In case the Shaw Festival should ask for requests . . .

How about a John Mortimer play at the Shaw Festival?

By now, Jackie Maxwell’s probably finished her list of Shaw Festival shows for 2011. But we’ve been thinking that we ought to be more proactive in letting Ms. Maxwell know what we’d like to see on stage in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario next year, or maybe the year after, especially now that we’ve seen most of what we’re likely to see at the Shaw in 2010.

So herewith our helpful suggestions.  We’ve already vetted them for compliance with the Festival “mandate” (plays during George Bernard Shaw’s lifetime, or set during that period):

A Voyage Round My Father (John Mortimer)

The late writer, a great favorite of ours, would never have created Rumpole of the Bailey if not for his eccentric father, a blind barrister who specialized in divorce. This play — we’ve read it, want very much to see it performed — is a tension-packed fictionalized account of the mutually abusive and mordantly funny relationship between Mortimer and his dad. We can see Michael Ball and Steven Sutcliffe in the lead roles. The play’s our first choice.

Alice Sit-By-The Fire (J. M. Barrie)

For the last 20 years, the only plays besides Shaw’s that you’d have a betting chance of seeing at the Shaw Festival in any given year have been Noël Coward’s and Oscar Wilde’s. But we think James M. Barrie ought to be in the rotation too. Not that he’s been ignored altogether; in fact, the Shaw is doing Barrie’s one-act Half an Hour as its lunchtime show this season.  But the only full-length Barrie play besides Peter Pan that the Shaw has ever done was The Admirable Crichton, and that was before our time as Shaw patrons.

James M. Barrie

In his day Barrie had a long string of successful plays. We’ve read most of them, and they’re packed with lively, witty dialogue, vivid characters, clever plots, and bittersweet sentiment. They don’t seem at all dated or flat. We’d be thrilled with Mary Rose (a good choice for the slot usually reserved for a “mystery thriller” in a Shaw season playbill) or Quality Street. But our first choice would be Barrie’s 1905 comedy Alice Sit-By-the-Fire.

Like Peter Pan, Alice Sit-By-the-Fire is concerned with the impact of a powerful imagination on reality. In Peter Pan, the Darling children’s playworld becomes real as Neverland; in Alice Sit-By-the-Fire, a teenage girl’s imagination, inflamed by cheap theatrical melodramas, spins out of control as she transforms herself into a heroine who can save her too-youthful mother from a forbidden romance. We could see Diana Donnelly and Julie Martell in the mother and daughter roles.

The Iceman Cometh (Eugene O’Neill)

Ms. Maxwell has been cautiously introducing accustoming Shaw Festival audiences to Eugene O’Neill over the last several years, so with any luck The Iceman Cometh is already in her sights. She softened up patrons in 2004 with Ah! Wilderness, O’Neill’s wistful comedy about a teenage boy, his family, and the summer he became a man. Then she ratcheted up the misery in 2009 with A Moon for the Misbegotten, a play about the earthy and disagreeable Hogan family.

Eugene O'Neill

We think folks ought to be sufficiently braced now for O’Neill’s masterpiece about the down-and-outers and losers who hang out in Harry Hope’s grimy Greenwich Village bar. Ready or not, we want to see The Iceman Cometh, and we think Ms. Maxwell should lure Ben Carlson back to the Shaw Festival to play the salesman Hickey. It’s a play that cries out for the talents of a repertory company like the Shaw’s.

The Dresser (Ronald Harwood)

The golden age of British theater! We wish we could have been there in the decades before television when great classical actors like John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson played all over the British Isles. We know The Dresser only from the film version from the early 1980s, starring Albert Finney as a fading Shakespearean and Tom Courtenay as his long-time dresser.

The part of "Sir" was based on British actor Sir Donald Wolfit

This portrait of the delicate and complex relationship between “Sir” (the actor) and Norman (his dresser) is a perfect fit for the Shaw, which last year gave us slices of English vaudeville during the same time period (John Osborne’s The Entertainer and Coward’s Red Peppers). We see David Schurmann and Evan Buliung in the lead roles.

They even made a movie from Shaw's Androcles and the Lion

Androcles and the Lion (Bernard Shaw)

Why does Jackie Maxwell, year after year, like Christopher Newton before her, avoid Androcles and the Lion?  Why should a short list of plays one wants to see at the Shaw Festival need to include one of Shaw’s most celebrated plays? Surely it’s not too hard to stage; the Shaw has done it twice before, though not since 1984, before our time. 

Happy to help!

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We preview the Stratford Festival’s 2010 season

The 36-year-old Michael Therriault, who once played Ariel in The Tempest, will play Peter Pan at Stratford in 2010

Life is too busy and money too scarce for us to drive all the way to Stratford, Ontario to see a disappointing show; we’ve got to be selective. The eight shows we saw in 2009 were mostly worth it; Julius Caesar and the musicals A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and West Side Story were memorable. But Bartholomew Fair and Macbeth left us fidgeting and annoyed, respectively, and made us feel we might have given them a miss.

Happily, for the 2010 season, the powers at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (here’s its website) have decreed that there will once more be four Shakespeare plays on the playbill (there were only three in 2009) out of a total of 12 shows. Here’s what we think of the menu, which also includes Kiss Me Kate, Evita, and J. M. Barrie’s original Peter Pan:

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (at the Tom Patterson Theater)

This is the 2010 Stratford show we’re looking to most. It’s the story of Leontes, a Sicilian king who becomes violently jealous of his wife Hermione’s friendship with his friend Polixenes.

