Shaw Festival Trip

Sunday September 16 2001 - Driving and a Play

We left Ottawa at 9:15 in the morning on a fine cool sunny end-of-summer day, with the trees just starting to turn colour (early because of the summer drought). The driving was good, even on the main highways - getting through Toronto on the 401 and QEW without any traffic jam problems. [Lakewinds B&B] We arrived at the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake in under seven hours and around 600km, and parked at the back of the Lakewinds Bed & Breakfast. [CanVisit Logo]I spent a couple of hours with the innkeeper talking about his new business project - a reservation and promotion system for small Bed & Breakfast operations like his own (with B&B specific features such as reserving particular rooms - something Hotels don't do), you can see the result at There's also an operator's view which is similarly nice.

That evening we went to the Shaw Festival to see a George Bernard Shaw play titled The Millionairess. The play's about the trouble a forceful personality causes, and other lesser topics. [Basement Scene from the Millionairess]While the millionairess was supposed to be trying to live life as an ordinary worker, she can't help herself and tromps on everyone in her way. She got her employer (the owner of a small sweatshop) to improve it (by bypassing a wholesaler) in spite of his wife's desire for the comfortable ordinariness of just working hard. Similarly she took over a hotel while working as a chambermaid. The sweatshop act also made the point that sweatshop workers also fear the labour code inspectors as much as the owners, since being discovered as underpaying and having poor working conditions would just shut down the shop and put the workers on the street. Another interesting aspect was the set design, which used a tall set to show the depth of the basement sweatshop (see photo). I was wondering why the Festival theatre stage was so tall (five man-heights or more), but I think it's so that the people in the balcony can see to the back of deep sets. This was enhanced by a wonderful stage presentation, where they framed opening and closing shots with horizontal and vertical black curtains. For example, the basement act opened with the Millionairess standing at the top of the stairs at the upper right, with nothing else visible. Then the curtains whisked away and you could see the whole set. They also projected titles for the credits onto the black curtains, adding a movie feel to it all.

Monday - Niagara Falls

I finally got to see Niagara Falls on Monday. In the morning, we drove down the pleasant river-side parkway and stopped off at the Botanical Gardens and Butterfly Conservatory. [Butterfly Conservatory Interior]It's quite a large place, and largely a demonstration of the work of the students at the nearby horticultural school. We strolled through one of the gardens, thinking of things we could use at home, admired their vegetables (everything was better than ours, except the cucumbers for some reason) and wore out our feet. We also stopped in at the butterfly conservatory and walked through their indoor tropical jungle, looking at the plants and trying to see what was attractive to butterflies (mostly flowers - some which smelt nice too). Apparently the flowers in our front yard, next to the steps I'm refinishing, are strong butterfly attractors, which explains the large number of bees seemingly watching me work. Along the way we encountered a newlywed couple from the B&B, going off on a horse drawn carriage tour of the gardens (and thus avoiding tired feet).

Down the road (or upstream? I don't even know where north is in that part of Canada - it's all geographically mixed up) we passed under some bridges with lots of stopped trucks (a side effect of increased security at the border due to the New York World Trade Center destruction) and got to the falls. [Niagara Falls falling over the edge]They're huge! We also got a free car wash from the wind-blown mist as we drove past, while looking for parking.

We did the guide book tour - up the inclined railway, through the back streets (seeing the sleazier side of the town), past the foot of the Skylon tower with it's bright yellow jellybean elevators, past King George VI's statue (the King before our current Queen Elizabeth), through a very nice park, up to Clifton Hill, then towards the river, where we found the Maid of the Mist boat tour building. The ride was interesting and a nice thrill, helped by the weather which was good for getting soaked with river water (no, it doesn't taste like rain). We then walked back along the riverside promenade, got soaked again as we passed the falls (there is a nice view from the point where you can see the water going over the edge - the photo doesn't show the lumpy moving transparent ice green crystal appearance of the water as it falls over the edge) and finally got back to the car and returned to Lakewinds.

We had a nice family dinner that night, with our host's interpretation of my mom's old roast pork recipe.

Tuesday - Winery and Plays

[Artist's Sketch of the Jackson Tiggs Winery]On the recommendation of our innkeeper, we went to see the Jackson-Triggs winery on Tuesday morning. It's pretty new, with the buildings constructed last year and the tours only starting a month or two before we arrived. There's a parking lot mixed in with a field of grapes at the front (when they're older, you'll be able to taste them). You go into the open hangar-like part (it has a gigantic sliding door), which has a store on the left and the main part of the winery on the right. Inside the hangar, a pleasant person greets you and signs you up for a tour.

