From the opening scene,
a dream sequence that was to foreshadow the entire play, we were
immediately swept back into the magic of the Shaw Festival, as
they recreate Bernard Shaws The Devils Disciple
on the Festival Theatre stage.
-----This is an old-style yarn of an adventure story, described by Shaw as a melodrama, but also a dark comedy and a critique of war. Its set in the middle of the American Revolution, favourably interpreting the rebel cause and ridiculing the idiocies of Londons civil servants and officers with purchased commissions. Yet the rebel Americans are not all cut of the same cloth, even within one Puritan family, as is apparent when devil-may-care Dick Dudgeon appears to inherit everything and blaspheme all.
-----This was Shaws eighth play, and the first to make its world premiere in North America, in New York in 1897. It made Shaw so much money he gave up his day job as a critic, and never looked back. A film version in 1959 starred Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and Laurence Olivier.
-----The current production at Niagara-on-the-Lake stars Gordon Rand as Dick Dudgeon, Neil Barclay as his half-wit brother Christy, Andrew Gillies as the historically-based General "Gentlemanly Johnny" Burgoyne , William Webster as his nit-wit Major Swindon, Peter Hutt as the Reverend Anthony Anderson, Sarah Orenstein as his fickle-witted wife Judith, and Nora McLellan as the grasping matriarch of the disgraced Dudgeon family. The play is directed by Glynis Leyshon, and designed by Peter Hartwell.
-----As with any Shaw Festival play experience for me, it is often the little things that make it so special, so perfect. The acting, the sets, even the incidental music, are always so impeccably executed that you tend to focus on the minutia that is often overlooked by other theatres. Like the many set changes, in this case executed with military precision by marching Redcoats, reminiscent of the opening dream scene. Like the mincing sycophant Major Swindon soundly rapping his knuckles on the table in defiance, and the nearly imperceptible grimace of pain that followed. Like the stirring drama of the closing scene with now-hero Dudgeon raised high on the shoulders of his countrymen, fist in the air, with Old Glory waving proudly behind him. Perfect, in every detail.
As with many 1996 Shaw
Festival productions normal superlatives dont offer enough
praise, Hobsons Choice being no exception.
This impressive staging of Harold Brighouses wondrously
simple play is beyond criticism.
-----Set in the dirty, mean streets of Salford, Lancashire in 1880, the story concerns the Hobson family led by boot entrepreneur Henry and his three marriageable daughters. Strong-willed Maggie, the eldest, is determined to break free of her tyrannical father and carve out a life for herself independent of the family. To achieve this she marries Hobsons prime cobbler, Willie Mossop, and concocts a scheme to enable her two younger sisters to marry the men they love. The foundation of this surprising play is in comedy, but it offers much more.
-----The script is tough in its language and forthright in subject matter. Alcoholism and patriarchal suppression of women were tackled by other playwrights, but Hobsons Choice is arguably the most popular play of the genre. To journey with these wonderfully engrossing characters is a feast for the audience.
-----The talented cast is led by three actors who, among them, evoke every possible emotion. Corrine Koslo is Maggie Hobson who reduces the spellbound audience to laughter at one moment, and has them crying the next. Surely a great career lies ahead for this Vancouver actress relatively unknown to Ontario audiences.
-----Quiet and unassuming cobbler Willie Mossop is portrayed by Simon Bradbury in clearly the male performance of this years Shaw season. To watch this character journey from simple craftsman to master of his own destiny is a joy to behold. Bradbury (and all the cast) affect these performances with technically perfect Lancashire accents, honed in rehearsal by daily doses of Coronation Street.
-----Henry Horatio Hobson is brilliantly played by Shaw veteran Michael Ball, whose blustering oration on daughters is greeted with spontaneous applause. Scenes shared with Bradbury and Koslo are particularly enjoyable, demonstrating the remarkable chemistry among these three actors.
-----Hobsons younger daughters, vinegary Alice and innocent Victoria, are played by Alison Woolridge and Shauna Black. Alices beau is lawyer Albert Prosser, played by Mike Shara, and Brian Marler is Vickys fiancé, Freddy. Convincing, delightful performances by all.
