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?

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.

Bernard Shaw’s Candida at the Shaw Festival

(May 14, 2011) We think we’ve seen a different, more robust approach to the Shaw plays offered at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario) over the last decade. It’s not that we didn’t enjoy the Shaw plays we saw there during the 1990s – but they seemed to draw a little too deeply from a performing tradition of British constraint, formality, and artifice that kept Shaw’s natural vigor from coming through. We’ve had the same sense watching videos of buttoned-down BBC productions of Shaw plays filmed in the early 1970s.

Candida's father Burgess (Norman Browning) bullies Marchbanks (Wade Bogert-O’Brien). Doesn't this photo (courtesy of the Shaw Festival) remind you of an illustration out of a novel by Dickens or Thackeray?

In recent seasons the Shaw plays have seemed livelier, fresher, and more spontaneous, and the characters have seemed decidedly more human. The result has been that in many seasons the must-see show at the Shaw Festival has, in fact, been a Shaw play (like last year’s The Doctor’s Dilemma, 2008’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession, 2006’s Arms and the Man, and 2004’s Man and Superman), as is befitting. We can only speculate that a new generation of directors at the Shaw Festival gets the point that Shaw intended his characters to portray real flesh-and-blood men and women, not drawing-room caricatures.

Despite this salutary trend, this year’s Candida, which we saw last weekend, seemed to us a bit of a throwback to the older approach. We can’t help thinking that the production missed director Gina Wilkinson, who was originally announced as director of Candida but who sadly passed away in December 2010.

But Candida is still one of Shaw’s most entertaining comedies, and this show has some delightful comic acting, including a warm, nuanced performance from Claire Jullien as Candida. We especially enjoyed Krista Colosimo as Miss Proserpine, the old-maid secretary with a crush on her boss, a character that Ms. Colosimo artfully portrays as neither ridiculous or pitiable. And we were impressed with Wade Bogert-O’Brien (a lively and appealing Eugene Marchbanks), a young actor who seems to take to Shaw like a duck to water. The scenes move briskly along; for a Shaw play, this one’s relatively short.

Marchbanks (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) hectors Candida's husband Morrell (Nigel Shawn Williams)

The Shaw Festival’s advertising of Candida has, we think, been a little misleading.  There’s no bona fide love triangle at all. Candida is not truly torn between her busy-as-a-bee do-gooder parson husband and the adoring young romantic who appreciates her true worth – and we were relieved to see that Ms. Jullien, as Candida, didn’t try to play it that way. Marchbanks, young and naïve, may have thought he was making a serious run for Candida’s affections; no doubt Morrell himself had a crisis of marital insecurity. But Candida herself never wavered from our commitment to her husband, despite his flaws; this is a love story.

Candida (Clair Juillien) was never really tempted to leave her husband (Nigel Shawn Williams)

The most notable thing about this year’s Candida is that a black actor, Nigel Shawn Williams, has been cast as Morrell.  Wholly apart from Mr. Williams’s performance, which seemed to us respectable though not notable, we are not enthusiastic about this gesture in color-blind casting.

In this post a couple of years ago, we took exception to a public campaign to pressure the Shaw Festival to become more “diverse.”  (Of course, diversity flacks never mean real diversity at all, but only diversity in skin color, which is the least interesting and most meaningless of human differences.) We kept hearing the mantra that Ontario’s theaters should be “as diverse as Canada itself.”

But so what if southern Ontario (and western New York) are racially and ethnically diverse? The world of Bernard Shaw wasn’t!  And in his plays Shaw showed little or no interest in racial differences.  (Are there any characters of color in Shaw besides the Egyptian doctor in The Millionairess?) Shaw’s genius lay instead in sketching the genteel classes, the upstart capitalist classes, the varieties of socialists (Morrell’s Christian socialism, for example, as contrasted with Shaw’s secular socialism), the working classes, and the idle educated classes.

We might well be asked whether theatergoers shouldn’t simply teach themselves to ignore skin color, even in Shaw plays.  It’s a fair question, because going to the theater requires one to suppose a lot of things that aren’t so.  We’re able to suspend disbelief long enough to accept that a wooden stage is really the parlor of a radical London clergyman, or that people we’re seen walking the streets of Niagara-on-the-Lake are really Londoners named Candida, Lexy, and Miss Proserpine. It’s all part of watching a play.

But the stage is one of the few arenas of life where appearance does matter.  We rightly expect, for instance, that stage actors will be age-appropriate and gender-appropriate for their parts.  Candida, however, is set in London at the end of the 19th century, a time and place when a marriage between a white woman and a black vicar would have been unthinkable.

