Niagara Gazette

April 10, 2014

Shaw Fest players get their acts together

By Doug Smith pollyndoug@hotmail.com
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — NIAGARA ON THE LAKE, Ont. — Summer theaters have spring training, too, and the Shaw Festival threw out its first pitch last Friday afternoon.

It’s called a preview and just like in the Grapefruit League, the scores don’t count. Critics have to pose as normal human beings and there’s even more intermingling of fans and players, such as Norman Browning picking up groceries he forgot at Valu-Mart before donning the garb of Major Paul.

And it’s interactive. Audience response will help guide directors and other staff. “Arms & the Man” costumier Charlotte Dean sat right alongside in the front row of the Royal George balcony, eagerly inputting observations. That’s another thing. Good seats are consistently available, at fetching rates.

Reviews at this stage are absolutely forbidden, so one may not report that “Arms” was absolutely charming (though it was) or that director Morris Panych brought it home in less than two hours, untypical for the notoriously verbose playwright George Bernard Shaw.

It could have, anyway. At intermission stagehands scurried about with flashlights as if searching for Flight 370. At last Director Panych himself appeared, apologizing that a technical glitch was impeding the rotation. “If we can’t get it turned, we’ll just play without it,” he promised.

Five minutes later the contraption took its cue, to the biggest applause of the day. It was amusing to think that a week earlier, Niagara Regional Theater Guild, with a set budget of $10 US, had spun its own “Damn Yankees” set without so much as a darn. Every “Arms” attendee came out smiling into an April shower. Spring was here and so was sustenance. At this time of year, the restaurants are so quiet that the maître d’s have their hands in their own pockets.

Jackie Maxwell, Festival artistic director since 2003, has begun what Derek Jeter or Mariano Riviera might call a victory lap, or laps, moving on after a tenure typical for the trade. She’s on the committee to see seek her successor. In her 11 years the Festival has broadened its horizons and thrived, despite a declining economy and tighter security at international borders. Last year’s resplendent “Guys & Dolls” held over to mid-November.

“Cabaret” goes into previews at the Festival’s large theater this afternoon (2 p.m., still available). Then come “The Charity That Began at Home” in the Court House where the festival was born in 1963, and “When We Are Married” in the Royal George May 7.

Later openings include works by Tennessee Williams, Sean O’Casey, the romantic comedy “Philadelphia Story” (precursor to “High Society”) and the monumental “The Mountaintop,” focusing on the late Dr. Martin Luther King. Hundreds of thousands of walkers, gawkers, hawkers and lovers of live, extravagant theater will test the town until at least Oct. 26.

For now, though, the Shaw Festival is at its laid-back finest, not always flawless, but always fun.

Doug Smith began covering theater in 1968, and baseball 20 years before that. Signal back at pollyndoug@hotmail.com.