Sunday, July 13, 2003

Shaw Festival--2003 Wrap-up

2003 Shaw Festival Season filled with highlights

The Shaw Festival, which is performed from April through the end of November in lovely Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada is the only theatre in the world that specializes in the plays of Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries (1856-1950). These plays represent the beginning of what is known historically as “the modern world.” It also offers Greater Clevelanders a short drive through the wine country of both the Northern US and lower Canada to escape for a few days and view high quality theatre offerings, drop in at the casino in Niagara Falls, and stay in well-tended B&Bs or plush hotels. All of this is made even more appealing due to the very favorable exchange rate of the American dollar. At present the purchasing power of the dollar allows for savings of about 1/3 on Canadian prices.

This season Jackie Maxwell has assumed the role of Artistic Director. She follows the legendary Christopher Newton who did much to establish the festival’s wonderful reputation. She invites audiences, in her Shaw program book remarks, to “Join me, on the first step of what I intend to be a delightfully surprising journey.” If Maxwell’s direction of ‘THE CORONATION VOYAGE’ is any indication, the theatrical journey she wishes to take us on should be very successful.


It is May 1953. The ship, Empress of France, sets sail from Montreal enroute to England. On the pretext of attending the celebrations marking the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, an important mafioso is on board. He secretly plans to live in exile with his two sons. Aboard this floating palace in the middle of the ocean, the lord of the Montreal underworld must face the most important decision of his dubious career: will he sacrifice his youngest son for a safe-conduct?

The script has an interesting construction. A biographer is on-board to write the “true” story of the mafioso leader. We hear what he writes, in tandem with what is really happening. We gain an understanding that history is made up of interpretations and its interpretators.

Jeff Lillico is captivating as the 14-year old son. Dylan Trowbridge, portraying Etienne, the older brother, a budding pianist whose hands were smashed by some of his father’s underworld opponents, is emotionally right on target. Jim Mezon is properly hateful as the mafia don. Peter Krantz completely captivates as the Diplomat who has ice in his blood and evil in his heart. George Dawson’s stylized speech as the Biographer helps make him stand apart from the goings-on, while allowing for clarity in his role as our guide to the happenings. Donna Belleville is wonderful as the wife of the Canadian minister who will represent the country at the coronation. Susie Burnett is the only weak cog. Her portrayal of the young love interest of Etienne is all surface.

This is a fine, well planned, finely acted and technically well developed production. The boat set, the sumptuous costumes, the lighting effects, all work well. The surprise ending brought gasps from the audience. If you have time for only one Shaw production this season, this should be it.


The Shaw Festival is noted for finding selcom-produced scripts, plays like ‘DIANA OF DOBSON’S.’ This is the story of a young shopkeeper's assistant who inherits a modest sum of money and decides to spend it all on a lavish tour of the continent. While vacationing in the Swiss Alps, she meets a young aristocrat who, in reality, has only a little more money than she. If this were a made-for-TV movie, it is obvious where this story will go. But in the hands of feminist writer Cicely Hamilton the viewer is not sure.

It is appropriate that the play be staged at this festival. G. B. Shaw, who was known for his entertaining fiction, was also strong on social conscience. It could have been Shaw, not Hamilton who wrote, “Girls, have you ever grasped what money really is? It's power! Power to do what you like to do, to go where you like, say what you like.” The lead character, Diana Massingberd, is also in the best tradition of Shaw's heroines. She's a feisty, intelligent and impoverished young woman, the daughter of a deceased country doctor who left her to fend for herself as a shop girl at Dobson's Emporium.

As with many other Shaw productions ‘DIANA OF DOBSON’S’ teaches the audience historical lessons such as the concept of the "live-in" system common at employment establishments at the time. It created a class of indentured servitude, with the girls herded together in ill-equipped dormitories, dependent upon the whims of their employers. We also observe the contrast between classes and the unproductive role of the so-called ornamental class.

Director Alisa Palmer has a fine understanding of the play and has developed an effective production. Severn Thompson makes a fine Diana. Evan Buliung is splendid as Bretherton, Diana’s love interest. Goldie Semple, as always, delights as Mrs. Cantelupe, Bretherton’s conspiring aunt.

Fine costumes, effective set design and tone setting music all help to make this a polished and very seeable production.


