Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The 2015 Shaw Festival – Season Recap
By David Grapes
Arts Journalist

Although the Niagara-on-the-Lake region is known primarily for its booming wine tourism industry, this bustling little tourist town is also home to the Shaw Festival, which despite its humble beginnings has grown to become the second largest summer theatre festival in North America with a budget exceeding 28.6 million dollars. 

Originally founded in 1962 to promote the works of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, the artistic mandate was expanded in 2003 and 2009 to include the work of  “contemporary Shavians” — writers whose work, like Shaw’s, continues to question the status quo in new and different ways. This year’s schedule is an eclectic mix of plays that includes two Shavian classics (You Never Can Tell and Pygmalion), an American classic comedy from Moss Hart (Light Up The Sky), a lost gem from playwright Henrik Ibsen (The Lady from the Sea), a Broadway musical (Sweet Charity), Cheryl Churchill’s quirky comedy/drama (Top Girls), J.M. Barrie’s one-act comedy The Twelve Pound Look, a new Canadian play from Michel Marc Bouchard (The Devine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt), a recent Broadway hit (Peter and The Starcatcher) and Tony Kushner’s rarely produced and highly provocative opus (The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures).

The ten show season is produced in a repertory format in Shaw’s four beautiful theatre spaces, which allows the avid theatre goer an opportunity to see two plays a day or five plays over a weekend. And come they do. Last year’s attendance topped 249,000 patrons, with over 33% of whom were American patrons.

Now in her 13th year and penultimate season as Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell has chosen the theme of “transforming the familiar for all ages” for the 2015 season.  “I have always found that theatre is at its best when the audience spans several generations – a guarantee that the story being told onstage is being taken in and reacted to in a variety of ways, enriching the experience for all. This season we are presenting several pieces that are ideal for this kind of visit, inviting families to share it together or simply encouraging a broader audience range.” - stated Maxwell. Judging from the 9 productions that I had the pleasure of attending in early August, she again delivers a great season of high quality entertainment that is certain to have broad appeal across multiple age groups. I found this year’s productions to be innovative, superbly acted, beautifully designed and often surprising in their concept and/or staging.

With the exception of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures and The Next Whisky Bar – A Kurt Weill Cabaret (both playing to strong audiences), I was able to attend the remaining nine productions in the 2015 season. These were my favorites:

The Lady From The Sea **** Four Stars!
Henrik Ibsen’s seldom produced play was stunning on so many levels, from its evocative set and light designs to its dreamy soundscape. This production demonstrated in spades what the Shaw Festival has come to be known for - tour de force performances that bring forgotten plays to life for contemporary audiences. Here Moya O’Connell and Ric Reid anchor an all world cast and infuse this seemingly simplistic play with passion, nuance and fantastic artistry.

Peter and the Starcatcher **** Four Stars!
Directed by Maxwell, this Starcatcher is a highly imaginative production that wonderfully showcases the Shaw’s male acting company. Packed to the brim with wonderful music, inventive props and costumes, and a number of show stopping performances, this production is certain to entertain the entire family.

The Twelve Pound Look **** Four Stars!
This delightful one act by J.M. Barrie showcases the comic talents of Patrick Galligan, Kate Besworth, and Moya O’Connell. Better known for his classic adventure play Peter Pan, The Twelve Pound Look was funny, well paced and beautiful to look at. A glorious 45 minute comic treat with a dash of feminism tossed in for good measure.

The Devine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt *** ½ Three and one half Stars!
While it is perhaps 20 minutes too long, this new Canadian play still packs quite an emotional punch. Set in Quebec City on the occasion of a 1905 theatrical tour by the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt, the playwright boldly and unapologetically tackles a number of political and social issues that still resonate with contemporary audiences. Among these he includes child abuse by the priesthood, poverty, worker’s rights, and child labor laws. While a provocative and thought provoking piece, it would be improved with some additional humor and better pacing. While I have always enjoyed the work of Kate Reid at the Shaw Festival I can’t help but suggest that Sherry Flett would have created a much more charismatic Sarah Bernhardt.

Also worth your time: You Never Can Tell *** Three Stars! - Pygmalion *** Three Stars! - Top Girls *** Three Stars! - Sweet Charity ***Three Stars! – Light Up The Sky *** Three Stars!

If you go: There are a number of convenient non-stop flights from all major US cities to Toronto with numerous rental cars options available at the airport. Niagara-on the-Lake is located at the Northern end of the scenic Niagara Parkway about fifteen miles from the Canadian Falls and eighty miles south of Toronto with easy access from the QEW.

Ticket Prices: Ticket prices range from $25 to $116 CAN. There are many ways to save on ticket prices, from Super Sundays to preview tickets to $35 tickets for patrons under the age of thirty. In 2014, the average cost of a theatre ticket at The Shaw was $66.02. The season runs now through November 1, 2015. 

Tickets and Information at:

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