Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance at the Shaw Festival

Krista Colosimo as Hypatia and Ben Sanders as Bentley Summerhays

Once again, the play to see at the Shaw Festival this year (2012) is one of Shaw’s own.  Misalliance is a great-looking show with a razor-sharp cast that misses none of Shaw’s subtle wit and wisdom.

I couldn’t help thinking that Shaw must have felt pulled in different directions at the point in his career when he wrote this play.  The old socialist obviously wanted his plays to popularize his radical ideas about social welfare, the family, religion, and so on.  But by 1909 he was Britain’s most entertaining playwright.  How much social philosophy can people stand in a play, he must have pondered, before he’d have to insert a joke, a bungling burglar, or a chase scene?

In the “make them laugh” camp is Misalliance’s Johnny Tarleton (Jeff Meadows), a Wodehousian character who reads to escape, not to improve his mind. Johnny has no patience with books that have nothing in them but ideas that the authors keep “worrying, like a cat chasing its own tail.”  Johnny tells the priggish Bentley Summerhays, who likes “improving conversation,” and his father, who likes books with ideas:

I want to forget; and I pay another man to make me forget. If I buy a book or go to the theatre, I want to forget the shop and forget myself from the moment I go in to the moment I come out. Thats what I pay my money for.

Jeff Meadows (in globe) as Johnny Tarleton, Ben Sanders as Bentley Summerhays, and Peter Krantz as Lord Summerhays

I suspect that a lot of folk who buy tickets for Shaw plays at the Shaw Festival resign themselves in advance to having their minds improved.  Shaw is famous for his preachiness.  But on the afternoon I saw it, the audience for Misalliance was pleasantly surprised to find themselves being entertained instead. One of the main reasons was Jeff Meadows, as Johnny Tarleton, jauntily exuding self-confidence like a character out of Wodehouse. Other reasons include Thom Marriott, who plays Johnny’s father, John Tarleton, a supremely self-satisfied and successful manufacturer of underwear, and Peter Krantz, who plays Bentley’s hapless father, Lord Summerhays, and who has (and gets full value out of) many of the play’s best lines.

The story, which takes place all in an afternoon in an English country house, revolves around the love life of Hypatia Tarleton (Krista Colosimo), the sexually frustrated and overripe daughter of the underwear tycoon. Patsy is engaged to Bentley, an undersized crybaby who is disliked by the men but petted by the women. As we learn in one of the play’s best scenes, Lord Summerhays (Peter Krantz) himself had proposed to Patsy before he became aware that she was engaged to his son. As unenthusiastic as Patsy is about Bentley, still less did she want a husband she’d eventually need to nurse.

Krista Colosimo as Hypatia, Catherine McGregor as Mrs. Tarleton, and Jeff Meadows as Johnny Tarleton

From the sky into the Tarletons’ greenhouse crashes an airplane piloted by Joey Percival (Wade Bogert-O’Brien), who is just the sort of manly man for whom Patsy has been pining. With Joey in the plane is Lina Szczepanowska (Tara Rosling), an acrobat who lives for life-endangering thrills and who promptly begins attracting proposals from the men. Compounding the chaos in the second half of the play is the arrival of an intruder (Craig Pike) out to exact revenge on the underwear magnate for his youthful philandering with his mother, formerly a maid in the Tartleton household. The intruder is befriended by Mrs. Tarleton (the delightful Catherine McGregor), who seems both unsurprised and unconcerned to learn that her husband has not been faithful to her.  (In Shaw’s moral code, people ought not to be terribly concerned about sexual infidelity.)

The situations are contrived, but Shaw’s characters are so vivid — in this show, anyway — that we hardly notice. The dialogue is brisk and never stuffy; this is as good as ensemble acting gets.

Although Shaw specified that the scenes in his play take place on May 31, 1909, director Eda Holmes “reset” the play in 1962. We are all too familiar with the deplorable practice of putting Shakespeare plays in “modern” settings (generally, by unimaginative directors, in 1930s Germany), but putting a Shaw play in a different time period is a bit more daring.  In this show, the chief evidences of the play’s “modern” setting is a contemporary-looking set in golds and browns, Chihuly-like glass sculptures, a chair that’s a glass globe suspended by a long chain from the ceiling, characters costumed in 60s styles, and a character who reads  from a 1962 issue of Vogue.

Frankly, we thought the set (designed by Judith Bowden) was smashing. But the problem with giving any older play a “modern” setting is that it instantly creates anachronisms that audience members will think about during the play, instead of the play itself. The slang expressions of 1909 that Shaw put into the mouths of his characters had passed out of use by the 1960s. The women’s issues that are central to Misalliance were very different in the 1960s. And while can well imagine that everyone in a 1909 household would rush outside to look when they heard an “aeroplane,” by 1962 the novelty of flying machines had surely worn off.  Are anachronisms really worth the distraction?

