A baby’s first experience with fine art at the Chrysler Museum of Art

Nearly five months old, the little guy was excited to see his first Winslow Homer at the Chrysler Museum of Art

Last weekend found us visiting our fine new grandson and his parents in their new home in Hampton, Virginia (a ten-hour drive from Rochester).  The little fellow was a newborn no longer and needed to be introduced to high culture, and we were anxious to visit the Chrysler Museum of Art, in nearby Norfolk — we’d never been.  So off we all went. The little guy seemed as tickled with the colorful stuff on the museum walls as his grandfather was.

Frankly, the Chrysler Museum of Art might not be the best art museum for a neophyte to visit. It has no Rembrandt, van Gogh, Cezanne, or Picasso, and none of the paintings you see on art prints and posters.  Its best-known piece is probably Gauguin’s “The Loss of Innocence,” which uses pretty much the same color scheme as our grandson’s onesies and blankets.  (We blushed, at a loss for words, when the intellectually curious boy, with a questioning look, mutely demanded an explanation of the picture’s symbolism.)  Nevertheless, with only a few exceptions (disappointing pieces by Corot and Monet), the overall quality of the works at the Chrysler, from the Old Masters to the modern masters, seemed very high.  We judge that, in assembling this collection, Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. opted for first-rate works by second-tier artists rather than second-rate works by the most popular artists.

New museums usually mean pleasant surprises.  The one we enjoyed most was a large, wide 1868 canvas by Gustave Doré entitled “The Neophyte (First Experience of the Monastery),” a witty portrait of a terrified young monk sitting with a row of grubby older monks, clearly wondering what possessed him to take orders.  We had known Doré only as the painter of landscapes like the dramatic “The Scottish Highlands” at the Toledo Museum of Art, which is a favorite of ours. Mr. Chrysler deserves credit for snapping up this Doré masterpiece instead of throwing away his money on a mediocre Picasso.

And we are always delighted to stumble across anything by James Tissot, a Paris-trained Frenchman who didn’t follow friends like Degas, Manet, and Whistler into impressionism, but instead found his niche in the art market painting fashionably dressed women and their consorts in social settings. The Chrysler’s “The Artists’ Wives” is Tissot at his best.

There must have been a period of time in the last century when art collectors could snap up pontillistic paintings by the contemporaries of Georges Seurat at reasonable prices. (Pontillism is a technique in which a canvas is covered, not with brushstrokes of paint, but with hundreds of small dots of paint; the viewers’ eyes blend the colors.) Like the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which we visited several years ago, the Chrysler Museum has a modest group of works in the pontillistic vein. We were especially attracted to one by Maximilien Luce, called “The Footbath,” that showed the influence of Millet. It might well have illustrated a scene from Zola’s L’Assommoir, a late-19th-century novel about lower-class Parisians in desperate poverty that we had just read.

This American art lover’s trip to Norfolk gave him a chance to see less familiar but nevertheless worthy pieces by Winslow Homer, Frederick Carl Frieseke, Childe Hassam (the Chrysler exhibits his masterpiece “At the Florist” in the same gallery as the European impressionists), John Henry Twachtman, Reginald Marsh (an especially risque nightclub scene), and Richard Diebenkorn. But the museum’s strength is in European art, which covers 600 years and (besides the paintings already mentioned) includes first-rate works by Veronese, Jan Gossaert, François Boucher, Pissarro, and Matisse (both works by these last two artists were out on loan when we visited; we saw the Pissarro in a fine exhibit at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts last fall).

One thing more about the museum in Indianapolis: when we were there with the new baby’s daddy several years ago, we were amused to find that a Homer (“The Boat Builders”) prominently featured in the museum’s promotional materials was in fact one of the smallest Homer oil paintings we’d ever seen (about 7 x 14 inches). But the Chrysler can top that. Besides an exceptionally fine 1882 impressionist double portrait by Renoir (see just above), the Chrysler boasts what’s surely as small a Renoir oil painting as you’ll ever find, a 5 x 7 inch vignette-style painting called “Trees by the Edge of a River,” which the museum bought in 1989 after soliciting 20,000 contributions from members of the public. We’d be curious to know exactly what it cost.

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Kingman Brewster, David Diamond, and other people who used to own our books

Not many of the books in our library were virgins when we got them.  Emsworth is not unwilling to shell out for new books, but by the time we realize we want a book, the hardcover edition has usually been out of print for decades.  Our library is full of books that used to belong to other people.

We feel connected to those people.  They liked the same authors we like, and if they wrote their names in their books, they surely cared about books and were proud of their libraries.  That’s all to their credit.

People used to put their names in their books as a matter of course.  And they took care with their libraries:  a sticker inside the front cover of an 1898 illustrated edition of James M. Barrie’s The Little Minister reads “Private Library of Bertha L. Field/No. 108.”  Bertha catalogued and numbered the books in her library!  A faded pencil inscription on the opposite page reads “November 23 – 1900.”  Book owners used to be possessive, too:  inside the front cover of our copy of Edith Wharton’s A Son at the Front someone originally wrote, in pencil, “This book belongs to Lance Cox,” but those words were lined through by someone who wrote, underneath, “Says you — It belongs to me — Mary Jane Gordon.”

Of many of the original owners of my books we know only their names from their inscriptions.  A copy of Frank Norris’s The Octopus was inscribed by “Bernadette Dickler/K.S.N., Summer 1915.”  James Thurber and E. B. White’s ‘s Is Sex Necessary? was once proudly owned by Catharine F. Strowger.  Sidney Torme, with prescience, once paid $3.50 for a new first edition of John Updike’s The Poorhouse FairMarianne Thornton: A Domestic Biograph, E. M. Forster’s biography of his great-aunt, published in 1956, once belonged to “Grace and Alfred Harris/Cambridge/April 1957.” 

Our books have been all over North America.  Theresa Agnes Cleary, of Chatham, Ontario, used to own a first Canadian edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Helena.  Everett V. McKay Jr. (1925-1990, as a Google search reveals), of Louisville, Kentucky, acquired John Steinbeck’s The Pearl on “16 March 1949.”  Robert K. Coe, Jr., of Whitewater, Wisconsin, once owned J. M. Barrie’s play Quality Street.  Hannah and Samuel Guggenheim, former owners of a 1939 edition of T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, were fellow Rochesterians, though I didn’t know them.  Another Rochesterian, Alice L. Connors, of 9 Penfield Road, once owned G. K. Chesterton’s 1922 book What I Saw in America.

Some names inspire curiosity. What kind of man might someone with a Dickensian name like Ira F. Jagger, of Albany, New York, once the owner of a first American edition of P. G. Wodehouse’s Money in the Bank, have been? We found him with a Google search: he was a trust officer in an Albany bank whose wife Olive wrote poems.  He died in 1946, five years after he put his name in the Wodehouse book. 

