We preview the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s 2012 season

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario) will be celebrating its 60th season by cutting its Shakespeare offerings down to three plays, plus a version of Macbeth using characters from The Simpsons. Overall, it’s a disappointing 2012 playbill. Still, in order of interest, these are the shows that interest us the most:

1. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (at the Festival Theater)

Much Ado About Nothing figures to be the best Shakespeare of the season. Ben Carlson, one of the finest classical actors we’ve seen anywhere, will play Benedict, and his wife Deborah Hay will appear as Beatrice. Since he’s been at Stratford, Mr. Carlson’s been as good as they get as Hamlet, Brutus, Leontes, Touchstone, and Alceste (in last season’s The Misanthrope). The question is whether Ms. Hay can match him in Shakespeare. At the Shaw Festival she stood out as a comic actress, but she was also terrific three years in a more nuanced role in Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance (see this Emsworth post).

If you haven’t noticed, Shakespeare’s five most popular comedies are in a rotation of sorts at the Stratford Festival; it’s comforting to know that it won’t be long before you can see one of your favorites. We’ve had

The Taming of the Shrew (2003)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2004)
As You Like It (2005)
Twelfth Night (2006)
Much Ado About Nothing (2006)

The Taming of the Shrew (2008)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2009)
As You Like It (2010)
Twelfth Night (2011)

It was therefore predictable that Much Ado About Nothing, which is indeed a favorite of ours, would be on the marquee in 2012. It will be directed by former Shaw Festival Artistic Director Christopher Newton, who has said the play will be set in Brazil.

2. Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (at the Tom Patterson Theater)

We’ve tried and failed several times to read Cymbeline, but it’s always seemed too hard to follow. So we’re hoping this show will bring to life a Shakespeare play that hasn’t worked for us in print. Stratford productions have done this for us before — we’re thinking especially of Troilus and Cressida (2003) and Two Gentleman of Verona (2010).

We don’t claim to understand Cymbeline‘s plot, which is the complicated story of a young woman who marries against her father’s will. Geraint Wyn Davies will play the title role, and Cara Ricketts will play his daughter Imogen. Despite its uncomfortable seats, the Tom Patterson Theatre is still our favorite place to see Shakespeare.

3. 42nd Street (at the Festival Theater)

We were startled to realize that 42nd Street was not from the golden age of Broadway musicals. We’d seen the ’30s movie and assumed wrongly that it was based on a musical play. In fact, 42nd Street wasn’t staged until 1980; it won the Tony as best musical play in 1981.

The story of 42nd Street is a show about a show, with cliches that were endlessly recycled in old movie musicals; a chorus girl, Peggy Sawyer, is canned for messing up, but is rehired to take the place of an injured star. Interestingly, the Stratford Festival has yet to announce who will play Peggy Sawyer. [1-23-12 update: it’s been announced that Jennifer Rider-Shaw, a young singer who was part of the company in Jesus Christ Superstar last year, has been given the part.] But long-time Stratford favorite Cynthia Dale will be returning to play Dorothy Brock, the injured leading lady whom Peggy Sawyer replaces. Gary Griffin, who directed the phenomenal West Side Story at Stratford three years ago, will be in charge.

The show uses one of Emsworth’s all-time top-ten favorite pop songs, “I Only Have Eyes for You.” This tune was not in the 1933 movie, but was instead written by the same songwriting team of Harry Warren and Al Dubin for another show, Dames, a year later. Other songs in 42nd Street include “Lullabye of Broadway” (which wasn’t in the 1933 movie either) and “You’re Getting to Be A Habit With Me.” June 2012 update: “I Only Have Eyes for You” wasn’t used in the show after all! But the show as a whole was dazzling entertainment.

4. Electra (by Sophocles, at the Tom Patterson Theater)

Another shot at classical Greek tragedy! We have shamefully little experience either seeing or reading the ancient Greek poets. Three years ago at Stratford we did see a play by Euripedes, The Trojan Women, which like Electra was written about 400 years before the birth of Christ, but we didn’t know what to make of it and didn’t feel confident enough to blog about it. We still find it mind-boggling to think that these dramas have been preserved for 2500 years.

