Christopher Newton, the Shaw Festival's artistic director, has made some enlightened choices again this season, providing the festival audience with a wide cross-section of the theatrical buffet. This new production of Vernon Sylvaine's 1950 English farce, Will Any Gentleman? is the perfect entrée. Witty, slapstick, and always broad in its humour, Newton has directed this forgotten gem with unerring attention to detail and generated polished performances from his ensemble. Was there ever any doubt?
Similar in style and scope to the 1996 Stratford Festival's A Fitting Confusion, Will Any Gentleman? has the requisite smorgasbord of characters, a delicious script, magnificent sets and actors who seem to be having a whale of a time. Newton has combined these forces to create a knockout classic farce.
Meek and portly banker Henry Stirling (Neil Barclay) has a seemingly happy life in suburbia, until, one birthday, he wanders, depressed with his mundane existence, into a music hall and ends up the victim of creepy stage hypnotist, Mendoza (Douglas E. Hughes). Mendoza releases Henry's alter ego, and the sober bank clerk suddenly turns into a wayward Don Juan. However, the transformation isn't permanent - it happens sporadically and always at the most inopportune moments. The fallout from the effects of his dual parochial/lothario persona is very funny indeed. Barclay's lightning transitions from milksop to rogue at the snap of a brain cell exhibit a nimble and prodigious talent.
We, the audience, are integrated into the action as we become the music hall audience. Barclay, hysterically funny and agile as Henry, ascends the stage from the auditorium, as do several other subjects of the mesmerist. The continental Mendoza (a hilarious Slavic/Gallic mix) victimizes the English language and his subjects. Hughes excels as the oily hypnotist, ably assisted by buxom accomplice Angel. Wonderfully played to the hilt and over the top by Shauna Black, Angel brings her flirtatious behaviour right into the audience, passing out calling cards and winks to those in the front row. This clever diversion is used several times between scenes allowing elaborate set changes without delaying the fun.
In the second scene of this three-acter, the rapid-fire action moves to Henry's luxury detached house in Hampstead. The curtain rises on a chintz and Laura Ashley-inspired riot of pinks and greens rating appreciative gasps and applause from the audience. Shaw's new head of design, William Schmuck, has equalled his inspiring design from Hobson's Choice and created a living/dining room that fills the cavernous Festival Theatre stage giving Newton's ensemble plenty of room to enact the physical demands of Sylvaine's comedy.
(On a side note, the mention of "Hobson's Choice" by Henry Sterling during an exchange with brother Charley, sent us running to the original script available for sale in the theatre store at intermission to see if Newton was simply trying to insert a plug for his acclaimed and Stage Door Award-winning reprise. Surprise! Sylvaine did indeed write "Hobson's choice" - a happy coincidence.)
Introduced into the riotous mix are a dotty doctor, (where is that stethoscope?) played by Roger Rowland in a scene-stealing performance, and sexually repressed maid Beryl (Mary Haney). It is especially good to see Haney (Saint Joan) return her unique combination of talents to the Shaw this season. Henry's rakish brother Charley (Barry MacGregor), with an eye for the ladies and a penchant for the racetrack, arrives to look after his "ailing" sibling. Wife Florence (Deborah Lambie), astonished and dismayed, calls in her acid-tongued mother (Jennifer Phipps), a dragon of a mother-in-law described by Charley as "a married man's menace." This disparate combination results in a glorious explosion of good humour that leaves you helpless with laughter.
Sylvaine has added several roles providing Newton's directorial talents with the resources to create unforgettable cameos from minor characters: Richard Binsley as the undertaker Albert Boyle, unwillingly trapped in a laughing trance; Anthony Bekenn as Detective Inspector Martin with a grotesque and poorly attached toupee; Peter Millard as Henry's bank manager Stanley Jackson on the verge of a nervous collapse; and Alison Woolridge as Charley's main squeeze, Honey, whose magnificent post-Second World War cocktail dress is just one of the countless examples of Schmuck's boundless talent. Schmuck's wonderful design is lit to perfection by Ereca Hassell.
Will Any Gentleman? is a light-hearted farcical adventure that lands a classic victim in impossible situations and, with sparkling dialogue, creates a wonderfully entertaining domestic chaos.
Tickets ($22 to $65) are available by phoning the Shaw Festival box office at 1-800-511-SHAW. The play runs from May 11 to October 25, 1997, and is already sold out in some performances.
