By Ric Wellwood
The Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake has opened its season with an American Classic. Thornton Wilder wrote “Our Town” during a tour of Europe in 1937 and 1938. Since the continent was deeply troubled by the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler, Wilder kept thinking about how idyllic small town America seemed. He created Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire as a small town filled with people who knew who they were and filled with care and decency.
Holding the production together is the Stage Manager, the man who has the stories of all the citizens, from birth to death. Benedict Campbell delivers a wonderful series of stories that features two families who have children who eventually fall in love and get married. The boy and girl are played beautifully by Charlie Gallant and Kate Besworth.
The set designed by Ken McDonald is strikingly simple and effective, with good lighting effects by Kimberly Purtell and original music and design created by James Smith. Shaw veteran Jenny L. Wright, brings a light touch to her role and Sharry Flett brings many comic moments as a gushing neighbour who seems to be in touch with anything happening in town and eventually in touch with happenings in the Next World.
This season at Shaw is the final one for Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell who is directing two of the shows this summer. She is being replaced for the coming season by Tim Carroll, an import from England. Our Town is being directed by Molly Smith whose gentle touch and keen observations make the production rich and filled with meaning without being preachy. Our Town runs in repertory at the Royal George Theatre until October 15th.
Alice in Wonderland
I have just witnessed one of the most spectacular productions ever mounted on the Shaw Festival Stage. Director Peter Hinton’s multi-media rendition of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” is truly a spectacle, with William Schmuck’s colorful costumes for a large company of humans, animals, flamingoes and playing cards. EO Sharpe’s sets cover the entire stage, starting with a shimmering stage that floats a boatload of children about to hear a story.
Alice is played convincingly by Tara Rosling, with support from a huge cast, one so large that everyone gets to double and triple their roles. Ben Sanders plays the White Rabbit while Neil Barclay is the French Mouse in a fabulous costume. Natasha Mumba creates a memorable Egret. After 30 seasons in the company, Jennifer Phipps smiles her way through the Cheshire cat, while Kyle Blair creates a convincing March Hare.
Peter Hinton now adds Alice in Wonderland to his canon, both as adapter and director. You can always expect the unusual from Hinton. Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson deserve applause for the excellent design of the projections. Alice in Wonderland is now playing in repertory at the Shaw Festival’s main stage until October 16th.
Mrs. Warren’s Profession
The Shaw Festival is tackling GBS’ “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” for the fifth time and arguably the best result in the history of the Festival. The title role is played artfully by Nicole Underhay who gives us a former London prostitute who retires with enough money to create three bordellos in separate European counties. She is rich now, but still aware that no amount of cash can purchase respectability. She does have enough love for her illegitimate daughter Vivie to keep her past a secret, while funding her education at Cambridge.
Director Eda Holmes sets the play in a Gentlemen’s Club done in 1903 to avoid the censor. Patrick Clark designed the set which runs from club to garden and to a suite in London. Costumes are good, but Ms. Underhay’s dress seems to hint that she is not in tune with Victorian propriety.
When Vivie arrives for a visit, the fantasy world created by the mother begins to crumble as does the cool demeanor. Her cultivated accent morphs into a cockney that reveals her poor past life. Nicole Underhay provides the finest performance of the five Shaw actresses I have seen in the role.
For her diminutive size, Ms. Dzialoszynski creates a fiercely confident Vivie.. The show runs at the Royal George Theatre until October 16th.
The Shaw Festival has had great success presenting the plays of Anton Chekhov, and Jackie Maxwell’s production of “Uncle Vanya” is a good example of her understanding of Russian literature and comedy. The design by Sue LePage, well lit by the talents of Rebecca Pitcherack and supporting by original music by Paul Sportelli, lends real texture to the drama presented at the Court House Theatre.
The story centres on Ivan Petrovich, known by the family as Uncle Vanya. He has managed a country estate for much of his life for the owner, an important scholar in Moscow. They were surprised when the owner showed up with a new bride, a smouldering, pampered beauty, a role that Moya O’Connell handles with understated power.
When the owner returns to the estate for the purpose of selling it, the entire household was shaken because he was prepared to dismiss the entire household. Hardest hit by the judgement was Vanya himself. Going for a pistol, he rampages through the household in deep rage and grief.
Annie Baker’s adaptation has a freshness that is even clearer than the translation from the Russian text. The Shaw Festival rendering of “Uncle Vanya runs to September eleventh and should be one of the season’s great successes