Ben Carlson

The Winter’s Tale should have a lot going for it. Marti Maraden was one of the main victims of the Stratford’s ill-conceived and short-lived experiment in having three co-artistic directors a couple of years ago, but she apparently holds no grudges and is coming back to direct this play. We like her Shakespeare better than anyone’s. Ben Carlson, a first-rate Shakespeare actor (Hamlet in 2008, Brutus in 2009), will play Leontes. Tom Rooney’s first two seasons at the Stratford have made him one of our favorite actors; he will play the philosopher-peddler Autolycus, just as in 2009 he played the philosophical Porter in Macbeth. Yanna McIntosh will, thankfully, take the place of the worst actress we’ve ever seen in a Shakespeare play, Nikki James, who was originally scheduled to play Hermione.

In one scene, the playwright directs that the character Antigonus, sent by Leontes to Bohemia to abandon Hermione’s (and his) baby to the cruel elements, should “exit, pursued by a bear.” Back in 1600, coming up with a suitable live bear for a show couldn’t have been very hard, since the drama theaters were also used for bear-baiting exhibitions. Fortunately, Ontario practically swarms with bears, so getting one should be a cinch. Should make for a lively show.

James M. Barrie

Peter Pan (by James M. Barrie, at the Avon Theater)

This is not, repeat not, a musical play, and it won’t be much like the treacly, annoying thing with Mary Martin that you’ve seen on television. It’s J. M. Barrie’s original stage play, first performed in 1904, and it’s one of the finest plays in the English language. At Stratford in 2010, the androgynous Peter Pan will be be played by Michael Therriault.

With Peter Pan, the Stratford Festival is trying to tap the kids’ market. But when we first saw the play at the Shaw Festival a few years ago, we found that Peter Pan was a dark, decidedly adult play, apt to scare the bejeezus out of the average five-year-old. Then again, maybe today’s five-year-olds, weaned on Darth Vader and Spiderman, can take it.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest (at the Festival Theater)

Christopher Plummer, who be 80 years old next summer, is coming back to Stratford to play Prospero. Surely there’s no finer Shakespeare actor in the world; Mr. Plummer’s King Lear at Stratford seven years ago was hands down the most breath-taking theater experience we’ve ever had. We were mesmerized by the zillions of great theater anecdotes in Mr. Plummer’s recent autobiography, In Spite of Myself (see Emsworth’s review at this post).

So even though it was only five years ago that we saw the late William Hutt in a marvelous performance of The Tempest at Stratford, we wouldn’t think of missing the 2010 show, though we do wish someone besides Des McAnuff were directing it. Folks will need to get their tickets for The Tempest early; the show is only running from June 11 through September 12, and at a relaxed schedule designed no doubt to keep Mr. Plummer from wearing out. Don’t plan to save money at a preview performance; the Stratford Festival is charging full price for every single performance of The Tempest.

Cole Porter, no doubt in the process of composing songs for Kiss Me, Kate

Kiss Me, Kate (music by Cole Porter, at the Festival Theater)

Another opening, another show. We love the songs of Cole Porter, and the plot of Kiss Me, Kate might have been written by P. G. Wodehouse himself, so this classic musical is tempting. Like so many musicals, it’s a show business story, and it has a play within a play: one of the characters, Fred Graham, is directing a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, starring Fred’s ex-wife Lilli as Katherine the shrew. Real-life actress Chilina Kennedy will play Fred’s girlfriend Lois Lane. Our favorite songs: “Always True to You in My Fashion,” “Why Can’t You Behave,” and “So In Love.”

Dangerous Liaisons (by Christopher Hampton, at the Festival Theater)

This is the racy play on which the 1988 movie, starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer, was based; you probably saw it. It takes us back to eighteenth-century France, when the amoral, idle nobility amused themselves by playing humiliating practical jokes on one another. Tom McCamus and Seana McKenna will play the jaded aristocrats whose game is to bring about the deflowering of a young girl and the fall from virtue of a married woman. Martha Henry will also be in the cast.

Shakespeare’s As You Like It (at the Festival Theater)

This would be among our top choices at Stratford for 2010 if it weren’t for our fear that the Stratford Festival’s Artistic Director, Des McAnuff, who has designated himself to direct it, will spoil the play with distracting gimmicks. (We have the same fear for The Tempest, but trust that Christopher Plummer will keep his director focused on the story of the play.) We have now seen two deeply unsatisfactory Shakespeare plays directed by Mr. McAnuff: 2008’s Romeo and Juliet and 2009’s Macbeth, and we are not alone in thinking that this is not where Mr. McAnuff’s talents lie. Couldn’t he have taken on Kiss Me, Kate instead? This is sheer stubbornness.

Tom Rooney

But As You Like It seemingly has a foolproof cast, with Paul Nolan (star of 2009’s West Side Story) as Orlando, Tom Rooney in the dual roles of the good duke and the bad duke, Ben Carlson and Lucy Peacock as the unenthusiastic fiancées Touchstone and Audrey, and Brent Carver as Jacques. How badly could the play be spoiled?