Photos by David Cooper
The Chocolate Soldier,
a musical based on George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man,
is a sweet and frothy treat that, while it may not be nourishing,
is deliciously satisfying nevertheless. It was written in 1908-09
by three young men who were very successful in European musical
theatre: composer Oscar Straus (1870-1954) and librettists
Rudolf Bernauer (1880-1953) and Leopold Jacobson
(1878-1943). Sounding much like Gilbert and Sullivan, this wonderfully
entertaining confection has been revived as this year's Shaw Festival
musical and is ably directed by Aussie import David Latham.
Shaw didn't want his pacifist play turned into an operetta, but he allowed the proven talents of Oscar Straus (no relation to the Waltz King, Johann) to make a musical out of Arms and the Man -- a decision Shaw ultimately regretted. An official notice issued by a representative of Shaw's estate in accordance with GBS's later instructions is included in the information-packed Shaw Festival program: "with apologies to Mr Bernard Shaw for an unauthorized parody of one of his comedies." It nonetheless enjoyed moderate success when it opened in Vienna and Berlin as Der tapfere Soldat ("The Brave Soldier") in 1908. By contrast, the English-speaking version became an enormous hit on Broadway in 1909 and in London in 1910, and there have been many touring productions and revivals ever since. Despite all this success, Shaw never made a penny out of royalties on this musical adaptation.
Geographically we're in the same place as Arms, Bulgaria, and the Shavian characters are similar, but this time there's music...and lyrics: "there are a few humanitarians in the ranks of the Bulgarians." One can hear W.S. Gilbert crying "Copycat!" Five of the main characters of Arms and The Man have been transported directly, with new names, into The Chocolate Soldier: the romantic young woman and her parents (The Petkoff family in Arms; the Popoffs in Chocolate), her dashingly heroic fiancé (Major Sergius Saranoff, now Major Alexius Spiridoff), serving maid Louka (now adopted daughter Mascha) and the Swiss mercenary (Capt. Bluntschli, now demoted to Lt. Bummerli) who upsets their household with his untimely presence...and looks.
A stylish festival ensemble is spiced with some strong outside talent, presumably engaged to handle the tougher operatic style of singing...Mr Cinders this ain't. Lt. Bummerli (a tuneful and engaging Stephen Simms) is the scared Swiss soldier who prefers chocolate creams to ammunition and seeks sanctuary in the bedroom of Nadina (Stephanie McNamara) daughter of bombastic Bulgar colonel Popoff (a singing Terry Harford). Our Helvetic hero persuades the nubile (and agile) Nadina to hide him from the advancing Bulgarian army (brilliantly choreographed by William Orlowski as a hilarious goose-stepping group) but this quickly attracts the attention of her mother Aurelia (Jo-Anne Kirwan Clark) and Mascha (Shaw veteran Karen Wood). Following his discovery by the other women, his charms are soon noticed with hilarious results. The plot is complicated by the return of Nadina's fiancé, boresome legend-in-his-own-mind, Major Spiridoff (Sandy Winsby). The numerous farcical scenes blend well creating a marvellously entertaining bonbon complete with the proper happy ending. Patrick R Brown as Stephan, Colonel Popov's valet, creates several moments of broad comedy with simple turns and devices.
While Shaw's original pacifist theme is all but lost, the musical's comic appeal is maintained as Straus incorporates several of Shaw's devices to tickle the audience: a borrowed jacket sparks a comic sextet, as three ladies try to retrieve a photo which has been indiscreetly inscribed; a post-drunk scene with characters literally under the table in compromising positions.
Musically, the operetta or "comic opera" struggles in the first scene but finishes strongly with several memorable mouth-watering Austrian pastries: the lilting My Hero (Hero Supreme, Man of My Dreams) was played for every tea dance at the Waldorf for fifty years; the ensemble Thank The Lord It's All Behind Us and the duet Sympathy are also beautiful pieces. McNamara is the singing star and she does an admirable job with the rigorous score. Her shrill soprano softens toward the conclusion of the first act and her charming duets with Stephen Simms' mellow tenor are sometimes ravishing. In support, Clark's voice fails to excite, although her characterization is agreeably comic. Meanwhile, the effervescent Wood is both funny and in good voice...as always.
