Sept. 27--In 1962, a lovely little town in southern Ontario decided to adopt the plays of George Bernard Shaw as a civic passion. The town was named Niagara, but in 1970 it was rechristened Niagara-on-the-Lake, the new name underscoring its situation on Lake Ontario. The town's heritage includes an essential role in the War of 1812; it was tossed back and forth between British loyalist forces and invading troops from the United States, with the landmark of Fort George still boasting a building from that time. The rest of the town was wiped out when the Americans torched it before retreating in late 1813, leaving the unfortunate residents to shiver through (or, in many cases, freeze in) a December blizzard. Within a few years, the hardy survivors reconstructed their community. Many of the gracious buildings that line the several blocks of the town center are handsome vestiges of the first couple of decades following that event.
Within the span of four profusely gardened blocks one encounters four theaters. In those buildings, the Shaw Festival unrolls every year from early April through late October -- until Nov. 3 this year, thanks to the extension of one of its offerings. The festival typically presents 10 productions, an increase from the eight amateur performances of its first season more than a half century ago. The festival states that its focus is "inspired by the work of Bernard Shaw" and notes that it produces "plays from and about his era, and plays that share Shaw's provocative exploration of society and celebration of humanity."
Shaw is less universally appreciated today than he was a century ago, but his plays certainly remain respected even if they are now produced more as connoisseurs' items than as surefire box-office hits. He created about 60 of them in the course of his 94 years, right up until the final curtain fell on his life, in 1950. In 1925, he was selected for the Nobel Prize for Literature; the committee characterized his work as "marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty." It honored a work list that included such notable items as Mrs. Warren's Profession, Arms and the Man, Candida, The Devil's Disciple, Man and Superman, Major Barbara, The Doctor's Dilemma, Pygmalion, Heartbreak House, and Saint Joan. Always a "thinking man's playwright," he built on his admiration of Ibsen to contrive theater pieces that could maintain a veneer of comfortable drawing-room entertainment while in fact forcing viewers to confront knotty social issues.
This season the Shaw Festival offers Peace in Our Time: A Comedy, which is John Murrell's rewrite of Shaw's Geneva, but the only actual Shaw play on the roster is Major Barbara (1905). This work involves a Salvation Army missionary whose wealthy father, an armaments tycoon, opens her eyes to the extent to which idealistic philanthropic pursuits may depend on the lucre derived from the military-industrial complex or similar corporate enterprises that purvey morally questionable goods. It was directed by Jackie Maxwell, the festival's artistic director, and in a program essay she proclaims her goal is "to challenge the prevailing notion that while Major Barbara is the title character, the play in fact belongs to the ... arms manufacturer Andrew Undershaft, Barbara's father." That was a tough challenge given that Shaw really does shift the focus to papa as the play unfolds, leaving Barbara lurking perplexed on the sidelines. The casting did not quite support her idea, either, since Andrew Undershaft was given a fascinating, nuanced interpretation by Benedict Campbell (blunt but wry, experienced but not jaundiced), while Barbara (Nicole Underhay) conveyed wholesome enthusiasm and then a measure of pouty disappointment but not much real depth of character. In the end, she did not prove a formidable opponent, and it really was her father's show -- which, I think, is how Shaw wrote it. An especially appealing supporting performance came from Graeme Somerville as her suitor Adolphus, who embraced his journey from utopianism to practicality with more persuasive conviction.
It was brilliant to program Major Barbara cheek by jowl with Frank Loesser's 1950 musical Guys and Dolls, which borrows much inspiration from it while tracing the other strand of its ancestry to short stories by Damon Runyon. Now the Salvation Army lassie is named Sarah Brown (portrayed by Elodie Gillett) and her antagonist/love interest is the tough-guy gambler Sky Masterson (Kyle Blair), who woos her on a bet from one of his cronies. Director Tadeusz Bradecki oversaw a physically attractive production with a spiffy art-deco look (with sets by Peter Hartwell). The standout in the cast was Jenny L. Wright as Miss Adelaide ("the well-known fiancee," always hopeful that her 14-year engagement will earn her a ring, always suffering from a cold). She played the part in the style of Gracie Allen, just connected enough to reality to make her credible but sufficiently untethered to make her lovable, and she sang and danced her numbers with winning gusto. Also impressive was Thom Allison as Nicely-Nicely, who made much of his single musical number, and Parker Esse's entertaining choreography kept the company hopping. I did not quite comprehend how Gillett and Blair were selected for the leads, which, in principle, are both strong singing parts. The former was merely adequate as a vocalist, the latter not even that; and Blair was more boy-next-door than high roller, so that left us with a hole in the middle of the cast. The festival did a wonderful thing in assembling a 14-piece orchestra to accompany the show and then spoiled the players' efforts by amplifying them and reinforcing the high frequencies, turning a beautiful sound shrill and ugly. The sound was designed by John Lott, who probably would be more at home doing rock shows.
