Henry V at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

A couple of years ago, after several unsatisfactory experiences in a row, Emsworth vowed to attend no more Shakespeare productions directed by Stratford Festival Artistic Director Des McAnuff.  But when Henry V was announced for the 2012 season, an exception seemed to be called for.  How much of a muddle could McAnuff make of it?  The setting of Henry V is fixed firmly in England and France in 1415; what were the chances Mr. McAnuff would set it in a fascist country in 1930?  And if McAnuff ran amok with glitter and spectacle, as was inevitable, would it ruin a play like Henry V?  I didn’t see how it could, and went ahead to order an excellent pair of third-row tickets.

Aaron Krohn as King Henry V. The Stratford show does not use actual horses.

But poor acting will sink any play.  True, Mr. McAnuff didn’t mess with the setting of the play.  And visually it’s a success, from the elaborate period costumes to pageantry of the chorus parts to the cannon to the enormous British flag. The brawl in the tavern between the hot-tempered Pistol and Nim went off nicely, and the battle scenes were lively and cleverly choreographed. But none of this made up for the fact that King Henry is poorly cast and that long parts of the play are simply tedious.

One can say this of Aaron Krohn: with his compact figure, square jaw, and steely eyes, he looks very much the part of the 28-year-old king. He can be heard pretty well, and he has all his lines memorized.

But in all other respects his performance falls well short. The part of Henry V calls for an enormous range of expression, from the early moment when the king shows his steel by showing no mercy to traitors, to his ironic and meditative dialogues with his soldiers on the eve of battle, to the famous “band of brothers” speech, to his shocking order that the French prisoners be killed, to the wooing of the Princess Catherine. Mr. Krohn is a man of one voice — it matches his steely eyes — and he uses it on every occasion.

A good actor accompanies his lines with appropriate gestures; the Stratford Festival’s best actors convey as much with looks and body language as with words. But Mr. Krohn looks into the distance, and his arms fall limply at his side.

McAnuff

How much a director can be blamed for poor acting from a play’s lead actor, I cannot say, but nevertheless all of the worst acting performances we have seen at Stratford have been in plays directed by Mr. McAnuff.  Mr. Krohn’s expressionless speech on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt would not have inspired a pack of wolves to attack a stray lamb.

Did Mr. McAnuff, who seems to prefer doing things different in Shakespeare merely for the sake of being unconventional, tell his lead actor not to deliver a rousing speech, simply because that’s what other actors usually do?  In Act V, Scene 2, the Duke of Burgundy, a minor character, is given some of the best poetry in Henry V, lines that illuminate the playwright’s mature reflections on war and peace. Burgundy’s speech uses horticulture as an extended metaphor for a French nation in which peace and the blessings of peace have not been allowed to thrive:

And as our vineyards, fallows, meads and hedges,
Defective in their natures, grow to wildness,
Even so our houses and ourselves and children
Have lost, or do not learn for want of time,
The sciences that should become our country;
But grow like savages,–as soldiers will
That nothing do but meditate on blood,–
To swearing and stern looks, diffused attire
And every thing that seems unnatural.

Did Mr. McAnuff fail to notice that Xuan Fraser, as Burgundy, showed no evidence of understanding his lines? As Burgundy droned on, the Stratford audience zoned out. Did Mr. McAnuff fail to notice that the wooing scene between King Henry and Princess Catherine (Bethany Jillard), toward the end of the play, was dying a slow death, and that Mr. Krohn and Ms. Jillard seemed to be caught in a dialogue loop from which they could not escape?

It’s not all bad.  The tavern scenes, with Bardolph (Randy Hughson), Pistol (Tom Rooney), Nim, (Christopher Prentice), and the Hostess (Lucy Peacock) are lively and well-acted; Mr. Rooney is a treasure.  The scene in which Bardolph has been arrested for stealing a chalice from a chapel is rendered with feeling and suspense: will they really hang the reprobate?  I especially enjoyed Juan Chioran as Montjoy, the French king’s herald, and Ben Carlson as Fluellen, the Welsh captain in King Henry’s army.

And McAnuff, no doubt correctly guessing that a good part of the play’s audience would not understand French, gave interest to the episode in the palace between Princess Catherine and her lady-in-waiting, Alice (Deborah Hay) by having the dialogue (all in French, as the playwright wrote it) take place during Catherine’s bath.  Any doubt as to whether the actress was actually bathing in the altogether was removed when the Princess stood, her back and backside to the audience, to be dried off.