With this production of The Chocolate Soldier, the Shaw Festival continues its exploration of little-known musicals of its period of specialization. The spectacular sets and glorious costumes (Christina Poddubiuk), lit by Robert Thomson, enhance the unabashedly romantic story and tuneful melodies to create an exhilarating musical experience. Remember that you are not seeing Phantom, but a musical from 1909, and you'll be rewarded with an experience as smoothly satisfying as expensive Swiss chocolate. Playing at the Royal George Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake from April 18 to October 26, 1997. Phone 1-800-511-SHAW for tickets.
Photos by David Cooper
The Children's Hour by Lillian Hellman is a play about innocence, betrayal, gossip, and the power of a lie. It chronicles the devastation that may be wrought even by young children when lies are told to gullible adults. Tightly thrilling, this was one of the most shocking American plays ("Banned in Boston") of the 1930s. Timely today, ground-breaking when written, this scandalous work was interpreted on film in 1936 by director William Wyler as These Three and again by Wyler in 1961 under its original title. It is still a remarkable and monumental study in the evils of malicious gossip. This new Shaw Festival production directed by Glynis Leyshon shows that the work has lost none of its power in its study of the lies and latent sexuality. Hellman remarked "the play has nothing to do with lesbianism"...correct (and safe) remarks at the time, maybe, but, Leyshon doesn't camouflage the controversial subject matter.
Lillian Hellman (1906-1984) is widely regarded as the best of America's women playwrights. Although she wrote eight hit plays, including The Little Foxes (1939) and Toys in the Attic (1960), The Children's Hour was her first, and most successful. The idea for the play came from Dashiell Hammett, the famous detective novelist and Hellman's long-time lover, who came across the story of two women who ran a school for young ladies in 19th-century Scotland. For a time the play was banned, not only in Boston, but also in London and Chicago because of its implicit suggestions of lesbianism.
The benign setting is a private residential girls' school in New England run by two idealistic, single female teachers, Karen Wright (Kelli Fox) and Martha Dobie (Stephanie Belding). Fox is the more successful in conveying her character, one of sweet but firm demeanour. Belding's terse and somewhat shallow interpretation of latent lesbian Martha never connects and is completely under-powered in the second act.
Student Mary Tilford (Maggie Blake), a habitual liar and malevolent bully, intimidates and blackmails her school chums. Shaw and Stratford "veteran" Blake elevates the wickedness in this hateful child to a level we've never seen before. Her incredibly venomous characterization had us squirming in our almost-on-stage front row Court House Theatre seats. Blake's character, after being punished by Karen and Martha, and then faking a heart attack, is attended by Wright's long-time beau (and Tilford's cousin) Dr. Joe Cardin (the versatile Richard Binsley). Following a diagnosis of "bad temper," Mary runs home to her wealthy, influential and indulgent grandmother, Amelia Tilford (a maternal Jennifer Phipps), and reports that she has heard strange things at night between the two female teachers. Shockingly strange and of a sexual nature, her accusations are fuelled by a naughty book she has just read at school and idle gossip from Martha's insufferable aunt/teaching assistant Lily Mortar (Jillian Cook). This is enough to set the parents against the two women who run the school - enough in fact to destroy their lives.
Leyshon's fluid direction of her ensemble, for the most part, is what makes this production so successful. While we do not want to nit-pick a brilliant production, we can't help wondering why didn't she motivate Belding to increase the controlled hysteria level at the admission of her true feelings to Karen. When compared to Shirley MacLaine's magnificently intense confession to a shocked Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 movie, Belding's disclosure is hardly revelatory and plays like she was in a drugged state. A dream cast switch would see the gifted Fox playing Martha.
The use of minors in such a controversial play has always prompted debate. (In the original stage production all the "girls" were played by adults.) Leyshon's girls are uniformly excellent, particularly Alisha Stranges as the blackmailed Rosalie. They even handle the set changes and bang their desktops in splendid unison to terrifying effect. The skilful Leslie Frankish has designed a chintz schoolroom/noble living room combination that works remarkably well. Elizabeth Asseltine's moody lighting serves Frankish well.
The Children's Hour will shock, entertain and enlighten you. Be prepared for its extraordinary subject matter and you'll be rewarded with a Shaw Festival production at its best. It plays at the Shaw Festival Court House Theatre from June 12 to September 27, 1997. Phone 1-800-511-SHAW for tickets.
