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Confections from Shaw's contemporaries

THE mandate at Ontario's Shaw Festival is ``Shaw and his contemporaries,'' which gives artistic director Christopher Newton quite an amount of leeway in terms of repertoire. For this 25th-anniversary season, the non-Shavian repertoire is quite varied, from Pirandello to the Gershwins. I caught up with productions of No"el Coward's ``Cavalcade,'' Ben Travers's ``Banana Ridge,'' and Philip Barry's ``Holiday.''

``Cavalcade'' follows a British couple and their servants from New Year's Eve, 1899, to New Year's Eve, 1930. By focusing on intimate moments in the life of these families, Coward makes immediate the turmoil that British society underwent between the end of the Victorian era and the end of the third decade of the 20th century.

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Coward conceived of the show as a private drama set against a historic panorama. He wanted his audience to shed a tear at some personal moment, then catch a breath at some scenic change. He even had special stage elevators built for the Drury Lane Theatre, where the first production took place in 1931. The Shaw Festival Theatre stage and budget cannot cope with what Coward had in mind. Yet the production -- revived from last season -- is spectacular.

Projections and Jeffrey Dallas's superb lighting do a good deal of the work, but when needed, set pieces of gigantic splendor are brought before us on the large revolving stage. With designer Cameron Porteous's dazzling final vision of the mirrored, art-deco nightclub, the eye is amply satisfied.

Mr. Newton and Duncan McIntosh, the codirectors, could not resist the temptation to make the antiwar message over-lurid, which, at times, detracted from the piece. Yet the last scene of the second act, in which Jane's despair over the loss of her second son was cruelly juxtaposed with Armistice Day delirium, made an unforgettable image.

The performances are all quite lovely. Nora McLellan may lack the ability to make Jane a true archetype of British uppercrust substantiality, but many of her moments proved vulnerable and touching. Among the best of the large cast of essentially vignette characters are: Andrew Gillies as her husband, Robert; Michael Ball as Alfred, the butler; Wendy Thatcher as Ellen, his wife; and Christine Willies as Rose Darling. ``Cavalcade'' closes Oct. 12. `Holiday'

American playwright Philip Barry's ``Holiday'' is a remarkable piece of work that both lovingly portrays and lambasts the social mores of the monied elite on the American East Coast in the early decades of this century. Mr. McIntosh, a young Canadian director, clearly wants to show that this is more than a biting drawing-room comedy about a young socialite struggling to free herself from her oppressive environment. Unfortunately, he overplays his hand, and makes it all ponderous and even mawkish.

John Pennoyer's silver and black quasi-art-deco sets and costumes do not help. Under Robert Thomson's mostly neon lighting, the players looked drained of life and color. Even if this is supposed to look like a black- and-white movie, it ends up smacking more of the funeral-home imagery Barry uses in the second act.

McIntosh has gotten his characters' functions confused. For instance, it is Kate Trotter who enters with life-giving energy, instead of Johnny Case. Miss Trotter is so overbearing at first that we are blinded both to Linda Seton's tender side and to her real dilemma until too far into the second act. John Moffatt's portrayal of Johnny Case is so understated that he never becomes the catalyst necessary to this play. In another crucial role, Deborah Taylor's Julia Seton would have been better suited to the world of Philip Roth than Philip Barry.

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This play is deeper than one first imagines, and we don't get the right sense of it here. ``Holiday'' runs at the Court House Theatre through Sept. 21. `Banana Ridge'

``Banana Ridge,'' which runs through Oct. 4 at the Festival Theatre, is the silliest sort of fluff, but when handled with style it is vastly entertaining. It is the sort of thing that the Shaw Festival has been doing particularly well over the years. Fortunately, some North American company understands how to make farce work properly. The plot is inconsequential. The humor relies more on timing than on real wit. The element of vulgarity crucial to this sort of low comedy must verge on inanity if it is to catch its audience in the right mood, as it does here. The cast, including Mary Haney, Marti Maraden, Wendy Thatcher, Herb Foster, Barry MacGregor, and Jack Medley, is first rate. The production, designed by Peter Wingate, couldn't look more charming. Ian Judge's direction is virtually flawless.

Second of two articles on the Shaw Festival. The first appeared Sept. 4.

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