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Sophomore success
Buffalo News- 4/ 30/ 2004
When Jackie Maxwell arrived as new artistic director of the Shaw Festival last year, nobody had to wait long to see her emerge as a distinctive presence in one of Canada's most lauded repertory theater companies. She was replacing the formidable Christopher Newton, who over two decades had put his fine stamp on Shaw. With some help from him, she shaped what turned out to be a tremendous first season.

It was a season that revealed Maxwell's singular talent for intelligent and balanced play selection. It also proved her to be an excellent literary sleuth in the vein of what she calls Newton's "archaeological" unearthing of worthy works by heretofore neglected playwrights. And not incidently, Niagara-on-the-Lake theatergoers were given confirmation of what was already widely known in the rest of Canada: Maxwell is a superb stage director.

For 2004 Maxwell returns, once again mightily armed with a fabulously varied slate of plays. As anyone might guess, the unbreakable rule at Shaw is that George Bernard Shaw's plays establish the bedrock of a season. Maxwell has chosen "Pygmalion," one of two plays she will direct, and "Man and Superman" with a dozen of the performances to be the full five-hour version that includes the play-within-a-play "Don Juan in Hell."

" "Pygmalion' is such an iconic Shaw play," Maxwell said by phone between the multiple duties of a season already into preview performances. "It is kind of scary to be directing it because it is so identified with so many different people. But it is a fabulous story I get to tell, and we have a wonderful Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in Jim Mezon and Lisa Norton."

She departs from tradition with this play by expanding the presence of those noisy Londoners of the first scene. "What I've done is have the Londoners appear throughout the play, moving sets and reading some of Shaw's stage directions. I think that hearing Shaw's descriptions in the stage directions will set a real context for the story. Of course the focus will still be on the battle of wills between Higgins and Eliza."

She has not messed with Shaw's infamous unhappy ending, as did the 1956 musical version, "My Fair Lady."

"In my mind, it doesn't need a happy ending," she said. "In "My Fair Lady' the implication is that they will get together; with Shaw it's clear they're won't. I hope to turn some heads around by emphasizing that."

Maxwell's chose "Rutherford and Son" as the second play to direct. This makes sense, since she's the one who, during one of those "archaeological" missions, dug up this obscure 1912 piece about a Northern England industrialist named John Rutherford who rules factory and family with an iron hand.

"I have taken a different tack from that of Christopher," Maxwell explained. "I decided to search out forgotten Edwardian women writers, such as last season's "Diana of Dobson's' (by Ceely Hamilton) and this season's "Rutherford and Son.' "

"Rutherford and Son" was not only written by a woman - the British playwright and verse writer Githa Sowerby - but it also features a woman as both subject and as agent of change, Maxwell said. "It was really hailed in 1912. It's a hard-hitting piece."

Maxwell is happy to announce that Newton will return this season as director of what might be the world's most perfect farce - Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest."

"You've got to have a real reason to do "Earnest' again," Maxwell said. "Christopher and I wanted to take the barnacles off and give it an intimate look. That's why we're doing it in the Royal George Theatre."

The Royal George is indeed more intimate, a theater that Maxwell thinks will allow them to remove "a little of the gloss" and tighten things up to further enliven the comedy.

"Man and Superman," Shaw's great satire on romance, and its internal drama "Don Juan in Hell" are most often done separately, given that together they run upwards of five hours. Shaw Festival has solved the problem of a long play by dividing it in two with a pre-arranged lunch as part of the ticket price, according to Maxwell. "It should be great fun."

The musicals this year include a standard - what Maxwell described as "a sassy and sexy" rendering of Richard Rodger's 1948 "Pal Joey" - and a contemporary musical by Adam Guettle, the 1996 "Floyd Collins."

"Guettle represents a new generation of younger composers," Maxwell said about an artist who was mentored by none other than Stephen Sondheim. " "Floyd Collins' is a true story. Set in the depression in Kentucky, a caver - a spelunker, as they're called - is looking for a way to get his family out of poverty and discovers a cave that he hopes to make into a tourist trap."

The trouble is, the cave becomes a trap for Floyd himself. "At the time he was trapped it set off the first media circus," Maxwell noted. "So we have the musical divided between this carnival-like atmosphere above ground set against the underground scene where Floyd is trapped. The music has a wonderful, soaring, very American feeling."

One of the shining gems of last season was Brian Friel's "Afterplay," in which the Irish playwright brings together two Chekhov characters from two different plays and creates an entirely new "Chekhovian" encounter. This season we have George T. Walker basing his 1988 play "Nothing Sacred" on Turgenev's "Father and Sons."

In Maxwell's view, the art of adaptation is an endlessly tricky one. But Walker succeeds fabulously: "He takes the spirit of the piece and casts it in his own voice, giving it this powerful contemporary energy."

Among the lighter fare is John Cecil Holm's 1935 "Three Men on a Horse," what Maxwell calls "an all-out, no-holds-barred caper driven by a very physical kind of comedy." Terence Rattigan's 1948 "Harlequinade" is about a thespian couple who may have performed one too many presentations of "Romeo and Juliet." Maxwell sees it as a backstage comedy that is something like a "post-World War II version of Michael Frayn's "Noises Off.' "

Maxwell pointed out that the Second World War is also the dropback for another sort of play by Canadian playwright John Murrell. "Waiting for the Parade" is a 1977 piece that gives a nostalgic look back on the women who waited on the homefront in Alberta.

In addition to Wilde, Maxwell draws on another great Irish playwright this season, the very un-Wildean J.M. Synge. "The Tinker's Wedding" (1907) tells the comic tale of a woman determined to marry a man but can't find a priest who will perform the ceremony.

And Maxwell's season holds one huge surprise: a Eugene O'Neill play. "Shaw Festival has never done one before," Maxwell said. "We're changing that with "Ah, Wilderness!,' O'Neill's only comedy."

The play deals with an ordinary American family in 1906 and the usual trials of small town life. The chief character is a young and rebellious romantic by the name of Richard Miller. What most alarms his parents is his reading habits. They suspect writers like Swinburne and Omar Khayyam are putting strange ideas into his head, while the naughty Oscar Wilde is busy undermining his morals. And then there's that political and social upstart, George Bernard Shaw: He may be the most corrupting of all.

Shaw's days of derailing susceptile youth may be long past. But in Maxwell's words, Shaw was "a cranky provocateur who continually burst through the palls of self-satisfaction and mediocrity."

His plays still do that. And so does the festival that bears his name.

e-mail: rhuntington@buffnews.com

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