In Good King Charles's Golden Days by George Bernard Shaw can be likened to attending a fabulous house party with all the "right" guests...including a king. Now playing at the Shaw Festival's wonderfully intimate Court House Theatre, and intelligently directed by Allen MacInnis, IGKCGD (what a mouthful) is a little-known Shaw delight containing a "mini-tour" of everything he ever wrote about: government; religion; art and science; personal freedom; and the existence of God. Powerful and intellectual but always entertaining, Charles is a play that poses questions and asks its audience to think critically. There is no real plot, rather, its drama lies in the immensely captivating discourse itself.
Written when Shaw was 83 years old, Charles had its first performance at England's Malvern Festival (a Shaw Festival predecessor) in August 1939. Shaw frequently created stage characters based on famous historical figures, among them: Napoleon, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare and Catherine the Great. But Charles has more historical figures than any other Shaw play.
The play opens in Cambridge, England in 1680, in the study of the famous scientist Isaac Newton (Andrew Gillies). The stage is set with a series of gilded frames, in which frozen actors pose in historic portraits. The scene comes alive with the noisy entry of punctilious housekeeper Mrs Basham (Patricia Hamilton). A stream of famous visitors, including "Mr Rowley" - a pseudonym favoured by King Charles II (Peter Hutt) - follow, interrupting Newton and disturbing his housekeeper. Almost instantly a heated all-encompassing debate commences on everything from astronomy to physics to art, religion and government. Thus begins one of the great examples of Shavian brilliance and wit. To keep the flow with subjects as exciting as algorithms, logarithms and perihelions is testament to Shaw's talent.
A pontificating George Fox (Guy Bannerman) arrives, founder of the Quakers, and the conversation naturally turns to a discussion of astronomy and the Bible. Subsequent visitors include three of Charles's most celebrated mistresses. Nell Gwynn (Helen Taylor), the former actress; Louise de Kérouaille (Phillipa Domville), long suspected of being a French spy; and the Duchess of Cleveland (Brigitte Robinson) in a jealous rage. It's at this point that the merging of math and mirth ensures a sprightly affair. Newton proceeds to calculate the age of King Charles after bombastic Barbara Villiers (the Duchess of Cleveland) accuses him of having "hundreds of thousands" of affairs. It's a truly hysterical scene.
MacInnis gets marvelous support from his actors, especially the trio of trollops. Taylor provides authentic stage presence as the sweet harlot, Gwynn, while Robinson contributes to the hilarity with the haughtiest Mrs Slocombe (Are You Being Served?) imitation since Molly Sugden blue-rinsed a wig. Always dependable Gillies plays a deadpan Newton to genuine effect, which juxtaposes Bannerman's brilliantly blustering, Bible-thumping Fox. King Charles himself is played in lordly but roguish style by the reliable Peter Hutt. Charles and Queen Catherine (Sarah Orenstein) share the stage during the emotionally satisfying second act which embodies a Shavian view of marriage and companionship. Hutt and Orenstein provide moments of pure pleasure as the couple who love each other but seek outside stimulation. Special mention must be made of Pat Hamilton, who brings her prodigious gifts to the unremarkable role of Mrs Basham.
Charles (who resembles Little Richard!) and company are beautiful to look at, painstakingly outfitted by designer Charlotte Dean. They, and her minimalist set, are lit by Robert Thompson's functional lighting, noteworthy for its representation of mathematical symbols on the backdrop.
This is the Shaw Festival's second production of Good King Charles. It was relatively unknown to us but provided a sparkling evening's entertainment. Don't be put off by the intellectual subject matter; it's presented for all to enjoy. Don't miss it. Phone 1-800-511-SHAW for tickets.
Imagine the best seats in the best theatre for a world-class Shaw Festival production for only $15 and that is what the Lunchtime Series offers most every day at noon. Playing till August 3 is The Conjuror Part 2, David Ben's show of 19th-century magic that last year proved so popular that they've asked him back - not to repeat last season's remarkable display, but to extend it, with more eye-baffling feats of prestidigitation and new demonstrations of sleight of hand.
David Ben retired from the practice of corporate tax law in 1990 to become a full-time professional magician. For The Conjuror Part 2, Ben, along with director Patrick Watson, himself an amateur magician and familiar public figure, has devised a new set of mind-boggling illusions inspired by stars of the "golden age of magic" at the turn of the century. Such illusions are rarely seen nowadays - especially live! Almost all David's effects are new this year, except for a couple of audience favourites such as the finale, Okito's Magic Floating Ball.
