Road trip: 2008 Stratford and Shaw Fests

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Recent events have done nothing to improve the reputation of economics as the "dismal science." But if your economic situation allows you to scrape together a few extra dollars and spare a few days, you can get what amounts to a crash course that is anything but. It so happens that the Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario, a six-hour drive from Columbus around the east side of Lake Erie, has four remaining productions in repertory reaching into November. Each of them two dramas, one mystery, and one comedy reveals some aspect of how economics plays out in the lives of people, the impact of theory on reality. And any one of them would have to be more edifying than watching a few hours of the Fox Business Network.

If you are lucky enough to recall Contemporary American Theatre Company's sterling production of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes from 1998, you'll find the current Shaw Festival version perfectly competent but bloodless. Perhaps it's because Laurie Paton's Regina Giddens never projects the ruthlessness we expect or because David Jansen's Horace Giddens never seems helpless enough. But these quibbles aside, Hellman's indictment of the heartless pursuit of wealth could be even more pertinent today than it was seven decades ago. No one can say she didn't warn us against people like these. Foxes prowl the Shaw's Royal George Theatre through November 1.

Hellman's prescience from seven decades ago, however, is nothing compared to Bernard Shaw's from about 115 years ago in Mrs. Warren's Profession. The play is as much about the exploitative nature of capitalism itself as it is about the condition of women and the opportunities to which they had traditionally been limited. In this explosive production, Mary Haney's Mrs. Warren and Moya O'Connell's daughter Vivie Warren are two incendiary personalities who spark off each other in presenting the best cases for their respective choices. Even if you sometimes find Shaw windy or bombastic, this is the playwright at his most focused, smart, and relevant. Mrs. Warren's Profession continues at the Shaw's Festival Theatre through November 1.

In the introduction, I referred to J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls as "a mystery," but that is only for lack of a more accurate term. It is plenty mysterious, and the title inspector is investigating a death. But that death is a gruesome suicide rather than a murder, so no one is trying to identify the killer, at least not in the usual sense. Responsibility, though, is the point, in the sense of shared societal responsibility. Priestley's tightly constructed world sets up an allegory where the Businessman, the Consumer, the Do-Gooder and the Son of Privilege each serve as a signpost on the poor woman's road to ruin. Benedict Campbell plays the title Inspector with calm deliberation, assisting both the characters and the audience in understanding our common complicity in the economic structure we inhabit. The Inspector continues to call in the Festival Theatre through November 2.

Shaw said that his comedies were always aimed at the head, and that was rarely truer than with Getting Married. Written in 1908 as a critique of the draconian divorce laws in force at the time in Britain, the play remains a brilliant deconstruction of marriage and the romantic notions that underlie it. And in keeping with the seasonal theme, it coincidentally analyzes the economics of marriage with a foresight that wouldn't become common knowledge for decades. Originally scheduled to close on November 1, Getting Married has been extended at the Royal George Theatre through November 16.

When I was at the Shaw in late September, I was also lucky enough to see Lorne Kennedy's verbal acrobatics in Ferenc Molnar's The President, adapted by Morwyn Brebner. In this farce with an actual point, the industrial titan of the title makes over a socialist taxi driver into a clone of himself within the space of an hour. He also supplies the newly minted mogul with a set of scripted responses to a variety of questions, an eerie precursor to a certain vice presidential candidate you may have heard about.

Wonderful Town may be a Leonard Bernstein composition, but it's no West Side Story. Wonderful Town may have lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, but it's no Singin' in the Rain, either. One wants to root for it because the two savvy sisters at its center, Chilina Kennedy's enchanting Eileen and Lisa Horner's resourceful Ruth, happen to have emigrated from that quintessential Midwestern capital, Columbus, to the Big Apple. And it has one memorable song, Ohio (as in "Why-o why-o why-o, did I ever leave Ohio?"). But the choreography was lackluster and most of the other songs were forgettable. It's a moot point, though, because the runs of both Wonderful Town and The President have since ended.

In addition to the four plays still running, several lectures and backstage tours are on the schedule through November 2 at the Shaw. Nor is it too early to start planning a trip to the Shaw next year, when the earliest previews open on April 11, 2009.

Among the most exciting of the 2009 offerings will be the first professional productions since the 1935-1936 originals of the legendary Tonight at 8:30 cycle of 10 short plays by Nol Coward. Shaw himself will be represented by his 1939 In Good King Charles's Golden Days and the 1897 The Devil's Disciple. John Osborne's The Entertainer, written in 1957 for Laurence Olivier; Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten; Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday, the 1946 play that made Judy Holliday a star; and a new translation by Linda Gaboriau of the Canadian classic Albertine in Five Times by Michel Tremblay, are also on the playbill. Although music plays a large part in the Coward Cycle, the Shaw's big musical for 2009 will be Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's glorious Sunday in the Park with George.

The Shaw Festival offers many discounts and special offers, both for remaining 2008 performances and for next year's offerings. For more Shaw Festival information, call 1-800-511-7429 or check out its website at

Sadly, I was unable to get to the recently renamed Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, this year. Much more sadly, Richard Monette, the festival's artistic director from 1994 through 2007, passed away unexpectedly in September. There would be no better way to pay tribute to Monette's memory than to take in any of the remaining productions of the 2008 season or to attend the tribute to him on October 20.

Six productions are still running and one anticipates a brief run in November. Three Shakespeares are still on the boards: The Taming of the Shrew, through October 25; Hamlet, through October 26; Romeo and Juliet, through November 8. Christopher Plummer stars in Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, through November 9. Yes, you read that correctly, Shaw at the Shakespeare festival. Two musicals, Meredith Willson's The Music Man (through November 1), and John Kander and Fred Ebb's Cabaret (through October 25), continue to grace the stage of the intimate Avon Theatre in Stratford. Still to come, November 5-9, is the Deutsches Theater Berlin's production of Gotthold Lessing's Emilia Galotti, to be performed in German with projected English translations.

Stratford also has tours and events through the end of the season, as well as various discounts and special offers still available. Looking forward to the 2009 Stratford season, there will be three plays by the Bard himself -- Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Julius Caesar plus two musicals with Shakespearean sources: Bernstein's West Side Story (based on Romeo and Juliet) and Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (based on A Comedy of Errors). Bartholomew Fair by Shakespeare's contemporary Ben Jonson, Chekhov's The Three Sisters, Rostand's Cyrano De Bergerac and Jean Racine's Phedre are also on the schedule. Brian Bedford will direct Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, and will direct himself in Ever Yours, Oscar, a one-person show based on Wilde's letters. Stratford's tiny Studio Theatre will host an all-Canadian bill of The Trespassers, a world premiere written and directed by Morris Panych; Zastrozzi by George F. Walker; and Rice Boy by Sunil Kuruvilla. The 2009 season begins in mid-April, but you could begin thinking ahead.

For more Stratford Shakespeare Festival information, call 1-800-567-1600, or check out its website at

Either festival would make for a nice mini-vacation in the next few weeks. Because they lie about two hours apart in southern Ontario, an extended visit to both is not out of the question for anyone looking to see some of the best theatre in North America.