Canada's Shaw Festival: ambition, style

THE Shaw Festival is celebrating its 25th anniversary in grand style. In three theaters in various parts of this historic Canadian village, the works of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries are mounted in a season that runs from April to October. To honor this milestone year, the Shaw Festival has been presenting an uncut ``Back to Methuselah'' -- a day-long affair -- as well as ``On the Rocks,'' and ``Arms and the Man.'' Works by Luigi Pirandello, Ben Travers, Noel Coward, Agatha Christie, Philip Barry, and George and Ira Gershwin complete the bill of fare.

In terms of sheer ambition, Shaw was best served by ``Methuselah.'' But in terms of a truly stylish staging of a Shavian work, either ``Arms'' or ``On the Rocks'' gets the nod.

``Arms and the Man'' shows us the playwright's drawing-room comedy roots; by the time of ``Methuselah'' (1921) and ``On the Rocks'' (1933), Shaw had honed his faculties as social critic and philosopher/prophet. Thus a good deal of message is layered onto a charming theatrical confection.

In ``Methuselah'' a new way of life was being put forth in the course of this five-act, 7-hour megaplay. Shaw created this epic to dramatize his views of what he called ``creative evolution'' -- a religious/philosphical system whose time Shaw deemed had come. He contended that people had the capacity to live far longer than they were living in 1921 and that by the time a man had filled his earthly years, he was just coming into the first stages of true wisdom.

Shaw starts ``In the Beginning,'' with the Garden of Eden, then takes us to the World War years and ``The Gospel of the Brothers Barnabas,'' where the aforenamed brothers plant the idea that a person who was so willing could live three centuries. ``The Thing Happens'' in the subsequent act (the final one of the afternoon session at the Festival Theatre).

Then, nearly 250 years later, we rediscover two characters from the preceding act, still alive and meeting each other for the first time. The fourth part, ``The Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman,'' presented in the evening, shows us Ireland in the year 3000, inhabited by long-lifers, who so exceed the mental capacity of ordinary men that those normal folk are banned from the island. Nevertheless, this Elderly Gentleman comes with an Envoy to consult the Oracle (who has lived 174 years). He cannot communicate with the long-lifers, rooted as he is in the humdrum, clearly childish self-importance of his mores and upbringing. By the end, however, he has come to find his peers detestable, and he begs to be allowed to stay. But the Oracle snuffs out his mind, because he could not have survived in the advanced mental state.

The final part, ``As Far as Thought Can Reach,'' takes place in the year 31920. Man has evolved into a species that is hatched fully grown from an egg, not born of woman.

I'm not sure any company but the Royal Shakspeare or the National Theatre in London could cast this show convincingly. By the fifth part, Shaw has forgotten his audience in a veritable maelstrom of verbiage, as he tries to get all his profound points across before the final curtain. Here in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Festival gives it a game try. The first three parts are brought to life with the right sort of glibness, dryness of humor, and sheer delight in Shaw's use of the English language as a means of irrepressible communcation.

The second part is marred by some serious miscasting. And by part four, it is clear that director Denise Coffey has lost her sense of this epic's dimensions. She seems utterly baffled by the final section, resorting to the questionable device of casting Leonard Chow in the pivotal role of the nymph Ecrasia, thus turning a central arguer into an object of near ridicule.

Cameron Porteous's sets were all exceptional -- how fortunate the company is to have him as resident designer, and how his work has grown in restraint, richness of detail, and expressive power in the years I have been covering this festival.

It would be impossible to cite all the excellent performances in this massive undertaking, which closes Sept. 14. But such contributions as Herb Foster's Elderly Gentleman, Barry MacGregor's Lloyd-George-like Burge, Nora McLellan's Maid/Mrs. Lutestring, Jim Mezon's Rev. Haslam/Archbishop, and Sandy Webster's delectable Confucius must be mentioned.

Festival artistic director Christopher Newton was in charge of ``On the Rocks'' at the Court House Theater (through Sept. 21), with its intimate three-quarter thrust stage, where much of the audience is within touching distance of the players.

A few arbitrary directorial touches aside, this was a crackling good show, fast-paced, expertly acted, and delivered by one and all with blazing conviction. The acerbic edge of Shaw's political and social satire were faithfully rendered; the cast performed with the sort of ensemble unity of purpose that has become an increasingly appreciable part of the festival's profile. Of this excellent cast, Michael Ball's Prime Minister, Christine Willies's The Woman, and Irene Hogan's Lady Chavender were particularly treasurable.

``Arms and the Man'' seems very slender, even silly in comparison to the Shaw of later years. And yet what a refreshing bit of silliness it can be. Happily, director Leon Major staged it with the elegant, flowing lines of an operatic venture. On Michael Levine's charmingly pop-up-picture-book sets, it was all finespun sugar candy -- delightful while the experience lasted. And there was not a flaw in the cast, headed by Donna Goodhand, Sandy Webster, and Andrew Gillies. ``Arms and the Man'' runs at the Festival Theatre through Oct. 2.

First of two articles on the Shaw Festival.

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