Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance at the Shaw Festival

Krista Colosimo as Hypatia and Ben Sanders as Bentley Summerhays

Once again, the play to see at the Shaw Festival this year (2012) is one of Shaw’s own.  Misalliance is a great-looking show with a razor-sharp cast that misses none of Shaw’s subtle wit and wisdom.

I couldn’t help thinking that Shaw must have felt pulled in different directions at the point in his career when he wrote this play.  The old socialist obviously wanted his plays to popularize his radical ideas about social welfare, the family, religion, and so on.  But by 1909 he was Britain’s most entertaining playwright.  How much social philosophy can people stand in a play, he must have pondered, before he’d have to insert a joke, a bungling burglar, or a chase scene?

In the “make them laugh” camp is Misalliance’s Johnny Tarleton (Jeff Meadows), a Wodehousian character who reads to escape, not to improve his mind. Johnny has no patience with books that have nothing in them but ideas that the authors keep “worrying, like a cat chasing its own tail.”  Johnny tells the priggish Bentley Summerhays, who likes “improving conversation,” and his father, who likes books with ideas:

I want to forget; and I pay another man to make me forget. If I buy a book or go to the theatre, I want to forget the shop and forget myself from the moment I go in to the moment I come out. Thats what I pay my money for.

Jeff Meadows (in globe) as Johnny Tarleton, Ben Sanders as Bentley Summerhays, and Peter Krantz as Lord Summerhays

I suspect that a lot of folk who buy tickets for Shaw plays at the Shaw Festival resign themselves in advance to having their minds improved.  Shaw is famous for his preachiness.  But on the afternoon I saw it, the audience for Misalliance was pleasantly surprised to find themselves being entertained instead. One of the main reasons was Jeff Meadows, as Johnny Tarleton, jauntily exuding self-confidence like a character out of Wodehouse. Other reasons include Thom Marriott, who plays Johnny’s father, John Tarleton, a supremely self-satisfied and successful manufacturer of underwear, and Peter Krantz, who plays Bentley’s hapless father, Lord Summerhays, and who has (and gets full value out of) many of the play’s best lines.

The story, which takes place all in an afternoon in an English country house, revolves around the love life of Hypatia Tarleton (Krista Colosimo), the sexually frustrated and overripe daughter of the underwear tycoon. Patsy is engaged to Bentley, an undersized crybaby who is disliked by the men but petted by the women. As we learn in one of the play’s best scenes, Lord Summerhays (Peter Krantz) himself had proposed to Patsy before he became aware that she was engaged to his son. As unenthusiastic as Patsy is about Bentley, still less did she want a husband she’d eventually need to nurse.

Krista Colosimo as Hypatia, Catherine McGregor as Mrs. Tarleton, and Jeff Meadows as Johnny Tarleton

From the sky into the Tarletons’ greenhouse crashes an airplane piloted by Joey Percival (Wade Bogert-O’Brien), who is just the sort of manly man for whom Patsy has been pining. With Joey in the plane is Lina Szczepanowska (Tara Rosling), an acrobat who lives for life-endangering thrills and who promptly begins attracting proposals from the men. Compounding the chaos in the second half of the play is the arrival of an intruder (Craig Pike) out to exact revenge on the underwear magnate for his youthful philandering with his mother, formerly a maid in the Tartleton household. The intruder is befriended by Mrs. Tarleton (the delightful Catherine McGregor), who seems both unsurprised and unconcerned to learn that her husband has not been faithful to her.  (In Shaw’s moral code, people ought not to be terribly concerned about sexual infidelity.)

The situations are contrived, but Shaw’s characters are so vivid — in this show, anyway — that we hardly notice. The dialogue is brisk and never stuffy; this is as good as ensemble acting gets.

Although Shaw specified that the scenes in his play take place on May 31, 1909, director Eda Holmes “reset” the play in 1962. We are all too familiar with the deplorable practice of putting Shakespeare plays in “modern” settings (generally, by unimaginative directors, in 1930s Germany), but putting a Shaw play in a different time period is a bit more daring.  In this show, the chief evidences of the play’s “modern” setting is a contemporary-looking set in golds and browns, Chihuly-like glass sculptures, a chair that’s a glass globe suspended by a long chain from the ceiling, characters costumed in 60s styles, and a character who reads  from a 1962 issue of Vogue.

Frankly, we thought the set (designed by Judith Bowden) was smashing. But the problem with giving any older play a “modern” setting is that it instantly creates anachronisms that audience members will think about during the play, instead of the play itself. The slang expressions of 1909 that Shaw put into the mouths of his characters had passed out of use by the 1960s. The women’s issues that are central to Misalliance were very different in the 1960s. And while can well imagine that everyone in a 1909 household would rush outside to look when they heard an “aeroplane,” by 1962 the novelty of flying machines had surely worn off.  Are anachronisms really worth the distraction?

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Lennox Robinson’s Drama at Inish at the Shaw Festival

Corrine Koslo as Constance, Ric Reid as hotel proprietor John Twohig, and Peter Krantz as Peter Hurley

(September 2011) It is rare that this writer can’t find something to complain about, but in the case of Drama at Inish, we couldn’t. We loved this gentle, unpretentious comedy and weren’t surprised that it pleased everyone else enough to induce the Shaw Festival to add half a dozen more performances to the original run.

Drama at Inish is a gentle, affectionate satire of Irish provincial people and the troupes of performers that toured through Great Britain during the 1920s. Most of the play’s characters live or work at a hotel in the quiet seaside town of Inish, where proprietor John Twohig has engaged the De La Mare Repertory Company to perform for the summer season in the hotel’s playhouse. The placid John (Ric Reid, in the nicest turn we’d seen from him in a while) and his wife Annie (Donna Belleville) run the hotel with the help of John’s spinster sister Lizzie (Mary Haney), a maid, and a boots.

But things change in Inish when the actor Hector de la Mare (Thom Marriott) and his wife Constance Constantia (Corrine Koslo) arrive at the hotel for their summer run. Their playbill will be different from the low-comedy variety shows and circuses that usually come to Inish; Hector’s traveling troupe plays “serious” theater. As Hector explains (self-importantly) to another guest:

I now confine myself entirely — with the co-operation of Miss Constantia — to psychological and introspective drama. The great plays of Russia, an Ibsen or two, a Strindberg — I think very little of the French.

Mary Haney as Lizzie Twohig and Maggie Blake as Helena

To everyone’s surprise, the people of Inish flock to the playhouse night after night. In short order, they begin to identify all too closely with the heroes and heroines of A Doll’s House and Uncle Vanya and to imagine that they too are caught in the same sorts of tragedies as the heroes and heroines of Ibsen’s and Chekhov’s plays. Lizzie, for example, convinces herself that her life is blighted because a neighbor, Peter Hurley (Peter Krantz, as a delightfully hapless local politician), toyed with her affections by “skylarkin'” with her when they were both young.  John Twohig’s son Eddie (Craig Pike), like a Chekhov character, comes to doubt that life is worth living after he fails, for the dozenth time, to persuade Christine Lambert (Julia Course) to marry him. 

Constance (Corinne Koslo) and Hector (Thom Mariott) never really step out of character

We have enjoyed Mary Haney so much in so many roles at the Shaw that it would be hard to say that the endearing Lizzie Twohig is the one we liked best, but every scene she plays in this play is a treasure.  And Thom Marriott and Corrine Koslo, as the well-traveled, impossibly vain, and ever-theatrical leading man and lady, are inexpressibly funny. Hector and Constance live so much in the emotionally overcharged world of their plays that they never really leave it anymore; it’s no wonder that they pull the people of Inish from the real world into theirs.

As traveling actors, Hector and his company follow squarely in the tradition of the Crummleses, the 1830s repertory company affectionately portrayed by Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby.  (See this post for some thoughts we had about the Shakespeare actors in Nickleby.)  They also remained us a little of the traveling variety show performers who play so prominently in J. B. Priestley’s novel The Good Companions, which we read just last year.  Hector and Constance are even closer relatives, dramatically speaking, of George and Lily Pepper, the vaudeville pair immortalized by Noël Coward in his wonderful one-act play Red Peppers, which we saw at the Shaw Festival in 2009 (see this post). 

We don’t read the newspaper reviews of Shaw Festival shows very faithfully, although they’re easy to find on the internet, but at least one review we saw suggested patronizingly that Drama at Inish is not a very substantial play and doubted whether it was worth reviving.  Of course, the very premise of Drama at Inish is to poke gentle fun at plays that professional critics do consider substantial!  The themes of Drama at Inish may not be as profound as those in, say, Waiting for Godot or The Glass Menagerie, but its portrayals of human nature, with all the foolishness and vanity and self-absorption to which we are prone, are as true as true can be. That’s an accomplishment, and it’s good enough for us.  Along with the wife of our bosom, we would have liked to have seen it again.

Until the Shaw’s 2011 playbill was announced, we were unfamiliar with the Irish playwright Lennox Robinson, who was a contemporary and colleague of the Irish playwrights Lady Gregory, J. M. Synge, and W. B. Yeats. We were grateful that director Jackie Maxwell did not insist that her actors use authentic, heavy Irish accents, which we would have had trouble understanding, and we hope for more Irish plays at the Shaw Festival.  In the meantime, we were amused to see that one of the plays mocked by Drama at Inish, Ibsen’s masterpiece Hedda Gabler, will be on the playbill at the Shaw in 2012.

Lorne Kennedy as Norrison and Jeff Meadows as Tony Foot

Nothing could make the case for a repertory acting company better than the trio of Drama at Inish, Bernard Shaw’s Candida (which we appreciated at the Shaw Festival earlier this year), and the Shaw’s 2011 one-hour lunchtime play, The President, an inordinately clever play to which we will not devote a separate post. Lorne Kennedy, the star of The President, played the lead role three years ago at the Shaw; we missed the show that year and were grateful to have a second chance to see it. The President is the most concentrated hour of laughs anyone is ever likely to experience, and if the motor-mouthed Mr. Kennedy is still up to this demanding role, we’d gladly see it again in another couple of years. If it’s revived a third time, we trust that Jeff Meadows will also return as Tony Foot, the vulgar New York cab driver that Kennedy transforms into a successful businessman and pillar of society in a mere 60 minutes.

J.M. Barrie’s Half an Hour at the Shaw Festival

This one-act play really does take just half an hour to perform, and we’re still puzzled as to why the Shaw Festival didn’t put another short one-act play into its mid-day show, which is generally close to an hour long. But James M. Barrie’s Half an Hour still packs a lot into one show. 

In some marriages not every touch is welcome, or kindly intended.

Into some people’s lives there comes a moment that decides everything — sometimes, as in this play, a moment of high drama and irony. We meet the high-toned Lady Lillian (Diana Donnelly) in the middle of an intense, bitter, late-afternoon marital quarrel that crushes the last hope she may have had of living amicably under the same roof as her brute of a husband, Richard Garson (Peter Krantz). She keeps our sympathy even when we learn that for months she has had a lover, the adventurous and dashing Hugh Paton (Gord Rand); she flees to his arms instead of dressing to receive the dinner guests her husband has invited. 

Norman Browning and Laurie Paton as Mr. and Mrs. Redding; Peter Krantz as Richard Garson

Until now Lady Lillian has resisted Hugh’s urgings that she leave England with him — he is returning to his work as an engineer in Egypt — but in the wake of this last quarrel with her husband she decides impulsively and desperately to abandon her miserable marriage, leave everything behind, and join her lover. What follows is an emotion-drenched and entirely unpredictable series of events. 

The scenes of this short play linger in the mind, and the final suspenseful scene, with Peter Millard, Laurie Paton, and Norman Browning, is unforgettable. Diana Donnelly, one of our favorite Shaw Festival actors, is superb as the desperate, trapped Lady Lillian. 

The lovers are torn between their carnal passions and their need to pack.

Since James M. Barrie himself was apparently immune to carnal passion of any kind, we were a little surprised at the director’s decision to add touches of eroticism to the first two scenes. In the opening quarrel, Richard Garson strokes his wife suggestively even as his words make clear that he despises her; the implication is that their relationship included not only cruel words, but also sexual brutality. Minutes later, when Lady Lillian jumps into the arms of her lover, patrons are likely to wonder whether the Shaw Festival is about to cross new boundaries of explicitness in portraying physical passion.  But it all worked only to heighten the dramatic tension inherent in the story.

Eating our picnic lunch in the park after the play, we got to thinking about other short pieces of dramatic fiction from the same era (Half an Hour premiered in 1913). We were reminded not only of the characteristic “twists” in O. Henry stories like “The Reformation of Calliope,” but also of the wonderfully clever and sometimes cruel stories of Saki.  And we thought in particular of the final line in Saki’s short masterpiece “The Open Window”: “Romance at short notice was her specialty.” 

Harvey the pooka at the Shaw Festival

(May 3, 2010) We’re so familiar with the classic film version of Harvey — we’ve owned copies in at least three different video formats — that it wasn’t easy at first to hear the familiar lines spoken last week in different ways by different actors on the Shaw Festival stage. But we got over it in short order. This one flies on its own merits.

Elwood P. Dowd (Peter Krantz) makes friends with Nurse Kelly (Diana Donnelly)

Mary Chase’s Harvey is one of the great American plays. It won the Pulitzer and ran on Broadway for four years back in the 1940s, but we’d never before seen it on stage. This domestic comedy (with strong elements of fantasy and whimsy) is the story of Elwood P. Dowd (Peter Krantz), an amiable middle-aged man of no occupation who has failed to live up to his youthful promise after inheriting family money.  Elwood spends most of his days drinking in bars with his “friend” Harvey.

Unfortunately for Elwood’s long-suffering sister Veta (Mary Haney) and niece Myrtle Mae (Zarrin Darnell-Martin), Harvey is a pooka, a six-and-a-half-foot invisible rabbit. Veta cannot introduce Myrtle Mae into society, where she might meet eligible young men, because Elwood has an unsettling habit of introducing his invisible friend to people he meets.

Norman Browning

When Elwood appears unexpectedly at a ladies’ club concert in their home, guests scatter in alarm as Elwood introduces them to his invisible companion. That’s the last straw for Veta, who decides to have Elwood committed to Chumley’s Rest (Dr. Chumley is played by the hilarious and inimitable Norman Browning), a sanitarium run mainly by his uptight assistant and fellow psychiatrist Lyman Sanderson (Gray Powell).

Elwood's sister Veta (Mary Haney), visited by Dr. Chumley (Norman Browning), is unpleasantly surprised to find that Elwood's portrait of Harvey is up in place of the portrait of her mother.

Can magical creatures like pookas be real?  Can one man’s reality be different from another’s?  Is escapism underrated?  Harvey raises and answers metaphysical questions — but this production, directed by Joe Ziegler, downplays the thought-provoking elements of Harvey and goes for comedy. And although there’s a good deal of the supernatural in the play, Ziegler plays it for laughs as well.  The scene where Dr. Chumley’s orderly, Mr. Wilson (Tim Ziegler) looks up the word “pooka” and finds the dictionary talking back to him, for example, might well be a “thrill-and-chill” moment, but the Zieglers (both director and actor) make it a light moment.

Nurse Kelly and Dr. Lyman Sanderson talk to Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) in the 1950 movie version of Harvey

So how is this play different from the movie? For one thing, it’s more risque (although by contemporary standards that’s not saying much). In one scene, the tightly wound Dr. Sanderson tells Elwood that he and Nurse Kelly (Diana Donnelly) had made a “mistake” together earlier in the day; Elwood interprets this, in his diplomatic way, as a confession that the doctor and nurse had succumbed to sexual passion for one another. The movie version of Harvey contained no such suggestion — indeed, no suggestion that Elwood knew anything about carnality at all.

We heard some lines, especially early in the play, that we don’t remember hearing in the movie, and we missed some fine scenes that were evidently written just for the movie, especially a bar scene in which Elwood and Harvey order drinks from a bartender and talk to a down-and-out alcoholic friend who’s just gotten out of prison. The most striking difference between play and movie, however, is that the last scenes in the movie raise the possibility that the pooka might transfer his patronage from Elwood (who enjoys Harvey’s company for its own sake) to Dr. Chumley (who simply wants to take advantage of the pooka’s magical powers).  And unlike the play, the movie ends with a bit of match-making. The movie director evidently thought that more “resolution” and less ambiguity was needed in a feature film.

Mary Haney

This show won’t make us forget James Stewart and Josephine Hull (Elwood’s sister Veta in the movie), but it’s full of wonderful moments and has some marvelous acting, especially from Mary Haney, who is a much more clear-eyed and self-controlled Veta (and thus arguably a more effective foil to her brother Elwood) than Josephine Hull’s flustered character. We enjoyed Diana Donnelly as the sexually frustrated Nurse Kelly; Ms. Donnelly is well matched with Gray Powell as Dr. Lyman Sanderson, the oblivious, professionally-absorbed object of her infatuation.

And speaking of sex, Mary Chase uses the sexually repressed Dr. Sanderson to make fun of Freudian psychiatry, which was very much in vogue back in the 1940s.  The ease with which Dr. Sanderson diagnosed the perfectly sane Veta as a mental case reminded us of one of P. G. Wodehouse’s great minor characters, Sir Roderick Glossop, also a psychiatrist, who found everyone he met a candidate for the looney bin.

Less satisfying were the less experienced actors in the cast. Elwood’s niece Myrtle Mae Simmons was played by Zarrin Darnell-Martin, whose acting seemed to us markedly short of professional standards. Jim Ziegler, as Dr. Chumley’s muscle-man Duane Wilson, seemed merely to have copied the mannerisms of the actor who played the part in the 1950 movie.

Elwood P. Down (Peter Krantz) enchants Dr. Chumley's wife Betty (Donna Belleville)

That brings us to Shaw Festival veteran Peter Krantz, who plays Elwood P. Dowd. It must not be easy to play a character who never becomes angry or excited and who, no matter how others treat him, remains smiling, courteous, pleasant, and oblivious — in other words, a character whose manner hardly changes throughout the play. (The only thing close to an emotion that Elwood is permitted is a hint of eagerness whenever he thinks someone is offering him a drink.) About Mr. Krantz’s generally capable performance we have mixed feelings.

Mr. Krantz is not our favorite Shaw Festival actor to begin with, a prejudice that dates from his role as a sexual deviant in a 2003 Shaw Festival show we did not enjoy, The Coronation Voyage, and as the lead actor in what was unquestionably the worst Shaw Festival show we’ve ever seen, 2005’s The Invisible Man.  To us Mr. Krantz never seems quite wholly at ease; he has a certain watchful wariness about him that keeps us from being entirely comfortable when he’s on stage.  To our minds, therefore, his is not a stage presence well-suited to play a character whose principal characteristics are utter affability and freedom from guile.

But if not Mr. Krantz, then who? The program includes a list of the 2010 Shaw Festival ensemble, and we went through it to look for other candidates for the role of Elwood P. Dowd. Michael Ball or David Schurrman? Too long in the tooth. Patrick Galligan? Too urbane. Ben Carlson? Too edgy. Benedict Campbell could have pulled it off. Our pick would have been the versatile, age-appropriate Blair Williams, who unfortunately is not appearing at Niagara-on-the-Lake this summer.

We saw last year that Stephen Spielberg planned to start shooting a remake of Harvey in early 2010, with Robert Downey, Jr. or Brad Pitts rumored as candidates for the role of of Elwood Dowd. We were glad to see in the Shaw Festival’s program that this thoroughly unnecessary project has died a natural death.

Emsworth’s take on the Shaw Festival’s production of the Kurt Weill musical One Touch of Venus is at this post. And his thoughts on the Chekhov masterpiece The Cherry Orchard are at this post.

Emsworth’s pre-season thoughts on all the shows in the Shaw Festival’s 2010 season are at this post.

The Devil’s Disciple at the Shaw Festival

We hesitated before committing to The Devil’s Disciple this year because, frankly, we failed to see much in the play when we first saw it thirteen years ago. But friends were saying good things about the show, Evan Buliung was starring, and the play was, after all, supposed to be one of Shaw’s most popular. Maybe, we thought, we just didn’t get it thirteen years ago. Or maybe the 1996 production was under par.

Dick Dudgeon and British soldiers

Dick Dudgeon (Evan Buliung) has a troublesome moment as a prisoner of General Burgoyne's soldiers

So we went after all, and this one was well worth the price of admission. We still can’t rank The Devil’s Disciple with our very favorite Shaw plays, especially The Philanderer and Arms and the Man.  But this time around it struck us as one of Shaw’s wittiest.  And this particular show has some larger-than-life performances.  The play swept us along along so nicely that we weren’t bothered by the improbable twists of its plot.  We enjoyed it a lot.

The Devil’s Disciple is set in 1777, in the third year of the Revolutionary War, and centers around Dick Dudgeon (Evan Buliung), a young reprobate who is the black sheep of the Dudgeon family because of his impiety and his line of work (smuggling). (There are eight Dudgeons in the play, two of whom die shortly before the first act, and keeping them all straight is a bit of a challenge at first.) As the play begins, Dick’s puritanical mother (Donna Belleville, who gives a strong performance) gets the news of her husband’s death from the Presbyterian minister, Anthony Anderson (Peter Krantz).

Fiona Byrne & Peter Krantz

Peter Krantz and Fiona Byrne as the Reverend and Mrs. Anderson

To his mother’s irritation, Dick shows up with the other relatives for the reading of his father’s will. He scandalizes his mother, shocks Lawyer Hawkins (Lorne Kennedy), and repels the minister’s devout, pretty wife (Fiona Byrne) by bragging about his allegiance to the devil. To Mrs. Dudgeon’s even greater consternation, her husband’s deathbed will and testament leaves everything to Dick.

But the British are coming! General Burgoyne’s army, invading from Canada, is just a few miles away and bent on making examples of rebel sympathizers. The Dudgeons all flee, except for Dick, who announces that he is going to join up with the rebels. When the redcoats march into town, their first order of business is to arrest Reverend Anderson for his seditious sermons. But when the soldiers arrive at his house, they mistake his visitor Dick for the Reverend. In the tradition of Sydney Carton, the gallant Dick does not undeceive them, nor does Mrs. Anderson.

Buliung & Mezon

Evan Buliung as Dick Dudgeon; the British still think he is Reverend Anderson at his "trial." The minister's wife, on the left, tries unsuccessfully not to interrupt

The soldiers arrest Dick and take him away to be hung. At the British headquarters, Dick meets General John Burgoyne (Jim Mezon) and his aide Major Swindon (Peter Millard). “Gentlemanly John” Burgoyne is unenthusiastic about the proposed execution and, indeed, about the British mission in America altogether:

BURGOYNE (throwing himself onto Swindon’s chair). It is making too much of the fellow to execute him. However, you have committed us to hanging him: and the sooner he is hanged the better.

SWINDON. We have arranged it for 12 o’clock. Nothing remains to be done except to try him.

General Burgoyne

The historical British General, John Burgoyne

When he wrote The Devil’s Disciple in 1896, Bernard Shaw hoped to meet the popular demand for melodrama, and indeed the play has a lot of that. Or so we suppose — we’re not sure we’ve ever actually seen a melodrama. Our notion is a moralistic story with a wicked, blasphemous villain, a virtuous young woman who must be preserved from a fate worse than death, dramatic scenes of unconsummated romance, a family lawyer’s reading of a will, and life-and-death suspense.

The Devil’s Disciple has all these cliched elements — but Shaw has made a comedy out of them. As Christians, we ought to feel cold shivers when we hear Dick Dudgeon’s blasphemies, but we don’t. We ought to fear for the purity of the minister’s wife when sparks begin to fly between her and the gallant Dick, but we don’t. We ought to shudder when they lead Dick to the gallows, but we don’t. The play’s light tone reassures us that things will come out all right in the end.

Theater Review Shaw Festival

Dick Dudgeon has a noose around his neck

Not surprisingly for a play written by a Irishman about a war between England and its colonies, The Devil’s Disciple is devoid of anything like patriotic sentiment. Shaw reserves his satire mostly for the British and their pretensions of “duty” and “honor.” And he makes it clear that he thought American independence was inevitable, the British management of the war ludicrously incompetent, and the mutual slaughter senseless:

RICHARD. Let us cow them by showing that we can stand by one another to the death. That is the only force that can send Burgoyne back across the Atlantic and make America a nation.

JUDITH [the minister’s wife] (impatiently) Oh, what does all that matter?

RICHARD (laughing). True: what does it matter? what does anything matter? You see, men have these strange notions, Mrs. Anderson; and women see the folly of them.

Hardly anything anyone says in this play can be taken at face value; Shaw means for us to judge the characters strictly by what they do. Mrs. Dudgeon claims vociferously to be a Christian, but Shaw (as he so often does to Christian believers in his plays) makes her a hypocrite; she bullies and abuses an orphan niece, feigns remorse at the news of her husband’s death, and tries to turn her own son from her door. Dick claims to be the devil’s disciple — but it is he who protects the orphan, saves the honor of a susceptible woman, and offers his life for his friend.

Buliung

Evan Buliung and Jim Mezon as Dick Dudgeon and General Burgoyne

Evan Buliung is as rousing and dashing a Dick Dudgeon as anyone will ever see. But Jim Mezon as the heavy-jowled General Burgoyne — world-weary, clear-sighted, and practical — is wonderful; his scenes with Peter Millard (as Major Swindon) are superb. If Mezon is not the world’s finest actor of Shaw, he can’t have many rivals.

How could Shaw have expected his play to pass for a melodrama when he peopled it with such complex, multifaceted characters? In fact, we don’t think he did; in his script Shaw dropped a clue that he knew full well that his play wasn’t a melodrama at all:

BURGOYNE (suddenly becoming suavely sarcastic). May I ask are you writing a melodrama, Major Swindon?

