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The 2009 Shaw Festival Stars Coward and Shaw
This year's festival hinges on the pairing of two of English theater's great stylists: Noel Coward and Bernard Shaw. Artistic director Jackie Maxwell nudges visitors to Niagara-on-the-Lake to trace lines of influence between one play and another, or to set plays on the same subject against each other. Coward's decrepit music hall lovers in Red Peppers, for instance, are foils against angry, impotent Archie Rice in John Osborne's The Entertainer, the first play to inhabit the Shaw's new Studio Theater. Likewise, the political depths of Shaw's epigrams reveal traces of social fervor in the witticisms of the allegedly apolitical Coward. These sorts of comparative reveries are part of the pleasure of the Shaw's extensive, thoughtfully assembled repertory.
Coward has always shown a strong presence at the Shaw, but this year the festival is staging all ten of the plays in his Tonight at 8:30, a collection of one-acts that Coward wrote for himself and Gertrude Lawrence in 1935 and 1936. Coward claimed that he wanted to rescue the short play from its demotion to a curtain raiser and to display it as a form capable of spectacle, variety, and poignancy. Audiences can decide how successful he was, either by seeing four different combinations of plays separately or in single-day Coward marathons (on August 8, August 29, and September 19). As in their original performances, each of the assemblages is presented as a three-play set— usually a strong anchor play with two slighter companion pieces. The Shaw is also presenting The Star Chamber as its lunchtime play, a worthy one-act performed only once in the original run and rarely revived. At press time, only three of the Tonight at 8:30 plays were running. Ways of the Heart, a final trio that opens on August 1, features The Astonished Heart, Coward's unusually dark and perceptive play about a psychiatrist who slowly realizes his erotic obsessions.
I had a chance to catch six of the plays this year and my capsule reviews follow. As Simon Saltzman suggested last year, however, the best way to do the Shaw is to set aside a week, book a room, and indulge in everything this talent rich company has to offer.
Brief Encounters Still Life,which inspired David Lean's magnificent film Brief Encounter, is the crown jewel in Tonight at 8:30. While most of Coward's one-acts give us a situation, Still Life gives us a world. Amid the bustle of the refreshment room at Milford Junction Railway Station, Laura Jesson (Deborah Hay) and Alec Harvey (Patrick Galligan) quietly fall in love, have an affair, and then have to break it off when Alec gets a job in Johannesburg. Director Jackie Maxwell has the confidence to keep the pacing slow and to surround the more raucous comic couples in the refreshment stand with haloes of silence. This is not, however, a humorless slog: Maxwell cleverly incarnates passing time with an enormous ticking clock, a woman in various stages of pregnancy and the rumble of passing trains.
From Milford Junction, it's on to the made-up island of Samola for We Were Dancing, a trifle also about marital infidelity and the transience of love. Hay and Galligan are transformed into Louise Charteris and Karl Sandys, who meet on a dance floor and decide that one kiss is enough to found a new life together—until it isn't. Projection designer Adam Larsen and choreographer Valerie Moore cook up a spectacular Bollywood version of the title song that embraces Coward's buoyant Orientalism by camping it up.
In Hands Across the Sea, Hay and Galligan are back again as Lady (Piggie) and Commander Gilpin, entertaining houseguests who keep arriving in pre-Blitz zeppelins that cloud the London skyline. Coward is satirizing his friend Admiral Mountbatten's household here the same way he had poked fun at the Barrymores in Hay Fever: as a menagerie of self-absorbed eccentrics, most safely observed from a distance. The sliver of a plot concerns the mistaken identity of a visiting couple, but the genial social critique is the thing here, and fans of full-length Coward will likely find this play the most recognizable of the three. Hay and Galligan undergo some remarkably rapid character changes while remaining unmistakably themselves, much as Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward must have done in the original productions. The ensemble is exceptionally cohesive throughout, though Goldie Semple and Corrine Koslo are especially adept at sculpting memorable comic performances out of just a few lines and gestures.