Henry V at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

A couple of years ago, after several unsatisfactory experiences in a row, Emsworth vowed to attend no more Shakespeare productions directed by Stratford Festival Artistic Director Des McAnuff.  But when Henry V was announced for the 2012 season, an exception seemed to be called for.  How much of a muddle could McAnuff make of it?  The setting of Henry V is fixed firmly in England and France in 1415; what were the chances Mr. McAnuff would set it in a fascist country in 1930?  And if McAnuff ran amok with glitter and spectacle, as was inevitable, would it ruin a play like Henry V?  I didn’t see how it could, and went ahead to order an excellent pair of third-row tickets.

Aaron Krohn as King Henry V. The Stratford show does not use actual horses.

But poor acting will sink any play.  True, Mr. McAnuff didn’t mess with the setting of the play.  And visually it’s a success, from the elaborate period costumes to pageantry of the chorus parts to the cannon to the enormous British flag. The brawl in the tavern between the hot-tempered Pistol and Nim went off nicely, and the battle scenes were lively and cleverly choreographed. But none of this made up for the fact that King Henry is poorly cast and that long parts of the play are simply tedious.

One can say this of Aaron Krohn: with his compact figure, square jaw, and steely eyes, he looks very much the part of the 28-year-old king. He can be heard pretty well, and he has all his lines memorized.

But in all other respects his performance falls well short. The part of Henry V calls for an enormous range of expression, from the early moment when the king shows his steel by showing no mercy to traitors, to his ironic and meditative dialogues with his soldiers on the eve of battle, to the famous “band of brothers” speech, to his shocking order that the French prisoners be killed, to the wooing of the Princess Catherine. Mr. Krohn is a man of one voice — it matches his steely eyes — and he uses it on every occasion.

A good actor accompanies his lines with appropriate gestures; the Stratford Festival’s best actors convey as much with looks and body language as with words. But Mr. Krohn looks into the distance, and his arms fall limply at his side.


How much a director can be blamed for poor acting from a play’s lead actor, I cannot say, but nevertheless all of the worst acting performances we have seen at Stratford have been in plays directed by Mr. McAnuff.  Mr. Krohn’s expressionless speech on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt would not have inspired a pack of wolves to attack a stray lamb.

Did Mr. McAnuff, who seems to prefer doing things different in Shakespeare merely for the sake of being unconventional, tell his lead actor not to deliver a rousing speech, simply because that’s what other actors usually do?  In Act V, Scene 2, the Duke of Burgundy, a minor character, is given some of the best poetry in Henry V, lines that illuminate the playwright’s mature reflections on war and peace. Burgundy’s speech uses horticulture as an extended metaphor for a French nation in which peace and the blessings of peace have not been allowed to thrive:

And as our vineyards, fallows, meads and hedges,
Defective in their natures, grow to wildness,
Even so our houses and ourselves and children
Have lost, or do not learn for want of time,
The sciences that should become our country;
But grow like savages,–as soldiers will
That nothing do but meditate on blood,–
To swearing and stern looks, diffused attire
And every thing that seems unnatural.

Did Mr. McAnuff fail to notice that Xuan Fraser, as Burgundy, showed no evidence of understanding his lines? As Burgundy droned on, the Stratford audience zoned out. Did Mr. McAnuff fail to notice that the wooing scene between King Henry and Princess Catherine (Bethany Jillard), toward the end of the play, was dying a slow death, and that Mr. Krohn and Ms. Jillard seemed to be caught in a dialogue loop from which they could not escape?

It’s not all bad.  The tavern scenes, with Bardolph (Randy Hughson), Pistol (Tom Rooney), Nim, (Christopher Prentice), and the Hostess (Lucy Peacock) are lively and well-acted; Mr. Rooney is a treasure.  The scene in which Bardolph has been arrested for stealing a chalice from a chapel is rendered with feeling and suspense: will they really hang the reprobate?  I especially enjoyed Juan Chioran as Montjoy, the French king’s herald, and Ben Carlson as Fluellen, the Welsh captain in King Henry’s army.

And McAnuff, no doubt correctly guessing that a good part of the play’s audience would not understand French, gave interest to the episode in the palace between Princess Catherine and her lady-in-waiting, Alice (Deborah Hay) by having the dialogue (all in French, as the playwright wrote it) take place during Catherine’s bath.  Any doubt as to whether the actress was actually bathing in the altogether was removed when the Princess stood, her back and backside to the audience, to be dried off.

The musical Ragtime at the Shaw Festival

Thom Marriott as Coalhouse Walker, with his Model T

The risk-takers who run the Shaw Festival have revived the late 1990s musical Ragtime as the centerpiece of its 2012 season.  Emsworth’s is a divided verdict.  Ragtime is hardly one of the great musicals.  But the show at the Shaw Festival is a sharp-looking, great-sounding production with a full-sized Model T, a burlesque girl on a swing, slick dance numbers, fine singing, and crisp sound engineering.  It’s still worth the ticket.

