Onstage / Shaw Festival start is a mixed bag

Sara Topham as Joan and Jim Mezon as the Inquisitor in Saint Joan

Photos by David Cooper, courtesy of the Shaw Festival


Saint Joan

By Bernard Shaw
Director: Tim Carroll
Starring: Sara Topham, Gray Powell


For the season opener, new Shaw Festival artistic director Tim Carroll chose Saint Joan, a play he’s long had his eye on, and one he felt apt to serve as his debut, both in direction of a Shaw play and the first play at the Shaw Festival, where Saint Joan heralds his debut solo season.


The story of fifteenth century military figure—and teenager—Saint Joan premiered in 1923, three years after Joan was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church (Shaw turns this information into one of the play’s funniest scenes in the play’s epilogue), and, indeed, the play speaks volumes about how much more useful difficult figures are post-death than in life, when their actions are problematic. Too, Shaw is invested in pointing to political structures and personal convictions as explanation for acting in good faith—even with bad judgment. In typical Shavian fashion, the characters expound at great length (the show runs two hours and forty-five minutes with intermission) about said beliefs.


And, as always, that is both the pleasure and pain of a Shaw play. Today’s audiences may yearn for character development, something more than mouthpiece dialogue, however eloquent, poetic, and well-acted (which it mostly is here). In the absence of such, it’s on the actors to convey any inner life, but the ability to provide this window is limited by the nature of the dialogue (the textual support granted by Shaw in the script for last season’s hit, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, no doubt accounts for its enduring appeal). This is most true of Joan, portrayed by Sara Topham (on loan from the Stratford Festival for both this and Middletown) who is tasked with simultaneously exuding intuition, innocence, inspiration, ignorance, intelligence; it’s tall order for any actress. We want to care about her, but that seemingly isn’t what Shaw had in mind.


In the absence of strong character development, Saint Joan finds its success in strong ideas, and, in this case, elaborate production values. Designed by Judith Bowden and lit by Kevin Lamotte, the set on which the characters stand (usually literally, in one spot) and espouse is geometric, spare, and dynamic. Oversized light boxes frequently create movement, drama, and metaphor, and creative collaboration between set and staging make the trial scene more visually dramatic than the page might suggest.


Described as a tragedy without villains, Saint Joan also finds its comic moments, in ways that at times feel strangely contemporary. But then, that remains Shaw’s greatest strength: the presentation of ideas and themes that are so timeless that one always needs to remember the plays are a century old.


Saint Joan runs through October 15 at the Festival Theatre, 10 Queen’s Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake (shawfest.com, 1-800-511-SHAW).


Tom McCamus as George III with the cast of The Madness of George III


The Madness of George III

By Alan Bennett
Director: Kevin Bennett
Starring: Tim McCamus

Upon entering the Royal George for opening night of The Madness of George III, there is a sense of familiarity: once again, as they did for Mrs. Warren’s Profession last season, the actors are interacting with audience members, performing the show in a “theater” within the theater. This time, there are even patrons onstage to amp up the immediacy. But, while Eda Holmes staged Mrs. Warren in a fictional men’s club that underscored both the history of the show’s production and its themes, this eighteenth century playhouse staging seems to serve only to provide easy foils for the antics about to ensue.


The best thing about The Madness of George III is its star, returned Shaw veteran Tim McCamus, whose humane and compelling command of the title role—and this is the King George of Hamilton, for those who might delight in that connection—not only manages to draw compassion for his condition amid the comic constructs around him, but also provides an anchor for a show that can’t seem to find its narrative footing. Act 1 can best be described as chaotic and over-concerned with seeking laughs at the expense of clarity that could have aided the production. Perhaps repeated viewings would assist in providing that, but the goal for any production probably shouldn’t be making audiences struggle to track the happenings onstage. 


That said, part of the problem may be that the narrative is at the same time very simple: the king experiences the first of what will become serial bouts of mental illness, his son preps himself for the throne, and various doctors seek to cure him before he seemingly recovers over the course of two hours and forty-five minutes—we end very nearly where we began; so much for drama and journey.  But because of the aforementioned chaos, it takes a while to recognize that this is simple story overly adorned with farcical window dressing. To be fair, the generous guffaws from the opening night audience indicate that either a) the actors had a lot of friends in the seats or b) a parade of various urine and stool samples found its target audience. If b) is not your thing—there’s no wrong answer—there are plenty of dramatic offerings to choose from this season.  And, again, McCamus’s tour-de-force—this truly is a showcase play, if nothing else—as he inhabits the king and his illness with just the right amount of pragmatism and humor might be reason enough to see The Madness of George III.


The Madness of George III runs through October 15 at Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake (shawfest.com, 1-800-511-SHAW).


