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Two finds and a superplay, please 

The Shaw Festival has achieved international fame with its superb revivals of relatively unknown plays of significant worth. The latest two are fascinating period pieces.

            Githa Sowerby'sRutherford and Son played in London and on Broadway in 1912, then virtually disappeared. In the last decade it was revived because of renewed interest in plays about the "New Woman" from the turn of the 20th century. But it is actually getting its first Canadian professional production at the Shaw.

            It's unlikely to get a better one. Shaw's artistic director Jackie Maxwell helms a sure-handed staging, handsomely designed by director of design William Schmuck, strikingly lit by veteran Louise Guinand, and authoritatively played by a virtuoso ensemble. The play's politics --- social, gender-based, sexual, and economic --- are instructive and compelling. But it still seems to go on too long.

            The powerful central role is the autocratic John Rutherford who believes that the greatest good lies in continuation of his tyrannical patriarchy, which controls and preserves his glass-manufacturing business, his household, and his family. Michael Ball dominates the play as Rutherford, but there are several rich acting roles among his victims and antagonists.

            Dylan Trowbridge gets such heartfelt intensity into the frustrations of Rutherford's weak son John that I could empathize with the character despite regarding him with disdain. Oddly cast as Rutherford's awkward son Richard, an inept minister, the usually dashing Mike Shara is seamless as a hopeless misfit who also somehow engages our sympathy. And Kelli Fox, as Rutherford's spinster daughter Janet, almost steals the play when she tears at her father after he orders her out of his house.

            When Janet loses her "respectability" in a love affair with Rutherford's indispensable working-class assistant, Martin, he dismisses them both. As Martin, Peter Krantz is touchingly sincere in his affection for Janet and his doglike insistence on "the master's" being "in the right."

            But the center of playwright Sowerby's early feminist concern is Rutherford's daughter-in-law, Mary, played with understated assurance by Nicole Underhay. Ignored and looked down upon by Rutherford because she had earned her living as an office worker, Mary is the one member of the household who can sustain herself if necessary. She is supportive of her husband, but comes into her own when he effectively deserts her. Mary wins Rutherford's respect as a "bargainer" by dictating the terms under which she will continue in his household and give him her son, his grandson, as an heir.

            John Murrell's entertainingWaiting for the Parade is fairly well known in Canada but, for US audiences, is a refreshingly unfamiliar look at Canadian participation in World War II. We see five very different women united in service --- wrapping bandages, preparing food packets, learning first-aid and defense maneuvers, and rehearsing to greet and entertain the soldiers leaving for the war.

            One, Marta, is a German-Canadian whose father is interned and mistreated because he has not become a citizen of Canada. Laurie Paton is mesmerizing in this 'outsider' role.

            Older than the others, Margaret has a special problem: One of her sons is to be sent overseas; the other is under arrest for Communist opposition to the war. Until she finally decides that she is "tired of being old" and paints on the fake stockings of the time, Donna Belleville's Margaret is pretty much a one-note character.

            So is Helen Taylor's Janet, the bossy woman in charge of this group of wartime volunteers, except that her excessive enthusiasm is slightly etched with satire, and her piano playing revealingly indicates her changing moods. Taylor's delayed variety in her acting pays off later, when we see Janet's vulnerable bitterness as she learns how her husband betrayed her insistence on his "important war effort."

            All I can remember about Eve is that she is obsessed with actor Leslie Howard. That may or may not be actress Jenny L. Wright's fault.

            Most impressive, Kelli Fox --- unrecognizable as the actress who plays Rutherford's daughter --- is tough-talking Catherine, a sexy blonde who boozes and commits minor infidelities to deal with her husband's being missing in action. She is riveting throughout.

            I don't think that director Linda Moore brings much imagination to this loosely connected script. With its dancing, singing, and flavorful monologues, the play holds us and is entertaining and occasionally touching. But its staging could have more variety and theatrical excitement.

Wild cheers followed the opening of Man and Superman at the Shaw Festival for a superlative production, but also for the pleasure of completing a rare and demanding experience. Though seldom performed in its entirely elsewhere, G.B. Shaw's long play was performed whole at this festival in 1966, 1977, and 1989.

            Shaw's Man and Superman is more often performed without the "dream" sequence between Acts III and IV, known as Don Juan In Hell. Only two performances now remain --- on July 22 and 25 --- of the 11 scheduled to include Don Juan In Hell. The entire original play runs six hours, including two intermissions and a one-hour lunch break.

            Shaw called this play "a comedy and a philosophy" because central to its intellectual frolics is a serious argument for a Darwinian/Nietzschean belief in an overwhelming "life force." Tanner, Shaw's primary spokesman in the play, may be a posturing radical even more than his dream-persona, Don Juan, is a bombastic nonconformist. But both are virtually evangelical about the power of the Life Force to cause man to evolve into a higher form.

            The plot is another of Shaw's satires on "middle class morality," starting with his usual inverted commonplaces: a sweet girl who tyrannizes everyone with her helplessness; a free-thinking leader who hasn't had a forward-looking thought in decades; a chauffeur snobbish about his working-class know-how; and a millionaire who has to beg the daughter-in-law he doesn't approve of to take his money. But it gets wilder when we move implausibly to the Spanish mountains and meet philosophizing brigands who would rather debate politics than rob people.

            One has to discover in performance what all this has to do with the most urbane Devil and pleasure-ridden hell in literature, and how wordy debates in hell can become laugh-riots with the audience applauding each long speech.

            Neil Munro directs a remarkably lively and inventive staging, ably assisted by Peter Hartwell's bare-looking designs that become wildly elaborate in entirely unrealistic ways. Kevin Lamotte's often startling lighting and Paul Sportelli's clever, jazzy music help to surprise pleasingly by keeping expectations off-balance. And a gifted cast seems to work against stereotype in making each role one we need to pay attention to.

            Without the Don Juan In Hell sequence, Man and Superman loses an interval and a lunch break and is less than four hours long, but it is still a substantial work, a delightful comedy, and perhaps Shaw's masterpiece. In either form, this is a must-see revival.

Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario: Githa Sowerby's Rutherford and Son at the Court House Theatre through October 9; John Murrell's Waiting for the Parade,at the Royal George Theatre through October 9; George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman at The Festival Theatre through October 9; $20-$95 ($14.67 to $56.49 Canadian). 800-511-7429, www.shawfest.com

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