Other previous owners of our books have had various degrees of celebrity.  Perhaps you’ve heard of Kingman Brewster?  No, not Kingman Brewster, Jr., the law professor who was president of Yale during the troubled 1960s, but his father, Kingman Brewster, Sr., who bought a copy of Emerson’s Representative Men when he was a sophomore at Amherst College.

Using a quill pen, young Mr. Brewster signed his copy “Kingman Brewster/Amherst Coll./Alpha Delta Omega House/Sept 26th 1904.” We learn from the indispensable Wikipedia that Mr. Brewster graduated from Amherst with academic distinction in 1906 and from Harvard Law School in 1911, and that he is a “direct lineal descendant” of the William Brewster who came over on the Mayflower. Who did Emerson identify as “representative men”? Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakepeare, Napoleon, and Goethe.  We especially recommend the essay on Shakespeare.

Academics tend to collect books.  Cornelius Weygandt (1871-1957), an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, bought J. M. Barrie’s Courage, a thin volume containing the text of a speech given by the novelist and playwright at St. Andrews University on May 3, 1922.  Dr. Weigandt had already made a name for himself with a 1913 book, Irish Plays and Playwrights, which is still in print and available on Amazon; later in his career he published a number of books on the culture of the Pennsylvania Germans.  We look forward to adding a Weygandt book or two to our library.

But book collectors come in all types.  Edwin Thanhouser, former owner of a 1928 printing of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge at San Luis Rey, made a lot of money running a motion picture company in New Rochelle, New York from 1909 to 1917 and later collected art; his Bayville, Long Island home was called “Shorewood.”  He had a picture of the house engraved on a sticker that was pasted inside the front cover of the Wilder book (and presumably all the other books in his library); it reads “Edwin Thanhouser/Shorewood.” Just before the title page is the undated autograph of “Marie Thanhouser,” who was his wife’s sister, written with a fountain pen.

Occasionally an inscription gives a whiff of drama, often when the book was a gift. What else can you think of a (price-clipped) Christmas gift of Thomas Mann’s The Beloved Returns: Lotte in Weimar, inscribed “And May He Come/Very Soon — for You/Rudy dear/Christmas 1943.”  Another wartime gift, apparently from a lady who’d been nursing a man long enough to know that he needed intellectual stimulation, was Albert Jay Nock’s 1943 book, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, which was inscribed “With kindest greetings and best wishes/To our Prize Patient/Frank Smith/Desired — to needle his thinking & only a touch/Lilly Pulsifer.” 

And consider this romantic gift of a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Basil and Josephine Stories, inscribed, on the inside cover, “To my Vicki — (see overleaf!), and then, on the overleaf: “September 9, 1973/For my Vicki — /with much love and a little nostalgia . . ./Your Clark forever.”  The stories had originally been published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1928 and 1929.  Had Clark and Vicki read them together, 44 years earlier?

Another J. M. Barrie book, a 1916 American edition of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham, was a gift to “Guinn Hale/from the officers of the O.S.T.S.”  Could that have been the Old Smythetown Temperance Society?  The imagination runs wild.

Some previous owners knew, or at least met, the books’ authors.  August Wilson personally inscribed an edition of his play Seven Guitars “for Dr. Rosemarie Beston/with all best wishes./August Wilson/3-13-97.”  Did they meet at a book signing?  Was the playwright was a guest speaker at Rochester’s Nazareth College, where Dr. Beston served as president from 1984 to 1998?  Oddly, she evidently didn’t want this autographed edition for her own library; in July 1997 she gave it to the college library, which eventually didn’t want it either. 

And the library of distinguished composer David Diamond, a Rochesterian, who died in 2005, included the works of master playwright Edward Albee, most of which are now in our library.  According to an 1999 biography of Albee by Mel Gussow, Diamond and Albee took “an almost immediate dislike to one another” when they first met in 1952; apparently Albee had made disparaging remarks about Diamond’s music.  But in 1958 a mutual friend insisted that Albee send Diamond a copy of his (then unproduced) play The Zoo Story.  “To Albee’s astonishment, the composer was unhesitating in his enthusiasm.”  Diamond wrote Albee a long letter praising the play, offering to help peddle it to contacts in the theater world, concluding “PS/May I keep the copy you sent me?”

We don’t know what happened to Albee’s manuscript, but when The Zoo Story was published in 1960, Diamond got a copy and stamped his  name it it.  A year later, Diamond clipped and pasted a picture of a photo of Albee out of a magazine opposite the title page of his copy of Albee’s The American Dream.  The friendship between the older composer and the younger playwright was alive alive 15 years later; in Diamond’s copy of The Lady from Dubuque (published in 1980) we found a telephone message, dated “Dec 18 11 56 AM ’75,” to Room 918 from “Ed Albee/221 3319.”  We picture a New York hotel desk clerk pulling the message out of the slot and passing it along to Mr. Diamond.  The composer kept a small “With the Compliments of the Author” card in his copy of Gussow’s biography, probably for a bookmark; he wrote a few words in the book’s margin at page 102 amplifying an anecdote in which the biographer had quoted Diamond.

It’s nice when you see that a book owner didn’t forget about a book once he’d first read it.  A 1940 printing of Willa Cather’s 1922 novel One of Ours also has David Diamond’s raised-seal stamp on the title page.  Many years later, in 1973, when the Post Office issued an 8-cent commemorative stamp featuring “Willa Cather/American Novelist,” Mr. Diamond licked one end of it and pasted it in his book on the opposite page.  It’s still there.

The real case for Oxford won’t be found in the movie Anonymous

In the past we’ve groused (see, for instance, this post) about how the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has flat-out ignored the Shakespeare authorship question and has snubbed those who think that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, rather than Will Shakespeare, the actor and businessman from Stratford, was probably the real author of Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar.

But we can’t complain any more, because in the last several months the Festival’s boss of bosses, general director Antoni Cimolini, has been all over the subject. It is said that one of Mr. Cimolini’s distinguished predecessors in Stratford, Tyrone Guthrie, who directed the very first Shakespeare performances in Stratford in 1952, very much doubted the traditional attribution of the plays. Unfortunately Mr. Cimolino (who will be directing Cymbeline at Stratford in the summer of 2012 and is also apparently the leading candidate to replace Des McAnuff as Artistic Director after the 2013 season) doesn’t take the issue seriously.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford

The reason for all this talk is that movie critics have been interviewing prominent Shakespeare people like Mr. Cimolini about the new Roland Emmerich movie Anonymous, which we’ve finally seen. Just like Shakespeare in Love, this new movie has plenty of historical characters, a few historical facts, a number of historical inaccuracies, and a wholly invented story. When we first heard about it, we hoped that it might draw attention to the real case for the Earl of Oxford. Unfortunately, Anonymous — whatever its merits in strictly cinematic terms, on which we express no opinion — is downright counter-productive on the authorship question.

