Chekhov’s The Three Sisters at the Stratford Festival

Three Sisters

Irina (Dalal Badr), Olga (Irene Poole), and Masha (Lucy Peacock)

We’ve seen Kelli Fox in The Three Sisters twice now. In 2003 she was the oldest sister, Olga, in a production at the Shaw Festival directed by Jackie Maxwell; in the current show at the Stratford Festival she plays Natasha, Olga’s sister-in-law and nemesis. Kelli Fox is one of the two best reasons to see the Stratford show; the other is Lucy Peacock, who gives (pardon the cliche) a simmering performance as the second sister, Masha. Both stand out in an excellent production of what is, of course, one of the world’s great plays.

The half dozen or so Chekhov plays we have seen have fallen into two distinct camps. Some directors assume that each character must be played as if in the throes of terminal depression. When, as often happens in Chekhov plays, the Russians don’t seem to be listening to each other’s remarks, these directors call for long, awkward silences. Where an actor has a longer speech, she is instructed to step forward and intone it as if in a trance. As P. G. Wodehouse observed (through Bertie Wooster) in Jeeves in the Offing, this brand of Chekhov can be trying:

I knew Chekhov’s Seagull. My Aunt Agatha had once made me take her son Thos to a performance or it at the Old Vic, and what with the strain of trying to follow the cockeyed goings-on of characters called Zarietchnaya and Medvienko and having to be constantly on the alert to prevent Thos making a sneak for the great open spaces, my suffering had been intense.

Three Sisters

Irene Poole as Olga

That notion of Chekhov works no better for Emsworth than it did for Bertie Wooster. Fortunately, the current production of The Three Sisters at Stratford, like the one directed by Jackie Maxwell in 2003, falls into the second camp, with directors who understand that Chekhov’s characters brim with vitality and exhibit a wide range of intensely human emotions, strengths, and weaknesses.  This show is not a theatrical tone poem in a minor key; it’s about people like us that we can care about.

Three Sisters

Masha (Lucy Peacock) is, sadly, married to a good man whom she neither respects nor loves

The Three Sisters is the story of the Prozorov family: three well-educated sisters and a brother who grew up in Moscow but find themselves stranded in a small Russian village, a military outpost, a year after the death of their father. The three women — Olga (Irene Poole), Masha (Lucy Peacock), and Irina (Dalal Badr), all in their twenties — want nothing more than to leave this cultural wasteland, return to Moscow, and rejoin a social circle with people who know about literature and music. They have pinned their hopes on their brother Andrei, a violinist and a scholar with aspirations of teaching in Moscow at the university.

Unfortunately, the passionate Masha is already married to a man she does not love (Peter Hutt). As she explains to Vershinin, the only officer in their acquaintance with any cultural advantages,

I was married when I was eighteen, and I was afraid of my husband because he was a teacher, and I had only just left school. In those days I thought him an awfully learned, clever, and important person. And now it is not the same, unfortunately . . . .

Three Sisters

Andrei (Gordon S. Miller) foolishly marries a woman who comes to disgust him

And the sisters’ hopes of returning to Moscow with their brother Andrei (Gordon S. Miller) receive a blow when he develops an unfortunate attachment to Natasha (Kelli Fox), an ill-bred woman of the village. By the second act (nine months after the first), Andrei has become a husband and father, has begun a career as a petty bureaucrat, and is gambling away the small family fortune. By the final act (three years later), he knows that marrying Natasha was a colossal blunder. As he confesses to Doctor Chebutykin (James Blendick), who boards with the Prozorovs,

There is something in her that makes her no better than some petty, snake-like creature. She is not a human being. She seems to me so vulgar that I can’t account for my loving her or, anyway, having loved her.

Natasha is like the camel in the proverb who pokes his nose into a tent and ends up displacing everyone else.  (Kelli Fox gives us this dreadful termagant to the hilt.)  She bullies and shocks her sisters-in-law with her vulgarity, selfishness, and petty cruelty; in the end she drives them away from their home. Olga’s only consolation, as she reconciles herself to a provincial life as a old maid schoolmistress, is that she is able to rescue the family’s 80-year-old nanny and servant, Anfisa (Joyce Campion), to whom Natasha has been shockingly brutal. Masha and Irina have no choice but to settle for marriages to men they do not love.

