By Mike Keenan
Two blogs back, I suggested that one might stay in St. Catharines and take in the Shaw Festival from here, thus saving a substantial amount of money. But what to see if you go?
The program content this season is varied. Thus far, I have attended seven productions, two at the Festival Theatre – The Magician’s Nephew and Grand Hotel, three at The Royal George Theatre – Of Marriage and Men, Stage Kiss and O’Flaherty V.C., this season’s lunchtime performance, and two at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre – The Baroness and the Pig and The Orchard (After Chekhov)
Judging by theatre size, one would think that the potential top earning productions would play at the larger theatres. The Magician’s Nephew holds true. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and the clever staging constitutes a wonderful opportunity for grandparents to take their grandchildren to a theatre performance that they will remember for a long time. Grand Hotel is Shaw’s large-scale musical, supposedly the biggest money maker for the Festival, but I found it cynical and unrewarding. The three productions at The Royal George were not compelling for me either, but the two at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, the smallest, I thought were terrific. So go figure. That’s why I’m not an Artistic Director.
Camellia Koo’s minimalist set design for The Orchard (After Chekhov) is deceptively simple. Earth in the form of a dark, sphagnum-like substance is embedded everywhere on stage. Sarena Parmar, actor/playwright, greets us before the start, and she provides some history, but we soon journey on a parallel course with Chekov. Instead of Russia, we inhabit the Okanagan Valley. And like Chekov’s work, this play is tragically relentless, because it’s about dispossession in its many forms and the concept of “progress.” Despite the heaviness, it’s well worth attending, in fact, my favourite at Shaw this season.
My guess is that The Baroness and the Pig will either infuriate you or cause you to think long and hard after viewing it. It puzzled me immediately. After five minutes, I thought – my goodness, this is going to be a long, tedious play, but in the next few minutes, I thought – okay, I get it; it’s an interesting satire on who is teaching what to whom. And at the end – wow, you can cut the black humour with a sharp knife, which is precisely how it finishes – with a sharp knife.
Montréal playwright Michael Mackenzie has deliberately constructed something to make the viewer uncomfortable like O’Neill does in Stratford’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. With Mackenzie, it’s not about alcohol and morphine. It’s about human nature and the fact that we have evolved from animals, clever animals like the pig that shares 98 percent of our genetic makeup, yet likes to wallow in filthiness, an unwholesome trait that we discover is shared by an unseen character in this play.
The Magician’s Nephew, a world premiere, opened the 2018 Shaw Festival season. I watched it totally enthralled along with 400 elementary students, the cast so strong and the play so magical that there was no noise from the kids for over two hours – except loud cheers and applause at the end. Equal credit for the play’s success goes to the solid direction by Tim Carroll, the innovative set designed by Douglas Paraschuk, expressive costumes by Jennifer Goodman and lighting by Kevin Lamotte, clever projections by Cameron Davis and inspired sound by Claudio Vena – a real team effort.
Those are my favourites. I have not yet seen Mythos, Oh What A Lovely War and The Hound of the Baskervilles. You can read my full reviews of all of these plays at: http://www.whattravelwriterssay.com/performingarts.html
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