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The 2013 Shaw Festival
Arcadia | Peace In Our Time | Trifles| Lady Windemere's Fan | Our Betters | Major Barbara| Guys and Dolls |
Lady Windermere’s Fan
Before the curtain rises on Peter Hinton’s production of Oscar Wilde’s 1892 play, five women arrange themselves at the front of the stage like time-delayed snapshots of a larger movement. That greater motion is Lady Windermere’s moral progress during a single day, and it is Hinton’s quasi-filmic conceit that we keep Lady Windermere (Marla McLean) in close-up throughout the evening. The curtain rises to reveal small windows on a wider world, like the unfolding irises in silent movies. The play ends like a French film, with a projection of the word “FIN.”
The strong “director’s theatre” approach won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it does breathe new life into Wilde’s send-up of the woman-with-a-past melodrama. On the eve of her twenty-first birthday, Lady Windermere learns that her husband (Martin Happer) has been visiting notorious Mrs. Erlynne (Tara Rosling) and paying her large sums of money—possibly to keep her quiet about a love affair. Furious when her husband invites Mrs. Erlynne to her birthday party, Lady Windermere accepts an offer from her attractive friend Lord Darlington (Gray Powell) to run away with him, nearly ruining her reputation. What she doesn’t know is that Mrs. Erlynne is her mother, and that she is about to repeat the infidelity that broke up her family.
There are a few moments of virtuosic acting. When Tara Rosling is announced at Lady Windmere’s party, the frenetic gossip stops and Rosling seems to shine like a small moon. Corrine Koslo as the Duchess of Berwick and Kate Besworth as her long-suffering daughter, Agnes, destined to be foisted off on a rich Australian, are effective comic relief. But this is not a production that allows for strong individual performances.
The design is really the star of the show, and it is glorious. Teresa Przybylski’s gorgeous sets in the first act, apparently modeled on Whistler’s Mother, suggest a world of monochromatic order with the small interruptions of a flowing white curtain and a child’s red ball. Act II, Lady Windermere’s party, is supposedly Sargent and Degas (the juxtaposition of shadow and muted starlight made me think of Turner or Van Gogh), while Act III, set in Lord Darlington’s rooms, is dark and rich like a late painting by Rembrandt, likely to match the lowest points in Lady Windermere’s moral turmoil. The final act, a return to the first scene, is a familiar landscape saturated with color: the walls bristle with (Fauvist?) pinks and greens.
While many Festival productions suffer from too little invention, Lady Windermere’s Fan nearly buckles under the weight of too many ideas. The music cues seem to shift every couple of minutes, from Debussy to Katy Perry; there is an interpolated wordless scene at the opera, where Lady Windermere sees Mrs. Erlynne from her box. Between the acts, there are projections of quotations by Wilde, song lyrics, and contemporary prints, paintings, and photographs by Wilde’s contemporaries, from Aubrey Beardsley to Eadweard Muybridge. These juxtapositions are often provocative and occasionally ingenious, particularly when Beardsley’s decadent drawings divulge a slithering underbelly beneath the gleaming surfaces. But the eclecticism sometimes feels heavy-handed, and it could definitely use some editing. The trouble is that the accumulation of clever conceits slows down momentum of Wilde’s play. While the audience still tittered at favorite lines like “I can resist everything but temptation,” this production loses Wilde’s lightness, and his comic genius, underneath the machinery of its multimedia inventiveness.
That said, this is the production I’m most happy to have seen at the Shaw Festival. It is a massive labor of intelligence and craft. What’s more, it offers a toolkit of possibilities for future productions at the Festival: it is brimming with innovation and energy, and it takes an informed stance—sometimes critical, sometimes celebratory—towards Wilde’s play rather than simply throwing it up on a stage. I would far rather see a production that has too many ideas than too few (or, as is often the case, none at all). Mr. Hinton is the director to watch at the Festival, and with gifted collaborators like Przybylski, William Schmuck (costumes) and Louise Guinand (lighting), he is putting on some of the most exciting theatre in North America.