The naked plot of The Three Sisters, which is much richer than three paragraphs can convey, would suggest that the play is nothing but a gloomy, metaphorical portrayal by Chekhov of all the self-inflicted wounds that were keeping Russia from advancing to modernity.  But these characters joke and tease, sing and dance, flirt and misbehave, scheme and dream.  The joy of life spills forth in every scene. 

Emsworth has three daughters of his own, presently almost exactly the same age as Chekhov’s three sisters, and was delighted to see that Chekhov was aware of how birth order influences the temperaments and personalities of siblings.  (Did we notice this when we saw the play six years ago?  We don’t remember.)  We had little difficulty in matching the salient traits of our three daughters with those of Olga, Masha, and Irina.

Other posts from Emsworth about shows in the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:

The Scottish play, set in Africa! Shakespeare’s Macbeth at this post.

Classic French drama: Jean Racine’s Phèdre at this post.

The hilarious musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at this post

The Ben Jonson play Bartholomew Fair (see this post)

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see this post)

The folly of suggesting that Shakespeare should be “translated” for modern audiences (see this post)

The marvelous quarrels in Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)

The musical West Side Story (see this post)

John Osborne’s The Entertainer at the Shaw Festival

The Shaw Festival should have been putting on plays like John Osborne’s The Entertainer long ago. This show’s only getting about three dozen performances and the new theater space isn’t very big, so we don’t suppose many people will get to see it. But it’s really too good to be missed.

Benedict Campbell as Archie Rice

Benedict Campbell as Archie Rice

The Entertainer is the second play at the Shaw Festival this season to deal with the end of the music-hall era in England. The first was Noël Coward’s Red Peppers, the one-act play in Play, Orchestra, Play (see the Emsworth review).

In 1936, the Peppers couldn’t see that vaudeville was on its way out; twenty years later in 1956, in The Entertainer, it really is over, and comic singer Archie Rice (Benedict Campbell) is hanging on for his professional life. The music halls are mostly closed, and Archie is reduced to using his tired jokes and old songs to introduce a burlesque show. His pianist (Reza Jacobs, who is excellent) has a snare drum and cymbal next to his piano for the ba-da-bings.

Corrine Koslo

Corrine Koslo

Don’t let the songs fool you:  The Entertainer is neither a musical nor in any sense a feel-good play; it’s an intense, uncomfortable story of a family that isn’t coping well with changing times. (It’s not a quick show, either — its three acts take more than three hours.) Most of the play takes place in a small apartment in the not-so-nice part of the English resort town where Archie Rice lives with his wife Phoebe (Corrine Koslo) and his father Billy Rice (David Schurmann), a retired vaudeville performer himself.  Archie and his family, all of whom drink gin incessantly, are in crisis. Archie’s daughter Jean (Krista Colosimo), who comes to visit (bringing a new bottle of gin) as the play begans, has broken her engagement to a upwardly mobile young businessman; Archie’s son Frank’s been doing time for draft-dodging, and his other son, in the military, is a POW in the Suez conflict. Archie himself is thinking of divorcing the unsuspecting Phoebe and marrying a 20-year-old.

David Schurmann

David Schurmann plays Billy Rice

In The Entertainer, the death throes of vaudeville serve as a metaphor for the decline of England itself. As Billy Rice tells his family, back in his day they didn’t need to to bring on nude women to attract a crowd; the women in vaudeville were real ladies, the kind you bowed and tipped your hat to.  You could sing a song in a pub without being drowned out by a television. People took responsibility for themselves without relying on welfare. And England wasn’t being pushed around as it was in the Suez. 

Entertainer playbill

Laurence Olivier starred in the original production of The Entertainer; Tony Richardson directed.

