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.


Left-wing ideology (again) in Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday

We’re tired of being assured by essayists in theater programs that the vintage plays we’re about to see are still “relevant”.  Why wouldn’t they be? Why would any great play lose its “relevance”?  Human nature doesn’t change from one century to the next, and what else is a great play about?

But sometimes a play’s “relevance” jumps up and barks in your face.  When we heard the following lines a couple of weeks ago at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-in-the-Lake, Ontario) in the opening scene of Born Yesterday (first produced in 1946), we thought for a moment that a few new lines might have been specially added to the script.   Here’s a Washington journalist (Paul Verrall) talking to a Washington hotel maid (Helen):

Helen: Changed much, do you think?
Paul: What?
Helen: Washington?
Paul: Not enough. I could stand a little more change. The idea of the war wasn’t to leave everything the same, you know.

This made us think immediately about the President who swept into office as the candidate of “change”.   How many Americans who voted to elect Barack Obama are wondering why it is that, six months later, our troops are still in Iraq, the cabinet still includes George W. Bush’s Obama changeSecretary of Defense, Hillary Clinton’s in charge of foreign policy, there’s been a “surge” in the war in Afghanistan, the prison at Guantanamo is still full, and the federal deficit has tripled in only six months?!?

A “little more change,” indeed!

But what a curious line playwright Garson Kanin (writing at the end of 1945) put in the mouth of Paul Verrall: “The idea of the war wasn’t to leave everything the same, you know.”  Did Verrall really think the idea of the war was to bring about change?  What other agenda for the second World War was there but to defeat fascist aggression?

In fact, in 1945 the far left was thinking opportunistically, much like Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, that “you don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste.”  The ruin left by the war gave the left an opening to push through a long list of socialist programs, and in Britain and other European countries that’s mostly what they got. Paul Verrall’s complaint (presumably his creator Garson Kanin’s as well) was that the government was wasting its chance to do something radical in Washington.

Garson Kanin

Garson Kanin

Now Emsworth hasn’t succeeded in learning anything in particular about Garson Kanin’s politics.  They never seem to have made much of a splash, unlike the views of Lillian Hellman, J. B. Priestley, Leonard Bernstein, and of course Bernard Shaw, all people of the left, all admirers of the Soviet Union in their day, and all artists whose work has been at the Shaw Festival the last couple of seasons.

But we can gather something of Kanin’s ideology from Born Yesterday.  It’s a brilliant comedy. But embedded in it is as much leftist propaganda as in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (as we catalogued in this post after seeing the play at the Shaw Festival last year) and J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (which we dissected in this post after seeing that play at the Shaw last summer). 

Helen: Listen, you know what they charge for this layout?
Paul: Two hundred and thirty-five a day. [This was 1946; Harry Brock had rented a hotel suite that would probably cost $5,000 a day in 2009.]
Helen: Listen, anybody’s got two hundred and thirty-five dollars a day to spend on a hotel room there ought to be a law.
Paul: Too many laws already.
Helen: While I’m getting eighteen a week I don’t see why anybody should spend two hundred and thirty-five a day.
Paul: For a hotel room.
Helen: That’s what I say.
Paul (smiling). I know some people who’d call you a communist.
Helen (darkly). Tell them I’m thinking about it. Seriously.

Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman

We hate to sound like a broken record, but Born Yesterday leans on the same leftist themes of “class struggle” and capitalist venality as the Hellman and Priestley plays. Harry Brock in Born Yesterday is a corrupt business tycoon who’s made a fortune, not by building a better mousetrap, but by ruthlessly stomping out competition.  Like Ben Hubbard in The Little Foxes, he’s an enemy of the working man — his mistress Billie Dawn casually lets it slip that Harry actually arranged the murder of a labor agitator who was trying to organize a union.  And like Ben Hubbard, Harry gets ahead by bribing public officials to eliminate competition. 

Daily_WorkerYet in his play, Garson Kanin has Harry Brock claim that he’s a champion of “free enterprise.”  Harry was actually just the opposite; monopolization and thuggery are enemies of free-market capitalism. But the radical left had a stereotype to promote — the capitalist as corrupt and brutish — and that’s what Kanin made Harry Brock. Harry might as well have been one of the cartoon capitalists in The Daily Worker.

We’re not aware of any direct evidence that these left-leaning playwrights were consciously parrotting a prescribed party line in their plays. Yet how curiously similar are some of the speeches in The Little Foxes, An Inspector Calls, and Born Yesterday! Here’s Addie in Hellman’s The Little Foxes:

Addie: “Well, there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts. Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it.

Here’s the Inspector in An Inspector Calls:

Birling: “If you don’t come down sharply on some of these people, they’d soon be asking for the earth.”

The Inspector: “They might. But after all it’s better to ask for the earth than to take it.”

And here’s Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday:

Billie: Well, all this stuff I’ve been reading — all that Paul’s been telling me . . . All of a sudden I realized what it means. How some people are always giving it and Soviet mansome taking. And it’s not fair. So I’m not going to let you any more. Or anybody else.

