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CurtainUp Toronto Notes: May 1998

by Joe Green

Top of List
Topics Covered
The Shaw Festival--Background
Shaw Festival Review: You Can't Take It With You
The Shaw Festival--Review: The Shop at Sly Corner
The Shaw Festival--Review: The Lady's Not For Burning
The Shaw Festival--Review: Major Barbara
The DuMaurier World Stage--Background
DuMaurier World Stage--Review: The Weir
DuMaurier World Stage--Review: Blue Heart

The Shaw Festival -- Background

Located in the charming Victorian town of Niagara-on-the-Lake in the heart of Ontario's banana (and wine) belt, just sixty miles from Toronto and less than 30 minutes from Niagara Falls, NY, the Shaw Festival was founded in 1962 as a home-grown celebration in a small courthouse theatre. Since then, it has grown to operate three venues (including the refurbished Court House Theatre) with an annual budget of more than $14 million and a summer season which begins in April with previews and school matinees through the major tourist months of June through August and finishes in October.

Since its start, the Shaw Festival has been devoted to the production of plays by George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries -- plays, as the Festival so neatly puts it, "about the beginnings of the modern world." Now under the artistic leadership of Christopher Newton (appointed in 1979, and likely to be the longest serving artistic director in the English-speaking theatre world!), the 1998 Festival is producing eleven plays in over 750 performances in its three theatres (only two of which plays are by GBS!).

(see below for the WWW site of the Festival where CurtainUp subscribers can find a listing of the complete season plus information regarding ticket purchase and accommodation)

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Review: You Can't Take It With You

This great manic social farce written in 1936 by the team of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart (it won the Pulitzer Prize the following year and ran for 837 performances on Broadway) was given a lively, very funny and still relevant production under the hand of long-time Shaw Festival director Neil Munro. While, like the other plays seen during this opening week of the Festival that appeared to start and build rather slowly, You Can't Take It with You did indeed by its second act gather the necessary steam and energy to bring its audience to rolling waves of laughter -- climaxing with the marvelous scene when the prospective in-laws arrive a day early at the Sycamore asylum for a meet and greet dinner.

And, while the final act of the play has always appeared forced in its somewhat polemic tone about freedom and individualism as the base metal of American society, Munro and his cast did manage to keep up the comic flow to the final somewhat sentimental curtain

Of particular note were Lewis Gordon as "Grandpa" Martin Vanderhoof who holds the piece together and Norman Browning as the first pompous and then garrulous prospective father-in-law Mr. Kirby. Also noteworthy were Jenny Wright as Essie Carmichael, perhaps the most manic and awkward would-be ballet dancer in stage history, and Mary Haney as Penelope Sycamore, the mother-turned-playwright because she had received in error a typewriting machine some eight years earlier!

Sue LePage's detailed yet romantic setting served the production extremely well and Kevin Lamotte's evocative lighting did much to enhance the romantic overtones of what is otherwise almost unrelieved farce.

By George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
Directed by Neil Munro
Designed by Sue LePage
Festival Theatre at the Shaw Festival
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
to November 1, 1998
Reviewed May 22, 1998

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Review: The Shop at Sly Corner

The first opening at the restored Royal George Theatre on the main street of Niagara-on-the-Lake is a melodrama by Edward Percy written in 1941 which, because of World War II, didn't get to the West End until April, 1945, where it ran for two years (over 800 performances). It's New York production in 1949 starred Boris Karloff and played for a grand total of seven performances before closing (remember that 1949 may have been the golden year of 20th century American drama). The mid-century American critic, Burns Mantle (he of "The Best Plays of..." series), noted of the play: "It should be evident by now that American audiences have not the patience and the leisure to savor the quiet horrors of the English melodrama."

The Shaw Festival audience did indeed have such patience and, given the laid back pace of this tourist town, the leisure to savor these quiet horrors -- even though it took an entire act of this rather traditional three-act piece to get rolling. After the first interval (to use the English translation of intermission), director Joseph Ziegler moves this tale of deception and murder to its unpredictable and therefore surprising though not unsatisfying conclusion.

Without giving away the rather startling denouement -- for that would destroy the fun inherent in the genre -- we may recount the larger plat outline for those who would enjoy entering into the world of what is essentially British gothic entertainment.

At the heart of The Shop at Sly Corner is the passion of a father for his daughter. Played with panache and great stage presence by Festival veteran Michael Ball, Descius Heiss is a hearty antique dealer who lives among his treasures but who gains most of his fortune as a jewelry fence and gold re-melter. His real treasure, however, is his daughter who knows nothing of his shady past and current avocations, played by Fiona Byrne (also seen this week in The Lady's Not For Burning), a newcomer to the Festival and one who should in future make a fine addition to the ingenue ranks of the company.