My Fair Lady at the Shaw Festival

When we were ordering our Shaw Festival tickets last winter, it occurred to us that our bodacious granddaughter might well enjoy seeing this year’s production of My Fair Lady. We were not mistaken. The eight-year-old was riveted by the opening ballet-like scene in Covent Garden, thrilled to the waltzing at the Embassy Ball, and laughed out loud at Henry Higgins’s rant near the play’s end, “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man” (which, she said, was her favorite song from the show).

“It’s the best play I’ve ever seen,” she said before she fell asleep in the car on our way back to Rochester, and “and also the longest!” She wants to come back to Niagara-on-the-Lake next summer and see it again.

She and her eight-year-old cousin are the best of friends, so we brought him too. He was not nearly as riveted as his girl cousin by the singing, dancing, and extravagant costuming, but he bore it manfully. What he liked best was the part where Eliza shied Henry Higgins’s slippers at him.

The kids were fascinated by the scene changes. Having no preconceptions, they didn’t realize that the modernistic set designs were a bit different from what veteran Shaw play-goers might have expected Covent Garden, 27A Wimpole Street, and Ascot to look like. (We liked this show’s visuals a lot; it’s a gorgeous production.) Even though it was late when the curtain fell, we lingered around the orchestra pit anyway so the kids could see the musicians. We explained to them that the conductor, Paul Sportelli, had been conducting the singers on the stage too even though they never seemed to be paying attention to him.

Benedict Campbell as Henry Higgins and Deborah Hay as Eliza Doolittle

Taking the kids to the theater was distracting, not because of any misbehavior on their part, but because we couldn’t help watching them to see how they were reacting to the show. Some of it, we know, went over their heads, but they didn’t seem to mind. We wondered afterward how much we might have missed ourselves if we hadn’t known the play so very well; telling the story of this familiar play may not have been the director’s highest priority. But the show moved along smartly, the songs gave us great joy, and the extended dance sequences for the Embassy Ball and “Get Me to the Church on Time” were exhilarating. And Mark Uhre, who sings “On the Street Where You Live,” has a superb tenor voice. All told, this is a glorious production.

The cast took fresh approaches to these familiar roles; Benedict Campbell (as Henry Higgins) and Deborah Hay (as Eliza Doolittle) are nothing like Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. Here Eliza is earthy and self-reliant, while Mr. Campbell’s bespectacled Higgins (we were reminded a little of Woody Allen!) is prissy, selfish, and mildly effeminate. It was easy to see why Higgins, a man short on patience, forbearance, and generosity, had never fallen into matrimony. Patrick Galligan brings nervous energy to the role of Colonel Pickering and plays it without the usual stuffiness. The characters were undoubtedly English, but we left the theater thinking that we had seen a decidedly American My Fair Lady.

At the Ascot races: Mark Uhre as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Gabrielle Jones as Mrs Eynsford-Hill, Patrick Galligan as Colonel Pickering, and Sharry Flett as Mrs Higgins

Both My Fair Lady and the Shaw Festival’s other 2011 extravaganza, The Admirable Crichton, involve the theme of romantic attraction across social lines; while The Admirable Crichton considers the possible mating of a butler with a noble lady, My Fair Lady posits a match between a wealthy, educated English gentleman (Henry Higgins) and a penniless Cockney girl. (See Emsworth’s appreciative thoughts about The Admirable Crichton at this post). (The sets for both shows were both designed by Ken MacDonald; seeing them both within a couple of weeks made us really appreciate his talent.)

But while J. M. Barrie had no socio-political agenda in writing The Admirable Crichton (again, see our thoughts about that at this post), one can’t say the same about Bernard Shaw’s agenda in writing Pygmalion, on which My Fair Lady is based. Shaw had a low opinion of traditional marriage, and when we heard Higgins propose to Eliza a relationship in which she would stay with him only as long as it suited her, and vice versa, we heard the propagandizing voice of Shaw himself. We’re glad that went over the heads of the eight-year-olds.

On the same theme, by the way, is the hilarious story with which P. G. Wodehouse opened his 1923 masterpiece The Inimitable Jeeves, in which Jeeves has Bingo Little’s wealthy uncle supplied with popular romance fiction (Only a Shop Girl and All for Love) to put him in a frame of mind to propose marriage to his cook.