Ragtime the musical is based on Ragtime the book, which is a 40-year-old novel by E. L. Doctorov that is set in the first couple of decades of the last century.  When I first read the novel in its bright red paperback edition as a teenager, it seemed an odd book with too many characters and storylines.  There were Father and Mother, with their fireworks business and their New Rochelle household; there was Younger Brother and his obsession with the scandal-celebrity singer Evelyn Nesbitt; there were the Jewish immigrant Tateh, the street artist who ends up inventing motion pictures, and his little girl; there were socialist meetings and a strike; and there was Coalhouse Walker, a ragtime pianist who becomes obsessed with getting justice for an ugly assault on his Model T by racists, and his romance with his girl, Sarah.

Tateh (Jay Turvey) and his daughter

And there was a parade of seemingly randomly chosen historical figures whose lives crossed with the fictional characters: Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, Admiral Peary, Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, and J. P. Morgan.  The end of the novel leaves readers unsure whether some of the events in the novel were historically based or not — an effect the author surely intended. 

The lives of all these characters eventually intersected, like a Venn diagram, in ways that struck me (as a teenager) as contrived.  The characters themselves seemed only lightly sketched.  My idea of an American novel was something like An American Tragedy, Alice Adams, or The Last Hurrah; this was very different.

We didn’t see Ragtime when it was first on Broadway about 15 years ago, so I was surprised to find that the musical includes most of the novel’s many plots, subplots, and characters.  (By contrast, 42nd Street, the musical at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival this summer, which we’ve seen and can warmly recommend, is devoted to a single, simple storyline.)  The songs of Ragtime naturally cut into the time for telling the story; unsurprisingly, the characterizations are even thinner than in the novel, and the story is even more condensed.  The narrative is told mostly in song and in in underscored monologues, as in “His Name was Coalhouse Walker.” 

Although the songs, as songs, leave much to be desired, the singing in this show is outstanding.  As Coalhouse Walker, Thom Allison is masterly, and he and Alana Hibbert, as Sarah, have rich, thrill-inducing voices that blend superbly in several duets.  Jay Turvey is a most convincing Tateh, and Kate Hennig is all that could be desired from an Emma Goldman.   (Goldman is the historical character who gets the most stage time; the truncating of the plot leaves you wondering exactly why there are appearances by Harry Houdini and Henry Ford).  I also enjoyed Aadin Church as Booker T. Washington.

Emsworth, who has played a good deal of ragtime piano himself, was disappointed to find that there wasn’t much real ragtime in Ragtime.  A tune called “Gettin’ Ready Rag” was a lot closer to 1920s jitterbug music than to the ragtime of Scott Joplin and Joseph Lamb.  Only a handful of the 20 or so musical numbers in the show are in a style that can fairly be termed “ragtime,” including the lively “His Name was Coalhouse Walker,” “Crime of the Century,” and the slower “Sarah Brown Eyes.”

Coalhouse and Sarah

Instead, Ragtime is dominated by overwrought ballads in the soft-rock style of all too many forgettable musicals of the last 40 years.  The best of a forgettable lot is the cliché-ridden, over-orchestrated duet “Wheels of a Dream,” in which Coalhouse rhapsodizes about his hopes for his infant son’s future.  At the show we attended the performance of this song was warmly and justly applauded — but during intermission and after the show I didn’t hear anybody in the audience humming the tune, or any other of the show’s melodies either.  It is hardly surprising that none of the songs from the show ever become popular hits. There’s no “On the Street Where You Live,” “Till There Was You,” or “The Music of the Night” in Ragtime.

“Wheels of a Dream,” like several other musical numbers, does next to nothing to advance the musical’s storylines or themes.  And some of the lyrics could have been written by any reasonably bright third-grader, like these from the thoroughly unnecessary “Our Children” (a duet sung by Tateh (Jay Turvey) and Mother (Patty Jamieson)):

See them running down the beach
Children run so fast
Toward the future/From the past
How they dance/Unembarrassed and alone
Hearing music of their own/Our children

The tunes in Ragtime simply aren’t that memorable, and some of them, like “Your Daddy’s Son” and “Till We Reach That Day,”  are so generic that they they could have been transplanted with little or no tweaking into any number of recent Broadway musicals.  Fortunately, the quality of this production makes up for the weakness of the material.

“What ho, Pisanio!” — Echoes of Cymbeline in P. G. Wodehouse

P. G. Wodehouse

I can’t prove it, but I feel in my bones that echoes of Cymbeline can be found in P. G. Wodehouse. As I noted in an earlier post, Wodehouse’s stories are full of allusions and quotations from Shakespeare. What would make it unusual is that Wodehouse drew mostly from the best-known Shakespeare plays; I’m not aware of any other references in Wodehouse to Cymbeline

What struck me in Cymbeline, when we saw it performed a week ago at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, were words that fell from the lips of Innogen when she realized (Act I, Scene 6) that Iachimo was a dirty-minded lecher who had been feeding her lies about her husband Posthumus to get her into bed. Innogen calls for Pisanio to show Iachimo the door: “What ho, Pisanio!”