In the movie, the Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), portrayed by Rhys Ifans, is in the closet as a playwright because it doesn’t befit a nobleman to be mixed up with theater. By the early 1590s, Oxford has written one unperformed play after another, tied them up in neat bundles, and piled them on a shelf — Henry V, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, and plenty more. He writes compulsively.  His wife, frustrated because he neglects his other affairs, comes into his library and says, “Writing plays again? You promised!” (The producers clearly didn’t blow their budget on screenwriters.)

The actor Rhys Ifans, who plays Oxford

Oxford wants to see his plays performed, and fortune delivers into his hands a chance to blackmail Ben Jonson into making it happen. Oxford insists that Jonson put his name to Henry V, but Jonson doesn’t want credit for it and arranges for an vain, illiterate actor named Will Shakespeare to claim authorship instead. The play is a smash, and at the final curtain, when the audience cries “Author, author!” (surely audiences didn’t do that back in 1593!), the oafish Shakespeare comes forward to accept applause. As more of Oxford’s plays are produced, Will Shakespeare continues to take credit. Oxford’s stash still hasn’t given out when he dies in 1604, so “Shakespeare” plays continue to be brought forth for years to come.

But there’s more. It seems (in the movie) that Edward de Vere was the bastard son of Queen Elizabeth, secretly raised and educated as a nobleman’s son. Later, de Vere has an affair with the Queen (his own mother, though neither knew it!), resulting in the birth of the Earl of Southampton, whose mother is thus also his grandmother.

The movie gives Stratfordians new pretexts for piling ridicule on Oxfordians and for ignoring the real case for Oxford. It’s “snobbery,” says Stephen Marche in the New York Times, for Oxfordians to insist that a glovemaker’s son from Stratford with a grammar school education could never have become a brilliant writer. Mr. Cimolini piles on in the Toronto Globe and Mail: “inherent snobbery.”

But (and I think I speak for most Oxfordians) this isn’t the Oxfordian argument at all. Who actually insists that Will Shakespeare was an illiterate bumpkin, as one of the characters in the movie says he was? A few Shakespeare doubters may think that, but most of us don’t. Why shouldn’t such a man have gotten a decent education? And of course Oxfordians recognize that men and women with little formal education can come to write timeless literature.  We just don’t think Will Shakespeare was one of those persons. “Snobbery” is a classic “straw man” argument.

”The

Then there’s the “conspiracy” card. J. Kelly Nestruck, who reviews theater in the Globe and Mail, says that he “made the leap from ambivalence” about Shakespeare authorship to “ardent defender of the Bard of Avon” when he met somebody who not only believed that William Shakespeare did not write the plays, but who also turned out to be a “truther” — one of the paranoid screwballs who think the Twin Towers were brought down by George W. Bush and the Jews. Nestruck charitably lumps Oxfordians with some of the better-known examples of ignorance and hatefulness: “Shakespeare denial is part and parcel of a dangerous, anti-rational mode of thinking,” a “gateway drug” to becoming a Truther, a Birther, and a believer in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

What rot! Emsworth, who is willing to bet that he’s read a lot more of Richard Hofstadter than J. Kelly Nestruck ever has, and who firmly resents the imputation of anti-intellectualism, can’t think of a single conspiracy theory, from “who shot JFK” to ” who fixed the Super Bowl” that he ever bought into.

This is just changing the subject. As a class, we Oxfordians aren’t suckers for conspiracies. How exactly it happened that Oxford didn’t take credit for the Shakespeare plays and sonnets, we don’t know, but we doubt very much that it was anything like the elaborate conspiracies postulated in Anonymous. The movie recycles several of the least likely of the speculative scenarios that have cropped up around Oxford and the question of authorship and gives Stratfordians plenty to mock. There’s no historical evidence that the Virgin Queen was actually a promiscuous slut or ever had any bastard children, but in any event why should the love life of Queen Elizabeth or the parentage of Henry Wriothsley, Earl of Southampton, have anything to do with the question of who wrote Hamlet? The movie leaves viewers with the false impression that to believe in Oxford’s authorship of the “Shakespeare” plays is to buy into an imaginative set of wildly improbable conspiracy theories. We assure anyone who’s actually interested in the subject that it’s not necessary.

Then there’s the crude slur that to doubt the Stratford man is to have a screw loose. Stratfordians generally begin talking about Shakespeare authorship by sneering about the name of one of the early Oxfordians (Mr. Marche is typical: “the aptly named J. Thomas Looney”), and some them have wasted a lot of ink over the last few months on amateur psychoanalysis of the supposedly paranoid tendencies of people who would doubt something so “incontrovertible” as the notion that the man from Stratford wrote Hamlet. James Shapiro, the writer of a generally interesting book about the history of the Shakespeare authorship question (see this Emsworth comment) is one of the quickest to impugn the mental stability of authorship doubters.

Sadly, the public comments of our Stratford man, Mr. Cimolino, over the last several months don’t suggest that he’s actually reviewed the substantive case for Oxford. He asserts in the Globe and Mail that there is “in fact no evidence to connect Oxford with the plays, and no reason to suppose that anyone other than Shakespeare wrote them. To which Oxfordians retort, ‘Of course not: Oxford deliberately deliberately hid his authorship.'” No, Mr. Cimolino, that’s not what we say.  True, there’s no “smoking gun,” no single, irrefutable document that conclusively proves the case for Oxford.  But there really is plenty of evidence, much of which is reviewed, very soberly and with considerable erudition, by such organizations as the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition (here’s its website) and the journal Brief Chronicles (here’s its website).  Viewing it as a whole, we find it persuasive.

No doubt Mr. Cimolino did not set out intentionally to insult the many patrons of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival who doubt the authorship of the Stratford man, and we’re slow to take offense.  But we invite him to take a closer look.

We preview the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s 2012 season

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario) will be celebrating its 60th season by cutting its Shakespeare offerings down to three plays, plus a version of Macbeth using characters from The Simpsons. Overall, it’s a disappointing 2012 playbill. Still, in order of interest, these are the shows that interest us the most:

1. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (at the Festival Theater)

Much Ado About Nothing figures to be the best Shakespeare of the season. Ben Carlson, one of the finest classical actors we’ve seen anywhere, will play Benedict, and his wife Deborah Hay will appear as Beatrice. Since he’s been at Stratford, Mr. Carlson’s been as good as they get as Hamlet, Brutus, Leontes, Touchstone, and Alceste (in last season’s The Misanthrope). The question is whether Ms. Hay can match him in Shakespeare. At the Shaw Festival she stood out as a comic actress, but she was also terrific three years in a more nuanced role in Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance (see this Emsworth post).

If you haven’t noticed, Shakespeare’s five most popular comedies are in a rotation of sorts at the Stratford Festival; it’s comforting to know that it won’t be long before you can see one of your favorites. We’ve had

The Taming of the Shrew (2003)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2004)
As You Like It (2005)
Twelfth Night (2006)
Much Ado About Nothing (2006)

The Taming of the Shrew (2008)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2009)
As You Like It (2010)
Twelfth Night (2011)

It was therefore predictable that Much Ado About Nothing, which is indeed a favorite of ours, would be on the marquee in 2012. It will be directed by former Shaw Festival Artistic Director Christopher Newton, who has said the play will be set in Brazil.

2. Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (at the Tom Patterson Theater)

We’ve tried and failed several times to read Cymbeline, but it’s always seemed too hard to follow. So we’re hoping this show will bring to life a Shakespeare play that hasn’t worked for us in print. Stratford productions have done this for us before — we’re thinking especially of Troilus and Cressida (2003) and Two Gentleman of Verona (2010).

We don’t claim to understand Cymbeline‘s plot, which is the complicated story of a young woman who marries against her father’s will. Geraint Wyn Davies will play the title role, and Cara Ricketts will play his daughter Imogen. Despite its uncomfortable seats, the Tom Patterson Theatre is still our favorite place to see Shakespeare.

3. 42nd Street (at the Festival Theater)

We were startled to realize that 42nd Street was not from the golden age of Broadway musicals. We’d seen the ’30s movie and assumed wrongly that it was based on a musical play. In fact, 42nd Street wasn’t staged until 1980; it won the Tony as best musical play in 1981.

The story of 42nd Street is a show about a show, with cliches that were endlessly recycled in old movie musicals; a chorus girl, Peggy Sawyer, is canned for messing up, but is rehired to take the place of an injured star. Interestingly, the Stratford Festival has yet to announce who will play Peggy Sawyer. [1-23-12 update: it’s been announced that Jennifer Rider-Shaw, a young singer who was part of the company in Jesus Christ Superstar last year, has been given the part.] But long-time Stratford favorite Cynthia Dale will be returning to play Dorothy Brock, the injured leading lady whom Peggy Sawyer replaces. Gary Griffin, who directed the phenomenal West Side Story at Stratford three years ago, will be in charge.

The show uses one of Emsworth’s all-time top-ten favorite pop songs, “I Only Have Eyes for You.” This tune was not in the 1933 movie, but was instead written by the same songwriting team of Harry Warren and Al Dubin for another show, Dames, a year later. Other songs in 42nd Street include “Lullabye of Broadway” (which wasn’t in the 1933 movie either) and “You’re Getting to Be A Habit With Me.” June 2012 update: “I Only Have Eyes for You” wasn’t used in the show after all! But the show as a whole was dazzling entertainment.

4. Electra (by Sophocles, at the Tom Patterson Theater)

Another shot at classical Greek tragedy! We have shamefully little experience either seeing or reading the ancient Greek poets. Three years ago at Stratford we did see a play by Euripedes, The Trojan Women, which like Electra was written about 400 years before the birth of Christ, but we didn’t know what to make of it and didn’t feel confident enough to blog about it. We still find it mind-boggling to think that these dramas have been preserved for 2500 years.

In a way, Electra is a sequel to The Trojan Women. In the latter play, the Greek king Agamemnon and his men have burned Troy and carried off their women. In Electra, the Greeks are back home after the Trojan wars, but Agamemnon and his new Trojan concubine Cassandra have been murdered by his wife Clytemnestra (as predicted by Cassandra in The Trojan Women). Agamemnon’s daughter Electra is unhappy about the murder of her father, and she and her twin brother Orestes set about to revenge their father by slaying their mother. Good times!

In the plays of Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw, and Arthur Miller — that is, in modern theater — the characters have more or less realistic conversations with one another. There was none of that in The Trojan Women, which consisted mostly of protracted laments by angry women, plus speeches by the gods. There probably won’t be any snappy repartee in Electra either. But it’s a different genre; we’ve gathered that ancient Greek tragedy is as different from modern theater as modern theater is from opera.

5. The Matchmaker (by Thornton Wilder, at the Festival Theatre)

Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams wrote novels too, but nobody reads them. Thornton Wilder is on the short list of writers who have been as successful writing stories and novels as they have writing plays. In fact, we just read and enjoyed Wilder’s late novel The Eighth Day this fall.

Everyone knows and loves Wilder’s Our Town, but The Matchmaker, which we enjoyed about ten years ago at the Shaw Festival, is every bit as entertaining, and funnier. This is the play on which the musical Hello, Dolly! was based. The wonderful Seana McKenna will play the matchmaker, Dolly Levi.

6. Henry V (by William Shakespeare, at the Festival Theatre)

Emsworth ungraciously announced a year ago that he did not intend to buy any more tickets for Shakespeare plays directed by Stratford Artistic Director Des McAnuff. Faithful to that vow, we boycotted the McAnuff-directed Twelfth Night last summer, even though it’s one of our very favorite Shakespeare plays (see this list), and even though it was apparently popular with Stratford audiences. We were told by reliable friends that we did well to skip it. We don’t doubt that Mr. McAnuff sincerely loves Shakespeare, but he clearly doesn’t have faith that a Shakespeare play can stand on its own without gimmicks like the sixties-style rock songs that (report has it) repeatedly interrupted the story of Twelfth Night last summer.

But what could Mr. McAnuff possibly do to ruin Henry V? It’s a play about a historical English king, set unambiguously in a definite time and place in history. So surely he won’t re-imagine it as a fascist fable (as he did with As You Like It a couple of years ago) or set it in Africa (as he did with the Scottish play, Macbeth, a year before that). Fortunately, our vows are not as inviolable as Lear’s, which he “durst never” break (King Lear, Act I, Scene 1). We’ve never seen Henry V on stage, and we badly want to.

It’s disappointing that Ben Carlson wasn’t cast as Henry V. Mr. Carlson is of suitable age for the role now, but he won’t be the next time the Stratford Festival mounts Henry V, in another ten years or so. The part has been given instead to Aaron Krohn; Mr. Carlson will be relegated to the minor role of of the Welshman, Fluellen. Lucy Peacock will adorn the role of the Hostess; we’ll be glad to see Tom Rooney as Pistol.

7. A Word or Two (readings/recitations by Christopher Plummer, at the Avon Theater)

A year ago we expressed the hope that Christopher Plummer would return to Stratford in 2012 to play the Duke in Measure for Measure. Mr. Plummer is indeed coming back to Stratford, but to give a solo program of readings and recitations. It’ll run for only a month, from late July to late August.

No doubt these readings will be memorable. But we are seriously put off by the fact that tickets for this one-man show will be about 30 percent more expensive than tickets for, say, Henry V, which will have castles full of courtiers and battlefields full of armies.

8. The Pirates of Penzance (operetta by Gilbert & Sullivan, at the Avon Theatre)

Wonderful tunes, clever lyrics. The Pirates of Penzance is the farcical story of a young man whose nurse accidentally apprentices him to a band of pirates, to whom he is bound until his 21st birthday. But Frederic was born on February 29, so unfortunately he won’t hit 21 for a while. It’s all very entertaining, but we’ve come to think of Gilbert & Sullivan as community theater material and aren’t likely to add this show to our bundle of tickets.

