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.

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.

Ways of the Heart at the Shaw Festival (a review)

Patrick McManus

Patrick McManus was superb in Family Affair and even better in Ways and Means

Some folks saw all four of the Noël Coward shows at the Shaw Festival in a single day.  We spread Tonight at 8:30 out over two and half months, which gave us time to think (and blog) about what we’d seen. Now we’re done, having caught Ways of the Heart in the Courthouse Theater last Sunday evening.  These three one-acts may not be the best of the series, but they’re still indispensable.

But first, a protest against what we had to go through just to get into Canada in the first place. We left Rochester in plenty of time to reach Niagara-on-the-Lake by 6:00 or so and have dinner at the Epicurean before the 8:00 p.m. show. But cars were lined up at the Lewiston/Queenston border crossing for two miles, and we had to sit in line for the better part of two hours (our time with the customs inspector took all of 30 seconds). And what about the environment?  Our car’s computer said that we wasted nearly a gallon of gas idling in line; the SUVs all around us must have burned even more. We got to our show, without dinner, with only minutes to spare.

We saw recently that the Canadian government gave the Shaw Festival and the Stratford Festival several million dollars to promote tourism. Don’t they realize that nothing discourages spontaneous visits to Ontario more than the tedious, unpredictable delays at the border? Why didn’t they put a little extra “tourism” money into adding more booths at the border crossing and hiring more inspectors? We bet tourism would pick up by 100 percent if the province of Ontario could advertise that there’d never be more than a five minute wait at the border.

Back to the show: Ways of the Heart is at the Courthouse Theatre, where there’s a radically different dynamic between actors and audience. When you’re witnessing painful marital scenes like those in The Astonished Heart (the first and longest of the three plays in this show) from a vantage point eight feet away from the actors, you feel like a voyeur.

The Astonished Heart is one of two plays in Tonight at 8:30 that gives an embryo-to-grave sketch of an illicit romance. The first, in the Shaw Festival show titled Brief Encounters, was Still Life (see this post), in which an affair starts innocently; the lovers attract the audience’s sympathy because of their fundamental decency.

Claire Jullien

Claire Jullien

The lovers in The Astonished Heart are of a different sort. Here the affair starts when a jaded woman on the prowl, Leonora Vail (Claire Jullien), deliberately sets out to seduce an old school friend’s husband. Her target, Chris Faber (David Jansen), is a tightly wound, self-satisfied psychiatrist who turns out to be spectacularly ill-equipped for a relationship that he can’t control.  (Still Life involves an affair with a doctor, too.)  There’s no tenderness in their love affair, nor do we have much sympathy for the injured wife, Barbara (Laurie Paton), who faces the collapse of her marriage with almost pathological coolness.

Laurie Paton

We especially loved Laurie Paton as Lavinia Featherways in Family Affair

After intermission comes Family Affair, an intensely entertaining, offbeat satire of the way people behave when they’re not really sorry someone has died. The ten members of the Featherways family stand around their drawing room in extravagantly gothic mourning clothes (the play is set in the mid-1800s; the scene lacks only a raven) doing their best to mourn the passing of their father, whose Victorian portrait hangs over the mantle.

Michael Ball

We hope the Shaw Festival has bigger roles for Michael Ball in 2010

But they can keep up their long faces only so long.  One after the other, the Featherways admit to themselves and to each other that the old man was a dissolute skinflint and that his death came as a relief. Patrick McManus and Laurie Paton are in rare form as Jasper and Lavinia Featherways, but Michael Ball (still our favorite Shaw Festival actor) steals the show as Burrows, the Featherways’ decrepit, conveniently deaf butler.

David Jansen

David Jansen

The final play, Ways and Means, was, we must say, the weakest of the ten one-act plays we saw, even though its setting and plot are straight out of P. G. Wodehouse. The main problem, we thought, is that David Jansen plays what is supposed to be a comic role with the same sour, joyless affect that he used in The Astonished Heart earlier in the show. It’s also the way he’s currently playing the alcoholic James Tyrone in A Moon for the Misbegotten (see our review) and the way he played the shattered Horace Gibbens last year in The Little Foxes (see our review).  One approach doesn’t fit all.

Ways and Means takes place in a guest bedroom at the French Riviera estate of Olive Lloyd-Ransome (Lisa Codrington), where socialites Toby and Stella Cartwright (Jansen and Claire Jullien again) have overstayed their welcome. The Cartwrights live by their charm and wits, but now they’re broke; they’ve lost what little money they had at the casino and at the bridge table and don’t even have enough to leave town.

They brainstorm for ways to raise money: Have Stella’s maid hock a necklace?  Corral someone who owes them money? Borrow from their hostess? A solution comes in the middle of the night when an ex-valet-turned-burglar, Stevens (Patrick McManus again), invades their bedroom.