The show opens by laying an egg. Not your ordinary egg, however, but a nothing-up-my-sleeves-now-you-see-it-now-you-don't magical egg that defies destruction and detection. The first of several audience assistants, young Derek (five years old going on twenty-five), is invited to the stage to help scramble the egg as Ben reveals that he is more than a magician: he is also an accomplished showman and master of the ad lib. Eventually the egg, without visible assistance of man or bird, multiplies, migrates and morphs to the delight of all.
For three quarters of an hour the cards careen, coins clink, water flows and roses floribundate as sleight-of-hand reigns until it is time for the one classic illusion we have always wanted to see up close and personal: Sawing a Lady in Half. Ben's version uses an "unwitting" male stage hand, and guillotine blades and swords replace the saw, but lo! the result is as impossibly astounding as its legend predicts. There is simply no room in that tiny casket for a contortionist to hide, nor possible mirror angles to conceal...yet there he is, half over here, and half over there. Amazing!
The Conjuror Part II is designed by William Schmuck with lighting by Bonnie Beecher, and is one of the special treats your whole family will enjoy at the Shaw. Before and after each of the Shaw's Lunchtime performances, picnic lunches to enjoy at your seat before or during the show are available for $7 at the George Bar, downstairs in the Royal George Theatre. The Lunchtime Series continues with Lucille Fletcher's famous short thriller, Sorry Wrong Number (August 7 to September 21), and the Bell Canada Reading Series.
This year's midsummer fund raiser for the Shaw is a gala one-time-only performance by magician David Ben. He will present a full evening's show, combining illusions performed in both last year's The Conjuror, and this year's Part 2. The Compleat Conjuror will be presented on Sunday, August 10, in the Royal George Theatre. Tickets for this special show, and the dinner preceding, are $75 per person. For tickets, to this or any other attraction at Shaw, call 1-800-511-SHAW.
The Seagull by Anton Chekhov is one of the world's most sublime and potent comedies, albeit of the black Chekovian style. The tough comedy can cut like a knife, and it takes a gifted director and accomplished cast to make it fly. This new Shaw Festival production directed by Neil Munro, though meticulously translated by David French, simply never gets off the ground, resulting in a flat and uninteresting interpretation. No one ever said Chekhov was easy, but armed with a noted director, gifted actors and the power of the Shaw Festival machine, the result is disappointing.
In 1895 Chekhov wrote: "Imagine, I am actually writing a play! I am writing it with pleasure, though I sin much against the conventions of the stage ... there is much talk about literature, little action and tons of love." The play was The Seagull, which had a disastrous premiere in St Petersburg in 1896. The opening-night audience "laughed, booed and whistled at whatever struck them as funny" after which Chekhov fled the theatre, vowing never again to write for the stage. Two years later a fledgling company called the Moscow Art Theatre mounted a second production. It was such a success that the company adopted as its logo a stylized seagull.
(Speaking of that seagull logo, the theme is picked up by designer Peter Hartwell. The walls of the Festival Theatre are panelled with a cedar-like wood, and Hartwell has continued this design right onto the stage, with diminishing frames of cedar panels focusing on a single, six-foot wide image of a seagull in flight, perhaps of back-lit translucent white Plexiglas, cut out of the furthest panel. Effective, we thought, until we overheard the lady-half of a couple who had just paid over $100 to see The Seagull, and who was holding in her hands a beautiful program the only words upon its cover being "The Seagull Shaw Festival 1997," turned to her gentleman-half and asked "How do you think they lit that swan up there?" We began then to wonder if Munro/Hartwell's interpretation of this work was going to be all that effective with this audience.)
The Seagull is set in the 1890s in the Russian country house of middle-aged and self-absorbed actress Madame Arkadina (Fiona Reid), of declining popularity and fading looks (Sunset Blvd Russian style). She is holidaying at the estate with her lover, an obsessive writer named Trigorin (Jim Mezon), and curmudgeonly brother Sorin (Michael Ball). They are entertained with a new play put on by her love-starved son Constantine (Ben Carlson) and his actress girlfriend Nina (Jan Alexandra Smith). Also present are housekeeper Shamrayev (Norman Browning), his adulterous wife Polina (Sharry Flett), their daughter Masha (Corrine Koslo) and her teacher/dolt husband, Medvedenko (Simon Bradbury). To this lake house Arkadina returns from her provincial tours to a tangle of emotional intrigues that involve unrequited love, financial woes, unrealized aspirations, death, and a general state of comic despair for which she must bear some responsibility. The soap continues as Masha is married but loves Constantine; Polina loves visiting Doctor Dorn (Robert Benson); and Nina falls in love with Trigorin. As The Dacha Turns would be apropos. And misery! These characters of the intelligentsia are eternally depressed, a condition our seatmate (a Russian immigrant) assured us was the general state of mental health in Russia at the turn of the century.