-----In smaller but powerful roles are Jillian Cook as snooty benefactor Mrs Hepworth, Allan Gray as the (why are they always Scottish?) doctor, and, as a special surprise stand-in, the Shaws artistic director Christopher Newton as Hobsons friend Jim Heeler.
-----Hobsons Choice is directed by Christopher Newton, who is surely among the upper stratosphere of stage directors, this season also directing Mr Cinders and (with Denis Johnston) Shall We Join the Ladies? An example of his creative genius: delivery boy Todd Witham who clogs and dances wordlessly between scenes.
-----A trio of magnificent sets has been created by newly appointed Head of Design, William Schmuck. Act One is set in Hobsons boot shop, surrounded by the coal-smoked world of 1880s Salford. Act Two moves to Willie and Maggies shop and living quarters, ingeniously designed to convey a poor basement environment on the large Festival stage. The last act is in the Hobson suite, through the door of whichgasp! do we see a gaffe here?we see the stocked shelves of Hobsons bootery. But no, Shaw never gaffes: we are in the living quarters attached to the shop. Schmucks sets are met with spontaneous and justified applause.
-----Lighting is designed by Kevin Lamotte, whose work for the Shaw has already garnered him a bevy of Dora nominations. His special effects with firelight, candles and streetlights are breathtaking.
-----Only have the time or budget for one play at Shaw this season? Make Hobsons your choice: a perfect symphony of comedy, drama and design. Call 1-800-511-SHAW for tickets. Playing until October 26.
Where does one begin with
The Hollow? The standard superlatives seem inadequate
to describe this outstanding production directed by Paul Lampert
and now playing in the Royal George Theatre at the Shaw Festival
-----The Hollow, Agatha Christies 46th book of detective fiction, was published in 1946. Her first stage adaptation appeared five years later, in a successful West End (London) première that presaged TheMousetrap the following year (but didnt quite equal the latters 44-years-and-still-counting run). The original book featured one of Christies favourite detective creations, Hercule Poirot, but, as was often Christies convention, he was dropped from the stage version, forcing the audience into a more active role in solving the mystery.
-----The mystery begins upon entering the theatre. Why, in the usually perfect Shaw Festival environment, is there still a stagehand puttering about with last minute corrections to the set? What is he doing there? As 8:00 p.m. passes, he is still there, in the shadows upstage, quietly trying to finish...what? At 8:05 the lights come up, the stagehand turns around, and it is sculptress Henrietta Angkatell, niece of Sir Henry whose home she is visiting.
-----And a grand home it is, conceived by the incomparable Cameron Porteous, head of design for the Festival since 1979. Scott Hendersons creative lighting initially casts shades of blue, then during the opening scene, the entire set and the actors costumes are in black and silver and grey, reminiscent of an old film classic. During the play, certain items of potential importance appear in red. A mole cage, a lobster, a purse, a book... are they clues to the mystery, or simply "red herrings"? The lighting during the murder scene is particularly dramatic as the entire stage is washed in a blood-red glow. A wonderful effect.
-----The exceptional cast is headed by Jennifer Phipps(left) whose portrayal of the absent-minded Lady Angkatell evokes the quintessential essence of British nobility, a mannered behaviour that combines upper-class accent with working-class affectations provoking moments of hilarity on the heels of pathos. Henry Angkatell is played by the venerable Tony Van Bridge (right) whose dottering, lovable manner is always endearing to Shaw audiences. Niece Henrietta Angkatell is portrayed by Jan Alexandra Smith in a standout performance that evoked the unmistakable spirit of an intense young artist. Her flawless upper middle class English accent made an already remarkable performance perfect. (One fault in the entire production: the quiet rubber "bump" as one of her stone-carved busts "crashes" to the floor.)
-----Another pair of visitors to the estate is Dr & Mrs John Cristow, played by Douglas E. Hughes and Sharry Flett. In an unflattering role, Hughes plays the philandering physician with glee. Subject of his glee: filmstar and neighbour, Veronica Craye (Tracey Ferencz), a bitchy cross between Joans Crawford and Collins.
-----Shaw visitors will be delighted to find Jack Medley in another of his curmudgeonly butler roles. Others in the cast include Peter Millard as son and heir, Edward Angkatell; Isolde O Neill as free-spirited friend, Midge; Bridgitte Robinson as the nosy maid; and David Schurmann and Robert Clarke as the policemen who, despite their best efforts, fail to solve the case.
