NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONT. - Theater at the Shaw Festival is among the finest theater in the world, performing theater pieces written during the long life of its patron, George Bernard Shaw. That would be approximately from 1850 to 1950.
The festival is now at it's peak period of operation, and it's only a bit more than two hours' drive from Jamestown, and closer to Dunkirk. After Labor Day, the number of performances will gradually be reduced until the season ends, in early November.
As have many things in the world, the Shaw Festival has been bruised by the economic slowdown of the past two years. Compared to last season's 11 productions, they're presenting only eight this year, but the jaw-dropping sets, perfect costumes, and world class acting are still there, to stimulate your thinking and challenge your heart, in a way few other places can hope to achieve.
Lady Lillian is prepared to flee from her stuffy husband and run away to Egypt with adventurer Hugh Paton, but life has a surprise for her, in J.M. Barrie's play ``Half an Hour.' Diana Donnelly and Gord Rand are the actors.
My wife and I saw five plays in two days at the festival, this year. Let me tell you a bit about how to get there, and then share my thoughts on the five productions we witnessed:
It's possible to leave in the morning, see one or two plays at Shaw Festival, and return the same evening - around midnight, if you attend an evening performance. It's a reasonable feat, although there is so much to do in Niagara-on-the-Lake, it's a shame to spend so little time there.
For decades, I've recommended driving east on I-90, to the intersection of I-290. Then, go west on I-290 to the intersection of I-190. Take it north, across the Grand Island Bridges and straight to the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge. Enter Canada, and once admitted, take the first exit and follow the signs to Niagara-on-the-Lake.
I usually caution that readers note the difference between Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake, because they are different places, and you want to arrive at the one you want.
Typically, it has taken a few minutes more than two hours of driving to get there. These days, it's wise to allow some more time for the border crossing, and more for possible traffic problems. This year, we encountered a stalled vehicle which closed the Grand Island Bridges for a very long period of time, and nearly made us late to our first performance, so you might want to consider getting off I-90 at the exit for I-190, then following signs for the Peace Bridge. Once admitted to Canada, follow the Queen Elizabeth Way, or QEW, toward Toronto, until you see the exit for Niagara-on-the-Lake. It's a bit more driving, but less prone to traffic back-ups.
The festival operates three, good-sized theaters. In peak season, each of them presents a 2 p.m. matinee and an 8 p.m. evening performance, every day but Monday. Each year, one of the theaters operates an additional ''Lunch Time Performance,'' which is a one-act play, somewhat less expensive than the big productions, which makes it possible to see three performances in a single day, if you're up to that.
If you're interested, you can obtain a schedule of what performances are offered when, by phoning (800) 511-7429, or go by computer to www.shawfest.com. You can order tickets with either of those methods, as well.
If you're able to stay over and spend more time in the area, there are a number of ways to go about it. The Chamber of Commerce, for a small fee, will book you into available hotel rooms or bed and breakfast houses. Their phone number is (888) 619-5981.
There are a number of luxury hotels in the small community, and many of the bed and breakfast places are on the posh side, but the bookers are surprisingly willing to go after the best price or the desired features, to the best of their ability.
Just a few of the things which are available in addition to fantastic plays, are winery tours, golf, spa treatments, shopping, horse-drawn carriages, displays of gardening which will knock your socks off, hiking, historic architecture, and an all-summer music festival, in which performances of all kinds of music take place, both in free, public venues, and in performances spaces, for a fee.
We've been going for more than 30 years, and it's always a highlight of our summer. Just remember, to return from Canada, our country now demands that you have a valid passport, an extended driver's license, or one of a few acceptable forms of identification. Canada usually won't admit you without the form of I.D., either, because if the U.S. won't let you back in, they're stuck with you, so be sure you have a legal I.D. before you go.
Now, let me tell you about the plays.
AN IDEAL HUSBAND
Playwright Oscar Wilde, the world knows, was far from an ideal husband, but he wrote a play which suggests that perhaps women are better off not having one.
The plot of ''An Ideal Husband,'' which plays at the Festival Theatre through the end of October, concerns a British politician, Sir Robert Chiltern, who appears in every way to be such a husband. His reputation is flawless. He is respected by both parties, and by the public. There is no blot on his reputation, and his wife, Lady Gertrude, respects him for exactly that.
Then, one evening, there comes to their home, as a party guest, a beautiful woman named Mrs. Cheveley. She happens to have evidence that once, when he was just beginning his career, the noble Sir Robert shared some information which was supposed to be secret. The substantial profit from that one indiscretion, was the basis of his fortune, which has made him immune to later bribes and temptations.
She wants his influence for her profit, in government contracts, or she will ruin his reputation and career.
