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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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Shaw Festival

Tennessee Williams

(May 11, 2011)  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is on the short list of plays that we’ll happily see anytime, anywhere. Such glorious poetry — and what else is it but poetry, for who really talks like the characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?  It’s magical how Tennessee Williams brought his characters alive by giving them lines no one would utter in ordinary speech and making them have conversations no ordinary people would have.  The characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are as painfully real as can be.

In the Shaw Festival’s 2011 production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which we saw in a mesmerizing preview performance last weekend, the poetry flows like honey from the lips of Moya O’Connell (a treat for the eyes as Maggie the Cat), Gray Powell (Brick), and Jim Mezon (Big Daddy).  Their characters could hardly be more vivid.

Anyone who has seen the bowdlerized movie version (Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor) will find this a much darker (and more explicit) show.  The long first act shows us only Brick and his sexually frustrated wife (the scenes of the play all take place in their bedroom in Big Daddy’s Mississippi delta mansion house), but through Maggie’s chatter we meet the rest of the Pollitt family as well.  Maggie and Brick also introduce us to a major character who never appears in the play, Brick’s late friend Skipper, and to the play’s great mystery: what Brick and Skipper really felt for one another, why Skipper took his own life, and why Brick no longer has any interest in anything but drinking bourbon until he feels the “click”.

The play’s first act leaves us persuaded that there is nothing left between Maggie and Brick. But the second act teases us with the notion that there is still some palpable affection between Brick and his father, Big Daddy (Jim Mezon).  (The mere appearance of Mezon, once again a superb stage presence, noticeably ratchets up the play’s energy level.)  Father and son find common ground with their mutual detestation of “mendacity,” but Big Daddy’s ego leaves him unable to penetrate Brick’s alcoholic retreat.

Again and again, love is offered and spurned.  Maggie adores and desires a husband who tells her that he can’t stand her.  Big Daddy loves a son who’s weary of listening to his father “gas” about himself.  We are shocked at Maggie’s abasement when Brick rejects her; even more appalling are the scenes of deliberate cruelty in which Big Daddy insults his “fat” wife (who loves him) and humiliates her in front of the family and friends gathered for his birthday party.

Brick, Big Daddy, and Big Mama

As Big Daddy’s feckless, foolish wife, Corrine Koslo manages, against strong odds, to to arouse our sympathy for a thoroughly unlikeable character.  As Brick, Gray Powell gives the best performance we’ve seen from him at the Shaw Festival; it must be a challenge to play a character whose range of emotional response is constrained by his chronically high alcohol level.  We particularly appreciated Patrick McManus in the difficult role of Brick’s older brother Gooper, scheming with his fecund wife Mae (Nicole Underhay, also pitch-perfect) to get what he sees as justice from a father who has always preferred his younger brother.

We know we’re in danger of deep waters here, but we couldn’t help thinking how the playwright’s sexuality kept bursting forth at various points throughout the play — and we don’t mean simply the storyline about the attraction between Brick and Skipper.  Was Tennessee Williams repulsed by women’s bodies?  In the first act, Brick tells Maggie he is “disgusted” only seconds after she refers to her breasts and her figure.  Did the playwright feel threatened by sexually aggressive women?  Brick stubbornly resists Maggie’s sexual advances, and Big Daddy has stopped having sex with Big Mama (who likewise “disgusts” him).  And the playwright is clearly revolted by the sexual appetite and fecundity of Gooper’s wife Mae.

The Shaw Festival’s production might disappoint those who expect the lines to be rendered in the accents of the deep South.  But we probably wouldn’t understand a word if they did.  In this production, fortunately, the actors are all intelligible; they slip in and out of their accents just enough to remind us where the play is set.  And they nailed the main thing: the poetry.

Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money at the Shaw Festival

David Schurmann as Greville Todd and Graeme Somerville as Billy Corman

We are enthusiastic about the Shaw Festival’s decision two years ago to put on contemporary plays in its new Studio Theatre space, and we feel badly for anyone who skipped Caryl Churchill’s 1987 play Serious Money.  We saw it just before it finished its short run in the Shaw Festival’s 2010 season– probably too short a run, as our show was sold out.

Serious Money was a highly sensory experience, with rapid-fire dialogue, intense choreography, rhyming lines delivered rap-style, and more than one scene in which the actors were all talking at once — this in a performing space with the audience on all four sides. The story didn’t unfold as it might in a conventional narrative play; instead it emerged, one might say, through a series of collage-like scenes. But it was a good story, and the overall effect was enervating, not overwhelming. We have new-found respect for director Eda Holmes, who kept it all together (and seems to have served as her own choreographer).

The crowd goes wild at the London Stock Exchange. The fake money was left on the stage at the end of the show, and folks in the audience, who had to walk across it to get out, snatched up the bills as souvenirs.

The plot turned on one of our favorite topics, investment fraud, also the subject of some of our favorite books (Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities) and plays (David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross). And in fact Serious Money‘s shakers and movers at the London stock market are close relatives of Tom Wolfe’s “masters of the universe” (bond traders on Wall Street), right down to their profane, grandiose vocabulary.

We’d seen most of the actors in Serious Money in relatively staid, Shaw-era drawing-room comedies.  It was good to see them loosen up as characters in a more rambunctious social environment, especially Graeme Somerville, as Corman, the corporate predator; Marla McLean, as Scilla, the rich girl who tries to figure out what her brother was up to before he got himself killed; and Nicolá Correia-Damude, as the captivating Latin American investment mogul Jacinta Condor. (Most of the actors played two or three roles; seeing any play requires suspension of disbelief from the audience, and this one required more than usual.)  We were, unfortunately, once again reminded why we don’t think Ken James Stewart, who plays the murdered brother and other roles, is a convincing actor. All in all, though, we were very thoroughly entertained.

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.