While this rather twisted plot-driven play doesn't allow for many subtle shadings of character (what true melodrama does?), it presents some delights in broadly acted secondary agents -- from Jennifer Phipps' creaky servant, Mrs. Catt, to Jason Dietrich's poker-faced police inspector. Faring not so well were Maralyn Ryan in the thankless role of Mathilde Heiss, sister to the tormented Descius and party to his secrets, and Ann Baggley (somewhat more successful than her work in The Lady's Not For Burning) as the confident to the daughter.

While The Shop at Sly Corner does not rank with the best of modern or even mid-century British drama (less than a decade after its appearance, London saw the rise of theangry young men and the absurdists), it does serve as a sometimes gripping and generally entertaining three hours in the theatre.

By Edward Percy
Directed by Joseph Ziegler
Designed by David Boechler
Royal George Theatre at the Shaw Festival
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario to October 31, 1998
Reviewed May 22, 1998

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The Lady's Not For Burning

Christopher Fry's dark romance was written in 1948 and was first seen in London's West End with a cast that included Claire Bloom, John Gielgud and a very young Richard Burton. The Shaw Festival production, directed by Christopher Newton and designed by Leslie Frankish, is a faithful theatrical and visual rendition of Fry's medieval Arcadian vision -- an April garden of somber delights.

This shadowy tale, set "in the year 1400 more or less" in the small market town of Cool Clary, deals with Thomas Mendip,a war-weary romantic, played by Simon Bradbury, who seeks to end his life by hanging as a self-proclaimed murderer, and Jennette Jourdemayne, a would-be rationalist, played by Ann Baggley, who is charged with witchcraft and sentenced to be burned at the stake. Lest we think that The Lady's Not for Burning is moving toward tragedy, Fry infuses his verse drama with numerous comic characters, from the town Mayor, played by Roger Rowland, who seeks only to disperse a rowdy crowd gathering in the square, to the sometimes manic brothers Nicholas and Humphrey Devize, played with great energy and fun by Jason Dietrich and Jonathan Watton. Barry MacGregor as the fiddle-playing chaplain and Tony Van Bridge as the reprobate "returned from the dead" -- both actors have been with the Festival for decades -- turn out richly retailed and very funny cameo performances.

Fry's verse is rich with metaphor -- sometimes too richly laden. Surreal and funny in turn, the dialogue is infused with imagery that tickles the intellect even while it fails to engage the emotions of the audience. Might this be Fry's attempt at a winter's tale? -- irreverent and satirical, both dark and light, complex in plot but simple in character.

By Christopher Fry
Directed by Christopher Newton
Designed by Leslie Frankish
Court House Theatre at the Shaw Festival
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario to September 27, 1998
Reviewed May 21, 1998

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Major Barbara

The only play by GBS in the opening round of the 1998 Festival (John Bull's Other Island comes later this summer), Major Barbara is a complex and too frequently ponderous treatise on war and salvation with much potential for rich comedy through character and wit through Shaw's dialogue. Unfortunately, this production, directed by Festival newcomer Helena Kaut-Howson (a Polish born and trained director with considerable British experience), fails to enhance either the comedy or the wit leaving the play to drag forward on its social and philosophical argument alone -- a long evening of theatre! William Schmuck (the Festival's head of design) has not helped the heavy tone of the production with sets that do little to lift our spirits or our sights.

The performances by and large match the tone of direction and scenery. Jim Mezon, a generally fine actor in earlier work at the Festival, presents a rather one-note Andrew Undershaft, Barbara's munitions manufacturing father, which fails to engage us even as it does his daughter. Barbara herself, as played by Kelli Fox, fares not much better in this production. She is earnest to a fault and displays little of the kind of zest for life that would have attracted the undying devotion of classical scholar and putative poet and drum-banger Adolphus Cusins -- effectively portrayed by Richard Binsley in the high note of this production. Joel Hechter's StephenUndershaft is almost a Monty Pythonesque British twit and Malcolm Scott plays Ch arles Lomax, betrothed to Barbara's non-entity sister (as played by Lisa Waines), as an unrelieved dunderheaded counterpoint to Hechter's up tight Stephen.

There is more talent on the Festival Theatre stage in this Major Barbara than one might ever imagine in sitting through close to three hours of philosophic discourse and undramatic drama. The fault must be laid at the feet of the director. That the play is dry in too many places as Shaw presents his arguments at length is true. But rather than play against those moments, this Barbara underscores them (why not trim them, if such a suggestion is not heresy?) by static staging, over-weighted sets, leaden characterization and flat delivery. Shaw is talky in this and plays such as Man and Superman but he is also great fun to watch as he refuses to set up straw men (straw persons?) for his arguments. When well played, these works rise above their didactic underpinnings to reach the ranks of great comedy. That the Major Barbara fails to so rise is unfortunate.