Evita (by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, at the Avon Theater)

This is not our favorite Rice-Webber show; indeed, we have only lukewarm enthusiasm for Andrew Lloyd Webber shows after Jesus Christ Superstar. But Evita should pack them in, as did West Side Story in 2009. And as the very first rock-style musical presented at the Stratford Festival, it’ll presumably draw a younger audience.

Not a bad marketing move, considering that the Stratford Festival depends so heavily now on revenues from its high-priced musicals. Evita will be directed by Gary Griffin, who did practically everything right with West Side Story, and it will star Chilina Kennedy, who was dazzling as Maria in West Side Story and is now clearly Stratford’s diva of choice. Ms. Kennedy will play the charismatic wife of Argentinian dictator Juan Peron, and everyone will sing along with “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (at the Tom Patterson Theatre)

This is yet another musical show — but one more in the nature of a revue, with commentary from the performers, than a play. Brent Carver will be the lead troubadour, singing the songs of the late Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel, who wrote his songs in French.

We know a few Jacques Brel songs that were translated into English and became hits in the late 1960s and early 1970s, like “If You Go Away” and “Seasons in the Sun.” But most of the songs in the show won’t be familiar to us. Will there be English subtitles? We’re probably not adventurous enough to find out.

Shakespeare’s The Two Gentleman of Verona (at the Studio Theatre)

Emsworth has never paid much attention to this early Shakespeare play, let alone seen it performed, but a recent reading has whetted his interest. It’s the story of two pals, Valentine and Proteus, and their women; no sooner has Proteus successfully courted one named Julia than he leaves for Milan, where he promptly forgets her and falls in love with a duke’s daughter, Silvia, who falls in love instead with Valentine even though the duke intends her for someone else. The plot will seem familiar to hardcore fans of P. G. Wodehouse, who stole it for his 1931 comic novel Big Money.

In 2009, instead of a fourth Shakespeare play, the Stratford Festival put on Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, which had a large cast and a lot of fancy original props. It couldn’t have been cheap to mount. The Two Gentlemen of Verona will be more economically performed at the small Studio Theatre space, where the audience surrounds the stage. There will be only a short window of opportunity to see this play; it will run for less than two months (from July 30 to September 19, 2010).

For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again (by Michel Tremblay, at the Tom Patterson Theatre)

In its 2009 season, the Shaw Festival offered Michel Tremblay’s Albertine in Five Times; in 2010, the Stratford Festival will put on Tremblay’s well-received 1998 play For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, a comedy based on the gay French-Canadian playwright’s relationship with his mother.

Lucy Peacock will play Nana (the mother character); Tom Rooney will be the Narrator (presumably a stand-in for Tremblay himself). This play will run for only two months, from July 27 to September 26, 2010.

Do Not Go Gentle (by Leon Pownall, in the Studio Theatre)

A one-man show starring Geraint Wyn Davies could be really good; our appreciation for Mr. Wyn Davies grows year by year. He will play Dylan Thomas soliloquizing about his life and how he rates as a poet compared to William Shakespeare.

This very show actually just opened on Broadway! (We write as of December 8, 2009.) It won’t appear at Stratford, though, till July 2, 2010, where it will run through August 22.

King of Thieves (by George F. Walker, in the Studio Theatre)

This play is actually a musical — another one! — but the Stratford Festival evidently doesn’t dare to risk putting this world-premiere piece in one of its larger theaters. Wonder what Mr. Walker thinks of that! The show is a new take on old material, a tale of a couple of crooks (Mac, to be played by Evan Buliung, and his father-in-law Peachum, to be played by Sean Cullen).

George F. Walker

Its source is John Gay’s 1720 ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera (whose characters included Macheath and Polly Peachum), but most of us are more familiar with Bertolt Brecht’s and Kurt Weill’s 1928 The Threepenny Opera. Those were both set in London; Walker’s version is set in New York City in 1928.

This is the second year in a row that the Stratford Festival has put on a work by Walker; we didn’t see last year’s Zastrozzi. A few years back, we saw Walker’s straight play Nothing Sacred at the Shaw Festival, but it didn’t make a lasting impression.

From its press releases, we gather that the Stratford Festival will have avoided losing money during 2009 on the strength of having had two extraordinarily popular musical shows. By offering Peter Pan and Christopher Plummer in The Tempest on top of Evita and Kiss Me, Kate, management has probably taken its best shot at increasing the number of sold-out shows in 2010.

We can’t help noticing that there’s nothing on the 2010 playbill even remotely comparable to the Ben Jonson, Racine, and Chekhov plays that were seen in 2009. In fact, aside from the Shakespeare plays and Peter Pan, the Stratford is offering mostly contemporary shows. The Stratford Festival will be that much less of a “classical” repertory theater company in 2010.

The Devil’s Disciple at the Shaw Festival

We hesitated before committing to The Devil’s Disciple this year because, frankly, we failed to see much in the play when we first saw it thirteen years ago. But friends were saying good things about the show, Evan Buliung was starring, and the play was, after all, supposed to be one of Shaw’s most popular. Maybe, we thought, we just didn’t get it thirteen years ago. Or maybe the 1996 production was under par.

Dick Dudgeon and British soldiers

Dick Dudgeon (Evan Buliung) has a troublesome moment as a prisoner of General Burgoyne's soldiers

So we went after all, and this one was well worth the price of admission. We still can’t rank The Devil’s Disciple with our very favorite Shaw plays, especially The Philanderer and Arms and the Man.  But this time around it struck us as one of Shaw’s wittiest.  And this particular show has some larger-than-life performances.  The play swept us along along so nicely that we weren’t bothered by the improbable twists of its plot.  We enjoyed it a lot.

