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The 2012 Shaw Festival
Come Back, Little Sheba
William Inge is the genteel Midwestern cousin of American megawatt playwrights from the 1950s like Arthur Miller and his mentor, Tennessee Williams. The pervasive, unspoken dread in his plays is less hysterical than plaintive. In Jackie Maxwell’s elegant production of Come Back, Little Sheba, Inge’s first Broadway hit, attention must be paid to neglected middle-aged housewife Lola Delaney’s quiet yearning and daily humiliations. When it isn’t, the cosmos doesn’t tremble. The neighbors, except for a solicitous German woman, barely notice.
Christina Poddubiuk’s set, a living room and kitchen against a cascade of empty window frames, dissolves the kitchen-sink realism of a “an old house in a run-down neighborhood” into something more liquid and menacing. Lola and her husband Doc, a recovering alcoholic, find excuses not to talk about their dead child, their disappointing marriage, or their secret artistic and sexual aspirations. When Doc chances on “Ave Maria” on the radio, he sinks into a chair with a grimace of numbed ecstasy. When their boarder, Marie, brings her “husky” boyfriend Turk to pose for a drawing in his track uniform, Lola can barely keep her jaw shut.
Maxwell brings a necessary light touch to Inge’s script, which often threatens to tilt into caricature. Lola, for instance, fills her mornings with a fifteen-minute broadcast of a music program called “Taboo,” a bit of kitschy exotica that she enjoys by swinging her hips and munching on a sweet bun. In the 1952 film version of Sheba, Shirley Booth’s Lola approached this bit with muscular comic swagger. Corrine Koslo’s Lola is somehow gentler and more absurd: her attempt to eke an instant of pleasure out of the tedium is comic in the moment and heroic in its resonances.
Inge’s play is really a two-hander with a chorus of locals, and Koslo and Reid are, luckily, magnificent, both alone and together. Koslo always seems to be peering around the side of a doorway, observing but reticent to impose; Reid’s rumpled, short-tempered Doc seems to melt into his oversized hats and jackets. But what could be mannered comic performances are more than the sum of their parts. It is no longer the compliment it once was to say that an actor does not seem to be acting, and yet committed psychological realism of this caliber is astounding. We spend much of the play watching Koslo and Reid watch each other, and they see each other superbly even if the characters they play can only look indirectly.
This is probably Maxwell’s best work at the Shaw Festival since Still Life, a Noel Coward play that was similarly a study in silence and shadow. There are a few problems: Sheba shows its roots as a social problem play when Doc takes up the bottle again and chases Lola around the living room with a hatchet. It’s a moment of high melodrama (and maybe high farce) that isn’t either ridiculous or pathetic enough, at least not yet, to match the off-kilter tone of the rest of the play.
A Man and Some Women Richard Shannon’s mother has died and he is now responsible for disbursing her inheritance to his unmarried, idle sisters, while convincing his wife that he is getting enough of a share to support her extravagant tastes. The trouble is that Richard has been secretly supporting the family, including his mother, for years and he is about to collapse from the tyranny of ungrateful dependents.
The pleasures of Githa Sowerby’s obscure little play are the pleasures of a minor Victorian novel: there are gemlike psychological insights and piercing period details mixed in with overwrought melodrama and some passages in desperate need of pruning. In addition to being one of the first major modern female playwrights, Sowerby was an author of Edwardian children’s literature, a proto-feminist, and a socialist. Her justly celebrated 1912 play Rutherford and Sons has received a slew of recent productions, including a loving 2004 rendition at the Shaw Festival.
When Sowerby is good, she is deeply attentive to how sustained unhappiness mutilates families. Kate Hennig as Richard’s sister Rose masterfully blends wickedness and sadness. As a woman who thinks she is out of options, she sets about destroying her brother to maintain her own idle and paranoid life. Graeme Somerville, one of the most consistently wonderful actors in Canada, makes Richard into a seething, restrained hero who can’t figure out a way to make himself and everyone else happy without first bringing everyone he loves through a lot of unhappiness. Sowerby allows her ablest characters to capture the gridlock of financial dependency through an epithet without sacrificing pathos. The best exchange of the play is: “Women are so helpless. And such tyrants.”
Unfortunately, there are a number of angels and devils set among these delicate psychological portraits, including a tiresomely cherubic child. The Shaw gives it a splendid go, with the usual gorgeous period furnishings and costumes and some lush siren-like singing from the women. Alisa Palmer’s able direction emphasizes the claustrophobia and airlessness of a home where everyone is a prisoner. Perhaps Palmer’s greatest achievement is the pantomime of little turns that and gestural cut-downs that her women perform as they cross the room. Loathing and self-loathing take on the vicious grace of a ballet.
John Guare’s collation of Ben Hecht and Charle’s MacArthur’s The Front Page and its 1940 film incarnation His Girl Friday lands somewhere between inspired and misguided. Guare was given 90 days to blend film and play for a National Theatre production in London in 2003. The hybrid, with many slapstick reinventions, reflects the verve and urgency of a playwright (and of the newspaper reporters he chronicles) under intense deadlines. It’s hard not to wonder, though, if Guare would have reversed some of his back-to-the-wall calls if he’d had more time.