SWINDON (flushing). No, sir.

Peter Millard as Major Swindon

Peter Millard as Major Swindon

Although Buliung is a mature and accomplished actor in his own right, we thought we detected the influence of the veteran Mezon in his performance. We’ve seen and heard Mezon many times on the Shaw Festival stages, and at several points Buliung seemed to be channeling Mezon’s distinctive inflections and delivery. He could do far worse.

Thoughts on other 2009 Shaw Festival productions:

Noël Coward’s Brief Encounters (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Ways of the Heart (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Play, Orchestra, Play (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Star Chamber (see this post)
Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (see this post)
Garson Kanin’s classic American comedy Born Yesterday (see this post)
Left-wing ideology in Born Yesterday (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)
“Nothing personal” from The Devil’s Disciple through The Godfather to Ted Kennedy (see this post)

The Little Foxes at the Shaw Festival (a review)

(June 16, 2008) What a difference a director seems to make! At the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), the cast of The Little Foxes is practically the same as the cast of Getting Married (six actors appear in both plays). (I review Getting Married in another post.) In the Shaw comedy, everything comes off like clockwork, and the fun never stops. But the Lillian Hellman drama leaves you waiting for a climax that never really comes.

Emsworth previews the shows on the 2009 Shaw Festival playbill at this post.

I have already complained at length about the ferocious Stalinist ideology of The Little Foxes in this post; in another I have griped about the holes in Hellman’s plot. Despite these objections, the play is a near-masterpiece. Hellman’s characters are frighteningly real, every word in the script tells, and the story builds to what ought to be a shocking denoument.

But not in this production. For the first half of the play (by far the best half) the great questions are whether Horace Gibbens is really going to come home to the nest of snakes that is the Hubbard family (his wife Regina and her brothers Ben and Oscar), and whether he will go along with the siblings’ scheme that he join them in investing $75,000 into a new cotton mill business. When Horace finally does come home, disabled in body but determined to frustrate the machinations of his wife and her brothers, the lines are drawn, and we all brace for heavy weather.

But just when you expect to be squirming in your seats and wiping your perspiring palms on your pants, this production lets you down. Laurie Paton, who is Regina, is an outstanding actress, but here she neither looks or acts like the Jezebel she is supposed to be playing; she looks too pleasant. Nor does David Jansen, as the likeable and sympathetic Horace, project the steely resolve needed for him to win the war of wills with his wife. Between these two sparks do not fly, and in their scenes together the tension does not build.

And so, at the play’s climax, we are not nearly as afraid for Horace, or for his and Regina’s uncorrupted daughter Alexandra (Krista Colosimo), or for any of the other characters, as the playwright wanted us to be. Nor, for a play with harsh political overtones, are we fearful for America, as Lillian Hellman fervently wanted us to be. As for Alexandra, who represents Hellman’s hope for revolution and a more “just” America, Ms. Colosimo is made to deliver all of Hellman’s shrill, socialist soapbox lines at the end of the play at the same high pitch.

I cannot see Peter Krantz, a Shaw Festival regular who plays Oscar Hubbard in The Little Foxes, on the stages of the Shaw Festival without a return of the visceral feelings that he aroused in those that saw him as the predatory pervert in the Shaw Festival’s production of The Coronation Voyage several years ago. My reaction is quite unfair to Mr. Krantz, and after seeing him in Getting Married as the sympathetic, comic Boxer, I thought I might have shaken this unfortunate association. But his character in The Little Foxes is every bit as repulsive as his character in The Coronation Voyage, and as Oscar Hubbard he quite undid the salutory effect of his portrayal of Boxer.

The veteran Shaw actress Sharry Flett is simply wonderful in The Little Foxes as the gentle, abused, alcoholic, but still hopeful Birdie Hubbard (Oscar’s wife). She inspires both our pity and our affection, and the scenes in which she is disrespected or worse are exquisitely rendered. The Shaw’s production is worth seeing for her performance alone. Also highly satisfactory is Lisa Codrington in the meaningful and thematically important role of Addie.

For more about the storyline of The Little Foxes, see this post. For comment on the political implications of The Little Foxes, see this post.

The Shaw Festival’s production of Terence Rattigan’s outstanding 1943 play After the Dance is reviewed in this post.