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Great Catherine


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LAUNCH OF SHAWFEST

Jane Enkin, January 11, 2012

ShawFest, the 2012 Master Playwright Festival, opened today with a lively Shavian Shindig at the Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre, as media and theatre people chatted with costumed actors from many of this year's performances.
 
Executive director Chuck McEwen spoke briefly about each event. He was interrupted by George Bernard Shaw himself, who took the podium to eloquently address the crowd. “Few people think more than two or three times a year;” he intoned, “I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.” Pointing out the message of his plays, he reminded us that “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
 
McEwen then continued, with pauses for brief scenes from Arms and the Man and Candida. With the speeches over, just as the mingling began, heavy drum beats announced the dramatic entrance of Roman guards, flanking the beautifully costumed Caesar and Cleopatra. The director of Shaw's play about them looked dazzling in his colourful outfit too.
 
Empress Catherine the Great, in a voluminous golden gown and jewelled tiara, introduced herself to me and handed me a flyer advertising Shoestring Player's double bill of Great Catherine and Annajanska, The Bolshevik Empress. Shaw, she told me in her lovely German-Russian accent, understood that she was a strong woman, forward looking, with liberal ideas. “Unfortunately,” she said, “I found it impossible to carry out my progressive plans, but I started it all.”
 
The director of Great Catherine, Katherine McLennan, filled me in on the process of putting together the festival. A committee chooses the playwright and, in a series of three meetings, theatre companies share out plays and venues. Shoestring Player's mandate as a community theatre called for a play with a large cast. McLennan enjoys the light-hearted feeling of Great Catherine. The Empress read Voltaire and dreamed of freeing the serfs, but was convinced by nobles to abandon such risky ideas and spent the rest of her reign expanding the Empire. She did manage to improve healthcare and education for women. Shaw teases Catherine for her high ideals, yet also shows his admiration.
 
Director Brendan Carruthers of Tara Players said their small performance space led him to Candida, one of Shaw's most popular plays. “Shaw saw Candida as the New Woman, who wanted her own way and wouldn't allow her husband to steamroller her into anything.” Shaw's great respect for her is evident -- in fact, he had a hard time having the play produced because male actors did not like the weak characters they were asked to portray.
 
Ray Strachan enthusiastically chose to direct and co-produce Shaw's entertaining play Caesar and Cleopatra. The playwright wanders happily away from recorded ancient history to create his satire on colonialism. Strachan has high praise for lead actor Natasha Durand, who captures Cleopatra's transition from a childish 16 year old to a grown woman in this trimmed, fast-moving adaptation of the play. Strachan has been involved with the Master Playwright Festival for many years, first as a student actor at U of M and now, for the first time, as producer.
 
Sylvia Fisher is stage manager for two play readings, Heartbreak House and St Joan, (appropriate for the 600th anniversary of Joan of Arc's birth).
 
Fisher is excited about Pshaw!, a literary roast of the playwright, featuring entertaining and fascinating arguments by his critics, and a rebuttal by the great man himself. She has organized fundraising readings since O'NeillFest, in 2006, in support of the Actor's Fund of Canada. This year, she and playwright Stefanie Wiens decided on something new and fun, with lots of involvement from the theatre community.
 
Winnipeg playwright Daniel Thau-Elef wasn't present at the launch, but I'm looking forward to learning more about his new play My Affair With George Bernard, starring revered actress Doreen Brownstone.
 
Many ShawFest events are in small venues, some without reserved seats, so I recommend reserving when possible and arriving early. Enjoy!
 
Arms and the Man Jan 20 – Jan 29
 
Candida Jan 19 -- 29
 
Great Catherine and Annajanska, The Bolshevik Empress Jan 22 – Jan 29
 
Caesar and Cleopatra Jan 19 – Jan 28
 
Pshaw! Followed by Closing Night Party Feb 5
 
My Affair With George Bernard Jan 24 – Jan 28
 
For information about these and the many other ShawFest events, go to
 
 
Click on the image of the page labelled “Festival Planner” to read through the entire program booklet.
 
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