It’s all in the writing

Theatre-goers get a taste of George Bernard Shaw at this year’s Master Playwright Festival

  • Tracy Penner and Graham Ashmore in zone41’s take on George Bernard Shaw’s Village Wooing at this year’s Master Playwright Festival. – Mairen Kops

It could be argued that to reverse the ills that plague a society people need to realize the things that they’re doing wrong. This was the goal of George Bernard Shaw, the featured author of this year’s Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre Master Playwright Festival.

His ability to poke fun at his audience and the society of his day is widely respected within theatre circles. Though his plays are not presented all that often, they are held dearly by anyone who has studied theatre.

Even though Shaw’s pieces were written more 70 years ago, festival producer Chuck McEwen says he’s sure audiences will enjoy them.

“Because Shaw is so well known and considered one of the pre-eminent playwrights of all time ... most people who attend theatre on a casual basis are aware of Shaw,” McEwen says. “We’ve got an excellent chance of setting a new festival record.”

McEwen is Winnipeg’s theatre guru who also produces the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, which is known as one of the best in the world. McEwen works closely with his director Rob Ring and the MTC to produce both the Fringe and the Master Playwright Festival.

According to McEwen, the choice of playwright is up to the MTC’s artistic director, Stephen Shipper.

“We’ve got a great list of playwrights to choose from, it’s quite a challenge,” McEwen says. “We’ve done 12 festivals so far and really it comes down to who’s more deserving. Do we choose a contemporary playwright? Do we go back a few years?”

Many of Shaw’s plays were written in the early 1900s, including Augustus Does His Bit which will be produced by Merlyn Theatres from Jan. 31 until Feb. 4.

Director John Chase began reading Shaw after an actress he was working with suggested he read the play Pygmalion.

“I was absolutely enthralled by the quality of the writing,” Chase says.

The one-act play Augustus pokes fun at the perception of classes during the First World War. In it, the nobleman Augustus finds himself with a blue-collar worker as his only staff since the others are on the front lines.

“The comedy comes from the pairing of these two. Augustus has his high castle knowledge but lacks knowing the situation of the common people, which is a perpetual issue in society,” Chase says.

The University of Manitoba’s Blackhole Theatre Company will be putting on one of Shaw’s lighter plays, Arms and the Man, on selected dates between Jan. 20 and Jan. 29.

University professor Margaret Groome will be directing the play. According to her director notes, the play deals “less with the crimes of society, and more with its romantic follies and with the struggles of individuals against those follies.”

The play tells the story of star-crossed lovers Raina and Bluntschli who meet during inconceivable circumstances of war.

Whether the play is satirical or not, McEwen claims that Shaw writes magnificent dialogue.

“There’s a lot of meaning behind some of the language,” he says. “He wanted to entertain, but while you were laughing, he wanted you to question why you were laughing.”

Single tickets for Shawfest range from $7 to $40. There is also a $75 all-access pass. More information at www.masterplaywrightfest.com.

Published in Volume 66, Number 16 of The Uniter (January 18, 2012)

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