In the program, director Molly Smith asserts that there are “only a few Gold Standard Musicals,” which she identifies as South Pacific, West Side Story, Gypsy, and My Fair Lady. We would agree that there are only a few musicals at the very top, but can’t agree with her nominees. West Side Story and My Fair Lady are surely golden, but we would have topped off the list with Show Boat, Oklahoma, and Fiddler on the Roof.

Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House at the Shaw Festival

The Shaw Festival’s anniversary season has Bernard Shaw from all angles.  For light entertainment, there’s Candida; for Shaw set to music, there’s My Fair Lady.  For hardcore Shaw fans, there’s On the Rocks, a play that’s almost never performed.  And Shaw’s supposed “masterpiece,” Heartbreak House, which we saw in a sparsely attended performance in the Festival Theatre last weekend, is “difficult” Shaw.

The action of Heartbreak House covers a day and an evening during the first World War on the country estate of Captain Shotover (Michael Ball), who has remodeled his home along the lines of a sailing ship. (Designer Leslie Frankish has created a striking set that includes an undulating platform.) The 88-year old Captain supports the household by inventing weaponry gadgets that he sells to the British military.  

The other characters are as improbable as the Captain.  Young Ellie Dunn (Robin Evan Willis), who comes to visit the Captain’s daughter, Hesione Hushabye (Deborah Hay), is engaged to a man twice her age who has swindled her father. She is also in love with a man who has given her a false name and who makes up stories about exotic adventures; in the third act she announces that her true love is the octogenarian Captain.  Mangan, the fiancé (Benedict Campbell), is a rich industrialist who actually owns nothing.  Ellie’s father (Patrick McManus) is a skilled business manager with a reputation for having no business sense.  It’s not a naturalistic play. 

Much of the play has to do with marriage, though none of the characters seem to think that sexual attraction and romance have any necessary connection to marriage. Hesione, for example, is blasé about the serial philanderering of her husband Hector (Blair Williams), and she herself is attracted to Mangan.

The frustrating aspects of this play are outweighed, barely, by Shaw’s scintillating dialogue, which includes some delicious paradoxes and a rare Shaw pun about “safety matches.” And in Captain Shotover Heartbreak House has one of Shaw’s most memorable characters: an old man who amuses himself and exasperates his relatives by feigning senility and pretending not to remember what he is told. Michael Ball is a delight in what is surely one of Shaw’s plum roles.

But none of the other characters seem quite real. We think Shaw created them that way on purpose, in the same way that Picasso and Modigliani were, around the same time, painting figures without distinct features.  We simply don’t understand these characters well enough to make sense of their quarrels and infatuations.  The women are touchy as the dickens, always flaring up at one another, but you never see it coming. The men are fragile and cry at the drop of a hat. Unable to anticipate the frequent emotional twists and turns, we kept feeling guiltily that we must not have been paying enough attention.

This is also a play with too many coincidences; we thought one was the standard.  In the first act, we learn that the man who has been romancing Ellie under the name of Marcus Darnley is actually the husband of Ellie’s hostess, Hesione.  This meets the quota for coincidence and creates dramatic interest — but then, in the second act, the house is invaded by a burglar who turns out to be an old shipmate whom Captain Shotover was talking about in the first act.  In the third act, this same burglar turns out to be the long-lost husband of Captain Shotover’s housekeeper.  It’s all dizzying and wearying.

None of this is the fault of director Christopher Newton, who was, after all, stuck with a script littered with such stage instructions as “MRS HUSHABYE (promptly losing her temper),” “MANGAN (depths of emotion suddenly welling up in him),” “MRS HUSHABYE (suddenly melting and half laughing),” and “RANDALL (a childishly plaintive note breaking into his huff).”  Allowing for the challenges of the script, this show is beautifully acted all around. We were again impressed with the dramatic range of Deborah Hay, whose Hesione couldn’t be further from the floozie she played in Born Yesterday. We did feel that Mr. Newton might have restrained the normally nuanced Patrick Galligan (as Hesione’s brother-in-law Randall) from over-acting during one of the meltdowns that Shaw prescribes for his characters.