History has it that during the first rehearsal of the first production of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘MISALLIANCE,’ the cast walked out because they couldn’t understand what the play was going on about. The cast was not alone. At intermission, many of the attenders of the Shaw Festival production also departed. One was heard mumbling, “What is this mess?”

Part of the problem with the play, and this production, was that Shaw, in his attempt to stay modern, wrote the script in a manner of alientation, a new theatre movement of his time.

It is the purpose of alienation to force the audience not to transfer their feelings to the characters in a play, but to be aware that the play is about them, their lives, their society. To achieve this writers and directors of the early twentieth century broke the action of the play, spoke directly to the audience, built in devices to insure that the audience was aware that this was a play, not a display of reality. In alienation staging it is common to have lights in full view, scenery changes made without dimming the lights, and non-real set pieces.

Some of these techniques were incorporated into the Shaw Festival production. Actors often went to lecterns on stage to read parts of the script. On a screen above the playing area a film of G. B. Shaw himself, commenting on the play and the ideas he was presenting, was shown. All of this added up to a confused audience who were used to traditional story development and presentation.

The story centers on John Tarleton, a self-made millionaire and manufacturer. He has built his business out of new products, new technologies, and new efficiencies. The Tarleton family occupies the new seat of power in the modern England of the day. The wealthy scions of commerce are now the only ones who can afford the best real estate and the best educations. The members of the hereditary aristocracy may no longer have the money to back up their social power, but they represent an old power base that still wields substantial power in government and high society. A marriage between the aristocracy and the merchant classes--the marriage proposed between Hypatia Tarleton and Bentley Summerhays--might be considered a "misalliance"; but it represents the consolidation of power between the classes that, for better or for worse, hold the reins of power.

The question that ‘MISALLIANCE ‘ poses is: "how do you live your life in the old world while waiting for the new world to come into existence?" Unfortunately, the audience, at least this Shaw, didn’t seem to care.

The production, under the seemingly misguided hand of Neil Munro, simply never captivated or sped along. The pacing was static, the delight muted, the clarity missing. There was too much talking and too little action. The characters were either too rigid or too overdrawn, but never the twain did meet. All in all, this was not a case of the Shaw Festival doing what it does best...Shaw!


Neil Munro was also the director of Sean O’Casey’s ‘THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS.’ As with ‘MISALLIANCE’ the play missed its mark.

The almost 3-hour production centers on the 1916 Easter uprising in Ireland. It concerns bitter, disheartened people who illustrate Irish woe concerning their lack of independence from the British. It showcases their poverty and their frustrations.

Acts one and two look forward to the citizen-led liberation of Ireland, while acts three and four expose the reality of the suppression of that revolution. The myths of the past and fervent response to the leaders' rhetoric stirred the people to give their lives. Eventually, the events overtake them. In contrast to “hero” plays, the revolutionaries we see are not presented sympathetically. O'Casey argues that the defeat at the hands of the British was inevitable.

Events are presented in relation to many characters, with no central protagonist. This leaves the audience with no one to cheer for, to hate, or with whom to emphathize. We sit as outsiders observing, but not being involved.

The vivid colloquialism and regional accents of the script, and slurring of words often lead to difficulty in understanding. Munro needed to decide whether authenticity or understanding was his goal. From the standpoint of the audience, he unwisely chose the former.

Characters were generally not well developed. Concepts were not well articulated. The scenery was not well designed nor constructed.

The production, as a whole, was much less than what should be expected at the prestigious Shaw Festival.


It’s a play about a slum landlord, an idealist who falls in love with the slumlord’s daughter but rejects her because of the source of her father’s income, and how the story resolves itself in a happy ending. Sound like an old fashioned melodrama? Not quite. It’s the plot of George Bernard Shaw’s very first play, ‘WIDOWERS’ HOUSES.’

The play foreshadows the messages of future Shavian plays including society as a villain, socialism as the answer, and morals versus greed. It includes lines that helped make Shaw famous including, “The love of money is the root of all evil” and “People who live in glass houses have no right to throw stones.”

This isn’t a play about widowers, so where does the title come from? Supposedly, it is based on an alteration of the biblical phrase 'widows' houses,' which suggests that the misfortunes which befall widows can also afflict widowers. Somehow, I’m guessing the average viewer will miss that point entirely.