In a way, Electra is a sequel to The Trojan Women. In the latter play, the Greek king Agamemnon and his men have burned Troy and carried off their women. In Electra, the Greeks are back home after the Trojan wars, but Agamemnon and his new Trojan concubine Cassandra have been murdered by his wife Clytemnestra (as predicted by Cassandra in The Trojan Women). Agamemnon’s daughter Electra is unhappy about the murder of her father, and she and her twin brother Orestes set about to revenge their father by slaying their mother. Good times!

In the plays of Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw, and Arthur Miller — that is, in modern theater — the characters have more or less realistic conversations with one another. There was none of that in The Trojan Women, which consisted mostly of protracted laments by angry women, plus speeches by the gods. There probably won’t be any snappy repartee in Electra either. But it’s a different genre; we’ve gathered that ancient Greek tragedy is as different from modern theater as modern theater is from opera.

5. The Matchmaker (by Thornton Wilder, at the Festival Theatre)

Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams wrote novels too, but nobody reads them. Thornton Wilder is on the short list of writers who have been as successful writing stories and novels as they have writing plays. In fact, we just read and enjoyed Wilder’s late novel The Eighth Day this fall.

Everyone knows and loves Wilder’s Our Town, but The Matchmaker, which we enjoyed about ten years ago at the Shaw Festival, is every bit as entertaining, and funnier. This is the play on which the musical Hello, Dolly! was based. The wonderful Seana McKenna will play the matchmaker, Dolly Levi.

6. Henry V (by William Shakespeare, at the Festival Theatre)

Emsworth ungraciously announced a year ago that he did not intend to buy any more tickets for Shakespeare plays directed by Stratford Artistic Director Des McAnuff. Faithful to that vow, we boycotted the McAnuff-directed Twelfth Night last summer, even though it’s one of our very favorite Shakespeare plays (see this list), and even though it was apparently popular with Stratford audiences. We were told by reliable friends that we did well to skip it. We don’t doubt that Mr. McAnuff sincerely loves Shakespeare, but he clearly doesn’t have faith that a Shakespeare play can stand on its own without gimmicks like the sixties-style rock songs that (report has it) repeatedly interrupted the story of Twelfth Night last summer.

But what could Mr. McAnuff possibly do to ruin Henry V? It’s a play about a historical English king, set unambiguously in a definite time and place in history. So surely he won’t re-imagine it as a fascist fable (as he did with As You Like It a couple of years ago) or set it in Africa (as he did with the Scottish play, Macbeth, a year before that). Fortunately, our vows are not as inviolable as Lear’s, which he “durst never” break (King Lear, Act I, Scene 1). We’ve never seen Henry V on stage, and we badly want to.

It’s disappointing that Ben Carlson wasn’t cast as Henry V. Mr. Carlson is of suitable age for the role now, but he won’t be the next time the Stratford Festival mounts Henry V, in another ten years or so. The part has been given instead to Aaron Krohn; Mr. Carlson will be relegated to the minor role of of the Welshman, Fluellen. Lucy Peacock will adorn the role of the Hostess; we’ll be glad to see Tom Rooney as Pistol.

7. A Word or Two (readings/recitations by Christopher Plummer, at the Avon Theater)

A year ago we expressed the hope that Christopher Plummer would return to Stratford in 2012 to play the Duke in Measure for Measure. Mr. Plummer is indeed coming back to Stratford, but to give a solo program of readings and recitations. It’ll run for only a month, from late July to late August.

No doubt these readings will be memorable. But we are seriously put off by the fact that tickets for this one-man show will be about 30 percent more expensive than tickets for, say, Henry V, which will have castles full of courtiers and battlefields full of armies.

