Story by Rod Charles
Vacay.ca Deputy Editor
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONTARIO — Last year, as a gift from my wife, I saw my first play at the Shaw Festival and it wasn’t what I expected. Located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the festival features internationally recognized actors and some of the best behind-the-scenes theatre pros in the business, with plays by its namesake, George Bernard Shaw, and other famous playwrights. So I knew the experience was going to be awesome, but deep down I expected the play to have a Shakespearean feel or twist to it because, well, most plays I seem to watch these days do.
Yet here I was in the first row of this pitch-black theatre watching a fictional illustration of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — a man I deeply respect, by the way — being portrayed on the last day of his life as a burned-out, dirty, skittish, paranoid, chain-smoking womanizer with a giant hole in his sock. Seriously Shakespeare, I grumbled noisily as my wife firmly clipped me with a sharp elbow to my sternum, what in the world were you thinking when you wrote this play?
Seriously though, “The Mountaintop,” co-starring the brilliant Kevin Hanchard as Dr. King and his adorable co-star, Alana Hibbert, as Camae was the kind of bold, gritty, no-bullshit-in-your-face production that frankly I wish more theatre groups would take a risk on once in awhile. If meaningful art is about stirring emotion, forcing you to think and making you feel a little uncomfortable (or really pissed off) at times, then “The Mountaintop more than accomplished the task. Written by Katori Hall, it was one of the most provocative plays I had seen in awhile and I was hungry for more.
The Shaw Festival Kicks Off 2015 Season
It shouldn’t have been a big surprise, though, because being provocative has never been an issue for the Shaw Festival. Audiences who loved “The Mountaintop” will also love their studio theatre shows, known for producing timely and thought-provoking work. These include “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures” (July 11 to October 10), by Tony Kushner and “The Next Whisky Bar” (August 21, 22, 28, 29, September 4, 5), by Paul Sportelli and Jay Turney. The Shaw Festival is also embracing the bold with its “World Premiere of The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt” written by Michel Marc Bouchard. This play follows Sarah Bernhardt and her controversial performances in Quebec City at the turn of the 20th century.
Like a kid itching for the return of a new season of baseball I couldn’t wait to learn what the Shaw Festival had in mind for its 2015 season and what the starting lineup would be. Shaw Festival veteran artistic director Jackie Maxwell, now enjoying her 13th season, says this year will truly have something for everyone, specifically mentioning “Peter and the Starcatcher” (April 8 to November 1), a magical adventure that explores the choices we have to make when we “grow up.” Told with imagination and humour, Maxwell says this is for grown-ups of all ages.
“We also have ‘Pygmalion,’ the timeless story of the unlikely relationship between Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins that gives a modern twist by director Peter Hinton,” says Maxwell. “And with songs like ‘Big Spender,’ ‘Sweet Charity’ will make for singing and dancing unlike any seen on our Festival Stage. For people who seek the really provocative fare, we have a range of classic and contemporary writers to sate everyone! We have a rarely produced Ibsen romance – “The Lady from the Sea” – in a refreshing new version by Erin Shields.”
Kicking off the season this month will be four plays, including “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a theatrical prequel to “Peter Pan,” which opened last week at Royal George Theatre and is directed by Maxwell and stars Kate Besworth, Andrew Broderick and James Daly.
“Sweet Charity” opens Festival Theatre, is directed by Morris Panych, and stars Julie Martell as Charity and Kyle Blair as Oscar Lindquist.
Opening in the Court House Theatre on April 30 is the “Lady from the Sea,” directed by Meg Roe and starring Moya O’Connell and Ric Reid as Dr. Wangel. Also kicking things off on April 26 is a play written by Shaw himself, “You Never Can Tell” at Royal George Theatre. Directed by Jim Mezon, this play features Tara Rosling, Julia Course, Jennifer Dzialoszynski and Stephen Jackman-Torkoff.
Season Includes ‘Pygmalion’ and ‘Top Girls’
As mentioned before, this season’s 11-play lineup also includes George Bernard Shaw’s transformation classic, “Pygmalion” (May 31 to October 24), opening in Festival Theatre on May 31. Rounding out the season are “Light Up the Sky” (June 25 to October 11), “Top Girls” (May 23 to September 12) and “The Twelve-Pound Look” (June 11 to September 12).
So which play should you see? Well, that’s a matter of personal preference, but rest assured you can’t go wrong with this lineup. If you’re looking for some outstanding guidance that’s a tad biased, Peter Hinton makes a great case for “Pygmalion,” the play he is directing.
“’Pygmalion’ is one of Shaw’s masterpieces. It’s right up there with ‘St. Joan,’ ‘Caesar and Cleopatra,’ and ‘Man and Superman,’” says Hinton. “It’s a comedy about class, gender, and culture. It’s about the great divide … the 1% that continue to own a disproportionate amount of the world’s wealth and power. Shaw originally wrote this play in 1913, then he revised it several times up until 1941. What is interesting is that each time he revisited the text, he expanded and altered things and, unlike other plays, he modernized it each time. His film adaptation of 1938 is set in 1938 — and did not retain the original Edwardian setting. He really saw the play as a contemporary romantic comedy. Which made me wonder how this play could work in our present. When the play premiered it was during an explosive time of class tension. It asks the question of whether class is entitled and fixed — or socially constructed and capable of change? It is a romantic comedy… and ironically a modern one.”
Win Two Tickets to see Pygmalion at the Shaw Festival!
Shaw Festival is offering a prize to Vacay.ca readers — two tickets to see Pygmalion at the Shaw Festival this season. To be eligible for the draw all you have to do is tweet why you love Shaw Festival, or talk about your favourite moment at Shaw Festival, with the hashtag #VacayShaw.
“Vacay.ca loves the arts and we have always been impressed by the great work the Shaw Festival has done over the years to help make Ontario one of the great destinations for theatrical performances,” says Vacay.ca co-founder Adrian Brijbassi. “Every year, thousands of people visit Niagara-on-the-Lake for fine wine, delicious food and jaw-dropping stage performances, teaming up with wonderful companies like Shaw Festival. So we are happy to spread the word about this awesome production company and the fantastic destination of Niagara-on-the-Lake, which ranked among the Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Visit in Canada in 2015.”
The Twitter campaign will run until April 30, 2015. The winner will be announced on May 7.
MORE ABOUT THE SHAW FESTIVAL