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On my final trip to the Shaw Festival this summer, I got to catch up on Chitra, the lunchtime show that opened in June (and runs to Oct. 8). This is Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore’s own 1913 English-language translation of an earlier play of his, based on a section of the Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata.

Chitra (Gabriella Sundar Singh), a renowned female fighter and leader, is given a temporary disguise of great beauty by Madana (Sanjay Talwar), the god of love, in order for her to attract the great warrior Arjuna (Andrew Lawrie).

While this does indeed lead to these two mythic characters hooking up, the underlying deception behind the liaison becomes a wedge between them. Chitra fears how Arjuna will eventually react to her true self when the seasons turn and the spell wears off, while Arjuna is increasingly alienated by the sense his lover is keeping part of herself back from him.

The story’s underlying wisdom about the need for progressing beyond surfaces in a relationship to deep honesty and vulnerability remains resonant.

Kimberley Rampersad assuredly directs the play – which also exists in a dance-drama version – as poetry in motion with a cast (including a four-actor chorus) that moves in stylized ways up and down the various levels of Anahita Dehbonehie’s stacked-platform set (reminiscent of early 20th-century modernist scenic design by the likes of Edward Gordon Craig).

Tagore’s dialogue is ornate, full of lovely images – and feels slightly at a remove as a result; running just under an hour, however, the somewhat stilted style never outlives its welcome. It’s a treat to see Lawrie, a Shaw company member who has largely proved his worth in comedy, get to confidently incarnate a rugged romantic hero, while Sundar Singh enlivens the wonder-filled world with amusing notes of faux naïveté and an ironic deadpan that are her trademarks as a performer.

A program note by theatre artist Sharada K. Eswar makes a case that Tagore, the first non-European writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, can be considered “a radical feminist of the Bengal Renaissance, in particular, and of the Indian subcontinent, in general.”

This work does indeed seems a perfect complement to suffragette playwright Cicely Hamilton’s Just to Get Married, a 1910 comedy also on the bill this season in which a man’s initial infatuation with a woman is distrusted, and truth leads to the possibility of true love.

I’ve still got my review of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean to file but can now say with certainty that the 2022 Shaw Festival summer season has been the strongest since Tim Carroll took over as artistic director in 2017. The Bernard Shaw productions have felt urgent, dangerous and unapologetic – and the canonical, contemporary and rewritten-classic shows programmed around them have felt in conversation with one another and our times (and organically inclusive).

True, I may not have loved the musical, Damn Yankees, but at least it felt a part of a season and not merely a commercial sideline.

Bonded together by the pandemic, perhaps, the Shaw Festival team has moved past a stumbly period and seems once again a real company of artists: If you liked Rampersad’s performance as the devil’s disciple Lola in Damn Yankees, why not see her direction of a couple of gods over on another stage in Chitra? Enjoyed Talwar’s performance as a god in Chitra, then why not see him play a doctor who only thinks he’s a god in Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma? If you like gods on stage, well then the No. 1 deity of the season is Deborah Hay’s in Everybody.)

Shaw executive director Tim Jennings tells me the destination theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., is only attracting about two thirds of its 2019 attendance, which is not at all unexpected (and on par with what fellow Ontario repertory theatre company Stratford Festival is seeing).

With a month and a half left of its main repertory season, though, the Shaw Festival deserves a surge of visitors for a strong-to-stellar lineup of productions to please all tastes that, especially given the circumstances, has been nothing short of a miracle. (I guess it hasn’t hurt to have all those gods on the bill...)

Speaking of those “circumstances”... Two Planks and a Passion Theatre in Canning, N.S., is the latest company to have to cancel a week of performances because of pandemic problems. The outdoor theatre troupe that operates on the bucolic site of the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts is back on stage as of tonight, however.

Sixteen performances remain for Unity (1918), Kevin Kerr’s excellent 2002 play that won the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Drama (and a notable exception to the observation that no one ever wrote a play about a pandemic before COVID-19); and The Stranger, an adaptation of a R.L. Stevenson novel by artistic director Ken Schwartz.

And more “circumstances”... My reviewing schedule has become a little lighter this week as the Stratford Festival has, unfortunately, had to postpone the opening of the new play Hamlet-911, originally scheduled for Thursday night, owing to COVID-19 cases in the company. Not a big surprise to get that message: Playwright Ann-Marie MacDonald has been seen stepping into the cast to keep performances going in its preview period. (Under any other circumstances, it would be exciting news to hear that MacDonald was acting on stage again.)

Stratford Festival openings still scheduled to go ahead this week: Molière’s The Miser (starring Colm Feore) on Friday, and Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman (starring, among others, Amaka Umeh) on Saturday.

Look for my reviews of those shows next week. In the meanwhile, I wrote about why Jean-Baptiste Poquelin is Stratford’s second most-important playwright earlier this year in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the French playwright’s baptism.

That’s it for listings for this week’s newsletter as I’m busy getting ready for the fall (and a big fall theatre preview).

If you’re a publicist at a theatre in Canada reading this, would you mind e-mailing me a list of your scheduled opening nights for the autumn (and the rest of the 2022-2023 season if they’re set)?

If you’re not a publicist, would you mind e-mailing me about what you’re most looking forward to seeing on a stage this fall? I can be found at knestruck@globeandmail.com.

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