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A CurtainUp Feature
The 2011 Shaw Festival
The Shaw Festival celebrates its fiftieth anniversary with a four-fold tribute to its namesake. There is early Shaw (Candida), middle Shaw (Heartbreak House), rare later Shaw (On the Rocks) and even Shaw after Shaw (My Fair Lady). The Festival is also trumpeting the expansion of its mandate beyond Shaw's lifetime with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, first produced five years after Shaw's death, and two plays written during the last decade in its new Studio Theatre.
As the world financial crisis continues, this year's Festival focuses on the threat of impending catastrophe and how to live in the shadow of a perilous future. At least three plays center on shipwrecks as metaphors for a disintegrating state. Another recurring topic this year is art, and particularly comic art, as the salve most capable of inspiring good spirits and a thoughtful perspective during rocky times. The Shaw Festival prides itself on presenting "plays about the beginning of the modern world." This year's offerings give solace through their prescience, their liveliness, and their insistence that the greatest theatre of the twentieth century can be a guide through the greatest anxieties of the twenty-first.
Plays I was able to catch during my visit: My Fair Lady | Drama at Inish | Heartbreak House | Cat on a Hot Tin Roof | On the Rocks | The Admirable Crichton |
My FaLady by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner (Based on Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw)
English or American? Covent Garden or Broadway? Lerner and Loewe's sparkling 1956 adaptation of Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, about a Cockney flower girl who is taught to speak like a duchess by a rancorous phonologist, remains an ingenious mash-up of intellectual debate and musical comedy. Under the elegant hand of director Molly Smith, the artistic director of the Arena Stage and a champion of contemporary American playwriting, the Shaw Festival's production is startlingly well acted, psychologically rich, and every inch a piece of optimistic Americana. Shaw's barbed dialogue may provide the frame, but the showstoppers and dance numbers make My Fair Lady less about class warfare and more about the battle of the sexes.
Deborah Hay is a sophisticated and very beautiful Liza Doolittle, whose booming chest notes during the stretches of dialogue ("move your bloomin' arse!") are nicely matched by a sweet singing voice. She strains only at the top of her range, most noticeably in I Could Have Danced All Night, an ecstatic young woman's celebration of her first success at vocal impersonation. Benedict Campbell, meanwhile, actually sings rather than talks the songs that Rex Harrison first made famous as the original musical Henry Higgins.
The great surprise of this production for me was how completely the second half of My Fair Lady belongs to his hard-won self-reflection. Campbell's Higgins makes the role more sympathetic and thoughtful than the usual bluster that the role usually commands; he is gentle, avuncular, almost doddering. Patrick Galligan rounds out the central trio as a surprisingly young and spry Colonel Pickering who seems to bound across the stage rather than commenting genteelly from an armchair as most Pickerings do. Galligan tends to play romantic leads at the Shaw. It's fascinating to watch him renovate an otherwise unrewarding role through sheer charismatic wattage; his effervescent tango during "The Rain in Spain" makes it seem like Liza ought to take him right there on the carpet and let Higgins alone.
This production of My Fair Lady is particularly good at capitalizing on Lerner and Loewe's most adroit additions to Shaw's brainy potboiler. They show us Liza in training through montages ("Just You Wait," The Servants' Chorus) that manage to communicate hard labor without becoming laborious. Shaw merely flips from one act to another to indicate the passage of time. Likewise, Lerner and Loewe invent a sort of musical apostrophe, where Liza reprimands an absent Higgins ("Just You Wait") or Higgins rhapsodizes a vanished Liza ("I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face"). Besides giving us intimate access to the complex interior states of these characters, these second act solos are also emotionally potent hitching posts on the highway to a would-be marriage plot. Smith's production, thankfully, provides ample room for Campbell and Hay to show off their acting chops in these gorgeous mini-dramas.
The production design is more mixed. Ken MacDonald's continual evocations of birdcages and flown coops begin as a clever running gag that becomes wearying over time (though the projections of flying birds in the background are sometimes surreally beautiful). Likewise, Judith Bowden's candy-colored rags evoke a sale at a thrift store rather than London's poor, much as her costumes for the Ascot Opening Day races — one of Lerner and Loewe's happiest additions to Pygmalion— are more Copacabana than Belgrave Square.
Neil Barclay's Alfred Doolittle, on the other hand, attired in snugly fitting jackets, is an unmitigated delight, a Falstaff for the "undeserving poor." He conducts an impromptu choir during With a Little Bit of Luck, and inspires a bit of Stomp-inspired tub-thumping during his jovial lament about respectability, Get Me to the Church on Time. The whole production seems to liven up, and to find its center, whenever Barclay is on stage, which is an argument for putting him on stage again as often as is possible.
