Not enough color at the Shaw Festival?

(October 2008) To his dismay, Emsworth has belatedly learned that the diversity police have been hectoring Jackie Maxwell, Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival, for not bringing more actors of color, more directors of color, and more plays by playwrights of color, to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The hue and cry is being led by one Andrew Moodie, who is apparently a Canadian playwright of some distinction. (Emsworth makes no pretense of being up on contemporary theater, especially in Canada.) Moodie’s campaign, which he calls “Share the Stage,” was seconded not long ago by J. Kelly Nestruck, the redoubtable theater critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail, who claims he was “suddenly struck” earlier this year with how “white” the Shaw’s company was.

The wedge here is the Shaw Festival’s friendly competition with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, an institution which Nestruck patronizingly says is now up to snuff, diversity-wise.  Jackie Maxwell gets credit for “gender diversity” (what an dreadful phrase!) at the Shaw Festival, but they’re blaming her for not trying hard enough on race.

Well, now — how is she to do this at the Shaw Festival? It’s an institution whose every season is anchored around two plays by Bernard Shaw himself, a white guy who wrote plays about white folks. And all its plays (per the Festival’s “mandate”) are supposed to have been written, or at least set, during Shaw’s lifetime (1856-1950).

We pause for historical reflection.  Here in Rochester, we’re steeped in the American suffrage movement, because Susan B. Anthony lived here and her 19th-century home, now a museum, is here.  History tells us that before the Civil War, abolitionists and suffragettes made common cause.

But Anthony’s relationship with Douglass (together again in bronze in a Rochester park) cooled when black leaders wanted to put women’s rights on hold while civil rights for black people were being consolidated. So there’s a tiny touch of irony when Jackie Maxwell is accused with putting racial diversity on the back burner now that she has gotten “gender diversity” at the Shaw.

There are plenty of new plays by and about people of color. But unless they’re set before 1950, they’re not plays that the Shaw does. So how, exactly, is the Shaw Festival supposed to diversify, color-wise?

Well, Moodie and Nestruck want the Shaw Festival to feature more actors of color in plays by Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Noel Coward. After all, when The Glass Menagerie is played in Bombay, doesn’t it have an Indian cast? When they do Blithe Spirit in Lagos, isn’t the cast Nigerian? There are people of all ethnic backgrounds in Ontario (as in New York State). So if Denzel Washington can play Brutus (see the picture above, with Stratford Festival veteran Colm Feore, in the foreground, as Cassius, in a Washington, D.C. production last year), why can’t there be a black Undershaft at the Shaw Festival?

If that were to be, Emsworth would nominate Derrick Lee Weeden. On the basis of his breath-taking performance as Othello at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater last winter (with Paul Niebanck as Iago), Emsworth ranks Weeden with the best actors we’ve seen in Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake, not excluding Christopher Plummer or the late William Hutt. But Weeden is, regrettably, not part of the Shaw’s repertory company, and the Shaw Festival is at a disadvantage in trying to recruit an actor of his ability. (He’s acted with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for many years; see this link.) The Shaw Festival doesn’t do either Shakespeare or contemporary plays, and from 1856 to 1950, there just weren’t that many important plays written by or about people of color.

There’s no reason why actors of color can’t be cast in many Shaw plays, as indeed they sometimes are. As Mr. Nestruck points out, Nikki M. James has one of the lead roles in Caesar and Cleopatra at the Stratford Festival this season. But in many cases, color-blind casting in a Shaw play would tend to confuse audiences and to distort social relationships that are at the heart of the plays.

And many Shaw plays are largely concerned with subtle gradations of class, and with interactions between English people of different ranks of life. Pygmalion is the story of a poor flower girl who encounters a rich, upper-class intellectual. Getting Married (one of the highlights of the Shaw’s 2008 season, highly recommended by Emsworth) has a lot to do with a lower-middle-class greengrocer’s relationship with the family of an English bishop.

The precision with which Shaw sketched class relationships in his plays is at the core of his genius. So how disorienting would it be for audiences if a person of color were cast as either the greengrocer or the bishop in Getting Married? In 1902, could a black greengrocer possibly have been on such familiar terms with an upper-class white family? — we’d be asking ourselves. Or would a white greengrocer really relate in such a way to a black English bishop and his wife? The didactic Bernard Shaw fervently wanted people to think about his plays — but those are not the questions Shaw wanted his audiences to be asking. A director shouldn’t interject race where it would confuse.

Or take Mrs. Warren’s Profession, also at the Shaw Festival this year (see the Emsworth review). The most interesting relationships in the play are between Mrs. Warren, the former courtesan with lower-class origins, and her middle- and upper-class friends (and former clients) in the aristocracy, the arts, and the church. What would happen to the already challenging social dynamics of these relationships if either Mrs. Warren or the men were black actors? Indeed, since the paternity of Mrs. Warren’s daughter is in question, how would it be anything but confusing if all these actors were not of the same race?

