September (see sidebar), we return to see five more, with an optional extra – and many of these same actors in different roles.

‘‍The Philadelphia Story’‍

This 1939 Philip Barry comedy is probably best known from the Katharine Hepburn-Cary Grant-James Stewart movie or even from “High Society,” the Grace Kelly-Bing Crosby-Frank Sinatra movie musical. On stage, it doesn’t get as many revivals as it deserves, probably because the big cast is expensive.

That makes it catnip for the Shaw, with its big company well practiced in the manners and mores of the 1930s. William Schmuck’s opulent set takes the breath away, the expansive Main Line Philadelphia mansion where Tracy Lord is about to marry George, an ambitious up-and-coming businessman, partially in flight from Dexter, her prior husband, who was more of her class.

Class? Do we speak of class in America? Usually it’s all about money, but Barry is interested also in the social behavior and rituals of the long-term rich. He probes them here in the persons of two invading journalists, hoping to get an inside story on Philadelphia aristocracy. But in the course of two days, they get swept up into the goings-on, familial and amatory, and become more participants than observers.

So do we. We root for Tracy (once Hepburn and Kelly, here a very persuasive Moya O’Connell) to grow up; we root for Mike (Stewart and Sinatra, here Patrick McManus) to compromise his ideological truculence. And although Dexter (a fine Gray Powell) starts out on the sidelines, as he warms up, we root for him, too.

But the real pleasure is the large roster of others, among them full performances by Sharry Flett and Juan Chioran (Tracy’s parents) and Ric Reid as eccentric Uncle Willie.

Ultimately, “Philadelphia Story” doesn’t have much depth, just lots of personality.

Barry is no American Chekhov. But what fun.

“When We Are Married”

The Shaw stages many kinds of plays from the two centuries it covers, but nothing appeals to me more than its discoveries: major plays by a once-major playwright whom time has passed by, such as J.B. Priestley’s 1938 comedy of Yorkshire manners, “When We Are Married.”

The plot is in the premise: three stuffy, self-satisfied middle-class couples gather to celebrate their silver wedding anniversaries. We see their intolerance in how they treat the young and the servants. And then, bang! They discover the clergyman who married them didn’t yet have his license.

Suddenly, everything is up for grabs, including their domineering positions in local society, where everybody knows everybody’s business. The balance of power shifts in their own marriages, where the women now realize they are no longer captive. We discover each couple’s different balance of power, and we root for the downtrodden (male or female) to break free.

Priestley also serves up a half-dozen richly drawn supporting characters, a la Shakespearean rustics.The plot doesn’t go as far as we’d like at the end – feminism wasn’t what it would be a few decades later – but we’ve all had a comic lesson in the tyranny of social and gender expectations.

“Arms and the Man”

The title comes right from the first line of Virgil’s “Aeneid,” but don’t be fooled: as “The Chocolate Cream Soldier,” the title of a later musical comedy version suggests, “Arms and the Man” is just about as sweet a marriage comedy as Shaw ever wrote.

Of course, this is still Shaw, so there are plenty of ideas to argue about in this surprisingly contemporary comedy/farce set during the Balkan wars of independence in the 1880s – because when are the Balkans not in the news? Mainly, the play ridicules various kinds of romantic idealism, with a very pragmatic Swiss mercenary and hotel keeper as the ultimate hero.

It’s an absolute snap for the Shaw, and although a few of the roles aren’t as perfect as I’ve seen in previous Shaw versions of the same play, the whole thing is pretty much irresistible.

“The Sea”

I’ve saved the strangest for last. The Shaw tries to vary its predominantly comic diet with sterner stuff, and Edward Bond’s 1973 tragi-comedy absolutely fills the new mandate’s call for a “provocative exploration of society.”

Provocatively enough, Mr. Bond calls it “The Sea: A Comedy,” but it is hardly that. At best, its comic, even farcical elements serve as contrast to the deep strain of grief. We aren’t even sure just how to take the two comic side plots, that of the domineering Mrs. Rafi and the obsessive draper, Hatch.

On the one hand there’s the comic farce of Mrs. Rafi organizing a snippet of opera - think of “The Music Man” - but this is “Orpheus & Eurydice”; on the other is the tragic farce of Hatch ground down to despair; somewhere between is the sadness and hilarity of a memorial event at seaside.

Fiona Reid’s Rafi (indomitable, perhaps too persistently so) and Patrick Galligan’s Hatch (downtrodden, obsessive and mad) are powerful in what are generally reckoned the play’s leads, but the central story is actually that of two young people, brought together by the drowning of a friend and the wisdom of a seaside hermit – “Orpheus & Eurydice” in another way.

The play’s reputation is such that Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins have played Mrs. Rafi in London. But it grabs you slowly. It wasn’t until Act 2 that I found myself under its strange, elegiac, angry spell.

Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.

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