The Devil’s Disciple is set in 1777, in the third year of the Revolutionary War, and centers around Dick Dudgeon (Evan Buliung), a young reprobate who is the black sheep of the Dudgeon family because of his impiety and his line of work (smuggling). (There are eight Dudgeons in the play, two of whom die shortly before the first act, and keeping them all straight is a bit of a challenge at first.) As the play begins, Dick’s puritanical mother (Donna Belleville, who gives a strong performance) gets the news of her husband’s death from the Presbyterian minister, Anthony Anderson (Peter Krantz).

Fiona Byrne & Peter Krantz

Peter Krantz and Fiona Byrne as the Reverend and Mrs. Anderson

To his mother’s irritation, Dick shows up with the other relatives for the reading of his father’s will. He scandalizes his mother, shocks Lawyer Hawkins (Lorne Kennedy), and repels the minister’s devout, pretty wife (Fiona Byrne) by bragging about his allegiance to the devil. To Mrs. Dudgeon’s even greater consternation, her husband’s deathbed will and testament leaves everything to Dick.

But the British are coming! General Burgoyne’s army, invading from Canada, is just a few miles away and bent on making examples of rebel sympathizers. The Dudgeons all flee, except for Dick, who announces that he is going to join up with the rebels. When the redcoats march into town, their first order of business is to arrest Reverend Anderson for his seditious sermons. But when the soldiers arrive at his house, they mistake his visitor Dick for the Reverend. In the tradition of Sydney Carton, the gallant Dick does not undeceive them, nor does Mrs. Anderson.

Buliung & Mezon

Evan Buliung as Dick Dudgeon; the British still think he is Reverend Anderson at his "trial." The minister's wife, on the left, tries unsuccessfully not to interrupt

The soldiers arrest Dick and take him away to be hung. At the British headquarters, Dick meets General John Burgoyne (Jim Mezon) and his aide Major Swindon (Peter Millard). “Gentlemanly John” Burgoyne is unenthusiastic about the proposed execution and, indeed, about the British mission in America altogether:

BURGOYNE (throwing himself onto Swindon’s chair). It is making too much of the fellow to execute him. However, you have committed us to hanging him: and the sooner he is hanged the better.

SWINDON. We have arranged it for 12 o’clock. Nothing remains to be done except to try him.

General Burgoyne

The historical British General, John Burgoyne

When he wrote The Devil’s Disciple in 1896, Bernard Shaw hoped to meet the popular demand for melodrama, and indeed the play has a lot of that. Or so we suppose — we’re not sure we’ve ever actually seen a melodrama. Our notion is a moralistic story with a wicked, blasphemous villain, a virtuous young woman who must be preserved from a fate worse than death, dramatic scenes of unconsummated romance, a family lawyer’s reading of a will, and life-and-death suspense.

The Devil’s Disciple has all these cliched elements — but Shaw has made a comedy out of them. As Christians, we ought to feel cold shivers when we hear Dick Dudgeon’s blasphemies, but we don’t. We ought to fear for the purity of the minister’s wife when sparks begin to fly between her and the gallant Dick, but we don’t. We ought to shudder when they lead Dick to the gallows, but we don’t. The play’s light tone reassures us that things will come out all right in the end.

Theater Review Shaw Festival

Dick Dudgeon has a noose around his neck

Not surprisingly for a play written by a Irishman about a war between England and its colonies, The Devil’s Disciple is devoid of anything like patriotic sentiment. Shaw reserves his satire mostly for the British and their pretensions of “duty” and “honor.” And he makes it clear that he thought American independence was inevitable, the British management of the war ludicrously incompetent, and the mutual slaughter senseless:

RICHARD. Let us cow them by showing that we can stand by one another to the death. That is the only force that can send Burgoyne back across the Atlantic and make America a nation.

JUDITH [the minister’s wife] (impatiently) Oh, what does all that matter?

RICHARD (laughing). True: what does it matter? what does anything matter? You see, men have these strange notions, Mrs. Anderson; and women see the folly of them.

Hardly anything anyone says in this play can be taken at face value; Shaw means for us to judge the characters strictly by what they do. Mrs. Dudgeon claims vociferously to be a Christian, but Shaw (as he so often does to Christian believers in his plays) makes her a hypocrite; she bullies and abuses an orphan niece, feigns remorse at the news of her husband’s death, and tries to turn her own son from her door. Dick claims to be the devil’s disciple — but it is he who protects the orphan, saves the honor of a susceptible woman, and offers his life for his friend.

Buliung

Evan Buliung and Jim Mezon as Dick Dudgeon and General Burgoyne

Evan Buliung is as rousing and dashing a Dick Dudgeon as anyone will ever see. But Jim Mezon as the heavy-jowled General Burgoyne — world-weary, clear-sighted, and practical — is wonderful; his scenes with Peter Millard (as Major Swindon) are superb. If Mezon is not the world’s finest actor of Shaw, he can’t have many rivals.

How could Shaw have expected his play to pass for a melodrama when he peopled it with such complex, multifaceted characters? In fact, we don’t think he did; in his script Shaw dropped a clue that he knew full well that his play wasn’t a melodrama at all:

BURGOYNE (suddenly becoming suavely sarcastic). May I ask are you writing a melodrama, Major Swindon?

