When the Court House Theatre closed in 2017 and the Shaw Festival downgraded to just three formal venues, the easy assumption was that the festival would accordingly shrink. On the contrary, the expansion of programming in the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre has kept the average mainstage number around 10 or 11 every summer while current Artistic Director Tim Carroll has also expanded the season with a spring production and two holiday shows, bringing the usual mainstage total to 13 give or take.
The extended season is a cool addition that brings a little Shaw magic into the colder months but my favourite element of expansion is actually off the main stage. Special concerts, talk backs, pop up patios, and the pre-show troubadour make the Shaw experience feel full and and rich with value as most of these events are either completely free, free for ticket-holders, or $10-$20. Reasonably priced tickets are also available to Outdoors at the Shaw supplementary programming on the BMO Stage behind the Festival Theatre. While the 2023 offerings in this category aren’t as robust as the incredible 2022 slate, a Sunday morning spent with the company’s Gospel Choir is always an uplifting treat and it’s nice to see some of the less prominent musical company members shine in the Rogers & Hammerstein tribute A Grand Night for Singing (though I definitely missed the refined vocals of the musical leads, the staged concert was a fun chance to hear dancers like Matt Alfano sing a real solo).
This year, a new tier of programming was introduced that creates a fascinating bridge between the informal supplementary programming and the mainstage productions. Traditionally used for travelling shows but with a much more elaborate infrastructure than the performance tents we got used to in 2021, a Spiegeltent is a large canvas and wood structure elaborately decorated with mirrors and stained glass. The one erected on the Shaw grounds for the 2023 season feels like an exuberant throwback and very quickly became the most fun venue to visit. Though it also houses some of the aforementioned concerts and events, the Spiegeltent has more of a sense of occasion than the BMO stage. It primarily plays host to two productions that require a bit more intimacy and informality than the main venues provide but are a step up in production value from the truly outdoors aspects of Outdoors at the Shaw this year.
A favourite gimmick at the Shaw Festival right now is either literal or perceived roll of the dice casting and the two Spiegeltent productions represent the two sides of this practice.
The more successful production fully embraces the unpredictable casting concept. The appropriately named Game of Love and Chance borrows the character sketches and fundamental story beats of an eighteenth century Pierre de Marivaux rom-com but the casting comes together on-stage with a few rolls of some dice and the play is fully improvised from there.
Aided by the improv coaching of the incomparable Rebecca Northan (who sadly was out the day I attended but is usually also in the cast), one of the strengths of this big-swing of a production is that director Carroll has cast some of the festival’s best actors, not just its funniest (though also, yes, some of its funniest). Things went off the rails, a giant choice or two led to some very odd places, but the performers never failed to prioritize storytelling over getting an easy laugh.
The reality of this casting concept is that sometimes it’s just not going to work out the way you want it to (not the biggest threat with a cast this consistently strong, but always a concern); at the performance I attended, it could not have worked out better. Like clockwork, the performers were randomly assigned to what felt like the perfect roles for them- Martin Happer the strapping goofball, Deborah Hay the mischievous heroine, Jenny L Wright the quirky but faithful friend, Graeme Somerville the earnest intellectual. Everyone was playing their biggest hit, which felt a little bit like magic. It made me want to come back, to see how this cast of actors who each have very distinct styles can affect the story by serving a different purpose within it. Does the power balance shift when leading lady Hay plays the servant? Is the leading man’s irresistible sweetness specifically a Somerville superpower? How does Travis Seetoo’s youth or Kristopher Bowman’s broad shoulders or Happer’s booming voice change the way the characters see each other and how we react to them? I was thrilled to see the fantastic Sochi Fried finally at the Shaw Festival; how would her natural authority play if the dice cast her as the goofy maid? The unpredictable casting concept is as much a clever business trick as it is an intriguing artistic twist (one that works brilliantly here but doesn’t always, stay tuned); I’d be shocked if The Game of Love and Chance doesn’t have repeat viewers.
The other approach to this casting gimmick is more controlled and less rewarding. Like the lunchtime one-act Village Wooing, the cast of Mother, Daughter changes with multiple actors prepared for each of the two scripted roles. Unlike Village Wooing, however, the Mother, Daughter actor pairings are never mixed up. Presumably working on a pre-fixed but un-published schedule, Mother, Daughter either stars Patty Jamieson and Jade Repeta or Shane Carty and Vinnie Alberto. I flip flop on whether I like the unpredictable casting gimmick in general but especially this half-measure that leaves no room for the hand of fate. The secret schedule by sheer luck worked out in my favour at Village Wooing but, faced with the opposite outcome here, I think I’m coming down on the side of hating it.
I understand in theory why, as a director, Selma Dimitrijevic conceptualized the production this way and I can imagine a play that has very interesting things to say about the universality of parent/child dynamics and how a character’s gender changes the filter through which we understand the exact same words and behaviours. Confusingly, because Dimitrijevic is also the playwright, this play says none of those things. I didn’t find much of interest in the text as a simple one-act but I’m sure the Jamieson/Repeta casting at least works as a competent if forgettable piece of supplementary programming. I unfortunately caught the Carty/Alberto casting and nothing about it works at all. Carty is working very hard but Alberto is out of his depth and they’re both fighting the text, which is very obviously written to be played by two women. For some confounding reason, none of the pronouns are altered for the cis male performers, which only serves to highlight the actual lack of universality in Dimitrijevic’s text. I love the idea that there are certain power dynamics and struggles that are felt by everyone, regardless of sex or gender, and a text conscientiously crafted to be genuinely inclusive and flexible would be really interesting, especially if the unpredictable casting twist was expanded to include a larger spectrum of identities and possible pairings. But the gimmick here feels as though it’s been grafted onto what is ultimately just a really basic two-hander that is not strong enough to support a bold choice.
As the Shaw Festival proved last season with Everybody and again this season with The Game of Love and Chance, the unpredictable casting gimmick can be incredibly effective if it’s thoughtfully deployed in a text that supports it, and the randomization mechanism is genuinely random, performed in the moment in front of the audience. A pre-scheduled, multi-cast set-up is a harder sell for me. It takes the urgency and thrill out of the experience and involves an awful lot of luck. I liked the cast I got for Village Wooing but who knows how I would have felt with some other combination of players. When it came to the ill-advised twist on Mother, Daughter, luck was not on my side.