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A CurtainUp Feature
The 2010 Shaw Festival
By Lawrence Switzky
The Shaw Festival's 2010 season plays to all its strengths while cultivating a few new ones. There are Edwardian plays, plays by and about women, and new productions of modern classics that don't get the regular airings they deserve. The company features more young actors than ever before and more racial diversity than in any previous year. And lush Niagara-on-the-Lake maintains its status as the most beautiful town in Canada.
Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell has stated that the shows are "tied together by the thread of comedy in its many different forms." That might be qualified by an observation in one of the plays by Shaw on offer this year: "Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh." These plays have sharp edges, and the topics under exploration in them are the root concerns of comedy as a ritual event: conformity, fantasy, and moral judgment. The goddess Venus has to decide whether to become bloodless statuary or live out her days as a middle-class housewife. A sister has to decide whether to give her brother an injection that will erase the elaborate fantasy world that makes his life worth living. A celebrated doctor has to decide if his libido and his colleagues are reliable moral yardsticks. It's difficult to imagine a more contemplative place to wrangle over these questions, and grab a good drink while you’re at it.
Following are links to capsule reviews of plays seen this time around:
John Bull's Other Island by Bernard Shaw |The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov | The Doctor's Dilemma by Bernard Shaw | The Women by Clare Booth Luce | Half an Hour by J. M. Barrie | One Touch of Venus by Kurt Weill, Ogden Nash, and S. J. Perelman Harvey
Harvey by Mary Chase
Fans of Joseph Koster's 1950 film of Harvey, starring Jimmy Stewart, may find the Pulitzer Prize-winning play stronger medicine than they remember. Joseph Ziegler's superb production is faithful to the 1940s milieu and to the mixture of whimsy and disappointment that tinctures the script.
Peter Krantz, who usually performs the less savory character roles at the Shaw, takes the lead as Elwood P. Dowd, a dipsomaniacal eccentric so friendly that he invites a telephone saleswoman home to lunch— even though she's called him by mistake. Krantz, who somehow manages to be both charismatic and creepy, shares the stage with an invisible Celtic trickster spirit, or pookah, "of six or six and a half feet" who has taken the form of a rabbit.
Elwood's sister, Veta (played with a startling mix of comic tics and palpable suffering by Mary Haney), can't abide the threat that Elwood and his supernatural friend pose to her social tranquility, not to mention the marital fortunes of her daughter, Myrtle Mae (Zarrin Darnell-Smith). She tries to get him committed to the local sanitarium, Chumley's Rest, but ends up in a ward herself.
Chase critiques the threat to an ample, if sometimes overwhelming, imagination posed by psychiatry three decades before Peter Shaffer's Equus. But the meatier debate in the play is between the emotional self-mutilation that seems necessary for social progress and the dated, but seductive, noblesse oblige of an eccentric like Dowd. Nearly everyone in the play is predatory, strung-out, or disaffected; Elwood is universally attentive and selfless, if a bit fond of rhetorical flourishes. Chase's sympathies are pretty clear— late in the play, we're told that curing Dowd would mean transforming him into "a perfectly normal human being, and you know what bastards they are." This production opens up the discussion for a new era. Sue LePage's brilliant design work allows a sturdy living room to morph into a mental hospital, with five slamming farce doors, right before our eyes. Gray Powell and Diana Donnelly, as a doctor and his romantically neglected nurse, bring special vivacity to a couple of profession-crossed lovers, though the entire cast is one of the Festival's strongest ensembles.
One Touch of Venus by Kurt Weill, Ogden Nash, and S. J. Perelman
As gossamer musicals about the love between a goddess and a mortal in New York City in the 1940s go, One Touch of Venus is a pretty good bet. It feels like an amusing series of improvisations rather than the long and tortuous collaboration it was, with a script that had to be completely rewritten, frustrating negotiations to find a star willing to play the risqué goddess of love (Venus eventually catapulted Mary Martin to fame), and Kurt Weill foregoing sleep for weeks to finish orchestrating the score.
With the distance of time, it's tough to see what all the fuss was about. The Shaw's production, while brisk and beautifully furnished, probably won't convince fans of Weill's European songbook that he made good on his genius after emigrating to America.
Whitelaw Savory (Mark Uhre), a terribly fashionable modernist art dealer, shocks his terribly fashionable students by purchasing an ancient statue of Venus from Greece. His regular barber, Tony, is sick, so young, nerdy Rodney Hatch (Kyle Blair) is dispatched to shave Savory the morning the statue arrives. Hatch is supposed to marry Gloria Kramer (Julie Martell, doing New Yawkah a la Fran Drescher), but for reasons that apparently don't matter, he decides to stick her engagement ring on Venus' statue. Poof! Venus comes to life, falls in love with Rodney, teases Savory, runs amok in New York City, and contemplates becoming a housewife on Staten Island. In between, there are some clever lyrics by Ogden Nash ("The art that's in the Louvre/Went out with Herbert Hoover"), a scattershot book by S. J. Perelman, and a combination of great and not-so-great songs by Weill.
