We preview the Shaw Festival’s 2009 season

Even under Jackie Maxwell, Shaw Festival seasons have been fairly predictable — which, of course, suits Emsworth, who is deeply suspicious of change, just fine.

For instance, since The Devil’s Disciple hadn’t been seen at Niagara-on-the-Lake since 1996, it was overdue for one of the two slots for Shaw plays, and a good bet to pop up in 2009.

For Emsworth’s preview of the Shaw Festival’s 2010 season, which will feature two classic American comedies, The Women and Harvey, see this post.

And since the Shaw Festival did an O’Neill play three years ago, which we guessed and hoped was the beginning of an O’Neill cycle, an O’Neill play on the 2009 playbill would have been a good guess (in fact, we’ll get A Moon for the Misbegotten).

noel-coward

Noel Coward

We also would have laid money on another Noel Coward play in 2009, because Coward is always in rotation at the Shaw Festival. Maybe The Vortex!? That’s what we hoped. Or another pass at Cavalcade?

Well, the schedule’s out now, but there won’t be a major Coward play. Instead, there will be ten minor Coward works at the Shaw Festival this year, each a one-act play. Nine of these are collectively titled Tonight at 8:30; the ten pieces will be presented as part of four different shows. This year, Bernard Shaw won’t be the most-seen playwright at the Shaw Festival.

We’ll see most of the 2009 playbill, as usual.  Here’s why we’re interested in most of them — and less interested in a few of them.

eugene-oneill1

Eugene O'Neill

1. A Moon for the Misbegotten (Eugene O’Neill) We’ve never seen this play, but we loved what the Shaw repertory company did with O’Neill’s comedy Ah, Wilderness two years ago, and we’ve wanted to see what it would do with an O’Neill play with a little more angst.

And we admire the work of director Joseph Ziegler, who was in top form with Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married in the season just ending (see the Emsworth review); he also directed Ah, Wilderness.  It’ll be at the Courthouse Theatre. The formidable Jim Mezon will play Josie Hogan’s father.

2. Play, Orchestra, Play (Noel Coward) This show will be made up of three of Noel Coward’s one-act plays: Red Peppers, Fumed Oak, and Shadow Play. Two of these have songs woven into the plot, one (Fumed Oak) is straight comedy. There’s no big musical at the Shaw Festival this year; these take its place. It’ll be at the Royal George Theatre, directed by Christopher Newton.

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Lawrence and Coward

We know quite a few Noel Coward songs but not, in general, which of his shows they’re from. But burrowing into our library, we find that Coward and his stage partner Gertrude Lawrence played George and Lily Pepper, a music hall song-and-dance team, in Red Peppers in 1936 (so this show’s going to be lively). We also find that one of the two songs in Red Peppers is “Has Anybody Seen Our Ship?” while the two Coward songs in Shadow Play are “You Were There” and “Then”.

3. The Entertainer (John Osborne) The anti-establishment Englishman John Osborne is legendary; he’s the original angry young man.  But we’ve never seen his work. Existentialism and vaudeville will be a curious combination. 

olivier-as-entertainer

We'll wait to see Olivier's movie till after we've seen the Shaw production

We learned recently, after watching an old interview with Lawrence Olivier, that the role of the washed-up comedian Archie Rice was written by Osborne for the great actor, who claimed, “”I have an affinity with Archie Rice,” Olivier once opined. “It’s what I really am. I’m not like Hamlet.”

We’re also very curious to see the Shaw Festival’s new small performing space, which is apparently the rehearsal studio at the Festival Theater. And we look forward to Benedict Campbell, a fantastic song-and-dance man in Mack and Mabel a couple of years ago, as Archie Rice. This play will run for less than two months, from July 31 through September 20. We’ll get our tickets early.

4. Brief Encounters (Noel Coward) Three more one-act plays by Noel Coward in this show: Still Life, We Were Dancing, and Hands Across the Sea. It’s in the Shaw Festival’s largest venue, the Festival Theatre. Deborah Hay and Patrick Galligan, who were superb in 2008 in After the Dance, are in the cast.

We know one of these plays pretty well: Still Life, also known as Brief Encounter. It’s a painfully accurate sketch of an illicit love affair. We do know and love Coward’s highly-polished short stories; the stories and the one-act plays are closely related (but have some interesting differences that we hope to explore in a later post!). We think Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell is the Shaw’s best director. All in all, our expectations for this show are high.

Watching an episode of John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey recently, we were pleasantly surprised to hear a bit of one of the songs from We Were Dancing from Henry, the chambers clerk who is responsible for getting briefs for Rumpole and his colleagues.  Henry and the  chambers secretary are part of an amateur theatrical group that was, in this episode, doing Noel Coward.  We’re guessing the British public has greater familiarity with the Tonight at 8:30 plays than we North Americans do.

seurat-sunday-afternoon-on-the-island-of-la-grande-jatte

Seurat's masterpiece

5. Sunday in the Park with George (James Lapine, Stephen Sondheim)  Somehow we’ve never seen this musical, but we surely know the painting that it revolves around, and so do you. It’s Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Like Ferris Bueller and his friends, we’ve admired it at the Art Institute of Chicago. Stephen Sondheim’s musical is about Seurat and the creation of his painting. There are those who think this is not merely one of the finest American musicals, but one of the finest American plays, period.