Jonah McIntosh with the cast of 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt


1837: The Farmers’ Revolt

By Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Muraille
Director: Philip Akin
Starring: Donna Belleville, Sharry Flett, Jonah McIntosh, Marla McLean, Ric Reid, Cherissa Richards, Travis Seetoo, Jeremiah Sparks


It’s a great idea on paper: present a Canadian play about pivotal events in Canadian history at a Canadian festival. And for new artistic director Tim Carroll, who hails from across the pond, presenting not one, but two, English-language Canadian plays this season (the world premiere of 1979 is the other) surely sends a message that he knows where he now lives—and is invested in it. In preseason interviews, Carroll indicated that 1973’s 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt was an underproduced play, but what he meant was with the time and resources afforded by a professional company (it’s had tours, and its versatility makes it popular in high schools). But while the Shaw Festival has often found the underproduced repertoire fertile for mining (2012’s A Man and Some Women comes to mind), this piece may not be quite the gem theatergoers are expecting. 


Fans of story theater—characterized by simple scenery, narrative dialogue, versatile prop pieces, neutral costumes, actors playing multiple roles, pantomime, sound effects, and high energy acting—may find this early example a nostalgic delight. The form became popular in the seventies, but has since evolved into more cohesive narratives like Peter and the Starcatcher (presented at Shaw in 2015) and story theater’s trendy millennium cousin, devised theater. Despite a spirited outing from a stellar cast, and significant subject matter—farmers and laborers are led by William Lyon Mackenzie in rebellion against the Family Compact of Upper Canada—this presentation feels dated and disjointed.  Which isn’t to say that it’s without value.


Director Philip Akin, who wowed audiences last season with “Master Harold”… and the boys, casts nimbly without regard to race or gender (and this is as good a place as any to point out the refreshing diversity in the Shaw ensemble this year), and that alone helps the show transcend the dusty beatnik vibe that sometimes pervades it. Said cast gives no less than 150 percent, delivering some unexpectedly poignant moments from nontraditional casting, as well as plenty of comedy, both physical and ironic. The subject matter is a welcome change of direction for Shaw, and while the whole here doesn’t quite reach the sum of its parts, the distinct stories are well-conceived, and appropriate for the entire family. 


1837: The Farmers’ Revolt runs until October 8 at the Court House Theatre, 26 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake (shawfest.com, 905-468-2172).


Kristi Frank as Sally Smith and Michael Therriault as Bill Snibson with the cast of Me and My Girl. Photo by David Cooper


Me and My Girl

Music by Noel Gay, lyrics and original book by L. Arthur Rose; book revised by Stephen Fry with Mike Ockrent
Director: Ashlie Corcoran
Starring: Michael Therriault and Kristi Frank


In my Sweet Charity review in 2015, I bemoaned the selection of a dance heavy show when the Shaw company lacked the requisite dance skills; the result was watch-checking instead of toe tapping during the lengthy choregraphed sections. I worried about a similar fate for Me and My Girl—needlessly. Shaw’s newest ensemble members can dance! Parker Esse’s choreography is an integral character in this show, one that surprises and amazes. And that’s only the start of the pleasure that is Me and My Girl.


Leading man and one of Canada’s finest, Michael Therriault, has been lured to the Festival Stage to play Bill Snibson, the unrefined Cockney bloke who just learned he’s the fourteenth heir to the Earl of Hareford, but refuses to give up his Cockney girl to claim his rightful place in society. His comic physicality and ability to deliver the corniest joke with the utmost sincerity and timing sets the tone for the evening; Me and My Girl is getting a breezy treatment that will send audiences home happy. That breeziness extends to Bill’s relationship with girl Sally (Kristi Frank, whose own song and dance skills are top-notch), and if there were a complaint to be leveled here, it’s that these two didn’t have the chemistry to imbue the show with deeper emotion; when they finally kiss, it’s nearly perfunctory and it’s on to the next dance number.  The opening night audience didn’t seem to mind.


The show’s signature song, “The Lambeth Walk,” sparked a dance craze when the show premiered in the thirties, and it’s still a crowd pleaser. The show’s updated book—the show’s eighties revival ran for eight years on the West End and another three on Broadway—includes references to Joan of Arc and Pygmalion that not only drew recognition laughter from opening night audiences, but also assured this musical’s place at the Festival.  With Me and My Girl, Shaw seems to have regained its musical footing, and theatergoers who favor old-fashioned escapism and happy endings can rest assured that’s exactly what they’ll get.


 Me and My Girl runs through October 15 at the Festival Theatre, 10 Queen’s Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake. (shawfest.com, 905-468-2172).      


Playwright Donna Hoke writes about theater for Spree and Forever Young


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