Glaspell’s “Trifles” is a miniature classic. Glaspell based it on a murder case that she covered as a reporter in 1900. (Linda Ben-Zvi provides an unusually superb account of both plays in her notes, even by the high standard of Shaw programs.) In a lonely farmhouse kitchen in the Midwest, a sheriff and a county attorney try to piece together a murder that took place in the (offstage) bedroom while their wives read a story of solitude, emotional abuse, and vengeful fury from the everyday things that made up the life of the accused woman, Minnie Foster. Julain Molnar gives an intense, psychologically credible performance as Mrs. Hale, a member of the local community who realizes that, by ignoring the suffering of a fellow woman, she also had a hand in her crime. Kaylee Harwood is also quite good as Mrs. Peters, the younger and more convention of the two women who begins to question some of her entrenched beliefs about law and order.
Glaspell’s play is a miracle of compression. In about a half an hour, she stages a murder mystery, questions gender roles and the nature of justice, and relates housekeeping and the preservation of civilization, all without pedantry. Roe and designer Camellia Koo stage the play in a rotting ramshackle that feels haunted. The generally realistic approach is leavened by ethereal choral singing that opens and closes the play. It’s a good production of an important and moving play, but it seems to go by too quickly: the realizations don’t have time to sink in, and the women don’t have the opportunity to glean the puzzle of the evidence in the kitchen by reproducing the gradual, deliberate rhythms of everyday tasks in Minnie’s life.
Unfortunately, the reason to speed up “Trifles” is to make room for “A Wife for a Life,” which is a little like gobbling filet mignon to have time to linger over sheet cake. O’Neill’s vaudeville about two prospectors in love with the same woman is historically interesting. It forecasts his later commitment to the torment and dignity of fate, and it shows a young playwright’s experiments with (stage) dialect that would eventually come to fruition in the cacophony of The Iceman Cometh. The tension in the play comes from an Older Man’s (Benedict Campbell) decision about whether or not to kill Jack (Jeff Irving), his younger companion, even though Jack once saved his life. The string of coincidences that leads to his final decision is confusing and tedious, and it requires several awkward soliloquies. Luckily, Benedict Campbell gets to deliver them, and his thunder and vitality are worth watching. Irving’s fresh-faced energy and exuberant affection for his absent bride is also winning. Perhaps they’d be willing to perform the play as a pantomime?
Peace in Our Time
Shaw revised his unwieldy play continuously from its first performance in 1938 through its publication in 1947, both to keep pace with world events and to accommodate the objections of theatre managers and audiences. Geneva is difficult to love, or even to like: it is at once dated, bloodthirsty, silly, pessimistic, ambitious, bloated, and, especially in its final clown show of dictators, unsatisfying.
That all makes John Murrell’s sly, streamlined, and marvelously theatrical revision staggering. Murrell has cut more than an hour off the playing time, added a Canadian conservative, Darcy Middleman, as one of the solicitors, and changed Shaw’s opportunistic British secretary, Begonia Brown, into “Liberty” Belle Browning, a Sarah Palin-esque Republican from Ohio. Blair Williams, who directed a buoyant production of Shaw’s The Millionairess last year, sets the production in a surrealistic Cloudcuckooland. Camellia Koo’s lovely sets zip us from a dusty receiving room to a posh office to a lakeside garden (complete with a weeping willow, with tendrils hanging from the rafters) to a futuristic courtroom, all trimmed with the puffy clouds and piercing blue skies of a Magritte painting.
The acting is uniformly superb. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Andrew Bunker’s Middleman gets the most laughs by mixing smugness and modesty by performing middlebrow Canada for highbrow Canadians: “We teach everyone’s history but our own.” Claire Jullien’s Dolores Ochoa, like Eva Peron as imagined by Pedro Almodovar, is a merciless, flamenco-mad revenger. But the fiercest parody is Diana Donnelly’s Belle, a ghoulish, yet charismatic, allegory of boundless American self-interest whose ignorance of foreign policy and history will not get in the way of her imperialist appetite.
