We preview the Shaw Festival’s 2010 season

One_Touch_of_Venus poster w Mary Martin

The poster for the original stage production of One Touch of Venus, the only musical on the 2010 playbill

We enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out what’s really going on at the Shaw Festival from the official clues. To our eyes, the 2010 schedule of plays shows that the Shaw is shifting direction, possibly because of the glum report that Shaw Festival theaters were only 63.5 percent full in 2009, down from 70 percent in 2008.

But we still like the 2010 lineup. We’ll begin with the shows we’re most looking forward to and end with a couple we may skip.

1. The Women (Clare Boothe Luce). Emsworth takes credit for this one. A year ago, reviewing the dreadful Hollywood version of The Women, we broadly hinted that this play was way overdue at the Shaw Festival (last seen in 1985, when Nora McClellan played the much-abused Mary Haines).  To the Shaw Festival: Thanks for taking requests! 

Clare Boothe Luce

Clare Boothe Luce, a successful playwright during the 1930s, a Republican congresswoman in the 1940s

The Women is on our short list of the finest plays of the twentieth century, a tale of ruthless, catty, insecure society women behaving in beastly ways to one another, a play liable to make you quirm in discomfort and laugh at the same time.  (The Office is not an altogether original concept.) When it’s over you’ll realize you never actually saw any men on stage. By our count, this is the fourth play with an all-female cast that Jackie Maxwell has programmed since she’s been in charge — not a bad idea, since just at this point in its history, the female contingent of the Shaw company is remarkably strong. Deborah Hay, Mary Haney, Kelli Fox, and Sharry Flett will be among The Women. Ms. Hay will play Sylvia Fowler, the treacherous friend of Mary Haines, to be played by Jenny Young.

2. Harvey (Mary Chase).  If classic American comedies are what people will pay money to see (as was the case with Born Yesterday in the season just past; see Emsworth’s review of that excellent show), why not put on two? This play won the Pulitzer in 1945, and the 1950 movie starring Jimmy Stewart is among Emsworth’s five favorite films.

Dowd with Harvey

Elwood Dowd (James Stewart) admires a portrait of himself and Harvey in the 1950 movie

Harvey is, of course, the sentimental, half-magical story of the ever-pleasant, alcoholic, eccentric Elwood Dowd and his socially inconvenient friend Harvey, an invisible six-and-a-half foot rabbit.  Joseph Ziegler will direct; he’s one of the Shaw’s best. Peter Krantz will play Elwood Dowd and Mary Haney his distracted sister Veta.

3. One Touch of Venus (Kurt Weill, Ogden Nash, S. J. Perelman). The Shaw Festival is evidently ceding the field of expensive big production musical plays to the Stratford Festival. In 2007 Nash postage stampand 2008, the Shaw put on two of the finest musicals we’ve ever seen (Mack and Mabel and Wonderful Town), but they evidently weren’t as popular as they needed to be. The Shaw’s 2009 musical, Sunday in the Park with George, was, as we sorrowfully reported, a crashing bore (see this post).

So the Shaw is trying to re-create past glories. Back in 2005, the Shaw pulled Kurt Weill’s edgy musical Happy End out of utter obscurity; it did so well that they brought it back in 2006.  In 2010, it’ll be One Touch of Venus, a not-quite-so-obscure Kurt Weill musical about what happens when a barber from the New York suburbs brings a priceless statue of Venus to life (they fall in love). The songs include “Speak Low,” which we know mostly from Barbra Streisand’s “Back to Broadway” album a few years ago. Robin Evan Willis will play the goddess; Deborah Hay also appears.

J M Barrie

James M. Barrie

4. Half an Hour (James M. Barrie) We are extraordinarily partial to both the novels and the plays of J. M. Barrie (see this Emsworth review of a recent Barrie biography) and think he belongs in the top tier of English writers.  This poignant one-act play — we’ve only read it, never seen it — is superb drama, as a mistreated young wife flees to a lover. Expect an emotional roller-coaster and a shocking plot twist. But don’t expect Half an Hour to be anything like Peter Pan — it’s more in the vein of Noël Coward’s Still Life, which the Shaw presented in 2009 (see Emsworth’s delighted review). The talented and extremely attractive Diana Donnelly will play Lady Lillian.

This will be the “Lunchtime” offering at the Shaw this year.  These hour-long $30 shows are a great bargain, though we wonder how Half an Hour will take up the full hour of the show. Might there be another short one-act Barrie play? Coincidentally, Peter Pan is on the playbill at the Stratford Festival for 2010.