Sir Robert has a close personal friend, Viscount Goring, who undertakes by means honest and otherwise, to silence the inconvenient lady.
The noble thing to do would be for Sir Robert to resign, and to retire in disgrace. Does Lady Gertrude want him to do the right thing, or is she perhaps more flexible than she thought, when the play began.
Patrick Galligan is a strong and well-spoken artist as Sir Robert, and Steven Sutcliffe clearly has a wonderful time as the questionable viscount.
Moya O'Connell is wonderfully seductive and sinuous as the nefarious Mrs. Cheveley, and Catherine McGregor makes the starchy Gertrude more believable than many actresses could accomplish in today's day and age.
Jackie Maxwell directs with a clear focus and movement, almost like an elegant dance. Designer Judith Bowden uses just enough exaggeration to drown the audience in the atmosphere of the 1890s, when the action takes place. It was a period of too much everything, including too much self-righteousness, and she makes the audience live in that situation.
The strong point of the play are the author's witty words and mind-challenging morals. You won't see any car chases.
When Clare Boothe Luce wrote her play ''The Women,'' men spent their time in businesses and in clubs for men only, while women spent their time keeping their houses and in ladies only organizations, and the twain intersected only in the rarest circumstances.
Ms. Luce thought that both men and women tended to idealize the natures and the activities of women, and she wrote her play to demonstrate that women's lives were every bit as competitive and cut throat as men's were. They were just better at seeming sweeter, while they did it, she suggests.
When the curtain rises, Nancy Blake is entertaining a few of her female friends. Whenever she leaves the room, they boil over with gossip about the fact that Nancy's husband is seeing ''a blonde,'' named Crystal Allen.
It turns out that Nancy is aware of her husband's activities, but she has resolved to keep her home together. The girls, especially Sylvia Fowler, are dead set into pushing Nancy into a divorce.
As the central women wend their way through activities such as luncheons in tea rooms and shopping in high-end department stores, and especially at the beauty parlor, they demonstrate how women were expected to live in the early 1930s, and how they really lived.
Once again, the sets and costumes, by William Schmuck, are the tools which director Alisa Palmer uses to show us a different time and world, and to remind us that elements of that time are underlying all kinds of domestic and cultural situations in our own time. The entire production is visually dazzling.
Jenny Young was strong and made us care about Nancy, while Deborah Hay created a female Iago as the determined Sylvia.
Moya O'Connell was once again seductive and appealing as the other woman, while Wendy Thatcher provided both comic relief and a heart-rending portrayal of the Countess de Lage, a woman whose great wealth has brought her everything she ever wanted in life, and now she doesn't want it.
You have to care about what women are like and what they could be like to enjoy this play, but if you do care, it will please you greatly. It's being performed at the Festival Theatre.
HALF AN HOUR
If you know playwright J. M. Barrie only for his masterpiece - ''Peter Pan'' - you might be quite startled by his play ''Half an Hour.''
The play is this year's one-act, Lunch Time Special, taking place at the Royal George Theatre.
Central characters are stuffy, gruff Richard Garson and his disaffected wife, Lady Lillian. Also, there is an Indiana Jones-like adventurer named Hugh Paton, who has fallen for the wife and wants her to run away with him to Egypt, where they can live together, away from the scorning tongues and rigid rules of Victorian England.
At the opening, Lillian decides to make the move. She writes Richard a note, puts her emeralds and her wedding rings into the envelope, and puts them all into the drawer of his desk, then she rushes off to join the dashing Hugh.
And then, as it so often does in real life, something happens which destroys her plans. She quickly weighs her reasonable options, and decides that her best bet is to get home, destroy the note, and to host the dinner party her husband has planned, before he learns of her flight.
She needs to get home, reclaim the note, dress elegantly, fix her hair and make up, and somehow convince the only witness to her recklessness, to hold his tongue. And she realizes that she will have to do it all within 30 minutes, while appearing calm.
I thought director Gina Wilkinson made Lady Lillian more sympathetic than the playwright had in mind. Casting lovely Diana Donnelly in the role, automatically made us sympathetic. Her negative qualities, of which there were several, received a soft pedal.
Peter Krantz was most effective as the disagreeable Richard, showing us in a hundred subtle ways what a barren existence it would be, to be under his control.
Strong-faced Gord Rand was an appealing adventurer, not traditionally good looking, but possessed of an energy and a dynamism which made him seem likely to sweep a woman off her feet and onto a boat on the Nile.
Designer Tyler Sainsbury produced the stylish drawing room which was Lillian's prison, and contrasted it by making the adventurer's living quarters resemble a tent on an exotic safari, which considering that it was an apartment in London, called for a bit of a leap of faith.
It's an entertaining hour, both rife with the practices of an earlier day, yet retaining much to be aware of in our present world.