Guare shifts the action of the play from the 1920s to 1939, literally on the eve of Germany’s invasion of Poland. Hildy Johnson (Shaw superstar Nicole Underhay) has left her editor husband, Walter (Benedict Campbell) and her job as the only female reporter on the Chicago crime beat to marry milquetoast insurance salesman Bruce (Kevin Bundy). She’s passing back through town on the night before Earl Holub (Andrew Bunker), a Jewish Czech immigrant, is about to be hanged for shooting a Nazi sympathizer cop. Walter suspects there’s more to the story. He has to delay Hildy long enough to get her to unearth the corruption behind Holub’s imminent execution and to convince her to fall back in love with him.
In the original play, a white (alleged) revolutionary shoots a black cop, and the mayor wants to mine the killing to glean the minority vote. The program notes for His Girl Friday insist that Guare’s Nazi plot make the play more topical by allowing Hecht, who was descended from European Jews, to voice his suppressed concerns with anti-Semitism. As clever as that sounds, now the events of the play seem so locked in to the specific events of World War II that any present-day resonances are crushed by the context. And who says that the exploitation of racial violence in America is old news?
Master director and modern comedy specialist Jim Mezon captures the screwball rhythms that frame the serious political matters. His group scenes of reporters as a pack of hedonistic vultures are choreographed with split-second precision. The first twenty minutes are stunning: a chorus of reporters plays cards, answers phones, orders sandwiches, invents copy, and howls in a collective wolf whistle when a pretty secretary crosses the room. In a festival renowned for its committed ensemble, this is some of the best crowd work to date.
The character roles are also exquisite. Kevin Bundy’s nerdy mother-fixated Bruce is an acrobatic caricature of cosseted American provincialism—watch his hopeless gentility as he tries to control a swivel chair with dainty footsteps. I also enjoyed Peter Millard’s Woodenshoes, a winsome old officer with a long-suffering attitude towards the newsroom flunkies.
Nicole Underhay and Benedict Campbell are briskly delightful as Hildy and Walter, but they have none of the chemistry of Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant: you don’t believe for a second that they might love each other as much as they do the work. And in a version of the play that all but founded fast-talking political comedies of the 1930s up through Aaron Sorkin, the speaking is slipshod and arrhythmic. The hum of fast, witty crosstalk has been exchanged here for the blunt percussion of pratfalls and slamming doors. The play-film-mash-up is still charged and enjoyable, but it feels like a downgrade rather than an update.
Nicole Underhay tears into the title role of Shaw’s late, strange comedy about the dreadful charisma of extremely ambitious people. Underhay plays Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga, a woman with unimaginable wealth and no sense of humor who chews up lovers, businesses, and the furniture. After disposing of an athlete and a gourmand, she falls in love with an Egyptian doctor (Kevin Hanchard). The catch: he doesn’t love her, or at least he won’t consider her until she fulfills his mother’s condition of starting over with almost nothing and building herself back up again.
For the most part, Shaw’s characters here are wafer-thin puppets, caught up in the whirlwind of Epifania’s energy. Blair Williams, an actor from the ensemble who is directing his first Shaw play, brings an equally meteorological vigor to this play: each of four scenes has a different color palette, with matching costumes, and each character has a toolkit of tics. Martin Happer’s Alasdair (the athlete) is goggle-eyed and apopleptic. His lover, Polly Seedystockings (Robin Evan Willis), knits garments that grow longer as the play continues. Steven Sutcliffe’s Blenderbland (the gourmand) careens across the stage on crutches like an out-of-control automaton. The cumulative effect is like a Hirschfeld cartoon come to life.
The challenge of the play is to keep the play balanced while the judo-wielding millionairess single-mindedly conquers the world. In the intimacy of the Court House Theatre, where the actors nearly step over the audience, Williams has placed enormous emphasis on exaggerated wordless reaction: indignation, bubbling wrath, forehead-crinkling bewilderment. This is one of the first Shaw productions I’ve ever seen that could be nearly as effective as pantomime.
Underhay’s performance is a bit like the accounts of David Garrick’s acting: every motion is densely calculated, but it feels spontaneous. She proudly confesses to the doctor that she’s married, then instantly cringes in fear that he’ll reject her. She throws a man downstairs, then collapses into self-pitying tears. Kevin Hanchard, meanwhile, saves the Egyptian doctor from becoming a racist stereotype by playing him with extraordinary dignity. His oaths to Allah are genuine. You sense that Underhay’s Epifania is attracted to him because he isn’t like anyone else on stage; restraint is fiercely seductive when everyone else is a madman.
This is not Shaw’s most dynamically philosophical play. It’s more like a demonstration, in broad comic terms, of our need for—and terror of—strong leaders (read Steve Jobs, for example, for Epifania) in business and in politics. Underhay seems to have absorbed the life force of her character, thankfully, to give the most exciting performance of the season.