This production left us feeling that Shaw’s play was largely a expression of bad temper. The playwright vents his spleen against marriage, capitalism, and the Church; after the news of the Russian revolution, Shaw had clearly lost patience with the pace of Britain’s progress toward radical socialism.  By 1919, when he finished the play, it had become painfully apparent to Shaw that thirty years of Fabian speeches and pamphleteering hadn’t much advanced the cause, as we learn from a speech by Ellie’s father. (Mazzini Dunn is exactly the sort of person a socialist paradise needs: a man of ability who is happy to work hard for no personal gain.) Mazzini discusses the state of things with Hector Hushabye:

HECTOR. Think! What’s the good of thinking about it? Why didn’t you do something?
MAZZINI. But I did. I joined societies and made speeches and wrote pamphlets. That was all I could do. But, you know, though the people in the societies thought they knew more than Mangan, most of them wouldn’t have joined if they had known as much. You see they had never had any money to handle or any men to manage. Every year I expected a revolution, or some frightful smash-up: it seemed impossible that we could blunder and muddle on any longer. But nothing happened, except, of course, the usual poverty and crime and drink that we are used to. Nothing ever does happen. It’s amazing how well we get along, all things considered.

In Heartbreak House Shaw was announcing that, as far as he was concerned, it was time to tear Britain down and start over.

Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women at the Shaw Festival

(June 2010) We still think Clare Boothe Luce’s wicked comedy The Women is a great play. But the Shaw Festival’s production of this 1938 play — our long-awaited first chance to see it on stage — doesn’t nearly do it justice. The performances were uneven, and the direction didn’t seem to have any particular focus. 

Deborah Hay as Sylvia Fowler, Helen Taylor as a saleswoman, Heather McGuigan as a department store model, Jenny Young as Mary Haines, and Lisa Codrington as a fitter

The Women is the story of a circle of Park Avenue socialites, their amours, and their cutthroat competition for money and men. We meet them at a bridge party at the home of Mary Haines (Jenny Young), the one woman in the play whom the other women actually seem to like — up to a point. Mary doesn’t gossip like the rest, she isn’t looking to upgrade her husband as some other woman’s expense, and she’s a good mother. 

Moya O’Connell as Crystal Allen

But when the women learn that Mary’s husband Stephen has set up a secret love nest with Crystal Allen (Moya O’Connell), an ambitious floozy who sells perfume at Saks, they turn their claws on Mary and her marriage. Sylvia Fowler (Deborah Hay) urges Mary to visit a gossipy manicurist who, Sylvia knows, is sure to tell Mary the story of her husband’s affair. 

Mary’s mother Mrs. Morehead (Sharry Flett) wisely counsels her daughter to do nothing and to wait until Stephen gets tired of Crystal. But her friends, maliciously relishing the the downfall of Mary’s “perfect” marriage, urge her to give him an ultimatum and, if necessary, the boot. When Edith Potter (Jenny L. Wright) “accidentally” reveals the affair to a gossip columnist, Mary gives in and forces the issue; it isn’t long until she’s heading off to Nevada for a divorce. (There are no men in the cast, but the women talk about men like Stephen Haines so much that we form mental images of them and are surprised at the play’s end to realize that we never actually saw them.) 

Jenny Young as Mary Haines

For these women, making disparaging comments about any “friend” who happens to be out of hearing range is casual sport. But director Alisa Palmer has made the show depend so heavily on laugh lines about the women’s gossiping that the play simply doesn’t deliver the biting satire that it should. 

In a moment of inspiration, for example, the playwright chose a maternity ward, of all places, as a setting for a scene that focuses on the utter self-absorption of one of the women. Edith Potter, who has just given birth, drops cigarette ash on her nursing newborn’s face, is amused when a visitor tearfully confides that she is getting a divorce, and is gleeful at the marital shipwrecks of Sylvia Fowler and Mary Haines.

The scene was intended to shock; Ms. Luce surely expected it to inspire not simply laughter, but horrified laughter. In this show, though, the scene’s biggest laugh comes when Edith brightens and instantly forgets how tired she is at the prospect of hearing new gossip. The sight gag overwhelms the point of the scene. 

The actresses consistently fail to deliver lines with the malicious edge that they need. It’s as if the director is willing to let us laugh at female stereotypes (don’t women love to gossip!), but unwilling to show us the sheer awfulness of the amorality of the women. Perhaps Ms. Palmer was afraid the play would lose its appeal as a comedy if the women were truly as unpleasant as Ms. Luce conceived them. But this show needs fewer cheap laughs and more piss and vinegar.

Kelli Fox as Nancy Blake and Jenny Young as Mary Haines

Jenny Young serves well enough as Mary Haines (according to Clare Boothe, “She is what most of us think our happily married daughters are like”), but we thought the only truly satisfactory performances were by Kelli Fox, as the unmarried writer Nancy Blake, who describes herself as a “frozen asset” and views the other women with detached amusement, Sharry Flett, as the gracious, aristocratic Mrs. Morehead, and Moya O’Connell, as the ruthless, predatory Crystal Allen. 