Race is already an element in many American plays that the Shaw Festival performs, just as it is in many plays by contemporary black playwrights (like Mr. Moodie, one assumes). Where a character’s ethnicity is part of the play, an ethnically appropriate actor is needed. Would anyone cast a white actor in an August Wilson play? Of course not — black actors are needed to portray African-American culture. Mr. Moodie says one of his plays wasn’t considered by the Shaw Festival because it called for more black actors than the Shaw could muster. I’m betting that Mr. Moodie wouldn’t be happy if white actors were cast to play black characters in his plays.

In The Little Foxes, playing this year at the Shaw Festival, Lillian Hellman’s key lines about the Hubbard family’s exploitation of black people wouldn’t make much sense if the actors portraying the Hubbards were themselves black. On stage, To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t make sense unless Atticus Finch looks like a white man and Tom Robinson looks like a black man. In fact, since interracial marriage was rare in England and North America before 1950, casting a husband and wife as persons of different races in Shaw-era plays would often be jarring and incongruous.

Mr. Moodie and Mr. Nestruck might argue that audiences today simply overlook an actor’s skin color. Maybe so. After all, every theater performance requires an audience to suspend disbelief to one degree or another.

But a director needs to be careful how far she imposes on audiences. As I commented in an earlier post, one of the problems with Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Festival this year was the director’s decision to make both sets of parents of Romeo and Juliet mixed-race couples. It was a seriously distracting element.

Theater is visual, and appearance has always mattered in casting. We audiences strain if an actor doesn’t look the part. We wouldn’t buy the Shaw Festival’s Michael Ball as Jack Tanner, because he’s too old. We wouldn’t buy Deborah Hay as Tanner, either; she’s too female. (But at the Stratford Festival next year, we’re going to buy Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell!) We don’t buy Eliza Doolittle unless she’s truly pretty enough to dazzle a prince at the Embassy Ball.

Ethnic appearance won’t be important for every Shaw-era play or character, but it matters often enough that a director usually has little discretion as to the racial composition of her cast. Sometimes, of course, the question of race can be neutralized by choosing all-black casts, as was done, apparently with success, for a recent Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring James Earl Jones, among other distinguished black actors. Could the Shaw Festival mount an all-black production of Private Lives or Waiting for Godot? It could happen, one supposes — they’re plays with small casts.

But in general, the Shaw Festival’s perennial need for a relatively large company of white actors will tend to preclude all-black casts. To Emsworth’s sorrow, for the late August Wilson, a fellow native of western Pennsylvania, is one of his favorite playwrights, that probably means that Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, plays comfortably within the Shaw Festival’s mandate, aren’t likely to be presented there. But you can’t have everything everywhere.

Couldn’t the Shaw Festival hire well-known actors of color for particular productions? That’s not its policy. The Shaw Festival casts from its own repertory company. So even if Morgan Freeman were willing to commit several months to acting in Niagara-on-the-Lake (don’t we wish!), it’s not the Shaw’s practice to bring in “stars” to play lead roles. Should the Shaw Festival redefine itself or change its policies to placate the diversity establishment? This member doesn’t think so.

All’s Well That Ends Well at the Stratford Festival (a review)

The Countess of Rossillion (Martha Henry) and Lafew (Stephen Ouimette)

By good fortune Emsworth had the opportunity to see a production of Othello last winter at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater directed by Marti Maraden. Her intelligent, text-focused approach to Shakespeare left me looking forward to more of her work in Stratford later in the year. We were not disappointed in All’s Well That End’s Well.

We would think that All’s Well presents even more challenges for a director than Othello, because the play itself has such serious internal problems that they can only be glossed over, never resolved. Moreover, while the story of Othello is familiar to many theater-goers, All’s Well That Ends Well is not well known, nor is its plot particularly memorable. With such a play, a director cannot take for granted that the audience will understand anything that is not clearly explained.

In key ways, the plot of All’s Well That Ends Well is simply unbelievable. The story begins with Bertram (Jeff Lillico), the only son of the widow Countess of Rossillion (Martha Henry), leaving home, summoned to join the court of the King of France (Brian Dennehy), who is dying. Among the tears shed at his parting are those of Helena (Daniela Vlaskalic), a pretty and accomplished young woman who has been living as the ward of the Countess since the recent death of her father, an eminent physician.

Helena (Danila Vlaskalic) and Bertram (Jeff Lillico)

Helena (Danila Vlaskalic) and Bertram (Jeff Lillico)

Helena cries because she has fallen hopelessly in love with Bertram — hopelessly, because Bertram has no interest in her and because their different stations in life make a match impossible in any case.