The acting in The Entertainer is superb.  We still remember fondly Benedict Campbell’s great performance as a top song-and-dance man a couple of years ago in Mack and Mabel; Campbell must have found it an even greater challenge to portray mediocrity in The Entertainer.  And although Archie Rice is a poor excuse for a human being, Campbell doesn’t so overplay his moral failings as to make him out as a monster.  The unintelligent, hard-drinking Phoebe Rice is no more appealing than her husband, especially when she’s in her cups; Corrine Koslo carries off the role remarkably well.  The only character with any modicum of likability is Billy Rice, a role that suits David Schurmann to a “t”. 

Laurence Olivier as Archie Rice

Olivier as the original Archie Rice

We were awfully curious to see what the new “Festival Studio Theater” would be like and how well it would work; it’s quite good.  They’ve put four rows of seats (160 seats in all) on each side of a “stage”; visibility and acoustics are excellent.  The space is in the same building complex as the Shaw Festival’s largest theater, the Festival Theater; we suppose it’s usually used as a rehearsal space.

We indulged in a little celebrity-spotting at the performance we saw, as Kelli Fox, formerly a leading actress at the Shaw but now playing Racine in Stratford, arrived at the last minute and took a seat in the row in front of us.  (We saw her as Hamlet here in Rochester at GeVa Theatre several years ago.)  Ours was a “preview” performance; presumably Ms. Fox was there to support friends in the cast. 

Emsworth reviews of other Shaw Festival productions in 2009:

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)
Noël Coward’s Brief Encounters (see this post)
Garson Kanin’s classic American comedy Born Yesterday (see this post)
Stephen Sondheim’s musical about French artist George Seurat, Sunday in the Park with George (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)

Brief Encounters at the Shaw Festival (a review)

Deborah Hay and Patrick Galligan 2

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

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

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

Krista Colosimo

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

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

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

Thom Marriott & Corrine Koslo

Thom Marriott and Corrine Koslo in Still Life

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

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

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

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

Patrick Galligan

The silver-haired Galligan

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

Deborah Hay and Patrick Galligan

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

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

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

Hands Across the Sea

The cast of Hands Across the Sea

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

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

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

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

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

Emsworth reviews of other Shaw Festival productions in 2009:

John Osborne’s The Entertainer (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Ways of the Heart (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Play, Orchestra, Play (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Star Chamber (see this post)
Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)

The Cherry Orchard at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn

We might have thought August: Osage County was a better play if we hadn’t seen this fine production of The Cherry Orchard in Brooklyn the night before. (Emsworth vents about the popular but incoherent Osage County play in this post.)


Ethan Hawke, Sinéad Cusack, Paul Jesson, and Rebecca Hall. Hall's drab costumes only accentuated her appeal.

Of course, no one needs Emsworth to tell him that The Cherry Orchard is a masterpiece. But it’s easier to make a Chekhov play into a dreary yawner than to bring it to life.  We can report that this production by director Sam Mendes and the Bridge Project is a great success.

We saw it on a whim, ordering our tickets by cellphone as we were driving down to New York City on a Friday afternoon. (We were agreeably shocked to find ourselves talking to a actual box-office employee of the theater, not an anonymous Ticketmaster flunky.) What we Rochesterians didn’t realize until after we’d bought our tickets was that the BAM Harvey Theater is in Brooklyn, not Manhattan (To our shame, we did not know that “BAM” stands for the Brooklyn Academy of Music or that it has been an oasis for classical theater for many years.). We took a different set of expressways, dodged the enormous Brooklyn potholes, and arrived in time for a decidedly undistinguished meal at a kitschy, self-important diner called “Junior’s” that we spotted a couple of blocks from the theater.

The theater itself was something to see.  It must have been a fine old vaudeville playhouse, with its Roman columns, staircases, and a grand balcony, back in the day (1904) when it used to be the Majestic Theater. The place was apparently crumbling and abandoned when (as we learned) one Harvey Lichtenstein bought it twenty years ago and renovated it — after a fashion. It looks as if they stripped away a lot of plaster, down to the pipes and wires, then ran out of money and simply sprayed shellac over everything. We make no value judgments.