With all this depression it requires a very skilful director to ensure the comedy works. Munro, for the most part, fails to elevate the comedy and essentially handcuffs his actors. They create bland characters for whom no one can have an ounce of sympathy. Constantine's constant whining, Masha's melancholia...it's enough to make one pop a Prozac.
Amongst all this angst, the actors offer a valiant attempt but never quite breathe life into their characters. Reid is the exception as she cavorts with Mezon's Trigorin in several funny scenes. In particular, a beautifully attired Arkadina seduces her lover on the floor, and although fully clothed, Mezon conveys the breathless disposition of a spent man. During the scene Reid actually grabs and squeezes Mezon's buttocks, evoking a loud and shocked "Oh, come on!" from our incredulous Russian neighbour, but genuine laughs from the erstwhile dozing audience. Frankly, the talent of Shaw veterans Smith, Flett, and Mezon are simply wasted, while the prodigious abilities of Stage Door Award-winners Bradbury and Koslo show that even the most gifted actors need inspired direction in the classics.
The blandness continues with Peter Hartwell's banal beige and yellow design, which while functional and intelligent, emphasizes the flatness. Only Kevin Lamotte's lighting talent shakes things up.
This masterpiece of modern theatre should be full of vitality, with a deeply ironic sense of humour. We wish Munro's production could have involved us more, and we actually felt embarrassment for Reid's obvious disappointment at the weak applause that petered out before the actors had exited the stage.
The Seagull is playing at the Shaw Festival Theatre June 20 to October 26, 1997. For tickets ($22 to $65), call 1-800-511-SHAW.
The Secret Life by Harley Granville Barker, written in 1922 and first performed in 1968, has now received its North American stage premiere at the Shaw Festival. This production directed by Neil Munro (see The Seagull) is the fifth in the Barker series that began in 1988 with The Voysey Inheritance, and most recently with Waste (1995). The huge time-lapse between The Secret Life's publication and its first staging is most interesting and somewhat indicting. The Secret Life is a high-octane plethora of words, and as all Granville Barker's other works, is about as intense, probing, and highly intellectual as theatre can get. But it's certainly not for everyone.
The play opens movingly with the magnificent crescendos of the liebestod (love-death) from Tristan and Isolde echoing through the intimate confines of the Court House Theatre, fading into a solo piano accompanied by a male singing offstage. An eloquent introduction to the plots and sub-plots of this most romantic of Barker's intricately worded plays, but hardly an inventive musical device as the introductory scene includes a discussion of Wagner's famous opera. Love and death are two of the overwhelming subjects examined in the play, about which G B Shaw wrote "deploring your profusion of material, your introduction of stuff which would have made eight plays if beaten out thin" - Shavian wit and wisdom that echoes the consensus of opinion about Barker plays: brilliant, vocabulary-intensive, but too all-encompassing, a condition that can rob characters of vitality. Combine that with a British setting so rarefied and obscure to most North Americans and you are left with a story, which, while having moments of pure brilliance, gets bogged down in its own pretence. The characters quietly flail about in their inner turmoil and while most have genuinely "tasted the fat and the lean of life," we can't really care about them, or their esoteric lives.
Joan Westbury (Fiona Reid) and Evan Strowde (Shaw AD Christopher Newton) were once in love and now, 18 years later, are watching the sea as they debate what has happened in their lives. She is seemingly in agony, with two sons killed in WWI and her house recently destroyed by fire, but she is of the "don't complain, don't explain" set where one simply doesn't show too much emotion in public. It just was not done. Her quiet looks and cast-iron demeanour, however, hardly represent a woman tortured by recent tragedy. Her former lover is a retired politician, and a ruthless one at that. Joining Westbury are visiting MPs Serocold and Heriot (Andrew Gillies and Jim Mezon) to coerce Strowde into returning to political life, but he has been too busy writing voluminous histories while his sister (Nancy Palk) stands faithfully by his side as editor, political advisor, secretary and confidante. Other plots and sub-plots detail the lives of a bastard son (Mike Shara), his mother (Sharry Flett) and a visiting American dignitary (Sandy Webster). It all adds up to a pleonastic soap opera of unlikable characters who stoically survive tragedy and loss. Though there are several remarkable exchanges of rhetoric, the players and play contain little heart and less soul.
