Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

The Shaw Festivals 51st season - a test of troubled times

Shaw, 1893 11 plays on 4 stages: Niagara on the Lake's prestigious Shaw Festival is asked this season to do more with less. Even with a 9% increase in attendance over 2010 to 275,000 and a 12% increase in fundraising revenues, the celebrated 50th anniversary 2011 season incurred a striking deficit of $1.5 million, and Executive Director, Colleen Blake, has since retired.

The big money maker, Molly Smith's production of My Fair Lady, broke all previous attendance records at 95,000, the top selling show in the Festival's history, but unfortunately, Shaw's irresistible star, Debra Hay, has joined husband Ben Carlson at Stratford this season in Much Ado About Nothing. And while Mike Shara has not returned, Martha Henry has parachuted in to direct Hedda Gabler.

Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell, faces a steep hill to climb, and she is counting on Ragtime, (April 10 - October 14) the Tony Award-winning musical, a sweeping saga of turn-of-the-century America, seen through the eyes of three very different families. It's based on novelist E.L. Doctorow's kaleidoscopic fusion of suburban New Rochelle, Harlem and New York City's Lower East Side, with astonishing appearances from the likes of escape artist, Houdini, anarchist, Emma Goldman and steel baron, J.P. Morgan.

In Ragtime, love is lost and won, lives lost and saved and a country struggles to define itself. How appropriate today with the likes of Obama versus Romney with Santorum, Gingrich and other minor players thrown in for comic relief. The big gamble for Maxwell is that how goes Ragtime, so goes the Festival.

The piece features a large cast of 28 actors including Shaw's reigning number one male lead, Ben Campbell. It will be a test for music director, Paul Sportelli, and associate, Ryan deSouza, as well as choreographer, Valerie Moore, designer, Sue LePage and Maxwell as director.

Present Laughter, (May 3 - October 28) directed by David Schurmann reveals Noël Coward's take on his own life as a celebrity: "Everybody worships me, it's nauseating." His Girl Friday, (June 10 - October 5) directed by Jim Mezon, features tough-talking, wise-cracking reporter Hildy Johnson (Nicole Underhay) whose former editor and ex-husband (Ben Campbell) can't let go: "They're newspaper men. They can't help themselves. The Lord made them that way." It's good to see gifted, long-time Shaw actors Mezon and Schurmann take on directorial roles.

At the Royal George Theatre, Eda Holmes directs Shaw's Misalliance (April 19 - October 27) about a bored heiress to an underwear fortune, trapped in an unhappy engagement and Kate Lynch directs French Without Tears (May 11 - September 15) by Terence Rattigan, set in a villa on the west coast of France, as young men - some aspiring to be diplomats, some just doing it to please their parents - come to work on their French language skills with their true occupation, girls. As a follow up to Shaw's depiction of Picnic and Bus Stop, Jackie Maxwell takes on Come Back, Little Sheba (June 28 - October 19) by William Inge: "If you can't forget the past, you stay in it and never get out."

At the Court House Theatre, Alisa Palmer directs Githa Sowerby's A Man and Some Women, (April 27 - September 22) a bold portrayal of family dynamics which asks - what becomes of a woman who can't earn her own living? Blair Williams directs The Millionairess, (June 20 - October 6): "I am the most interesting woman in England." Martha Henry offers up a classic, Hedda Gabler (July 25 - September 29) by Henrik Ibsen, and Jay Turvey directs Trouble in Tahiti, (June 1 - October 7), a musical look at the '50s American Dream through a day in the life of seemingly the perfect couple.

At the Studio Theatre, Helen's Necklace (July 15 - August 31) by Carole Fréchette, a contemporary Québec writer, is directed by Micheline Chevrier. It examines the theme of loss: "I'm missing that white cloud around my neck, and I'm many things."

Here's hoping that the theme of loss at Shaw is confined to its drama, with a strong dollar, border delays and a public unenthused with rising gasoline prices combining to make theatre attendance a true struggle.

Tickets for Shaw can be purchased by phone: 1.800.511.7429 and 905.468.2172. Also, see: for early booking bonuses and ticket packages including rates for seniors, students and groups of 10+.

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