In Wodehouse, of course, Bertie Wooster and his Drones Club friends often greet each other with a friendly “what ho,” as they do, for example, in the 1922 novel Right Ho, Jeeves.  Other Wodehouse characters too, as in Indiscretions of Archie, Chapter XVIII:

Archie was concerned. “Listen, old bean. Make an effort. You must remember that sausage episode? It was just outside St. Mihiel, about five in the evening. Your little lot were lying next to my little lot, and we happened to meet, and I said ‘What ho!’ and you said ‘Halloa!’ and I said ‘What ho! What ho!’ and you said ‘Have a bit of sausage?’ and I said ‘What ho! What ho! What HO!'”

Back to Cymbeline: a few seconds later, the angry Innogen assures Iachimo that her father the King surely won’t stand for a “saucy stranger” who has exposed his “beastly mind” to her as Iachimo has. “Beastly” is another Wodehouse trademark . Bertie Wooster and his pals use it as a all-purpose pejorative, but they are especially apt to apply it (much as Innogen does in Cymbeline) to romantic rivals, with the implication that the motives of those rivals are less than pure.

In chapter 11 of Right Ho, Jeeves, for instance, Tuppy Glossop, rants that if he ever catches up with the unknown “foul blister” who has alienated his girlfriend Angela’s affections, he plans to “to take him by his beastly neck, shake him till he froths, and pull him inside out and make him swallow himself.” Wodehouse used “beastly” six times in Right Ho, Jeeves alone.

It may be only my fancy that Wodehouse drew from Cymbeline, which after all isn’t the only Shakespeare play in which somebody says “what ho.”  Macbeth calls out “Who’s there?  what, ho!” shortly after he murders Duncan.  In Romeo and Juliet, another Wodehose favorite, several citizens of Verona use the phrase, including Capulet (“What, ho! What, nurse, I say!), Romeo (“What, ho! Apothecary!”), and the Prince of Verona, complaining of the brawling in the streets (“What, ho! you men, you beasts . . .”).  In a comment to the original version of this post, Stina pointed out that the use of “beastly” is not terribly uncommon in Shakespeare; it appears about 20 times in various plays. It appears to me, though, that only three times did Shakespeare put the word in a character’s mouth for the purpose of name-calling, the way Wodehouse usually did: in Lear (“you beastly knave”), in Henry IV Part 2 (“Thou, beastly feeder”), and in Cymbeline (“His beastly mind”).

Only in Cymbeline do the Wodehousean words “what ho” and “beastly” appear in close proximity.  Cymbeline isn’t notable for famous lines, but Innogen’s rebuke of Iachimo is a highlight of the play.  It’s easy to imagine not only that Innogen’s speech appealed to Wodehouse, but also that two of its “hottest” words and phrases stuck in his mind, tucked away for future use.

Away! I do condemn mine ears that have
So long attended thee. If thou wert honourable,
Thou wouldst have told this tale for virtue, not
For such an end thou seek’st, – as base as strange.
Thou wrong’st a gentleman, who is as far
From thy report as thou from honour, and
Solicit’st here a lady that disdains
Thee and the devil alike. What ho, Pisanio!
The king my father shall be made acquainted
Of thy assault: if he shall think it fit,
A saucy stranger in his court to mart
As in a Romish stew and to expound
His beastly mind to us, he hath a court
He little cares for and a daughter who
He not respects at all. What, ho, Pisanio!

Cymbeline at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Cara Ricketts as Innogen and Graham Abbey as Posthumus in the 2012 production of Cymbeline at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

It’s doubtful that Cymbeline has a single believable situation.  A few examples: right off the bat we meet a King who’s angry — why would any good father be angry? — with his daughter Innogen for marrying his Posthumus, a manly paragon of virtue, instead of his stepson Cloten, a drunken lout. In the middle of the play, Innogen wakes up to find herself in the mountains of western England — what were the chances? — lying next to the beheaded body of her stepbrother.

And at the play’s end, the Queen makes a death-bed confession to Doctor Cornelius that she never loved the King, was always repulsed by his body, and married him only for his position. Anyone with a shred of discretion would keep such a revelation to himself, but Cornelius rushes to blab it to the King, word for word. (Cymbeline tells everyone he never had a hint that his wife felt that way about him — who could be so oblivious?)

Geraint Wyn Davies plays Cymbeline, King of Britain

Not just the play’s plot elements, but its themes as well are incoherent.  In the final scene, Cymbeline (Geraint Wyn Davis) announces that Britain will keep paying tribute to Rome (3,000 pounds per year) even though he had just fought and won a war against the Romans over the very issue of tribute.  Not paying tribute had been a matter of principle, patriotism, and pride. As Cloten (Mike Shara) had said,

. . . Why tribute? why should we pay tribute? If Caesar can hide the sun from us with a blanket, or put the moon in his pocket, we will pay him tribute for light; else, sir, no more tribute, pray you now.

