NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONTARIO — The Shaw Festival prides itself on being the only theater company that specializes in the plays of Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries. Given the 94 years that Shaw lived, the festival's scope is practically unlimited. The company is to be indulged if, in the program notes for the various productions, it attempts to draw connections between the Shaw offerings and a fluffy musical like Bernstein's "On the Town" (even if Shaw was a music critic), or a crowd-pleasing puff piece like "Charley's Aunt."
The festival's professionalism and impeccable sense of style show up in the striking photographs of company members displayed in the lobby and in the programs, the well-researched covers and notes, and the colorful flyers and brochures. But a curmudgeon might raise the question, does the emphasis on the packaging at times detract from the rough-and-tumbleness of Shaw's message? The emphasis on transcendent sets and gorgeous period costumes is understandable; it's what audiences pay to see. But a purist m ight argue that the festival is in danger of losing Shaw's fire-in-the-belly by prettying up the exteriors.
There's no question but that the exteriors are beguiling. The beauty of the main festival theater's terrace - with its wisteria-covered trellises and Japanese-style fish pond make it attractive to tourists and hardcore playgoers alike. The cheerful gift store sells Shaw paraphernalia such as aprons printed with a line drawing of Shaw that say, "There is no love sincerer than the love of food" from "Man and Superman." (When you have a 7 percent drop in ticket sales from the previous year, the sale of ever y little doodad helps.)
Perhaps it is only big-city theater critics who complain about marketing tie-ins, fancy costumes, and comfortable lobbies. Perhaps when the acting is of a decent caliber they feel they have to grouse about something. But the theatergoers who packed the houses for "Counselor-at-Law" and "Pygmalion" came to be entertained, and so they were, with polish and panache.