Sinéad Cusack and Simon Russell Beale

The Cherry Orchard is set in Imperial Russia at the end of the nineteenth century. It is the story of a proud and formerly wealthy Russian land-owning family that can’t come to grips with changing times.  Here’s the plot: When Ranavskaya (Sinéad Cusack) and her daughter Anya return home from several years in Paris, they face a crisis; their grand estate is about to be sold at a mortgage foreclosure auction.  Ranavskaya’s neighbor Lopakhin (Simon Russell Beale), a prosperous merchant from a peasant family, urges her to save the estate by cutting down its large but unproductive cherry orchard (of which the family is immensely proud) and converting the land into summer villas for the nouveau riche from the cities.


Sinead Cusack's Ranevskaya is prone to melodrama. Standing: Richard Easton as the aged Firs.

But Ranavskaya refuses to face the crisis, or even to talk about it.  Her inability to engage with Lopakhin, who genuinely wants to help her, is just one of many instances in this play in which the characters simply fail to listen to one another.

Ranavskaya throws money around as if the family were still rich. And she still treats her “free” servants like serfs, like the non-people of Gogol’s Dead Souls, even though serfdom was abolished in 1861, several decades before the scenes in The Cherry Orchard. Her elderly footman, Firs (Richard Easton), pines for the days before emancipation, when people knew their places in society.


Ethan Hawke as Profimov resembled Emsworth in his own student days

Ranavskaya’s stepdaughter Varya (Rebecca Hall) and Ranavskaya’s brother Gaev (Paul Jesson) realize that a marriage between Varya and the now-wealthy Lopakhin would solve the family’s financial woes. Varya is willing, but Lopakhin, acutely conscious of their differences in social rank, and perhaps still harboring a crush on Ranavskaya, has never brought himself to speak to her. Instead, a useless romance has sprung up between Anya and the former family tutor Trofimov (Ethan Hawke), a fervent radical socialist and perpetual student.


Rebecca Hall as Vicky in the recent Woody Allen film Vicky Cristina Barcelona

There are more than enough “names” in this show. The ravishing Rebecca Hall had the title role in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona last year (we thought she was excellent, although Penelope Cruz got the Oscar nomination). Ethan Hawke had lots of screen time in last year’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. And we remember vividly Sinéad Cusack’s supporting role as Dr. Delia Surridge in V is for Vendetta.


Hawke in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

But this show is not just something movie stars decided to do between films; this is serious acting by serious, first-rate actors.

We learned from the program that the Bridge Project is a sort of exchange program for actors, a joint undertaking of the Old Vic, in London, where Kevin Spacey is artistic director, and the BAM Harvey Theater, where Sam Mendes is in charge. (Talk about the movies, though! — Mendes was the director for American Beauty, The Road to Perdition, and the recent Revolutionary Road.)

Because of this collaboration, some of the actors (like Simon Russell Beale and Sinéad Cusack) are British members of the Old Vic company; others (like Ethan Hawke and Dakin Matthews) are American. Our only cavil was with the accents. The Brits used upper-class British accents; Ethan Hawke used a working-class American accent; and Selina Cadell, as the French governess Charlotta, spoke in what seemed to be a parody of a French-Russian accent. We thought at one point that the accents might have been intended to match the social status of the characters, but can’t say for sure.

Although we (understandably) couldn’t keep our eyes off Rebecca Hall, we loved Simon Russell Beale as Lopakhin, ambivalent about his upward mobility. He’s one of the best actors we’ve ever seen. And we were especially delighted with Richard Easton as the addled old servant Firs.  These classical actors are worth going out of one’s way for.

The script of this play was a “version” (apparently not a “translation”) of Chekhov’s play by the contemporary playwright Tom Stoppard.  When we got home, we pulled the Constance Garnett translation off our shelves and read it through; we don’t think Stoppard did anything radical.  In the older translations like Garnett’s, the language is so stilted that the essence of Chekhov is lost — or at least so it seems to us. On stage, Stoppard’s “version” was natural-sounding and went a long ways toward closing the cultural gap between our time and Chekhov’s Russia.

This show rates with the 2003 production of The Three Sisters at the Shaw Festival, directed by Jackie Maxwell, as the best Chekhov we’ve ever experienced. We see that this same outstanding ensemble of actors is now also performing Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale in repertory at the Bam Harvey Theater. Unfortunately, we probably won’t be back to New York City before its run is over.

