Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance at the Shaw Festival

Krista Colosimo as Hypatia and Ben Sanders as Bentley Summerhays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An Ideal Husband at the Shaw Festival

Lord Goring (Steven Sutcliffe) with the woman whose wiles he frustrates (Mrs. Cheveley, played by Moya O'Connell) and the woman he loves (Mabel Chiltern, played by Marla McLean)

Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband seems to us to have a bipolar quality.  Its main plot is heavy stuff: everyone thinks the world of Sir Robert Chiltern, but a dark secret haunts him. As a poor young man in the British foreign office, he made his fortune by selling a state secret to a speculator, and now he’s being blackmailed. His idealistic wife will despise him if he gives in, but he’ll lose his reputation and his career if he doesn’t.

But the play is also a comedy about what Lady Chiltern calls the “beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics” that compose London society. Chief among them is Lord Goring, a dandy who devotes himself to clever conversation, opera, and the perfect boutonniere. He flirts throughout the play with Sir Robert’s sister Mabel, with whom he is on the precipice of becoming engaged, and spars with his father, Lord Caversham, who thinks he is a wastrel.

Patrick Galligan as Sir Robert Chiltern is blackmailed by Moya O'Connell as Mrs. Cheveley

So while parts of the play are farce (a taste of what would make Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, written a year or so later, such a delight), the rest is dramatic tragedy. In this excellent production the contrast is sometimes startling. The second act, for example, ends in full drama mode with a long, impassioned speech from Lord Chiltern (Patrick Galligan) about his predicament.  But the third act (right after intermission) picks up with a comic exchange between Lord Goring (Steven Sutcliffe) and his manservant Phipps (Anthony Bekenn) that could also have been played by Algernon and his manservant Lane in The Importance of Being Earnest. Only in the final scene do the farce and the drama finally intersect, as the villainess, Mrs. Cheveley (Moya O’Connell), is stymied and the truth comes out about Lady Chiltern’s much-misunderstood note, “I want you. I trust you. I am coming to you.”

Mortal enemies: Mrs. Cheveley (Moya O'Connell) and Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Catherine McGregor)

This is the best “An Ideal Husband” we’ve seen.  Jackie Maxwell gives equal attention to telling the story and to showing off Wilde’s glittering repartee. The dramatic main plot is so grave that a director could be tempted to downplay the comedy. Not so here; every outrageous epigram is milked for full effect.

Lord Arthur Goring (Steven Sutcliffe) in all his decadence

There isn’t a weak performance in this show; it’s an awfully good cast. We thoroughly enjoyed Steven Sutcliffe, as Lord Arthur Goring, and his backhanded courtship of Marla McLean, as Mabel Chiltern. Mr. Sutcliffe’s performance helped us understand something we hadn’t quite seen before: by the time he wrote An Ideal Husband in 1893, Oscar Wilde badly wanted his public to understand that there was more to him than the “dandy” image he had cultivated over the years, and that despite his reputation for frivolity and pleasure-seeking he was a man of principle.

That is, Wilde wanted people to see — through Lord Goring, who stands in for the playwright — that he’d grown up. Wilde still gives Lord Goring many of the best comic lines of the play, like this exchange with his father (Lorne Kennedy):

Lord Caversham: I don’t know how you stand society. A lot of damned nobodies talking about nothing.
Lord Arthur Goring: I love talking about nothing, Father. It’s the only thing I know anything about.

But he also gives Lord Goring a speech that would grace any soap opera, one so melodramatic as to be laughable — except that for once Wilde does not want us to laugh:

You came here tonight to talk of love, you whose lips desecrated the word love, you to whom the thing is a book closely sealed, went this afternoon to the house of one of the most noble and gentle women in the world to degrade her husband in her eyes, to try and kill her love for him, to put poison in her heart, and bitterness in her life, to break her idol, and, it may be, spoil her soul. That I cannot forgive you.

And in the end he makes Lord Goring the moral center of the play, the character who tells his friend Lord Chiltern that his philosophy of power is “a thoroughly shallow creed.” When Lord Chiltern describes Baron Arnheim as a man of “culture, charm, and distinction,” Lord Goring calls the Baron a “damned scoundrel.” In this show, Mr. Sutcliffe delivers one-liners and pronounces moral judgments with equal pungency.

Mrs. Cheveley (Moya O'Connell) fails to convince Lord Goring (Steven Sutcliffe) that he's the only man she's ever loved

We weren’t enthusiastic about the non-period, jungle-gym-style set in this show, which certainly didn’t give much of a sense of the opulent London townhouses in which the play is set. But we did get a charge out of some of the extravagant costumes, like the outlandish dressing gown Lord Goring wears during the late-night visits to his apartment by Lord Caversham and Mrs. Chevely and the attention-grabbing dresses of Mrs. Cheveley and young Mabel Chiltern.

