Monday, July 25, 2016

Engaged, a Victorian farce, is escapist delight at The Shaw

W. S. Gilbert is best known as the “word man” of the Gilbert and Sullivan duo who wrote such delightful comic operas as Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado, and H. M. S.  Pinafore.  He is less acknowledged as a playwright of comedies.  An example of his escapist satires is Engaged, now on stage at The Shaw Festival’s Royal George Theatre.

Engaged is seldom done and is not well known.  Why?  It has little redeeming value for a modern day audience, except as an escapist experience.

Gilbert wrote the script as a social satire which skewers the social order and capitalist imperative, while making fun of marriage.  As a period comedy it is filled with sight gags, ridiculous situations, exaggerated language and Victorian nonsense.

The author shares his belief that the pursuit of money is the basis for decision-making, whether it is for life, in general, or marriage.   In a typical speech, a character states that  she will not marry a man because, “business is business, unless I can see some distinct possibility that your income will be permanent.”

The 1877 show was staged in New York and London.  An English review of the day noted, “the laughter was almost incessant.”

The Shaw production, directed by Morris Panych, hits all the right notes.   It follows the dictate of the author that “It is absolutely essential to the success of this piece that it should be played with the perfect earnestness and gravity throughout.  There should be no exaggeration in costume, make-up, or demeanor; and the characters, one and all, should appear to believe, throughout, in the perfect sincerity of their words and actions.”   

The farcical nature of the work, complete with its poetic, satirical and romantic language, is properly over-done to make it clear that this is a comedy of manners and not realism. 

Gray Powell as Cheviot, the unrequited lover who pledges his love to every woman he meets, is delightful.  As a stand-in for the author he relates, “Marriage is a risky thing; it’s like Chancery, once in it you can’t get out of it, and the cost are enormous.  There you are—fixed.  Fifty years hence, if we’re both alive, there we shall both be –fixed.  That’s the devil of it.  It’s an unreasonable long time to be responsible for another person’s expenses.  I don’t see the use of making it for as long as that.  Besides—one never knows—one might come across somebody else one liked better.”

Julia Course as Maggie McFarlane and Martin Happer as Angus are endearing as “innocent Scottish rustics” who, true to Scottish tradition, put money ahead of all else and gladly throw over romance in favor of monetary gain.  Mary Haney delights as Maggie’s mother.  The rest of the cast is equally character-correct.

The second act opened to extended applause for Kent MacDonald’s glorious rose covered set, complete with a settee constructed of huge flower petals and walls painted with huge blooms.

Capsule judgement:  If you are in the mood for a Victorian romp, filled with physical and verbal slapstick and shticks, Engaged is going to be your “thing.”  Don’t expect a realistic moral, profound wisdom or thought provoking insights.  But you might ask yourself between laughs, “Why did I do it?”

Engaged is presented in the Royal George Theatre, through October 23 at The Shaw Festival and is a tribute to George Bernard Shaw and his writing contemporaries.  The Shaw has been dubbed “One of the great repertory theaters in the English-speaking world.”

For theatre information, a brochure or tickets, call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to