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A CurtainUp Review
You Never Can Tell
By James Moore
Even in the midst of a light comedy, George Bernard Shaw manages to deliver a lesson in the empirical social sciences. It's unwise to be human, he observes, but we do it anyway. We make dreadful mistakes in the process, but sometimes we have fun in spite of ourselves. In You Never Can Tell Shaw pillories the folly that's so frustratingly inherent in our love relationships and social mores, but he makes us laugh at ourselves while doing so. And in the end he leaves us with a bit of hope that we're really not so terrible after all.
Shaw wrote You Never Can Tell in 1897 to satisfy the demand for comedy in London's West End theatres and to capitalize on his ascending commercial appeal. Managers in New York and London were clamoring for a new Shaw comedy after his 1894 success with Arms and The Man. He even created two roles that were designed to appeal to the leading stage comedian of the day, Charles Wyndham. Unfortunately, Wyndham never played either the muddled lover or the wise waiter that Shaw intended for him, and the play was not an immediate success. But it has survived to become one of Shaw's classic tales, and is now one of the most important and frequently-produced works in the Shaw Festival's arsenal. When the Shaw Festival Theatre was inaugurated with a production of You Never Can Tell in 1973, Queen Elizabeth II was in attendance.
Shaw's story of a long-fractured family juxtaposes faded love with love-at-first-sight, all the while managing to poke a little fun at Victorian social mores and the frustrated plight of women as the suffrage movement begins to take hold. We meet the fatherless Clandon family on their peripatetic journey from Portugal to England's seaside resorts, where daughter Gloria runs headlong into a dashing dentist-pauper with whom she is immediately smitten. Meanwhile, Mrs. Clandon discovers that she must confront her long-exiled ex-husband in the midst of her holiday, and reconcile him with the family that he never knew. Shaw based his story on a Sarah Grand novel that he admired, The Heavenly Twins. Whereas Grand's novels always ended tragically, Shaw chose to put a positive spin on the foibles of humankind and to have a bit of fun in the process. Gloria's paternal-twin siblings Philip and Dolly frequently cavort about the stage, as if to remind us when needed that our existential selves really are a bit silly.
In the Shaw Festival's 2005 edition of You Never Can Tell, Director Morris Panych has managed to combine color, motion, and musical whimsy to bring a touch of modern freshness to Shaw's irreverent comedy. Fans of Anne Bogart will admire the way that Panych keeps his actors moving to invigorate a scene. The clever use of old Beatles tunes from Magical Mystery Tour and Sergeant Pepper had the audience smiling. Ken MacDonald's set is dominated by a pastel rose shape that's also designed to evoke the image of a large seashell. Paul Mathiesen's lighting simulates the shimmering colors found in a conch shell. The beach motif is further reinforced by curling furniture, staircases, and a large Florida Auger seashell that resembles a floor lamp. When dancing starfish appeared on stage during one set change, the audience broke into delighted applause. There is more than a bit of love and leisure inherent in the image that the designers have managed to create.
Mike Shara as Valentine the Dentist is especially good. Shaw's story demands that Valentine's character be intelligent yet a bit muddled, and Shara pulls it off. The twelve year veteran of the Shaw Company balances the sometimes-serious subject of love with the inane antics of an earnest suitor. Fiona Byrne is equally adept in her role as the dark and a bit-mysterious Gloria. We see her emerging as a "modern" woman quite distinct from her mother, whose character she resembles but whose bitter failure at romance Gloria so fervently hopes to avoid.
The plays' most endearing characters are the giddy twins Philip and Dolly, well-played by Harry Judge and Nicole Underhay. They are one part Punch-and-Judy, two parts Raggedy Ann and Andy. They are the light comic force that keeps us laughing at ourselves throughout. All of the plays that I saw at this year's Shaw Festival were excellent, but this play was my personal favorite. It may well have been the performances of Judge and Underhay that tipped balance. The production is simply quite fun, and I recommend it highly to anyone who attends the Shaw Festival. One's likes and dislikes are highly subjective, of course, but you may find the show to be your favorite as well. You never can tell.
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