Shaw’s mid-career play about the tense relationship between parents and children is frequently performed, but still somehow obscure. Eda Holmes, who directed a life-enhancing production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof last year, transposes this 1910 comedy to 1962, at a moment before the eruption of a swinging counter-culture yet after post-war conservatism. While the choice makes sense on paper, it plays out pretty colorlessly, and sometimes distractingly, on stage.
The trouble is that 1962 doesn’t “read”: it’s a period between landmark eras that doesn’t have many stylistic icons to distinguish it. Shaw’s Misalliance, which deals with a generational shift, is set at a specific historical moment that directly influences the play. Louis Bleriot had just crossed the English Channel for the first time in a monoplane. An airplane notoriously comes crashing into a conservatory in the middle of Misalliance; by 1962, it’s hard to imagine a plane crashing into a house without severer casualties than a couple of panes of broken glass.
Historical befuddlement aside, this production of Shaw’s intriguingly rangy play picks up momentum as it glides. In a country house in Surrey, underwear manufacturer John Tarleton (Thom Marriott) gathers his family to discuss the marriage prospects of his daughter, Hypatia (Krista Colosimo), and her scrawny suitor, Bentley Summerhays (Ben Sanders). Hypatia wishes to be “an active verb”—anything to free herself from talking about life with her elders rather than living it. Her wish is granted when a Polish acrobat (Tara Rosling) lands on the house, bringing with her a more appropriate marriage partner, Joey Percival (Wade Bogert O’Brien), the son of three fathers.
Shaw’s play swings wildly at its targets: imperialism, institutional education, and religion are all in the ring. With its flippant disregard for plausibility, Misalliance is a forerunner of absurdist drama, but Holmes tames its wilder energies. In exchange, Thom Marriott’s John Tarleton, affecting a gorgeous Scottish burr, is a winning capitalist-philosopher and a nervous father. Tara Rosling’s Lina Szczepanowska has some Eva Gabor in her, though her platinum wig and matter-of-fact strength grant her mysterious beauty. It’s odd to praise a funhouse of a play like this for subtlety, though Misalliance sustains a more muted, character-centered approach.
Judith Bowden’s set is likewise cleverly unobtrusive. The small stage of the Royal George Theatre can’t sustain Shaw’s demands for several sections of an enormous house, but Bowden plays tricks with scale—especially long ladders reaching up library shelves—to make the narrow stage extend before our eyes.
Whether or not you enjoy the Shaw’s big musical this year is likely a matter of personal taste. Jackie Maxwell’s production of the 1998 Tony winner, much beloved by many critics and audience members, takes few risks with the tried-and-true Broadway staging. The same iron railing set that has graced so many productions makes another appearance, and the immigrant Tateh’s silhouettes again provide a recurring visual motif for the production. The most thrilling and downright beautiful scene in the production is the parade of shadows at the finale, when each character becomes a walking hieroglyph, a la Robert Wilson, against a blindingly lit backdrop.
Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty, and Lynn Ahrens have rationalized E. L. Doctorow’s sprawling novel into the story of three families: an unnamed white middle class brood in New Rochelle; a volcanic African-American musician named Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Thom Allison) and his lover, Sarah (Alana Hibbert); and Tateh (Jay Turvey), a poor Jew with a brilliant visual eye. Historical luminaries, most notably Emma Goldman (Kate Hennig) and Harry Houdini (Kelly Wong), cross paths with these three groups. The long opening ensemble number interlaces all these diverging interests in a stylish cavalcade. Flaherty’s rag theme, itself a character that appears and recedes throughout the play, is somehow catchy and mystical at once.
The stand-outs in a cast of thirty are Kate Hennig’s Emma Goldman, who crams a lifetime of rage and sympathy into a few lines; Benedict Campbell’s Father, a figure of complacent certainty who becomes lost in the waters of history; and Peter Milllard’s Henry Ford, who barely appears and yet becomes a haunting waxwork portrait of industrial efficiency run amok.
Alana Hibbert’s Sarah has a sweet voice and a fierce, sloe-eyed face (she’s much more like the downtrodden Sarah of Doctorow’s novel than a starlet), though she doesn’t quite have the vocal command of Audra MacDonald or Stephanie Umoh—to be fair, few could. As Coalhouse Walker, Thom Allison is a knock-out. He can do sweet, he can do sultry, he can dance, he can do comedy without pandering and he can summon tragic terror. His courtship of Sarah is the emotional and theatrical high point of a seductively complex performance. Jay Turvey, an effervescent singer and actor with a stunning record at the Festival, takes Tateh’s Latvian heritage too earnestly. He errs on the side of Yakov Smirnoff, but the affectations might have been trimmed to allow the character to become richer and darker.
The most versatile performance of all is Alan Brodie’s lighting design, abetted by the projections designed by Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson. Brodie crafts a denser atmosphere per inch (and per second) than any production I have seen in years of attending the Festival. And unlike last year’s My Fair Lady, which repeated its digital birds a bit too often, Kates and Chaisson’s projections are restlessly inventive in style and subject. They range from an impressionist photograph of the tenements in Irvington Street to pixellated cogs in Ford’s production line to the wind gently ruffling tree branches.