Drama at Inish, a comedy by Lennox Robinson
Quiet little Inish, a seaside town in the south of Ireland, has invited the De La Mare Repertory Company to perform at the Pavilion theatre. The Monsignor didn't much like the Comicalities last year (they were too vulgar). But the De La Mare company boasts a higher class of new drama: "Russian plays, Ibsen, Strindberg." These highbrow modern tragedies, full of murdered babies and virtue unmasked as hypocrisy, usually can't turn a profit, but this time the locals can't seem to keep away from the Pavilion, night after night. The sky goes dark and rain clouds form. Lovers start to forge suicide pacts; the innkeeper's sister reveals her dark and unfulfilled secret love, while his son tries to kill himself by jumping into the ocean. Now, the sleepy town of Inish has attracted reporters from the northern metropolises who want to unearth the mystery behind this odd behavior.
Lennox Robinson, who concocted this curious "what if" scenario, was one of the founders of Dublin's Abbey Theatre and one of Ireland's most popular playwrights during the first half of the twentieth century. He is almost entirely unperformed today. Jackie Maxwell's smart, sturdy production goes a long way toward recapturing Robinson as a wry observer of small town life with a twisted sense of humor. Like J. M. Synge's prose plays The Drama at Inish is a sometimes caustic, sometimes loving look at the hearty pragmatism of rural Ireland. (Elderly innkeeper Lizzie Twohig, played by the comic scene-stealer Mary Haney, refers to Chekhov as the one "whose name sounds like a head cold.") It's also a valentine to the affectations of show people, like Hector de La Mare (Thom Marriott), who has come to "convert" the natives to the religion of drama, swinging an enormous cloak around much as Robinson's own theatrical consort, W. B. Yeats, once did. His partner in crime (and in the destruction of fabric), Constance Constantia (Corrine Koslo), chews scenery even as she discourses on the "vibrations" that are her technique. Marriott and Koslo are the comic heart of the play, as well as its unwitting villains.
In more dogmatic hands, the Twilight Zone-ish premise of The Drama at Inish would contain a more programmatic message about the dangerous — and revelatory— influence of powerful art on everyday life. Lifelong Ibsensite Robinson, however, has constructed a fantasy without painful consequences, a comic reflection of contemporary fears of invidious New Drama that doesn't have a polemical bone in its body. William Schmuck's delightfully naturalistic set evokes an entire community out of a single room in the Seaside Hotel. The one false note comes towards the end, when Maxwell's directing slows the pace of the comic business to conjure a group dance as an image of a small town regaining its lost harmony. Robinson's play, unsentimental and charming, survives this misstep, as does this richly realized production.
Heartbreak House by Bernard Shaw
Shaw once responded to the question of what Heartbreak House with" How should I know? I am only the author." His mysterious, angry indictment of the English aristocracy's death drive is, of course, about many things: the impotence of capitalism, the powder trail that led to World War I, and the world of self-delusion, love-making, and other distractions that the governing classes created instead of running the country. Its targets are so diffuse that the play requires a steady helmsman to keep it off the rocks of its digressions.
Christopher Newton's lavish revival both does and does not succeed in steering this massively ambitious play. Despite a number of star turns by company stalwarts like Michael Ball (as the prophetic inventor Captain Shotover) and Deborah Hay (as love-sick, love-seeking Hesione Hushabye), the real star of the show is the set: a multi-leveled curtained prow that literally comes unmoored in the third act as it tumbles into the rapids. Shotover's house as a docked ship of state has often inspired set designers to grand inventions, but Leslie's Frankish's houseboat is the most gorgeously rambling design I've ever seen for this play.
The liveliness of the bucking set stands against the senescence of the characters, all of whom are bored to death, sleep, or hypnotic suggestion (quite literally, in the second act) as they seek to amuse themselves during a visit to a country house. Shaw pronounced the play his King Lear as well as his Cherry Orchard, and Newton directs this production largely as a tragicomedy of premature aging and mangled vitality.
Ellie Dunn (a game Robin Ellin Willis), who intends to marry Boss Mangan (Benedict Campbell), is invited to the Shotover estate with her father, the gentle revolutionary Mazzini (Patrick McManus, in a fright wig). Hesione intends to break up the intended marriage of financial convenience. Ellie, meanwhile, has designs on the man she knows as Marcus Darnley, who is really Hesione's husband, Hector (Blair Williams), in disguise. Everyone is exhausted by the old game of keeping up the comic farce of pretending to be amused by the old illusions.
The trouble is that the production communicates enervation all too well, without attending to the mad dance of epigrams and intrigue that Shaw has invented to keep the surface desperation lively even as the ship is sinking. In his production of Heartbreak House Harold Clurman recognized that Shaw's characters are puppets; in the second and third acts, they even name the sorts of stage types they are. The fitful pace of this production sacrifices some of the jaunty unreality of these frivolous people. Curtain lines like Shotover's "Give me deeper darkness. Money is not made in the light," which usually rates a shuddering laugh, seem neither eerie nor darkly funny, but rather wanly contemplative.