At our performance, the opening scenes between Stella and Toby got no audience reaction.  Was this due, we wondered, to 75- year-old material that no longer packs any comic punches?  Unemployed social parasites like the Cartwrights were natural objects of ridicule in the twenties and thirties (Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and his fellow drones are the classic examples), but they’re not a familiar species anymore. At one point Stella says to Toby, “It seems a pity that you can’t turn your devastating wit to a more commercial advantage — you should write a gossip column.”  Toby responds, “I haven’t got a title.”  This must have been a surefire laugh line in 1935 when destitute dukes and duchesses wrote gossip columns for the London papers. But nobody laughed last Sunday evening in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

But even more of a problem than dated material, we thought, was David Jansen’s inability to deliver comic lines with comic effect. Moments after Patrick McManus came on stage as the burglar Stevens, the play came to life and our audience suddenly realized that Ways and Means was a comedy, not a drama. Did Coward’s play abruptly change its mood with Stevens’s entrance (to some extent it did, we think, though we hesitate to suggest that Coward wrote anything with a flaw), or did McManus bring comic skills that Jansen lacks? We would have liked to have seen Blair Williams, a talented comic actor who was director of this show, playing Jansen’s roles.

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 Play, Orchestra, Play (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Star Chamber (see this post)
Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Brief Encounters (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)

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.

Getting Married at the Shaw Festival (a review)

Getting Married(June 6, 2008) Performances of George Bernard Shaw don’t get much sharper than the Shaw Festival‘s 2008 production of the comedy Getting Married. This show kept an embarrassing grin on my face for more than two solid hours, the first time something like that has happened since last year’s The Philanderer. Only a repertory ensemble whose members have spent as much time with each other and with Shaw as these have, could do a show like this so well.

These actors understand Shaw’s wit and the rhythm of his cadences, and they deliver his lines so easily and with such timing that we hardly notice that Shaw’s comedy is a vehicle for radical ideas about marriage with which we most certainly do not agree (for instance, the idea that polyandry or marriage for an agreed term of years should be allowed). This production goes down so pleasantly that we hardly notice that, in this hundred-year-old play, Shaw was attacking laws concerning marriage (restrictions on divorce, financial responsibility of husbands for their wives’ torts, and so on) that are now mere historical curiosities. These laws were changed long before most of us were born.

Getting Married is the story of a wedding day that doesn’t come off as planned. Instead of putting on their wedding finery and appearing at the church, the young bride and groom are having second thoughts — not about each other, but about whether marriage carries too many risks, legal and social. Meanwhile, their friends and relatives, some single, some married, some trying to become unmarried, are experiencing their own hilarious crises.

Those who might tend to avoid a Bernard Shaw play because of the long, preachy speeches that slow down many of his plays should know that Getting Married has much less of this than usual. Getting Married was written only a year or two before his best-known play, Pygmalion, and has much the same lively spirit as that comedy.

Getting Married doesn’t really have a lead role. But the Shaw’s cast includes so many practiced scene-stealers that a lead is not missed. Chief among the culprits here are Michael Ball as the philosophical greengrocer Collins, on whom all the characters rely for everything (Alfred Doolittle, in Pygmalion, is undoubtedly a relative of Collins’s), Laurie Paton as the masterful, impossible Mrs. George, and the wonderful Norman Browning, who plays the same harrumphing lovable grouch that he always plays, and to the usual crowd-pleasing effect. Sharry Flett, as the gracious Bishop’s wife, is pitch-perfect. It has seemed to me that there have been fewer meaty roles lately for Michael Ball, my favorite actor at the Shaw, so it was good to see him in top form in Getting Married.

All in all, this show succeeds because of exceptional ensemble work. The real star of Getting Married is the director, Joseph Ziegler, who set the actors on a fine brisk pace.  Seated toward the front of the Royal George Theater, I enjoyed the “stereo” effect Ziegler achieved several times by positioning the actors so that rapid-fire lines from a half-dozen actors flew counter-clockwise around the stage.

I hope the problems that the inimitable David Schurmann was having with his voice the day we saw the show have been resolved. Fortunately, they didn’t detract from his performance.

The only jarring notes came during the bows, when a version of the sixties girl-group hit “Chapel of Love” came blaring out through the p.a. system and knocked the grin off my face.

The first time I experienced this sort of outrage was at the end of the Stratford Festival’s Troilus and Cressida about five years ago. As darkness fell at the end of that earthy and revelatory production, we were assaulted with the Nine Inch Nails tune “Closer,” with its immortal lyric, “I want to f*** you like an animal.” I understand that the Stratford’s new artistic director Des McAnuff has done the same thing at the end of this year’s Romeo and Juliet using the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.”

Enough already, I say. A great play transports us to other times and places. After the curtain falls, I’m in no hurry to be yanked back to 2008. Even less do I want to be dropped off rudely in the sixties. Directors should let us depart in peace.

See Emsworth’s reviews of other shows in the Shaw Festival’s 2008 season, including An Inspector Calls, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, and the classic American musical, with music by Leonard Bernstein, Wonderful Town. Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance is reviewed in this post.

Emsworth reviews the Stratford Festival’s 2008 production of Hamlet in this post.