-----We cant leave this production without mentioning the program, that typically flimsy, staple-bound sheaf of advertising that includes a cast list and, if you are lucky, thumbprint-sized pictures of the actors and their backgrounds. A Shaw Festival program, however, is a smorgasbord of information, on the play and its production history, its playwright, the period background against which the piece was written, and, delight of delights with The Hollow, weighing in at nearly a full-page each: a large photo of each actor and generous biographies. Carrying through the design of this production, the black and white program notes are interspersed with drawings of period objects from the playin suspicious red, of course.
-----Because, typical of Agatha Christie, nothing in this world is simply black or white.
-----The fast selling-out hit of the season The Hollow, has just been held over, now till November 24. For tickets ($12 to $60), accommodation information, and a wonderful weekend in beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake, phone 1-800-511-7429.
Synge deliberately chose the title, The Playboy of the Western
World, for its ambiguity, for a "playboy" may
be an athlete or seducer, and the "western world" may
refer to western Ireland, the United States, or the western hemisphere.
This ground-breaking play caused an outrage when it debuted in
Dublin in 1907. Most other productions of the period were light-hearted
musical romps and melodramas with sentimental scripts. The
Playboy portrayed the desperate poverty of Irelands
western islands in a painfully realistic fashion, to the shock
and disgust of middle-class and gentrified audiences, not only
in Dublin, but in London and Irish-populated Boston and New York.
The only reaction to the outstanding 1996 Shaw Festival production
is the audiences riotous applause at the plays conclusion.
-----Young Christy Mahon arrives at a remote pub in the west of Ireland. Scared out of his wits, Christy explains that hes killed his father. Instead of being reviled as a murderer, he finds himself lionized as a folk-hero and immediately propositioned by two village women, until his father turns up, much more alive than dead. Comic scenes contrasting with dramatic overtones result in a richly moving play.
-----The creative team is headed by director Jim Mezon, veteran Shaw actor and creative talent. The superbly realistic set was designed by the inimitable Cameron Porteous, with the subdued, moody lighting designed by Elizabeth Asselstine, together re-creating the sadly dull world of a turn-of-the-century rural Irish pub. The lighting is particularly effective in two scenes: the opening act is lit by a single blue spot, evoking a cheerless candlelit interior, while a last burst of brilliant light immediately before the final fade symbolizes Christys earlier summation of his star-like appeal. Set in the Court House Theatre, the audience feels intimately involved in the action. Indeed, front-row patrons are inches from the actors in several scenes.
-----Typical of Shaw Festival productions, the acting ensemble is marvelous. Oliver Becker is commendable in the title role, although his command of the difficult accent, especially in comparison with the balance of the cast, appears somewhat less than totally believable. Kelli Fox, fresh from a Jessie Award in the shattering Keeley and Du (Canadian Stage, 1996), is superb, true to the role, in a standout performance as Pegeen Mike, mistress of the pub pursued by two suitors, Christy and Shawn. Shawn, the milquetoast and spurned suitor, is played by Gordon Rand, wonderfully acted and with a flawless Irish accent.
-----In supporting roles are William Webster as Pegeens drunken father; Peter Hutt as Philly OCullen, ingratiating and funny, especially in the scene where he performs a drunken backward fall almost into the audience; Andrew Gillies as Jimmy Farrell, a very well acted, subdued role in marked contrast to the erudite General Burgoyne he played in The Devils Disciple; Sarah Orenstein as temptress Widow Quin, somewhat younger and more likable than perhaps Synge had in mind; and Richard Farrell as Old Mahon, the belligerent father who wouldnt stay dead.
-----The Playboy of the Western World plays at Niagara-on-the-Lake until September 28. For tickets, call 1-800-511-SHAW.
Shaws biggest (only?) mistake of
the season must surely be Rashomon, an ill-selected piece, the blame
for which must surely be left on the doorstep of the Festivals artistic
director and usually infallible Christopher Newton. However, pick it
he did, and the luckless task of trying to make something of it falls on director
Neil Munro of Dr Jeckyll & Mr Hyde: A Love Story (Canadian
Stage: 1995) infamy. (Yes, Neil, "they all got it in fo me").