8. The Pirates of Penzance (operetta by Gilbert & Sullivan, at the Avon Theatre)

Wonderful tunes, clever lyrics. The Pirates of Penzance is the farcical story of a young man whose nurse accidentally apprentices him to a band of pirates, to whom he is bound until his 21st birthday. But Frederic was born on February 29, so unfortunately he won’t hit 21 for a while. It’s all very entertaining, but we’ve come to think of Gilbert & Sullivan as community theater material and aren’t likely to add this show to our bundle of tickets.

9. You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (musical play based on Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts, at the Avon Theatre)

Surely they jest.

10. MacHomer at the Studio Theatre)

Homer Simpson and family do Macbeth. Here’s more evidence that the management at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival doesn’t have faith in its core product. This show will play only during May, while the schools are still in session and English teachers are still bringing their students to Stratford. After all, why should the kids have to suffer through Much Ado About Nothing? Give ’em something they’ll understand! And something that’ll make ’em laugh!

Other shows: Hirsch (by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson, in the Studio Theatre); The Best Brothers (by Daniel MacIvor, in the Studio Theatre); Wanderlust (by Morris Panych, in the Tom Patterson Theatre)

The play called Hirsch is about John Hirsch, who was Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival for five years about 30 years ago. We’re not uninterested in the history of the Stratford Festival (see this post), but this seems a stretch.

The Best Brothers is a world premiere by a Canadian playwright, described as the story of a couple of brothers coming to grips with the death of their mother.

Wanderlust is a new musical play written by the Canadian playwright and director Morris Panych. It’s advertised as based on the poems of Canadian poet Robert W. Service. Like Jack London, Service wrote a good deal about the gold rush in Alaska and the Yukon in the early 20th century, and that’s what this story is about. Tom Rooney will take the role of the poet.

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The Admirable Crichton at the Shaw Festival

We found J. M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton, now playing at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), so clever and delightful in every detail that we’ll see it again if we can. We haven’t enjoyed ourselves so much at the theater in a long time.

Nicole Underhay as Lady Mary Lasenby, David Schurmann as Lord Loam, and Steven Sutcliffe as Crichton

Crichton (pronounced “CRY-ton”) is a 30-year-old butler in the high-toned Mayfair household of the Earl of Loam (David Schurmann), described by the playwright in the printed version of the play as “a widower, a philanthropist, and a peer of advanced ideas.” One of Lord Loam’s ideas is that class differences are artificial, and he has decreed that, once a month, all the servants in his house must take tea in the drawing-room with him and his family as guests and equals. These social events are dreaded not only by Lord Loam’s three daughters, but also by the servants. Crichton, who as butler is head of the servants’ hall, finds them excruciating:

ERNEST: Do you know, Crichton, I think that with an effort you might look even happier. (Crichton smiles wanly.) You don’t approve of his lordship’s compelling his servants to be his equals — once a month?

CRICHTON: It is not for me, sir, to disapprove of his lordship’s Radical views.

ERNEST: Certainly not. And, after all, it is only once a month that he is affable to you.

CRICHTON: On all other days of the month, sir, his lordship’s treatment of us is everything that could be desired.

Lord Loam’s daughters know how profoundly uncomfortable Crichton is with this charade of equality:

LADY MARY (sarcastically): How Crichton enjoys it!

LORD LOAM (frowning): He is the only one who doesn’t; pitiful creature.

CRICHTON: I can’t help being a Conservative, my lord.

LORD LOAM: Be a man, Crichton. You are the same flesh and blood as myself.

CRICHTON (in pain): Oh, my lord!

Under pressure, Crichton reluctantly explains his distaste for “equality” to Lady Mary:

CRICHTON: My lady, I am the son of a butler and a lady’s-maid — perhaps the happiest of all combinations; and to me the most beautiful thing in the world is a haughty, aristocratic English house, with every one kept in his place. Though I were equal to your ladyship, where would be the pleasure to me? It would be counterbalanced by the pain of feeling that Thomas and John were equal to me.

