George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw offered a curious instruction to Lillah McCarthy, star of the first production of his metatheatrical comedy Fanny's First Play, which debuted anonymously at the author's request in 1911: "Do everything," Shaw said, "to suggest the play is by James M. Barrie." It's unlikely, however, that any amount of obfuscation could have hidden the author's identity from post-Edwardian playgoers. As the Shaw Festival's current production at Niagara-on-the-Lake amply illustrates, Fanny's First Play is pure G.B.S. Indeed, few of the author's works more successfully employ his signature blend of comedy and trenchant social commentary.

Fanny's First Play is one of 11 items currently being offered by the festival, now in its 40th season of producing works by Shaw alongside plays written or set during his lifetime. Located just north of Niagara Falls, Ontario, in the heart of Canada's wine country, the festival is a short drive from either Buffalo or Toronto.

In the prologue to Fanny's First Play, we meet four eminent drama critics who have been summoned by the eccentric nobleman Count O'Dowda (David Schurmann) to witness a play written by his Cambridge-educated daughter Fanny (Severn Thompson), who professes, "It's all that the young can do for the old, to shock them and keep them up to date." The play-within-a-play, presented to the critics anonymously, centers on the hypocrisies of middle-class morality as they relate to the "new woman": Margaret Knox (also played by Thompson) and Bobby Gilbey (Matthew Edison), destined for marriage since childhood, go on independent sprees and are jailed for assault, jolting their respective families out of their complacency.

Severn Thompson and David Schurmannin Fanny's First Play(Photo: David Cooper)
Severn Thompson and David Schurmann
in Fanny's First Play
(Photo: David Cooper)
Afterwards, the critics argue the question of authorship--with Granville Barker, Barrie, Pinero, and Shaw himself suggested as possible candidates--until finally Fanny admits her handiwork. Thompson does nicely in double duty as Fanny and Margaret, and director Todd Hammond's briskly paced, finely nuanced, oftentimes hilarious production serves as a reminder as to why Shaw's self-described "potboiler" proved to be his greatest commercial success. (The original London run set a Shavian record of 622 performances.)

If the festival's presentation of The Millionairess is somewhat less successful, that has more to do with the play itself than with Allen MacInnis' stylish and earnestly acted production. Written in 1934, when Shaw was in his late 70s, the play was originally conceived as a vehicle for Edith Evans--but she declined the leading role. (Katharine Hepburn later acted the part in London and New York). Although worthy of an occasional revival, the work is far from Shaw's best. Sarah Orenstein delivers a resolute performance as the self-centered Epifania di Parerga, daughter of one of the world's wealthiest men, who ultimately falls for an Egyptian Muslim doctor practicing among London's poor.

Shaw could only have spoken in jest when he told Lillah McCarthy to suggest that Fanny's First Play was by Barrie, a fact underscored by the festival's first-rate production of Barrie's most enduring creation, Peter Pan. First produced in 1904, the play has enjoyed regular revivals ever since, many with star actresses such as Maude Adams in America, Pauline Chase and Jean Forbes-Robertson in England, and Mary Martin in a famous Broadway musical adaptation. Barrie's trademark whimsicality is much in evidence in festival artistic director Christopher Newton's production, although there are hints of the play's darker undercurrent: the fear of aging, the often fragile bonds between parents and children, the Freudian and Jungian resonances. Eschewing tradition, Newton cast a young actor, Dylan Trowbridge, in the title role. Though Trowbridge at times suggests adolescent angst rather than eternal boyhood, he brings a punk sensibility and an innate sense of rebellion that seem right for the part. Jim Mezon, a festival regular, does a nice double turn as Mr. Darling and Captain Hook, and the flying effects are pure theatrical magic.

Michael Ball as Sheridan Whitesidein The Man Who Came to Dinner(Photo: David Cooper)
Michael Ball as Sheridan Whiteside
in The Man Who Came to Dinner
(Photo: David Cooper)
George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's 1939 farce The Man Who Came To Dinner contains dozens of topical references, yet its characters and situations remain startlingly fresh; the play has lost none of its hilarity. Neil Munro directs the festival's revival with a sure sense of comic timing and pace. The protagonist, Sheridan Whiteside, is famously based on Alexander Woollcott who, during the 1920s and '30s was one of America's most acerbic drama critics and a noted Algonquin Round Table wit. As Whiteside, marooned in a wheelchair in a middle-class home in a small Ohio town after breaking his hip, Michael Ball gives a masterful performance, whether accepting a flurry of gifts from eminent friends (Admiral Byrd sends several penguins, which wander about through the remainder of the play) or dictating the goings-on of the household. Several of those eminent friends make personal appearances: Patrick R. Brown as Beverly Carlton (a thinly disguised version of Noël Coward) and Simon Bradbury as Banjo (a character based on Woollcott's friend Harpo Marx) deliver memorable comic turns, as does Mary Haney as the host family's resident eccentric.

The festival also offers a 45-minute lunchtime treat in Noël Coward's Shadow Play, one of nine pieces that comprised Coward's Tonight at 8:30, a 1936 evening of one-acts performed in rotating repertory. Remarkable care has been lavished upon this revival of a mini-musical that explores many of the same themes as Private Lives. The staging gives playgoers the opportunity to see the same Patrick R. Brown who takes on the Coward-based part in The Man Who Came To Dinner in a role that the playwright wrote for himself and performed in the original production.

Other attractions at the Shaw Festival this season include Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters In Search of an Author, William Inge's Picnic, St. John Hankin's The Return of the Prodigal, Frank Vosper and Agatha Christie's Love From A Stranger, Vera Caspary and George Sklar's 1940s murder mystery Laura, and Rupert Holmes' musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The festival season runs through November 25.

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[For more information and/or ticket reservations, visit the website www.shawfest.com]