Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario — It was born in the shadow of an impressive older sibling. For most of its 26 years, Canada's Shaw Festival has labored to earn an equal place for itself alongside the world-renowned Stratford Festival.
In recent years, however, the Shaw has actually become the favorite son of Canadian theater.
Indeed, while Stratford (still the big boy in budgetary numbers) continues to whittle away at life-threatening deficits and rebuild a company rocked by internal warfare during tumultuous 1983 and '84 seasons, the Shaw has quietly taken center stage.
During director Christopher Newton's eight-year tenure, the festival has emerged as a smartly run operation playing to sold-out houses. Glossy productions, upbeat morale, and an attendance record nearing 90 percent are the rule. If the company's artistic aesthetic (rooted in a repertory restricted to ``Shaw and his contemporaries'') still veers toward the lightweight - ``middle-class theater for a middle-class audience,'' says a longtime Toronto critic - it nonetheless bespeaks a success bred from equal parts economic pragmatism and artistic savvy.
``We are a tourist event, just like Niagara Falls,'' says artistic director Newton. ``But we remain an opportunity to create art. ... It is possible to mix commerce and art.''
Indeed, the Shaw's picture-post-card setting and its audience-pleasing season testify to this marriage of tourist attraction and theatrical institution. The 27-week festival, stretching from May to October, encompasses 10 plays, ranging from musicals to murder mysteries to comedies. And, oh yes, the three requisite Shaw productions.
Last year, the festival's gala 25th anniversary season was capped by an exhausting production of Shaw's rarely performed, seven-hour epic ``Back to Methuselah.'' Attendance grew to a record 276,000 spectators. Nearly one-third were tourists from the United States.
But what tallies well on balance sheets and in ticket sales does not necessarily play as great art on stage. Indeed, the festival's epithets run from ``world-class theater'' to ``Shaw theme park.''
Despite last season's ambitious productions, this year's lineup, which includes ``Peter Pan,'' ``Hay Fever,'' and ``Major Barbara,'' indicate it's business as usual at Niagara-on-the-Lake. (Newton's growing commitment to developing new work is still restricted to the company's winter foray into Toronto, where the Shaw transfers some of its more successful productions such as last season's ``The Women.'')
Meanwhile, Newton continues to emphasize ensemble and design. The director's loyalty to his 70-member acting company and attention to production detail is well documented. If the acting doesn't quite dazzle - and in two out of the three productions seen by this reviewer it didn't - the lavish sets will surely catch one's eye.
``Major Barbara'' is the leading Shaw offering this year. Directed by Newton, the production reveals him to be an astute interpreter of Shaw, able to check the author's wordiness and draw from his principals - particularly the two male protagonists, Douglas Rain and Jim Mezon - sinewy, intelligible performances that convey Shaw's ideas as he intended them, via character.
Nonetheless, Newton's production is heavy on those ideas, focusing on the intellect rather than the passion. And in the dauntingly opulent manse that Lady Undershaft inhabits - brocaded swags, looming columns, and gleaming marble - Shaw's razorlike arguments on poverty and Christian morality are wielded with courtly abandon. Even the Salvation Army headquarters, a vast expanse of blackened brick and smoking garbage bins, where Major Barbara comforts and converts the poor, exudes an aura of stateliness. Well-bred backgrounds for well-reasoned debates.
And in this production, Shaw's dialectic - capitalism's capacity to feed and care for humanity, as compared with Christianity - is clearly weighted in favor of Andrew Undershaft, the agnostic millionaire munitions manufacturer and father of Major Barbara.
In Shaw's hands it's a triangular debate, at least initially: Undershaft lobbying for the power of the pound; his daughter, Major Barbara, arguing Christian morality; and Adolphus Cusins, Barbara's fianc'e, voicing the humanist's cool reason. But in Newton's elegant and occasionally elegiac production, Undershaft gets the upper hand from his first scene.
Douglas Rain portrays Undershaft as a mustachioed, urbane capitalist, a man equally at home in evening wear and ontologic discourse. His unruffled assurance quickly disarms both his opponents. While Martha Burns brings a cleareyed steadiness to her portrayal of Barbara, the production is less about the resolution of her inner conflicts than a classy vehicle for Undershaft's pragmatic views. ``I will drag [a man's] soul back again to salvation for you,'' he says. ``Not by words and dreams; but by 38 shillings a week.'' Although Jim Mezon's exceptionally literate performance as Cusins makes him a worthy adversary for the irascible Undershaft, by play's end the debate has already been determined.
No"el Coward's ``Hay Fever,'' as directed by Denise Coffey, is an aggressively breezy production. In fact, it comes perilously close to being anchored solely by the yards of chintz covering the stage. Jennifer Phipps, as Judith Bliss, the madcap doyenne of the assembled company, tries to conjure the play's necessary eccentricity from sheer physicality, by sashaying about. But the production as a whole never finds its legs. There is a lot of overacting in that bald ``Tennis, anyone?'' style. And Coffey's direction fails to shatter conventions in the way this cheeky 1920s comedy of bad manners should. Norman Browning, as the long-suffering Greatham, earns the production's only genuine laughs.
Rounding out my festival sampler is ``Marathon 33,'' June Havoc's account of the grueling dance contests of 1930s America. Although based on Miss Havoc's firsthand experiences, the play, as such, is virtually nonexistent. (The Shaw Festival production is being touted as the work's second professional production.) Although ostensibly about Havoc (Camille Mitchell), a child vaudeville performer who gets swept up in the dance craze, the piece's real star is the milling mob (a daunting assemblage of more than 30 actors) that staggers and stumbles about the dance floor for a shot at fame and, more important, food. The play is fatally marred, however, by Havoc's inabilities as dramatist. Her attempts at characterization result in squandered, banal exchanges. And in this production, Duncan McIntosh's direction only further muddies the proceedings by keeping most of the action deep upstage. After nearly three hours, the sprawling production (plagued with many inaudible lines) loses tempo. It is better left to Michael Levine's evocative set and Sholem Dology's evanescent lighting to conjure the smoky and seductive vortex that was the depression-era dance hall.
``Marathon 33'' plays until August; ``Hay Fever'' and ``Major Barbara'' run until October.