Thus, when a black man is cast as Morrell and a white woman is cast as Morrell’s wife, we must not only imagine that the actor is a socialist vicar in a lower-class London parish, but must imagine as well that the black actor is actually white.  Casting a black man as Morrell (or casting a black woman as Candida), with an otherwise white cast, lays an additional, unnecessary demand on an audience.

We pride ourselves on our imaginative powers and our mental flexibility, and we don’t want to suggest that this experiment in color-blind casting at the Shaw Festival kept us from enjoying the play or from appreciating Mr. Williams’s performance. But we are unconvinced that the experiment was a good idea. We would have rather seen an all-black cast, which would have avoided the issue altogether. The Shaw Festival’s ensemble doesn’t have many black actors, but Candida has only six characters.  It could have been done.

An unwelcome plug for socialized medicine with a Shaw Festival play

Shaw Festival programs usually include a few lines about the play from its director. In fact — and this is entirely off the subject — we commend the Shaw for continuing to give us classy-looking programs with well-written, thoughtful essays about the plays (in contrast to Stratford Festival programs, whose meager content is delivered on cheap paper).

But the paragraphs from Morris Panych, the director of Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma at the Shaw Festival this season, weren’t in the usual vein. Mr. Panych (whose show we enthusiastically recommend, see this post) seems to think that Shaw’s play helps make a case for government-run medical services.  His remarks hardly mention the play, discussing mostly the supposed glories of the Canadian public health system.  We don’t see it.

In the Shaw Festival

First, the play itself hardly supports a case for socialized medicine. The problem in the play is how to allocate scarce medical resources: whether Sir Colenso should give a slot in his tuberculosis clinic to (a) a brilliant young artist or (b) a selfless, lovable old medical school friend. Frankly, though, Shaw’s premise — that Sir Colenso had to make a choice and that one of these two men had to die — doesn’t seem very plausible, however useful it might have been to Shaw as a plot device. If Sir Colenso could take on one additional t.b. patient (at first he claimed he couldn’t even do that), why not two? The point applies more broadly: health care isn’t a zero-sum game; the supply of medical services isn’t fixed and limited.

How often do choices like this really happen other than at the difficult extremities of medical practice (one thinks of kidney transplants and the battlefield triage decisions in Gone with the Wind)? The play’s “dilemma” is a straw man. Surely bona fide zero-sum treatment choices like Sir Colenso’s are rare. There’s no reason why they should drive policy-making.

Shaw Festival director (and playwright) Morris Panych. Being a talented dramatist and a director doesn't give one the right to push one's views about socialized medicine on theater patrons.

At any rate, how could any nationalized health care system have resolved Sir Colenso’s “dilemma” any better than he did? Mr. Panych says that “doctors should face no dilemmas” — that “society” should make such decisions. But “society” is an elusive personage. What Mr. Panych really means is that who-shall-live-and-who-shall-die decisions like Sir Colenso’s should be taken away from doctors (and their patients) and given to bureaucrats at government health agencies. Personally, we think doctors represent “society” better than bureaucrats, and we can’t imagine why anyone would think that the latter would be better at resolving difficult moral dilemmas than the former. People don’t acquire Solomonic wisdom by becoming tenured civil servants — generally it’s the opposite.

If Shaw meant The Doctor’s Dilemma as an indictment of private medicine, he failed. It’s just a hilarious send-up of flawed men who happen to be doctors. What comedy doesn’t rely on the follies, vanities, pretensions, and eccentricities of our fellow men? Doctors are as likely to be hyper-idealistic, glory-seeking, greedy, and foolish as the rest of us. But the fact that we have to get medical care from imperfect people hardly suggests that it should be managed by other imperfect people who happen to be government bureaucrats.

Why, to those on the political left, do flaws in human nature always serve as a pretext for taking decisions away from ordinary people and turning them over to unaccountable bureaucracies? We like to think well of people, and we’d like to think that folks on the left really believe people will be better off with socialized medicine. But we can’t. We suspect instead that they’re driven by elitist irritation at the idea that ordinary people should be “allowed” to make such important decisions for themselves — and that they’re addicted to telling other people what they can and can’t do.

Dr. Donald Berwick

Unfortunately, our own President seems to fall into that camp, as he’s just appointed a fellow to run Medicaid and Medicare who believes fervently in the rationing of medical services. Americans in general aren’t ready to let health-care bureaucrats decide when a person is too old and feeble to justify spending money on, but Dr. Donald Berwick is more than ready to do that, and lots besides. He worships the British system with romantic fervor and wants to replicate it here as quickly as possible.