Ed.Note: Readers may be interested in reading Les Gutman's review of a New York production of this play, as well as two other Shaw plays (see links at end)
By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Helena Kaut-Howson
Designed by William Schmuck
Festival Theatre at the Shaw Festival
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario to November 1, 1998
Reviewed May 21, 1998

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Still to come at the Shaw Festival The festival's lineup also includes two more from the pen of the master: John Bull's Other Island and the one-act Passion, Poison and Petrification, Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, John Galsworthy's Joy, a newly reworked musical initially from the pen of the brothers Gershwin, A Foggy Day and the Festival's only Canadian piece, Merrill Dennison's 1921 Brothers in Arms.

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The DuMaurier World Stage

Before closing this first report from Toronto, a brief summary of the 1998 duMaurier World Stage festival is in order as well as reviews of two featured pieces from it that will likely come to New York.

The festival took place in various Toronto venues in April and May and was a tremendous success -- easily the best of these bi-annual fetes to date. Programmed by Don Shipley, head of Performing Arts for the Harbourfront Centre (see the link below for Harbourfront) on the Toronto lakeshore (and a former student of the undersigned), the '98 World Stage focussed on plays from Ireland, England and Canada with a few entries from elsewhere.

Easily the best of the lot were from Ireland (a hot country for theatre this year!). Two Samuel Beckett pieces from the 1991 Beckett Festival at Dublin's The Gate Theatre were also seen in New York as part of Lincoln Center's Beckett Festival two years ago. Waiting for Godot and I'll Go On certainly set the stage for the Irish sweep here (not unlike the Erin presence this season in New York and London).

And, of the Irish offerings, the best was the Royal Court's hit production of The Weir by the young Irish playwright, Conor MacPherson. The Toronto presentation featured the London company under the sure direction of Ian Rickson. It was arguably the best production of the World Stage festival -- and don't be surprised to see it in New York soon.

Review: The Weir

This is a deceptively simple tale in which the audience is invited to spend the evening with four colourful local men and one mysterious female newcomer as they outdo one another with tale after tale of sorrow and grief.

The play is set in a typical rural pub in County Sligo, Ireland -- extremely well designed by Rae Smith. It opens with three bachelors arriving in the dank village pub for an evening of banter and beer. They are quickly joined by a former chum -- now married and a successful businessman -- who has brought to the pub a young woman who has come down from Dublin and recently purchased a house in the village (for reasons we are not to learn until very late in the play).

After the telling of several ghost stories, each subtly and perhaps semi consciously designed to raise the young woman's apprehension, she relates a horrific grief-stricken account of personal loss and ghostly tailings which puts the men into a serious state of regret and apology. A final ghost story brings The Weir to a gentle close with all the participants -- including us in the audience -- a bit wiser and more understanding. The quality of the ensemble is consistently high with Julia Ford's portrayal of the mystery woman being particularly striking.

Ed. Note: Go to our London page (linked at end) for another take on this play
By Conor MacPherson
Presented by Royal Court Theatre, London
Directed by Ian Rickson
Designed by Rae Smith
duMaurier World Stage Festival
duMaurier Theatre Centre, Harbourbront, Toronto, Ontario
Reviewed April 28, 1998

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Review: Blue Heart

Rather less effective than The Weir were Caryl Churchill's latest offerings, Blue Heart, two unrelated one-act plays. Directed by Max Stafford-Clark and presented by his Out of-Joint theatre company (he was also artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre which co-produced the London production of this play), Blue Heart follows such successful Churchill plays as "Cloud Nine" and "Top Girls" (both directed by Stafford-Clark as well -- indeed, he has directed all of her plays to date).

While these two shortish pieces might well travel to New York sometime in the future, and while they received rather glowing reviews in England and even in Toronto, this observer was less than enthusiastic about what appear to be rather derivative absurdist plays with a definite sixties feel.

The evening's first piece, Heart's Desire, feels much like a domestic GODOT without the universal overtones of Beckett's masterpiece. Its companion play, Blue Kettle seems a lot like warmed-over Ionesco with a bit of Albee thrown in for good measure.

By Caryl Churchill
Presented by Out-of-Joint Theatre, London
Directed by Max Stafford-Clark
duMaurier World Stage Festival
Premier Dance Theatre, Harbourbront, Toronto, Ontario
Reviewed April 29, 1998
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Links to Web Pages Mentioned in this Report

The Shaw Festival
Harbourfront Centre, Toronto
The Stratford (Ontario) Festival
Factory Theatre (and other Toronto theatre sites)
Our London Page for another review of The Weir. CurtainUp George Bernard Shaw reviews:
Arms and the Man
Major Barbara
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©May 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp
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