The midsummer fantasies of two towns

John Bemrose June 13 1988

The midsummer fantasies of two towns

John Bemrose June 13 1988

The midsummer fantasies of two towns


For many theatregoers, the Ontario towns of Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake reflect the spirit of the great dramas they host each summer. Stratford is a solid, working community where both the seriousness and grandeur of the world classics staged by the Stratford Festival seem echoed in the imposing Victorian mansions that line its more prosperous streets. By contrast, the village of Niagara-on-theLake, home to the Shaw Festival, is famed for its prettiness. Its picturesque main street, lined with maples and specialty shops, is an attraction in itself— part of the lighter, gayer atmosphere generated by the Shaw’s offerings of light comedies and middleweight dramas.

Yet for all their differences, the festivals share one important quality: they are both eminently successful. Last year, Stratford’s 13 productions attracted audiences of 442,668 and took in $9.6 million at the box office. Those figures not only confirmed its status as the largest annual theatre festival in North America, but contributed to a financial picture that has been steadily improving since a 1984 deficit. Meanwhile, the Shaw’s 11 plays drew 285,000 and revenues of $5.9 million. Both festivals have achieved a state of prosperous maturity—and all of its attendant challenges. Some observers now question whether the daring and creativity that shaped

Shaw and Stratford will continue or be lost. And a look at their new seasons suggests a solid, rather conservative stewardship is guiding both festivals.

As usual, the Shaw Festival is highlighting plays by its namesake, George Bernard Shaw. Currently running is his popular 1898 comedy of manners, You Never Can Tell. Directed by Christopher Newton, the play concerns a feminist author, Mrs. Clandon (Barbara Gordon), who has done her best to raise her three children free of all notions of romantic love. The cast does a superb job

with the complications that result, handling the Clandons’ story with the lively intelligence and English accents that have become its hallmark.

For the most part, the Shaw ensemble’s acting style is also ideally suited to the other part of the festival’s mandate: presenting plays by Shaw’s contemporaries. One of the most famous was J. M. Barrie, whose immortal parable of childhood, Peter Pan, was the hit of last year’s festival. It is back again this year, with its magical technical effects and its comically endearing spectacle

of adults impersonating children.

Another attraction is the rarely seen Dangerous Corner, a 1932 psychological melodrama by J. B. Priestley that could well prove the surprise of the summer. And for musical fans there is Vincent Youmans and Herbert Fields’s spunky 1927 musical, Hit the Deck, featuring some seductive acting and singing by Beth Anne Cole as Looloo, the coffee shop owner who falls in love with a philandering sailor.

But the Shaw’s string of winners runs out abruptly with its ambitious stage version of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel, War and Peace. Written in 1922, and updated to include references to the nuclear age, it is offered as a serious antiwar statement. But the actors who are so at home with the crisp cerebralism of Shaw are completely at sea with the heavier emotional demands of War and Peace, and they sink rapidly into shrillness.

They may have better luck on the safer ground offered by several works opening later in the season: Harley Granville-Barker’s drawing-room drama of family morals, The Voysey Inheritance, and Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s raucous 1930 comedy about the American entertainment industry, Once In a Lifetime. Also coming up are two plays by Shaw: his pre-Second World War political drama, Geneva, and his light spoof about Shakespeare, The Dark Lady of the Sonnets.

The Stratford Festival, meanwhile, is

offering its usual parade of works by Shakespeare—who is not only the greatest playwright in the language but also the one whose works are the hardest to do well. The festival can nearly always be counted on to provide a lavish cos-

tume spectacle and a certain standard of good acting. But as its current productions of Richard III and All's Well That Ends Well demonstrate, those elements alone are not enough.

Richard III is the more satisfying of the two productions, partly because its lead actor, Colm Feore, lends a striking visual presence to Richard, the upstart noble who murders his way to a crown. Feore’s piercing eyes and haunted face can communicate evil with a glance. But his delivery is disappointingly flat, exploiting only a fraction of the poetry’s

psychological and emotional potential. He is better by far in The Taming of the Shrew—the gem of the current season.

The principal actor in All’s Well also suffers serious shortcomings. Playing the role of Helena, the young woman who is deserted by her shiftless husband on her wedding night, Lucy Peacock spoils her performance with mannered posing. But Peacock is simply delightful in the role of Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl in one of the season’s lighter offerings, the musical My Fair Lady.

Other Shakespearean productions at Stratford include The Two Gentlemen of Verona and, from the Young Company, Twelfth Night and King Lear. Also worth a look is a stately version of Murder in the Cathedral, poet T. S. Eliot’s tale of the death of archbishop Thomas Becket. Those who prefer lighter entertainment can consider The Three Musketeers and the stylish musical g about the whore with the 8 heart of gold, Irma La Douce.

1 All in all, Stratford and Shaw 5 offer their usual rich selec-

2 tions: if few of them break new ground, there is still much that is worth the trip to the small-town giants of summer theatre.