Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Shaw Festival 2007/review #2

‘More on the 2007 Shaw Festival--’THE PHILANDERER,’ ‘LILLIES’ and ‘THE CIRCLE’

Each year The Shaw Festival season runs from April through October. A visit to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada, about four hours by car from Cleveland, allows those living on the north coast to see up to ten productions, plus noon-time offerings and special events.

In my previous column I reviewed ‘SUMMER AND SMOKE, ’‘HOTEL PECCADILLO’ and ‘MACK AND MABEL.’ If you missed those reviews go online to www.royberko.info.


In the late 1800s, the liberal Norwegian, Henrik Ibsen began to pen plays about the “new woman,” an independent female, who did not view the man-woman relationship structure as the man being in charge with the female subservient. G. B. Shaw took up the same cry, and along with his commentaries on religion, morality, the educational system and politics, pushed the women’s liberation cause beyond that of Ibsen.

Shaw’s ‘THE PHILANDERER’ is a typical Shavian comedy. It is long on laughs and has many social messages. It centers on the concept of what it means to be a man or a woman. Because the battle between the sexes continues to this very day, the play remains relevant.

‘THE PHILANDERER,’ which was written in 1893, was only Shaw’s second play. Years later, the more mature Shaw decided that the play needed a more complete ending, and added a fourth act. The Festival is presenting both the three and the four-act versions this season. Having only viewed the three-act presentation I cannot comment on the fourth segment. A friend who saw the quad production commented that the last act was more in what we now consider the Shaw later-years style and more completely wrapped up his message.

The play takes us into the Ibsen Club where supposedly modern men and women strive to live social lives of equality, or at least pretend to do so. The action centers on Leonard Charteris, a man committed to remaining unattached. He is a philanderer who believes that only conventional people marry. He believes in "charming friendships." But, when he meets Julia Craven, a self-described "new woman" who belongs only to herself and is the property of no man, he finds he may have met his match, and maybe his mate.

In one of the play’s most delightful scenes, which skewers the medical profession, Peter Krantz, as the aptly named Dr. Paramour, becomes depressed when he learns that a new liver disease he thinks he's discovered doesn't exist. Never mind that the news means his patient is perfectly healthy. It is just one of those Shaw inspired moments inserted to zap a group or cause whose actions he finds ridiculous.

The festival’s production is on target. Ben Carlson is a delightful cad as philandering Charteris. Nicole Underhay (Julia Craven) effectively develops the womanly-woman. Nicola Correia-Damuge (Sylvia Craven) is clearly the manly-woman, who foreshadows the women who will come forth in the next generation’s liberation movement.

Director Alisa Palmer has paced the show well and pointed the comedy lines. Judith Bowden’s set is beautiful and practically designed.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The Shaw Festival does Shaw like no other acting company. Their production of ‘THE PHILANDERER’ is a delight while making the author’s points with fine acting and technical finesse. This is a “sure see.” I’m sorry I didn’t experience the longer version as it would have elongated the wonderful experience.


In 1990, Jackie Maxwell, the Shaw’s Artistic Director, staged the first reading of a new translation of ‘LILLIES,’ a play originally written in French by Michel Marc Bouchard. The script went on to be produced across Canada and in Europe. Maxwell, decided to include ‘LILLIES’ in the 2007 Shaw season.

‘LILLIES’ is a mystery of hidden desires, the living out of fantasies, and the consequences of forbidden love. Set at a Catholic boys school in a small town in Canada, a secret love affair between two of the male students, a closeted jealous student, a gay drama teacher who pushes against school’s homophobic regulations, and a murder, are all part of the action.

The staged reading, directed by Maxwell, was cast with all males, though three of the characters are women. The single gender casting adds an interesting dimension to the proceedings.

The presentation was highlighted by fine performances by Kawa Ada as one participant in the love triangle, Blair Williams as his mother, Guy Bannerman as a priest and Ric Reid as an adult who, as a youth, was a member of the love triangle.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Unfortunately for festival-goers, if they didn’t see the performance on July 13 they will not be able to see it. That’s really sad, as I found ‘LILLIES’ to be the most interesting scripts of this season and even in a staged reading format, for which the cast only had three rehearsals, the tension and idea development was excellent. It can only be hoped that Maxwell considers producing a staged version at a future Festival. (On a local note, I would encourage one of our more adventurous theatres to consider a staged presentation of the script.)


Somerset Maugham, the author of ‘THE CIRCLE,’ is noted for writing plays concerning the British upper-classes and marriage. He believed that, “in order to understand a society one should study its marriage laws and the arrangements between the sexes.” Like Shaw, Maugham used humor and witticism to develop his philosophical points of view.

Maugham questions the 1920 ‘s belief that “men rule the world, wield the political and social instruments of power, and that their women are bred to keep their place while being quietly loving and supportive and provide the country’s great houses with future heirs.”

‘THE CIRCLE,’ which is considered by dramatists as Maugham’s finest play, has an interesting structure which centers on two love triangles, one relationship in the past, one in the present. The writer is a master at conversational style and the turning of a word to make an effect. His abilities are displayed well in this witty script.

Interestingly, the final curtain of 1920’s productions of the play were generally met with hisses and boos as the audience was both shocked and repelled by the unexpected conclusion. Modern day audiences, considering the high rate of infidelity and divorce, are less likely to respond negatively.

The story centers on the three-year marriage of Arnold and Elizabeth. He is a wealthy member of the British parliament. Arnold’s father and mother were divorced when he was young. The mother ran off with the father’s best friend, who, if not for the scandal, might have been elected Prime Minister. Elizabeth invites her lover (Edward Lutton), Arnold’s mother, the mother’s current husband, and a female family friend for a visit. Of course, the reason for the visit is to create havoc. The results, as can be assumed, turn out to be a showcase for questioning the need for marriage, what is the basis for love, and challenges whether love is an important ingredient in a successful marriage.

Director Neil Munro had a clear concept, and accomplished it with proper pacing and imbuing his cast with the necessary attitudes and character development. He has even incorporated clever set and props changes as part of the production.

The cast is excellent. David Jansen is properly uptight as Arnold. Beautiful and talented Moya O’Connell is delightful as conflicted Elizabeth. Gray Powell’s Edward Lutton is appropriately frustrated by Elizabeth’s decisions and the alteration of her choices regarding him. Wendy Thatcher is a hoot as Arnold’s estranged mother. Michael Ball is wonderful as the curmudgeon/puffed-up second husband of Lady Kitty. David Shurmann is attitude perfect as Arnold’s father.

The production is performed in a beautifully appointed drawing room set, in the intimate Royal George Theatre.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: By today’s standards, ‘THE CIRCLE’ is a piece of fluff. In the 20s, when it was first staged, Maugham’s script confronted real issues and gave a flash of what was going to happen during the era of women’s liberation. The fine production is worth seeing, if for no other reason than to get a glimpse of early 20th century attitudes about men, women and marriage.