Summer is a busy time, in my line of work. But, most years, there is a small period of time between the end of the summer plays, concerts, and other arts presentations, and the beginning of the fall season.
During that precious break, I always try to pack in visits to the great Canadian theater festivals. This past week, we found our way up to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, for some challenging and brilliantly-presented theater which just lighted a bonfire in our imaginations.
This week, I'd like to share with you some perceptions from the Shaw Festival. The festival and its four fine theatrical venues is only a short drive away. You can go and come back in the same day, or you can stay to enjoy anything from a luxury hotel to a charming bed and breakfast, and more attractions that you might imagine, from some of the finest gardening in the world, to rides up the Niagara River in high speed boats, to winery visits to sample the product and see how it is made, to exotic shopping, to hiking and/or biking, along the spectacular Niagara Gorge, to romantic rides through the moonlit streets in a carriage, behind a flower-bedecked horse.
The cast of ``Serious Money' turns a day of trading in the commodities market into an elaborate song and dance.
Let's share the four remarkable pieces of theater which my wife and I enjoyed recently. If you want to learn more about either the plays at the Shaw Festival, which will continue through early November, or the joys of visiting in Niagara-on-the-Lake, you can do so by taking your computer to www.shawfest.com, or by phoning (800) 511-SHAW.
JOHN BULL'S OTHER ISLAND
I was surprised by how many people I've met who didn't know that John Bull is a characterization of an Englishman, the way Uncle Sam is a characterization of an American. Although he is sometimes used to represent all of the United Kingdom, the Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish very much prefer not to be included.
This play is by George Bernard Shaw himself, the festival's patron figure. An Englishman's island is, of course, Great Britain. The ''other island'' is Ireland.
Like the other great playwright of Victorian Britain, Oscar Wilde, Shaw was born and raised in Ireland. ''John Bull's Other Island'' is his only play in which he reflected for the entire length of a play, on his Irish past.
For nearly a thousand years, the government of England recognized that the easiest place from which an enemy could attack England was to do it from Ireland. As early as the 11th Century, English kings began dominating their neighboring island, against its will, considering their conquest an act of self-defense. Even today, when air travel and other technical advances make invasion from other locations just as easy as from Ireland, the British government holds control of the northeastern corner of Ireland.
In this play, John Bull is represented by one Tom Broadbent. He is a bluff, energetic Englishman, utterly middle class, who is completely bewitched by the romantic concepts of Ireland - the shamrocks and the harp music and the leprechauns.
Broadbent has formed a syndicate which plans to acquire a large tract of land in Roscullen, Ireland, and to build a tourist hotel and a golf course there. His business partner is one Larry Doyle, an Irishman who has moved to England and who feels nothing but dismay that his countrymen are so caught up in petty disputes and squabbles that they allow the English to milk them of everything of value that they own.
The two go to Ireland, accompanied by Broadbent's valet, Hodson. When they get there, Broadbent blunders about, laughing at himself as loudly as the locals are laughing at him, and ingratiates himself so effectively that they decide he is no threat. They nominate him for election to parliament, and borrow generous sums of money from him, somehow failing to recognize that they have borrowed more than their land is worth, so they will never be able to repay the loans, and he will be evicting them from their homes, legally and easily.
Benedict Campbell is utterly charming as the devious Broadbent. Even when he repeatedly tells people what he's up to, we in the audience could only find him likeable and funny.
Graeme Somerville had a much less showy role as the discouraged Irishman, Doyle, but he demonstrated well the frustration of a prophet who sees and speaks the truth but cannot make himself believed. It was one of those performances which was necessary for the success of the play, yet seemed minor and unimportant.
David Schurmann, as the valet, Hodson, was the author's mouthpiece, in the play. Many people find Shaw's writing to be preachy and overly wordy, but he has some important truths to speak, and he does it often with great charm.
When Ric Reid as the Irish Matthew Haffigan launched into his usual rant about how cruelly and unfairly he had been treated, Schurmann reaches his character's boiling point, and in a torrent of words that seemed impossible to his ''stiff upper lip'' demeanor up to that time, he describes the facts of his own life. The British government may have mistreated and bullied the Irish, but they have mistreated and bullied the majority of their own people with just as much relish, so the sooner the Irish stop weeping into their beer and look out for themselves, the better off they'll be, he suggests.
Director Christopher Newton shows a mastery of the light hand and the deep understanding, and presents a very entertaining evening, without skimping on the social, political, religious, cultural, and other satires which are heavily layered throughout the play.