-----Billed and publicized in overblown and bombastic terms, questions of "Whats the point?" and "Why do it?" come to mind as one watches the overwrought production of this simplistic script. Set in Japan a thousand years ago, it tells (and re-tells ad nauseum) the story of a samurai warrior who, with his wife (a former servant of his household), is captured and robbed in the forest by an infamous bandit. The crime comes to trial and each of the players has a different version of "the truth."
-----Authors Fay and Michael Kanin have combined two stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (18921927) and still failed to achieve one solid tale. The Broadway premiére in 1959 ran for only 167 performances. There was a reason why it never saw its 168th: No guts, foundation or depth. Mercifully, at less than 90 minutes, it is probably the shortest play ever to grace the mainstage Festival Theatre stage, and this despite the longest and clumsiest fight sequence I have ever witnessed.
-----The tale is revealed by three players who meet under the gate of Rashomon in war-torn Kyoto (which, incidentally, dominated the entire and expansive proscenium arch of the Festival Theatre): Greg Spottiswood is the Priest, in an understated and reserved performance that contrasts with that of the philosophizing Wigmaker (Guy Bannerman) and self-righteous Woodcutter (Roger Honeywell).
-----The simpering samurai (Husband) is wimped out by Nigel Shawn Williams, surely a thankless role for this Dora Award-winning actor.
-----His Wife is played by Laurie Paton in a multi-faceted performance. Her nearly invisible roles in the first two versions of "the truth" in the first act were countered by a shrewish explosion in the second that, though completely unbelievable and anachronistic, at least served to awaken the dozing audience.
-----Jim Mezon was the central figure of the play, as the Bandit, with a snarling nastiness that was completely believable. This physically demanding role required countless ascents and descents through Leslie Frankishs impressive rain forest set (albeit perhaps borrowed from her previous Once On This Island (Canadian Stage again: 1994) triumph.
-----Another successful scene involved the kabuki-masked Medium (Robert Benson), invoked to tell the tale from the dead Husbands perspective. The apparition ascended from a hidden trap in the mountain set, sprouting silken banner arms that traversed the entire span of the stage, billowing in the wind, while his electronically amplified voice evoked the omniscient spirit of his character.
-----To see for yourself how an extremely talented cast and the exceptionally gifted design team of Frankish and Lamotte can try to make a silken kimono out of dirty underwear, call the Shaw Festival box office at 1-800-511-7429. You have until October 27. Dont rush.
Shall We Join The Ladies is
a small but brilliant jewel in the Shaw Festival lunchtime series
of one act plays that exhibits the versatility and artistry of
the company. A murder mystery by J. M. Barrie, the author
of Peter Pan, this wonderfully inventive play manages to
thrill, to shock and to amuse all at once. We join the players
at dinner in a country house, searching among the guests for the
murderer of the hosts brother who died in Monte Carlo under
mysterious circumstances. Beautifully constructed, this play has
a vitality that belies its age.
-----One act plays, once popular curtain-raisers to a full evening of theatre, are now seldom performed because of the expense and effort involved in producing short pieces. Artistic Director Christopher Newton seems unfazed by these constraints as he continues to mount these neglected gems each summer. Newton is assisted in directing this superb example by Denis Johnston, with a visually stunning design by Kelly Wolf. The entire cast of sixteen superbly carried off their roles as upper-crust house party guests and servants.
-----The cast includes David Schurmann as The Host; Janet Lo, Kelli Fox, Shaun Phillips, Sharry Flett, Peter Millard, Alison Woolridge, Wendy Thatcher, Robert Clarke, Tracey Ferencz, Ben Carlson, Lisa Waines and Douglas E. Hughes as guests; Al Kozlik and Elizabeth Inksetter as Butler and Maid; with a special appearance by Tony Van Bridge as The Policeman.
-----Even if you dont take in a full matinée or evening performance, no visit to Niagara-on-the-Lake could be complete without at least this $12 exposure to the exciting Shaw Festival. Shall We Join The Ladies? runs until September 22. Call 1-800-511-SHAW.
Disclaimer: Nothing here is "official." Everything is a composite of media releases, information supplied by or procured from the theatres by direct or devious means, or downright personal opinion. If you don't like what you see, blame us, not the fine folks in the theatres of Southwestern Ontario.