Williams, Murrell, and the cast handle Shaw’s impossible finale with good spirits, if with less bite than a play that is so relentlessly critical of manic nationalism might muster. Ric Reid’s shambolic Führer owes a good deal to Charlie Chaplin’s Little Dictator, while Neil Barclay’s enormous Duce spits and fumes malevolently and Lorne Kennedy’s Generalisimo is more patrician, if equally unreflective. Collectively, they’re like watching an editorial cartoon from some Allied newspaper come to life.
By turning the minefield of Shaw’s dense, angry satire into an enjoyable and provocative play of ideas, Murrell and Williams have worked wonders. The production only fumbles, I think, at the conclusion, when Murrell tries to wrap the incomprehensible events of the last couple of hours up in a tidy speech about the need to act in the present to guarantee a future. Like so many translators with the benefit of hindsight, Murrell can clarify Shaw’s thoughts in a way that the fog of war, not to mention the fog of old age, prevented. Peace in Our Time ends with articulate, tentative optimism. But to honor the confusion of Shaw’s time, and ours, some of the original play’s tongue-tied sputtering also seems necessary.
The magic of Stoppard’s play is not only the intricacy of its structure or the breadth of its imagination, but its inexhaustibility. Even when you can put the puzzle pieces together, there is still a whiff of mysticism about how impeccably one era can intuit the doubts and desires of another era despite the barrier of time.
Arcadia makes enormous demands on its audiences: within the first several minutes, we are asked to contemplate Latin conjugations, the history of landscape design, Newtonian physics, and the sexual politics of the Regency era. Thankfully, this is the most lucid production I’ve ever seen, with actors who clearly and sensitively communicate the encyclopedia of literary, artistic and scientific references. Gray Powell makes an impeccable Septimus. As the Festival’s reigning Romantic lead (he was Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a couple of summers ago), he is a plausible love interest for Thomasina. But he is also the most fully fleshed character in the play: his amazement at the inexplicable genius of his pupil overwhelms his self-regard and grows into an awkward kind of love.
Director Eda Holmes lets her actors be vicious, absent-minded, and moody as well as brilliant. Patrick McManus’ tyrannical, defensive Bernard is gloriously smart and wonderfully nasty, while Diana Donnelly’s Hannah is painfully self-conscious of her shortcomings as a thinker and a feeler. Stoppard’s people, like Shaw’s, can become clever talking heads. The pleasure of this production is not only the pleasure of its massive ideas, but also its simpler joys: Besworth’s girlish infatuation with the waltz as Thomasina, for instance, or Nicole Underhay, visiting from Major Barbara, as Lady Croom, the aristocratic head of household who lowers the archness of her manners to show Septimus her need to be sexually desirable.
Sue LePage’s elegant, functional set and some piano selections that shepherd one time period into another undergird the verbal feast of the play. Holmes’ directing is unobtrusive and unceasingly intelligent. I can imagine a more emotionally moving production, especially in the devastating final scene, which is played too delicately. But I cannot imagine a better-acted Arcadia.
W. Somerset Maugham’s 1917 comedy of trans-Atlantic manners isn’t
exactly a neglected gem, but it is extremely funny and
occasionally insightful, and it’s hard to imagine a better
production than this sparkling revival. Maugham trains his
satirical sights on American heiresses on the make for European
husbands, trading new money for ancient titles. American
millionairess Bessie Saunders (Julia Course) has joined her
sister, Pearl (Claire Jullien), aka Lady Grayston, for the London
Season. Her sister married a baronet and Bessie, who has
ambitions beyond building a mansion and a family in the Midwest,
has attracted the attention of the handsome diplomat Lord Bleane
(Ben Sanders). She amuses herself among her sister’s ex-pat set,
most of whom have learned British accents and dancing from
expensive tutors: Minnie, aka the Duchesse du Surennes (Laurie
Paton) and Flora, aka the Princess della Cercola (Flora). These
women are fashionable, rich, politically influential and
As Pearl, Claire Jullien is an intriguing cipher: has she lost her soul to European easy virtue, or does she willfully celebrate scandal and pleasure like one of Oscar Wilde’s raisonneurs? It’s hard to tell, and that’s what makes her performance mesmerizing. Laurie Paton, meanwhile, is sad and silly as the aging Duchesse, a self-pitying, autocratic, love-starved woman who chases after her young kept man, Tony Paxton (Charlie Gallant). Paton adds flesh to a dowager stereotype, making her pitiable, cunning, and, like Jullien’s Pearl, refreshingly unpredictable. The dance of need and defiance she performs with Gallant, who also dignifies his comic type with a mixture of cocky pride and inexperience, is the most psychologically complex portrait of love at the Shaw this year. The one note that needs tuning is Bogert-O’Brien’s Fleming. He is certainly handsome enough to warrant the ladies’ wide-eyed inspection, but he hasn’t yet found the insecurity behind the priggish American’s stream of disapproval.