Our fellow Americans should know that there’s no point in writing to our senators to suggest that they disapprove of the nomination of Dr. Donald Berwick for this job, because our President has evaded Senate consideration of Dr. Berwick by making a recess appointment (here’s one of the many news stories); he distrusts not only the wisdom and judgment of his fellow Americans, but also that of the men and women they have elected to the United States Senate. The President simply can’t resist telling people what they have to accept.

Fortunately, the tide of history is against Mr. Panych (and our President), whether they realize it or not. By coincidence, a few days after we saw this superb play at the Shaw, the British government announced that it intended to reorganize the National Health Service and to shift control of England’s annual health budget from the centralized bureaucracy to local general practitioners. According to the New York Times, the new plan would give the bulk of the budgeted moneys to the doctors and let them decide how to spend the money for services their patients need from hospitals and other providers. We wish the Brits luck and hope our President pays attention.

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!

The Doctor’s Dilemma at the Shaw Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing personal”: the trail from The Devil’s Disciple to Ted Kennedy

George Bernard Shaw

Bernard Shaw

Ever wonder where “nothing personal, just business” came from? You probably figured it started with Mario Puzo and The Godfather. But as we were seeing Bernard Shaw’s 1897 play The Devil’s Disciple at the Shaw Festival a week ago (see Emsworth’s review of this fine show at this post), we realized that it goes farther back.

In the final act, Dick Dudgeon has been arrested by British soldiers, who mean to hang him as a rebel sympathizer. The hour of his execution has been set; all that remains is for him to be tried. Dick, full of bravado, meets General Burgoyne, who comes on the scene for the trial:

BURGOYNE (with extreme suavity). I believe I am Gentlemanly Johnny, sir, at your service. My more intimate friends call me General Burgoyne. (Richard bows with perfect politeness.) You will understand, sir, I hope, since you seem to be a gentleman and a man of some spirit in spite of your calling, that if we should have the misfortune to hang you, we shall do so as a mere matter of political necessity and military duty, without any personal ill-feeling.

RICHARD. Oh, quite so. That makes all the difference in the world, of course.

(Shaw’s stage directions): They all smile in spite of themselves: and some of the younger officers burst out laughing.

The only woman present is Judith Anderson, half in love with Dick. She is not amused.

JUDITH (her dread and horror deepening at every one of these jests and compliments). How CAN you?

Abe Vigoda as Tessio

Abe Vigoda as Tessio in The Godfather

Fast-forward to 1972! The Godfather hits the big screen. Michael Corleone deduces that long-time Corleone family henchman Tessio has sold the family out to its rivals. As Tessio is escorted to what he knows will be his own execution, he asks Tom Hagen, the family’s lawyer, to tell Michael that he always liked him and that his betrayal was “nothing personal — just business.”

That was an attitude Tessio learned from the Corleones themselves. When Michael finds it necessary to order the execution of his own sister’s husband, Carlo, he tells him, “Nothing personal, Carlo. This is just business.” When Michael urges that the Corleones should murder a policeman, he knows how to reassure his doubtful brother: “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”

Through it all, the Corleone women — Michael’s sister Connie and his wife Kay — are not amused.

Robert Bork

Judge Robert Bork

Life imitates art! In July 1987, President Ronald Reagan nominates Judge Robert Bork to the United States Supreme Court. Bork is a one of the nation’s foremost legal scholars, a former Solicitor General, a federal appeals court judge, a man of impeccable personal character, and one of the best-qualified Supreme Court nominees in United States history.

But the first thing most Americans hear about Bork was from Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who slanders Bork in a front-page-headline speech:

Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government . . . . No justice would be better than this injustice.

Ted Kennedy

Senator Edward M. Kennedy

It was egregiously untrue. But its impact on Robert Bork’s nomination was fatal. When Judge Bork gamely paid Senator Kennedy a courtesy call early in the confirmation process, the senator assured the nominee that the things he’d said about him were “nothing personal.”

And in the course of the confirmation hearings, Senator Kennedy bumped into the judge’s wife in a hallway on Capitol Hill. According to Ethan Bronn’s book Battle for Justice, the senator said to her, “Mrs. Bork, you must be so tired.  It’s a very difficult time, I know.  I hope you understand it’s nothing personal.”   

Mary Ellen Bork was not amused.