SWINDON (flushing). No, sir.

Peter Millard as Major Swindon

Peter Millard as Major Swindon

Although Buliung is a mature and accomplished actor in his own right, we thought we detected the influence of the veteran Mezon in his performance. We’ve seen and heard Mezon many times on the Shaw Festival stages, and at several points Buliung seemed to be channeling Mezon’s distinctive inflections and delivery. He could do far worse.

Thoughts on other 2009 Shaw Festival productions:

Noël Coward’s Brief Encounters (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)
Garson Kanin’s classic American comedy Born Yesterday (see this post)
Left-wing ideology in Born Yesterday (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)
“Nothing personal” from The Devil’s Disciple through The Godfather to Ted Kennedy (see this post)

Star Chamber at the Shaw Festival (a review)

Star Chamber ensembleWe wouldn’t for the world have missed Star Chamber, the one-act Noël Coward play that the Shaw Festival is putting on as its mid-day show this summer. It’s an absolutely hilarious send-up of self-absorbed actors at a committee meeting. This show starts at 11:30 a.m. and runs for about an hour at the Royal George Theater.

Here’s the storyline, such as it is: One by one, nine people arrive for a committee meeting that is to be held on the stage of a theater where one of them is performing. The nine are a board that is responsible for a old folks’ home for actresses. The serious-minded secretary of the board, Mr. Farmer (Guy Bannerman), who is the only non-actor on the board, is also the only the only one with any real interest in the business of the meeting, which is to consider some badly needed renovations to the home.

Neil Barclay

Neil Barclay

In fact, Mr. Farmer never can get the undisciplined actors to stop gossiping and pay attention to business. Johnny Bolton (Neil Barclay) constantly interrupts with old show business stories; no one listens to him. Dame Rose Maitland (Gabrielle Jones) cares mainly about taking the chair and bossing people around in the absence of the group’s president, Xenia (Fiona Byrne), who is late.

Buliung & broad

Evan Buliung and Fiona Byrne at the board meeting in Star Chamber

When the ditsy Xenia does arrive (looking and behaving very much like Barbra Streisand), she brings her Great Dane and gives it most of her attention. Eventually the actors give up any pretense of getting anything done and gather around the piano for a few songs.

The comic moments — sight gags, tart asides, self-important speeches, and actors playing to stereotype — start slowly, then come faster and faster. Our audience was reduced to continuous, helpless giggling about halfway through the show; we didn’t get control of ourselves till the curtain calls.

We marveled at their split-second timing of the ensemble. We certainly didn’t know any of Noël Coward’s show-business friends, on whom the play was presumably based, but how these characters reminded us of people we’ve met in community theater!

Sharry Flett & Stephen Sutcliffe

Sharry Flett with Stephen Sutcliffe in Sunday in the Park with George

We were glad to see Sharry Flett, who is still stunning, as a strong character again, rather than as a foggy old lady (her role this year in Sunday in the Park with George). Neil Barclay, born to play a ham, is precious as a rotund, veteran song-and-dance man.

The highlight of the songfest at the end was Evan Buliung’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” one of Coward’s best-known songs. (Buliung plays a dashing young actor, Julian Breed.) We were delighted to find, just before the show started, that Mr. Buliung’s parents were sitting next to us in the audience. They were very pleasant people who did not seem at all like stage parents and who were clearly very proud of their son (who is also starring in Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple at the Shaw Festival this summer). We are glad that Evan Buliung is back at the Shaw Festival this year after several years in Stratford (though what a fine Mark Antony he might have made in this year’s Julius Caesar).

Emsworth reviews of other 2009 shows at the Shaw Festival :

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)
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)

What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde

oscar-wilde

Wilde

(April 2009) Seeing The Importance of Being Earnest at the Shaw Festival in 2004 persuaded us that P. G. Wodehouse had no greater literary influence than Oscar Wilde. How very like Wodehouse’s idle young men in spats were Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing (as played by David Leyshon and Evan Buliung)! How very like the manner of Jeeves was the deadpan sarcasm of Algernon’s manservant Lane (as played by Robert Benson)! How very much like Bertie Wooster’s dragon aunts was Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell!

wodehouse

Wodehouse

And how much do Wodehouse plots owe to The Importance of Being Earnest?  In how many Wodehouse stories do young men and women make their way into English country houses posing as tutors or gardeners or friends of friends so they can pursue forbidden romances or purloin prize pigs or play detective? Of course Wilde’s play is a story of imposters too. When he is in London, Jack adopts the identity of a fictitious brother named “Ernest” so that he can live the life of a libertine in the city (as Ernest) without tarnishing his respectable reputation back home in the country. And when Algernon wants to meet Jack’s pretty ward Cecily Cardew (who like so many Wodehouse young women cannot marry without her guardian’s permission), he goes to the country house where she is staying, posing as Jack’s much talked-about but never-seen brother “Ernest”.

Wodehouse was only an impressionable 14 years old when The Importance of Being Earnest premiered in 1895, and we think it must have influenced him powerfully.  If you took out of Wodehouse all the foppish young men, imposters, domestic blackmail, wodehouse-pigs-have-wingsdragon aunts, butlers, and young women who need permission from guardians to marry — that is, the characters, the plot, and the comic elements of Wilde’s play — there wouldn’t be much Wodehouse left on our library shelves. And why else would Eustace Mulliner’s man Blenkinsop (in Wodehouse’s short story “Open House” have prepared cucumber sandwiches for Eustace’s visiting Aunt Georgiana, if not for the example of the cucumber sandwiches served by Algernon Moncrieff to Lady Bracknell in the first scene of Wilde’s play?