There are many pleasures here, particularly Hay's would-be puppetmaster, Hesione, and especially Laurie Paton's Ariadne Utterword, who gives perhaps the most charismatic and coherent performance I've ever seen of Hesione's cold-hearted imperialist sister. Newton's stage pictures are likewise often beautiful, even painterly. But as in his production of John Bull's Other Island last year, it seems as though the talented Mr. Newton can't match Shaw's fury and desolation in his darker comedies even as he engages them with his supple intelligence. This Heartbreak House certainly is sturdy, but the suggestions of a madder, more muscular performance keep poking up through the floorboards.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams
Sue LePage, the gifted designer of the Shaw's hottest ticket this year, aged the walls of the plantation bedroom in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof so they would resemble houses in Havana or in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. This exquisitely haunted room is reason enough to admire the Shaw's revival of Tennessee Williams's painfully intimate 1955 masterpiece about lost love, impending death and the squalor of the survival instinct.
The central relationship between damaged Brick Pollitt (brooding, bitter Gray Powell) and Maggie (Moya O'Connell, lovely and desperate) is just as finely sculpted as the setting, and so deeply committed that these actors seem to have lived in these roles for years. Brick and Maggie have come to Brick's 28,000-acre ancestral homestead to celebrate his father, Big Daddy's, birthday. Everyone knows that Big Daddy (a volcanic Jim Mezon) is dying of cancer except Big Daddy himself. Likewise, everyone suspects that Brick won't give Maggie a child because he's drinking himself into oblivion after the death of his football hero best friend and possible lover, Skipper. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is built on rumor and suspicion. Despite the apparent privacy of the bedroom and an interior bathroom, Brick and Maggie are under attack from all sides: by a minister, a doctor, Brick's scheming brother Gooper and sister-in-law, Mae, and screaming "no-neck monster"children.
Eda Holmes, one of the smartest directors in Canada, has thought through every line, gesture, semi-glance and willful silence. Williams's lyrical realism is constructed out of repeated phrases with minor variations, but the musical sensitivity of this production makes each reprise entirely different. The long, awkward confrontation between Big Daddy and Brick in the second act hinges on the word "mendacity" and the criss-crossing betrayals of father and son. Powell's reticence and Mezon's bluster make some deliberately evasive dialogue into a spiritual striptease. (Mezon, who has been in lead roles at the Shaw as long as I've been attending, gives the most spirited performance of his career here.)
With a less skillful ensemble, Williams's plays can become schematic or can fully surrender to the grotesquerie of the characters. Nicole Underhay's Mae, for instance, could be a threatening, if ridiculous, gold-digging fertility goddess next to the noble, if bleak, sterility of Brick. Luckily, the touchstone of this production is the humanism beneath the symbolic interplay: while Mae is outwardly disgusting, Underhay redeems her as a woman of simple appetites ("Mendacity? Why, I don't even know what that means") who cannot understand the tragic abysses around her. The ending of the play, which has always struck me as a triumph of Maggie's survival instinct over her empathy, is a complex melding of her desire to survive and her love for Brick. The final tableau is devastating and hopeful and utterly true to the writhing complexities of the play.
Holmes has chosen to stage Williams's 1974 revision of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which has far more blue language that the mid-50s original. While purists may quibble with a Big Daddy whose crudeness threatens to crack the sustained delicacy of Williams's dialogue, this beautiful Cat is more than up to the challenge of finding the frustrated sensitivity beneath the four-letter words.
On the Rocks by Bernard Shaw
On the Rocks is an odd play, made odder by Canadian playwright Michael Healey, who has revised and restructured it for a new age. Shaw's 1933 political comedyhas only been produced professionally twice in North America. It usually begins with a Liberal Prime Minister, Sir Arthur Chavender, realizing that he has no idea how to govern despite being trained to do nothing else his entire life. He is then enticed to a spa in Wales by a mysterious Lady, where he is educated in Karl Marx (whom he has heard about, but never read). In the second act, he announces a sweeping set of socialist reforms and decides to prorogue Parliament. At the last moment, as Sir Arthur realizes his inability to bring about sweeping changes that he can only envision, an angry mob of unemployed workers storms Downing Street.
In the playing, this is less heady than it appears. Joseph Ziegler's screwball pace and highly physical staging, in fact, makes On the Rocks seem like one of Shaw's less talky plays even though there is a great deal of sparkling discussion. Healey has decided to reverse the order of the acts to show the consequences before the conversion, and then has added a coda made up of bits and pieces from throughout the play. He has also rewritten about a third of the dialogue to provide even more currency (talk of failing banks subsidized by middle-class households, for instance) for a play that is already shocking in its prescience. The net effect of this update is to make a rather obscure play more topical, but less urgent. Healey leaves us with undeniable affirmation — the future will realize the plans of the past!— that is meant, I think, to be a source of hope rather than a mirror held up to our discomfort.
