Shaw, Wilde Debunk Doctors, Politicians in Niagara: John Simon

Canada’s Niagara-on-the-Lake is a charming, flower-bedecked, lakeside town whose crowning summer- and-fall Shaw Festival is a mostly brilliant event presenting 10 shows.

The actors and directors (sometimes also designers) often come for several seasons and are always distinguished. The performers play in two disparate offerings, which proves stimulating both for them and us. Especially impressive is the fine acting in even minor parts.

“The Doctor’s Dilemma” has two themes: spoofing doctors, and which to save of two tubercular patients when there is only medication enough for one. One is a gifted but amoral and irresponsible painter; the other a decent but plodding medico.

Morris Panych’s production is excellent as both spoof and debate, with nine particularly fine performances, especially by five very diverse physicians. Ken MacDonald’s somewhat surreal sets add specious, but not unwelcome originality.

“John Bull’s Other Island” is minor Shaw, concerning Anglo-Irish relations as of 1904, on both a personal and larger, political level. The main characters are partners in a civil engineering firm, one a typical Englishman, the other an ambivalent Irishman. Their interaction with various native types on an Irish project is not unamusing but also somewhat dated.

Biggest Laugh

Well supported, Benedict Campbell and Graeme Somerville shine in the leads under Christopher Newton’s apt direction. One of the biggest laughs is elicited by the line, spoken by a priest, “The Church has no politics.”

“An Ideal Husband,” by that other Anglo-Irishman, Oscar Wilde, received a very nearly ideal production. Here too personal and political interests clash, as the rising politician Sir Robert Chiltern (Patrick Galligan) finds both his career and his marriage to puritanical Lady Gertrude (Catherine McGregor) threatened by an old, incriminating letter in the possession of Mrs. Cheveley (Moya O’Connell), a former mistress turned international adventuress, proposing to blackmail him.

Splendidly paradoxical Wildean epigrams proliferate, with Steven Sutcliffe, Lorne Kennedy and Marla McLean especially amusing in strong supporting performances. Judith Bowden’s sets and extravagant costumes are almost too whimsical, but under the guiding hand of Jackie Maxwell, the Festival’s artistic director, it all combines to amusing effect.

‘One Touch of Venus’

The festival does more than well by “One Touch of Venus,” the 1943 musical by Kurt Weill, Ogden Nash and S.J. Perelman, with a wittily naughty book and gorgeous songs such as “Speak Low,” “West Wind,” “Foolish Heart” “That’s Him” and several others providing absorbing humor and melody.

It is the story of a statue of Venus coming to life to pursue a much-contested love affair with Rodney Hatch, a naive and already engaged barber.

Weill’s orchestrations for 28 musicians are cleverly boiled down to 10, although the sound is somewhat tinny and overwhelming. Period references are handled by the program’s glossary, and under Eda Holmes’s direction there are capital performances by Robin Evan Willis (Venus), Kyle Blair (Hatch), Mark Uhre (comic villain) Deborah Hay (tough secretary) and Julie Martell (Venus-imperiled fiancee). Smart scenery (Camellia Koo), cheeky costumes (Michael Gianfrancesco) and droll choreography add to the pleasures.

Smug Husband

Equally delicious is a comic one-acter in the Lunchtime Series, J.M. Barrie’s proto-feminist “Half an Hour.” An upper- class lady leaves her frustrating marriage to a smug husband for a romantic lover, with everything going wildly awry. Diana Donnelly and Peter Krantz excel as the mismatched couple; Gord Rand is the lover who comes to a sticky end, and Michael Ball is the subtly humorous narrator-compere. Gina Wilkinson directed amid Tyler Sainsbury’s sassy designs, leaving us wishing only that the play were longer.

Much longer and far drearier feminism preoccupies “Age of Arousal,” by the Canadian actress-playwright Linda Griffiths. Very loosely based on a superior novel by George Gissing, with added lesbianism and anachronistic suffragetism, it is the story of how the invention of the typewriter created secretarial jobs, contributing, in this case, to five women’s emancipation.

Its striving for innovation with “thoughtspeak” -- the confusing intermingling of characters’ thoughts with their dialogue -- only allows the play to fall doubly flat, what with the would-be poetic language particularly annoying. Good performances, especially by Sharry Flett and Kelli Fox, and stylized direction by Jackie Maxwell, offer scant help.

‘Cherry’ Jam

Another fiasco is Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” poorly adapted (mostly cut) by the Irish playwright Tom Murphy and haplessly directed by the young Irish director Jason Byrne.

Atypically dreary sets and spectacular miscasting do further damage. Benedict Campbell’s Lopakhin tries to be crudely Russian with mixed success, but Jim Mezon’s lumbering Gayev, Laurie Paton’s colorless Ranevskaya, and Gord Rand’s blustering and guffawing Trofimov are particularly damaging, as is the funereal tempo.

Five winners out of the seven shows I caught, further enhanced by the town’s enchanting surroundings, are hardly to be scoffed at.

The Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada, runs through Nov. 14. Information: +1-800-511-7429; http://www.shawfest.com.

The Pillar and Post Inn, slightly beyond the center’s bustle, offers roomy accommodations, expert personnel, a swimming pool with cozy patio and a generous menu. Information: 48 John St. West; +1-905-468-2123; http://vintage-hotels.com

Among the town’s many fine restaurants, my favorite is the Charles Inn, with its Old World charm, exquisite cuisine and gracious service. Information: 209 Queen St.; +1-905-468-4588; http://www.charlesinn.ca

(John Simon is the New York drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: John Simon in New York at jis1925@aol.com.

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