Follow the Footlights
Niagara-on-the-Lake's Shaw Festival offers show-stopping performances.
True theater devotees can also participate in symposiums, nightly pre-show chats and morning backstage tours. Here's a preview of coming attractions:
Autumn Hostel: Held Oct. 5-7 and repeated Oct. 19-21, the three-day hostel focuses on the process of bringing theater to life, featuring a variety of speakers from the Shaw troupe. The cost is $435 per person, which includes daily panels and presentations, meals and tickets to four selected plays.
Saturday mornings through Oct. 29: Behind-the-scenes/backstage tours of the Festival Theatre take place at 9:30 and 11 a.m. Cost is $5 per person. Tickets can be booked in advance or purchased on the day of the tour.
Sunday Coffee Concerts: These free 11 a.m. musical performances on Sept. 4 and Oct. 2 spotlight performances by the festival's string quartet and actors and musicians in the company.
Fall into Shaw: Held Sept. 10, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., and Oct. 1 and 22, 10 a.m. -noon, and repeated Sept. 17, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., and Oct. 8 and Oct. 29, 10 a.m.-noon, these classes are designed for aspiring clowns ages 9 to 16. The basics of physical comedy and improvisation will be explored and taught. Cost is $75, which includes lunch and a performance of "Something on the Side."
Mask-Making Workshop: Oct. 15, 22 or 29, 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Kids of all ages will have ghoulish fun. Cost is $50, including materials and a box lunch.
When You Go ...
The Shaw Festival, 10 Queen's Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada, 800/511-SHAW. www.shawfest.com. Lunchtime performances of "Something on the Side" begin at 11:30 a.m., matinees at 2 p.m., evening curtain at 8 p.m.; ticket prices range from $42 to $89 Canadian dollars. Call or visit web site for specific dates.
Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce and Visitor & Convention Bureau, 26 Queen St. (lower level), Niagara-on-the-Lake; 905/468-1950. www.niagaraonthelake.com
The Prince of Wales Hotel and Spa, 6 Picton St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, 905/468-3246, www.vintageinns.com
The word Niagara conjures up images of a pair of thundering falls and a raging river. But 20 minutes down the road from Canada's renowned tourist attraction lies a pastoral world revered by theater lovers, as well as those seeking a soothing autumn retreat.
For 44 seasons, the Shaw Festival has attracted more than 300,000 visitors to the picture-postcard town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Taking center stage every April through November is a stellar lineup of diverse shows, ranging from classic dramas to timeless comedies to blockbuster musicals. (New York Magazine's John Simon calls the company "the best repertory theater on the entire continent.")
The Festival was conceived in 1962 by Niagara-on-the-Lake lawyer Brian Doherty, who admired the works of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw and wanted to revitalize them for the stage. Through the years, the festival has incorporated other authors into its repertoire - the only requisite is that all plays produced be written in or set during 1856 to 1950, the period in which Shaw lived.
This year's production schedule features Shaw's "You Never Can Tell," a comedy of meeting, reunion and reconciliation - along with a touch of pre-feminism - at a seaside resort (written in 1896) and "Major Barbara," a comedy pitting a munitions manufacturer against his Salvationist daughter (1905).
Also scheduled are Somerset Maugham's "The Constant Wife," a sophisticated guide to Roaring '20s married life (1926); the Julie Styne-Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents' musical "Gypsy," the raucous biography of entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee (1959); Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's "Happy End," an edgy musical romp about a Salvation Army officer gone awry (1929); R.C. Sherriff's "Journey's End," a gripping World War I drama about life in the trenches (1928); Lillian Hellman's "The Autumn Garden," centered around a reunion of old friends trying to recapture their past (1951); "Bus Stop," William Inge's tale of an unlikely group stranded in a Kansas diner (1955); Ann-Marie MacDonald's "Belle Moral: A Natural History" - commissioned by the Shaw Festival and premiering this season - an off-beat Scottish whodunit (2004); and Georges Feydeau and Maurice Desvallieres' "Something on the Side," a one-act sexual farce (1890).
If you've only time for five, festival executive director Colleen Blake recommends "Gypsy" (which she calls "thrilling"), "You Never Can Tell," ("spectacular"), "Journey's End ("powerfully sad"), "Bus Stop" ("funny, quirky, evocative") and "Happy End" ("fabulous").
The venues hosting the plays are works of art in their own right. The 327-seat neoclassical Court House Theatre is a national historic site dating from the 1840s. Built as a vaudeville house in 1915, the opulent Royal George Theatre, with its Edwardian gilt molding, seats 328. The Shaw's flagship, state-of-the-art Festival Theatre, which opened in 1973, has room for 869 patrons and houses a retail shop filled with exquisite jewelry, books and theatrical souvenirs. Stop for a quick bite before, between or after acts at the Festival Theatre Cafe, which offers light meals and decadent desserts.
This quaint town is home to more than 230 charming bed and breakfasts. (The Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce and Visitor & Convention Bureau can recommend one tailor-made to suit your tastes.) For the ultimate in luxury, opt for The Prince of Wales Hotel and Spa, a Victorian gem featuring elegantly appointed suites and rooms reflecting the era in which it was built; afternoon English tea; and a full range of spa services, including Swedish massage, aromatherapy and facials.