More than a century of theater history buttresses the Shaw Festival's choices for 2012, an 11-play season that takes playgoers from the United States to Norway to Tahiti without ever leaving the Festival's three theaters set amidst the flowers, restaurants, and tourist traps of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. The Shaw is setting out to do what it always sets out to do: give new life to tragedies, comedies, and musicals that illuminate what former artistic director Christopher Newton called "the birth of the modern world." Talented people illuminating great plays is the Festival at its best. At its worst it indulges in novelty for novelty's sake; some might call it dumbing down.
In 1962, only two years after it started with two plays by Shaw, the festival broadened its horizons. Soon it was staging all of Shaw's plays as well as those of his contemporaries. In 2000, Newton broadened the mandate again to include plays set during Shaw's long lifetime — 1856-1950. A few years ago, current artistic director Jackie Maxwell announced another expansion to include plays "in the spirit of Shaw." Nobody has yet explained what that means, except maybe that she can do whatever she wants and follow it up with a triumphant, "See! Spirit of Shaw!" Regardless, it's rare to find a season without some superb productions (and maybe one or two that will annoy you).
In "Misalliance," one of George Bernard Shaw's major works, a bored heiress trapped in an unhappy engagement meets strangers who suddenly intrude, thanks to a convenient (but harmless) plane crash just outside a beautiful garden. The pleasure comes from watching how they pair off eventually, especially since they rely on Shaw's extraordinary talk, talk, and more talk to help them (and us) sort out what each person believes and desires. As with the best of Shaw, it succeeds when a director and cast love Shaw's language and relish his irreverence. The subtext should always be about him rather than them.
Here's the sort of thing that makes the Shaw Festival so rare: running simultaneously just three blocks from one another are Henrik Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" and Noel Coward's "Present Laughter," as different as two plays can be. "Gabler," from 1890, is a towering work of early Modernism, a powerful example of psychological realism. Bored, jealous, self-destructive, and dishonest, Hedda is a great role for an equally great actress to chew on.
"Laughter" is Coward's tongue-in-cheek tribute to himself. Its main character is a stage star named Garry Essendine, whose life is defined by elegant clothes, glamorous lovers, and sparkling wit. He has more admirers than he knows what to do with, even though he's not as young as he used to be. Handled with air, it has all the makings of delectable chaos.
I'm eager to see Terence Rattigan's "French without Tears" and Githa Sowerby's "A Man and Some Women." The playwrights are Shaw rediscoveries. Rattigan was on top of the theatrical world in the 1940's and 1950's for such plays as "The Winslow Boy," "The Browning Version," and "Separate Tables," before his appeal declined. The Shaw Festival is trying to restore him to the regard he deserves, this time with the play that first established him. Young men studying in France to improve their French find themselves more interested in young women than old textbooks. Comedy has no greater subject than the pursuit of a reluctant lover.
Sowerby, an early feminist playwright admired by Shaw, is so obscure she doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. But the Festival successfully revived her play, "The Stepmother," in 2008, and is now trying a 1914 work that looks unflinchingly at the fate of a woman who must earn her own living. Sowerby has a good ear for dialogue and a guiding social conscience. She is worth remembering.
Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens, and Stephen Flaherty's musical, "Ragtime," has an unlikely history: it first appeared in 1975 as a novel by E.L. Doctorow, became a dreadful 1981 movie, and arrived as a hit on Broadway by way of Toronto. In fact, the Toronto cast with Audra MacDonald and Brian Stokes Williams moved to New York to open the 1998 Broadway production. The story interweaves Wasps, who have been in this country almost from the start; African-Americans, who had no say about coming; and Jews, who gave up what little they had just to get here. The first act is much stronger than the second, but one of the show's strengths is its demonstration of ragtime's broad and deep emotional range.
Completing the playbill are four plays from late in Shaw's lifetime, plus one new Canadian play. GBS wrote "The Millionairess" when he was 79. Its dilemma concerns a wealthy woman who promises her father that she will only marry a man who can turn 150 pounds into 50,000 in six months. She then falls for a man who promises his mother that he'll marry a woman who can support herself for six months on 35 pence. Sounds like the purest Shavian shenanigans.
"His Girl Friday" began as a 1928 play, "The Front Page" by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, about conniving reporters who'll do anything for a scoop. Then it became a classic screwball comedy called "The Front Page" with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant; and has since been turned back into a play by John Guare.
Leonard Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti" is a one-act opera and William Inge's "Come Back, Little Sheba" is a realistic domestic tragedy, but both portray desperately unhappy people married to one another. Inge's reputation has declined since his death in 1973, and I'm content to let it remain where it is.
The final play is Quebec playwright Carole Frechette's "Helen's Necklace." It tells the story of a woman who pursues a lost necklace as far as the Middle East. Though the Festival calls it "impressionistic," it sounds from the outside more like magic realism.