Deborah Hay as Sylvia Fowler, visits Moya O’Connell, as Crystal Allen, in her bath

In general, though, nothing ties the performances of the women together.  They simply don’t act like women from a closed, elite social circle; they’re all over the place.  Deborah Hay, for example, has the delicious role of the clever, treacherous Sylvia Fowler. But she plays the role if Sylvia were a sassy hat-check girl who’d married up, acting as if she were still playing the uncouth Billie in Born Yesterday at the Shaw Festival a year ago. You’d never take Sylva for a member of fashionable society. Again, we fault the director; Ms. Hay’s excellent performance in this year’s One Touch of Venus (see this link) shows that she’s hardly a one-trick pony. 

And you couldn’t have concluded from the evidence of this show that Jenny L. Wright (as Edith), Nicola Correia-Damude (as Miriam Aarons), and Beryl Bain (as Peggy Day) are especially good actresses. 

The Women on film: If you see the abominable 2008 movie The Women advertised on Netflix, don’t waste your time and money. See Emsworth’s review. Look instead for the classic 1939 film directed by George Cukor, with Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell; it uses much of the dialogue from the play.

One Touch of Venus at the Shaw Festival

Here’s the storyline:

Out of nowhere into the life of a meek young fellow comes a vivacious, unconventional young woman who attaches herself to him and puts him in compromising situations. With his spirit and libido aroused, he realizes that he needs to dump the shrill-voiced shrew he’s engaged to.

It’s the plot of the 1972 movie What’s Up, Doc? (with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal) — one of our very favorites — and also of the 1938 film Bringing Up Baby (with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant).

Whitelaw Savory (Mark Uhre) and his sassy assistant Molly Grant (Deborah Hay, who sings the show's title song)

And it’s also the plot of the only musical play the Shaw Festival is putting on this summer, One Touch of Venus, which is something of a forgotten classic. (Forgotten, probably, because it’s a little too risque for high school drama clubs; we guess that more people see musical plays in high school auditoriums than anywhere else.)

Like a lot of the musicals of the 1930s and 1940s, the story is thin and the characters tend to be cliches rather than real people — we’re thinking, for example, the role of Molly Grant (Deborah Hay), an archetype of the hard-boiled, sharp-tongued assistant who is probably in love with her boss. This is not one of the “great” American musicals, we wouldn’t say. But the songs and Kurt Weill’s music are wonderful, there are some fine comic scenes, and the Shaw Festival’s production is energetic and full of good performances.

Dance (1) by Henri Matisse. This 1909 painting is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

The centerpiece of the show is Venus, a priceless statue that wealthy Manhattanite Whitelaw Savory (Mark Uhre) has acquired on the black market for his private art gallery, which is otherwise devoted to modern art. (This art museum junkie’s heart was warmed to see Whitelaw’s studio strewn with reproductions of Matisse’s “Dance” and other masterpieces by Picasso, Miro, Kandinsky, and (we think) Robert Delaunay and Paul Klee (somebody tell us if we’re right!). The show’s first big song-and-dance number, “New Art Is True Art,” makes fun of modern art’s supposed disdain for traditional art.

The goddess of love comes on strong to Rodney Hatch

No sooner is the love goddess’s statue delivered to the gallery and removed from her crate than a mild-mannered barber, Rodney Hatch (Kyle Blair) arrives at the studio to give Whitelaw a shave. Left alone with the statue, Rodney pulls out an engagement ring that he has just bought for his fiancée and impulsively puts it on the statue’s finger. Amids pyrotechnics, Venus (Robin Evan Willis) comes to life and promptly falls for Rodney, whose ring has apparently broken an ancient spell. She heads off through Manhattan (pausing on her way to sing “I’m a Stranger Here Myself”) and reappears in Rodney’s apartment, where she tries to seduce him.

Meanwhile, Rodney Hatch is chased both by detectives who think he has stolen the statue and by Turks wielding daggers who are seeking to recover their stolen goddess. The chase leads to “Catch Hatch,” a long, frenetic dance sequence featuring much of the cast that is a highlight of the show. In one of the play’s funniest scenes, Rodney goes to the bus station to pick up his stunning but ill-tempered fiancée Gloria (Julie Martell) and his impossible future mother-in-law (perfectly played by Gabrielle Jones); their reunion is interrupted when Venus suddenly materializes. Rodney extricates himself from Gloria, but his romance with Venus hits a snag when the goddess realizes to her dismay that Rodney wants to install her as a housewife in Ozone Heights, a dreary subdivision on Staten Island.