Most of the company is young and Venus features fewer of the more seasoned members of the Shaw ensemble than most of the other productions. So why should you see it? Michael Gianfrancesco's candy-colored costumes are gorgeous and move splendidly, particularly during the two dream ballets. Deborah Hay as Molly, Savory's secretary, acts an energetic and frisky caricature, as does Jay Turvey (who also has a lovely tenor voice) as henchman Taxi Black. Director Eda Holmes is on uneven footing in Venus. Her scenes of the crowds and high rises of New York are strictly stock footage, but Holmes gets great when Weill gets weird. For instance, in "Doctor Crippen," the bizarre finale to the first act, Savory tries to catch the conscience of Hatch by showing him a musical about the real-life murder of a wife by her physician husband. The number doesn't really make any sense. But Holmes stages it as a monochromatic pageant full of modish ghouls and lets it ride, smirking, on its own delirious logic.
Half an Hour by J. M. Barrie
This year's lunchtime play feels slighter than usual, even as it squeezes an entire soap opera of experience into thirty some-odd minutes. J. M. Barrie's curtain raiser is about a wife (Diana Donnelly) who runs away from her boorish husband (Peter Krantz) to her Egyptologist lover (Gord Rand), only to find that fate has a nasty surprise in store for both.
The lead, though, belongs to Withers (Michael Ball, a master of droll understatement), one of Barrie's magical servants, who narrates the rapid rise and fall of a dream of escape and is at once the household butler and a servant of Time. Gina Wilkinson's direction is restlessly ingenious. The actors enter dancing mechanically through facing doors, like the wind-up figures on a cuckoo clock. Likewise, ubiquitous ticking and weird, if inspired, transitions (a threshold opens into a fogbank that overtakes the stage, for instance) suggest that everyone is a toy of higher forces. Moment for moment, there is probably more technical inventiveness in this production than at any other at the Shaw. If the play is a trifle, the staging produces some haunting pictures that trump most of the showier offerings.
The Women by Clare Booth Luce
The Women is a runway show mashed up with a stand-up act. It demands a dazzling wardrobe of costumes both gaudy and delectable (as did George Cukor's 1939 film), and has a rack of satirical one-liners, like a delicate pregnant wife's pronouncement that she's going to the bathroom to "unswallow" as well as some rather creaky home truths ("There's only one tragedy for a woman — losing her man" and "Don't confide in your girlfriends, they'll make you lose your husband").
\\ Why then, sn't it more naughty fun and less of an onslaught? My suspicion is that director Alisa Palmer and her design team upped the wattage on a play that already has the machine-gun rhythm of one snappy comeback after with a continuous parade of raucous sets and costumes.
The story of Mary Haines (Jenny Young) as she discovers the world of modern women is an odyssey through fitting rooms, gym classes, nightclubs, and retreats for divorcees. In the gossipy world of New York City in the 1930s, Mary is the only woman who doesn't know that her husband is having an affair with vapid Crystal Allen (Moya O'Connell). When she finds out the awful truth during a manicure, her world shifts, sort of, particularly when she must explain how people fall out of love to her daughter (Celeste Brillon/Kate Wilson). But Mary gets through her divorce by way of Reno, Nevada and begins to plot revenge.
Luce's play is less about action than about observation, though there are hardly revolutionary, or even particularly discerning revelations here about the double standards of being a woman in a man's world. The production does allow the Shaw to show off its gifted array of female actresses— there isn't a man in the cast.
My favorite is wonderfully loopy Deborah Hay as Sylvia Fowler, a fashion-challenged, rumor-mongering socialite who briefly sides with Crystal after a catfight with one of Mary's confidantes. There's a lot to admire in this production, including William Schmuck's superhuman profusion of sets and costumes, bounded by mirrors to highlight the insularity of the play's cattiness, and evocative music by Lesley Barber that hints at emotional depths beneath the terrible glamour of this tinseled world. Perhaps there really is more to Luce's play than the rat-a-tat-tat of chuckles at bitchy behavior, but I can't say that this production goes beyond the sheen.
The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov
In an unusually noisy season at the Shaw, Jason Byrne's deliberately underplayed production of The Cherry Orchard is an oasis of reflection. The sets are simple browns and greys, the line readings are unfussy, and the muscular translation by Tom Murphy rarely slips into the archaisms of many English versions.
Chekhov's final play of arrivals, departures, the consciousness of time, and unspoken (and unspeakable) feelings begins with the anticipated return of Lyubov Ranevskaya (Laurie Paton) and her retinue from Paris and ends with the purchase and dismantling of her bankrupt estate's famous cherry orchard by the former serf Yermolay Lopakhin (Benedict Campbell). In between, of course, there's a universe of feeling, and one of Byrne's most blissful inventions is to position the audience at the periphery the major action of a scene—we always seem to be poised in some darkened corner, voyeuristic and overlooked.
