Sunday, July 09, 2006

Shaw Festival, a review

SHAW FESTIVAL brims with superb offerings

The Shaw Festival, located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada is the only theatre in the world that specializes in plays by G. B. Shaw and his contemporaries. The plays of that era are often excellent and challenging. Fortunately, for this year’s audiences, this is a stellar year for the Shaw. With few exceptions, play after play is exceptional.

‘THE CRUCIBLE’ gets a brilliant production

Arthur Miller, one of America’s greatest modern playwrights, penned ‘THE CRUCIBLE’ as a protest against Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunt for Communists in the government and entertainment industry during the early 1950s. The country was in hysteria for fear of Russia and its emergence as a major power. McCarthy fed on that hysteria, much like the religious fanatics of Massachusetts colony set upon so-called witches because of the hard times facing the people of the late 17th century.

This play is relevant today as the Bush administration, using the hysteria of 9-11, has conducted witch hunts and taken away citizen civil rights. Much of this philosophy centers on a line right out of Miller’s play, “You are either with us or against us.” The play also reflects attitudes of the present day religious right, who, much like the Salem religious fanatics, hunt out those not agreeing with their interpretation of what is right and wrong. They attack homosexuals, those who believe in abortion, and those who champion stem cell research, for “poisoning” the “good” folk.

The story concerns an accusation against Goode Proctor by a teenaged girl who, after having a sexual affair with Proctor’s husband, John, accuses Goode Proctor and others of being witches. The chief magistrate, much like Joseph McCarthy, or today’s right wing judges, closes his eyes to facts and is swayed by his own agenda. In the process, the question of one’s reputation comes center stage. Proctor, after standing up for those who are being killed in the name of “righteousness,” cries out, after refusing to sign a document in which he would falsely agree that he has seen the devil, “My name, I must have my name.”

The Shaw production is brilliant. This is the finest staging of ‘THE CRUCIBLE’ that I have ever seen. It is flawless. The acting, the pacing, the staging, the tension are all perfectly honed.

Director Tadeusz Bradecki has created a scary, yet true illusion. Peter Hartwell’s set design enhances the visual and emotional imagery.

Benedict Campbell is brilliant as John Proctor, as is Kelli Fox (sister of Michael J. Fox) as Elizabeth. Jim Mezon is scary as the closed minded “holier than thou” Deputy Governor. Charlotte Gowdy, as Abigail Williams, the lying teenager, is so real, she is spooky with her total disregard for the truth. The rest of the cast is equally superb.

The audience sat in shocked silence at the conclusion of the play...a perfect tribute to as perfect a theatrical experience as one might ever experience.

It is a shame and a blessing that a play like ‘THE CRUCIBLE’ has to exist. However, as witch-hunts continue, the theatre must have a voice like Miller’s to protest the taking away of rights. And, if such messages must be given a life, then they should be presented as brilliantly as the Shaw production!

‘THE HEIRESS’ gets as perfect a theatrical production as one will experience The year is 1850. The setting is a well-appointed parlor in New York’s very fashionable Washington Square. We are introduced to the Sloper family--an embittered doctor who lost his wife in childbirth, his widowed sister, and his extraordinarily shy daughter (Catherine). This is a family in which civility, a lack of feelings, and frustrations are ever-present. Into this setting comes a handsome young bachelor (Morris), a potential suitor for Catherine. Is the penniless man a fortune-hunter after Catherine’s money or does he really love her? Only the startling conclusion reveals the answer.

Director Joseph Ziegler has created a well-thought out production. The play is well paced, clearly builds the tensions, is perfectly acted, and leads the audience to a collective verbal gasp at the conclusion.

The sets and costumes are elegant.

The drama and humor are perfectly keyed. Michael Ball creates a totally believable embittered Dr. Slopes. Tara Roisling is flawless in her portrayal of the tortured Catherine. Her transition in the closing scene of the play is an acting tour-de-force. Mike Shara is such a cad as Catherine’s suitor that several audience members booed as he came out for his curtain call, unable to separate the actor from the role. As in ‘THE CRUCIBLE,’ the supporting cast is superb.

