2023 isn’t the Shaw Festival’s strongest season but the floor is really high out in Niagara-on-the-Lake and even a so-so season that’s getting a bit eclipsed by Stratford’s best work in years is still full of some really great theatre.
Of the mainstage shows, the strongest piece is James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner. Balanced on the rock solid foundation of Baldwin’s nuanced and poetic writing, Associate Artistic Director Kimberley Rampersad’s production is bombastic, sad, conflicted, and loving all at once. A dynamite ensemble that makes use of the Shaw’s Gospel Choir fills out the world around Janelle Cooper’s beautiful leading performance and Allan Louis’ star turn as her ne’er-do-well husband whose return to her life sparks the story. Anahita Dehbonehie‘s massive rotating set clarifies the spaces perfectly and A.W. Nadine Grant’s costume work is vibrant and detailed. An excellent production built on a wonderful text.
Unexpectedly, my other favourite production of the year is Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, a fairly by-the-book interpretation of a classic mandate comedy but executed really well with some fun surprises and all-in performances from a top rate cast. James Lavoie’s set and costume design is a sneaky thrill, elevating the standard luxe drawing room concept with deeply committed monochrome that then allows the ace hair and makeup team to work fun magic with Julia Course‘s ghost. Avoiding the standard white makeup, Course appears semi-transparent and completely belonging in the space, which contrasts cleverly with the bright (and so beautiful) costumes worn by Donna Soares as the second wife of Course’s widower that are also monochrome but stand out rather than blend in to the space. Course’s gleeful high-status performance is the insightful stuff of second wife nightmares, aloof but relentless, charming but threatening, totally delicious. Damien Atkins is a ball of hilarious and guilty nerves as the overwhelmed husband and Donna Soares completes her sensational season bringing strength and key pathos as poor Ruth who asked for none of this nonsense. Meanwhile, a perfectly cast Deborah Hay is off the wall as wacky medium Madame Arcati. The whole thing is a joyful romp that’s paced beautifully and pitched perfectly to allow for broad humour without losing the honest relationship drama at the heart of the story. Blithe Spirit isn’t meant to be a season highlight, Noël Coward is what you throw in as a dependable tentpole for the subscribers to hold on to while you play around in the studio theatre. But one of the things I love so much about the Shaw Festival is how nimble they’ve become within the confines of their strict mandate and the brightness and thoughtful detail of this production is that quality encapsulated.
The Shaw’s buzziest show of the season is The Shadow of a Doubt, a moody production of the just-discovered only full length play by novelist Edith Wharton. Director Peter Hinton-Davis, as he always does, brings a welcome strong aesthetic to the piece, elevating its interest from drawing room drama and adding a strong visual perspective. Here he’s worked with designer Gillian Gallow to create a nearly all-black period aesthetic that pairs with Bonnie Beecher’s lighting to layer shadow on shadow. Live video projection by HAUI adds further interest while thematically evoking interrogation and surveillance. Though Hinton-Davis’ production is thoughtful and intriguing, much of the play’s true themes only come to full light in its final moments, leaving the audience with lots to contemplate upon departure but little to grab hold of over the course of nearly three hours.
An unexpected and delicately subtextual throughline this season features women on a quest to be believed. This is the core story of The Shadow of a Doubt but also a note beautifully played in Damien Atkins’ charming and deft adaptation of Prince Caspian through the character of Lucy. Kiana Woo is one of my favourite breakout performers of the year and her sweet, funny, and formidable performance as Lucy is the backbone of the strongest piece of Theatre for Young Audiences on stage this summer. Molly Atkinson’s production is visually stunning featuring gorgeous lighting from Jareth Li (the King’s introduction after intermission is a stunner) and brilliant set and costumes by Cory Sincennes. Aslan is played by Qasim Khan in the form of a spectacular larger-than-life puppet that fills the theatre with magic (I could not for the life of me find a credit for a separate puppet maker so I assume maybe this was also Sincennes?). Michael Man is a little overshadowed as Prince Caspian but the ensemble as a whole is excellent, full of actors with great gravitas who never take their roles as either children or mythical creatures as anything less than completely serious, a great service to the text and to the audience who are never once spoken down to. Small pieces of interactivity (set up at an optional pre-show workshop) bring the kids into the action without distracting and the two hour show flows well through both the exposition-heavy first act and the action-packed second, buoyed by the charm of the central quartet of precocious Kings & Queens.
The season’s other lighter fare comes in the form of zany Tom Stoppard comedy On the Razzle and classic musical Gypsy (which the company insists on touting as “a Sondheim musical” despite his only having done the lyrics so balance your expectations for the strength of Jule Styne’s songs and Arthur Laurents’ book). Directed by Craig Hall and Jay Turvey respectively, there’s not a lot of note in either production beyond a few key cast members. Julie Lumsden is a lovely Louise who very carefully marries Laurents’ disparate portraits of her shy then brash character and it’s a treat to hear her sing after a year in the non-musical company for 2022. Similarly, leading players Mike Nadajewski and Kristi Frank are delightful in On the Razzle but nothing about the productions surrounding any of these star turns is of much interest.
Two of the other weaker entries this year are The Clearing and The Playboy of the Western World but, like Gypsy and On the Razzle, they are very competently presented by the Shaw’s excellent ensemble, they just didn’t particularly grab my interest. A devastating story with evergreen themes, Helen Edmundson’s The Clearing is unfortunately a bit of a slog, punctuated by iffy accent work (very rare for the Shaw) with characters who are a bit too clear cut in their hero or villain roles despite the moral conflict at the play’s centre. The Playboy of the Western World is lighter, carried on the capable shoulders of the incandescent Marla McLean and the deeply charismatic Qasim Khan. Jackie Maxwell’s semi-modernization and straightforward staging work well but the story is ultimately just not that interesting.
Far longer and headier, Bernard Shaw’s The Apple Cart is somehow both the most challenging and one of the most enjoyable productions of the season. Directed by Eda Holmes and starring national treasure Tom Rooney as a near-future King who takes perhaps a bit too much interest in his country’s politics (well programmed, Carroll), The Apple Cart is a political thinkpiece in the form of a witty character portrait. If the intellectual thrill of a verbal tennis match between Rooney and an against type Graeme Somerville as the angry Prime Minister starts to lose your attention, Sochi Fried injects glorious energy as a magnetic Orinthia, her physicality and sense of play bringing a real sense of intimacy to her relationship with King Magnus, immediately pulling his character out of his head and into the realm of real person rather than simply monarch. Not to repeat myself from my Game of Love and Chance review but it bears repeating- Fried is a great addition to the Shaw company and I hope to see her stay; she’s a perfect fit stylistically and particularly great at infusing life into corseted texts.
The Shaw needs that energy, a lot of it. They have a world class acting company and smart intellectual programming but new life and energy is crucial to keeping the audience tuned in so their brains can process all the smart goodness. This season, though perfectly competent, didn’t have quite enough life.