Peter Krantz's genteel and charming Lord Chavender, who is oddly less of a presence after his slate of reforms than before them, is awfully funny. And Cherissa Richards as Dame Adhira Pandranath, an Indian woman who owns much of England (Shaw forecasted the shift of power from West to East seven decades ago!) provides the most heated moment of the play when she unmasks the subterranean racism beneath British gentility. The most consistently amusing performance, however, is Steven Sutcliffe as Sir Dexter Rightside, the Tory MP who refuses to give up the right to private property and is a furious devil's advocate throughout the first act. Mr. Sutcliffe embodies Sir Dexter's reactionary intransigence with a furious shuffling walk and an exasperated face that reddens like a candied ham. The first act in particular is like a tennis match: you watch the mostly progressive politicians on the left of the stage, then you crane your neck to the right to watch Sutcliffe's inevitably amusing, if disagreeable, rejoinder.
Though On the Rocks is trim and rollicking in this incarnation it feels shorn of its more incendiary propositions. By 1933, Shaw had lost the small faith he had in government by democracy. On the other hand, he could not yet imagine the benevolent tyranny that seemed necessary to give England adequate financial and ethical leadership. The original play is an honest, if terrified account of a stalemate that raises far more questions than it answers. And as disgusting as Shaw could be when he was praising the charisma of Mussolini, his fundamental question, "Who shall lead?" is still worth debating in the terms that Shaw first proposed it. That question is at the center of this production, but it takes some digging to find it.
The incidental music at the Shaw Festival is always delightful, but Paul Sportelli has outdone himself here. The dubiously upbeat song he has composed as a theme for the play is jovial and nerve-wracking at once. It marvelously captures the sense of panic and excitement that inspired the play in 1933 and has inspired this revival now.
The Admirable Crichton by J. M. Barrie
In 1902, the same year that J. M. Barrie first published the stories that would become Peter Pan, he premiered his play about the perfect British butler, Crichton, and the helpless aristocrats he serves. There are no children in The Admirable Crichton. But there aren't really any adults either. Instead, there are grown people playing at being sophisticated in London, and then playing at being savages on an island where all the usual rules of civilized life are turned upside down.
Sound familiar? The production of Crichton at the Shaw, directed by Morris Panych, is inspired by the pantomime roots of Peter Pan while staking out a distinct identity as a comic study of natural selection. It features a chorus of animal-headed narrators in pinstripe suits who read off Barrie's (occasionally precious) stage directions, sing songs, dance, and generally provide music hall color to move the story along.
Crichton is a simple parable with devilish implications. The Earl of Loam (David Schurmann, in high whimsy) orders his large household staff to be served by the family once a month to demonstrate his theory that class distinctions are arbitrary. His conservative butler, Crichton (Steven Sutcliffe), frets over this disruption of hierarchy, but he is silenced. Then, when the Loams take their yacht on a cruise and it crashes on an island, the masters really do become the peons as Crichton demonstrates his superior survival instincts by re-inventing the industrial revolution out of the local flora. Despite what might seem like a revolutionary agenda, Barrie is less interested in upending class distinctions than in showing that there really are natural ranks of men: Great Britain has simply given the power to the wrong people.
Sutcliffe manages the extraordinary task of standing astride the high fantasy and the social commentary of the play without winking or sacrificing the rugged stoicism of his role. Panych, I suspect, intends the mise-en-scene to be the star of the show, and he has enlisted every square inch of the Shaw's scene shop to craft an ersatz wonderland. The set is a stylized expansion of the naturalist's notebook that Ernest Woolley (Kyle Blair, having and making a lot of fun), one of the exiled aristocrats, keeps on the island, with his sketches and jottings as pop-up book scenery or writing on the scrim that announces each shift in location. There is also a live orchestra, conducted gamely by Ryan deSouza. And there is a musical finale that is so wildly choreographed that it nearly outshines the spectacles that have come before.
How you respond to the exuberant filigree of the production design is a matter of taste, I suspect. It is ornate, impressive, and carefully conceptualized, but it felt to me as though every second of the play has been so thoroughly planned out that there was little room for Barrie's silly conceits to frolic. The Shaw's Admirable Crichton is most fun, rather than Fun, when it calms down and allows the actors to step out from the apparatus. There is a sequence in the third act, for instance, when Lady Mary (Nicole Underhay) seeks out, and receives, the love of Crichton, now the lord of the island, that is a delicious fusion of comic timing and pathos. In a busy production, these moments are oases when all the elements align and Barrie's winsome satire finds a home within all the talent onstage.
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