Great harmony from Neil Barclay as Stanley, Kyle Blair as Rodney Hatch, Jay Turvey as Taxi Black, Mark Uhre as Whitelaw Savory

As Venus, Robin Evan Willis is the full package, a stunning, sensuous blonde whose voice has all the range that Kurt Weill’s songs need. We enjoyed all her numbers, including One Touch of Venus‘s best-known song, “Speak Low.” She is well-matched with Kyle Blair, a fine comic actor with a pleasant tenor voice.  We got a kick out of an excellent comic barbershop quartet number (sung in Rodney Hatch’s barbershop), “The Trouble With Women.” The lyrics of the last verse:

When I drove in my glamorous Chevy
I would park in a suitable spot
Then I’d turn to the girls like a heavy
And inquire if they would or would not
I always implied that they had to
But, oh jiminies, was I perplexed
On the night that one said she’d be glad to
I didn’t know what to do next

For the first time that we can remember with a Shaw Festival musical, though, we had issues with both the tempos and the balance on several songs. On the show’s first several numbers, we simply couldn’t make out what the actors were singing; the orchestra was too loud, and the lyrics went by too quickly. The problem was especially acute on Rodney’s ragtime-style “How Much I Love You,” whose lyrics by Ogden Nash are made up of one witty, rapid-fire simile after another.  If music director Ryan deSouza plays Scott Joplin, he ought to be familiar with the instruction Joplin usually inscribed on the sheet music for his rags: “It is never right to play ‘rag-time’ fast.”

We weren’t the only people at our preview performance with trouble hearing lyrics; all around us, people weren’t laughing at the comic songs for exactly the same reason. (It wasn’t a problem with “The Trouble With Women,” though.) Mind, we don’t suggest amplifying the performers; we like to hear vocals coming from mouths instead of speakers.  And we thought the singers were projecting well enough.  But perhaps a smaller orchestra would have suited the show in this venue. A three-piece rhythm section, a trumpet player, and a woodwind player would have done nicely.

We also questioned the pace of Robin Evan Willis’s first featured solo, “I’m a Stranger Here Myself.” This is a bluesy number whose mildly suggestive lyrics didn’t seem to have maximum impact at the relatively brisk tempo set by the band.

Ava Gardner in the 1948 film

We ran across an excellent essay on “One Touch of Venus” by Mark N. Grant (see this link), which we recommend, and from which we learned that the inspiration for “Speak Low” was the line “Speak low, if you speak love,” from Act II, Scene 1 of “Much Ado About Nothing,” spoken by Don Pedro to Hero. We were also pleased to find that the original Broadway cast recording of One Touch of Venus, featuring Mary Martin in her first major role, is still available; we’ve been listening to it on Rhapsody.

Emsworth’s take on the classic American comedy Harvey, also in repertory at the Shaw Festival, is at this post. And his thoughts on Chekhov’s masterpiece, The Cherry Orchard, are at this post.

Emsworth’s pre-season thoughts on all the shows in the Shaw Festival’s 2010 season are at this post.

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)

Brief Encounters at the Shaw Festival (a review)

Deborah Hay and Patrick Galligan 2

Love blooms in a railway coffee shop: Patrick Galligan and Deborah Hay in Still Life

The first of the several Noël Coward shows we’ll be seeing at the Shaw Festival this summer, Brief Encounters, was pure unadulterated pleasure, and we look forward to the others. These one-act plays are some of Coward’s very best work, and they’re presented intelligently and sympathetically.

Coward wrote these nine one-act plays in 1935 and called them Tonight at 8:30. He meant them to be performed as three separate shows of three plays each, but didn’t specify how they should necessarily be grouped. This particular show, directed by Jackie Maxwell, consists of a sequence of Still Life, We Were Dancing, and Hands Across the Show, three very different one-act plays that complement one another nicely. Ms. Maxwell directs it herself.

