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Wit, Comedy Sparkle at Canada's 35th Shaw Festival

The Shaw Festival, currently in its 35th season in the beautiful town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, is truly one of the finest theater festivals in North America. Dedicated to the plays of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries (the plays must have been written between 1856 and 1950, Shaw's lifetime), the current season includes 11 shows performed in three different theaters.

Two of the best are Shaw's "The Devil's Disciple" and the rarely produced "Hobson's Choice," by British playwright Harold Brighouse (you may remember the 1954 movie version, directed by David Lean and starring Charles Laughton).

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Devil's Disciple is a combination adventure story and satire, set during the American Revolution, and centering around a scoundrel named Dick Dudgeon (Gordon Rand), whose glib ways mask a committed heroic streak. When Dudgeon is mistaken by British forces for the Rev. Anthony Anderson (Peter Hutt) and jailed for treason, Dudgeon doesn't bother to correct them, even though it means losing his life. And the reverend's wife (Sarah Orenstein) suddenly finds all her beliefs about her husband called into question.

The play dazzles with wit, particularly in the form of "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne (Andrew Gillies), who reluctantly proceeds with his duties despite his personal revulsion.

Hobson's Choice, written in 1915, is a play that was clearly ahead of its time, a feminist comedy in which the eldest daughter of a tyrannical shoe-shop proprietor takes matters into her own hands. She manages to save the store, her family, and herself in the process.

Maggie Hobson (Corrine Koslo) decides to break out on her own, and she chooses the mild-mannered Willie (Simon Bradbury), a lowly craftsman in her father's store, to help her and to marry her as well. Willie is befuddled by this turn of events, but is unable to resist Maggie's strong will. Over the next year, the lives of all the principals change dramatically, particularly the King Lear-like Henry Horatio Hobson (Michael Ball), who learns a lesson about his own pomposity.

Directed by Christopher Newton, the Shaw's artistic director since 1980, the play is both moving and hilariously funny. It seems utterly contemporary in its themes and concerns.

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