Steven Sutcliffe as Crichton and Nicole Underhay as Lady Mary Lasenby

A few days after the “servants’ tea,” Lord Loam and his family leave on a private yacht for an extended voyage to the South Seas. Crichton suggests a kitchen maid, Tweeny, as ladies’ maid on the yacht for Lady Mary and her sisters, and Crichton himself is persuaded to go along as Lord Loam’s valet.

Two months later, the entire party is shipwrecked on a deserted island in the South Pacific, where it becomes immediately clear that Crichton is the only one of the Londoners with survival skills. Indeed, Crichton finds himself in his element, able, intelligent, and masterful. He disabuses his erstwhile superiors of the notion that they can continue to be idle on the island, and as “nature” takes its course, their roles are reversed: Crichton becomes a benevolent, respected master of a smoothly run island establishment, and the others, who call him “the Gov.” (which is how the servants back in London referred among themselves to Lord Loam), become his servants.

Ready to fend off a wild beast on the island

Nature also takes course in the form of a blossoming romance between Crichton and Lord Loam’s eldest daughter, Lady Mary (who in the new “natural” order of things has been rechristened “Polly”, just as household servants in London households were given arbitrary new names by their superiors). After two years on the island, none of the party expects to be see London again. The sight of a ship forces the issue of what must happen to their relationships if they were to be rescued and restored to Mayfair.

In this show, every touch from director Morris Panych is golden; every minute a dozen small things tickle your fancy. It all works: the narration, the costuming, the songs, the singing animals (Panych’s idea, not Barrie’s), the little bits of pantomime business, the vanity of Ernest, who annoys everyone with his epigrams. The narration is taken directly from J. M. Barrie’s stage directions (reading his plays in print is a treat). The animals sing clever arrangements of swing tunes from the 1920s in close harmony. The “servants’ tea” scene in the opening act is comic genius. Panych’s material is superb, as Barrie’s characters are fully drawn and brilliantly colored, and Panych has given this show all the sauciness and scope of a well-directed musical.

David Schurmann as The Earl of Loam and Marla McLean as Tweeny

What’s priceless, though, is the way this superb cast delivers Barrie’s lines. No better Crichton could have been found anywhere than Steven Sutcliffe. He is as commanding on the stage as a Mayfair butler as he is as the buff, masterful “Gov.” on the island. The diminutive Marla McLean is an arresting and remarkably convincing Tweeny. David Schurmann, a world-class Shavian actor, plays the naïve and ineffectual Lord Loam. We were especially glad to see the ravishing Nicole Underhay back at the Shaw Festival.  Her transformation from a bored, jaded Londoner to an exuberant, accomplished island-dweller is something to see.

Crichton is a marvelous character, and he’d probably be better-known today if The Admirable Crichton hadn’t been overshadowed by the the popularity of Peter Pan, and if P. G. Wodehouse had not created Jeeves, who since the 1920s has been by far the best-known fictional member of the English serving classes. Jeeves was not strictly speaking a butler; he was a gentleman’s gentleman, serving Bertie Wooster as valet, personal secretary, butler, and jack of all trades. Still, Jeeves and Crichton have a lot in common as polished, intelligent, well-read masters of their own domains.

We think Wodehouse, a man of the theater who happened to be one of J. M. Barrie’s cricket pals, surely had Crichton as one of his models when he brought Jeeves into being. Early in The Admirable Crichton, for instance, we learn that Crichton has an ulterior motive for promoting Tweeny as a maid for Lady Mary and her sisters on the yacht:  the promotion will elevate Tweeny’s social status and make her a more eligible mate for himself.

CRICHTON (after hesitating): There is in this establishment, your ladyship, a young woman —

LADY MARY: Yes?

CRICHTON: A young woman, on whom I have for some time cast an eye.

CATHERINE (eagerly). Do you mean as a possible lady’s maid?

CRICHTON: I had thought of her, my lady, in another connection.

LADY MARY: Ah!

We thought immediately of Jeeves. In story after story, as Wodehouse devotees know, Jeeves manipulates his employer to his will, whether to inveigle Bertie Wooster into taking a vacation in the country (so Jeeves can go fishing), to further a romantic scheme of Jeeves’s, or to tighten his control over Bertie’s selection of ties and dinner jackets. Like Jeeves, Crichton manages to further both his employer’s needs and his own personal wishes at the same time.

And who can doubt that the title of Wodehouse’s first great collection of Jeeves stories, The Inimitable Jeeves, echoes the title of The Admirable Crichton?

The two essays in the Shaw Festival’s program for The Admirable Crichton, by Mr. Panych and Michael Billington, claim to find egalitarian socio-political overtones in the play; Mr. Billington says it has “subversive implications.”  We don’t see it at all.  J. M. Barrie was a romantic, not a socialist, and we’ve never detected any political agenda in his novels and plays. Indeed, if anything political can be extracted from The Admirable Crichton, it would be the fundamentally conservative notion that class distinctions aren’t the bastard offspring of leftist bogeymen like imperialism, feudalism, and capitalism, but arise naturally in every society.

But Barrie did have, along with the similarly apolitical P. G. Wodehouse, a genuine sympathy for and interest in servants as human beings. The Admirable Crichton includes an exquisite portrait of the social distinctions between different kinds of servants in large English establishments. Consider what we learn when Tweeny is interrogated by Lady Mary as a possible lady’s maid for the voyage:

LADY MARY: And you and Crichton are — ah — keeping company?

(CRICHTON draws himself up.)

TWEENY (aghast): A butler don’t keep company, my lady.

LADY MARY (indifferently): Does he not?

CRICHTON: No, your ladyship, we butlers may — (he makes a gesture with his arms) — but we do not keep company.

AGATHA: I know what it is; you are engaged?

(TWEENY looks longingly at CRICHTON.)

CRICHTON: Certainly not, my lady. The utmost I can say at present is that I have cast a favourable eye.

Another great English dramatist, by contrast, had no interest in servants as people. Many of Emsworth’s readers will recall the exchange between Algernon and his butler Lane in the opening scene of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest:

ALGERNON: Why is it that at a bachelor’s establishment the servants invariably drink the champagne? I ask merely for information.

LANE: I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir. I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand.

ALGERNON: Good heavens! Is marriage so demoralising as that?

LANE: I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir. I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present. I have only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.

ALGERNON (languidly): I don’t know that I am much interested in your family life, Lane.

LANE: No, sir; it is not a very interesting subject. I never think of it myself.

But Wodehouse and Barrie do find servants interesting. In “Jeeves in the Springtime,” Jeeves speaks to his employer about his own personal life with the same delicacy and reserve as Crichton. Asked how he knows that Bingo Little’s uncle lives in Pounceby Gardens, Jeeves tells Bertie Wooster, who is narrating the story,

“I am on terms of some intimacy with the elder Mr. Little’s cook, sir. In fact, there is an understanding.”

[Bertie narrates:] I’m bound to say that this gave me a bit of a start. Somehow I’d never thought of Jeeves going in for that sort of thing.

“Do you mean you’re engaged?”

“It may be said to amount to that, sir.”

“Well, well!”

The stories of P. G. Wodehouse owe much of their interest to the cooks, butlers, valets, gardeners, secretaries, and pig-keepers who populate the country estates of Lord Emsworth and Bertie Wooster’s relatives.

J. M. Barrie, one of Emsworth’s favorite writers, was a elegant English prose stylist who can fairly be mentioned in the same breath as Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. The Admirable Crichton first appeared in 1902, two years before Peter Pan. The play is less fantastical than Barrie’s Peter Pan, and also much lighter — we’re remembering the dark, wonderful Peter Pan at the Shaw Festival in 2001.

To those who appreciate this production of The Admirable Crichton, we recommend not only the reading editions of J. M. Barrie’s plays, but also Barrie’s novels, like A Window in Thrums and The Little White Bird. We hope fervently that the Shaw Festival will be doing more Barrie plays over the next few seasons.

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.

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.