Our guide Robin gave us a good explanation of grape growing and fermenting, and answered my many questions. We found out that the vines run north-south to catch more light, and the rows are spaced so that the shadow from the adjacent row doesn't interfere too much. They were also happy about this summer's dry weather since it makes the roots grow down further, where the tastier soil is.

At the loading dock (they also buy grapes from nearby farmers), they weigh the grapes, separate out the stalks (which get composted), possibly cool it a bit, and then press it with a membrane press (the press is on rails and can move throughout the whole winery to where it's needed). The resulting mixture of grape contents (skins, seeds and pulp) gets pumped up to the winery building and flows down by gravity for most of the rest of the process. We walked up to the second floor of the building and saw lots of pipes, shiny tanks, gigantic wooden and steel rafters holding up a large roof, and a walkway for the tour to use (even when the winery is in operation). They have a rough separation / settling tank for red wine (including paddles and slow rotation of the whole horizontal stainless steel cylinder) and gentler ones for white. [Constructing the Vault?]From there it flows to the fermentation tanks where sugar is converted to alcohol and flavour is wrung from the grape skins (it's like a coffee percolator - the floating "cap" of seeds and skins has liquid from the bottom sprayed over it so that it soaks through and gets more flavour from the skins). The more than eighty tanks have stainless steel cooling jackets, electrical thermometers and computer controlled valves (for percolating and for moving liquid between tanks) and a hatch at the top for actual inspection (with a nitrogen gas pressurization system to remove the air after the hatch is closed - they also have nitrogen and CO2 sensors to open windows and turn on big ceiling fans if the atmosphere in the building becomes dangerous). The tanks also feed into bigger tanks on the floors below, to make it easier to blend wines.

After that came the nice peaceful underground vault where the wine ages. It has elegant vaulted concrete ceilings, enhanced by subtle lighting, and a quiet, cool and somehow solid atmosphere. Kind of like a humid library. There the oak barrels are stored for around 4 years (we found out lots of details on barrel materials and chemical functionality). There's also a real wine library in the vault. After that, we were treated to a wine tasting - comparing wines made in French Oak and American Oak (yes, they taste different) and trying one of their reds. I could easily taste the differences between wines (I can taste the colour of raspberries so that's easy for me), but like all wines it still tastes mostly of bitterness and alcohol. Catching some of Robin's enthusiasm, I even tried drinking some wine with dinner later on, but found that wine masks more tastes than it adds, and unfortunately still tastes horrible to me. Jackson-Triggs makes a red ice wine which apparently is one of the few that goes with chocolate, but I didn't have an opportunity to taste it (it's very expensive because it's picked by hand in winter and the wine yield is a tenth or less per ton of grapes). Guess I'll just have to eat my chocolate straight.

The play of the afternoon was Picnic. It's about the eddies in peoples lives caused by a hunk of a young man passing through a mid-western USA town. [Scene from Picnic]The young girl falls in love with him, dumping her well-bred and potentially safe college boyfriend. The unmarried school teacher gets desperate and forcibly marries the store owner (played by my favorite villain Jim Mezon, this time acting as a man very definitely uneasy about getting married). The younger ugly but brainy daughter gets along well with the college boyfriend. The older women are happy to merely look at the hunk and feed him cake as he works. The mother wants her daughter to marry the rich college boy. It ends with a nice cycle, the daughter running off with the stud, to the same miserable drunken marriage as her mother had.

[Insectologist and Sheridan with Cockroach Aquarium]After a pleasant dinner with cousins at The Grill at the Epicurean (the Black Angus strip loin is great), we went to see The Man Who Came to Dinner. This play is about a world famous writer and radio personality (Mr. Sheridan Whiteside who is a parody of the real Alexander Woollcott) who breaks his hip bone and has to stay at his host's house for several weeks. He's self important and thus banishes the normal house owners upstairs (on threat of a lawsuit) and takes over. Constant phone calls from famous people of the time, lots of odd deliveries (like the terrarium containing 50000 cockroaches, a microphone and headset - with cockroach sounds through the stage speakers) and general chaos act as background to a love story (his assistant has fallen in love and wants to leave Sheridan; he plots to stop that). The production has enhanced the script quite a bit, making it unrecognizable to people who have seen it or performed it before (like one of our fellow B&B guests). One example is the arrival of a crate of penguins from Admiral Byrd, which is expanded into a library (off stage left) full of penguins trying to escape. You can see them moving behind the frosted glass doors and hear them whenever someone goes to the library (is that what penguins really sound like?). They're played by boys in umpire's vests (for the white front), black cloaks, black beanie propeller caps and beaks. Similarly, the power to the Christmas tree lights flickers when ever someone bumps into it, books fall off bookcases, and the friezes (pictures near the ceiling) change to show more people looking in as the play progresses. It doesn't have much plot, but it was lots of fun.