Barker's characters are portraits of the British upper class. What strives to make this production worthy is the brilliant effort of the Shaw ensemble to create living characters out of lifelessness. Remarkable Reid shows that her Joan Westbury has a British stiff upper lip that may actually be petrified! Newton proves he can handle most anything given him and provides the single moment of unbridled emotion. Balk, in her Shaw debut, shines in the only truly natural, unaffected, performance in the production. Her British nobility manner, accent and gestures are spot on. In strong support are Gillies, who has charm enough to fill any stage, and Mezon, as the slick and slippery political kingmaker.
The design team of William Schmuck (set and costumes) and Robert Thomson (lighting) have given the audience a feast for the eyes amid the gluttonous wordfest. The simple country house French door backdrop becomes the wonderfully detailed Braxted Abbey complete with radically amputated sculptures that reflect the cut-off emotions (and, in once case, limb) of the play's characters. Schmuck surely has his "feet" firmly planted in the ground with this design. Thomson's inspired lighting ensures the ashen lives of Barker's characters are at least sunlit.
Barker's plays are a great challenge to both actor and director. Shaw is one company that has the resources to even remotely pull it all together. In The Secret Life, frustration is the essence of the play, in the life of its characters, and its language. It may find an audience but they may be back in England seventy-five years ago. The Secret Life plays in three acts and for three hours, August 13 to September 28, 1997. A short run for a long play...don't go tired.
Mrs Warren provides plenty of laughs... and sober thoughts
George Bernard Shaw's third play, Mrs Warren's Profession, was written in 1893, but was not performed publicly in England for over thirty years. The British censor refused to license the play because the "profession" of the title is prostitution, although that word is never mentioned in the play. This new Shaw Festival production, directed by Tadeusz Bradecki, and playing until October 26, is another in the superb stagings of works of the Festival's namesake. Last performed in NOTL in 1990, Bradecki takes a novel approach by offering us an entertainment by using operetta interludes at the scene changes, enhancing the comedy, and serving to introduce the different scenes. It is a very effective device.
The "woman-with-a-past" was a common theatrical theme in London at the end of the last century. What makes Shaw's treatment different - even revolutionary - is how the play refuses to preach, and how the woman in question refuses to apologize for her past behaviour. What we are left with is a witty study of characters and contradictions within the framework of biting social commentary. Comedy or amusing drama, Mrs Warren's Profession is hard to pigeonhole.
Shaw's play opens at a country cottage in Surrey. Here we meet Vivie Warren (Jan Alexandra Smith), an independent young woman who has just finished university and is anxious to start a career as an actuary. We learn that she has been raised mostly in boarding schools, as her mother's business affairs are located on the Continent. Mrs Warren (Nora McLellan) has arranged to meet Vivie here, and to introduce her to some old friends including artist Mr Praed (David Schurmann) and boorish hanger-on, Sir George Crofts (Norman Browning). The two other principal characters are Vivie's childhood boyfriend Frank (Ben Carlson) and his father, the Reverend Samuel Gardner (Robert Benson). Vivie is determined to find why her mother is so secretive about her business life and will be put off no longer, even though she might uncover more secrets than she bargained for.
The confrontations between mother and daughter make the play resonate with power between the laughs. Mrs Warren, who we all surely cheer for, is a worldly mix of cockney wench and well-heeled traveller. Shaw shares with us his obvious admiration for the character who is in stark contrast with daughter Vivie, a vinegary bachelorette who would likely be laughed out of a feminist meeting today. More a sullen, love-starved, spoiled brat than assertive activist, we sympathize little with her wish to rid herself of her mother and the "tainted" background that Vivie feels helped pay for her education. Her lack of acceptance and tolerance, perhaps common in Shaw's time, just doesn't cut it today.
Bradecki tells the story by using the audience as an integral component of the action. Young Frank bellows questions to us, summarises scenes and leads a group of four singers and dancers, amid controlled chaos, through some missteps and parts of Lehár's The Merry Widow, suggesting we view the play as satire more than social treatise.