We arrived at the Festival Theater in time to catch a fine pre-show talk about the life and times of Oscar Wilde by the Shaw Festival’s Autumn Smith, who was assistant director for this play.

The Doctor’s Dilemma at the Shaw Festival

Sir Colenzo (Patrick Galligan) goes all squishy over Jennifer Dubedat (Krista Colosimo), his new patient's wife

 (July 2010) We expected the Shaw Festival’s production of The Women would show off the ensemble playing of the company’s women, but it didn’t (see this post). Fortunately, another Shaw show shows off the virtuosity of the men instead: Bernard Shaw’s witty The Doctor’s Dilemma. It couldn’t be done any better.

The “dilemma” of this 1906 comedy is whether medical scientist Sir Colenso Ridgeon (Patrick Galligan) should use his new cure for tuberculosis (a) to save the life of a brilliant young artist (Jonathan Gould) or (b) or to save the life of an impoverished old friend from medical school (Ric Reid) who serves the poor. He has the resources to save only one. 

Michael Ball as Sir Patrick Cullen, Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington holds forth on stimulating the phagocytes to Sir Patrick Cullen (Michael Ball) and Sir Colenso Ridgeon (Patrick Galligan)

Posing the question like this makes The Doctor’s Dilemma sound like the sort of consciousness-raising drama that Emsworth avoids like the plague. Fortunately, it’s all fodder for irreverent humor in wickedly funny scenes involving a priceless menagerie of Sir Colenso’s medical friends.

There is Walpole (Patrick McManus), a surgeon who thinks anyone who is sick suffers from a form of blood poisoning that only his trademark surgery will cure; Schutzmacher (Jonathan Widdifield), who has gotten rich advertising “cure guaranteed”; Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington (the superb Thom Marriott), a fashionable doctor obsessed with his own voice and with “stimulating the phagocytes” (it cracked us up every time he said it), and Sir Patrick Cullen (the wonderful Michael Ball, still our favorite Shaw Festival actor), an old-school physician who is philosophical about all the patients he has unintentionally “killed”. 

In fact, as interpreted by director Morris Panych — and we think he got it right — the play is very nearly a black comedy. As Sir Colenso himself says:

Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.

Sir Colenso is besotted with the artist’s wife (Krista Colosimo), who is a good deal younger than he; he could please her by curing her husband, or, morbidly, he could give himself a chance by letting her become a widow. And however fine an artist Louis Dubedat may be, the doctors discover that he’s a spectacularly selfish blackguard who never would be missed.  As Oscar Wilde wrote about the death of Little Nell, one would have a heart of stone to witness the stage death of Louis Dubedat without laughing. 

Louis Dubedat (Jonathan Gould) entertains as he dies in the arms of his wife

The cast are all first-rate (we should also mention Catherine McGregor in a fine comic turn as Sir Colenso’s housemaid Emmy). Even newcomer Jonathan Gould, as Dubedat, rises to the level of the Shaw veterans. We think much of the fun in this show is due to snappy direction from Morris Panych, who caught the play’s comic essence, kept the dialogue crackling, and has an unerring sense for good sight gags. 

Dubetat's art studio. The set designer ignored Shaw's instructions for the set entirely, but his design works.

Emsworth is usually skeptical of unconventional, non-period set designs for Victorian plays. But we must have been in an unusually open-minded frame of mind last weekend; we were thoroughly amused by the clever, colorful sets designed by Ken MacDonald. 

When we first started visiting the Shaw Festival, its productions of Shaw’s plays tended to be on the stodgy side and weren’t usually the best shows on a season’s playbill.  But for at least the last seven years, at least one of Shaw’s plays has been done so well as to fall into the “shouldn’t be missed” category. This is one of them.

Director Morris Panych, who wrote an op-ed piece praising socialized medicine that someone inexplicably chose to publish in the Shaw Festival program, seems to think that The Doctor’s Dilemma makes a case for governmental control of medical services, which was a bad idea in 1906 and is still a bad idea in 2010. Good idea or bad, there’s no excuse for presumptuously inflicting your politics on the people who patronize your play.  We think we’ll have a little more about this in a later post. Here is that post.

Emsworth’s take on the Shaw Festival’s 2010 production of the Kurt Weill musical One Touch of Venus is at this post. The classic American comedy Harvey is also in repertory at the Shaw Festival this year; see this post. So is Anton Chekhov’s wonderful The Cherry Orchard; see this post. Thoughts on The Women are at this post. We praise a very worthy An Ideal Husband at this post. The Shaw Festival’s lunchtime presentation, J. M. Barrie’s one-act play Half an Hour, is considered at this post.