It’s easy to identify the writers who were dear to Wodehouse’s heart; his work has thousands of quotations from and allusions to Keats, Tennyson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and especially Shakespeare. Nowhere, however, is Wodehouse’s delight in Oscar Wilde so transparent as in his 1952 novel Pigs Have Wings.

galahad-at-blandings

Galahad Threepwood in one of Wodehouse’s later, lesser novels

There is, first, Lord Emsworth’s brother Gally. The now middle-aged Galahad Threepwood (a recurring Wodehouse character) has spent his life carousing in nightclubs and chasing barmaids, just as he did in the 1890s when he was a young man. (Galahad’s character is the antithesis of that of the pure knight of the Arthurian legends.) Remarkably, however, Gally’s decades of fast living have had no impact on his health or his perennially youthful appearance — no more than they did, Wodehouse gleefully tells us in Pigs Have Wings, on Dorian Gray.

albrights-dorian-gray-chicago-1943

Ivan Albright’s alarming 1943 painting of Dorian Gray is at the Art Institute of Chicago

The chief imposter in Pigs Have Wings is the butler’s niece Maudie, formerly a barmaid, now co-proprietor of a detective agency. Gally engages her to come incognito to Blandings Castle to help foil what Gally fears to be a plot to either steal or nobble Lord Emsworth’s prize-winning fat pig — and he insists that she pose as “Mrs. Bunbury,” an old friend of one of the guests.

brian-bedford-as-lady-bracknell

Brian Bedford will take the part of Lady Bracknell at the Stratford Festival in 2009

Wodehouse’s choice of “Bunbury” for Maudie is an unmistakable act of homage to Oscar Wilde, a reference to the opening scene of The Importance of Being Earnest , when we learn that for some time Algernon has pretended to have a friend in the country named Bunbury whom Algernon must frequently visit because of Bunbury’s alleged ill health. Whenever Algernon wants to escape London because of inconvenient social obligations, he pleads that his friend “Bunbury” needs him and flees town. While Wodehouse shows his affection for other authors by quoting from them, he acknowledges his debt to Oscar Wilde by using the names of Wilde characters in his stories — as in The Inimitable Jeeves, where Wodehouse makes “Lord Windermere” a character in a clichéd penny novel.

We have tickets to see The Importance of Being Earnest again next month in Ontario, this time at the Stratford Festival. Stratford stalwart Brian Bedford will be directing and playing Lady Bracknell (in drag), but the roles of Algernon and Jack will be played by two actors that we’ve seen most often in years past at the Shaw Festival, Mike Shara and Ben Carlson.

June 2009: We liked Bedford’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest. See this post.

October 2009. We weren’t altogether satisfied with the Stratford Festival’s 2009 Macbeth, but it did remind us how Wodehouse borrowed the most famous lines in Shakespeare’s play and turned them on their heads in his comic stories. See this post.

A kinky twist to taming the Shrew

Suppose you’re an actress playing Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. You’ve worked hard in the first half of the play to prove that you’re the most disagreeable young woman in Padua. How can you possibly be convincing in the final act, when you must profess and practice wifely submission and obedience?

It’s ever harder, I would think, than the job of an actor playing Othello, who must somehow show a transformation in his feelings toward Desdemona, so that his full-blown murderous rage won’t come as a surprise.

Irene Poole as Katherina and Evan Builung as Petruchio

This year’s Shrew at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario), reviewed by Emsworth in this post, Irene Poole, as Katherine, attacks the challenge in a unexpected way. There’s sexual tension between Katherine and Petruchio (Evan Buliung) from their first scene together, and it grows as the insults mount and the blows fly. The hungrier she gets, and the shorter on sleep — the more he teases and torments her, you know the play — the more it seems that this Katherine is being drawn into kinky role-playing that will lead to the consummation of her marriage.

And so, in Katherine’s final re-education session, when Petruchio teaches her that the sun is the moon when he says it is, and that it is the sun again when he says so, Katherine agrees with a triumphant gleam in her eye and a mocking laugh:

Petruchio: I say it is the moon.

Katherine: I know it is the moon.

Petruchio: Nay then you lie, it is the blessed sun.

Katherine: Then God be blessed, it is the blessed sun, But sun it is not when you say it is not, And the moon changes even as your mind.

Katherina and Petruchio

With this scene, we understand that Katherine (as played by Irene Poole) is now fully in on Petruchio’s nasty little game — and she’s gotten to like it.

Thus, when Petruchio lays a wager with Hortensio and Lucentio as to whose wife is the most submissive, Katherine knows how to play her part. She ends her “bound to serve, love and obey” speech by offering to let her husband step on her hands.

Delighted with his new playmate, Petruchio is ready for the game to be consummated: “Why there’s a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate. Come, Kate, we’ll to bed.”

Will Petruchio always be dominant in this loving relationship? We doubt it. From an earlier scene, in which Katherine ties up her sister and flogs her, we already have a good inkling that Katherine will like giving as well as receiving.

