Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Shaw Festival 2007/review #1

SHAW FESTIVAL offerings good, but not up to last year’s superb productions

Each year the Shaw Festival selects a central theme for their play selections. The 2007 season of the best repertory company in Northern America is centered on “matters of the heart.” The plays being performed all deal with love, marriage, desertion, relational conflict, shifting allegiances and eccentric couplings.

The Shaw season runs from April through October an encompasses ten major productions plus a noon-time series and many special events.

On a recent four-day visit to the Shaw, which is located in what is undoubtedly the prettiest little city in Canada, I saw 7 shows and a reading. Here are reviews of some of the selections. Additional reviews will be presented in a future column.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT OF SEASON: Last year production after production at the Shaw were excellent. This season, though almost every show was quite acceptable and worth seeing, there were no master strokes. Part of this may have been that seeing show after show which were all variations of each other got a little tedious. Seeing one or two shows in a visit may relieve some of that feeling of “I’ve seen this before.”


Tennessee Williams is noted for his exploration of spiritual, sexual and psychological themes. His plays, many of which have biographical content, reflect southern US morality and customs. Many of his leading women find themselves in societal settings in which they misunderstand their surroundings and are misunderstood by those around them (think Blanche in ‘STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE’ and Amanda in ‘GLASS MENAGERIE.’) This theme parallels that of the writer’s mother being forced to leave her home in the deep south and move to the more northern Missouri. She never adjusted to that setting.

Williams’ plays may be grouped as tour-de-force scripts, such as ‘CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF,’ and the aformentioned Streetcar and Menagerie, and lesser successes such as “A ROSE TATOO,’ ‘CAMINO ROYALE,’ and ‘NIGHT OF THE IGUANA.’ ‘SUMMER AND SMOKE’ is one of his less performed and more moderate writings.

‘SUMMER AND SMOKE’ which is set in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, centers on Alma Winemiller, a repressed spinster, who, like smoke, is smoldering with inner fire and her long-time felt love toward Dr. John Buchanan, the boy next door who grew up to be a man of the world, full of youthful bloom and sexual heat (the summer).

The premise of whether a person has a soul and, if so, what are the ethical values inherent in that acceptance. This is a reworking of themes Williams previously explored. There's the refined but fading Southern belle, the crude lothario who strains her principles, a struggle between love and lust, and characters dealing with unrealized expectations. In this writing, however, Williams has his heroine make a complete turn about with no obvious motivation for the change.

In spite of the play’s problematic ending, the Shaw production works well. Director Neil Munro has paced the play properly and has developed clear characterizations within the writer’s limits.

Nicole Underhay is properly conflicted as Alma. She textures the role with moods that swing between euphoria and depression. Though quite good, Guy Bannerman is not quite as effective as the young Dr. Buchanan. At times, his characterization was unbelievable. There were some excellent supporting performances.

The original incidental music aids in mood development. On the other hand, set designer Peter Hartwell’s set doesn’t work. It fails to show the duality that is needed and, after a while, the constant need to move curtain screens becomes tedious.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Though not one of Williams’ great plays, ‘SUMMER AND SMOKE’ carries many of the playwright’s basic themes. The Shaw production is good and worth seeing.

Mack Sennett is long remembered by those who are fans of silent movies. He did the kind of comedy shtick that gave the world the Keystone Cops, Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Norman, the comedy queen of non-talkies. Norman was also Sennett’s on-and-off lover. The duo is the subject of the musical, ‘MACK AND MABEL.’

‘MACK AND MABEL,’ has words and music by Jerry Herman (‘MAME,’ ‘HELLO DOLLY!’ and ‘LE CAGE AUX FOLLES) and book by Michael Stewart (‘BYE, BYE BIRDIE’ and ‘GRAND TOUR’). The script being presented by the festival is the work of Francine Pascal (GEORGE M!’), who revised the original offering for a London production which was better received than its US staging.

The show opened in New York in 1974 to generally poor reviews. The production starred Bernadette Peters and Robert Preston, and despite eight Tony nominations, ran only sixty-six performances. (Side note: I saw one of those Broadway performances and agreed with reviewers’ comments regarding the melodramatic writing and lack of memorable musical score.)

The rags-to-riches story line centers on the hyperactive Sennett, his rise to fame producing short silent films, and his tumultuous love affair with Norman. Sennett was a genius of slapstick comedy and could gage what audience’s wanted. The duo met when they were bit players on the Biograph film lot, but in the musical he discovers her when, as a delicatessen delivery girl, she walks onto a movie set in New York and spontaneously convulses the production team. As in real life, the duo went on to be the comedy’s king and queen of silent flicks, but had a chaotic personal life. The play’s melodramatic conclusion has the two apparently living happily ever-after following one of their many reconciliations. In reality, Norman died at 38 of tuberculosis after being involved in a scandal and becoming a drug and alcohol addict.

The Shaw production, under the direction of Molly Smith and choreographer Baayork Lee, is uneven. Part of the problem is the script, but Smith fails to take advantage of some excellent opportunities to excite the audience. Two of the “show stopper” musical numbers were flat. “Make the World Laugh” is supposed to be the audience’s opportunity to see all of Senett’s character’s in action. Though the music was lively, the pacing was slow and the visuals not dynamic. “Hit Them On the Head,” another musical number that lent itself to all-out farce, was also lacking in needed frenetic pacing and lacked creativity. On the other hand, aided by a strong dancing corps, “Tap Your Troubles Away” displayed what the production numbers should be.

Glynis Ranney was excellent at Mabel. She textured the portrayal with just the right elements of comedy and pathos. Benedict Campbell has an excellent singing voice. Unfortunately, at times he overacted the role of Mack, making dramatic scenes melodramatic. The rest of the cast was excellent.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: In spite of its somewhat weak script and production flaws, as evidenced by the response the day I saw the production, audiences will like the Shaw production of ‘MACK AND MABEL.’


George Feydeau, the author of ‘HOTEL PECCADILLO,’ is noted for writing hilarious farces about the war within people concerning their sexual desires and their ability to act on those desires. His style is so unique that the viewing of one of his plays is referred to by critics as a trip to “Feydeauville.”

‘HOTEL PECCADILLO’ is typical Feydeau. It is filled with scheming, discovery of attempted amorous affairs and the acting out of sexual dreams. It, in some ways, parallels the old joke concerning Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the 10 commandments. Moses says, “I have good news and bad news. I got HIM down to ten, but Adultery stays.” It is the playing around with a desire for, but the avoidance of getting caught in Adultery, that motivates Feydeau’s writing.

The plot of ‘HOTEL PECCADILLO’ is thin, in fact, almost irrelevant. It is the characters and their actions that carry us into the laughter. For what it’s worth, here is the premise: A psychiatrist wants to bed a patient’s wife. The patient is frustrated in his marriage and wants to bed someone other than his wife. A pilot friend of the psychiatrist brings three beautiful Russian stewardesses and their macho female chaperon for a tryst. The psychiatrist’s assistant is sexually interested in her boss’s teenage son. And, it goes on and on. (See why I said the plot was irrelevant?) This is pure silliness for sillness’s sake. After watching a Feydeau play you gain an understanding of why Jerry Lewis is so popular in France.

Feydeau, as is typical of many writers of farces, depends on sets of double doors by which the adulterers, or those desiring to be adulters, duck in an out. The script requires fast pacing, quick costume changes and the viewer’s willingness to go along with the ridiculousness. He does not write plays to be enjoyed by the uptight, the moralist, the religious fundamentalist or those looking for a serious message.

The Shaw production is fun, but uneven. The first and fourth scenes, those that take place in the psychiatrist’s office are hilarious. The word plays, the farcical interactions, the exaggeration is well done. Unfortunately, the visual farce in scenes two and three, those in the hotel setting with the multiple doors, is sluggish. In order for visual slapstick to work, there must be total abandonment. Director and adaptor Morris Panych is better with the word play segments than with the slapstick.

Set designer Ken MacDonald has fashioned a set centering on perspective of large to small. The front of the triangle set has full-sized doors, the back doors are half-sized. If properly used, the set could add to the fun. But, as is, the pacing is slowed down by the door configurations.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you just want to have a good time and leave your troubles and reality at the stage door, ‘HOTEL PECADILLO’ is your kind of thing. It is too bad, however, that the director wasn’t able to correctly pace the farcical middle of the play more effectively so the full effect of Feydeau’s concept is evident. As is, it’s like a sandwich made of fine bread with a tasteless middle layer.

In the next column I’ll review ‘THE PHILANDERER,’ ‘LILLIES,’ ‘THE KILTARTAN COMEDIES,’ ‘THE CIRCLE’ and some information about other attractions in OR NER Niagara-on-the-Lake.

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. Also, the original intent to check passports at the US-Canadian border has postponed for a while. All you need to get to our neighbors to the north and back again is some official form of identification (e.g., driver’s license or government id card).