Although director Morris Panych usually takes a more stylized approach to period productions, this is some of his most thoughtful work: elegant, swift, rigorous and finally light. There’s not a bit of gristle here—not a moment that isn’t amusing, brooding, or atmospherically rich. Ken MacDonald, Panych’s designer/partner, matches his sensibilities with a white dream of a sophisticated Mayfair drawing-room and a gently caricatured, finely detailed English country house, with stained-glass windows, peeling wallpaper, and other trappings of respectable decay. This isn’t the only kind of play that the Shaw does well, but there isn’t anywhere else in the world that puts on early 20th-century British social comedy with the same affection and commitment.
Shaw’s intricate parable begins with a decoy marriage plot: Lady Britomart, the autocratic mother of a fashionable household, summons the estranged father of her children, Andrew Undershaft, to bestow dowries on her two daughters, Sarah and Barbara. The play soon explodes out of the drawing room to the outskirts of London and the English countryside, and focuses on the forces of religion and manufacturing, represented by Barbara’s Salvation Army and Undershaft’s munitions factory, that tussle for the souls of men.
Benedict Campbell is superb in his second appearance at the Shaw Festival as Undershaft. In 2005, he was seductive, but oilier and less humane. This time, Campbell is, at first, a posh, self-satisfied businessman who delivers Shaw’s long stump speeches as ironic rhetorical showpieces. In most productions of Major Barbara, Undershaft’s downfall is his stubbornness, his refusal to evolve. In this version, Campbell is a slow fuse that suddenly ignites in the second half to reveal a man so deeply offended by the genteel British tolerance for poverty that he literally can’t contain himself anymore. His passion is galvanic: the whole cast wakes up when Campbell delivers the fiercest, most animally succinct performance I’ve ever seen of Undershaft’s advocacy of revolutionary violence, “mak[ing] war on war.”
Nicole Underhay is a vulnerable, then wounded Barbara, but she doesn’t seem divinely inspired until the final moments. Director Jackie Maxwell has added a short sample of Salvation Army brimstone to the beginning of the play—delivered by Barbara to the audience—that seems intended to establish Barbara’s vitality and charisma. But Underhay is too tentative, for now, to seize us by the lapels with her conviction, and it takes her most of the play for her to build to the passion that ought to be there from the beginning. Graeme Somerville, as Barbara’s lover, Greek scholar Adolphus Cusins, likewise struggles with a wavering Australian accent that makes him less certain in his speeches than in his virtuosic physical comedy.
Before that transcendent ending, Maxwell and the cast reveal their gifts as miniaturists. Shaw’s minor characters have the grotesque definition of walk-ons in a Dickens novel: Anthony Bekenn as the perpetually anxious butler Morrison, for instance, and Peter Krantz, playing against type as the prematurely aged working man Peter Shirley, establish a comic outer world that surrounds the serious debates at the core of the play. James Pendarves as Bill Walker, a skeptical bruiser who visits the Salvation Army shelter, makes the harsh atmosphere of poverty vivid by striking women and overturning benches in close proximity to the audience. In this “intimate” Major Barbara, placed in the smallish Royal George Theatre, the percussion of Bill’s fists brings the abstract violence in the speeches jarringly close to home.