9. You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (musical play based on Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts, at the Avon Theatre)

Surely they jest.

10. MacHomer at the Studio Theatre)

Homer Simpson and family do Macbeth. Here’s more evidence that the management at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival doesn’t have faith in its core product. This show will play only during May, while the schools are still in session and English teachers are still bringing their students to Stratford. After all, why should the kids have to suffer through Much Ado About Nothing? Give ’em something they’ll understand! And something that’ll make ’em laugh!

Other shows: Hirsch (by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson, in the Studio Theatre); The Best Brothers (by Daniel MacIvor, in the Studio Theatre); Wanderlust (by Morris Panych, in the Tom Patterson Theatre)

The play called Hirsch is about John Hirsch, who was Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival for five years about 30 years ago. We’re not uninterested in the history of the Stratford Festival (see this post), but this seems a stretch.

The Best Brothers is a world premiere by a Canadian playwright, described as the story of a couple of brothers coming to grips with the death of their mother.

Wanderlust is a new musical play written by the Canadian playwright and director Morris Panych. It’s advertised as based on the poems of Canadian poet Robert W. Service. Like Jack London, Service wrote a good deal about the gold rush in Alaska and the Yukon in the early 20th century, and that’s what this story is about. Tom Rooney will take the role of the poet.

Monet, Corot, and American folk art in Shelburne, Vermont

If you love art but don’t drive out of your way to find it, you aren’t ever likely to wander into the Shelburne Museum. It’s out in the country in northern Vermont, a few miles south of Burlington, at least a couple of hours from where you might be vacationing in the Berkshires, the Adirondacks, or the White Mountains.  It’s also the sort of country where the signs say “Bear Crossing” instead of “Deer Crossing.”  We made it our last stop on a weekend driving vacation in New England.

The entrance to the Shelburne Museum doesn't really suggest what's beyond.

Even though there’s plenty of art to see; the Shelburne Museum isn’t really an art museum; it’s an American cultural history museum, akin to the Genesee Country Museum, near Rochester, or Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. Its collections are exhibited in thirty buildings on a sprawling campus that also has plenty of well-tended gardens; it was with some difficulty that we persuaded the wife of our bosom, who gardens, to stop picking the flowers and take pictures instead. A day at the Shelburne requires good walking shoes. If you run out of steam, you can find a bench and wait for the wandering shuttle to take you to the next exhibit you want to see, or back to the entrance.

The place is rich with artefacts of everyday life before the 20th century — a collection of old quilts, a covered bridge, a general store, an 1890 stationmaster’s office, a steamboat that used to cruise nearby Lake Champlain, and so on. Not understanding what we were in for, we didn’t allow ourselves nearly enough time. We devoted the couple of hours that we had mostly to the buildings that featured fine art.

Art lovers like us will probably want to make a beeline for the Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building, which looks like a small version of a Newport mansion and contains a modest but superb collection of 19th-century works by Monet, Courbet, Degas, Manet, Corot, and Remington. These formerly belonged to Louisine and H.O. Havemeyer, a 19th-century robber baron (sugar) who spent much of his fortune assembling a stupendous art collection. Louisine and H.O. gave most of it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but some of the best pieces passed to their daughter Electra Havemeyer Webb, who had a summer home in Shelburne. It is Electra’s varied collections that fill the exhibits at the Shelburne Museum.

The most dramatic of five Monet paintings was a large, glittering The Ice Floes (Les Glacons) (see just above). We were even more pleased with the Corots. There are none of his silver-gray landscapes, but the Shelburne does have several exceptional figure paintings by Corot, including a pre-Freudian Bacchante with a Panther.  On the walls of a room that reproduces Electra’s Park Avenue penthouse bedroom are several Degas pastels of dancers.

Our time at the Shelburne was made especially pleasant by the friendly folk who served as security guards. At most museums the people in uniform seem profoundly ignorant — you won’t get anything but a blank stare if you ask somebody at Boston’s Museum of Fine Art to direct you to the Matisses. But the senior citizens who watch over the collections at the Shelburne — volunteers? — not only know all about the Havemeyer family, but also a lot about the paintings and other exhibits. We like talking art with people.

One building is given to the works of a minor American regionalist painter, Ogden Pleissner, whom we first encountered a few years ago at the Canajoharie Art Museum (see this post), whose oil paintings and pastels remind you of both Homer and Hopper. In another building, the Stagecoach Inn, we found a smile-provoking collection of American folk art — sculpture, decorated furniture, and fancy rugs, as well as paintings. Many of these works are anonymous, and their creators probably didn’t even think of themselves as artists. But there are familiar names as well, including Grandma Moses, Edward Hicks (one of his versions of Penn’s Treaty with the Indians is here), and Erastus Salisbury Field. We were especially delighted with Field’s The Garden of Eden, a deliciously impossible landscape.

The Vermont shore as seen from the ferry

We never did figure out where the Shelburne Museum was exhibiting the other works of American art that it is supposed to own, including paintings by Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, Fitz Henry Lane, Thomas Cole, and Eastman Johnson, because we ran out of time. It was nearly sunset on a gorgeous day when we pulled onto the ferry that is carrying cars, for free, to New York State across Lake Champlain from Chimney Point, Vermont while they’re replacing the bridge.

We preview the Shaw Festival’s 2012 season

Shaw

The Shaw Festival’s anniversary season had three Bernard Shaw plays, plus My Fair Lady, but in 2012 the playbill will be back down to two.  Neither Misalliance nor The Millionairess is a major work, and The Millionairess won’t start up till late June. Last fall the Shaw Festival hosted a two-day forum on the “relevance” of Shaw, and everyone agreed solemnly that his plays are still very, very important. But even if the Shaw Festival sticks with its custom of putting on two Shaw plays every season, it seems clear that Shaw won’t necessarily be front and center in any given season anymore.

We do get it. Personally, we look forward to the Shaw plays, but some people who go to Niagara-on-the-Lake for theater avoid them like the plague.  Shaw isn’t like Shakespeare; he simply doesn’t have hard-core fans. According to a recent Shaw Festival press release, only 65,000 of the 274,800 tickets sold at the Shaw Festival in 2011 were for Shaw plays. The management brags that this is up from 50,000 and 52,500 for Shaw plays in 2009 and 2010, but that really doesn’t say much; it’s not surprising that three plays sold more tickets than two.

Emsworth is stoked about the lineup for 2012, despite what has become an annual disappointment: the Festival is still shying away from Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. Our earlier experiences with William Inge (in 2005), Githa Sowerby (in 2004 and 2008), and Terence Rattigan (also in 2008) left us wanting more of their plays, and in the 2012 season we get all three.  It’s rude to say it, but we find the Shaw Festival’s lineup for 2012 considerably more attractive top-to-bottom than the one at Stratford, which has only three Shakespeare plays and includes such head-scratchers as You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and a Homer Simpson version of Macbeth.