Of the six productions I caught at this year's festival, my favorite was a double bill titled Trifles. It was a historical curiosity comprising the first plays by two important American playwrights: Susan Glaspell's Trifles (1916) and Eugene O'Neill's A Wife for a Life (1913). Both of these figures were involved with the legendary Provincetown Players, which was founded in 1915 to provide a forum for emerging American playwrights. Glaspell had been a journalist back home in Iowa but flourished in the "leftie" circle of writers who had gravitated to Provincetown; one of her friends was Mabel Dodge Luhan, who would play an essential role in New Mexico's cultural life. Glaspell's Trifles is a beautiful little play, a sort of detective tale derived from a news story she had covered in Des Moines. It takes place in the bare-bones house of an impoverished woman who, it seems, has murdered her husband in his sleep and has been taken off to jail. Lawmen and a neighbor poke around the house to collect evidence, while their wives (Kaylee Harwood and Julain Molnar) sit in the kitchen going through (as director Meg Roe put it in an accompanying essay) "the detritus of day-to-day existence." These "trifles" -- an empty and broken birdcage, a slipshod piece of patchwork sewing -- enable them to piece together what must have happened in that godforsaken place, while their menfolks' search for more sensational evidence yields nothing useful. Simplicity reigned in this naturalistic production, which was designed by Camellia Koo in a way that evoked a painting by Grant Wood or Thomas Hart Benton. Play, production, and cast were balanced with winning sensitivity in this quiet but engrossing endeavor.
O'Neill's play segued directly out of Glaspell's, played out in the same set, now portraying a cabin in some remote spot where two men are prospecting for gold. The flavor is more what we might expect from Jack London or Bret Harte than from the future author of Mourning Becomes Electra and Long Day's Journey Into Night. It is effectively a two-man play, although a third arrives delivering a letter that plays a pivotal role in the plot. Two prospectors, one old and the other young, are good friends. The older was married some years ago but abandoned his wife. He figures out that the younger prospector has met the wife and that they have fallen in love, and he decides not to disrupt the happiness they hope to find together. The stylized narrative would be as comfortable in the form of a short story as a play, but it gained richness through this rendition by Benedict Campbell (as the older man) and Jeff Irving (as the younger one). Again, director Roe assembled the components with care, and she demonstrated how a dusty volume can become an engrossing play onstage when it is approached with respect.
Productions of a pair of Shaw-era drawing-room dramas aimed higher but ultimately added up to less. Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan (from 1892, directed by Peter Hinton) benefited from a stunning, lightly surreal set by Teresa Przybylski. Curtains -- or, more accurately, panels -- opened in a way resembling a camera's aperture to steer the eye and the action to different points on the stage. On occasions when the full stage was revealed, it could seem an Impressionist painting sprung to life. Costumes (by William Schmuck) echoed high-society paintings of the belle epoque and artworks (by Beardsley, Cassatt, etc.) were occasionally projected to reinforce the period feel. Unfortunately, Hinton did his production irreparable damage by including entirely irrelevant music performed by Rufus Wainwright, Katy Perry, The Velvet Underground, and who knows who or what all else, the words of these songs being projected to underscore some presumed applicability. Again, the strongest role was not the principal one; as Lady Windermere, Marla McLean served prettiness but did not seem to become transformed at heart. Commendable acting in a secondary role arrived via Corrine Koslo as the demanding Duchess of Berwick. Notwithstanding its good looks, this ended up being a ponderous production. The actors too often delivered Wilde's epigrams toward the audience rather that toward one another, and the director exercised a heavy hand by projecting some of the bons mots onto panels lest we fail to notice them. In any case, Wilde's levity made little intrusion on what was directed to emphasize the moralistic.
W. Somerset Maugham's play Our Betters (1917) perhaps did a bit better thanks to director Morris Panych's somewhat breezier approach. The play seemed not terribly consequential, taking on the situation of young American heiresses showing up in London to snag noble husbands and not always finding themselves happy with the consequences. Claire Jullien (as Lady Pearl Grayston) and Laurie Payton (as the matronly Duchesse de Surennes) made fine impressions, but Julia Course, in the central role of Elizabeth Saunders (an American who discovers that European mores are not for her) seemed too unsophisticated for an upper-class heiress bred anywhere, even in the United States.
Shaw was of Irish origin, and Irish playwrights are accordingly welcome at the festival. This season included Faith Healer, a work by Brian Friel that premiered in 1979 and has enjoyed a few revivals in the intervening years. Director Craig Hall wrote of the piece as bringing to mind the shanachie of Irish folk tradition, itinerant storytellers whose tales were sometimes embroidered into what one might call lies. Here the subject is also a traveling entrepreneur, a self-styled faith healer who makes the rounds of rural communities in Scotland and Wales, accompanied by his wife (maybe girlfriend) and manager. The play consists of four extended monologues -- the first and fourth by the faith healer (played by Jim Mezon, the standout in this cast), the second by the wife (Corrine Koslo), the third by the manager (Peter Krantz). Everyone is ostensibly talking about the same experiences, but, in the style of Rashomon, they remember the facts rather differently and their emotional reactions to their shared life are in some ways strikingly dissimilar. Much that is expressed seems subject to doubt, except everyone agrees that the faith healer, who himself acknowledges that his powers were mostly ineffectual, did have one glorious evening on which he cured 10 inhabitants of a little village -- an event that must have been true since it was chronicled in a newspaper article, even if the article gave the healer's name wrong. The play runs some two and a half hours, and that adds up to a lot of talk. But blarney is an Irish specialty, and anyone who thrives on James Joyce or Flann O'Brien knows that protracted word-spinning can prove a delectable exercise of style even if the tale is not to be believed.
For information on the Shaw Festival, including next year's schedule, visit www.shawfest.com.
(c)2013 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)
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