(Act III, Scene 1). Cymbeline himself was done with paying tribute:

You must know,
Till the injurious Romans did extort
This tribute from us, we were free:
Caesar’s ambition,
Which swell’d so much that it did almost stretch
The sides o’ the world, against all colour here
Did put the yoke upon ‘s; which to shake off
Becomes a warlike people, whom we reckon
Ourselves to be.

(Act III, Scene 1). Yet tribute is to be paid anyway. It’s as if George Washington, after accepting Cornwallis’s surrender and winning independence for the American colonies, had announced that the United States would go back to paying the tea tax.

The story of Cymbeline is as complicated as it is incredible. Till earlier this year, I’d made several abortive attempts to read it; I kept getting lost in the plot and the multiplicity of characters.  Finally, last winter, facing the prospect of actually seeing the play this spring, I made another essay and found smooth sailing.

This year’s production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival shows that this relatively obscure Shakespeare play is a good tale that makes for a highly satisfying three hours of theater. There are two main storylines and several lesser ones. The first main plot deals with the efforts of Cymbeline, King of Britain (Geraint Wyn Davies) to separate his daughter Innogen (Cara Ricketts) from her new husband, who is also the King’s foster son, Posthumus Leonatus (Graham Abbey). (Confusingly, Shakespeare’s characters sometimes call him “Posthumus” and sometimes “Leonatus.”) Banished by Cymbeline, Posthumus goes to Italy (these are the days of the Roman Empire, with Caesar Augustus as Emperor). Innogen eventually leaves home, disguised as a young man, with the hope of reuniting with her husband.

Tom McCamus

Meanwhile, at a dinner in Italy (this is the second main storyline), where all the men are bragging about their women the way Don Quixote bragged about Dulcinea, Posthumus meets a smooth-talking blackguard who offers to bet that Innogen is not so chaste that he, Iachimo (Tom McCamus), cannot seduce her. Astonishingly, Posthumus not only agrees to the bet, but even gives Iachimo a letter of introduction to his father-in-law. After Iachimo returns to Italy and tricks Posthumus into thinking he’d succeeded in bedding Innogen, Posthumus dispatches his loyal servant Pisanio (Brian Tree) to take the supposedly unfaithful Innogen out into the wilderness and put her to the knife. Posthumus is soon overwhelmed with remorse, believing himself a murderer. In fact, Innogen is still alive.

We learn from Posthumus later in the play that Innogen had for some reason persuaded him to put off consummating their marriage. The playwright is thus asking his audience to believe that Posthumus would have agreed to let Iachimo take a shot at “firsties” with Innogen! However far-fetched the proposition, it lets the audience ponder the contrast between the “purity” of Posthumus’s love for Innogen with the brutishness of the two other men in the play who want her, Iachimo and Cloten (who brags to his friends that when he finds Innogen, he’ll rape her, then kill her).  Shakespeare is not for the squeamish.

My wife, who isn’t a play-reader, told me she found this show unusually easy to follow. The reason, I am sure, is that director Antoni Cimolino had faith in the play that the Bard wrote and didn’t feel bound to tinker with the complicated story or make more or less of it than the text warranted. Mr. Cimolino’s only interpolation is a striking scene at the very beginning of the play that shows Cymbeline dreaming in bed. It’s a nod to the improbability of the play’s twists and turns, which are not unlike the incongruities of our dreams, in which people often behave irrationally and illogically.

Cymbeline has a large cast, but in this production even minor characters like the Roman general Lucius (Nigel Bennett), the fugitive warrior Belarius (John Vickery), and the court doctor, Cornelius (Peter Hutt) project distinctive, complex personalities. I enjoyed all three actors immensely. When I read the play, I didn’t quite grasp that whoever plays Posthumus has the romantic lead; Graham Abbey, a good-looking chap whose physique is positively ripped, nails the part (and set my wife’s heart a-flutter). Each of these actors, not to mention Yanna McIntosh as the Queen, Geraint Wyn Davis as Cymbeline, and Brian Tree as Pisanio, are masters of the difficult art of making Shakespeare’s 400-year-old language immediately accessible.

The finest performance, to my mind, is that of Tom McCamus as the smarmy Iachimo, the Roman who makes a sport of assaulting the virtue of another man’s wife. The dinner party scene in which Iachimo prevails on Posthumus to wager on his wife’s virtue is a highlight of the show. And at our performance, the audience collectively held its breath during the erotically charged, dream-like scene in which Iachimo rises out of hiding in Innogen’s bedroom, steals a clasp from the sleeping woman, and steals a look at her person for an identifying birthmark that would convince Posthumus that Iachimo had, in fact, been intimate with Innogen.

The only performance that did not seem fully satisfactory – why, if I have a reservation about a play at Stratford, is it usually about a younger performer? – was that of Cara Ricketts as Innogen. Ms. Ricketts delivers her lines expressively and audibly, but she delivers them all at the same intense emotional level, like a pianist who plays every phrase of a Beethoven sonata agitato or appassionato.  There were scenes in which dolce or gracioso was called for.

