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No dilemma for the audience: a Shaw must-see

If you haven’t been to the Shaw Festival ever (or even in a while), it’s important to remember to GO. The festival basically takes over the entire town of Niagara-on-the-Lake from April to November each year.

And when you do go, multitasking is the name of the game; the 40-minute trip across the border is a wonderful chance to partake in so many high-quality, positive things that are available in addition to great theater.

After the border crossing, the drive, the beautiful town, the fields, farmstands, and wineries passed on the way, shopping is another gloriously available activity. The town’s merchants take full advantage of the theatrical tourism crowds, and do everything in their power to draw you in, with tantalizing smells, tastes, and sidewalk sales.

Restaurants— from delis to upscale eateries—check. Picturesque patios to sit and sip a cool beverage? Check. Easy-to-access bicycle rentals and even guided bicycle tours, check!

Oh yes, and theater. For our first outing of the year, we saw The Doctor’s Dilemma on the Shaw’s main stage, Festival Theatre. It was our first time in that structure, and the theater is a delight, with its considered interior courtyard, Wright-esque rooflines, and civilized layout. Comfortable seats, too.

The play, a festival mainstay (this is its fourth revival in the festival’s 48-year history), is a classic for reason (though it is not as relevant for contemporary audiences as the producers would like to have you think).

The doctor’s “dilemma” turns out to be whether Sir Colenso, a newly elevated peer and renowned researcher in his field, will treat a very sick, poor, yet highly manipulative artist, knowing that he, Sir Colenso, also covets the younger man’s lovely wife. Colenso would rather have the wife than cure the patient, hence his ethical quandary.

Rather than present us topics with which to identify, the piece comes across as a bit starchy. However, there is much else to recommend it. The production is gorgeously acted, set and staged. Every minute of the two-and-a-half hours (including intermission), remind you of what classic theatrical entertainment can be. From the moment the curtain rises on first act’s huge scrims depicting x-rays of the human body in gigantic frames, which symbolize the play’s supposed face-off between art and scientific application, production values  are the name of the game. The sets, by Ken McDonald, continue to stun with their outsized melding of aesthetic and intellectual modes of thinking.

Smart pacing, fun characters and interchanges, and two Rolling Stones songs oddly applied, engage you and keep you, if not highly intellectually challenged, deeply connected with the production.

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