5. An Ideal Husband (Oscar Wilde). Once again, the Shaw’s looking backwards; An Ideal Husband was such a hit in 1995 that the Shaw brought the production back for a second year. But we don’t weary of Wilde and applaud the Shaw Festival for keeping his plays in rotation. An Ideal Husband is the story of a woman who worships her husband, a hot-shot British politician, to be played by the silver-haired Patrick Galligan; she’s ill-prepared to learn from a morally challenged rival that her husband has a skeleton in his closet. (Insider trading, of all things, is a theme at the Shaw in 2010.)

6. Serious Money (Caryl Churchill). Candidly?  We’re skeptical of contemporary plays that we don’t know anything about, and ticket prices being what they are, we don’t often take chances. We’ve been burned too often with newer plays that aren’t any better than mediocre TV sitcoms.  Not to say that good plays haven’t been written in the last fifty years — we know all about Edward Albee, August Wilson, Neil Simon, and David Mamet — but we’re not good at sifting the wheat from the chaff.  So if the Shaw Festival is going to weed out the dreck of the post-modern era and bringing the good stuff to Niagara-on-the-Lake, we’re all for it.

We don’t know much about Caryl Churchill except that she’s a leftist with an interest in gender issues. That would ordinarily be a recipe for dreariness and drivel.  But Churchill is also said to be one of the finest living English playwrights, and Shaw Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell still has capital with us, so we’ll give Serious Money a shot. The play was written in 1987 and apparently has to do with shenanigans in the stock market.

This contemporary drama will be at the new, small Studio Theater space where The Entertainer was presented in 2009. (We liked both the space and the John Osborne play; see this Emsworth review). We are grateful to see that tickets for shows in the Studio Theater space are cheaper — only $49 — though we’re not quite sure why. Or perhaps we do — would we pay full price for a pig in a poke?

7. The Doctor’s Dilemma (George Bernard Shaw). What does it say about the status of Bernard Shaw at the Shaw Festival when no Shaw play is scheduled to be performed till mid-June, nearly three months after the season starts?  Ominously, a recent piece in one of the Toronto papers suggested that Shaw’s standing among playwrights of the modern era isn’t what it used to be. Is it possible that the Shaw Festival is beginning to feel weighed down by having to build its seasons around Shaw?

We hope not — the Shaw plays have been better than ever in recent years, including The Devil’s Disciple, which was one of the best things we saw anywhere in 2009 (see this post) and Mrs. Warren’s Profession (ditto in 2008; see this post).  The Doctor’s Dilemma deals with a doctor (Patrick Galligan) who has to choose between two patients who need the same life-saving treatment; he can treat only one.  Now that Obamacare has become law in the United States, of course, the theme has renewed relevance for us patrons from the United States.

8. The Cherry Orchard (Anton Chekhov). Ever since we saw a marvelous production of this play at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn last winter (see our review), The Cherry Orchard has rated as one of our very favorite plays. The cast will include Shaw all-stars Benedict Campbell and Jim Mezon. Sadly, the exquisite Goldie Semple, who had been scheduled to appear in this play, passed away last winter. We’re looking forward to seeing it close up in the Courthouse Theatre.

Age of Arousal scene

A scene from one of the earlier productions of The Age of Arousal (we borrowed the image from Linda Griffiths's website)

9. The Age of Arousal (Linda Griffiths). Two contemporary plays in one season? Things are definitely changing at the Shaw Festival. Written in 2007, this play is practically fresh off the press. Set in 1885, The Age of Arousal is about a London suffragette, Mary Barfoot, who opens a typewriting school to help young women become independent.

Linda Griffiths is an award-winning Canadian playwright and actress, but this is the first this American has heard of her. So many contemporary writers find Victorian mores an inviting target; we hope the play’s not just another version of “isn’t it awful how repressed they were before the sexual revolution?” Or, God forbid, a stage version of a bodice-ripper.

10. John Bull’s Other Island (George Bernard Shaw). We saw this play at the Shaw Festival in 1998 and again here in Rochester at GeVa Theater several years ago, and we just haven’t taken to it. So we figure to give it a miss in 2010, feeling we are not bound to like every Shaw play. It’s the story of a couple of men from London who go to Ireland and get mixed up with a Irish beauty and local politics. Benedict Campbell and Graeme Somerville will play Tom Broadbent and Larry Doyle.

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