Not enough color at the Shaw Festival?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs. Warren’s Profession at the Shaw Festival

We’ve been going to the Shaw Festival long enough now to see most all the full-length Bernard Shaw plays that are actually performed anymore (which is still most of them). We’ve also seen some of them more than once: Major Barbara (1998 and 2004), The Philanderer (1995 and 2007), Arms and the Man (1994 and 2006), and now, Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1997 and 2008).

What surprised us was that in each case we saw a livelier, better-focused, more entertaining production the second time around.  From which we conclude that, for the last half dozen years, the Shaw Festival has been doing Shaw better then ever.

This year’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession is a case in point.  The 1997 production had left us with the impression that this was a relatively humorless Shaw play with a strained plot and an uninteresting heroine who shouldn’t have had so much trouble deciding how she felt about her mother.  After seeing the 2008 version, we know better.

Andrew Bunker and Moya O'Connell as Vivie and Frank in "Mrs. Warren's Profession"

As this play opens, the 22-year-old Vivie Warren (Moya O’Connell) has just graduated from Cambridge with an advanced degree in mathematics (a rare accomplishment for a woman in the 1890s). What next? She has an opportunity with an actuarial office in London; at the same time, during a vacation at her mother’s country cottage, she has been dallying with a young man from the neighborhood, Frank Gardner (Andrew Bunker).

Unaware that her daughter has ideas of her own, Vivie’s mother Kitty Warren (Mary Haney), wants to set her up in society.   But after years of boarding schools and university, Vivie hardly knows her mother and has questions.  Who is her father?  (Why was Shaw attracted to this theme?  He used it in You Never Can Tell as well.)  How has her mother made her money? And why does she spend all her time away in Brussels and Vienna?

Mary Haney and Benedict Campbell as Mrs. Warren and Crofts

Vivie is shocked to learn from her mother and her mother’s friends that the money that has put her through England’s finest schools has come from a string of European brothels managed by her mother — and that her mother was herself once a courtesan.  She is also dismayed to find that her mother is encouraging her to entertain the matrimonial advances of a wealthy but dissolute baronet (played by Benedict Campbell) twice her age — who was once one of her mother’s customers.

This show, as directed by Jackie Maxwell, never rushes and never drags.  The fine sets, which reminded us of tinted etchings, drew us back to the late 19th century.  In general, Ms. Maxwell followed the set, costuming, and stage directions that Shaw set down when he wrote the play.  We were grateful for this; too often directors who would not substitute their own dialogue for a playwright’s have no qualms about ignoring the director’s other specifications for his play.

On the left: Mary Haney as Mrs. Warren. On the right: one of Toulouse-Lautrec's madames.

The acting is marvelous, especially that of Shaw Festival veteran Mary Haney as Mrs. Warren herself, who plays a character struggling to straddle two worlds.  Early in the play, aspiring to marry her daughter to a baronet and aspiring to a place in English society, she is costumed and behaves like an English gentlewoman.  By the last scene, about to return to her life as a brothel madam, both her costume (very much like one of the garish madams in a painting by Toulouse-Lautrec) and her coarse manner is that of the brothels to which she is about to return.  The audience is persuaded that Mrs. Warren was born into the lowest ranks of London society because (thanks to the skill of Ms. Haney) her working-class accent “betrays” her at moments of high emotion (an effect prescribed by Shaw himself).

Toulouse-Lautrec's painting "At the Moulin Rouge" is owned by the Art Institute of Chicago

As Sir George Crofts, Mrs. Warren’s silent partner in the prostitution business, Benedict Campbell is appropriately revolting; our audience sighed audibly with relief when Vivie rejected his proposal.  Despite his distinguished appearance and manner, Campbell passes easily for the “brutal waster” that Vivie Warren saw him for. 

