For 35 Years, Quaint Village Fetes George Bernard Shaw near Niagara Falls, Festival in Canada Attracts World's Theater Buffs, Vacationers

Article excerpt

As the red-brick clock tower on Queen Street strikes 8, hundreds of eager visitors file into three theaters in tiny Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. The Shaw Festival, now in its 35th year, serves up plays, musicals, and mysteries 40 times each week from April through October, celebrating the life, times, and legacies of George Bernard Shaw.

"We call them plays about the beginning of the modern world," explains festival artistic director Christopher Newton, who heads the venerable Canadian institution. Their mandate, he says, is to present the plays of Shaw (a total of 52) and those who wrote during his lifetime (1856-1950), encompassing "all the great plays of the modern world." He explains: "During that period, ideas took over from sensations."

Because the festival operates on a repertory system, with 11 plays operating on a rotating basis throughout its six-month season, visitors can see all the productions in a week.

This season's diverse choices include Shaw's "The Devil's Disciple" and "The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles," as well as Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband," the 1930s musical "Mr. Cinders," J.M. Barrie's "Shall We Join the Ladies?," and Agatha Christie's "The Hollow," all featuring Canada's top actors, designers, and directors.

Major productions, such as "Disciple" as well as "Hobson's Choice" and "Rashomon," are presented in the Festival Theatre, a sleek, modern structure with 861 seats, banked by outdoor garden, flagstone terrace, and lily pond.

Musicals and mysteries find their home at the Royal George Theatre, a turn-of-the-century, 328-seat house reminiscent of a more traditional era. Experimental, smaller, and more esoteric selections such as "Simpleton" and J.M. Synge's "The Playboy of the Western World" play at the Court House Theatre, its 328 seats set up each May within the confines of the town's courthouse banquet hall.

In all, nearly 300,000 audience members a year fill the venues for 733 performances. All three are located within blocks of one another, along the provincial town's beautifully manicured streets.

Stylistic spectrum

Each production remains true to its origins. "The Devil's Disciple" rings with its towering message of hypocrisy amid imposing wooden bastions from the 18th-century colonial wars of North America, capturing the isolation, irony, and greed Shaw laced throughout the text.

On the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum is "Rashomon," written by Fay and Michael Kanin, based on the stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa that inspired the acclaimed Akira Kurosawa film about feudal Japan 1,000 years ago. The powerful production pulls audiences into the surreal world of the imagined myth, combining original haunting music with a set that includes miles of red silk and a perilous hillside to weave its ambiguously lurid tale.

Bouncy production numbers, vivid costume, and wildly exaggerated acting heighten the fun of "Mr. Cinders," a role-reversing satire of the Cinderella fairy tale. The play is set in 1930s England, with Art Deco settees and tennis rackets as dance props.

And dinner jackets, teacups, and French doors abound in "The Hollow." The suspense is heightened by the design choice to present the Christie mystery in a black-and-white motif, accented sparingly with flashes of bold red.

All this theatrical activity, unique in its scope, has proven popular with audiences. Their support is evidenced by the festival's income breakdown: 72 percent of the festival's operating budget comes from ticket sales, with an average price of $31. And with another 19 percent contributed by corporate and private-sector sponsorship, only 9 percent is derived from government funding.

Its proximity to Niagara Falls, a 20-minute ride away, channels visitors to the festival by thousands, with roughly two-thirds coming from Canada, another one-third from the United States, and 1 percent from other countries. …