Niagara on the Lake, Ontario — George Bernard Shaw is, in general, being decently served this year at the Shaw Festival here.
''Pygmalion,'' ''Too True to Be Good,'' and ''The Music Cure'' receive variable productions, but at their best they serve the playwright well indeed.
There is no question that the triumph of the season - and of what I've seen of the past two seasons here as well - is Paul Reynolds's production of the one-act ''The Music Cure.'' It is on the face of things a silly play about a near-idiot of a pampered young Lord Reginald Fitzambey, brought to his senses and to his amorous toes by the aggressive, domineering, no-nonsense virtuoso pianist Strega Thundridge. She refuses to put up with his simperings, tossing off runs and arpeggios at the keyboard to subdue him, and quite literally bashing him into affectionate submission by play's end.
It is slender stuff, though Shaw's marvel of an Amazonian pianist allows for some hysterical goings-on. Mr. Reynolds has directed his three-member cast with uncanny attention to posture, movement, and attitude, so no one drops from the natty '30s attitude established so superbly in Mary Kerr's decor and costumes. Even a simple thing like Lord Reginald's standing at the piano finds Geraint Wyn Davies in perfect '30s pose. He makes the most of his every moment, slipping from annoying spoiled-boy whining to beguiling boyish attentiveness as he finds himself captivated by the domineering Strega.
As Susan Cox plays her, she is a larger-than-life creature, and she turns as mundane an act as peeling off her gloves into something uproariously funny. Miss Cox also takes a brave stab at playing Chopin, Bach, and others: Her wrestlings with these keyboard masterworks are something witty in itself, altogether enchanting and quite courageous. How sad that such fine effort as this play was limited to a mere 36 minutes of stage time.
On the main stage, ''Pygmalion'' unfolds rather sterilely. Director Denise Coffey first offered her views of the play at the Young Vic. It is this production she offers here, devoid of sets, relying on costumes, a few chairs, and an incarnation of George Bernard Shaw to create the scenes crucial to the tensions in the play. As played by Herb Foster, this Shaw is a jovial, mercurial presence as Foster describes each scene (the actual stage directions in the play), bouncing here and there watching his creations unfold.
Unfortunately, Miss Coffey seems to rely on Cameron Porteous's disappointing street-clothes-like costumes to make ''Pygmalion'' work. And Nicola Cavendish, who has the unenviable task of bringing Eliza to life, goes only so far in making us believe that this unkempt flower girl could dupe upper-crust society into thinking she was a princess. Nor did Barry MacGregor as Prof. Henry Higgins convey much more than petulant arrogance when left to his own devices. There was no deep sense of the man who selfishly works this miracle on a simple lass.
The performances lack depth and the show lacks the environment in which this drawing room comedy takes place. Taking Shaw's Eliza out of a very specific context - which must be rendered visually, not merely as a directorial concept or through actors alone - makes her lose her capacity to amaze and touch us.
'Too True to Be Good
Paul Bettis tries, at least, to wrestle with the issues in ''Too True to Be Good,'' rather than merely devising a gimmick to get the production on the boards. Shaw was never more aware of his own shortcomings than in this play. He fully realized that the optimism his ethos projected seemed to have no validity in the post-World War I world. He couched this self-realization in a mocking scrutiny of how the superrich pass their moments - mostly idly.
Bettis has set this in some ominous world where outer-space orbs float beyond a window, then on the immediate horizon, and finally move forward to dominate this world. At play's end, Aubrey is left to sermonize - not in a fog-enveloped desert as Shaw envisioned - but during an eerie arrival of some mother ship in ''Close Encounters'' fashion.
James Plaxton has given Bettis a superb set, which, in the final minutes, takes on ultra-theatrical vision through Jeffrey Dallas's extraordinary lighting. The Court House Theater, though, is too small a space for this large a set (just as the main stage is too large for ''Pygmalion'' - how sad that the two productions were not switched).
Unfortunately, Bettis does not get the rapid-fire pacing of the first act quite right. It lacks the nonstop laughs and repartee. Throughout the play, pacing sags, often mercilessly. But the last act has a cumulative build and the closing moments are mightily convincing - despite the contrivance of making the first act Microbe a continuous visitor to the play, who is finally revealed as an extraterrestrial visitor.
The cast is good for the most part, though Goldie Semple does not create the essence of pampered upper-class snobbery crucial to a full sense of this character. Wendy Thatcher-Leicester's Sweetie is the best performance on the stage, though Irene Hogan finally sheds her mannerisms and creates a genuinely funny Mother in the third act. Andrew Gillies has grown as an actor since his debut at Shaw two seasons back; he gives Aubrey moments of real distinction.
In fact, the acting troupe at the Shaw Festival, although imperfect, has increased in stature. The good have gotten better, the poor have been dropped, and the troupe is beginning to shape itself into the sort of reliable core crucial to any repertory festival theater. The folks at the Stratford Festival could learn a lesson or two from Shaw in that department, not to mention from the remarkable designers that artistic director Christopher Newton offers in Messrs. Porteous, Plaxton, and Miss Kerr.