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Where to Go for Shaw? To Canada, of Course

At Niagara-on-the-Lake, audiences soak up comedy and drama by the Irish playwright and his contemporaries

By April AustinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 17, 1992


THE main street runs straight as a musket shot through green parks, past neatly kept shops, a tidy churchyard, and the stately Prince of Wales Hotel. This town is a place of convergences: At this point the Niagara River joins Lake Ontario, and theater merges with summer tourism and the lazy pursuit of indolence.

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The Shaw Festival basks in its picturesque location, and the town relies on the wit and high comedy of Shaw to bring in visitors by the busload. It is a pleasant arrangement between art and commerce that would surely have aroused the ire of the dramatist.

George Bernard Shaw, the bearded patriarch of modern drama, cast a shadow from 1856 to 1950 - an extraordinary span of human history. Those 94 years included the American Civil War, the end of Queen Victoria's reign, two world wars, and the growth of socialism and communism. The Irish-born Shaw made himself into a writer, lecturer, reviewer, polemicist, and reformer, and merged all these professions into his career as a playwright. He wrote dozens of plays, with "Saint Joan" and "Pygmalion" being rated a mong his best.

Shaw was an unabashed socialist (he was a friend of Karl Marx's youngest daughter, Eleanor, an actress), but fortunately for his audiences, Shaw had a sharp wit and an eloquent way with the language. His plays are soapboxes, and yet they are funny, apt, and convincing.

The idea for the Shaw Festival germinated in 1962, when a local lawyer named Brian Doherty turned the assembly rooms of the town's courthouse into a makeshift theater and staged Shaw's "Don Juan in Hell" and "Candida." Today, the festival produces not only Shaw's work but also plays by his contemporaries. As all summer festivals must, the organizers of the festival take carefully into account the mood of theatergoers. For each substantial play there is a foil in a lighter comic vein: "Charley's Aunt," an

1892 farce by Brandon Thomas, balances out the darker and heavier "Drums in the Night," written in 1922 by Bertolt Brecht.

The Shaw Festival production of Pygmalion, which most people know better as the foundation for the musical "My Fair Lady," is Shaw at his pungent best. Forget for a moment the romantic Cinderella tale of the Lerner and Loewe musical. Shaw chose his story about the remaking of the Cockney flower girl Eliza into a "duchess" to make a point about the experiments then going on to remake society.

Shaw was adamant that people who conducted social experiments had no right to trample their subjects' individuality to achieve some theoretical improvement in the larger society. The director of this "Pygmalion," Christopher Newton, encourages the audience to see the harm Professor Higgins causes in meddling with Eliza's life. Higgins may teach her how to speak the King's English, Newton seems to be saying, but the professor could learn a thing or two from Eliza about love and tolerance.

Seana McKenna and, to a lesser extent, Andrew Gillies, spar and sputter convincingly as Eliza and Higgins. Ms. McKenna carries off with great humor and skill the scene in which Higgins introduces her to his mother and her friends. McKenna's Eliza talks in an excruciatingly correct, uppercrust manner, but she scandalizes the polite gathering by telling of a gin-swilling aunt.

Mr. Gillies is a younger and more vigorous Higgins than Rex Harrison in the film version of "My Fair Lady" and he has none of the awkward old-school gallantry toward women that often disguises misogyny. Gillies is appropriately disheveled and distracted, but he is also appealing in his honest dislike of polite society. The only unfortunate part of Gillies's portrayal is his persistent aloofness and detachment from McKenna's Eliza. The attraction between them is only slightly present: The actors use Shaw' s fusillade of words to keep each other at arms' length, robbing the play of its final poignancy.

IT is hard to keep from feeling a 1990s sense of the injustice done to Eliza by the patronizing treatment of her two male tutors. Higgins congratulates himself and his accomplice, Colonel Pickering (Michael Ball), on converting the "gutter snipe" into duchess material, but neither man can appreciate or even fathom Eliza's growing sense of her own self-worth and her capabilities. Fortunately, director Newton never makes Eliza helpless or an object of pity. At the end of the play, when she exults that she can support herself by teaching Higgins's method of phonetics, it is a boast of empowerment.