The secret of the Shaw Festival is that it is as incapable of producing an incompetent production as Norman Rockwell was of painting a pornographic scouting poster. Rest assured that the occasional misfire is due to an unsalvageable script more than anything else.
For those who have never been to the festival, a perfect introduction would be The Doctor's Dilemma. This play encapsulates everything that gives Niagara-on-the-Lake its special panache. To miss it would be akin to going to the Russian Tearoom and skipping the blintzes. After 94 years, it remains one of George Bernard Shaw's most provocative plays: Droll and tough-minded, it straddles a fascinating line between high comedy and tragedy. In this take on the medical profession, the playwright equates a pack of top London physicians to carnival barkers, each with his own pitch for nonsense cures. ("Stimulate the fagasites" is one of the many ridiculous remedies.)
Sir Consenso Ridgeon, the only doctor who has the wisdom to cure, raises the play's scalding dialectic when he has to decide which is the most precious life to save -- that of a mundane do-gooder or a nefarious artistic genius. Muddying the moral waters is the doctor's furtive desire for the artist's devoted wife. Artistic director Christopher Newton's cast has a hard-edged sparkle, excelling at dramatizing Shaw's complexities. Newton and designer Sue LePage superbly bring to life the show's central metaphor of medical men making a game out of life and death by having the actors don skeleton masks and perform what appear to be Grim Reaper gavottes.
Less universally appealing is Shaw's futuristic political satire, The Apple Cart. Shaw proved himself a prescient fortune teller in 1929 when he predicted an England where the monarchy has become a figurehead and capitalism has run amok. Parliament is in the hands of big business, and only the puppet King Magnus has the savvy to restore sanity. In the midst of chaos, the United States has decided to cancel the Declaration of Independence and rejoin the British Empire.
In a bold stroke for Shavian theater, director Roger Greenblatt has skillfully moved up the setting to 2020. With its constant tongue-in-cheek political debates, the experience is much like a Firing Line between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. But those who are not politically attuned might often find themselves in the outer darkness.
For theater gluttons who can't get enough stimulation, a noon lunchtime theater has been added, giving one-act plays a rare airing. Noel Coward's Still Life, which was written as part of a smorgasbord of one-acts for him and Gertrude Lawrence called Tonight at 8:30, was later expanded and filmed as Brief Encounter. The present production is the most perfect realization of Coward that this Cowardite has ever encountered. Anyone who collects perfect miniatures will carry with them to the nursing home the memory of this delicate depiction of an adulterous romance between two painfully decent middle-class lovers in a London train station tea shop. Coward's stylized, clipped dialogue takes on the delicate sweetness of his finest song lyrics. Director Dennis Garnhum and an idyllic production team have brought exquisite verisimilitude to this cross section of '30s England.
Oscar Wilde is revered for two things: the brilliant aphorisms that spread through his plays and fiction, and the fixation with public ruin that smoldered throughout his art until it burst forth in flames in his life, leaving him history's grandest homosexual martyr. All this is reflected in director Susan Furley's audaciously Victorian production of A Woman of No Importance. The first act follows the social machinations of Wilde's special brand of coddled London aristocrat, performed with flawless clockwork artificiality and social nuances. In this production, the imperious slap of a fan or the arch of a brow can be as decadent and laugh-provoking as Groucho's most lascivious leer or Jerry Lewis's gooniest pratfall. In the second act, the play turns to melodrama, a form that makes modern audiences uncomfortable. It takes courage on the part of the director to serve up such a faithful re-creation of the fascinating but difficult dichotomies of Wilde's art.
Also in the must-see department is an exquisitely continental production of the Harnick and Bock musical She Loves Me, here acted and sung with Chekhovian delicacy and intensity.
Not quite up to Shaw's highest standards is The Matchmaker. Nevertheless, it offers an opportunity to see a masterwork that has been eclipsed by its musical incarnation, Hello Dolly! As expected, the Shaw production sails along with implacable professionalism. Where it falters is in its two leads: a Horace Vandergelder who lacks the necessary rough eccentricity for this irresistible curmudgeon, and a Dolly too glamorous and radiant to suggest the refined desperation of Thornton Wilder's slightly threadbare schemer.
A few weeks ago, while reviewing a local production of Six Characters in Search of an Author, this critic wrote that it would take the resources of a Shaw Festival to make this intellectual albatross fly. After seeing it at Shaw, he can testify that he was wrong. It is beyond rescue, for if this festival cannot bring a play back to life, it is because it has gone beyond rigor mortis.