Talk about sticking to your talking points! Was Garson Kanin, like Hellman and Priestley, hoping for the day when Marxist revolution would come to the United States and Britain as it had in Russia? We don’t know, but consider one of the last lines in Born Yesterday, after Harry Brock is roundly defeated:

Brock (to Devery): What’s goin’ on around here?
Devey: A revolution.

Born Yesterday at the Shaw Festival (a review)

movie poster of Born YesterdayThe audiences at the Shaw Festival tend to be older, so we’re guessing that quite a few of the folks at the performance of Born Yesterday that we saw had, like us, seen the 1950 film version of the play, starring Broderick Crawford and Judy Holliday (who won the Oscar for best actress), at one time or another.  We’d also guess that most of them (like us) missed the 1993 remake, starring John Goodman and Melanie Griffith, 1993 movie version Born Yesterdaywho was nominated for, but did not win, the 1993 Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actress.

At any rate, the incidental music for the Shaw Festival’s production reminded us of Born Yesterday‘s history in the motion pictures; the curtain rose to a sweeping orchestral overture in the style of the vintage movies of the 1940s. And Deborah Hay’s performance as Billie Dawn surely owed a good deal to Judy Holliday, star of both the original stage play and the 1950 movie.

Nothing wrong with that, though; Born Yesterday is a thoroughly entertaining show, the best production of a classic American comedy at the Shaw Festival since You Can’t Take It With You ten years ago.  Deborah Hay is a scream in the lead role.

The play begins as self-made junk tycoon Harry Brock (Thom Marriott) is moving into a suite at a posh Washington, D.C. hotel. Harry is intent on cornering the market on all the scrap metal that’s littering Europe after the war (WWII), and his scheme, devised by his $100,000 per year personal lawyer Ed Devery (Patrick Galligan), depends on his owning part of the United States government as well.  Harry intends to bribe an influential senator (Lorne Kennedy) to get rid of laws that stand in his way.

Deborah Hay

Deborah Hay as Billie Dawn

But his first meeting with the senator and his wife shows Harry that his long-time mistress Billie Dawn (Deborah Hay), a former chorus girl from Brooklyn, needs some polishing up before she’s ready for Washington society. Harry hires a young bespectacled reporter, Paul Verrall (Gray Powell), to give his culturally deficient mistress a crash course in literature, the arts, and politics. To everyone’s surprise, she takes to Thomas Paine and Dickens right away, she likes the pictures at the National Gallery, and she turns out to have an instinctive feel for the dynamics of crooked business deals.  As this is a romantic comedy, she also falls for her tutor.

scene from Born Yesterday

Gray Powell as Paul Verrall, Deborah Hay as Billie Dawn

The storyline of gussying up a girl from the streets reminded us, naturally, of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Like Henry Higgins in that play, Harry Brock fails to foresee the full fruits of a cultural education for Billie Dawn.  After spending time with Paul, Billie Dawn realizes that Harry is crude, brutish, and ignorant.  Her political education also helps her realize that Harry is a crook and that his plan to buy a United States senator is (gasp) un-American.  (Emsworth has some thoughts on the ideological overtones of Born Yesterday in this post.)

The humor in Born Yesterday is not sophisticated, but it goes down easy.  The entire cast is marvelous, down to the small supporting roles (we liked especially Beryl Bain as Helen, Billie Dawn’s maid and friend, and Donna Belleville as Senator Hedges’s wife), but the tone of the show depends on Deborah Hay, who plays the brassy Billie Dawn to perfection.  Her repartee with Thom Marriott (as Harry Brock) is precious, and their hilarious ten-minute, mostly wordless game of gin rummy is worth the price of admission all by itself.

And of course it’s tremendously satisfying to see Harry get what’s coming to him. Harry Brock, a bully who knocks Billie Dawn around when she crosses him, may be the least attractive character you’ll ever see in a stage comedy. No lovable swindler he (like Max Bialystock in The Producers); meanness is his primary personal quality.

Vermeer -- Girl with a Red Hat

Vermeer's Girl with a Red Hat

For the second time at the Shaw Festival this year (see this post), we were delighted to see reproductions of some of our favorite art on stage; Billie Dawn brought home some color prints of pictures by Vermeer, Cezanne, and Gauguin from her excursions with Paul to the National Gallery.

The show we saw had some unintended drama. Outside the theater, the weather in Niagara-on-the-Lake was stormy, and throughout the play rolls of thunder were frequently heard (during scenes in which the skies of Washington, D.C., which were part of the scenery, were blue and cloudless!). In the final moments of the play, the power went off and the theater went dark for about ten seconds just as Patrick Galligan (playing the lawyer Ed Devery, and pitch-perfect as usual) was reaching the climax of his “justice and the American way” speech. Galligan was still holding his pose (to the applause of the audience) when the lights came on again.

We also appreciated the local connection: playwright Garson Kanin, who wrote Born Yesterday, was born in Rochester! Near as we can tell, he didn’t live here long enough for our town to make much of an impression on him, but we’ll take credit for him anyway. Aside from Rochester’s being the home of one of the finest actors of our time (Philip Seymour Hoffman), we don’t have many other show business types to brag about.

More thoughts about Born Yesterday — and Emsworth’s reviews of other Shaw Festival productions in 2009:

Left-wing ideology in 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)

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

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 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.


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. 


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'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.


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


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)