Since 1962, when the first Shaw Festival was held there, the small, gently beautiful town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada, upstream from the waterfall, has drawn theater lovers from May to October, for spirited and original productions of George Bernard Shaw's plays -- an annual sampler including the lesser works as well as the ones that get made into musicals and movies.
It's also a place to see other people's plays. Just as the Stratfords, American, Canadian and English, dilute their Shakespeare with complementary and contrasting pieces, the Niagara Festival always offers a little something for those who want to put the master in perspective or simply to enjoy a different kind of stage fare.
This year, there are Saint Joan, Man of Destiny and In Good King Charles's Golden Days for the all-out Shavians. Arthur Wing Pinero's The Magistrate and a 1920s Aldwych farce called Tons of Money should satisfy those who would like to know what Shaw's competition was up to. Rose Marie is on hand for those susceptible to Mounties and the Indian Love Call; Camille for another kind of nastalgia. Finally, for a real change of pace, the 1981 festival includes a jazz ballet and The Sucide , a satire on Soviet bureaucracy.
Seeing the three Shaws plust the Pinero over a weekend reinforces the suspicion that GBS never did come down on one side in the debate between reasons and intuition, science and religion. Part of him was in love with the artist's approach to life and with the faith and imagination embodied in Saint Joan ; the other Shaw was real, too, though -- beliving in stastics and the Fabian Society and viewing himself as a worldly defender of civilized institutions against the mischiefs of the visionaries.
Such conflicts can make for good dialogue, particularly when they occur in someone who knew as well as Shaw did that it's not easy to interest theater audiences in dueling abstractions. The artful GBS was always carful to dress up his ideas in wisecracks and to have pretty women and comics around when the urge to discuss political theory seized him. His cure for the talking-heads problem was to have his characters overturn chairs, draw swords and lay hands on each other.
Shaw was understandably eager to conceal from his public that Good King Charles is a relentlessly discursive play about the monarchical strengths and shortcommings of the Stuart kings. To this end, he has Nell Gwyn coquetting with the founder of the Society of Friends while two of Merry Charles' duchesses spar like a couple of characters out of The Women .
That should make up for a quarter of an hour's speculation on the difficulty of devising a leadership selection process equal to the demands of good government -- particularly since Sir Isaac Newton is about to be engaged in a rolling-on-the-floor wrestling match with Charles' brother James.
This strategy in the author has clearly encouraged, if not required, Joseph Ziegler to play Newton as a sort of Monty Python mad scientist. It's an agreeable foil for the urbanity of Micahel Fawkes' King Charles.
Actually, all the 1981 Shaw performers do well, with a single said exception: Saint Joan. Nora McLellan is a capable actress and she makes an engaging fibbergibbet in The Magistrate , but she lacks the aura necessary for Joan. When the soaring speeches come, her voice goes shrill. There's never a glimpse of the white flame a portrayal of Joan of Arc demands along with the earthiness Shaw emphasizes.
Napoleon, in Man of Destiny , comes off better. Tom McCamus is a little tall and slim for the compact Corsican, perhaps, but his face and manner are evocative.Not that a real-life Napoleon would have behaved like the Shavian character, who engages in an hour of repartee with an audacious lady, punctuated only by analyses of what's wrong with the English.
Never mind: If we've heard a good many of the iconoclasms before, it's only because GBS put them in people's heads. Besides, they sound right here, where the Empire of Shaw's day still has a gasp or two left in it.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is a town of white ruffled curtains, geraniums, china figurines, Union Jacks, artlessly English cooking and open doors The Prince of Wales Hotel lobby displays two busts of Queen Victoria and portraits of the princes who became Edward VII and the Duke of Windsor.
Drive up or go by plane and bus via Buffalo. Call 416/468-2153 about tickets and accommodations -- both reasonable.