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

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.

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.

While Counselor-at-Law was not written by Shaw, it turns out to be the best acted and most gripping play at the festival this year. The little-known play, written in 1931 by American Elmer Rice, succeeds in getting its grittiness across where the Shaw plays tend to pontificate.

Such a sure grip does Neil Munro have on the direction that this tale of an up-and-coming Jewish lawyer glows with the fierceness of a streetlight in a tough neighborhood. Set in 1930s New York, the entirely black, white, and gray law office of George Simon pulses with activity. The minor characters are recognizable from '30s movies like "Front Page" and '90s television shows like "L.A. Law" and "Civil Wars."

But in Mr. Munro's hands, these characters exude a freshness that makes them seem just invented. And the lawyer Simon, who dragged himself out of the ghetto to a partnership in the firm, is an endlessly complex and fascinating personality. Jim Mezon inhabits the role of Simon with an uncanny feeling for the speech and habits of a man who hasn't forgotten the folks from the old neighborhood, but who can outwit and out-guffaw the sleaziest politician. When Simon is threatened with disbarment for having hel ped a young Jewish man avoid a lengthy jail sentence, his world comes apart, and his haughty society wife leaves him. It is up to Simon's devoted secretary (played with quiet distinction by Mary Haney) to get him back on his feet.

The play that truly carries out the mandate of the festival, "to present plays about the beginning of the modern world," is Brecht's Drums in the Night. The German playwright wrote the piece in 1922 as an idealistic young man, and was embarrassed by it later in his life. He worried that the hero was too concerned with his own happiness, and not enough with joining the revolution.

The Shaw Festival actors, abetted by director Paul Lampert, bring this nightmarish play to gloomy life. Brecht wrote plays that call to mind the paintings of Max Beckmann and other German artists of the '20s who captured a certain ugliness and decadence in the collective German soul. The simple stage set, which thrusts out angrily into the audience, is spare and stark like those paintings.

The story surrounds a German artilleryman named Kragler who goes off to war, leaving his fiancee behind. Four years intervene, and the fiancee, torn with doubts, agrees to marry another man. Kragler returns, finds Anna engaged and pregnant, and becomes despondent. As he lingers in a sleazy bar, the regulars urge him to lead their march on the newspaper office. Anna shows up, searching for him, and he must decide whether she really wants him, and if he should abandon his revolution-minded comrades.

"Drums in the Night" would have seemed longer and less hopeful were it not for the presence of actor Peter Millard. As Kragler, Mr. Millard passionately conveys the anger, loss, dissipation, and eventually courage that drives the play. Even when Brecht's trademark writing style veers off into nonsequiturs, Millard's passion is enough to score the meaning deep into the audience's consciousness.

Susan Coyne plays the distraught Anna with a beguiling and strangely fierce tenderness. She makes Anna a cipher, so that no one knows what she will do next. She acts spacey, coy, capricious, and the audience is left wondering if she is worthy of Kragler's love. This is exactly to Brecht's point. Regardless of the unlikeliness of domestic bliss with Anna, Kragler turns his back on the proletarian revolution in favor of the individual's right to choose his own allegiances.

Brecht once approvingly called Bernard Shaw a "terrorist." The two men each had subversive aims in writing plays. Both wanted to shock their audiences out of complacence and lethargy, and to usher in a new political order that would make human beings more humane. It is to the Shaw Festival's credit that theater with such a strong bearing on our own times finds a home and a hearing.

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