Greener Pastures

An idyllic drama festival lies over the border.

Another satisfied customer is left reeling from The Doctor's Dilemma.
Another satisfied customer is left reeling from The Doctor's Dilemma.
Without having to pass over to that Masterpiece Theatre in the sky, Anglophiles of all forms can find bliss at a destination that offers Shavian debate, art-deco whimsy, and continental romance. A mere four- to five-hour drive from Cleveland, that theatrical Garden of Eden is also known as the Shaw Festival.

Bookworms, theater buffs, and reactionaries of all hues will find a cozy nook in Canada's Niagara-on-the-Lake, where the bed-and-breakfasts come with fresh roses, and everyone you encounter has at least heard of if not read Proust.

Here is a spot where the very idea of McDonald's golden arches would be unthinkable. The quaint main street is dotted with welcoming benches for the comfort of shoppers satiated with homemade jams. At a plethora of high-toned boutiques, imported Irish sweaters, Pooh bears, and precious jade can be purchased painlessly due to a magnificent rate of exchange.

The town is permeated with the aroma of those freshly baked scones that used to tantalize Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. Eager theatergoers, fresh from their afternoon teas, dab the clotted cream from their lips and brush the crumbs from cucumber sandwiches off their Cardin shorts as they scurry to make sold-out matinees.

The only drawback to vacationing at this theaterfest is that, if you're hoping for a secret getaway, you'll be disappointed to find that half of Cleveland has preceded you here. (Only New York beats Cleveland in American attendance.)

Here is a theater mecca in the peak of health. Clevelanders, who live in a city where local actors have to beg to be seen in our downtown companies, can only sigh with envy at a top resident company that brings to mind the glories of the studio system in its heyday. Assembled from the provinces of Canada is a coterie of designers, directors, and performers, superbly trained and brought through the ranks till they are capable of perpetrating all manner of theatrical enchantment.

The festival, founded in 1963, has thrived on capitalism's most basic adage: Have a rock-solid image, so audiences will know exactly what to expect. Evocative advertisements, full of actors in soft focus who are disguised as lissome Edwardian merry-makers, lure prospective patrons out of the groves of academe and suburbia. The official mandate is to be "the only theater in the world that specializes exclusively in the plays of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries," -- plays written or set in Shaw's lifetime (1856-1950).

Not only legends like Shaw and Wilde, but fascinating oddities, such as the metaphysical mysteries of J.B. Priestly, the intense problem plays of Harley Granville-Barker, or gossamer entertainments from Broadway's past, make the Shaw Festival a necessity for discriminating audiences.

There are three theaters: two proscenium and one arena. This gives the means of rescuing a multitude of plays that have been consigned to oblivion in forgotten and mildewed anthologies. They are unequaled by any theater on the continent in their luxurious attention to period detail of the last hundred years. The hallmark of a Shaw production is its precision. For instance, the way a lady's maid serves up tea or a dowager positions her bustle into a settee illustrates the minutiae of lost worlds, bringing them vividly back from the past.

It takes more than an authentic corset or smoking jacket, though, to generate the exciting living theater on display here. It requires a sympathy for antique style and understanding of the haughty nuances of a Noël Coward drawing-room comedy, the class-consciousness of yesterday's whodunits, the strange mix of artificiality and sentimental piety of an Oscar Wilde social satire. Anyone who witnesses the dancing skeletons in Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma or the 21st-century update of The Apple Cart will see how the festival takes its knowledge and adds to it riveting modern enhancements without knocking the works off their original axis.

Artistic director Christopher Newton is the Prospero who has kept this a magic isle. Newton must juggle the grotesque and the grand, keeping the choices within the theater's mandate and creating a mix of esoterica and old favorites. He is constantly nurturing young talent, grabbing promising thespians out of pool halls and high school productions before they are corrupted by bad training. It is the festival's careful mentoring in all departments that makes it the envy of American theater folk who live from hand to mouth. Everyone is brought through the ranks, from walk-on to leading lady. Thanks to Newton's integrity, this may be the only major theater that has escaped the blight of electronic miking, automatic lighting, and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Next week I will review the productions I have seen, but here is the general schedule of the plays in repertory: The Doctor's Dilemma, Lord of the Flies, The Matchmaker, A Woman of No Importance, The Apple Cart, A Room of One's Own, Six Characters in Search of an Author, Time and the Conways, She Loves Me, and Still Life.