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A Shawfest road trip on Canada day, with sides


“Mr. Shaw” himself, channeled by actor Guy Bannerman, met theatregoers arriving for the world-premiere run of George Bernard Shaw’s novella adaptation, “The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God.” Toting a stack of party hats, the playwright’s stand-in mingled with his audience in the intimate, thrust-stage Court House Theatre. The 1840s building which houses that upstairs venue also continues to serve eponymous municipal functions in Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON, Canada.

Lacking enough hats to go around, Bannerman’s GBS asked guests in my row to “Pick a number from one to ten.” He confessed the correct answer was in his head. When I replied “seven,” I received the prize.

Shaw’s “Black Girl” – brought vibrantly to life by Natasha Mumba — speculates on philosophy, theology and the meaning of life, a habit Shaw shared with his characters. The Toronto Star had noted, in its June 28, 2016 review days before our visit, that the production, adapted for staging by Lisa Codrington, “unfolds on top of a book” (while pondering whether the cast performed atop a behemoth Bible or GBS’s previously obscure novella). Seeking answers in the jungle to puzzles that had confounded her missionary, Black Girl meets a passel of gods and biblical characters, a sassy snake . . . and (unlike in the novella), GBS himself. He grumbles about the lunchtime production omitting his long preface. She advises caution, adding, “You could be replaced” in the name for the town’s annual, highly popular Shaw Festival (our destination on this pilgrimage). After all, she points out, Shakespeare’s name recently disappeared from that of Ontario’s nearby Stratford Festival. A hilarious, friendly sparring between cultures and times ensues.

We’d made it to Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) in a leisurely three days.

Our familiar trip north on I-81 from Virginia can be monotonous but not unpleasantly so, with brilliant sunsets over the Poconos; summer crown vetch blanketing medians; and numerous towns that, after numerous trips, I still know only by exit-signs: Frackville, Delano, Marion, Scotland, Shamokin, Nuangola. We detoured for an overnight in little Marathon, NY, which reminds my husband, Robin, of the set for the classic film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Marathon’s Three Bear Inn, on the site of a 1799 tavern, has seen ups and downs. This year, an online customer advised, “You need to bring your own soap.” Yet we found fresh soap bars, paid a surprisingly low $51, and enjoyed the restaurant’s artifacts and homestyle cooking.

The next day in Buffalo, Robin’s home town, we enjoyed dinner with a Buffalonian friend we had met in Virginia before she moved home. Warned of gridlock on Niagara River bridges, I kept the traffic-update number handy but encountered no delays. Having spotted our first seagull just east of Buffalo, we crossed the Lewiston–Queenston Bridge into Canada and a seaside topography: low trees, weather-beaten buildings, sand. We passed numerous vineyards, which we heard have surpassed peach orchards in the local economy.

NOTL’s Shaw Festival, a series of theatrical productions featuring works by Shaw (1856–1950) and his contemporaries, and plays set in that era, dates to 1962 and runs from April to November. Performances fill three theatres in the small town, all on Queen Street and Queen’s Parade: Court House, Royal George and the Festival.

We saw five plays (half the repertoire) in four days. Forewarned about demand, we had made theatre reservations in March (probably earlier than needed) and lodging in April (good idea). Our B&B, one of perhaps a hundred listed online, proved a lucky find: the Wild Rose, on leafy Dorchester Street a half-mile from downtown, had colorful gardens, excellent breakfasts and a personable, knowledgeable hostess who had settled there decades ago from Germany.

Downtown NOTL in midsummer has flowers as well as tourists everywhere. We liked to lunch at the Shaw Café and Wine Bar, in a venerable round building with more than enough window-box flora to occupy a full-time gardener. Enjoying an iced cappuccino and salad with cheese on the patio, we’d speculate whether its bronzed Mr. Shaw stand-in holds a playbook, or – if you accept the premise of him depicted as a maître d’ – a menu. Like Guy Bannerman, he smiles.

For our two productions at the Royal George Theatre, in a turn-of-the-20th-Century vaudeville house, we happened to land front-row, center seats. They were a mixed blessing, somewhat too close to the stage for comfortable leg room, but like Court House Theatre, Royal George abounds with Victorian charm.

We felt the production of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” brought Shaw’s work to life beautifully. The cast – especially the actresses playing Mrs. Warren (Nicole Underhay) and her elegantly raised daughter Vivien (Jennifer Dzialoszynski), unaware that her mother’s “oldest profession” supported her – were powerful. A delightful touch for this production was the pretense that the entire play was staged in the London “gentlemen’s club” where it had, in fact, been produced in 1902 while banned from public performance.

Each time I’ve seen a version of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” something different has grabbed me. I was struck this time by the plights of the drunken choir director as a frustrated maestro whose talents go unfulfilled in Grover’s Corners, NH; and of those departed townspeople condemned to sit, invisible, on the hillside for thousands of years, detaching from past lives and beloveds while awaiting “the bliss” to come. We were surprised that “Stage Manager” Benedict Campbell drew neither laughs nor boos when he pointed to the town’s “Canucks’” neighborhood. Though all productions seemed well-received, we also observed that NOTL audiences – befitting a culture allegedly more restrained than ours — mostly abstained from standing ovations.

In the larger, modern (1973) Festival Theatre, where souvenirs are marketed in the cleverly named “Shawp,” we took a backstage tour that included a glimpse of the “Sweeney Todd” set. We missed that show (one of us, having seen the filmed version, craved no fresh “pie shop” fare), but its maze of rusty rebar evoked the aura. Backstage, we learned of challenges in crafting Victorian-era costumes, devising ways to move the heaviest sets, creating illusions such as by having mirrors represent water, and other elaborate strategies entailed by a major production such as “Alice,” which we attended that night.