Play, Orchestra, Play. This trio takes its title from a recurring song in Shadow Play, one of the strangest and most delightful one-acts that Coward, or anyone else, ever wrote, in which a woman, hopped up on sleeping pills, hallucinates her marriage as a musical. But that's skipping ahead. Play, Orchestra, Play begins strongly with Red Peppers, a nostalgic look at a dilapidated marriage (the titular Peppers) stuck in a dilapidated music hall routine. Coward's main insight is that the same thing that keeps the Peppers arguing— continual fighting about whether their work, like their relationship, is outdated— is also what unites them against the world. Jay Turvey (George Pepper) and Patty Jamieson (Lily Pepper) sketch out a tangled emotional history in four brief scenes, two set on stage and two backstage, and perform a mean tap dance to boot.
Fumed Oak, the middle play, is tenuously connected to the other two by an out-of-tune piano that is a metaphor for the failed marriage of the Gows. Coward stages his contempt for the middle classes through the nervous breakdown of clerkish Henry Gow (Steven Sutcliffe), who revolts against three generations of nagging women by leaving them to fend for themselves while he departs for Africa and adventure. This despicable play is nearly impossible to act, and the elegant direction of former Shaw artistic director Christopher Newton is too polite to make the Gow women monstrous enough to justify Henry's extensive cruelty to them or to point up the shortcomings of a "comedy" in which the rejection of bad furniture is a serious political act.
In Shadow Play, Coward handles the threat of divorce with a far more subtle and inventive hand. Inspired by the movies and the continental avant-garde, Coward's musical fantasy is a kind of lucid dreaming; he would never attempt a play with as experimental a structure again. We are invited to piece together fragments of the Gayforth's fractious marriage, filtered through the drug-addled mind of Victoria Gayforth, which wanders from England to Venice, from a rose-colored past to an unacceptable present to fears of a lonely future. Newton's staging in all three plays uses an enormous projection screen as a set, but he is most imaginative in Shadow Play, where actors move from film to flesh and back again. Paul Sportelli performs great service again for the Shaw by deftly handling some very complex music cues. In a large ensemble, Patty Jamieson stands out again and again for a lovely singing voice and for bringing out the emotional complexity in three wildly different roles that could easily have fallen into caricature.
Star Chamber. All the official publicity for Star Chamber, the Shaw's lunchtime theater, will tell you that Coward dropped it from Tonight at 8:30 after only one performance because he had recently become President of the Actors' Orphanage charity. This neglected one-act takes place at a backstage committee meeting to endorse improvements to the Garrick Haven Home for Destitute Actresses, and Coward didn't think it would be cricket to make fun of an organization like the orphanage. Just as likely, however, Coward's valentine to the acting profession disappeared from the program because it didn't provide any obvious starring roles for himself and Gertrude Lawrence. Coward has such facility writing crowd scenes that everyone gets a moment in the spotlight, including an uncredited ham of a Great Dane. The joke here is that professional actors simply cannot stop playing, so any meeting of thespians must devolve (literally, in this case) into a performance. In the musicale that erupts in the middle of the ostensible plot, Evan Builung gives vivid life to Coward's gentle swipe at imperialism, "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," while Maurice Searle jazzes up a version of Coward's torch song "World Weary" (irreverently re-arranged by Reza Jacobs) that sounds like it might have come out of Grease. Star Chamber is uncomplicated joy; this production is an argument that it ought to be staged far more often.
In The Devil's Disciple director Tadeusz Bradecki gives Shaw's colonial American schizoid melodrama, part homage and part send-up, a lavish treatment, with gorgeous sets by Peter Hartwell that look like period woodcuts come to life. This is the play that made Shaw enough money to become a full-time playwright when Richard Mansfield staged it in New York in 1897. It's not hard to understand the appeal, then and now. Shaw provides all the suspense and pathos of melodrama: the eleventh-hour rescue, the court martial, the ticking clock, the grieving heroine. He then takes away the guilt with occasional winks at the audience. Shaw lifted the plot from Dickens and the Adelphi melodramas he was reviewing at the time. On the same day, Richard Dudgeon, the "devil's disciple" who betrays his pious upbringing to forge his own morality, loses his father and his uncle, but gains a house and the custody of his bastard sister. When British soldiers come to the fictitious town of Westerbridge, New Hampshire, to scare the locals by hanging their Presbyterian minister, Dudgeon impersonates him, thereby earning the love of the minister's beautiful wife, Judith, along with a death sentence. The story moves at a rapid clip, especially by Shaw's standards, with committed performances from Evan Buliung as Dick Dudgeon and Fiona Byrne as Judith Anderson, though the real star turns are in the character parts: Jim Mezon as an urbane General Burgoyne, and Donna Belleville as the devout hypocrite Mrs. Timothy Dudgeon. Wisely, the cast plays it straight throughout, leaving the chameleonic Shaw to weave smart asides into an otherwise straightforward genre exercise. Somewhat less wisely, Bradecki halts the action to make the soldiers read out Shaw's novelistic stage directions and to share his discovery that Niagara-on-the-Lake was founded after events much like those depicted in the play— news that adds little to this still potent potboiler.