Major Barbara is a play that is perennially topical, maybe never more so than in an age of global capitalism and outsourced, dematerialized warfare. The trouble with this production is that it lacks a sense of the urgency of the play and the courage to harness or toy with Shaw’s shifting attitudes towards social change and the questionable mans of achieving it. Some judicious cutting lends the play momentum. Other cuts shear the squalid moral drama from the script, making it too easy to agree with Undershaft, whose creed of “money and gunpowder” as the basis of civilization is surely contestable. (I miss, for instance, Undershaft’s troubling claim that the only ballot that governs is the one that has a bullet wrapped in it.) Maxwell’s production notes claim that she has tried to place Barbara at the center of the action despite the diabolical appeal of Undershaft, but Barbara doesn’t become a compelling counterweight until the final moments. This year’s Major Barbara takes risks with the acting, but plays it a bit too safe with the stakes of this still incendiary play.
Guys and Dolls
In 1950, composer Frank Loesser and book-writers Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows cooked up the story of Nathan Detroit’s search for a place to stage his crap game and Sky Masterson’s bet that he can get Salvation Army sergeant Sarah Brown down to Havana from an assortment of ingredients, including Shaw’s Major Barbara and Damon Runyon’s stories about colorfully-named criminals. Part of the fun of Guys and Dolls is the wink it shares with the audience: this collation of high and low theatre, burlesque numbers and half-quotations from classical music, seems like it’s thrown together out of spare parts, though that looseness conceals almost miraculous intelligence and ingenuity.
Probably the single most life-enhancing moment of this production has that same improvisatory spirit. Thom Allison, as perpetually hungry Nicely Nicely Johnson, is called on to give testimony about his life as a sinner. He invents an allegorical dream about a journey to heaven that becomes the second-act showstopper “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” In the recording from Jerry Zaks’ sublime 1992 production, Walter Bobbie sounds like this extravagant conceit sprung from his head fully-formed. It is Allison’s genius—the production’s genius—to make a tune that’s part of the American Songbook seem like a spontaneous act of invention that might, or so Allison’s saucer-sized eyes convey, collapse at any moment. The drama of Allison’s performance is the movement from creative anxiety to hope to bliss, all contained within a four-minute molecule. Actors talk about performing “discoveries,” finding points in a speech where we can see a character understanding or feeling for the first time. A whole lot of this production feels like an evening-long discovery, totally alive yet fully assured.
In a star-making performance, Jenny L. Wright as Miss Adelaide, for instance, obviously loves her dance routines at The Hot Box, which are staged as the stripteases they’ve always been. But she also loves commitment-phobic Nathan, and in “Adelaide’s Lament” she seems to learn, right in front of us, that her love life is actually making her sick. Shawn Wright’s bulldog-faced Nathan is more suavely self-confident. He hasn’t quite nailed the tension between coolness and terror in the character (or the Yiddish that’s occasionally thrown into his songs), but his love for Adelaide feels real from the start, and their duet, “So Sue Me,” is a fully dramatized plea for forgiveness encased in a lover’s quarrel.
Elodie Gillett as Sarah is beautiful and entirely persuasive in her rather sudden fall (or is it a rise?) to love with visiting high-roller Sky Masterson. She strains a bit at the top of her range in the unforgiving “I’ll Know” early in the show, but by the end of the first act Gillett has revealed the most lushly operatic voice in the cast. Kyle Blair’s Sky is unusually boyish for a legendary gangster. He doesn’t have the daring sex appeal and occasional world-weariness that Marlon Brandon brought to the role in the 1955 film, though he is credible as a match for Sarah, and he’s a lithe dancer in a thrillingly acrobatic “Luck Be a Lady Tonight.” It’ll be worthwhile to follow the run to see if his performance darkens over time.
Parker Esse’s choreography is unashamedly libidinal: there’s a hint of Fosse and a dollop of Shakira in the Latin bacchanal of “Havana.” The sensual crackle of this musical has been missing from the more restrained spectacles of My Fair Lady and Ragtime during the last couple of years. More than any single element, though, there’s a sense of “event” around this production, an excitement among the cast that this is the hit of the Festival.