Wednesday - Butler's Burial, Dansk, Plays

On Wednesday, we walked down Butler street (right next to Lakewinds) to see what Butler's Burial Grounds looked like. After walking through the bedroom community part of Niagara-on-the-Lake, we came to a road winding past some new housing developments and into a forest. In the forest we found the burial grounds on top of a small hill. [St.  Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Wintertime]There wasn't much there, just a historic plaque and maybe a dozen modern granite stone wedges displaying a readable version of the original gravestones which were lying flat on the ground. It seems that this was the Butler family burial ground, not one for his Rangers.

We walked towards the Dansk store, through the back streets of Niagara-on-the-Lake. The town must be fairly prosperous now, judging by the recent grinding off of all bumps on the ancient small-town concrete sidewalks, even in the working part of the town where tourists don't set foot. Or maybe they had a bad lawsuit experience from someone with a stubbed toe. We passed many older houses as we got closer to the center of town, including the impressive St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, which also had a historic plaque and a nice bench to sit on while resting weary feet.

After passing more houses, and some mansions (one with large gardens and a stable yard for horses and carriages), we got to Queen street and walked into the Dansk factory outlet shop. [Daughter and Excentric Venetian Father]I was looking for large glasses as usual, and found some gigantic double walled plastic ones for a buck each, and a nice crystal goblet (I tried several other ones, and this one was easier to hold because the stem was invisibly longer but long enough to make a very big difference in comfort). Mom got a set of "Dansk Flora Bayberry" pattern sandwich plates, matching the odd but nice pork-pie-hat shaped bowl we got last year. They had somehow gotten rid of the garish primitive flower painted glasses which I sampled last year.

The play of the afternoon was Fanny's First Play. Besides the main play's point about prison giving experience to overly protected young adults (sharing cells with Suffragettes), there was a nice wrapper of a play being put on by the overly protected daughter of a Venetian nobleman. She had been to university, and been corrupted by the Fabian society. Again the point is that parenting can be more of a prison than prison. There was a nice self-reflective ending where the invited critics argued about the new play, some of them claiming it was Shaw-like and praising Shaw (who wrote those lines), others complaining that they couldn't rate it without knowing who the author was.

[Hostile father and prodigal son]After dinner, again at the Epicurean grill, we went to see The Return of the Prodigal. This one was a great story about failure. The prodigal son returns after failing in Australia (lots of attempts at working as a banker, steward, sheep farmer and so on), just for a good meal and a bath. He feigns illness and manages to sponge off his family for a few weeks, then confronts them with his failure, refusing to take a grant to leave and try again in Australia (he knows he'll fail), and pointing out that suicide is illegal and immoral. Meanwhile his older sister is stuck at home, her role keeping her imprisoned there unless she finds a husband, which seems more and more unlikely. Another thread was the successful brother's attempt to marry into aristocracy. With a bit of twisted logic about keeping up appearances in the father's upcoming election, the unsuccessful brother neatly forced his hostile father and brother to grant him an allowance (he knows he would spend it all and have problems if it wasn't a monthly amount) and escaped the situation.

Thursday - Last Play, Trip Home

[Shadow Play Potential Divorcees]After a final fine breakfast, we caught the noon play before heading home. It was Shadow Play by Noel Coward. It's a short play (just an hour) about a couple falling apart a few years after marriage. One night, the wife takes too many sleeping pills and hallucinates about the past, remembering their honeymoon trip and their troubles. She can tell it's a dream because the memories occasionally burst into song and dance. The set was nicely done in art-deco style, with props that convert between purposes - a night table folding out into a car for example. At the end, she may have remembered enough of the good parts to revive the marriage.

We left town soon after the play ended and headed to Toronto to visit some other cousins for tea. Unfortunately, we arrived early and they weren't in (due to the play being so short and some communication problems). We left a bottle of wine and a note, which I time-stamped - thus we found out we had missed them by 12 minutes. Mom had a hard time driving on the crowded highways, so we tried the new 407 Express Toll Route. It's pretty nice - smoothly curving highways moving quickly, even at rush hour in Toronto. We swept past the normal 401 Toronto mess and continued down rustic highway 7 to Peterburough, where I took over. We stopped at our favorite bakery beside the Piccadilly Burger Bus for a snack. The remaining part of the drive was the worst - it was turning dark on the two lane road, then it started raining in patches, and finally we were going slowly through thick heavy downpours in the dusk. The only good part was that there was very little traffic on the road.

A week later, I finally finished writing this, after being interrupted for some furniture moving and painting, then some wooden floor waxing. Next up is a trip to Dorval Island for the annual cottage closing, the student animation festival, and a visit by some more aunts and uncles. I may never get time to work on my pet projects!

- Alex

Copyright © 2001 by Alexander G. M. Smith.