In Good King Charles's Golden Days, Director Eda Holmes frames Shaw's last great play with images of people dreaming and the reverberation of distant voices, as though what Shaw called "A History That Never Happened" were a wild reverie with the English Restoration as its subject. In between are three hours of enchanting, occasionally disturbing discussion — on the relationship between art and science, the difficulty of selecting fit leaders, and the human need for both love and sex, though not always from the same person. King Charles II (an infectiously high-spirited Benedict Campbell) visits Sir Isaac Newton (a youthful and inspired Graeme Somerville) and encounters his mistresses, his brother James, George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, and several other historical luminaries. One of the reasons that Shaw wrote the play for the Malvern Festival in 1939 was to counter stage images of the Merry Monarch as always ready for a sexual romp but ineffective as a leader: audiences will have to decide if this revamped king belongs in Shaw's gallery of supermen like Joan of Arc and Julius Caesar. Studded with playful anachronisms, epigrams, and some probing ethical questions, this is a Shavian banquet for those with long attention spans. Others may admire the flawlessly gorgeous period costumes by Michael Gianfrancesco or the stage as a model universe, designed by Camellia Koo. As heretical as it may sound, perhaps it would be worthwhile to cut some of the longish second act, much of it a recitation of the complicated Popish plot and its conspirators that has already been softened for North American audiences (for instance, "Old Noll" is changed to "Cromwell" while a lengthy glossary of figures and incidents is included in the program). This is a play for the intrepid theatergoer, the history buff, and those for whom brilliant talk is ecstasy. A fistfight ends the first act to satisfy everyone else.
Albertine in Five Times. The Shaw Festival has only recently started staging classics by Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, so it makes sense that the great Quebecois playwright Michel Tremblay, who claims he learned his craft from the American masters, ought to get his due. Tremblay's 1984 masterpiece splits a single troubled life among a quintet of women who appeal to one redoubtable sister, Madeleine (Nicola Correia-Damude). He insists that attention must be paid, not because Albertine did great things, but because she felt deep passions that only occasionally take root in language. Albertine at 70, newly installed in a foul-smelling rest home on a floor with the "confused," presides over the previous decades of her life, from 30 to 60. We learn that Albertine was left by her husband with two children, sexually precocious Therese and mentally handicapped Marcel. We learn that she abandoned the ample beauty of the country for the city, and that her sister is both her closest confidante and a source of intense jealousy because of the simple pleasure Madeleine takes in nature and in her husband. The word that occurs most often in Linda Gaboriau's rugged translation is "rage." Each of the actresses, following Tremblay's exacting instructions, finds a different rhythm and vernacular to express her fury and wonder at the overwhelming feelings that memories inspire. All of them perform with a sort of noble asperity in a well-tuned ensemble, and the only fair recourse is to list all the Albertines without distinction: Marla McLean (Albertine at 30), Jenny L. Wright (Albertine at 40), Mary Haney (Albertine at 50), Wendy Thatcher (Albertine at 60), and Patricia Hamilton (Albertine at 70). Teresa Przybylski's abstract set, unusual for the Shaw, is like a cage simultaneously blowing apart and caving in; it splendidly captures the dynamism of Tremblay's haunted character. Albertine is both difficult to watch and well worth seeing. Let's hope that the Shaw plumbs more of Canada's rich Francophone drama in the near future.
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