Thanks to my friend Shelly Jansen, who has written a thoughtful doctoral dissertation on the subject, I am now aware that when Innogen finally comes back to Posthumus, she does so as a revenant, a literary type that Dr. Jansen describes as a “spectral being” returned from a kind of death, literal or symbolic. When a character like Innogen is in a revenant state, forgiveness and reconciliation can place — and in all of Shakespeare there is no “group hug” reconciliation scene quite like the one at the end of Cymbeline. Other notable revenants include Hermione, in A Winter’s Tale, and Alcestis, the title character in the play of Euripedes.

Dr. Jansen’s thesis, written last year as part of her Ph. D. work at SUNY Binghamton, is entitled For-Giving: The Economy of the Revenant. The title of every doctoral thesis must include a colon.

Present Laughter at the Shaw Festival

Steven Sutcliffe and Claire Jullien as Garry and Liz Essendine

The Shaw Festival does Noël Coward practically as well as it does Shaw, and this year’s Present Laughter, a 1939 comedy, is a good example. In fact, a repertory company like the Shaw’s, whose players have a lot of experience with one another, is especially suited to perform Present Laughter, which is a play about the intimacy and cohesion of a small group of friends.  These actors have collectively played a lot of Coward; the show’s star, Steven Sutcliffe, was in the cast 20 years ago when the Shaw Festival last did Present Laughter. It’s a briskly-paced, well-acted show.

This play gives us a few chaotic days in the life of British actor Garry Essendine (Sutcliffe), a character who closely resembles Coward himself, especially the way Mr. Sutcliffe plays him – charismatic, vain, flamboyant, supremely self-confident.  I liked Noël Coward all the more after seeing this play again; there’s a lot to be said for someone who is sufficiently self-aware to poke fun at his own foibles.

Steven Sutcliffe and Mary Haney as Garry Essendine and his secretary, Monica Reed

I’d be glad to trade my chaos for Garry Essendine’s.  What play to pick for my next star turn?  What theater to put it in?  What actress to pick to replace the one who just broke her leg?  How to get rid of a star-struck airhead who’s still there in the morning?

Fortunately for Garry, he has plenty of support.  Besides the valet and the Swedish cook who keep his apartment/studio functioning (my wife and I loved William Schmuck’s loft-style set and the extravagant dressing gowns for Garry), Garry has a long-time personal assistant (the wonderful Mary Haney, whose deadpan one-liners cracked me up) and a tight inner circle of associates that includes his still affectionate ex-wife, Liz (Claire Jullien, in a complex role that she makes look easy).

Steven Sutcliffe as Garry Essendine and Moya O’Connell as Joanna Lyppiatt

The fly in the ointment is the sexually voracious Joanna (Moya O’Connell, and very convincing in the role), who has been married to Hugo (Patrick McManus) for five years but is still viewed as an interloper by the rest of the circle.  Garry is alarmed to learn that Joanna has been having an affair with Morris (Gray Powell), which threatens to break up the “family.”  Garry is even more discomfited when, late one evening, Joanna tries to seduce Garry himself.

In the midst of all these crises, Garry finds his apartment infested with Roland Maule, an aspiring young playwright who is obsessed with Garry.  Jonathan Tan’s high-speed portrayal of Roland was a great crowd-pleaser the night we saw this show, though it seemed to me a bit of a diversion that interrupted the feel of the play.  Far more perfectly in the spirit was the iridescent Jennifer Phipps, who plays an elderly society lady who has persuaded Garry to give her niece an audition.

Present Laughter is a brilliantly constructed comic masterpiece.  People insinuate themselves into Garry’s apartment under false pretenses, a la Wodehouse and Wilde; inconvenient people are hustled into side rooms to avoid awkward encounters.  The repartee dazzles.

But if I can’t list Present Laughter as one of my favorite Coward plays, it’s because the world of Garry Essendine is simply too far removed from mine.  Garry and his pals aren’t just in show business, they’re at the top of the pile.  How much different are the lives of these stars from the lives of George and Lily Pepper, the fading vaudeville performers in Coward’s Red Peppers (see this post)!  Garry Essendine, poor fellow, has to deal with impudent servants, with wannabe playwrights, and with women who throw themselves at him.  The Peppers, on the other hand, have to cope with drunken musicians who play their songs too fast; they have to worry about where they might get their next engagement.  We can identify with George and Lily, never with Garry.  And what a contrast between the characters in Present Laughter and the work-a-day families in Coward’s Fumed Oak (see, again, this post) and This Happy Breed, which is perhaps the quintessential portrayal of the English middle class.

Coward is almost the only politically conservative playwright whose works are presented at the Shaw Festival, and Present Laughter is, without making a big deal about it, a capitalist-friendly play.  Like other business people, Garry and his associates are concerned with maintaining their brand, new product development, business finance, personnel issues, and so on.  (Hugo, who produces Garry’s plays, is one of the few capitalists who is favorably portrayed in any notable twentieth-century play.) And in its way Present Laughter is a “family values” play — the plot is primarily about how Garry, Monica, and Liz fend off threats to their clan.

