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Canada's Shaw Festival celebrates Coward one-acts

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ontario — George Bernard Shaw, patron saint of the Canadian theater festival that bears his name, is sharing center stage these days with another major playwright, Noel Coward.

In fact, Coward is popping up all over this postcard-pretty town in what could be the most tantalizing bit of theater programming in North America right now: all 10 of the master's one-act "Tonight at 8:30" plays, running in repertory well into October at the Shaw Festival 2009.

The 10 one-acts were written in the mid-1930s by Coward for himself and actress Gertrude Lawrence, who scored earlier in the decade with "Private Lives" and wanted to work together again.

At the Shaw Festival, the plays are performed in three groups of three plays each. The 10th — the rarely performed "Star Chamber" — is offered as a stand-alone, 50-minute lunchtime attraction.

That pre-matinee showcase is a regular feature each year at Shaw, and artistic director Jackie Maxwell was thinking of using one of the "Tonight at 8:30" plays for the slot when she read them all.

"I was just amazed at the range," she says. "There's the upper-crust Coward, the cigarette and martini pieces; there's fancy musicals; there's 'The Astonished Heart,' a very powerful drama, and the very poignant 'Still Life.' And if anyone can do all of them, we can.

"So we just sort of developed this plan — splitting them into three triplets ... (with) three different creative teams and then sort of slowly folding them into the season," Maxwell adds.

After viewing seven of the 10 plays, one thing is clear. Coward's one-acts are, to quote the man, "a marvelous party." But they are more than light entertainment. They are highly crafted, insightful works, mirrors into a particular time and place and the intricate relationships between men and women. They are worthy to stand beside not only "Private Lives," but other full-length Coward works such as "Design for Living," "Blithe Spirit" and "Present Laughter."

Take "Still Life," the play that eventually became Coward's classic film "Brief Encounter." Here, it leads off an evening at Shaw's Festival Theatre — at 869 seats, the company's largest venue — under the collective title "Brief Encounters," which is, more or less, the theme of the evening.

"Still Life" examines middle-age romance, a love affair doomed by middle-class propriety and responsibility. It's beautifully acted by Deborah Hay and Patrick Galligan. Their characters' anguish is understated — all the more heartbreaking because of the absence of any public display of emotion.

The two, lonely housewife and courtly doctor, meet periodically in the "refreshment room" of a suburban railway station, a lovely, moodily atmospheric setting designed by William Schmuck. Life and the flirtations of railroad employees swirl around the couple. Their ache for each other is unobserved by the others but very, very real — at least to the audience. It makes for buckets of regret.

Coward's dialogue is masterful — piercingly passionate. Yet the two leads never allow it to turn soupy. The result is sentiment honestly earned and altogether haunting.

Maxwell changes pace immediately with "We Were Dancing," a love-at-first-sight farce set against the backdrop of a tropical island. The action is deliberately silly and played in a kind of Technicolor comedic frenzy that includes a wild, Bollywood-style rendition of the title tune. Trifle it may be, but acted with complete conviction by a large cast that again features Hay and Galligan in fine form.

Then there is "Hands Across the Sea," Coward deftly skewering the ditzy smart set in which an oh-so-chic London couple entertain colonial visitors from the Far East. The trouble is: The hosts can't quite remember who these interlopers are but pretend to know them anyway.

It makes for some scathingly funny portraits of a high-tone crowd. Particularly effective is Goldie Semple, giving a delightfully extravagant performance as a society matron with a fondness for alcohol and the sound of her own voice.

"Play, Orchestra, Play" is the collective title for another of the Coward triple bills, this one being performing at the jewel-box, 328-seat Royal George Theatre. It's here where one wonders what Coward and Lawrence must have been like in these one-acts.

That's especially true of the curtain-raiser, "Red Peppers," the tale of a squabbling married couple, working their way through a tired routine in the waning days of music-hall entertainment.

This play with music demands a certain star quality to make the bickering, not to mention the songs, work. As George and Lily Pepper, Jay Turvey and Patty Jamieson give dutiful performances that capture the couple's crankiness but not the breezy style that should permeate their combative chatter, not only with each other but with a belligerent musical conductor and an equally abrasive theater manager.

Coward described "Fumed Oak," the evening's second play, as "an unpleasant comedy." Unpleasant in its portrayal of three generations of disagreeable women — mother-in-law, wife and daughter. Each makes life miserable for silently suffering Henry Gow, at least in the play's first scene.

But then "nasty" offers three actresses — Wendy Thatcher, Jamieson (again) and Robin Evan Willis — the opportunity to really emote, and they seize it with relish. So does Steven Sutcliffe as the impossibly henpecked Henry, whose coming of age in the play's final scene is a joy. The meek, or maybe it is the newly brave, really do inherit the earth.

The most ambitious of this trio is the music-flecked "Shadow Play." It's a thoroughly adult take on a shipwrecked marriage as seen through the pill-induced vision of the play's heroine, Victoria Gayforth, played by the stylish Julie Martell. She and her husband (Sutcliffe) are both carrying on affairs, but that hasn't stopped them from re-examining their own relationship.

Vicky's remembrances are sprinkled with song, including "You Were There," one of Coward's loveliest melodies, and it makes for a surprisingly affecting look at that it takes to keep two people together.

For Coward buffs, "Star Chamber," that lunchtime attraction, is the real rarity. Nearly a dozen actors plus one large dog are needed to pull off the play, which is being performed at the Royal George. We're in familiar Coward territory: a loving, if comic salute to show biz. In this case, the slender plot focuses on a gathering of actors who are on the board of a theatrical charity.

Director Kate Lynch seems to have pushed the play vaguely into the 1960s for no discernible reason. But the types of performers being spoofed are universal — diva, loudmouth, ever-reminiscing comic, preening leading man, grande dame, eccentric character actress.

Their hearts are in the right place, even if their egos are not, and Coward has sweet-tempered fun gently poking at the foibles of these theater folk.

In his introduction to these plays, Coward wrote: "A short play, having a great advantage over a long one in that it can sustain a mood without technical creaking or over-padding, deserves a better fate, and if, by careful writing, acting and producing I can do a little towards reinstating its rightful pride, I shall have achieved one of my most sentimental ambitions."

With a little help from Maxwell and her crew, he has more than accomplished that goal.