Shaw’s ‘THE HEIRESS” is as perfect a theatrical piece as one will experience.

The words “Anton Chekhov” and “funny” are not usually found in the same sentence. Chekhov, the theatrical voice that predicted major changes in Russia in the early 1900s, is credited with being the foremost arts commentator on the cracks in the veneer of the aristocracy of the pre-Soviet Union. As one of the fathers of the realistic movement in the theatre, his writing is often philosophical and is dramatic with occasional humorous overtones. What many people don’t know is that Chekhov was a popular faceur. Interspersed between his “THREE SISTERS’ and ‘THE CHERRY ORCHARD’ there were short plays with hilarious glimpses of love and courtship, and about peoples’ foibles beyond political and social lessons.

Two of Chekhov’s Russia-lite pieces are ‘THE BEAR’ and ‘THE PROPOSAL,’ which have been coupled by the Shaw Festival into a 50-minute noon-time delight entitled, ‘LOVE AMONG THE RUSSIANS.’

Plot lines are really irrelevant here. The important matter is that Director Eda Holmes has created two hysterically funny, audience-loving, enjoyable tidbits. Only a person totally devoid of humor could leave the tiny Court House theatre after seeing ‘LOVE AMONG THE RUSSIANS’ and not have had a wonderful time. As a woman behind me said to her friend as we exited, “I laughed so hard, I think I wet my panties.” Her friend responded, “I don’t have to think about it, I know I did!” What better commentary can I give to this delightful production?

‘ARMS AND THE MAN’ done as a delightful farce
A director of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘ARMS AND THE MAN’ has a decision to make. Should the play be staged s a comedy or as an outright no-holds barred farce? The former approach allows Shaw’s lines to carry the humor and create the message. The latter requires that the audience be primed to laugh at what is happening on stage, in other words, to laugh at the outlandishness of the actors, the setting, and even the costumes. The message then sneaks in.

Jackie Maxwell, the Shaw’s Artistic Director, has decided to present ‘ARMS AND THE MAN’ as a no-holds-barred farce.

The characters are so much bigger than life that they are totally unbelievable. The lines are so broadly presented that everything short of holding up “laugh now” signs are present.

Even the costumes are overdone and outlandish. The flamboyant military uniforms are brilliant red and decorated with numerous metals and braid. The brightly colored female costumes are harem dancer-influenced, though the play takes place in Bulgaria.

The sets are also overdone. A huge library, supposedly the only library in the country, contains less than ten carefully placed books. Even the set changes are overdone.

This is a production played for laughs, which highlight Shaw’s usual messages including women’s rights (“People don’t live up to their ideals.”), the ridiculousness of the upper classes (“Everything I think is mocked by everything I do.”), the stupidity of war (“War is a sham, like love.”), and the absurdity of existence (“Life’s a farce.”).

The story, into which the messages are encased, concerns Raina, the wealthy young daughter of a rich nobleman and her relationships with a pompous weak-minded yet extremely handsome military bumbler as well as the “Chocolate Soldier,” an intelligent, charming mercenary who is befriended when he sneaks into her bed chamber in order to avoid being killed by her countrymen. Through a series of unbelievable and silly incidents, which is what farce is all about, everyone and everything turns out exactly as it should.

The production is a laugh-loaded delight. Don’t go in looking for the message, arrive ready to have a good time and you’ll enjoy the goings-on. If you don’t like the outlandish, the over-the-top plea for laughs, and slapstick comedy, you’ll be utterly frustrated. If you trust Maxwell and her cast and you’ll have fun and might accidentally learn something.

‘DESIGN FOR LIVING’ is Noel Coward at his best

Noel Coward is the crown prince of sophisticated comedies.

As a life-long friend of Alfred Lunt and his wife Lynn Fontainne, often considered the most famous acting couple in the English-speaking theatre, ‘DESIGN FOR LIVING’ has a somewhat historical glow of the menage-de-trois bisexual relationship between the trio.

The play opened at the Hanna Theatre in Cleveland on January 2, 1932 to rave reviews before going to Broadway, where the reaction was not quite as positive.

The show is a laugh delight as the trio trades partners, insults and generally causes havoc in the society and art worlds of New York, Paris and London.

The sets and costumes are wonderful. The production qualities are of equal excellence. The cast is well-balanced, play well off each other, and create a grand-old-time for the audience.

‘HIGH SOCIETY’ misses the production mark
‘HIGH SOCIETY’ is the musical version of Philip Barry’s play and George Cukor’s movie ‘THE PHILADELPHIA STORY.’ A romantic love story, which uses cleverness to hide darkness and underlying pain, concerns a wealthy family’s attempts to find happiness in all sorts of configurations. Don’t get the idea that this is a great script. It’s not. It fails to live up to its birth sources.

Cole Porter is the crown prince of clever musical theatre lyrics. He writes outrageously fascinating rhyme schemes. In a unique twist, this musical’s score wasn’t really written for this script. In 1997, long after Porter’s death, Arthur Kopit, who wrote the book, was given permission by the Porter estate to draw freely from the composer’s songbook in his quest to develop the story. If necessary, words were allowed to be adapted to help the song-script union. This unusual composing development permits songs to be dropped in, rather than integrated into the story. The musical sounds often don’t fit seamlessly into some of the scenes into which they have been transplanted. The result is a very choppy show.

The Shaw’s production is not bad, it just isn’t great. The show has a Canadian form of aloofness which is not the same as New England sophistication. (Think Katharine Hepburn as an illusion of what the lead character should be.) This is a play of polite cleverness rather than out-and-out US American bite and edge.

The singing voices are good, the visual illusions are fine. There is a degree of slapstick that doesn’t fit the Porter, Barry or Cukor concept which bother my sensibility, but probably won’t get in the way of many enjoying the production.

Melissa Peters steals the show as a youngster, wise beyond her years, who manipulates the adults like a master puppeteer.

THE INVISIBLE MAN’ suffers from special effect lite

H. G. Wells perceived the future through a set of eyes that saw images of what was going to be. Many much of his scientific and sociological visions have come true in one form or another. In his book ‘THE INVISIBLE MAN,’ Wells created a situation in which a man could take a drug and become invisible. Though this hasn’t been achieved yet, per se, such devices as x-rays, MRIs have been developed to allow us to see into the interior of humans.

The Shaw production gets waylaid by a series of happenings. Special effects in movies and on-stage have become so vivid and real that anything less than real and spectacular leave much to be desired. Staging the show in such an intimate theatre also makes faking the needed illusionary effects impossible. In addition, Michael O’Brien’s script is not well conceived. The actions and ideas often don’t flow clearly. Adding to the problem is the size of the Royal George Theatre’s tiny stage. Everything seems cramped and actors have to dodge around each other, creating awkward stage pictures.

Of all the plays I saw at Shaw this season, ‘THE INVISIBLE MAN’ was the weakest script and production and the one which received the least applause from the audience.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Shaw soars this season! Of the plays I saw, I’d strongly recommend ‘THE CRUCIBLE,’ ‘THE HEIRESS,’ ‘LOVE AMONG THE RUSSIANS, ‘ARMS AND THE MAN’ and ‘DESIGN FOR LIVING.’

Side note: Be aware that the days of low cost due to the high value of the American dollar against the Canadian dollar, are over. The exchange rate is almost equal, dollar for dollar. (If you are interested in info about the whole theatrical season, which runs well into November, and where to stay, what to do and where to eat, go to and search in the 2006 review summaries for the Shaw listings.)