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The Shaw Festival's three accomplished July openings all center on powerful women who rule the roost, though the third could use a stronger rooster.

Powerful women shine at Shaw Fest 

            Federico Garcia Lorca's great modern classic, The House of Bernarda Alba, has no visible rooster, though males are all that these women think about.We hear the men going to work and notice the women sneaking peeks at them through the windows, and hear the final shot that eliminates all hopes of snagging the one who is the current object of their desires. But we see only a household of lonely women frustrated by the rigid social codes of rural Spain and the severe dominance of Bernarda, the widow who owns their lives. Only Bernarda's crazed mother, the old lady who occasionally escapes from her room, actually says what is on everyone's mind: she wants a young man. In Richard Sanger's rather literal new translation, all that boiling estrogen reflects the oppressive heat outside.

            But the tone of Tadeusz Bradecki's sensitive direction is chilling. Aided by Teresa Przybylski's austere designs and Kevin Lamotte's stark lighting (perhaps a bit too bright in Act II), the play's passion seems almost too bottled up. Patricia Hamilton's steadfast servant, La Poncia, certainly has warm blood coursing through her body. But the contentious, beaten-down daughters -- Lynne Cormack's spinsterish Angustias, Helen Taylor's Magdalena, and Jane Perry's Amelia -- are wound up tight. As the rebellious youngest sister, Adela, Fiona Byrne produces fireworks but little inner heat. And Susie Burnett, as deformed sister Martirio, also expresses cold-seeming anger and annoyance. Even Nora McLellan's redoubtable Bernarda Alba seems to spit out commands from an icy distance. Her final insistence that her wanton daughter died a virgin is less a defiant cry than a stubborn assertion for herself. I like Bradecki's cool control, but I usually find this tragedy more moving.

            G.B. Shaw's comedy Candida, on the other hand, is usually more thoughtful and a lot less funny than the current revival, directed by Jackie Maxwell, who takes over Shaw Festival's artistic direction next season.

            The wise, womanly wife of an inspiring clergyman, Candida is virtually worshipped by everyone in his household, which she runs and rules. When Eugene Marchbanks, a young poet intoxicated by Candida, challenges Reverend James Morell's complacent assurance about his loving wife and dares him to let her choose between them, he precipitates a moral storm, a romantic triangle, and the first violent self-doubts that Morell has ever suffered. Playing with both of them, Candida drolly solves the dilemma with Shaw's usual irony and wit.

            The role of this female paragon has drawn many leading actresses, if only because it displays them so appealingly without actually presenting any serious acting difficulties. Playing Candida, Kelli Fox is, as usual, assured and attractive. Reverend Morell is almost always good-looking, but sometimes played as the pompous stuffed shirt that Marchbanks calls him. More usually, he's seen as the bright, virile icon that his secretary, "Prossie," thinks him. In either case, his sudden anxiety about his marriage is both comic and touching. Maxwell has handsome Blair Williams play the clergyman as a virtual deadpan comic, genuinely feeling the role but downplaying both dramatic and intellectual concerns with really funny physical "takes."

            Mike Shara's adorable Marchbanks is certainly a rhapsodic poet and passionate young man in love, but he is also a hilariously awkward stumblebum. At times he seems a refugee from a farce about teenagers. To indicate that he is upset, he takes a wild pratfall over the back of the couch, onto its seat and winds up in fetal position on the floor. Courting Candida, he enthusiastically leaps onto the arms of her chair, crouching froglike above her with knees parallel to his ears. That might seem a violation of Victorian style and behavior, not to mention decorum, but it's an amusingly over-the-top indication of the young man's spirit.

            By comparison, Laurie Paton's sarcasm and discomfort as "Prossie" and Bernard Behren's waggish Mr. Burgess, Candida's grumpy, conniving father, seem to be mere plot devices. Sue LePage's big, rich set and Christina Poddubiuk's traditional, plain costumes are predictably impressive elements of a major production. But Candida and her two competing men are the whole focus of this playful revival. The mysterious "secret in the poet's heart" may get slighted, along with some social commentary, but this is the funniest Candida I've seen.

            Some of Harley Granville Barker's His Majesty is satirically funny. Some of it provides intriguing, timely political thought. But, on the whole, I think this ahead-of-its-time play has been understandably neglected. Strikingly directed and superbly cast, this production is the North American premiere of a play completed in 1928.

            A kind of political thriller that, like Shakespeare's Henry VI, traces the decline of a monarchy and efforts to resuscitate it, Granville Barker's imaginary history explores the conflicting issues of a Europe trying to survive World War I. In a quagmire between government by communism, fascism, democracy, and oligarchy, a charismatic, trusted king represents the continuing desire to preserve a monarchy. As in Henry VI's more historical basis, this complex drama centers its sympathy upon the monarch, but shows his well-intended hesitations as fatal weakness against a field of treacherous conflicting forces which include a strong-willed queen who essentially betrays him.

            That complexity makes the play hard to follow. The queen goes against her husband's wishes, secretly bribes an enemy leader to join in fighting and killing that the king is trying valiantly to avoid, and causes both the defeat of his army and the murder of his leading general. He therefore decides that he has no alternative but to abdicate. The king offers no criticism of her behavior and instead, saint-like, goes off to exile affectionately with her. I find the conclusion, which treats them both as sad, sympathetic figures, to be entirely unsatisfying.

            Neil Munro directs a handsome, inventive production with original music composed by Paul Sportelli, which, unlike Sportelli's forgettable music for Candida, is tuneful and effective. A sterling cast of 26, headed by David Schurrmann in the title role, Mary Haney as his queen, and Michael Ball and George Dawson as his chief opponents, do all that one could ask to make this drama work.

Shaw Festival:Federico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba at the Court House Theatre to October 5; G.B. Shaw's Candida atthe Festival Theatre to November 23; Harley Granville Barker's His Majesty at the Court House Theatre to September 21. www.shawfest.com 1- 800 511-SHAW.

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