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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Join a busman’s holiday to a great theater fest

Canada’s Shaw Festival continues to reward.

PHOTO: The Royal George Theatre is one of four performance sites of the Shaw Festival in Ontario, Canada. Warren Gerds photo

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONTARIO, CANADA (WFRV) – Sometimes for vacation I take a busman’s holiday. It seems I can’t get enough of theater, that kaleidoscope of illusion and imagination. Recently, five plays were on my agenda at the Shaw Festival, reputed to be the second largest repertory theater company in North America. The Shaw’s performances run from the start of April through the end of October – hard to fathom for folks in Northeastern Wisconsin. But, heck, that’s equal to a Packers season.

Going to the Shaw Festival is somewhat daunting. From Green Bay to Niagara-on-the-Lake is about 500 miles as the crow flies (two flights by airplane) and 613 miles by car – and thus not a drop-everything-and-let’s-go destination for people around here. So come along and let me take you vicariously to the area.

No. 1, you should know that one of the wonders of the world is nearby – 20 miles down the road. It’s Niagara Falls.

It calls up the indefinite past. When Columbus first sought this continent – when Christ suffered on the cross – when Moses led Israel through the Red-Sea – nay, even, when Adam first came from the hand of his Maker – then as now, Niagara was roaring here. The eyes of that species of extinct giants, whose bones fill the mounds of America, have gazed on Niagara, as ours do now.

Who wrote that? Abraham Lincoln. That gives pause, as do the power of the water, the constant roar and the soaring mists of Niagara Falls.

No. 2, the area is wine country. The rugged Niagara Escarpment – looping all the way from Northeastern Wisconsin to the Niagara River (more or less) – serves as just the right stuff for many wineries. Many vintners offer tours.

No. 3, - I’ll get to the plays later – the region is scenic. The Niagara River, in the right light, is radiant azure. Cliffs heighten the viewing. From a park in Niagara-on-the-Lake, you can look across Lake Ontario and see the skyline of Toronto.

No. 4, Niagara-on-the-Lake has a character of its own. It’s small, but it’s international. Niagara-on-the-Lake lies between Buffalo and Toronto, so it is a destination for big-city folk. Drives to it are scenic. The nearby presence of Niagara Falls attracts a world audience; so many languages are heard on the street. The main drag is a combination of souvenir shops and high-end shops and mainline eateries and fine dining spots. Some of the hotels are mighty fine. Nearby is historic Fort George, which provides a Canadian take on such matters as the War of 1812. In view across the river on the United States side is Fort Niagara.

No. 5, the Shaw Festival puts the city on the map as a place apart.* Acting is by highly polished professionals you never heard of because they’re “hidden” in Canada. The festival puts on 10 plays in a season. Schedule: www.shawfest.com/playbill/. Many of the plays are not put on in this area, so that’s an attraction for me. Here’s what I saw:

- “Arms and the Man.” This is an accessible comedy by George Bernard Shaw. It’s 100-some years old, and it shows that humankind hasn’t changed – and wars continue coming. While George Bernard Shaw is the namesake for the festival, the organizers are not ramrod stiff about what has to be offered. “Arms and the Man” is one of two Shaw plays in this season.

- “Cabaret,” the musical based on the writings of Christopher Isherwood. I’ll always remember this show by the name given to it by the young man who taxied my wife and me one night – “Cabernet.” (It is wine country). The production has a terrific leading lady as free-wheeling showgirl Sally Bowles, but its overall approach is heavy handed.

- “The Philadelphia Story.” The comedy by Phillip Barry is of the late ’30s. Residual effects got in my head – some from the classic movie and some from leading cast members who also have dark roles in “Cabaret.” The production still is in previews and by theater protocol I’m not supposed to review the show, so pretend this is a preview of my column and you’re not reading it.

- “The Charity That Began at Home: A Comedy for Philanthropists.” This is a worthy comedy by St John Hankin that the Shaw has dug up from the past. Again, it shows that humankind does not change much – this time in dealing with do-gooders.

- “When We Are Married.” Wit and tight writer J.B. Priestley concocted this comedy about three couples who discover at their mutual 25th wedding anniversary celebration that the pastor flubbed the legalities of their marriages. The couples delightfully wrestle with the prospects of being un-married. This production also still is in previews, so pretend you’re not reading this.

The Shaw Festival is a case of, If you build it, they will come. In that way, it is like the Stratford Festival, another wonder of theater in Ontario that features plays of, but not exclusively of, William Shakespeare. Stratford started in the early 1950s. The Shaw started in the early 1960s. Both feature top-flight acting and production values and a set of theaters within walking distance of each other. Both cities embrace the industry that has evolved and grown. Both places prove that dreams sometimes become reality. Imagine Green Bay or Appleton starting a theater festival – theaters in walking distance, housing, restaurants, shopping attractions, the lure nearby of an international attraction (Lambeau Field) – and it’s quite possible. (Ideas are free; execution is another matter).

If you travel to eat, Niagara-on-the-Lake is none-too-shabby a stop. Here’s a sample from one menu, that of the Tiara restaurant in the Queen’s Landing hotel.

Seafood Cioppino: Tiger Prawn, Baby Clams, Honey Mussels, Bread Crisps, Yuzu Lobster Broth.

Tasting of Quebec Foie Gras: Pan Seered Escalope, Vanilla Scented Torchon, Gewurztraminer Sour Dough, House Made Preserves.

Pan Seared Rib Steak and Short Rib “Wellington”: Sautéed Exotic Mushrooms, Roasted Cauliflower Puree, Café au Lait Sauce.

Pan Seared Organic Char and Nero Tempura Lobster: Sweet Potato and Smoked Almond Croquette, Fried Cabbage Leaves, Chorizo Fennel Nage.

Our server at the Tiara was Rudy, to whom I think I am indebted for a kindness for something I forgot. Long story short: There still are nice people in the world.

The Shaw Festival is plays, but the experience is more than plays. Many things fit together nicely.

* You may not know about the Shaw, but the people around there know about us as a place apart because of Lambeau Field and the Green Bay Packers and, to some extent, Wisconsin cheese. Among people we told about our being from Green Bay, all connected the place with the Packers – and basically in a positive way. Generally, the people were from somewhere around the Great Lakes, so there must be a cultural awareness about Green Bay and the Packers.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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