And yet we couldn’t help seeing Present Laughter as an expression of Coward’s views on freedom in sexual behavior and as an “apology” for his own lifestyle.  The moral of the play, if it could be said to have one, is that what a fellow does in bed with someone shouldn’t matter to anyone else (a proposition expressly defended not only by Garry but also by his valet, Fred).  And so, in the final scene, Liz comes back to Garry knowing full well that in their future life together he will surely not be faithful to her.  Indeed, the climactic joke in Present Laughter, which comes in the play’s last minute, is that Garry, Hugo, and Morris forget their jealous quarrel over Joanna the second she leaves the flat and turn instead to what really matters – what really binds their “family” together – which is the joy of hammering out the details of their next production.

This is fantasy, of course – fantasy to suppose that any husband, wife, or lover, whether in heterosexual or homosexual relationships, can realistically be expected not to be jealous when a partner has a little casual fun on the side.  Sexual possessiveness is not a conditioned social reflex; we’re hard-wired to feel it. No doubt Coward felt that more people should have “open” relationships like that of his friend Cole Porter and his wife Linda Lee Thomas.  Unfortunately, human nature is not so flexible.

A Man and Some Women at the Shaw Festival

Before this year we had never seen the very first performance of any Shaw Festival show.  Last Friday afternoon, though, we caught the first preview performance of Githa Sowerby’s A Man and Some Women at the Courthouse Theatre.  I was ready to pounce on glitches but was largely disappointed.  Early on, one of the actors stepped lightly on another’s lines; a bit later, an actor turned to speak to another who hadn’t yet moved to where she was supposed to be.  That was all I caught; first preview or not, there was plenty of polish.

Graeme Somerville

We thoroughly enjoyed this 1914 play, which gives us an emotion-laden look at tensions and secrets in a respectable English family consisting of Richard Shannon (Graeme Somerville), his childless, money-grasping termagant of a wife, Hilda (Jenny L. Wright), his two old maid sisters, and a young visiting cousin, Jessica (Marla McLean).

Our first encounter with the women made us feel sorry for Richard before he appeared on stage.  As they pass an evening together in the parlor, the sisters, Elizabeth (Sharry Flett) and Rose (Kate Hennig), complain that their mother, who has just died, cared only for Richard, not for them, and complain about his tardiness in coming home from the funeral.  Hilda has just rudely turned away a close friend of Richard’s who has called.  (How did they manage to make a woman as attractive as Jenny L. Wright look so frumpy?)  The fiercely uncharitable Rose is tearing up cloths to send to an overseas mission but goes out of her way to make a young cousin whom Richard has taken into his household feel unwanted and shamed because he was conceived out of wedlock.  Hilda is equally unkind to the boy, whom Richard loves; both idle women resent Richard’s spending money that might otherwise come to them.

Kate Hennig

Richard’s sisters hope that, even though they were not favorites of their mother, Richard will bring them news of an inheritance.  After Richard comes home and the older women go up to bed, Rose spies on Richard and Jessica to see if her brother is being unfaithful to his wife.

The play is perfectly crafted; its plot unfolds at just the right pace, building up to a “cliffhanger” at the end of the first act.  After half an hour, we’ve gotten, not just a quick pencil sketch, but a full-blown color portrait of each of the characters.  And portraits of relationships too:  a husband and wife who have nothing in common; then a man and a woman (Richard and Jessica) between whom there is perfect sympathy.

On the evidence of A Man and Some Women and The Stepmother, which we saw and loved at the Shaw several years ago, I’d say that Githa Sowerby had a special talent for villains.  Our audience for The Stepmother was full of righteous indignation against a blackguard and embezzler who deceives and marries a girl  for her money.  Our audience for A Man and Some Women was equally outraged at the hypocrisy of Richard’s blackmailing sister Rose and the selfishness of his wife Hilda, at their cruelty to the fatherless boy, and at their willingness to sacrifice Richard’s happiness for their own ends.

Populated with characters who are almost entirely bad or almost entirely good, the play seems indebted to a lost nineteenth-century tradition of stage melodrama.  But in this play the melodrama is fresh and delicious, never overwrought or over-sentimental.  The characters are not caricatures; we recognize them as flesh-and-blood people.

How much differently might audiences in Sowerby’s day, a hundred years ago, have reacted to the situations in A Man and Some Women?  Would they have identified and sympathized with the fatherless boy as we do?  Today we have not only shed the sense that the sins of parents should be visited on their children, which is well, but have also lost the sense of sin on the part of the parents, which is perhaps not so well.  Clearly the playwright, following in the footsteps of Dickens, thought it necessary to remind the audience of her day that God takes the part of the fatherless (Psalm 146:9) and that charity begins at home.

And in 1914 there was no higher value than an Englishman’s “duty,” about which much is said in this play.  But today we preach “self-fulfillment,” not “duty.”  Would a 1914 audience have felt, on the whole, that Richard’s “duty” to his wife and sisters outweighed his “right” to personal happiness?