But why should she love Bertram? At the outset, we learn from Helena’s own mouth (in a soliloquy) that the attraction is physical. We are sure of that when, immediately afterward, she initiates a comic exchange with Bertram’s servant Parolles (Juan Chioran) about the merits of virginity.

But as the play unfolds, Bertram shows himself to be contemptible and unmanly. Pressured by the king to marry Helena (who has healed the king with a prescription inherited from her father), Bertram insults Helena and then pretends to give in to the King’s wishes while making secret plans to escape the marriage. Later in the play, having fled to Italy as a soldier to avoid sleeping with his bride (!), he tries to seduce Diana (Leah Oster) a respectable young virgin of Florence, then, to save his own skin, defames her as a whore.

Bertram is thoroughly detestable — but Helena persists in wanting him for a husband. After living in the same household with them, how could she have failed to see his character? And once his behavior becomes known all over Europe, how could she still want him? There is no explanation for Helena’s steadfastness in pursuit of Bertram. 

Equally hard to believe is that everyone in the play except Bertram seems to know that his foppish friend and follower Parolles is a braggart and a coward. Bertram may be a cad, but he hardly seems a fool. Why does it take an elaborate practical joke on Parolles to convince Bertram that he has an unworthy friend?

Tom Rooney as Lavache

Tom Rooney as Lavache

Yet Marti Maraden’s perfectly-paced production of All’s Well That Ends Well holds together beautifully despite the play’s improbabilities. Wherever the Bard touches on one of his themes throughout the play, Maraden helps us draw the dots. For example, Helena and Parolles introduce the themes of virginity and procreation early in the play; the clown Lavache (Tom Rooney) develops them in strangely profound comic speeches; and Diana brings them full circle in a late scene.

Most of all, this is a play about our universal experience of grief, loss, and resignation, climaxed by the Countess’s lament:

My heart is heavy, and mine age is weak;
Grief would have tears, and sorrow bids me speak.

(Act III, Scene 5). It would be easy for a director to waste energy trying to make too much of the weak storyline, at the expense of the play’s poetry.  Not so here.

Juan Chioran as Parolles

We loved the hilarious (and almost cruel) scene in which the blindfolded Parolles is unmasked as a liar and a fraud. But this show has a number of outstanding performances.  The tireless Ben Carlson (who played an energetic Hamlet later the same day that we saw All’s Well That Ends Well) brings the most out of his supporting role as the First Lord Dumaine.  Fiona Reid, as the Widow Capilet, and Michelle Fisk, as Mariana, are both delightful.

It goes without saying that the lovely and gracious Martha Henry, the veteran Stratford actress, is perfectly cast as the Countess of Rossillion.  What I will remember most about this show, however, is the wonderful, tender performance of Tom Rooney as the comic philosopher Lavache.

Unfortunately, there are weak performances as well. The most disappointing is that of Daniela Vlaskalic as Helena.  She declaims her lines in an unnatural, almost sing-song manner, having failed to learn from Martha Henry how to project her voice in a large theater without sacrificing expression and meaning. The most jarring performance is that of Leah Oster, who inexplicably brings to All’s Well That Ends Well the same midwestern drawl that she apparently uses as Marian the Librarian in The Music Man, also part of the Stratford Festival’s 2008 season. And I could not help feeling that Brian Dennehy, as the King of France, was saving his energy for something else.

According to the program notes, this production of All’s Well That Ends Well (probably written around 1602) is set in 1889 (the opening scene is set in a railroad station).  As is usual with the deplorable practice of setting Shakespeare plays in different time periods, this led to distracting incongruities.

I was able to overlook the historical fact that, in 1889, it had been a hundred years since there had been a French king. But I had more difficulty with Helena and her “holy pilgrimage.” According to Shakespeare’s text (Act III, Scene 5), Helena has come to Florence in disguise, pretending to be a pilgrim to a saint’s shrine. (Her real purpose in Florence is to pursue her husband and obtain her marital rights).

Students of European social history can correct me, but it is my sense that the practice of undertaking long pilgrimages on foot to religious shrines died out long before 1889. And if Ms. Vlaskalic as Helena was supposed to be wearing a “pilgrim” disguise in these scenes, I could not make it out.  Once again, the “modern” setting served only to muddle the plot.

Emsworth reviews the Stratford Festival’s 2008 production of Hamlet in this post.

Emsworth gripes about the recent leadership debacle at the Stratford Festival, which resulted last winter in Des McAnuff’s becoming the sole artistic director of the Festival, in this post.

Other Emsworth posts include reviews of shows in the Shaw Festival’s 2008 season, including Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married (see this post), Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (see this post), Leonard Bernstein’s musical Wonderful Town (see this post), and J. B. Priestley’s The Inspector Calls (see this post).