Andrew Bunker, as Vivie’s romantic interest (and possibly her half-brother), shows himself an excellent Shavian actor.  Only Moya O’Connell, as Mrs. Warren’s daughter, was not fully satisfactory.  We did not hear her as well as the other actors, and every now and then she seemed to mistake the meaning of her lines by emphasizing the wrong words.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession is one of two plays at the Shaw Festival this year with a connection to one of Emsworth’s favorite writers, Evelyn Waugh.  As I noted in an earlier post, Terrence Rattigan’s After the Dance provides a “ten years later” look at the frivolous young socialites the 1920s, the subjects of several of Waugh’s brilliant novels.  In the finest of those novels, Decline and Fall, one of the characters learns belatedly that his rich fiance, Margot Beste-Chetwynde, is actually the proprietor of a chain of brothels in South America.  Waugh must have had Kitty Warren in the back of his mind when he invented his character in Decline and Fall.

See this post for Emsworth’s review of The Stepmother at the Shaw Festival.

See this post for Emsworth’s review of the Leonard Bernstein musical Wonderful Town at the Shaw Festival.

See this post for Emsworth’s review of Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married at the Shaw Festival.

The Stepmother at the Shaw Festival (a review)

Jackie Maxwell

Jackie Maxwell

Emsworth admires the nerve of Jackie Maxwell, artistic director for the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario). In picking the playbill for the 2008 season, she chose one play (After the Dance) whose original production in 1939 ran for only a few performances and has languished in obscurity ever since.

And then she chose another play, a drama written by Githa Sowerby in the early 1920s that had never even been produced at all. Give her credit: The Stepmother is a remarkably good play, and the Shaw Festival’s production is a crowd-pleaser.

Blair Williams, Claire Julien, and Marla McLean

The Stepmother is the story of a smooth-talking con man, Eustace Gaydon (Blair Williams), his family, and his downfall. As the play begins, in 1911, Gaydon’s shady schemes have failed him and he is broke; he has even squandered moneys entrusted to him by his Aunt Charlotte (Jennifer Phipps). He expects, however, to escape exposure as soon as he receives an inheritance of 30,000 pounds from another rich relative who has just died. When Gaydon, a widower, learns that the money has been left instead to her young companion, Lois Relph (Clare Jullien), he hires her as a governess to his two young daughters, marries her, and starts over with her money.

Ten years later, his house of cards is collapsing again. His oldest daughter Monica (Marla McLean) needs money to get married, and her stepmother Lois, who has become deeply attached to the girls, wants to help. But Gaydon, again on the verge of a crash, keeps putting them off. His daughters and their stepmother are the last to know the truth about him.

Blair Williams, as the unscrupulous Eustace Gaydon, plays the most thoroughgoing villain seen at the Shaw Festival in years. Gaydon lies to his wife and toys with her mind much as Charles Boyer manipulated Ingrid Bergman in the classic thriller Gaslight. (Indeed, the program bios indicate that the stage version of Gaslight is among Blair Williams’s credits; I wonder which part he played.)

Claire Julien and Patrick Galligan

The sympathies of audience members at the performance I saw were all with Gaydon’s pretty wife; the audience didn’t for a minute blame the long-suffering Lois for yielding to a love affair with her generous, handsome neighbor Peter Holland (Patrick Galligan).

And the people in the seats had Gaydon’s number early in the play. By the second act, audience members in the intimate Court House Theatre (especially the women) were gasping and hissing with each bold new lie. Hostility toward Blair Williams, who clearly relished his role as a scoundrel, became marked and general.

Marla McLean and Jesse Martyn

The Stepmother is great entertainment, skillfully acted and crisply staged under the direction of Jackie Maxwell herself. Unusually for nonmusical plays at the Shaw Festival, the audience applauded with each scene change, not merely after each of the two acts. The show does not have a weak performance, but we especially enjoyed Marla McLean as Gaydon’s strong-willed daughter Monica Gaydon. We also admired the striking period costumes, designed by William Schmuck.

Our performance included a brief moment of unintended drama. During the play, the character played by talented veteran actress Jennifer Phipps ages by ten years, becomes elderly and infirm, and dies (offstage). Coming onto the stage for her bows, Miss Phipps tripped and fell to the floor, to the gasps of the alarmed audience. The applause stopped as the other actors helped her to her feet, then resumed with renewed vigor.