Here’s what we think of the 2012 Shaw Festival season, beginning with the shows we’re looking forward most.

1. Come Back, Little Sheba (William Inge).  Bach in 2004, Emsworth and wife found the Shaw Festival production of William Inge’s Bus Stop so appealing that we saw it twice.  That show, a sexually charged story of folks stranded during a blizzard at a bus stop in the middle of Kansas, was directed by Jackie Maxwell, who will now direct Inge’s first successful play, Come Back, Little Sheba.

There’s likely to be plenty of middle-America passion in this show too, with regrets and recriminations. The protagonists are a midwestern chiropractor and the former beauty queen he had to marry twenty years earlier; their lives change when they take a college student into their home as a boarder. Corrine Kozlo and Ric Reid will play the lead roles.

Michael Ball

2. French Without Tears (Terence Rattigan).  French Without Tears was Rattigan’s first successful play. It’s a light comedy whose tone will surely be very different from the witty but sobering After the Dance, which we saw at the Shaw Festival in 2008. 

We were dazzled by After the Dance, our first Rattigan play (see this Emsworth post), and since then we’ve gone out of our way to dig deeper.  We’ve found and devoured copies of his plays The Deep Blue Sea, Separate Tables, and After the Dance, all of which are notable for their elegant construction, brilliant, subtle characterizations, and economical dialogue. We’ve also seen several movies based on Rattigan’s plays — he did a lot of screenwriting — including Separate Tables and The Browning Version (the classic 60-year-old British film versions), both of which we now rank among our very favorite movies, The Winslow Boy (again the original version), and The Prince and the Showgirl, with Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier, as well as The V.I.P.s, for which he wrote the screenplay.

All this reading and movie-watching has made Emsworth a serious fan of Terence Rattigan, and now we understand why Jackie Maxwell apparently thinks his plays worthy of being in rotation at the Shaw Festival along with Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Noël Coward.  There were, incidentally, revivals of a couple of Rattigan plays in the London theaters this last year — perhaps Ms. Maxwell is simply riding the wave. We’re pleased to see that Michael Ball, still one of our favorite Shaw Festival actors, will have a leading role in French Without Tears .

3. Misalliance (Bernard Shaw). By the time Shaw wrote Misalliance in 1909, his plays were beginning to rely less on believable plots and action and more on learned chatter — so much so that in Misalliance the characters themselves gripe about all the talking and preaching!  Poking a little fun at himself, probably, Shaw has Johnny Tarleton complain to his father about didactic novels:

I’ll bet what you like that I read more than you, though I don’t talk about it so much. Only, I don’t read the same books. I like a book with a plot in it. You like a book with nothing in it but some idea that the chap that writes it keeps worrying, like a cat chasing his own tail. I can stand a little of it, but a man soon gets fed up with that sort of thing.

At the play’s end, Johnny’s father finally mumbles, “Well, I — er — well, I suppose — er — I suppose there’s nothing more to be said.” His daughter’s reaction:

Hypatia [fervently] Thank goodness!

Misalliance has a lot of the same proto-absurdist elements as Heartbreak House, which Shaw wrote about eight years later. (See this post for a catalog of Emsworth’s grievances with Heartbreak House, which we saw again at the Shaw Festival this last summer.) In each play, residents and guests at a country house are menaced by aircraft, and in each an intruder bursts into their midst who — surprise — turns out to be part of someone’s past.  In each play characters are intensely attracted to one another on five minutes’ acquaintance, and in each an old coot falls for a young woman.

But there is still a lot of snappy stuff in Misalliance, and we’re genuinely looking forward to it. Wade Bogert-O’Brien, a young actor whom we liked very well in last year’s Candida, will play the adventurous aviator Joey Percival. It’s not a lengthy play, as Shaw plays go.

4. Hedda Gabler (Henrik Ibsen). We continue to be dismayed that some of our favorite Shaw Festival performers, like Ben Carlson, Kelli Fox, Evan Buliung, and Deborah Hay, have migrated over to Stratford in the last several years. Even Christopher Newton, the Festival’s former Artistic Director, will be directing Shakespeare there in 2012. But one of the finest performers in the history of either company, Martha Henry, is coming to the Shaw Festival in 2012 to direct Hedda Gabler.

We’ve been trying to cultivate an appreciation for Ibsen, and for Netflix subscribers we can heartily recommend a 1973 film version of A Doll’s House starring Anthony Hopkins and Ralph Richardson that we saw just a couple of weeks ago. For all its enormous reputation we don’t know Hedda Gabler, which is about the hijinks of a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage. Moya O’Connell, Patrick McManus, and Gray Powell will make up the play’s love triangle. This is just the sort of play that belongs in the Courthouse Theatre, where it will be staged.

In the work of Ibsen, said Emma Goldman, “lay all the instruments for the radical dissection of society.” Or, at least, that’s what E. L. Doctorov said she said in his novel Ragtime. (Doctorov probably didn’t entirely make this up; see this Goldman essay on Ibsen.) On the other hand, H. L. Mencken, a scribe whose judgment we generally respect, insisted that Ibsen was no “tin-pot radical” at all. According to Mencken, Ibsen “believed in all the things that the normal, law-abiding citizen of Christendom believes in, from democracy to romantic love, and from the obligations of duty to the value of virtue, and he always gave them the best of it in his plays.” We wonder which view of Ibsen Martha Henry’s direction will take.

5. Ragtime (musical based on the novel). Ragtime seemed to us the best of the E. L. Doctorov novels that we read, but we could never figure out how they could make a musical out of it, especially one that is almost entirely musical numbers and hardly any dialogue, like an opera.

The book includes more characters and subplots than could possibly be fit into a musical play. But Les Miserables was a much bigger book, and they made the best musical in 40 years out of it. We will soon find out. Thom Allison will play Coalhouse Walker Jr., the black piano player driven to extremes by racial oppression.  Emsworth himself has happily played much of Scott Joplin on the piano for years and hopes there will be plenty of ragtime music in this show.

6. His Girl Friday (Suzan-Lori Parks). This play’s title will be familiar to any fan of Hollywood screwball comedies, but the 1940 movie was adapted from a 1928 play called The Front Page. The play at the Shaw Festival in 2012 is an adaptation of both, done by the playwright John Guare (best known for Six Degrees of Separation) in 2003.  It’ll be closer to the movie than the play.

The Shaw Festival has hit big and missed big on classic American comedies. The hits include a couple of funniest things we’ve ever seen on stage, You Can’t Take It With You (1998 and 1999) and Born Yesterday (2009), but the misses include a disappointing The Women (2010) (see this post) and a sour, unfunny Three Men on a Horse (2004). The announcement that Benedict Campbell and Nicole Underhay will play the “Cary Grant” and “Rosalind Russell” roles, respectively, in His Girl Friday gives us reason to hope for this show. Jim Mezon is directing; it’s disappointing that he seems to be appearing as an actor in only one play in 2012 (a supporting role in Hedda Gabler).

