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The Shaw Festival, one of North America’s most ambitious classical theater festivals, is presenting 11 plays and musicals in four different performance spaces this season. After five visits to Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Shaw’s small-town home, I’ve long since learned that its productions are of consistently high quality. But the two shows I saw last week in the 313-seat Royal George Theatre, a renovated 1915 vaudeville house of unrivaled beauty and intimacy, are noteworthy even for the Shaw, and one of them, a perfectly wrought version of “Dancing at Lughnasa,” Brian Friel’s 1990 masterpiece, is a major event by any conceivable standard….
A memory play influenced to like degree by Chekhov and “The Glass Menagerie,” “Dancing at Lughnasa” unfolds in and near the cottage of five spinster sisters (Fiona Byrne, Diana Donnelly, Claire Jullien, Sarena Parmar and Tara Roslin) whose uneventful existence is about to be shattered by the coming of modernity. The time is 1936, the place rural Ireland, but there is nothing alien about the plight of the Mundy sisters—they could be from Appalachia or Arkansas—or the tight-knit family life that they share, a life whose closeness cannot survive the centrifugal forces of industrialization, war, and sexual desire….
Ms. Jackson’s staging unfolds in an unadorned, non-realistic playing area designed by Sue LePage whose cheap sticks of furniture are framed by the drab blue-greens and washy blue sky of fading memory. Her ensemble cast, most of whose members are Shaw Festival veterans, performs with a telepathic singleness of purpose….
As for the Shaw’s production of Alan Bennett’s “The Madness of George III,” it is arguably even more important as an event, since revivals of Mr. Bennett’s 1991 play, a costume piece with two dozen speaking roles, are very rare. (The only important American production in recent years was at San Diego’s Old Globe in 2010.) Kevin Bennett, the director, has contrived to perform “George III” on a smallish stage with 12 actors, a feat of legerdemain that I hope will inspire others to emulate it, though what I’d really like is for this revival to be remounted in New York. Totally different in tone and approach from Nicholas Hytner’s 1994 film version, which was based on the original National Theatre stage production and preserved Nigel Hawthorne’s acclaimed performance of the title role, it’s just as successful in its own distinctive way, and features a sumptuous star turn by Tom McCamus….
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Read the whole thing here.
Watch a time-lapse video that shows how the Shaw Festival’s stage crew strikes the set for Dancing at Lughnasa and prepares the stage of the Royal George Theatre for a performance of The Madness of King George: