Present Laughter at the Shaw Festival

Steven Sutcliffe and Claire Jullien as Garry and Liz Essendine

The Shaw Festival does Noël Coward practically as well as it does Shaw, and this year’s Present Laughter, a 1939 comedy, is a good example. In fact, a repertory company like the Shaw’s, whose players have a lot of experience with one another, is especially suited to perform Present Laughter, which is a play about the intimacy and cohesion of a small group of friends.  These actors have collectively played a lot of Coward; the show’s star, Steven Sutcliffe, was in the cast 20 years ago when the Shaw Festival last did Present Laughter. It’s a briskly-paced, well-acted show.

This play gives us a few chaotic days in the life of British actor Garry Essendine (Sutcliffe), a character who closely resembles Coward himself, especially the way Mr. Sutcliffe plays him – charismatic, vain, flamboyant, supremely self-confident.  I liked Noël Coward all the more after seeing this play again; there’s a lot to be said for someone who is sufficiently self-aware to poke fun at his own foibles.

Steven Sutcliffe and Mary Haney as Garry Essendine and his secretary, Monica Reed

I’d be glad to trade my chaos for Garry Essendine’s.  What play to pick for my next star turn?  What theater to put it in?  What actress to pick to replace the one who just broke her leg?  How to get rid of a star-struck airhead who’s still there in the morning?

Fortunately for Garry, he has plenty of support.  Besides the valet and the Swedish cook who keep his apartment/studio functioning (my wife and I loved William Schmuck’s loft-style set and the extravagant dressing gowns for Garry), Garry has a long-time personal assistant (the wonderful Mary Haney, whose deadpan one-liners cracked me up) and a tight inner circle of associates that includes his still affectionate ex-wife, Liz (Claire Jullien, in a complex role that she makes look easy).

Steven Sutcliffe as Garry Essendine and Moya O’Connell as Joanna Lyppiatt

The fly in the ointment is the sexually voracious Joanna (Moya O’Connell, and very convincing in the role), who has been married to Hugo (Patrick McManus) for five years but is still viewed as an interloper by the rest of the circle.  Garry is alarmed to learn that Joanna has been having an affair with Morris (Gray Powell), which threatens to break up the “family.”  Garry is even more discomfited when, late one evening, Joanna tries to seduce Garry himself.

In the midst of all these crises, Garry finds his apartment infested with Roland Maule, an aspiring young playwright who is obsessed with Garry.  Jonathan Tan’s high-speed portrayal of Roland was a great crowd-pleaser the night we saw this show, though it seemed to me a bit of a diversion that interrupted the feel of the play.  Far more perfectly in the spirit was the iridescent Jennifer Phipps, who plays an elderly society lady who has persuaded Garry to give her niece an audition.

Present Laughter is a brilliantly constructed comic masterpiece.  People insinuate themselves into Garry’s apartment under false pretenses, a la Wodehouse and Wilde; inconvenient people are hustled into side rooms to avoid awkward encounters.  The repartee dazzles.

But if I can’t list Present Laughter as one of my favorite Coward plays, it’s because the world of Garry Essendine is simply too far removed from mine.  Garry and his pals aren’t just in show business, they’re at the top of the pile.  How much different are the lives of these stars from the lives of George and Lily Pepper, the fading vaudeville performers in Coward’s Red Peppers (see this post)!  Garry Essendine, poor fellow, has to deal with impudent servants, with wannabe playwrights, and with women who throw themselves at him.  The Peppers, on the other hand, have to cope with drunken musicians who play their songs too fast; they have to worry about where they might get their next engagement.  We can identify with George and Lily, never with Garry.  And what a contrast between the characters in Present Laughter and the work-a-day families in Coward’s Fumed Oak (see, again, this post) and This Happy Breed, which is perhaps the quintessential portrayal of the English middle class.

Coward is almost the only politically conservative playwright whose works are presented at the Shaw Festival, and Present Laughter is, without making a big deal about it, a capitalist-friendly play.  Like other business people, Garry and his associates are concerned with maintaining their brand, new product development, business finance, personnel issues, and so on.  (Hugo, who produces Garry’s plays, is one of the few capitalists who is favorably portrayed in any notable twentieth-century play.) And in its way Present Laughter is a “family values” play — the plot is primarily about how Garry, Monica, and Liz fend off threats to their clan.

And yet we couldn’t help seeing Present Laughter as an expression of Coward’s views on freedom in sexual behavior and as an “apology” for his own lifestyle.  The moral of the play, if it could be said to have one, is that what a fellow does in bed with someone shouldn’t matter to anyone else (a proposition expressly defended not only by Garry but also by his valet, Fred).  And so, in the final scene, Liz comes back to Garry knowing full well that in their future life together he will surely not be faithful to her.  Indeed, the climactic joke in Present Laughter, which comes in the play’s last minute, is that Garry, Hugo, and Morris forget their jealous quarrel over Joanna the second she leaves the flat and turn instead to what really matters – what really binds their “family” together – which is the joy of hammering out the details of their next production.

This is fantasy, of course – fantasy to suppose that any husband, wife, or lover, whether in heterosexual or homosexual relationships, can realistically be expected not to be jealous when a partner has a little casual fun on the side.  Sexual possessiveness is not a conditioned social reflex; we’re hard-wired to feel it. No doubt Coward felt that more people should have “open” relationships like that of his friend Cole Porter and his wife Linda Lee Thomas.  Unfortunately, human nature is not so flexible.

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.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Shaw Festival

Tennessee Williams

(May 11, 2011)  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is on the short list of plays that we’ll happily see anytime, anywhere. Such glorious poetry — and what else is it but poetry, for who really talks like the characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?  It’s magical how Tennessee Williams brought his characters alive by giving them lines no one would utter in ordinary speech and making them have conversations no ordinary people would have.  The characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are as painfully real as can be.

In the Shaw Festival’s 2011 production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which we saw in a mesmerizing preview performance last weekend, the poetry flows like honey from the lips of Moya O’Connell (a treat for the eyes as Maggie the Cat), Gray Powell (Brick), and Jim Mezon (Big Daddy).  Their characters could hardly be more vivid.

Anyone who has seen the bowdlerized movie version (Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor) will find this a much darker (and more explicit) show.  The long first act shows us only Brick and his sexually frustrated wife (the scenes of the play all take place in their bedroom in Big Daddy’s Mississippi delta mansion house), but through Maggie’s chatter we meet the rest of the Pollitt family as well.  Maggie and Brick also introduce us to a major character who never appears in the play, Brick’s late friend Skipper, and to the play’s great mystery: what Brick and Skipper really felt for one another, why Skipper took his own life, and why Brick no longer has any interest in anything but drinking bourbon until he feels the “click”.

The play’s first act leaves us persuaded that there is nothing left between Maggie and Brick. But the second act teases us with the notion that there is still some palpable affection between Brick and his father, Big Daddy (Jim Mezon).  (The mere appearance of Mezon, once again a superb stage presence, noticeably ratchets up the play’s energy level.)  Father and son find common ground with their mutual detestation of “mendacity,” but Big Daddy’s ego leaves him unable to penetrate Brick’s alcoholic retreat.

Again and again, love is offered and spurned.  Maggie adores and desires a husband who tells her that he can’t stand her.  Big Daddy loves a son who’s weary of listening to his father “gas” about himself.  We are shocked at Maggie’s abasement when Brick rejects her; even more appalling are the scenes of deliberate cruelty in which Big Daddy insults his “fat” wife (who loves him) and humiliates her in front of the family and friends gathered for his birthday party.

Brick, Big Daddy, and Big Mama

As Big Daddy’s feckless, foolish wife, Corrine Koslo manages, against strong odds, to to arouse our sympathy for a thoroughly unlikeable character.  As Brick, Gray Powell gives the best performance we’ve seen from him at the Shaw Festival; it must be a challenge to play a character whose range of emotional response is constrained by his chronically high alcohol level.  We particularly appreciated Patrick McManus in the difficult role of Brick’s older brother Gooper, scheming with his fecund wife Mae (Nicole Underhay, also pitch-perfect) to get what he sees as justice from a father who has always preferred his younger brother.

We know we’re in danger of deep waters here, but we couldn’t help thinking how the playwright’s sexuality kept bursting forth at various points throughout the play — and we don’t mean simply the storyline about the attraction between Brick and Skipper.  Was Tennessee Williams repulsed by women’s bodies?  In the first act, Brick tells Maggie he is “disgusted” only seconds after she refers to her breasts and her figure.  Did the playwright feel threatened by sexually aggressive women?  Brick stubbornly resists Maggie’s sexual advances, and Big Daddy has stopped having sex with Big Mama (who likewise “disgusts” him).  And the playwright is clearly revolted by the sexual appetite and fecundity of Gooper’s wife Mae.

The Shaw Festival’s production might disappoint those who expect the lines to be rendered in the accents of the deep South.  But we probably wouldn’t understand a word if they did.  In this production, fortunately, the actors are all intelligible; they slip in and out of their accents just enough to remind us where the play is set.  And they nailed the main thing: the poetry.

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)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biulung and Poole

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

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

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

Barbara Fulton as Queen Elizabeth

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

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

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

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

Company of "The Taming of the Shrew"

Company of "The Taming of the Shrew"

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

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

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

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