The success of Mrs Warren's Profession is guaranteed by the talents of Nora McLellan (a Stage Door Award-winner) who plays the title role with all the gusto and determination we are accustomed to seeing from her. This Shaw star can switch from comedy to drama instantly, and conjures the perfect cockney and quasi-genteel mix of accents to support her remarkable interpretation. In contrast, but no less successful, Jan Alexandra Smith (herself a Stage Door Award nominee) portrays Vivie as the unique creature she is, breathing great life and spirit into the character. She and McLellan are in marvellous counterpoint creating moments of memorable theatre.
The men in the ensemble lend solid support to the production. Ben Carlson is Frank and the entr'acte announcer, equally endearing in both roles. His characterization of Vivie's immature boyfriend has a charm and sweetness captures our sympathy for his unfulfilled love.
Leslie Frankish's unusual set, splendidly lit by Kevin Lamotte, is, as always, stunning, this time in its simplicity. A beautifully painted landscape on canvas drape enwraps the stage, gloriously fulfilling the playwright's direction: "Summer afternoon in a cottage garden on the eastern slope of a hill a little south of Haslemere in Surrey."
Mrs Warren's Profession is a thoroughly enjoyable production about a sensitive issue, so far ahead of its time that it remains completely relevant today. It plays at the Shaw Festival's grand Festival Theatre, April 30 to October 26, 1997. For tickets, call 1-800-511-7429.
The Two Mrs Carrolls, written 1935 by Martin Vale (nom de plume of writer Marguerite Veiller), and directed by Joseph Ziegler, is winding up a hugely successful run at the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival --- successful because of the wildly popular and always sell-out Shaw "whodunit." The only problem this time is we all know from the outset "who did it," resulting in an occasionally entertaining piece of fluff that fails to deliver its "edge of your seat" promise and is saved only by the enthusiasm and talents of the Shaw acting ensemble.
While Veiller was American, the play is "oh so veddy" British in style and ambience and is set in a Provençal blue and yellow-hued villa on the French Riviera in the 1930s. There was a large British expatriate enclave in the area and Veiller's setting is an exotic mix of French joie de vivre and British formality. The opening finds the Carrolls just moved in: troubled painter Geoffrey (David Schurmann) and his very pretty new wife Sally (Laurie Paton). His first marriage having ended in divorce, the newlyweds have moved to this delightful locale so he can paint and capture the colours and light of Provence.
The mistral, a dry, cold northerly wind that blows in squalls toward the Mediterranean, is bringing an air of restlessness to the Carroll house, which has remained vacant for several years since the untimely death of its previous mistress. The villa comes equipped with bellowing housekeeper Clemence (Philippa Domville) who understands English perfectly but refuses to speak anything except French, and that at full volume. Clemence announces the visit of Sally's old boyfriend, Pennington (Blair Williams), who coincidentally has an aunt Mrs Latham (Patricia Hamilton) and cousin, flirtatious and seductive Cecily Harden (Helen Taylor) who live next door. By the time the first Mrs Carroll (Brigitte Robinson) and a dottering doctor (Tony Van Bridge) show up, the complete crew has assembled, and the plot plods along to its inevitable conclusion, replete with an ailing new wife, an Other Woman, thunder and lightning, and an obligatory jump-out-of-your-seat scream. The audience spends their time muttering about red herrings, but they, like any good twists of plot, fail to come to anything. In fact, the story is so predictable that the audience leaves the theatre in a sort of "is that all?" attitude.
Luckily, Vale's thin words and transparent plot are given strength and validity by a determined cast. Schurmann is perfectly cast as the middle-class cad with an unlimited supply of lead and guilt. Paton, whose talents have heretofore gone unappreciated by us, gives a wonderfully credible performance as the frightened victim. Domville has a blast playing Clemence as a sort of storm trooper/militant Quebec separatist mix, providing the only element of fun in the dreariness; however, the extensive French dialogues may confuse the cross-border audience. Hamilton is once again stuck in a role that virtually conceals her unlimited gifts. Please, please, Mr Newton --- didn't you see Angels in America?
The most interesting feature of Peter Hartwell's simple but effective set is the transition from living room to bedroom during the second act, providing one of the most exciting moments of the play. The lighting is designed by rising star, Bonnie Beecher, and Kelly Wolf has come through again with beautiful period costumes.
We admire the enterprising and creative efforts of the Shaw Festival to bring Shavian era plays to life, but even their gargantuan efforts are diminished occasionally when they present plays such as this: thin on plot and words. May we respectfully suggest a Christie cycle?
The Two Mrs Carrolls is playing at the Royal George Theatre until November 23, 1997. For tickets call 1-800-511-7429.
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.