Severn Thompson and Benedict Campbell
in John Bull's Other Island
(© Emily Cooper)
Severn Thompson and Benedict Campbell
in John Bull's Other Island
(© Emily Cooper)
The annual Shaw Festival, which takes place in the quaint, bucolic town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, offers the kind of theatergoing experience that is virtually extinct anywhere else. The Festival, which runs through October 31, offers 10 shows in actual, honest-to-God repertory -- using an ensemble of actors, all of whom work on multiple productions, allowing theatergoers to see their breadth of work in a single day or a single week.

If the Festival suffers from one misconception, it's that some would-be-theatergoers believe it's all George Bernard Shaw, all the time. But little could be further from the truth. Only two of this year's current selections were written by the great Irish dramatist, with the remainder of the offerings ranging from Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard to Mary Chase's Harvey to Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband. (There's also a brief run of Caryl Churchill's Serious Money through mid-September.)

Interestingly as well, this year, festival artistic director Jackie Maxwell has eschewed Shaw's best-known plays in lieu of two lesser-known works, The Doctor's Dilemma and John Bull's Other Island. And coming to Canada just to see the latter work can be advised, primarily because it's so rarely produced in America. (The last Broadway production was in the 1940s.) Admittedly, the play is not top-shelf Shaw, with a plot that meanders off in sometimes unfocused directions. And its myriad comments on the differing natures of the Irish and the English, while presented with the usual Shavian wit and on-target observations on human nature, may have little resonance for Americans. Still, there are plenty of laughs to be had and thoughts to be pondered.

Fortunately, director Christopher Newton -- who makes fine use of the Court House Theatre's three-quarter stage -- has employed a first-rate cast to illuminate the voluminous text. First and foremost is Shaw stalwart Benedict Campbell, who is perfect as Tom Broadbent, a pompouser-than-thou British engineer and land developer who comes to a small Irish town, ends up with a fiancee (the fine Severn Thompson as the flinty Nora Reilly) and the likelihood of a seat in Parliament, yet gains not an extra ounce of self-knowledge.

Robin Evan Willis and Kyle Blair in One Touch of Venus
(© David Cooper)
Robin Evan Willis and Kyle Blair in One Touch of Venus
(© David Cooper)
He's well abetted by Graeme Sommerville as his too-serious business partner, Larry Doyle; David Schurmann as Broadbent's straight-talking valet Hodson; and, especially, Jim Mezon (who previously directed the play at Shaw), who gives a virtuoso turn as Peter Keegan, a self-proclaimed "mad man" and former priest who is, naturally, the play's wisest character.

Those looking for far less demanding intellectual fare might head to the Royal George Theatre for the festival's one musical offering: One Touch of Venus, the decidedly odd concoction from the unlikely team of Kurt Weill, Ogden Nash, and S.J. Perelman. The goofier-than-goofy plot has a stolen statue of Venus (Robin Evan Willis) suddenly spring to life, wreaking temporary havoc on the lives of milquetoast barber Rodney Hatch (Kyle Blair), his shrewish fiancee Gloria Kramer (Julie Martell), and a dandyish art collector (Mark Uhre), among others.

Eda Holmes' production is too broad by half, especially in such an intimate theater. Still, it's a pleasure to hear Weill's melodies and Nash's clever lyrics, including the show-stopping "That's Him" and the standard "Speak Low." It's equally delightful to watch Michael Lichtfeld's snappy choreography, take in the accomplished work of both Blair (reminiscent of Ray Bolger) and the Hollywood-handsome Uhre, and, above all, ultimately succumb to the charming-yet-brash Willis.

Jenny Young, Jenny L. Wright, Kelli Fox, and Deborah Hay
in The Women
(© Emily Cooper)
Jenny Young, Jenny L. Wright, Kelli Fox, and Deborah Hay
in The Women
(© Emily Cooper)
In many ways, the main attraction this season at Shaw is Alisa Palmer's production of Clare Booth Luce's bitchfest-cum-quipfest The Women at the Festival Theatre, extravagantly designed by William Schmuck in a way that puts most of Broadway to shame. (It's almost that rare non-musical where you actually leave humming the sets!)

Many of the performances are top-tier too, starting with Jenny Young giving a remarkably well-rounded performance as Mary Haines, the "noble" wife who practically hands over her husband to his tawdry mistress, shopgirl Crystal Allen (a nicely convincing Moya O'Connell). This may be the most sympathetic portrayal of this character I've seen on stage or film.

As her dear "friends," Deborah Hay lands firmly as the caustic Sylvia Fowler, Jenny L. Wright is a hoot-and-a-half as the perpetually pregnant Edith Potter, and Kelli Fox consistently impresses as tart-tongued novelist Nancy Blake. But the real scene stealers are Melanie Phillipson and Patty Jamieson, as Mary's maid Jane and cook Maggie respectively, who take a scene that is often handled as mere exposition and turn it into a three-minute acting class.