Saturday, August 12, 2006

ROAD TRIP: Shaw Festival

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William Vickers and Nicole Underhay in Too True to be Good

I like to think I developed my naturally irreverent attitude as a critic from EES (early exposure to George Barnard Shaw.) The famed Shaw Festival was just a mere 12 years old when I started crossing the border from my hometown of Buffalo to take in Shaw’s funny but stinging plays. But alas, the dose wears off after a while, and I have found it necessary to return and update my organically subversive thinking with some fresh Shaw. What’s truly amazing about Shaw’s work is how current it feels. The ideas are as relevant today as when they were written. Truth be told, Shaw was so far ahead of his time, we still haven’t caught up.

As king of the preachy play genre, Shaw doesn’t tiptoe around in Too True to be Good (1932). Shamelessly, he even calls the third act a “sermon.” The play starts off innocently enough with a sick microbe moaning his predicament as a resident in the spoiled rich girl’s body, housed in “one of the best bedrooms in one of the best suburban villas in one of the richest cities in England.” (Shaw has much to say about spoiled rich girls in general). Enter the doting mother, whose love and overkill attention has knocked off two of her children already. Shaw himself was completely ignored by his own mother and felt she did a superior job in doing so. At one point in the play Shaw suggests that smother mothers be strangled. A burglar who is also a preacher (Blair Williams), and a nurse imposter (Kelli Fox) enter, convince our spoiled bored-out-her-mind sick girl to steal her own necklace, and escape to a world of adventure.

According to one of Shaw’s biographers, Michael Holroyd, “Shaw created the nurse, the burglar, and the patient as the trinity of the capitalist religion, sex, intelligence, and money.” The plot thickens (they always do) in the second act when the escape turns out to be as boring as living as a rich person.

Freedom isn’t all its cracked up to be. Our newly well patient (Nicole Underhay) cries, “I’m free; I am healthy; I am happy; and I am utterly miserable.” There’s a hoot of a tribute to Lawrence of Arabia (Thomas Edward Lawrence was a good chum of Shaw’s) in the character of Private Meek as a kind do-it-all military man. Shaw doesn’t get the big cannons out until the third act when the burglar’s self righteous atheist father shows up and is full of moralist babblings. He had this lapsed Unitarian quaking in her Birkenstock’s with his skewering of religious zealots, even godless ones. Shaw also gets a good whack in on the moral vacancy of postwar society. Underhay, Williams, and Fox, turn in sharp performances throughout. Andrew Bunker is hilarious as Private Alexander Trotsky Meek as is Benedict Campbell as the Colonel who would rather be working on his watercolors.

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Arms and the Man, always a Shaw favorite, begins with yet another spoiled rich girl, this time in the young lady’s bedchamber in Bulgaria during a particularly nasty war. A handsome Swiss soldier seeks refuge in her care. She feeds him chocolate creams and falls in love even though she is already betrothed to the narcissist Major Sergius Saranoff (Mike Shara). The chocolate cream soldier,” brilliantly portrayed by Patrick Galligan, is the only sane character in the play. This is Shaw’s take on the fog of war. Ultimately, he was disappointed with the reception the play received when it premièred in 1894. He felt the play failed to deliver its stinging anti-war message because it’s just so funny. The Gustav Klimt inspired sets (Sue LePage) and costumes (William Schmuck) give this glistening production a noble and suitably exotic air.

The Shaw festival isn’t just about GBS, but also includes plays written during his lifetime or that comment about this time in history. I also took in a gorgeous production of Noel Coward’s Design for Living. Recently the doors have even opened up to include new plays. The expansiveness of the festival is downright Shavian. One of the great features of the festival is that it’s set up for visitors to see many plays in a short period of time. Downtime can be spent wine tasting, biking, or strolling the glorious gardens. Or, there’s always the actual Falls just down the river.

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The Shaw Club Hotel

You are going to need to sleep between shows and let me point you in the right direction. Directly across from the Festival Theatre (and steps from the two other theaters) you will find the brand new boutique hotel, The Shaw Club Hotel . The boutique concept combines the best of Bed & Breakfasthood without the forced chumminess with strangers and the grandmother’s house look. This sleek destination exudes a zen charm, spare, yet elegant.

An unobtrusive but supremely attentive black-clad staff looks after your every need, and even the needs you don’t know you have. When my sons were in danger of missing the European breakfast, it was brought to their rooms. My youngest son recalls a feeling of total euphoria waking up to delicious spread as he laid on his feather bed complete with 300-count linens, wrapped in a fluffy white bathrobe, watching Noggin on the plasma TV. (Fabulous bathrooms also have TVs.) I’m not sure Shaw would approve of all this decadence, but the young lad certainly did.

A handy laptop in the lounge and wireless make it great place for those that bring their work along for the trip. For convenient in-hotel chic dining try Zees. Acclaimed Chef Ross Midgley’s whimsical presentation will be sure to get you in the GBS mood. A full service spa is in the works. The Shaw Club has everything a serious theater person needs; comfort, elegance, and a place for contemplation.

If you plan on a more leisurely stroll through the festival and have brought a 2,000 page novel in tow can I suggest The Charles Inn . Each room has its own balcony where you can gaze at North America’s oldest golf course. Dine or enjoy afternoon tea with William James Brunyansky’s award-winning French cuisine.

If you are more of a water and wine sort and want to be a bit more off the beaten track, I suggest the Harbour House Hotel, located right on the Niagara River. Rent a bike, visit the falls on one of those jet boats, or just luxuriate in your oversized room overlooking the water. Cozy with a Cape Cod feel, the Harbour House features pre-show wine tastings from the local wineries. Move over Australia, the Niagara area is fast becoming the new wine kid on the block. Try the ice wines.

Plan on at least a two day visit, make dinner reservations, and eat before the show. Niagara-on-the Lake is not a late-night town. Should you find yourself in need of a post-theater snack head to the historic Angel Inn. You don’t need to be a vegetarian, a socialist, or an atheist (Shaw was all three) to enjoy Shaw’s work. You just need to like to think and have fun doing it. I recommend a yearly dose of GBS to keep the body, spirit, and wit in tune.