Lucy Peacock as Grumio

This show’s director, Peter Hinton, prepares the audience for twisted love-play by his decision to cast Petruchio’s servant Grumio as a woman playing a woman (Stratford Festival veteran Lucy Peacock). As one might suppose, this adds sexual overtones to their relationship of master and servant. In their first scene together (Act I, Scene 2), Grumio jests suggestively with her master about his instruction to “knock me here, rap me here, knock me well, and knock me soundly.” Later, when Petruchio finally appears for his marriage to Katherine, he arrives (in this production) in a cart pulled by Grumio with a bit in her mouth!

And in Act IV, Scene 3, Grumio participates enthusiastically in her master’s “taming” of Katherine, showing her a fine piece of beef, then mocking her as she pulls it away. The upshot of this gender-blind casting: we infer that an unconventional relationship between Petruchio and Grumio is already in place before Petruchio comes to Padua to find another woman to add to his menage.

Emsworth reviews this show in this post.

The Taming of the Shrew at the Stratford Festival (a review)

Emsworth is glad he didn’t skip The Taming of the Shrew, as originally planned. This show is a joyride, a high-spirited show with as fine a cast as the Stratford Festival can muster. It kept us laughing and entertained from beginning to end.

Evan Biulung and Irene Poole as Petruchio and Katherina; in the background, Adrienne Gould as Bianca

The dilemma in this comedy is how Baptista Minola (Stephen Ouimette) of Padua is to marry off his two daughters. For his pretty, good-humored younger daughter, Bianca (Adrienne Gould), Baptista has solid options in young Gremio (Juan Chioran) and long-in-the-tooth Hortensio (Randy Hughson).

However, for his elder daughter, Katherine (Irene Poole), an irascible, sharp-tongued girl with a limp (in this production, anyway), he has no takers. On principle, like Laban in Biblical times, Baptista will not marry his second daughter until he has found a husband for the first.

Gremio and Hortensio make common cause and agree to find a husband for Katherine so they can get on with their competition for Bianca. The situation is complicated when Lucentio (Jeff Lillico) arrives from Pisa, happens to spy Bianca, and becomes a third suitor.

Biulung and Poole

But a solution appears, and the show moves into overdrive, when Petruchio arrives in town from Verona, hoping to “wive it wealthily in Padua.” He learns from Hortensio and Gremio about Katherine and her dowry and sets out to make her his wife.

As Petruchio, Evan Buliung is a dynamic, irrepressible spirit who sweeps all before him; Irene Poole, as Katherine, is a worthy foil. The more Katherine gives him tit for tat, the more Petruchio values her and the more he revels in the tasty game of subduing her. Their scenes together are first-rate, from the saucy repartee of their opening skirmish to the hilariously cruel scenes in which Petruchio snatches sleep, food, and clothing away from his wife to reduce her to submission. (In this production, Petruchio and Katherine come to enjoy a decidedly kinky, dare we say, sado-masochistic, relationship. For Emsworth’s take on this, see this post.)

Persons considering this show should be aware that it has a good deal of disquieting and gratuitous cruelty. The people of Padua dunk Katherine in the river for her shrewish behavior. Katherine ties up her sister Bianca and whips her. And not only does Katherine strike Petruchio, but Petruchio strikes her back.

Barbara Fulton as Queen Elizabeth

At any rate, we were entertained by the extravagant, brilliantly colored period costumes and by the Elizabethan songs interpolated throughout the play and performed by various members of the cast. We admired the scrumptious Adrienne Gould, as Bianca, played here as a man-tease, nearly as much as we liked her as Ophelia in this year’s Hamlet. The comic performances of Stephen Oimette as Baptista and Patrick McManus as the flamboyant Biondello were exquisite.

And we especially enjoyed the performance of Ben Carlson as Lucentio’s servant Tranio, who like Mr. Pickwick’s Sam Weller is wittier, more voluble, and more worldly-wise than his master.

So why did we hesitate to see The Taming of the Shrew? It was not that we were necessarily put off by the unenlightened sixteenth-century treatment of women in the play. Those were different times, and Emsworth has no patience for those who cannot get past the fact that sixteenth-century England was not organized on politically correct principles.

No, we hesitated because we thought The Taming of the Shrew, which we had never seen performed until now, was one of our least favorite Shakespeare plays. Reading it, we thought the prologue scene was superfluous, and we could not see how the “lord and master” speech at the end fit with the rest of the play. And seen on the page, the play’s humor was hard to appreciate.

Company of "The Taming of the Shrew"

Company of "The Taming of the Shrew"

We also worried, frankly, about our ability to keep everyone straight. There are plenty of characters, some with similar names (Grumio and Gremio), and to further confuse his audience, Shakespeare has many of them trade identities. Emsworth is happily accustomed to the imposters that litter the novels of P. G. Wodehouse, but there are so many imposters in The Taming of the Shrew that it is not easy to remember who is pretending to be who.

But we worried for nothing. The direction of Peter Hinton gave this production such shape and momentum that we never felt lost or confused, even at moments when we might not have been able to give an accurate account of the characters.

For Emsworth’s take on the nastiness between Petruchio and Katherine, see this post.)

For Emsworth’s review of All’s Well That Ends Well in the 2008 season of the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario), see this post for the Emsworth review of Hamlet at the Stratford Festival in this post). Other Emsworth posts include reviews of shows in the 2008 season of the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), including Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married (see this post), Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (see this post), Leonard Berstein’s Wonderful Town (see this post), and J. B. Priestley’s The Inspector Calls (see this post).

Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Festival (a review)

The 2008 production of Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario) has its moments. But the lead actors are so weak that the show can’t be recommended.

As directed by Des McAnuff, Shakespeare’s tragedy opens in 21st-century Verona, in a public square, with motorized scooters, young women text-messaging on their cellphones, and two servants of the Capulets who are itching for a fight with the Montagues. The brawl is broken up by authorities who wield (and fire) automatic pistols.

Gareth Potter as Romeo

Meanwhile, the pride and joy of the Montagues decides to crash the Capulets’ masked ball, along with his friends Mercutio and Benvolio, in the hope of meeting Rosaline, with whom he is infatuated. As Romeo sheds his modern clothing for his ball costume, the time of the play shifts backward four centuries to 16th-century Verona, where Shakespeare actually placed his play. (After the ball, the cast appears in nifty 16th-century costumes.)

At the ball, Rosaline is forgotten when Romeo falls for the Capulets’ 13-year-old daughter Juliet. The attraction is mutual, and knowing that the Capulets will never consent to their daughter’s marriage to a Montague, the lovers arrange for Friar Lawrence, a local priest, to marry them secretly.

But Romeo (Gareth Potter) gets caught up in another streetfight with the Capulets and stabs Juliet’s favorite cousin Tybalt in a swordfight. Will Juliet (Nikki M. James) forgive Romeo for dispatching her cousin? Will Romeo escape punishment from the Prince of Verona, who is disgusted with the endless feuding? Will the violence escalate? Will the lovers ever be united?

Nikki M. James and Gareth Potter as the star-crossed lovers

Unfortunately, this show is spoiled by frankly amateurish — Emsworth doesn’t mean to be harsh, but how else to put it? — performances from the actors playing Romeo and Juliet.

The program bios indicate that director Des McAnuff has recently directed Nikki M. James as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. No doubt she shone in that role, which doesn’t require much expressive range.

But how could McAnuff have thought James could do justice to some of the most poetic lines in Shakespeare? James delivers each line in the same soprano range of her voice that she must have used to call Toto. Nor does she do well without the microphone with which she was surely equipped in The Wizard of Oz; she seems to think that the only way to be heard in the spacious Festival Theater is to shout. The most that can be said of the casting is that James is a lithe and attractive Juliet who passes convincingly for a 13-year-old.

Des McAnuff

In the program, McAnuff indicates that he sees the first half of this play as a comedy and the second half as a tragedy. That’s a reasonable way of approaching the play, given the tone and the sweetly romantic scenes in the first two acts.

But Nikki M. James and Gareth Potter seem to have misunderstood what McAnuff meant about “comedy.” They perform the famous balcony scene as if it were a joke that everyone in the theater is in on — almost as parody. And Juliet wakes everyone up everyone in the house when she screeches “Anon” to her nurse at the top of her lungs in the middle of her tender speeches to Romeo. After hearing these outbursts, I fully expected Romeo to make his excuses and slink out of the garden, grateful that he had not committed himself too far to this petulant, shrill-voiced child.

Nor does James seem comfortable with Shakespeare’s language. When Juliet learns that her new husband has been banished for slaying Tybalt, she does an extended riff on “banished.” Unfortunately, each time she bellows the word, she places the accent on the third of the syllables: “ban-i-SHED.” The effect is alarming. (A scene or two later, Friar Lawrence, Romeo, and the Nurse all pronounce it with only two syllables.)

As Romeo, Gareth Potter delivers his lines with little more real expression than James, and his voice has an indistinct quality that makes him hard to hear. Seated only a few rows from the stage, off to one side, we hardly caught a word of one key speech that he delivered from the front of the stage.

One supposes that the casting of Romeo and Juliet always presents problems like this; by definition, young, relatively inexperienced actors must be called upon to play the parts.

Lucy Peacock as the Nurse and Nikki M. James as Juliet

Despite the leads, there are some fine performances in this show. As the garrulous Nurse who can never be brought to the point, Lucy Peacock is magnificent. So is Peter Donaldson as Friar Lawrence; his rich baritone, perfect diction, and sympathetic understanding of Shakespeare’s language are a treat. Both Roy Lewis, as Montague, and John Vickery, as Capulet, convey power and dignity as heads of the warring families.

I especially enjoyed Evan Buliung as Romeo’s friend Mercutio and could not help thinking that either he or Timothy D. Stickney, who had a strong stage presence as Tybalt, would have been better cast as Romeo.

The set for Romeo and Juliet at the Festival Festival consisted of a cleverly-constructed, versatile Italian bridge that morphed, as needed, into a ballroom, a balcony, and a crypt. It also facilitated some exceptionally rapid and well-choreographed scene changes. We wished, though, that its moving action had operated more quietly.

Emsworth carps about the recent leadership debacle at the Stratford Festival, as a result of which Des McAnuff became sole artistic director of the Festival last winter, in this post.

See Emsworth’s review of the Stratford Festival’s 2008 production of All’s Well That Ends Well at this post, and his review of Hamlet at this post.

The priests of multiculturalism give the Stratford Festival their stamp of righteous approval, but say the Shaw Festival still hasn’t gotten religion on “diversity”. Emsworth loses patience in this post.