Chekhov's plays are often an occasion for actors and directors to revisit the foundations of their art, and this production upholds that tradition by concentrating on gestures, motions, stillness, silences, and outbursts, as though the suggestive power of minimalism is the real star of the show. Lyubov, for instance, signals her discomfort at taking advice from her class inferior Lopakhin by refusing to make eye contact with him, a wonderfully subtle avoidance tactic that speaks volumes. Likewise, Lyubov's brother Gayev (Jim Mezon) is here a pitiable, mumbling wreck, whose ramblings edge towards incoherence, while the proto-revolutionary Petya (Gord Rand) shows the cracks in his armor of rhetoric by a tendency towards embarrassing sincerity followed by overcharged, protective laughter.
The production may be too underlit or somnolent for some audience members, and the aggressive understatement occasionally becomes monotonous. The chopping of the cherry trees in the final moments sounds, for instance, like there's a game of ping-pong in the foyer rather than the brutal thwack of axes outside. Likewise, the butler Firs's (Al Kozlick) final monologue becomes a slurred Beckettian howl when it might have been more powerful as an old man spooling off into silence. This is, nevertheless, both an important and a necessary addition to the season, with the most perfectly cast roles of any play in the line-up.
The Doctor's Dilemma by Bernard Shaw
Shaw's only tragedy (that's what he called it, anyway) is given sparkling life in Morris Panych's playful production.
Dr. Colenso Ridgeon (Patrick Galligan) has just been knighted for making a revolutionary discovery in vaccination that can save victims of tuberculosis. But he's soon asked to make a difficult choice between saving an artistic genius, Louis Dubedat (Jonathan Gould), who is also a scoundrel, or Blenkinsop (Ric Reid), an otherwise unexceptional physician who works among the poor, when there's a scarcity of serum. To complicate matters, he falls for Dubedat's wife, Jennifer (Krista Colosimo), an otherworldly seductress who seems to have fallen out of an Arthurian romance (and is costumed here like the Pre-Raphaelite muse Jane Morris).
Shaw's screed against the freemasonry of the medical profession is full of red herrings and blank alleys, as though Shaw had so much on his philosophical plate that he couldn't quite give it all shape. Likewise, the underlying dilemma—who decides who shall live and why— and the customary Shavian discussion about it are only vaguely developed. And yet, the play is great fun to watch, and thought provoking simply by virtue of its multiplicity of targets.
Patrick Galligan's meaty, unusually virile performance as Ridgeon gives the play its backbone, as does Krista Colosimo's Jennifer, who uses her nubile physique as a weapon. Ken MacDonald's sets are spare, but dreamlike, with x-rays and bacilli blown up to enormous proportions and presented as artworks, as though the human body were the greatest masterpiece ever conceived.
The text does seem cut unusually close to the bone, which makes it easier to digest in one evening, though we do lose some of Shaw's music. Panych deploys some new trappings, like tracks by the Rolling Stones and a trippy concluding art show to keep the production looking and sounding fresh. Beneath its embroidery, though, this Doctor's Dilemma is faithful to the spirit of Shaw, and that's a very good thing.
John Bull's Other Island by Bernard Shaw
Christopher Newton's effervescent production of one of Shaw's funniest plays makes a compelling case that it ought to be performed more often and that it's still one of the most incendiary comedies Shaw ever wrote.
Tom Broadbent (Benedict Campbell) and Larry Doyle (Graeme Somerville) are civil engineers who travel to the small Irish town of Rosscullen, Larry's former home and a potential development goldmine for an English firm looking to open hotels and a golf course on farmland.
The play's running gag is that Broadbent finds Celtic stereotypes everywhere he goes, whether he has to put them there or not: in the ingenious opening gag, a Scotsman passing as an Irishman puts (Ric Reid) makes Broadbent believe that he's Irish by coating his speech with Irishisms ("a mere broth of a boy!") and drinking a tub of liquor. The play's catastrophe is that the native Irish have fallen prey to the dreaming and impracticality that are also part of their national heritage, leaving them open to exploitation.
Larry Doyle, a gruff figure bursting with self-loathing, cannot bring himself to propose to Nora Reilly (Severn Thompson, who imbues a colleen cut-out with a complex soul). The more genial, if more self-interested, Broadbent grabs her instead.
The play is full of Shavian set pieces, including the defrocked priest Keegan's (Jim Mezon) colloquy with a cricket, and Broadbent's ride in a motor car with a pig (a stunt, he's convinced, that will net him the district's parliamentary seat.) Campbell and Somerville make an astounding comic pair, as the Abbott and Costello of colonialism. Somerville, though, gives the performance of the Festival as a man humiliated by his past but wary of a dark future for his benighted homeland.
William Schmuck's sets are stylized and attractive, like a Hogarth print come to life, and former artistic director Christopher Newton's direction is polished to a shine. This is certainly one of the strongest productions of this or any year at the Shaw. It is, perhaps, too genial to rise to the utopian visions voiced at its ending and the final notes of bitterness at a country that's easy to love and easy to hate. Yet, if anyone ever claims that Shaw couldn't write with his heart and his brain, they need only be referred here.
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