Shaw Festival holds to prosperous course. Its best seats now cost more than Toronto's

THOUGH Toronto has been edging into the spotlight lately, the main outposts of Canadian stagecraft have traditionally been Ontario's twin festivals - the Stratford and the Shaw. It's true that Toronto producer Ed Mirvish has helped bring this country's cultural scene into the big leagues over the past five years with ambitious productions at home (in the Royal Alexander Theatre) and abroad (in London's Old Vic). But summer finds more drama being performed in the Stratford's drowsy cornfields and the Shaw's theme-parklike headquarters than anywhere else in the country.

What is no longer axiomatic is the role of each festival. Stratford's traditional superiority (larger, older, and with a more specific mandate) has yielded in recent seasons to a certain lugubriousness on stage that grows out of numerous difficulties off stage: a revolving-door directorship, internal warfare, and budget deficits. (A report on the Stratford's summer season will appear in these pages Monday.)

At the same time, the Shaw, under Christopher Newton's artistic directorship, has enjoyed nearly a decade of prosperity. Since Mr. Newton's arrival in 1980, the 27-year-old festival has grown in size and purpose. The acting company alone numbers more than 70; the budget is in excess of $9 million; and most productions are sellouts. While the Stratford presents 13 productions in its six-month season, the Shaw mounts eight, plus a couple of bite-size works. The program is coherent and the overall ensemble quality high.

A Disneyland feel

Not that the Shaw is flawless. It isn't. There is something of a Disneyland feel to the place, all surface gloss and well-oiled charm. And the shine comes at top dollar. Best seats cost $37.50 now, exceeding Toronto prices. In addition, Newton's unvarying schedule - which includes one musical, two mysteries, a comedy or two, and a couple of Shaw productions - has more to do with market strategy than artistic vision, even though he attempts to break out of comfy homogeneity with one ``problem'' production each year. Last season it was June Havoc's rarely performed ``Marathon 33''; the year before, Shaw's seven-hour epic ``Back to Methuselah.''

This year's plays include Vincent Youmans's 1927 musical, ``Hit the Deck''; J.B. Priestley's ``Dangerous Corner''; Harley Granville-Barker's ``The Voysey Inheritance''; Shaw's early comedy ``You Never Can Tell''; his rarely performed political fantasy ``Geneva''; the Kaufman/Hart comedy ``Once in a Lifetime''; and a restaging of last season's extravaganza, ``Peter Pan.'' This year's ``problem'' play is a sprawling stage adaptation of Tolstoy's ``War and Peace.''

Still, criticizing the Shaw is a little like baiting a kitten. It's all so adorable and harmless and perfect in its own way. Besides, when the Shaw company gets it right, as it does in ``You Never Can Tell,'' the result is superb.

Improving on Shakespeare

``You Never Can Tell'' was written in 1896 as an improvement on Shakespeare's ``Much Ado About Nothing.'' (The Shaw's crisply staged 30-minute production of GBS's ``Dark Lady of the Sonnets'' expounds on his attitude toward Shakespeare.) ``You Never Can Tell'' incorporates many of the Bard's conventions - the chance meeting, the divided family, the reconciliation. Although Shaw once wrote that he was ``ashamed of its tricks and laughs and popularities,'' the comedy anticipates many of Shaw's more fully developed dramas, with their duels between the sexes, wise-acre children, and sermonizing about the value of equality and intellect over justice and emotion.

But, as director Newton demonstrated in last year's sinewy ``Major Barbara,'' he is one of Shaw's ablest interpreters, adept at sublimating the author's wordy wranglings within crackling characterizations. Indeed, there is a breezy No"el Coward feel to this revival (the fourth in the festival's history). And even if you don't remember much of the play's banter - about women's rights, sexual equality, economic injustices, and the failings of the legal profession - you will remember that it is supremely witty.

What lingers even longer are the vivid characterizations: the independent-minded matriarch; the pleasantly starchy Barbara Gordon; the Lear-like father; the blustery Sandy Webster; and the dueling Beatrice-Benedick duo, with Mary Haney (who is a tad too old for her role as Gloria) and Andrew Gillies (who has a touch too much Cary Grant in his portrayal of the difficult Mr. Valentine).

The two ``children,'' however, are a perfect study in precociousness, just this side of insufferable: Helen Taylor is the bouncy Dolly and Steven Sutcliffe the insouciant Philip. When these two take the stage - a two-eyed hurricane - you don't care a fig for the romantic wranglings of Gloria and beau, or Mother's feminist railings.

This is even more true when Douglas Rains, as the sagacious Waiter, brings on lunch and everyone's reconciliation. Mr. Rains, who played patriarch Andrew Undershaft in last year's more demanding ``Major Barbara,'' brings just the right amount of fastidious wizardry to this pivotal role of reconciler, which includes a reunion with his own son, the pompous lawyer Bohun, played by the looming and booming-voiced Craig Davison.

Cameron Porteous's evocative design for the airy Marine Hotel terrace and the Chinese-lantern-lit harlequinade forms a perfect backdrop.

A too-ordinary `Peter Pan'

Alas, Newton's restaging of the Ian Judge production of ``Peter Pan'' is less successful. Even though the rambling production has many delightful moments, it lacks a point of view. The sets are cramped and confusing, and the characterizations, with the exception of Marti Maraden's sprightly, maternal Wendy, are yawningly standard. Tom McCamus plays a campy, decidedly unempathetic Peter, relying on a rock-star hairdo and weird upper-register voice to convey fey adolescence. Even the aerials that send Wendy and Peter tumbling across the London skyline are unexceptional.

Enchantment never builds

Certainly some of the production concepts - adults playing children and the like - have a particular ideological resonance to the play's unmistakable Freudian underpinnings. But these are not fully realized. Indeed, the production has a rushed, obligatory feel; the enchantment never builds. Newton appears to be having more fun on stage as the flamboyant Captain Hook and the nudniky Mr. Darling than in supplying this production the ballast it needed.

Hilary DeVries covers regional theater for the Monitor.

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