Coward

7. Present Laughter (Noël Coward). Three years after a Shaw Festival season that included four Noël Coward shows, Coward is back. Garry Essendine, an actor in light comedies who is the lead character in this 1939 play, is a lot like Coward himself; several other characters are thought to have been based on some of his close friends and lovers. Steven Sutcliffe will play Garry Essendine.

8. A Man and Some Women (Githa Sowerby). Githa Sowerby is so obscure that she doesn’t even have an entry in Wikipedia. (We’re thinking of rectifying that.) But Jackie Maxwell has pulled her out of obscurity; the Sowerby play The Stepmother, which we saw in 2008, gave us a wonderful evening of entertainment (see this Emsworth post). We know nothing about this 1914 play of Sowerby’s — probably no one else does, either — except that it involves money conflicts in a family consisting of a man and two spinster sisters.

9. The Millionairess (Bernard Shaw). This Shaw play is near the end of our list, but not because we’re not interested in it. One reason is that we have a mild crush on Nicole Underhay, who will play Epifania Fitzfassenden, a rich girl forbidden by her father’s will from marrying unless her fiance can turn 150 pounds into 50,000 pounds within six months. Shaw was 80 years old when he wrote The Millionairess, which we think is the last play Shaw wrote that had any real entertainment value.

10. Trouble in Tahiti (Leonard Bernstein). The Shaw Festival’s one-hour-long lunchtime show in 2012 will be an opera! Leonard Bernstein’s songs tell the story of an American housewife and her white-collar husband. Like all the Shaw’s lunchtime shows, this one will be a great bargain at $32 per ticket. We thoroughly enjoyed Bernstein’s Wonderful Town at the Shaw Festival in 2008 and West Side Story at Stratford in 2009.

11. Helen’s Necklace (Carole Fréchette). In the new Studio Theatre space will be a play by French-Canadian playwright Carole Fréchette, presented in English. The story promises to be a modestly fantastical account of a woman who has lost a necklace in a city in the Middle East like Baghdad or Beirut. The lead role will be played by Tara Rosling, whom we remember as Eliza Doolitte in Pygmalion a few years back. This show runs for only a month and a half, starting in mid-July.

Lennox Robinson’s Drama at Inish at the Shaw Festival

Corrine Koslo as Constance, Ric Reid as hotel proprietor John Twohig, and Peter Krantz as Peter Hurley

(September 2011) It is rare that this writer can’t find something to complain about, but in the case of Drama at Inish, we couldn’t. We loved this gentle, unpretentious comedy and weren’t surprised that it pleased everyone else enough to induce the Shaw Festival to add half a dozen more performances to the original run.

Drama at Inish is a gentle, affectionate satire of Irish provincial people and the troupes of performers that toured through Great Britain during the 1920s. Most of the play’s characters live or work at a hotel in the quiet seaside town of Inish, where proprietor John Twohig has engaged the De La Mare Repertory Company to perform for the summer season in the hotel’s playhouse. The placid John (Ric Reid, in the nicest turn we’d seen from him in a while) and his wife Annie (Donna Belleville) run the hotel with the help of John’s spinster sister Lizzie (Mary Haney), a maid, and a boots.

But things change in Inish when the actor Hector de la Mare (Thom Marriott) and his wife Constance Constantia (Corrine Koslo) arrive at the hotel for their summer run. Their playbill will be different from the low-comedy variety shows and circuses that usually come to Inish; Hector’s traveling troupe plays “serious” theater. As Hector explains (self-importantly) to another guest:

I now confine myself entirely — with the co-operation of Miss Constantia — to psychological and introspective drama. The great plays of Russia, an Ibsen or two, a Strindberg — I think very little of the French.

Mary Haney as Lizzie Twohig and Maggie Blake as Helena

To everyone’s surprise, the people of Inish flock to the playhouse night after night. In short order, they begin to identify all too closely with the heroes and heroines of A Doll’s House and Uncle Vanya and to imagine that they too are caught in the same sorts of tragedies as the heroes and heroines of Ibsen’s and Chekhov’s plays. Lizzie, for example, convinces herself that her life is blighted because a neighbor, Peter Hurley (Peter Krantz, as a delightfully hapless local politician), toyed with her affections by “skylarkin'” with her when they were both young.  John Twohig’s son Eddie (Craig Pike), like a Chekhov character, comes to doubt that life is worth living after he fails, for the dozenth time, to persuade Christine Lambert (Julia Course) to marry him. 

Constance (Corinne Koslo) and Hector (Thom Mariott) never really step out of character

We have enjoyed Mary Haney so much in so many roles at the Shaw that it would be hard to say that the endearing Lizzie Twohig is the one we liked best, but every scene she plays in this play is a treasure.  And Thom Marriott and Corrine Koslo, as the well-traveled, impossibly vain, and ever-theatrical leading man and lady, are inexpressibly funny. Hector and Constance live so much in the emotionally overcharged world of their plays that they never really leave it anymore; it’s no wonder that they pull the people of Inish from the real world into theirs.

As traveling actors, Hector and his company follow squarely in the tradition of the Crummleses, the 1830s repertory company affectionately portrayed by Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby.  (See this post for some thoughts we had about the Shakespeare actors in Nickleby.)  They also remained us a little of the traveling variety show performers who play so prominently in J. B. Priestley’s novel The Good Companions, which we read just last year.  Hector and Constance are even closer relatives, dramatically speaking, of George and Lily Pepper, the vaudeville pair immortalized by Noël Coward in his wonderful one-act play Red Peppers, which we saw at the Shaw Festival in 2009 (see this post). 

We don’t read the newspaper reviews of Shaw Festival shows very faithfully, although they’re easy to find on the internet, but at least one review we saw suggested patronizingly that Drama at Inish is not a very substantial play and doubted whether it was worth reviving.  Of course, the very premise of Drama at Inish is to poke gentle fun at plays that professional critics do consider substantial!  The themes of Drama at Inish may not be as profound as those in, say, Waiting for Godot or The Glass Menagerie, but its portrayals of human nature, with all the foolishness and vanity and self-absorption to which we are prone, are as true as true can be. That’s an accomplishment, and it’s good enough for us.  Along with the wife of our bosom, we would have liked to have seen it again.

Until the Shaw’s 2011 playbill was announced, we were unfamiliar with the Irish playwright Lennox Robinson, who was a contemporary and colleague of the Irish playwrights Lady Gregory, J. M. Synge, and W. B. Yeats. We were grateful that director Jackie Maxwell did not insist that her actors use authentic, heavy Irish accents, which we would have had trouble understanding, and we hope for more Irish plays at the Shaw Festival.  In the meantime, we were amused to see that one of the plays mocked by Drama at Inish, Ibsen’s masterpiece Hedda Gabler, will be on the playbill at the Shaw in 2012.