They say King Edward VII attended a performance of the play and laughed so hard he broke his chair, either failing to notice the way his own government was villainized, or enjoying it all the same.
William Schmuck is the designer of this production. At times he is a bit cute, such as the business desk which is taken apart and becomes a set of luggage, he makes clear the beauty of the natural setting of the play and the tragedy of making that beauty into a golf course.
AGE OF AROUSAL
A few years ago, the festival opened up its mandate. For most of its history, it could only perform plays which were written during the life of Shaw. Now, they can do plays from more modern years which deal with the lifetime of the great writer.
''Age of Arousal'' by Linda Griffiths, is a recently-written play, dealing with the early days of the women's movement. For most of history, women were culturally shackled to men. They usually couldn't own property. They couldn't get jobs. In the Victorian England of the play, women could be teachers or governesses, or they could be prostitutes, or they could work in factories and farm fields. If those choices didn't satisfy, they could marry and obey their husbands - by law - or they could try to get a brother or a nephew to keep them in the back bedroom, as a necessary burden. It wasn't a pretty menu of possibilities.
The central character of this play is Mary Barfoot. She is a woman who has inherited wealth, and is spending it by teaching women to use the newly invented typewriter. With the demands upon the male gender to man the armies which were invading much of the world's surface, women such as Mary are slowly elbowing their way into secretarial and other clerical jobs, which gives them some hope of independence.
The play is controversial. Mary has a young female lover, Rhoda Nunn, who she sees as the person who will carry her torch on into the next generation, and as the play progresses, we see Mary come to terms with the fact that the very individuality which she seeks for women will make Rhoda pursue her own goals, rather than Mary's goals.
The only man in the play is Mary's nephew, who has been trained as a doctor, but who has inherited enough money that he doesn't have to work at it. Gray Powell does a fine job of portraying a sensitive man without seeming to be a weak one. The degree to which even he is a product of the unliberated period into which he is born teaches much about the task ahead of the women.
Donna Belleville is one of the festival's most gifted actresses, although her physical realities have often pushed her into the role of the dotty aunt, the sighing mother, etc. Here she gets a strong and dynamic part, and she does wonders with it.
Director Jackie Maxwell has sorted out the play's elements very effectively. There are elements which could be shocking, but she doesn't get excited for the audience. She presents the facts as one might encounter them if one were really there. I've read such negative reviews of other productions, I worried that this one would be dull or contrived, but that was never true.
She keeps the performance entertaining and educational, and doesn't preach at us or make events outsized and unnatural.
The play has a strong cast and wonderful production values. Whether it's for you, is something for you to decide.
For many years, the festival has operated three theaters, simultaneously. Last year, they added a fourth. The Studio Theatre is small, and the audience sits on all sides of the action, making all but the slightest scenery impossible.
The lower costs makes it possible to perform more challenging and unusual plays which might not fill the larger theaters.
This year, the festival is presenting Caryl Churchill's challenging play ''Serious Money.'' It's one of those plays that one leaves, wishing one could see it done two or three more times, so that one could sort out all the ideas and events which have been dealt throughout the performances.
Not everyone will like it. Like real life, things move incredibly fast, and nobody stops and explains what they're really trying to accomplish or the real reasons for what they've done.
The play was written in 1987, and is motivated by what was called the Big Bang in the London Commodities Market. In 1986, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher deregulated the market. The result was a rush by middle class businessmen to buy and sell in a system in which profit was no longer made by successful production of a product, but by convincing possible buyers that something one owned was worth more than one had paid for it, and whether the thing being sold even existed or not, didn't matter in the least.
The central events of the play surround the finding of a young man, shot to death. Officially a suicide, his death is suspicious. He sister begins to investigate who might have murdered him, although she is quickly sidetracked into trying to find where he had hidden the huge sums of serious money which everyone tells her he was making.
One of the most unusual elements of the play is that it is written in rhyming couplets, although the cast speaks so naturally and effectively that there is never a da-dum, da-dum quality, like someone reading a cheap greeting card. The rhythm and rhyme, perfectly spell out the artificiality of the entire lifestyle of the movers and shakers of the cast.
The central characters lie, cheat, steal, betray one another, and as the first act draws to a climax, the traders on the commodity floor throw themselves into a song and dance, so intricate and rhythmic, it has almost the effect on the audience of a primitive, pagan ceremony. It's stunning.
Director Eda Holmes has given the whole thing a theatrical quality which delighted the experienced theatregoer, but left the literal thinkers behind in the dust. The scene at a horseback hunt, performed with the actors playing both riders and horses, was a showstopper.