We don’t know the songs in the show either, only that they’re said to be written in a style similar to the pontillism (paintstrokes consisting of many small dots) for which Seurat was known. Steven Sutcliffe (Seurat) and Julie Martelli (his lover “Dot”) will have the lead roles. With Sunday in the Park with George, we will get to indulge our interests in art, music and drama all at once.

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Bernard Shaw

6. The Devil’s Disciple (George Bernard Shaw) Honestly, the plays by Shaw are what we usually look forward to most.  And in 2008, the Shaw plays Getting Married and Mrs. Warren’s Profession were what we liked best at Niagara-on-the-Lake. 

But we didn’t take much to The Devil’s Disciple when we saw it in 1996, we haven’t enjoyed reading it since then, and we can’t get over feeling annoyed with the old lefty for feeling free to moralize about the American war for independence.

On the other hand, our acquaintance with Bernard Shaw is deeper than it was twelve years ago, so maybe our encounter with the play will be different this time around. And Evan Buliung will play Dick Dudgeon. We’re big fans, and even though we liked Buliung a lot in The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet in Stratford in 2008, we think he belongs at the Shaw Festival.

7. Ways of the Heart (Noel Coward) As noted, the three full-length Coward shows at the Shaw in 2009 are collectively titled Tonight at 8:30, and Coward meant them to be presented as a group, though not necessarily in any particular order.

This is the third of the Tonight at 8:30 shows : The Astonished Heart, Family Album, and Ways and Means, directed by Blair Williams, in the Shaw Festival’s smallest venue, the Courthouse Theatre, which could well be the best place in Niagara-on-the-Lake to see short-form Noel Coward. We know Ways and Means, an absolutely pitiless portrait of a young couple who sponge off their high-society friends. The cast includes Claire Juillien, David Jansen, and one of my favorites at the Shaw, Laurie Paton.

The Shaw Festival is doing all ten of the Shaw one-acts in the same day, starting at 9:30 a.m., on three separate days (August 8, August 29, and September 19, 2009). Too intense for us.

8. Star Chamber (Noel Coward) This Coward one-act play will be the Shaw’s lunchtime offering at the Courthouse Theatre. The Shaw’s promotional materials say that it’s “rarely produced,” but that’s an understatement. Coward apparently wasn’t happy with it; in 1936 he pulled it after only one performance and didn’t publish it with other plays. We doubt that Coward was a good judge of his own work.

9. Born Yesterday (Garson Kanin) By coincidence, Emsworth, who likes old films, happened to see the 1950 movie, starring Judy Holliday, and based on the original stage production, for the first time not long ago on Turner Classic Movies. So how do we feel about seeing a new stage version with Deborah Hay as Billie Dawn? Not very strongly, we guess.

Michel Tremblay

Tremblay

10. Albertine in Five Times (Michel Tremblay) In our parochial ignorance, all we know about Michel Tremblay, the French-Canadian playwright, is that he wrote Hosanna, the flamboyant play with which the late Richard Monette (long-time artistic director at the Stratford Festival) made his name as an actor in 1974.

Albertine in Five Times appears to have an all-women cast, as did Gabriel Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, one of Jackie Maxwell’s adventurous play choices early in her tenure at the Shaw. The cast will include Mary Haney and Patricia Hamilton.

What we want to know is, when are we going to have another Lorca play at the Shaw Festival?

11. In Good King Charles’s Golden Days (George Bernard Shaw) Even with the talented Peter Hutt (alas, he’s deserted to the Stratford Festival for the 2009 season) as King Charles, we remember the Shaw’s 1997 version of this Bernard Shaw as an extraordinarily talky, sleep-inducing play, even by Shaw’s standards of talkiness. It’s pretty far down on our list of favorite Shaw plays. But the 2009 cast for this show is very strong, with Benedict Campbell, Laurie Paton, Lisa Codrington, Mary Haney, and Graeme Somerville.

All in all . . . We think that putting all your eggs in one basket with four shows consisting of one-act plays no one’s ever heard of — and not including any popular musical in the playbill — is a bit risky. The Shaw plays are two of our least favorite. But we think we’ll like this season all right.

AUGUST 2009: We’ve seen a number of the 2009 Shaw Festival shows now; here’s what we thought of them:

Bernard Shaw’s comedy The Devil’s Disciple, set in America during the Revolutionary War (see this post)
Garson Kanin’s classic American comedy Born Yesterday (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Ways of the Heart (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Play, Orchestra, Play (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Star Chamber (see this post)
Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Brief Encounters (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)

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