Lorne Kennedy as Norrison and Jeff Meadows as Tony Foot

Nothing could make the case for a repertory acting company better than the trio of Drama at Inish, Bernard Shaw’s Candida (which we appreciated at the Shaw Festival earlier this year), and the Shaw’s 2011 one-hour lunchtime play, The President, an inordinately clever play to which we will not devote a separate post. Lorne Kennedy, the star of The President, played the lead role three years ago at the Shaw; we missed the show that year and were grateful to have a second chance to see it. The President is the most concentrated hour of laughs anyone is ever likely to experience, and if the motor-mouthed Mr. Kennedy is still up to this demanding role, we’d gladly see it again in another couple of years. If it’s revived a third time, we trust that Jeff Meadows will also return as Tony Foot, the vulgar New York cab driver that Kennedy transforms into a successful businessman and pillar of society in a mere 60 minutes.

As You Like It at Shakespeare & Company (Lenox, Mass.)

Delighted with the Richard III we’d seen in 2010, we went back to Lenox, Massachusetts a week ago to see Shakespeare & Company’s As You Like It. This was Shakespeare without gimmicks — lively, well-acted, well-directed, and low-tech, done by people who weren’t afraid the play itself wouldn’t be enough to entertain an audience. We couldn’t have spent our afternoon better, and the rest of the smiling audience apparently thought as we did.

Orlando (Tony Roach) and his brother Oliver (Josh Aaron McCabe) come to blows in the opening scene. Faithful servant Adam (Malcolm Ingram) is shocked.

The story of As You Like It is fundamentally frivolous, and this company didn’t try to make the play carry more than it could. For many years we had trouble appreciating the Shakespeare comedies; the humor depends so much on now-obsolete turns of phrase. But in this show the gags and laugh lines seemed spontaneous and fresh.

Bare-chested Orlando (Tony Roach) prepares to vanquish the wrestler Charles (Kevin O'Donnell); Rosalind (Merritt Janson), spectating, is smitten.

This play is, we now realize, a love story. We don’t mean the infatuations that flare up like dry grass between Rosalind and Orlando, Celia and Oliver, and the jester Touchstone and the country wench Audrey; we mean instead the solid, sisterly love betweeen Rosalind (Merritt Janson) and Celia (Kelley Curran). Their rapport was transparent; we had no difficulty believing that the affectionate Celia would leave her cushy life at the court to accompany her boy-crazy cousin into exile. Rosalind and Celia will always be best friends, but who would think that the romance between Rosalind and the over-serious, gullible Orlando (Tony Roach), writer of bad love verses, would survive much past their honeymoon?

These actors mined their lines for all they were worth. You may think you know the play, but did you realize that minutes after Rosalind met Orlando, she told Celia that she wanted to have his baby? (It’s ten lines into Act I, Scene 2.) You would if you’d seen this production, and a lot more. And the sight gags were superb. “Liberty” is, of course, one of the play’s great themes — both Rosalind and Jacques rhapsodize about it. But we were struck helpless when, at just the right moment, and for just a split second, Ms. Curran pantomimed the Statue of Liberty. For actresses playing Celia/Aliena, one of the big challenges must be figuring out what to do during the several long scenes in which the character is on-stage without any lines. In Act III, Scene 2, Ms. Curran solved the problem with a rapid-fire series of hilarious, dead-on pantomimes of Rosalind/Ganymede’s descriptions of how she was to cure Orlando of his love-madness.

Director Tony Simotes took especial care to connect the action and the dialogue, sometimes in unexpected ways. In Act II, Scene 3, for instance, Celia calls to Rosalind and Touchstone: “I pray you, bear with me; I cannot go no further.” Touchstone responds with one of the rare Elizabethan puns that still works after 400 years: “For my part, I had rather bear with you than bear you.” In this show, however, Touchstone has already come onto the stage bearing Celia on his back. Later, as the “All the world’s a stage” monologue comes to a close, Orlando helps the old, infirm Adam onto the stage just as the lines “second childishness and mere oblivion/Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” are spoken.

Rare is the Shakespeare director who can resist the urge to try something “different” with a familiar play, and Mr. Simotes is apparently not such a director. The novelty in this show was the casting of the philosophic, monastic, misanthropic Jacques as a woman — and not just a woman, but a lesbian with an unrequited passion for Celia/Aliena, which she conveyed through longing glances and gestures. (Celia/Aliena rejected her overtures with an appreciative but it-can-never-be smile.) The gender of Jacques, who wore an androgynous black suit, confused the other characters as well as the audience; a bemused Touchstone (Jonathan Epstein) kept referring to Jacques as “him, or her, or whatever.”

Tod Randolph as Jacques

The main thing in favor of Ms. Randolph’s casting as Jacques was that it afforded an excellent actress an chance at a role otherwise reserved for men. We surely enjoyed her intelligent, witty delivery of some of the play’s best lines. (This was the second fine performance by a woman in a man’s role that we saw this summer; the other was Seana McKenna’s Richard III at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.) It could also be said that conceiving Jacques as a lesbian in a society in which same-sex romances are beyond the pale helps to explain why Jacques is practically the only major character in As You Like It without a romantic partner. Or perhaps it could be said that the erotic attraction of Jacques to Celia served as a foil for the platonic affection between Rosalind and Celia.

On balance, though, this was a variation we could have done without — not having a woman play Jacques, but the conversion of Jacques into a lesbian. We are not of the school that insists that the literature of bygone years needs to be reinterpreted or “corrected” to reflect twenty-first century notions of sexuality.

Johnny Lee Davenport as Duke Senior in the Forest of Ardenne

We were very glad to see several actors we’d seen in Lenox the previous year in Richard III, including Ms. Randolph. Among the most striking feats in this show was Johnny Lee Davenport’s portrayal of both the bad Duke Frederick and his banished brother. In manner and speech, his two characters could hardly have been more contrasting; it hardly seemed possible that both the brutal Duke who banished his niece from court and the mellow, gracious Duke who welcomed Orlando to the Forest of Arden were played by the same actor. Mr. Davenport gained a spot on our list of favorite Shakespearean actors with his delivery of one of our favorite speeches in all Shakespeare: the good Duke’s ode to the pastoral life.

The star of this As You Like It was the winsome Merritt Janson, who played Rosalind as a hyper-active, quick-witted, playful bundle of sexual energy. But we are still looking for our ideal Rosalind. Ms. Janson hardly varied her tempo, and she delivered too many of her lines with the same inflections. We enjoyed Kelley Curran, as Celia/Aliena, very much, and not just for her physical comedy. And we surely hope to see Jonathan Epstein, a top-drawer veteran actor who played a superb Touchstone, in other Shakespeare roles.

Before the show, we (Emsworth and both the eldest and youngest of his three lovely, accomplished daughters) visited the former home of Shakespeare & Company at The Mount, a restored mansion that was designed and built by Edith Wharton in 1902. The Mount is only a mile or so from Shakespeare & Company’s current home at a private boys’ school. Its gardens are lovely. We couldn’t quite figure out where the plays were staged.