Krista Colosimo

Krista Colosimo is wonderful in the supporting role of Beryl in Still Life

The first and finest of the three is Still Life, a wistful story of a young married woman (Deborah Hay) and an idealistic young married doctor (Patrick Galligan) who meet by chance in an English railway station and let themselves drift into an affair. (Theirs is not exactly a “brief encounter”!) For as little time as we get to spend with them, we come to know the characters awfully well — not only the guilt-ridden lovers Laura and Alec, but also the middle-aged widow Myrtle Bagot (Corrine Koslo — sassy and delightfully vulgar), who runs the station’s coffee shop, her giddy young assistant Beryl (Krista Colosimo — just delightful), and Mrs. Bagot’s admirer Albert (Thom Marriott — marvelous), a porter, who provide comic relief. Working-class romances for Mrs. Bagot and Beryl serve as a foil to the main plot.

In one of our volumes of Coward, there is a pared-down version of Still Life that has only three characters. But the Shaw Festival’s production, with Mrs. Bagot, Beryl, and their admirers, is so much richer. 

Thom Marriott & Corrine Koslo

Thom Marriott and Corrine Koslo in Still Life

We can’t think of any story, novel, or play that anatomizes the stages of a love affair quite so truthfully, painfully, and succinctly as Still Life. With a few deft strokes, Coward gives us the innocent first meeting of the lovers, their discovery of mutual sympathy, their “innocent” time together, their rationalizing, their secret liaisons and the exquisite pain of longing and guilt, and their inevitable confrontation with reality. As the illicit lovers, Deborah Hay and Patrick Galligan approach their roles with delicacy and save the story from triteness. At the end, devastated by the end of her life’s great romance, Laura’s last goodbye in the train station is interrupted by the intrusion of an insensitive chatterbox acquaintance; this painful scene could not have been done better.

Still Life was the basis of a 1945 British movie called Brief Encounter, which explains why this Shaw Festival show is called Brief Encounters.  We were surprised to learn from our daughter-in-law that André Previn has just composed a new opera, also based on Coward’s play and also called Brief Encounter.  It premiered in Houston in early May 2009 to good reviews; see this link. We also recently learned, reading Garson Kanin’s memoir, Hollywood, that Brief Encounter was the inspiration for one of our favorite classic movies, The Apartment (starring Jack Lemmon).

Still Life represents Coward the sentimentalist. We were reminded of (and recommend) a favorite Coward short story, “Mr. and Mrs. Edgehill,” which has nothing to do with romance but which somehow evokes the same mood.

The second play, We Were Dancing, begins with a clever transformation of the set from a railway station to a South Sea island. (There is no intermission between the three one-act plays; instead, a break is taken halfway through We Were Dancing after a big song-and-dance number). This is the least substantial of these three plays in this show, but it has its moments.

Patrick Galligan

The silver-haired Galligan

The play is a sort of light fantasy; Louise, a married woman on a South Pacific cruise (Deborah Hay again) falls in love with a stranger (Patrick Galligan again) while dancing under the stars; they decide to spend the rest of their lives together before they even learn each other’s names. Just before intermission, the show breaks out into a riveting “We Were Dancing,” delivered by a large dance ensemble. The contemporary arrangement of Noël Coward’s song works very well.

Deborah Hay and Patrick Galligan

Deborah Hay and Patrick Galligan in a serious moment in Still Life

The final play, Hands Across the Sea, a satire of the London social scene of the 1930s, is pure farce. It takes place in the London apartment of Piggy (Deborah Hay again), a socialite who has just toured the far East and has met more people than she can remember. Her husband Peter (Patrick Galligan again) is a military officer whose duties are light.

Into their apartment come the Wadhursts (Thom Marriott and Corrine Koslo again). Piggy met them in Singapore and invited them to visit her in London, but she has forgotten their names and doesn’t want to ask. In a side-splitting episode with Peter at the piano, he and Piggy sing in code to each other as they try to figure out who their guests are. The phone keeps ringing, Piggy’s and Peter’s friends keep wandering in and out, and everyone talks at the same time. We were in stitches.

Hands Across the Sea

The cast of Hands Across the Sea

After seeing this show, we pulled out the battered copy of Tonight at 8:30 that we found on eBay last winter and read Hands Across the Sea. To our surprise, the lines, isolated one from the other on the printed page, hardly seemed funny at all. It required a stage, the right ensemble, and the right timing and delivery to bring them to life.

One of the show’s pleasures is seeing the same actors in two or three contrasting roles within the course of a two-hour show. Of these, the transformation of Thom Marriott from railway station porter (Still Life) to philosophical cuckold (We Were Dancing) to staid Englishman (Hands Across the Sea) was the most remarkable. We have new appreciation for his abilities.

