Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The 2016 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 31.5 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 mix of plays that includes one of Shaw’s best social commentaries (Mrs. Warren’s Profession), an American classic (Our Town), a lost comic gem from playwright W.S. Gilbert (Engaged), a Broadway musical (Sweeney Todd), Oscar Wilde’s stylish comedy/melodrama (A Woman of No Importance), Anton Chekhov’s sentimental comedy (Uncle Vanya), a new adaptation from Peter Hinton of (Alice in Wonderland), an adaptation of a Shaw’s controversial 1932 novella (A Black Girl in Search of Her God) and August Strindberg’s rarely produced black comedy (Dance of Death).

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 232,671 patrons, with over 33% of whom were American patrons.

Now in her final season as Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell has decided to close out her tenure at the Shaw Festival by producing a season that proudly showcases the great diversity of work we have built into our programming over my fourteen-year tenure … not to mention some of my absolute favourite plays!” Judging from the 9 productions that I had the pleasure of attending in early August, Maxwell 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 once again to be evocative, superbly acted, beautifully designed and often surprising in their concept and/or staging.

With the exception of Master Harold and the Boys (highly praised by the Canadian Press), I was able to attend the remaining nine productions in the 2016 season. These were my favorites:

A Woman of No Importance **** 4 Stars!
This was a stylish and articulate production that really captured that wonderful Wilde mix of comedy and melodrama. The first act is particularly funny and full of jokes about Americans, which the Canadian audience enjoys. And although the play takes an unexpected tour into more serious drama, the director never lets the play get maudlin or sentimental. This is the Shaw ensemble at their best. Creating powerful characters who inhabit stunning landscapes and say the most wicked things.

Dance of Death **** 4 Stars!
Directed by Canadian stalwart Martha Henry, this rarely produced dark dark comedy by August Strindberg is choc full of bravado acting from a trio of the Shaw’s most charismatic actors, Jim Mezon, Fiona Reid and Patrick Gallegan. Think of it as an unintended salute to the late Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – only on steroids. It is a bit like watching three characters all experiencing a nervous breakdown at the same time. You are riveted to the chaos even through you would like to get up and escape the emotional violence.  Quite an evening for any true lover of great theatre!

A Black Girl in Search of Her God *** 3 1/2 Stars!
Part stand up comedy, part lecture and part political debate this quirky plot less  lunchtime one-act offering is pure unadulterated fun!

Our Town *** 3 1/2 Stars!
The Shaw acting ensemble really sinks its teeth into the masterwork by Thornton Wilder, giving it a depth and nuance seldom seen in its thousands of productions over the decades.  And while you may think you know and understand this all too familiar play, these brilliant actors will take you on an evocative journey to small town New Hampshire that will stay with you long after the final curtain comes down.

Also worth your time: Mrs. Warren’s Profession *** Three Stars! – Uncle Vanya *** Three Stars! - Engaged *** Three Stars!  I did not care for Sweeney Todd ** Two Stars! - Alice in Wonderland ** Two 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 $117 CAN. There are many ways to save on ticket prices, from Super Sundays to preview tickets to $30 tickets for patrons under the age of thirty. In 2015, the average cost of a theatre ticket at The Shaw was a little more than $68.00 The Shaw season runs now through October 30, 2016. 

Tickets and Information at: www.shawfest.com

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