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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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.

A Man and Some Women at the Shaw Festival

Before this year we had never seen the very first performance of any Shaw Festival show.  Last Friday afternoon, though, we caught the first preview performance of Githa Sowerby’s A Man and Some Women at the Courthouse Theatre.  I was ready to pounce on glitches but was largely disappointed.  Early on, one of the actors stepped lightly on another’s lines; a bit later, an actor turned to speak to another who hadn’t yet moved to where she was supposed to be.  That was all I caught; first preview or not, there was plenty of polish.

Graeme Somerville

We thoroughly enjoyed this 1914 play, which gives us an emotion-laden look at tensions and secrets in a respectable English family consisting of Richard Shannon (Graeme Somerville), his childless, money-grasping termagant of a wife, Hilda (Jenny L. Wright), his two old maid sisters, and a young visiting cousin, Jessica (Marla McLean).

Our first encounter with the women made us feel sorry for Richard before he appeared on stage.  As they pass an evening together in the parlor, the sisters, Elizabeth (Sharry Flett) and Rose (Kate Hennig), complain that their mother, who has just died, cared only for Richard, not for them, and complain about his tardiness in coming home from the funeral.  Hilda has just rudely turned away a close friend of Richard’s who has called.  (How did they manage to make a woman as attractive as Jenny L. Wright look so frumpy?)  The fiercely uncharitable Rose is tearing up cloths to send to an overseas mission but goes out of her way to make a young cousin whom Richard has taken into his household feel unwanted and shamed because he was conceived out of wedlock.  Hilda is equally unkind to the boy, whom Richard loves; both idle women resent Richard’s spending money that might otherwise come to them.

Kate Hennig

Richard’s sisters hope that, even though they were not favorites of their mother, Richard will bring them news of an inheritance.  After Richard comes home and the older women go up to bed, Rose spies on Richard and Jessica to see if her brother is being unfaithful to his wife.

The play is perfectly crafted; its plot unfolds at just the right pace, building up to a “cliffhanger” at the end of the first act.  After half an hour, we’ve gotten, not just a quick pencil sketch, but a full-blown color portrait of each of the characters.  And portraits of relationships too:  a husband and wife who have nothing in common; then a man and a woman (Richard and Jessica) between whom there is perfect sympathy.

On the evidence of A Man and Some Women and The Stepmother, which we saw and loved at the Shaw several years ago, I’d say that Githa Sowerby had a special talent for villains.  Our audience for The Stepmother was full of righteous indignation against a blackguard and embezzler who deceives and marries a girl  for her money.  Our audience for A Man and Some Women was equally outraged at the hypocrisy of Richard’s blackmailing sister Rose and the selfishness of his wife Hilda, at their cruelty to the fatherless boy, and at their willingness to sacrifice Richard’s happiness for their own ends.

Populated with characters who are almost entirely bad or almost entirely good, the play seems indebted to a lost nineteenth-century tradition of stage melodrama.  But in this play the melodrama is fresh and delicious, never overwrought or over-sentimental.  The characters are not caricatures; we recognize them as flesh-and-blood people.

How much differently might audiences in Sowerby’s day, a hundred years ago, have reacted to the situations in A Man and Some Women?  Would they have identified and sympathized with the fatherless boy as we do?  Today we have not only shed the sense that the sins of parents should be visited on their children, which is well, but have also lost the sense of sin on the part of the parents, which is perhaps not so well.  Clearly the playwright, following in the footsteps of Dickens, thought it necessary to remind the audience of her day that God takes the part of the fatherless (Psalm 146:9) and that charity begins at home.

And in 1914 there was no higher value than an Englishman’s “duty,” about which much is said in this play.  But today we preach “self-fulfillment,” not “duty.”  Would a 1914 audience have felt, on the whole, that Richard’s “duty” to his wife and sisters outweighed his “right” to personal happiness?

The cast of A Man and Some Women was flawless and its entertainment value very high.  It’s hard to criticize anything about the play itself except its awkward title.  The program notes indicate that A Man and Some Women would have come to Broadway in 1914 but for the outbreak of the Great War.  I feel sure that any Broadway impresario would have insisted on a different name for the American production.

