How long can you call yourself The Shaw Festival if you do hardly any Shaw? For most of the last 30 of its more than 50 seasons, the Festival in nearby Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, has mounted a dozen plays, more or less, between April and late October, including three or four by George Bernard Shaw, and has devoted itself to keeping alive what he and his contemporaries wrote. Since GBS lived to be 94, the well-traveled highway stretches from High Victorianism all the way to post-WW2 Modernism. This year, though, Shaw's work has been squeezed out until only two plays remain. Actually, one and a half: the essential "Major Barbara" (Royal George Theatre, through October 19) plus "Peace in Our Time: A Comedy" (Court House Theatre, through October 12), a transformation of Shaw's little-known "Geneva" by Canadian playwright John Murrell. The Festival says the result of Murrell's substantial rewrite is a "political comedy where affairs of state meet the Three Stooges," and we're left to ponder what Shaw would have thought of that.
The plays this summer range from the predictable to the exciting. Those with good memories will remember the thrilling 1998 production of Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan" (Festival Theatre, through October 19). Who cares if comparisons are odious; they're also inevitable, especially when the play is this good and the memories of that production so vivid. Wilde's satiric take on upper-class Victorian marriage and morality from 1892 takes its pepper from his playful irreverence and his topsy-turvy morality. With melodrama as its guiding spirit, the plot is a comedy that feels poised to tumble into disaster, thanks to jealousy, betrayal, and deception, all leading to up-to-date lessons learned for the new modern century only eight years off.
"Lady Windermere" is both an obvious choice and a wonderful play. Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" (Studio Theatre, through September 7) is less obvious but just as wonderful. It's a tour de force that carries you back and forth between past (1809) and present, combining mystery, romance, and scandal. As you stumble between clarity and confusion, be prepared to question just what reality consists of. Mathematics, poetry, and — oh, yes — sex are there to help you sort things out, or make them even more confusing. If there's such a thing as an intellectual romp, Stoppard is its master. Even if I don't always understand his language, trying not to fall overboard on his hell-bent-for-somewhere theatrical speedboat is always exhilarating.
Two strikingly different musicals are on the boards this summer. "Guys and Dolls" (Festival Theatre, through November 3), with a glorious score by Frank Loesser, is the one that will get all the attention and draw the bigger crowds. It is almost certainly the greatest of the New York-centered musicals and holds an honored spot on the short list of Greatest American Musicals. But, like so many musicals, it takes star power to pull it off. This is one of those shows where the comic lovers — what amounts to the secondary plot — are really the more important. Without a Miss Adelaide and a Nathan Detroit who soar, "Guys and Dolls" will never cast off its earthbound coil. In other words, the other musical — "The Light in the Piazza" (Court House Theatre, through October 13), with a score by Adam Guettel — might just be the sleeper this summer. It's another airing of the familiar tale about women who worry about convention and propriety until the romance of Italy transforms them.
"Enchanted April" (Festival Theatre, through October 26) tells much the same story as "Light in the Piazza," but instead of following a mother and daughter from the States, Matthew Barber's play (from a novel and a better-known movie of the same name) packs up a batch of Englishwomen, sodden from the unceasing rain and disheartened from the gloom of post-WWI London, and unloads them in an enchanted garden on the Mediterranean coast. It's only a matter of time until Italy, once again, has its way with everyone. If the play can do what the movie did — be absolutely phony and utterly winning at the same time — it will deserve its name.
Now for the plays I'm unfamiliar with. Brian Friel is a fine Irish playwright in a tradition of glorious storytellers that traces back to Shaw himself, and to Wilde, Yeats, Synge, and O'Casey as well. His name alongside the title is enough to persuade me to take a chance. Like the movie "Roshomon," "Faith Healer" (Royal George Theatre, through October 6) recounts the same story from three different angles. The reputation of a small-time faith healer in the Welsh countryside rests on his once having cured 10 people in a single village. But is he the real deal, and what has been his effect on his wife and his manager? Each has a singular version of what's real and even what's true.
I know W. Somerset Maugham for such novels as "Of Human Bondage" and "Of Moon and Sixpence," but he was also a successful playwright, as The Shaw's productions of "The Constant Wife" (2005) and "The Circle" (2007) amply testified. "Our Betters" (Royal George Theatre, through October 27) is less well known, but it's always gratifying to see the festival trying uncharted waters — or at least forgotten plays. This is yet another social satire that derives from the arrival of a wealthy American woman who will, without mercy, find herself pursued by aristocratic British gents who happen to be flat broke. Consider it a "Downton Abbey" prequel. Sexual liaisons and titled marriages are an essential part of the story; only the frivolous think that all the history that matters takes place around the table. Maugham appears to have a distinctively ironic tongue stuck in his suavely Modernist cheek.
The lunchtime series in the Court House Theatre (through October 12) packages two one-act mysteries this summer. One is "Trifles" by the largely forgotten female playwright Susan Glaspell, who was very popular between the 1910's and the 1940's. The other is "A Wife for a Life" by Eugene O'Neill. It is, in fact, O'Neill's first play. Glaspell's one-act shows how men and women look at the same incident differently, while O'Neill's becomes a brief study of a very unhappy marriage.
There really isn't a moral to the story. And it doesn't need one. "Assassins" is part history lesson, part black comedy, and wholly enjoyable.