For us, that lavish offering of Lewis Carroll’s classic, adapted for stage by Peter Hinton with music by Allen Cole, was most remarkable for the special effects our backstage tour had explicated. The Victorian-fantasy scrim, multi-faced caterpillar, flaming red lobsters and deck of dancing cards were unforgettable, and even Spielberg might envy the illusion created of cable-suspended Alice swimming among bubbles in her pool of tears. The production did seem long for children, and seasoned actress Tara Rosling, as Alice, sometimes made her voice too high for audiences to hear her words. Lyrics in production numbers suffered similarly.

We returned to Court House Theatre for “’Master Harold’ and the Boys,” a shattering tale from midcentury South Africa, where it was once banned. Bright, callow 17-year-old Harold has been raised faithfully by Sam, one of his dysfunctional family’s middle-aged black servants (“the boys”). Harold’s ugly outburst against Sam is based on an event from playwright Athol Fugard’s youth that he has said haunts him.

Meanwhile, for us, Niagara-on-the-Lake never fell short of its moniker “Prettiest Town in Canada,” bestowed during a national beautification campaign.

After noticing a private golf course dominating the section of waterfront visible from town, and wondering if there was direct access, we quickly found two ways. Near NOTL’s eastern end, men fished off a jetty where countless fowl had left mementos. Then, west of town, we found a shoreline with maples and visitors backlit by a pink sunset over rippling blue water. Lake Ontario is too wide to see across, but we noticed what appears to be a lighthouse-keeper’s home on a peninsula.

Dining opportunities included the Epicure, featuring a patio in the shade of venerable trees, and Orzo. Both served excellent fare — just enough. The Greek-Canadian Restaurant has nice ambience and food, if too much of the latter. Sunset Café, where we spotted several actors lunching, has a bare-bones décor but fine lunches.

We encountered our week’s only rainfall while visiting the Welland Canal and museum, at nearby St. Catharines, to see the Hanse Gate, a big freighter from St. Johns, Newfoundland, pass through Lock 3. It entered; gates at both ends closed; then the lock poured out vast quantities of water, lowering the ship until the gates could reopen downstream and she could resume her course. It took about 20 minutes. Crewmen from Romania and Argentina exchanged waves with tourists from Italy and France, joined by young visitors in Amish or traditional Mennonite clothing. We had learned on an earlier, European cruise about locks, an ancient technology allowing safe navigation over uneven terrain. The Welland view proved enlightening for us, since while passing through those many locks on the Rhone and Saone we could never observe the process from outside. (For a somewhat dizzying, ten-minute time-lapse video of a vessel’s entire trip through the Welland, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U15Fwo9tbJ4.)

A woman from Italy took our photo with Robin peering through the cutout face of canal founder William Hamilton Merritt. It was Canada Day, and inside the museum, we enjoyed celebratory fiddle music and scones with tea.

Canada Day, July 1, may be a lower-key holiday than our July 4 (after all, it began with a treaty rather than that “shot heard ‘round the world”), yet it holds its own for traffic jams. On that, our final afternoon before heading home, we set out for Niagara Falls, just 15 miles from NOTL. Having always parked stateside at the Falls and walked into Canada via Rainbow Bridge (both before and after passports became required), we expected an easy jaunt. Wrong! We found parking at the Falls completely impossible. Drivers, yelling in several languages, inched through the sort of gridlock where all vehicles attempt to move in all directions. Sadly, a drive-by glimpse of Horseshoe Falls and the back of the Secret Garden restaurant were the nearest we got. After dark, we stopped by the lake back in NOTL to watch remote fireworks, even some flaming wheels. . .wondering how the display at the Falls was.

We crossed the Niagara Sunday morning to head home. At a travel plaza near Customs, on the Peace Bridge, a smiling greeter handed out circulars, bidding us, “Welcome to the Duty-Free.” It seemed weirdly churchlike, with devotees reverently approaching jewelry, electronics and wines. Our schedule did not let us partake.

We enjoyed a picnic with Robin’s Jamestown, NY relatives whose generations have lived along Fluvanna-Townline Road for 150 years. Cousin Craig took Robin over the wooded homestead on his four-wheeler, handling gullies easily thanks to summer’s drought. Next we visited Robin’s lifelong friend, Sid, and his wife Sylvia. After retiring to Florida, sure of leaving Buffalo and its formidable winters forever, they have snow-birded back to their home city the past few summers.

Near Erie, PA, we found Presque Island State Park with its statue of victorious War of 1812 Commander Oliver Perry. A plaque naming nearby Misery Bay reads “And the Misery begins…” Heroics had been followed by heroes starving and freezing.

Our final night out, the Pennsylvania Turnpike exit to Scottdale, Pa., site of our reserved hotel, was closed. The next exit got us hopelessly lost before we were able to change our lodging to nearby Donegal, eat very late, and collapse.

Next afternoon, on an impulse stop in Harper’s Ferry, WV, the heat and humidity hit us, but following the railroad bridge pedestrian walkway yielded the surprise of a long CSX freight rolling beside us into the tunnel – one last adventure before our sturdy 2010 Honda Insight hybrid’s 1600-mile journey’s end. Soon I would give my prize hat from GBS to a grandson.

Shaw Fest 2017 (http://www.shawfest.com/) will include Shaw’s “Saint Joan” and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” Tempting?

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