We preview the Shaw Festival’s 2012 season

Shaw

The Shaw Festival’s anniversary season had three Bernard Shaw plays, plus My Fair Lady, but in 2012 the playbill will be back down to two.  Neither Misalliance nor The Millionairess is a major work, and The Millionairess won’t start up till late June. Last fall the Shaw Festival hosted a two-day forum on the “relevance” of Shaw, and everyone agreed solemnly that his plays are still very, very important. But even if the Shaw Festival sticks with its custom of putting on two Shaw plays every season, it seems clear that Shaw won’t necessarily be front and center in any given season anymore.

We do get it. Personally, we look forward to the Shaw plays, but some people who go to Niagara-on-the-Lake for theater avoid them like the plague.  Shaw isn’t like Shakespeare; he simply doesn’t have hard-core fans. According to a recent Shaw Festival press release, only 65,000 of the 274,800 tickets sold at the Shaw Festival in 2011 were for Shaw plays. The management brags that this is up from 50,000 and 52,500 for Shaw plays in 2009 and 2010, but that really doesn’t say much; it’s not surprising that three plays sold more tickets than two.

Emsworth is stoked about the lineup for 2012, despite what has become an annual disappointment: the Festival is still shying away from Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. Our earlier experiences with William Inge (in 2005), Githa Sowerby (in 2004 and 2008), and Terence Rattigan (also in 2008) left us wanting more of their plays, and in the 2012 season we get all three.  It’s rude to say it, but we find the Shaw Festival’s lineup for 2012 considerably more attractive top-to-bottom than the one at Stratford, which has only three Shakespeare plays and includes such head-scratchers as You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and a Homer Simpson version of Macbeth.

Here’s what we think of the 2012 Shaw Festival season, beginning with the shows we’re looking forward most.

1. Come Back, Little Sheba (William Inge).  Bach in 2004, Emsworth and wife found the Shaw Festival production of William Inge’s Bus Stop so appealing that we saw it twice.  That show, a sexually charged story of folks stranded during a blizzard at a bus stop in the middle of Kansas, was directed by Jackie Maxwell, who will now direct Inge’s first successful play, Come Back, Little Sheba.

There’s likely to be plenty of middle-America passion in this show too, with regrets and recriminations. The protagonists are a midwestern chiropractor and the former beauty queen he had to marry twenty years earlier; their lives change when they take a college student into their home as a boarder. Corrine Kozlo and Ric Reid will play the lead roles.

Michael Ball

2. French Without Tears (Terence Rattigan).  French Without Tears was Rattigan’s first successful play. It’s a light comedy whose tone will surely be very different from the witty but sobering After the Dance, which we saw at the Shaw Festival in 2008. 

We were dazzled by After the Dance, our first Rattigan play (see this Emsworth post), and since then we’ve gone out of our way to dig deeper.  We’ve found and devoured copies of his plays The Deep Blue Sea, Separate Tables, and After the Dance, all of which are notable for their elegant construction, brilliant, subtle characterizations, and economical dialogue. We’ve also seen several movies based on Rattigan’s plays — he did a lot of screenwriting — including Separate Tables and The Browning Version (the classic 60-year-old British film versions), both of which we now rank among our very favorite movies, The Winslow Boy (again the original version), and The Prince and the Showgirl, with Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier, as well as The V.I.P.s, for which he wrote the screenplay.

All this reading and movie-watching has made Emsworth a serious fan of Terence Rattigan, and now we understand why Jackie Maxwell apparently thinks his plays worthy of being in rotation at the Shaw Festival along with Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Noël Coward.  There were, incidentally, revivals of a couple of Rattigan plays in the London theaters this last year — perhaps Ms. Maxwell is simply riding the wave. We’re pleased to see that Michael Ball, still one of our favorite Shaw Festival actors, will have a leading role in French Without Tears .

3. Misalliance (Bernard Shaw). By the time Shaw wrote Misalliance in 1909, his plays were beginning to rely less on believable plots and action and more on learned chatter — so much so that in Misalliance the characters themselves gripe about all the talking and preaching!  Poking a little fun at himself, probably, Shaw has Johnny Tarleton complain to his father about didactic novels:

I’ll bet what you like that I read more than you, though I don’t talk about it so much. Only, I don’t read the same books. I like a book with a plot in it. You like a book with nothing in it but some idea that the chap that writes it keeps worrying, like a cat chasing his own tail. I can stand a little of it, but a man soon gets fed up with that sort of thing.

At the play’s end, Johnny’s father finally mumbles, “Well, I — er — well, I suppose — er — I suppose there’s nothing more to be said.” His daughter’s reaction:

Hypatia [fervently] Thank goodness!

Misalliance has a lot of the same proto-absurdist elements as Heartbreak House, which Shaw wrote about eight years later. (See this post for a catalog of Emsworth’s grievances with Heartbreak House, which we saw again at the Shaw Festival this last summer.) In each play, residents and guests at a country house are menaced by aircraft, and in each an intruder bursts into their midst who — surprise — turns out to be part of someone’s past.  In each play characters are intensely attracted to one another on five minutes’ acquaintance, and in each an old coot falls for a young woman.

But there is still a lot of snappy stuff in Misalliance, and we’re genuinely looking forward to it. Wade Bogert-O’Brien, a young actor whom we liked very well in last year’s Candida, will play the adventurous aviator Joey Percival. It’s not a lengthy play, as Shaw plays go.

4. Hedda Gabler (Henrik Ibsen). We continue to be dismayed that some of our favorite Shaw Festival performers, like Ben Carlson, Kelli Fox, Evan Buliung, and Deborah Hay, have migrated over to Stratford in the last several years. Even Christopher Newton, the Festival’s former Artistic Director, will be directing Shakespeare there in 2012. But one of the finest performers in the history of either company, Martha Henry, is coming to the Shaw Festival in 2012 to direct Hedda Gabler.

We’ve been trying to cultivate an appreciation for Ibsen, and for Netflix subscribers we can heartily recommend a 1973 film version of A Doll’s House starring Anthony Hopkins and Ralph Richardson that we saw just a couple of weeks ago. For all its enormous reputation we don’t know Hedda Gabler, which is about the hijinks of a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage. Moya O’Connell, Patrick McManus, and Gray Powell will make up the play’s love triangle. This is just the sort of play that belongs in the Courthouse Theatre, where it will be staged.

In the work of Ibsen, said Emma Goldman, “lay all the instruments for the radical dissection of society.” Or, at least, that’s what E. L. Doctorov said she said in his novel Ragtime. (Doctorov probably didn’t entirely make this up; see this Goldman essay on Ibsen.) On the other hand, H. L. Mencken, a scribe whose judgment we generally respect, insisted that Ibsen was no “tin-pot radical” at all. According to Mencken, Ibsen “believed in all the things that the normal, law-abiding citizen of Christendom believes in, from democracy to romantic love, and from the obligations of duty to the value of virtue, and he always gave them the best of it in his plays.” We wonder which view of Ibsen Martha Henry’s direction will take.

5. Ragtime (musical based on the novel). Ragtime seemed to us the best of the E. L. Doctorov novels that we read, but we could never figure out how they could make a musical out of it, especially one that is almost entirely musical numbers and hardly any dialogue, like an opera.

The book includes more characters and subplots than could possibly be fit into a musical play. But Les Miserables was a much bigger book, and they made the best musical in 40 years out of it. We will soon find out. Thom Allison will play Coalhouse Walker Jr., the black piano player driven to extremes by racial oppression.  Emsworth himself has happily played much of Scott Joplin on the piano for years and hopes there will be plenty of ragtime music in this show.

6. His Girl Friday (Suzan-Lori Parks). This play’s title will be familiar to any fan of Hollywood screwball comedies, but the 1940 movie was adapted from a 1928 play called The Front Page. The play at the Shaw Festival in 2012 is an adaptation of both, done by the playwright John Guare (best known for Six Degrees of Separation) in 2003.  It’ll be closer to the movie than the play.

The Shaw Festival has hit big and missed big on classic American comedies. The hits include a couple of funniest things we’ve ever seen on stage, You Can’t Take It With You (1998 and 1999) and Born Yesterday (2009), but the misses include a disappointing The Women (2010) (see this post) and a sour, unfunny Three Men on a Horse (2004). The announcement that Benedict Campbell and Nicole Underhay will play the “Cary Grant” and “Rosalind Russell” roles, respectively, in His Girl Friday gives us reason to hope for this show. Jim Mezon is directing; it’s disappointing that he seems to be appearing as an actor in only one play in 2012 (a supporting role in Hedda Gabler).

Coward

7. Present Laughter (Noël Coward). Three years after a Shaw Festival season that included four Noël Coward shows, Coward is back. Garry Essendine, an actor in light comedies who is the lead character in this 1939 play, is a lot like Coward himself; several other characters are thought to have been based on some of his close friends and lovers. Steven Sutcliffe will play Garry Essendine.

8. A Man and Some Women (Githa Sowerby). Githa Sowerby is so obscure that she doesn’t even have an entry in Wikipedia. (We’re thinking of rectifying that.) But Jackie Maxwell has pulled her out of obscurity; the Sowerby play The Stepmother, which we saw in 2008, gave us a wonderful evening of entertainment (see this Emsworth post). We know nothing about this 1914 play of Sowerby’s — probably no one else does, either — except that it involves money conflicts in a family consisting of a man and two spinster sisters.

9. The Millionairess (Bernard Shaw). This Shaw play is near the end of our list, but not because we’re not interested in it. One reason is that we have a mild crush on Nicole Underhay, who will play Epifania Fitzfassenden, a rich girl forbidden by her father’s will from marrying unless her fiance can turn 150 pounds into 50,000 pounds within six months. Shaw was 80 years old when he wrote The Millionairess, which we think is the last play Shaw wrote that had any real entertainment value.

10. Trouble in Tahiti (Leonard Bernstein). The Shaw Festival’s one-hour-long lunchtime show in 2012 will be an opera! Leonard Bernstein’s songs tell the story of an American housewife and her white-collar husband. Like all the Shaw’s lunchtime shows, this one will be a great bargain at $32 per ticket. We thoroughly enjoyed Bernstein’s Wonderful Town at the Shaw Festival in 2008 and West Side Story at Stratford in 2009.

11. Helen’s Necklace (Carole Fréchette). In the new Studio Theatre space will be a play by French-Canadian playwright Carole Fréchette, presented in English. The story promises to be a modestly fantastical account of a woman who has lost a necklace in a city in the Middle East like Baghdad or Beirut. The lead role will be played by Tara Rosling, whom we remember as Eliza Doolitte in Pygmalion a few years back. This show runs for only a month and a half, starting in mid-July.

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.

My Fair Lady at the Shaw Festival

When we were ordering our Shaw Festival tickets last winter, it occurred to us that our bodacious granddaughter might well enjoy seeing this year’s production of My Fair Lady. We were not mistaken. The eight-year-old was riveted by the opening ballet-like scene in Covent Garden, thrilled to the waltzing at the Embassy Ball, and laughed out loud at Henry Higgins’s rant near the play’s end, “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man” (which, she said, was her favorite song from the show).

“It’s the best play I’ve ever seen,” she said before she fell asleep in the car on our way back to Rochester, and “and also the longest!” She wants to come back to Niagara-on-the-Lake next summer and see it again.

She and her eight-year-old cousin are the best of friends, so we brought him too. He was not nearly as riveted as his girl cousin by the singing, dancing, and extravagant costuming, but he bore it manfully. What he liked best was the part where Eliza shied Henry Higgins’s slippers at him.

The kids were fascinated by the scene changes. Having no preconceptions, they didn’t realize that the modernistic set designs were a bit different from what veteran Shaw play-goers might have expected Covent Garden, 27A Wimpole Street, and Ascot to look like. (We liked this show’s visuals a lot; it’s a gorgeous production.) Even though it was late when the curtain fell, we lingered around the orchestra pit anyway so the kids could see the musicians. We explained to them that the conductor, Paul Sportelli, had been conducting the singers on the stage too even though they never seemed to be paying attention to him.

Benedict Campbell as Henry Higgins and Deborah Hay as Eliza Doolittle

Taking the kids to the theater was distracting, not because of any misbehavior on their part, but because we couldn’t help watching them to see how they were reacting to the show. Some of it, we know, went over their heads, but they didn’t seem to mind. We wondered afterward how much we might have missed ourselves if we hadn’t known the play so very well; telling the story of this familiar play may not have been the director’s highest priority. But the show moved along smartly, the songs gave us great joy, and the extended dance sequences for the Embassy Ball and “Get Me to the Church on Time” were exhilarating. And Mark Uhre, who sings “On the Street Where You Live,” has a superb tenor voice. All told, this is a glorious production.

The cast took fresh approaches to these familiar roles; Benedict Campbell (as Henry Higgins) and Deborah Hay (as Eliza Doolittle) are nothing like Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. Here Eliza is earthy and self-reliant, while Mr. Campbell’s bespectacled Higgins (we were reminded a little of Woody Allen!) is prissy, selfish, and mildly effeminate. It was easy to see why Higgins, a man short on patience, forbearance, and generosity, had never fallen into matrimony. Patrick Galligan brings nervous energy to the role of Colonel Pickering and plays it without the usual stuffiness. The characters were undoubtedly English, but we left the theater thinking that we had seen a decidedly American My Fair Lady.

At the Ascot races: Mark Uhre as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Gabrielle Jones as Mrs Eynsford-Hill, Patrick Galligan as Colonel Pickering, and Sharry Flett as Mrs Higgins

Both My Fair Lady and the Shaw Festival’s other 2011 extravaganza, The Admirable Crichton, involve the theme of romantic attraction across social lines; while The Admirable Crichton considers the possible mating of a butler with a noble lady, My Fair Lady posits a match between a wealthy, educated English gentleman (Henry Higgins) and a penniless Cockney girl. (See Emsworth’s appreciative thoughts about The Admirable Crichton at this post). (The sets for both shows were both designed by Ken MacDonald; seeing them both within a couple of weeks made us really appreciate his talent.)

But while J. M. Barrie had no socio-political agenda in writing The Admirable Crichton (again, see our thoughts about that at this post), one can’t say the same about Bernard Shaw’s agenda in writing Pygmalion, on which My Fair Lady is based. Shaw had a low opinion of traditional marriage, and when we heard Higgins propose to Eliza a relationship in which she would stay with him only as long as it suited her, and vice versa, we heard the propagandizing voice of Shaw himself. We’re glad that went over the heads of the eight-year-olds.

On the same theme, by the way, is the hilarious story with which P. G. Wodehouse opened his 1923 masterpiece The Inimitable Jeeves, in which Jeeves has Bingo Little’s wealthy uncle supplied with popular romance fiction (Only a Shop Girl and All for Love) to put him in a frame of mind to propose marriage to his cook.

In the program, director Molly Smith asserts that there are “only a few Gold Standard Musicals,” which she identifies as South Pacific, West Side Story, Gypsy, and My Fair Lady. We would agree that there are only a few musicals at the very top, but can’t agree with her nominees. West Side Story and My Fair Lady are surely golden, but we would have topped off the list with Show Boat, Oklahoma, and Fiddler on the Roof.

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.

Bernard Shaw’s Candida at the Shaw Festival

(May 14, 2011) We think we’ve seen a different, more robust approach to the Shaw plays offered at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario) over the last decade. It’s not that we didn’t enjoy the Shaw plays we saw there during the 1990s – but they seemed to draw a little too deeply from a performing tradition of British constraint, formality, and artifice that kept Shaw’s natural vigor from coming through. We’ve had the same sense watching videos of buttoned-down BBC productions of Shaw plays filmed in the early 1970s.

Candida's father Burgess (Norman Browning) bullies Marchbanks (Wade Bogert-O’Brien). Doesn't this photo (courtesy of the Shaw Festival) remind you of an illustration out of a novel by Dickens or Thackeray?

In recent seasons the Shaw plays have seemed livelier, fresher, and more spontaneous, and the characters have seemed decidedly more human. The result has been that in many seasons the must-see show at the Shaw Festival has, in fact, been a Shaw play (like last year’s The Doctor’s Dilemma, 2008’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession, 2006’s Arms and the Man, and 2004’s Man and Superman), as is befitting. We can only speculate that a new generation of directors at the Shaw Festival gets the point that Shaw intended his characters to portray real flesh-and-blood men and women, not drawing-room caricatures.

Despite this salutary trend, this year’s Candida, which we saw last weekend, seemed to us a bit of a throwback to the older approach. We can’t help thinking that the production missed director Gina Wilkinson, who was originally announced as director of Candida but who sadly passed away in December 2010.

But Candida is still one of Shaw’s most entertaining comedies, and this show has some delightful comic acting, including a warm, nuanced performance from Claire Jullien as Candida. We especially enjoyed Krista Colosimo as Miss Proserpine, the old-maid secretary with a crush on her boss, a character that Ms. Colosimo artfully portrays as neither ridiculous or pitiable. And we were impressed with Wade Bogert-O’Brien (a lively and appealing Eugene Marchbanks), a young actor who seems to take to Shaw like a duck to water. The scenes move briskly along; for a Shaw play, this one’s relatively short.

Marchbanks (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) hectors Candida's husband Morrell (Nigel Shawn Williams)

The Shaw Festival’s advertising of Candida has, we think, been a little misleading.  There’s no bona fide love triangle at all. Candida is not truly torn between her busy-as-a-bee do-gooder parson husband and the adoring young romantic who appreciates her true worth – and we were relieved to see that Ms. Jullien, as Candida, didn’t try to play it that way. Marchbanks, young and naïve, may have thought he was making a serious run for Candida’s affections; no doubt Morrell himself had a crisis of marital insecurity. But Candida herself never wavered from our commitment to her husband, despite his flaws; this is a love story.

Candida (Clair Juillien) was never really tempted to leave her husband (Nigel Shawn Williams)

The most notable thing about this year’s Candida is that a black actor, Nigel Shawn Williams, has been cast as Morrell.  Wholly apart from Mr. Williams’s performance, which seemed to us respectable though not notable, we are not enthusiastic about this gesture in color-blind casting.

In this post a couple of years ago, we took exception to a public campaign to pressure the Shaw Festival to become more “diverse.”  (Of course, diversity flacks never mean real diversity at all, but only diversity in skin color, which is the least interesting and most meaningless of human differences.) We kept hearing the mantra that Ontario’s theaters should be “as diverse as Canada itself.”

But so what if southern Ontario (and western New York) are racially and ethnically diverse? The world of Bernard Shaw wasn’t!  And in his plays Shaw showed little or no interest in racial differences.  (Are there any characters of color in Shaw besides the Egyptian doctor in The Millionairess?) Shaw’s genius lay instead in sketching the genteel classes, the upstart capitalist classes, the varieties of socialists (Morrell’s Christian socialism, for example, as contrasted with Shaw’s secular socialism), the working classes, and the idle educated classes.

We might well be asked whether theatergoers shouldn’t simply teach themselves to ignore skin color, even in Shaw plays.  It’s a fair question, because going to the theater requires one to suppose a lot of things that aren’t so.  We’re able to suspend disbelief long enough to accept that a wooden stage is really the parlor of a radical London clergyman, or that people we’re seen walking the streets of Niagara-on-the-Lake are really Londoners named Candida, Lexy, and Miss Proserpine. It’s all part of watching a play.

But the stage is one of the few arenas of life where appearance does matter.  We rightly expect, for instance, that stage actors will be age-appropriate and gender-appropriate for their parts.  Candida, however, is set in London at the end of the 19th century, a time and place when a marriage between a white woman and a black vicar would have been unthinkable.

Thus, when a black man is cast as Morrell and a white woman is cast as Morrell’s wife, we must not only imagine that the actor is a socialist vicar in a lower-class London parish, but must imagine as well that the black actor is actually white.  Casting a black man as Morrell (or casting a black woman as Candida), with an otherwise white cast, lays an additional, unnecessary demand on an audience.

We pride ourselves on our imaginative powers and our mental flexibility, and we don’t want to suggest that this experiment in color-blind casting at the Shaw Festival kept us from enjoying the play or from appreciating Mr. Williams’s performance. But we are unconvinced that the experiment was a good idea. We would have rather seen an all-black cast, which would have avoided the issue altogether. The Shaw Festival’s ensemble doesn’t have many black actors, but Candida has only six characters.  It could have been done.