Onstage - 7.20.05 

Worth the trip for three classics and a giggle

Despite quibbles, I'm feeling like a flack for Shaw Festival's brilliant season. With eight productions open now, they've not got a weak offering.

If R.C. Sherriff's Journey's End isn't a masterpiece, it's one of the great war plays. Its understated honesty is gripping and heartbreaking, with no heroic grandstanding, no anti-war preaching, just a frighteningly realistic picture of doomed young men in the trenches of World War I. Directed by Christopher Newton, designed by Cameron Porteous, lit by Louise Guinand --- all artists at the top of their fields --- and cast with entirely superb actors, this revival is so good it hurts.

Don't expect a rousing finale or a tearjerking one. Don't look for contemporary relevance: The parallels are horrifying and constant but never underlined. What elevates this sobering theatrical production beyond depressing effect is the exhilaration of experiencing the power of great theater.

Back down to ordinary theatergoing, the latest revival of Bernard Shaw's masterpieceMajor Barbara is beautifully produced and performed, but not better than I've seen before. Shaw Festival has had four previous fine productions; the terrific 1940 film had a dream cast and production staff; Charles Laughton's 1956 Broadway production had more than an all-star cast --- its walk-ons are now famed actors. But except for Diana Donnelly's charming but less than inspiring Barbara, this version gets just about everything right.

Christina Poddubiuk's designs, wonderfully lit by Kevin Lamotte, are a model of simplified realism, adroitly shifting from over-privileged to hapless poor, from elegant drawing room to Salvation Army outpost, to sprawling munitions factory.

Director Joseph Ziegler keeps the Shavian dialogue on key: solidly in character, endlessly argumentative and amusing, but unmistakable in its ideas. Shaw's usual inverted truths sound revolutionary: poverty is the greatest sin, alcohol and gunpowder liberate the downtrodden masses, salvation has to be bought. But they are cliches: our "wars" on poverty and terrorism combat evil; money and power are needed to do good; to save free souls to accept salvation one must first free their enslaved bodies.

The two main things to say about Georges Feydeau and Maurice Desvallieres' Something On the Side are that this is a delightful, silly lunchtime confection and that it plays for only 45 minutes, starting at 11:30 a.m. So you must want to be in crowded Niagara-on-the-Lake early enough to find a parking place close by or have time to walk to the theater.

The play has the expected witty dialogue by Feydeau, the master of comic extra-marital intrigue, and more than his usual frantic slapstick. A randy waiter and waitress prepare private lunches for two philandering couples, and all six turn out to have hidden connections. A comic counterpoint is a horny busboy who yearns for the waitress (or almost any other woman).

Adapted and directed by Neil Munro, and deliciously designed by Sue LePage, this slight entertainment is always stylish and somewhat surprising in its plot twists. Simon Bradbury has special flair as the amorous waiter, and Harry Judge is hilarious as the geeky virgin busboy.

My nomination for a truly neglected American masterpiece is Lillian Hellman's The Autumn Garden. This "Chekhovian" play is neither so frequently revived nor so enthusiastically discussed as Hellman's earlier, more melodramatic works, yet I find it less dated and more subtly artistic. Directed by the Stratford Festival's leading actress, Martha Henry, and richly designed by Shaw's design director William Schmuck and masterful lighting designer Louise Guinand, Shaw's new production is what this wonderful play merits.

All the characters are real but role-playing. Sharry Flett perfectly balances fading Louisiana spinster Constance Tuckerman between vulnerability and foolishness so that her wasted life is pitiable but not tragic, and even sometimes appealing and amusing. Peter Hutt makes Nicholas Denery, the unsuccessful painter who deserted Constance, both mean and manipulative. But his Nick can turn on romantic charm to hold on to his cynical rich wife and still support Constance's delusion of having always loved him. And until the very end, Jim Mezon's dry-witted, alcoholic Edward seems to be kidding himself that love has ruined his life by keeping him waiting for Constance.

It all plays out with many qualifying nuances.

Shaw Festival | Journey's End through October 8;Major Barbarathrough October 29; Something On the Side through September 25; The Autumn Garden through October 8. | Niagara-On-The Lake, Ontario, Canada | $20 to $82 ($16.08 to $65.91 US) | 800-511-7429, www.shawfest.com

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