Can it be that the ensemble was lip-syncing during the We Were Dancing big production number? We wondered at the time, but couldn’t believe it possible at the Shaw Festival, where it’s often hard to tell whether they’re even using sound reinforcement. Then a Rochester friend who saw this show a few days later said that he suspected lip-syncing too. Say it isn’t so, Jackie Maxwell!

We gave in to celebrity spotting after the show. Sitting in our car in the Festival Theater parking lot, we saw actor Ben Carlson, formerly a Shaw Festival star but now at Stratford, drive up in a small car. After a minute or two, Deborah Hay emerged from the building and climbed in. We’ve read that they’re engaged.

August 18, 2009: We see that the New York Times has noticed that the Shaw is doing  Tonight at 8:30 (see this post), although the writer mostly talks about the history of these one-act plays and doesn’t say much about these performances.

Emsworth reviews of other Shaw Festival productions in 2009:

John Osborne’s The Entertainer (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)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)

Hollywood butchers The Women

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Clare Boothe (before she became Clare Boothe Luce)

(January 2009) We should have known better, but when we saw that last year’s Hollywood remake of Clare Boothe’s classic 1936 play The Women was available on video, we couldn’t resist.

We bit on this turkey because we are great fans of the late playwright, socialite, politician, and diplomat, and because, for our money, The Women is one of the great American plays.  Boothe’s satire is dead on, and every line tells.

(As part of its 2010 season, the Shaw Festival, at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, is mounting The Women for the first time since 1985, when Nora McLellan was cast as Mary Haines.  The 2010 show features Jenny Young as Mary, Deborah Hay as Sylvia Fowler, Kelli Fox as Nancy Blake, and Moya O’Connell as Crystal Allen.  See Emsworth’s thoughts on this show at this post.)

Unfortunately, the makers of the 2008 movie stripped everything from Boothe’s comedy but the bare outline of its plot. They failed to notice that the genius of the play lay, not in its plot, but in its glittering dialogue and its merciless portrayal of a circle of idle, insecure, amoral women.

Here’s one example of how Hollywood didn’t get it. In Clare Boothe’s play, socialite Mary Haines discovers that her husband is doing her dirty with a bimbo who sells perfume at Saks. She wants to save her marriage, so she decides to wait the affair out instead of confronting him.

meg-ryan-and-annette-bening-in-the-women

Meg Ryan (Mary) and Annette Bening (Sylvie) as buddies in this Sex and the City knock-off

But then Mary’s “friend” Edith leaks the details of the affair to a gossip columnist, who splashes headlines about the Haineses across the front of the society section of the newspaper. The publicity forces the issue and leaves Mary no choice but divorce, as Edith knew it would. Edith’s betrayal is all the more shocking because of the casual glee with which she boasts of it to the other women (“Oh, Sylvia, I’ve done the most awful thing . . . .”).

meg-ryan-and-buddies-in-the-women

Best friends forever! Meg Ryan and buddies

That’s Boothe’s play. No such subtlety or understatement for Hollywood! In the movie, it’s Sylvie, not Eydie, who betrays Mary (Meg Ryan) to the gossip columnist. (In the movie, “Edith” has become “Eydie” and “Sylvia” has become “Sylvie.”) And in the movie, Sylvie doesn’t spill the beans out of boredom and malice, as Edith does in Boothe’s play, but because she’s cut a deal with the columnist in a desperate attempt to salvage her faltering career as editor of a fashion magazine, and only after losing a battle with her conscience. We’re not shocked by Sylvie’s selling out her friend; we’re simply bored.

crawford-shearer-and-russell-in-cukors-the-women

Emsworth strongly recommends the 1939 movie version of The Women, directed by George Cukor and starring Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and Rosalind Russell

Producer Victoria Pearman bragged to a Boston newspaper that the movie-makers kept the remake true to the original play by having an all-female cast (the women talk about men all the time, but no men are never seen, not even among the extras). But Boothe’s women-only cast was hardly the essence of the play; it was just a gimmick. And screenwriter Diane English apparently thought she could improve on Boothe’s play by making The Women a female buddy movie and injecting “diversity”; she filled out Mary’s circle of friends with a new character who is a black lesbian (Jada Pinkett). How badly they missed the wheat for the chaff!

We regret missing the Broadway revival of The Women several years ago. It starred Cynthia Nixon as Mary Haines; maybe that was what gave writer and director Diane English the stupendously foolish idea to remake The Women as Sex and the City lite.