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As sure as Shaw, pt. 2

The best of the rest at the 2006 Shaw Festival

Unless you're crazy for ice wine or hours of biking, there isn't much to do between shows in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Once the shops along the main drag have been explored, one must be resourceful in occupying time. May I suggest "Spot-the-Actor Bingo"? Save your theater programs; these are your game boards. When you spot an actor out of costume and traversing the streets, be the first to call out "bingo." As a reward, your party owes you a cone from Cow's ice cream parlor.

The majority of the actors employed by the Shaw Festival perform in two of the 10 shows running in the current season. Many of them live in town. If you keep your eyes peeled, you may see them moving silently amongst the throngs of picture-snapping tourists. Of a truly competitive spirit? To rack up a multitude of cones, station yourself in the consignment area of the Courthouse Theater. The actors sneak in through the fire escape 45 minutes before the performance begins.

By far, the best occupation of your time is in seeing theater.

"I'm an immigrant in a country of immigrants," Lise Berg informs the audience of The Magic Fire. Wandering through an abandoned apartment, Lise explores the Argentinean home of her childhood and revisits her memories. As an outsider looking in on her own life, Lise gains new perspective.

As the young Lise, Lila Bata-Walsh is exuberant. Her interaction with her older self, played by Tara Rosling, makes for an interesting dynamic. Although the same person, they are in different stages and have vastly different understandings of the same situation: young Lise is lost in innocence, oblivious to the rising political tension that affects her family, while the elder Lise is distraught by the disparity between her memories and the reality she is now capable of understanding. Playwright Lillian Groag forces the audience to reconsider their own childhood memories.

Jennifer Phipps, as Lise's dramatic great grandmother, Nonna Guarneri, hilariously embodies every stereotype about elderly Italian widows. Swathed in black, hair in a tight bun, she rails about her deceased husband, "the welcher," abandoning her in this country far from home. And, for fans of the Anne of Green Gables mini-series, there is a special surprise. Patricia Hamilton, the actress who played infamous gossip Rachel Lynde, appears as Lise's great aunt.

Imagine peering through a Viewmaster. Yes, the child's toy through which you might see a 3D picture of Mt.Rushmore. With its sky blue walls, richly upholstered antiques, and velvet curtains in the foreground and staircase in the background, the set designed by Christina Poddubiuk is slightly disorienting, beautiful, and cold; a perfect setting for The Heiress, based on Henry James' Washington Square.

Even in her early 20s, Catherine Sloper is an old maid. An intelligent and fortunate girl with a large inheritance to her name, Catherine should be a hot property in 1850s New York. However, her shyness is debilitating. This timidity is extreme around her judgmental father, a man who resents his daughter because his wife died in childbirth.

When Catherine meets her dream man, the charming but near indigent Morris Townsend, she is thrilled. However, Daddy doesn't approve, accusing Townsend of being a gold digger. When Catherine doubts Townsend's intentions, the drama begins.

Many of Catherine's relatives refer to her as plain, so plain they believe her incapable of honest love. Although Tara Rosling (Catherine) wears a mousy wig, it is impossible to hide the beauty of an actress who looks like Julia Stiles.

Rosling transforms completely into this timorous woman, quieting her voice to a mere whisper and averting her eyes from interaction. Covered in ruffles and lace, Rosling effectively hides behind her colossal corseted gown (think Mary Todd Lincoln). Her antagonist, the suspect Townsend, is played with true grit by Mike Shara. His performance is so effective that during his bow the audience booed in appreciation.

This story has a delightfully evil twist that any jilted lover will take sick pleasure in relishing.

Inspired by the persecution of suspected communists by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Arthur Miller traveled to Salem, Massachusetts to research the town's infamous witch trials. Miller hoped to make Americans aware that history was repeating itself, that those who named names to appease Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s were no different than those who accused their neighbors in the 1690s. Miller is certainly one of America's most important playwrights and, besides that, he nailed Marilyn Monroe.

A wintry pine forest is projected onto a screen. Whispers surround the audience, growing in intensity. Dark music throbs as shadows grow on the screen. The shadows sway, arms extended, praying. As the music quiets, the cries of a man, prostrate at the foot of his daughter's sick bed, are heard. This is the opening of The Crucible.

Reverend Parris is stunned when he discovers his niece, Abigail Williams, and the girls of Salem chanting, dancing naked in the woods. When his daughter is taken gravely ill, Parris suspects the devil. Abigail, accused of witchery, turns on the person she knows is least able to defend herself, Tituba, the family's Barbadian slave. The girls, at first desperate to save themselves and then heady with power, incite mass hysteria as citizens wildly accuse each other of conspiring with the devil.

Despite the innovative set and moving music, the cast fails to live up to the potential of their characters. Benedict Campbell as John Proctor and Kelli Fox as his wife, Elizabeth, have the opportunity to deliver a heart-wrenching interpretation of Miller's climactic confession scene, but theirs is passionless. The most disappointing performance comes from Charlotte Gowdy as Abigail, whose character should be the embodiment of desperation and callousness. She misinterprets her lines, missing the opportunity to take pleasure in the evil Abby spews.

If the name Anton Checkov were mentioned in an association test, "hilarious" wouldn't be the first word to spring to mind. But his Love Among the Russians is just that. A lunchtime performance, the show is made up of two short, unrelated plays, both pondering the ups and downs of falling in love.

The nasal yodeling of Adam Sandler warbles through a folksy song about the downfalls of love. OK, so it isn't Sandler himself. It's a round little man wearing fake moustache and mutton chops, but his voice approximates Sandler's.

In "The Bear," Elena Ivanovna Popova is a desperate widow mourning the loss of her true love: her lying, cheating husband. Her eternal bereavement is rudely interrupted by Grigory Stepanovich Smirnov, a grizzly of a man, played by Blair Williams, who insists that Elena repay the debt of her husband. When she refuses immediate payment, the two embark on a contemptuous relationship that could change both of their lives.

In "The Proposal," faced with the prospect of spending his life alone or asking his neighbor Stepan Steanovich Chubukov for his daughter's hand in marriage, Ivan Vasylievich Lomov stands in his neighbor's home, incredibly nervous and shivering through his undersized tux. When Natalya Stepanovna, the prospective fiancé, enters, conflict begins.

Diana Donnelly plays both Elena and Natalya. From Elena, a wailing, stubborn widow, to Natalya, an unrefined, powerful woman, Donnelly makes a complete transformation. Martin Harper takes on the role of Ivan, the spastic lover, and William Vickers is the blowhard Stepan. Together, they make a vivacious trio with boundless comedic energy.

So, get yourself up to Niagara-on-the-Lake for some great theater, a little ice wine, and a killer game of bingo.

The 2006 Shaw Festival, featuring Arms and the Man, High Society, Too True to Be Good, The Crucible, The Magic Fire, Rosmersholm, Love Among the Russians, The Heiress, The Invisible Man, and Design for Living, continues through November 19 at several theaters in Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario, Canada. For schedules and ticket information visit www.shawfest.com, or call 800-511-SHAW.

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