The cast of A Man and Some Women was flawless and its entertainment value very high.  It’s hard to criticize anything about the play itself except its awkward title.  The program notes indicate that A Man and Some Women would have come to Broadway in 1914 but for the outbreak of the Great War.  I feel sure that any Broadway impresario would have insisted on a different name for the American production.

Richard III at the BAM Harvey Theater

We’ll probably never have a chance like this again. Within the space of a year and a half we were so fortunate as to catch three extraordinary and distinctly different productions of Richard III — most recently at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn, where the play was a showpiece for Kevin Spacey. We can report that Spacey is not only a highly accomplished classical actor, but also – no surprise – a natural-born entertainer.

The first Richard III that we saw was a August 2010 production at Shakespeare and Company, in Lenox, Massachusetts. As we noted in this post, the Lenox show seemed to us to be as much a set of varied dramatic pieces, each with its own unique entertainment value, than as a dramatized “story” – more of a “show” than what we have come to think a “play” should be. Elizabethan performances of Richard III may well have been much like this; the “quarto” edition of Richard III described the play as

The Tragedie of King Richard the third.
Conteining his treacherous Plots against his brother
Clarence: the pittifull murther of his innocent Ne-
phews: his tyrannical usurpation: with the
whole course of his detested life, and
most deserved death

This show at Lenox didn’t seem fragmented; each scene had oomph, and the total effect was intensely satisfying. Moreover, while Richard (an excellent John Douglas Thompson) necessarily had more of the spotlight than the other actors, this was emphatically an ensemble performance.

Then, in June 2011, we took in a second Richard III at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, in Stratford, Ontario, where we see most of our Shakespeare. Perhaps surprisingly, considering that Richard was played by a woman (Seana McKenna), the director took a much more traditional approach to the play. As we noted in this post, this production, with its clear narrative and controlled emotional arc, was a character study in self-destructive behavior.

Then, in early March, we were able to catch one of the final performances of Richard III at the BAM Harvey Theater, in Brooklyn, a production that served largely to showcase the talents of Kevin Spacey.  A lot of the time, television or movie stars are cast in Broadway plays simply as box-office attractions, irrespective of acting ability, but that was obviously not the case with the star of American Beauty, who is among other things co-director of the Old Vic, the London classical theater company that was a co-producer of the production at the BAM Harvey Theater.

To say that Mr. Spacey was a “ham” would be unfair, but he dominated every scene in which he appeared, including the ones in which he mostly just stood around. His prancing, mocking, leering, sweating (lots of sweat), and boasting were endlessly entertaining, and we were riveted by the spectacle of Richard’s becoming progressively unhinged by paranoia and the corruption of boundless power. Mr. Spacey often spoke directly to the audience, making us complicit in his misogyny and sociopathic ambition. His performance was all the more impressive because of the physical demands of playing Richard with a shoulder hump, a badly deformed leg, and a severe limp.

The rest of the large cast supported Spacey well, although not many supporting actors stood out. We particularly appreciated Annabel Scholey as Anne, the new widow whom Richard artfully persuades to marry him, and Haydn Gwynne as Queen Elizabeth, who wins the rhetorical battle with Richard over whether she should help him woo her daughter, but loses the war to Richard’s superior emotional strength.

Like way too many other productions of Shakespeare these days, this Richard III was set in “modern” times. The characters wore twentieth-century clothes and used electronic technology, and the crippled Richard wore a steel brace on his leg. Mr. Spacey accompanied the lines of Shakespeare with gestures and vocal expressions that are unmistakably part of today’s Brit-American culture (and which didn’t line up with the play’s 1920s setting). The show’s lavish use of blood and gore surely owed much to the gross-out violence we’ve gotten used to in our movies.

Yet even though horses have not been part of Western warfare for 100 years, Richard was still willing, at the play’s end, to trade his kingdom for a horse! My wife says she likes contemporary touches like Mr. Spacey’s in a Shakespeare production. But we still fail to see why a play about 15th-century historical figures should not be set in the 15th century.

These three productions each nailed Richard III, but for different reasons. If you value productions of Shakespeare that try to connect Shakespeare with contemporary culture (personally, we don’t much see the point), and if you enjoy bravura acting (we love it), the BAM’s Richard III, with Kevin Spacey, was the pick of the three.

If what you value most is the language of the Bard and actors who can extract maximum meaning from a speech, the Richard III at Stratford takes the prize. Seana McKenna’s was the best acting performance of the three Richards – subtle, conniving, compelling, and complex.  She even looked the part more than either Kevin Spacey or John Douglas Thompson.

But the Richard III we’d most like to see again is the one we saw in Lenox. We felt that we’d experienced just what the playwright had in mind when, early in his career, he wrote these scenes in the life of Richard – a grand, exuberant pageant with verbal duels, rapier duels, laments, family quarrels, ghosts, shock talk, seductions, horror scenes, and buffoonery. The supporting cast in the Lenox show also succeeded best at fleshing out the distinctive personalities of each of the minor characters.