As Harry Trench, Dylan Trowbridge follows up his fine performance in ‘THE CORONATION VOYAGE’ with another excellent portrayal. Patrick Galligan is delightful as Harry’s sidekick, the overly pompous William. Jim Mezon gives a polished performance as the slumlord. His lecturing speech about the need for slumlords is so convincingly presented that if you don’t listen closely, you’ll get conned into agreeing with him. Lisa Norton has some fine moments as Blanche, the daughter and fiancee.

In spite of the misleading title the Shaw production is quite good. The sets are lovely and functional, the costumes period correct, the comic timing excellent, a lover’s fight scene is wonderfully staged. All in all, director Joseph Ziegler did a competent job with a less than perfectly written script. ‘WIDOWERS’ HOUSES’ is not often done. This is a chance to see the initial Shaw effort in a fine production.


Anton Chekhov is generally recognized as one of the Western world’s greatest dramatists. He, along with Henrik Ibsen, are credited with taking theatrical literature to new meaning as during the early twentieth century they transitioned western drama from escapism to examining realistic problems. Chekhov, in many of his writings, foretold of the Russian revolution.

Chekhov insisted that his plays were comedies. However, in most productions, the tragic elements are stressed. Chekhov described his purpose in writing as wanting to say to people, “Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are. The important thing is that people should realize that, for when they do, they will most certainly create another and better life for themselves.”

It is Chekhov's examination of character that makes ‘THREE SISTERS’ a great play. We are less captured by the plot then by the characters. In an effective production we should feel for each of the people we encounter.

Considered to be his masterpiece, in ‘THREE SISTERS’ Chekhov examines the three Prozorov sisters who live in a small town with their brother, Andrei. They are bored with provincial life, and look forward to the day when they will move to Moscow, where all their unattainable dreams will take place. Eventually, the sisters' illusory hopes fade away.

The Shaw production does not captivate as it should. Part of the problem is the new translation by Susan Coyne. She has lost much of the Russian flavor of the play. The language is too North American. The angst, the heavy tones are gone. This missing element is further showcased by director Jackie Maxwell’s failure to texture the production with Chekhov overtones. As she did with last season’s misguided production of ‘PICNIC’ Maxwell does not stick to the writer’s intent, fails to showcase and reflect the place of origin of the material.

The performances are generally good. All three sisters develop separate and clear characters, though Tara Rosling’s Masha often stays on the surface of the role. Caroline Cave is vivacious early on as Irina and effectively transitions to the frustration of unfulfilled dreams. Kelli Fox leaves no doubt of sister Olga’s despair. Ben Carlson never quite creates a clear characterization for Andrei.

The production of ‘THREE SISTERS’ is not bad, it is just bland. Too bad, since Chekhov’s works are not commonly done and a good production of this “before his time” writer is usually an experience to look forward to.


Have you ever exited a play and asked, “I wonder what happens to those people? What will their lives be like in ten or twenty years?” Irish writer Brian Friel obviously had those very reflections. In contrast to most of us who only think the thought, Friel did something about it.

It’s the 1920s. Two people come together in a deserted Moscow cafe. Both have stories to tell and only a single evening to share them. We are allowed to eavesdrop.

What is ironic about this meeting is that the two are characters from plays written by Anton Chekhov. Andrei Prozorov, is the lackadaisical brother from ‘THE THREE SISTERS’ and Sonya Serebriakova is from ‘UNCLE VANYA.’ Freil’s approach allows us to revisit the characters twenty years after the original plays ended.

‘AFTERPLAY’ premiered at the Gate Theatre in Dublin last year to great acclaim. The
Shaw production should also be hailed. This is a well directed effort by Daryl Cloran. The pacing is on key. The Russian feel is evident. He gets two fine performances from Simon Bradbury and Helen Taylor. Each is character perfect. We feel for both of them. We are concerned about them. We want to bridge forward another twenty years to see what their lives will be like then.

The 50-minute show is part of the lunch time series. It is a must see!

Only part of the Shaw season was reviewed here. The season also includes ‘THE ROYAL FAMILY,’ ‘ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY,’ ‘BLOOD RELATIONS,’ and ‘HAPPY END.’ Of what was seen I’d strongly recommend: ‘AFTERPLAY,’ ‘DIANA OF DOBSON’S,’ ‘WIDOWERS’ HOUSES,’ and ‘THE CORONATION VOYAGE.’