SHAW FESTIVAL 2016

OUR TOWN
by Thornton Wilder. Directed by Molly Smith. Royal George Theatre, May 12-October 15, 2016

UNCLE VANYA
by Anton Chekhov. Directed by Jackie Maxwell. Court House Theatre, May 13-September 11, 2016

MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION
by George Bernard Shaw. Royal George Theatre, May 14-October 16, 2016

ALICE IN WONDERLAND.
Adapted and Directed by Peter Hinton. Festival Theatre, May 14-October 16, 2016

Kate Besworth as Emily Webb, Charlie Gallant as George Gibbs, Benedict Campbell as Stage Manager with cast of Our Town. Photo by David Cooper.

Kate Besworth as Emily Webb, Charlie Gallant as George Gibbs, Benedict Campbell as Stage Manager with cast of Our Town. Photo by David Cooper.

Three of the first four plays of the 2016 Shaw Festival season are acknowledged classics; the fourth is an adaptation of a classic children’s fable. What matters most are the interpretations that their directors create, and whether the productions are enhanced or damaged by their acting ensembles. Sometimes the simplest ways of doing a play are the best, though the devil is always in the details. Of the four, I liked Our Town best because every aspect of theatre works well in Molly Smith’s loving homage to Wilder’s quiet masterpiece. Our Town, which debuted on Broadway in 1938, was ahead of the theatrical time. It is a play that requires little or no scenery, action that can be mimed, a narrator who frequently cues or interrupts scenes, introduces characters, and fills in blanks. Each of its three acts is dedicated to an over-arching theme: the general tenor of life in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, on May 7, 1901 in Act One; Love and Marriage in Act Two; and Death in Act Three. Time progresses in each act, but the real progress is in subject matter and tone. This Pulitzer winner absorbs the universe within Grover’s Corners, and Grover’s Corners, in turn, connects the life of the town to the life of the stars. Where scientists often see only chalk or fire in the galaxy, Wilder magnifies and unites one town and our cosmos.

I have never seen a bad professional production of this play, and Molly Smith’s is of the finest sort. The design elements are excellent, with William Schmuck’s turn-of-the-20th century costumes growing in colour and culminating in the expressionistic grey seeping up from the ground, as it were, into the clothing for the dead townsfolk. Ken MacDonald’s simple white step-ladders and towers suggest fences, trellises, balconies, windows, and doors, allowing lots of open space within its small geometry, while Kimberly Purtell’s lighting–black and white in interplay, setting off foreground from background, silhouette from full embodiment; and intense colour background saturations, with a glorious harvest moon that turns to silver near the end–approaches the poetic to complement Wilder’s recognition that true life is in the imagination.

The production doesn’t coast on these resources. It has a solid ensemble that reveals just how sweet, gentle, and wise the playwright can be, though nobody could honestly deny Wilder’s fantasy of Americana. Was small-town America really this innocent? Certainly there could never be a Grover’s Corners in present-day U.S.A. and especially not if the utter Rump of Demagoguery, the media whore scumbag (supported by convicted celebrity felons on both sides of the border), somehow hoodwinks the brain-dead majority into electing him President. Even the graveyard scene, where the dead Emily wonders if any human beings ever realize life while they live it, has a fantastical benignity–a sentimentality that is rooted in a consummation devoutly wished. Our Town is part Norman Rockwell, part Pirandello, and this is both its charm and its limitation. Only three characters are detached in some way from the basic grain, and in Molly Smith’s production they are played exquisitely by Ben Campbell as the unsnobbish Stage Manager, who has multiple functions, the chief of which is a folksy conjurer of memory; Kate Besworth’s Emily Webb, who grows from a pure, intellectually knowing maiden to prematurely deceased wife, mother, and wise commentator beyond the grave; and Peter Millard’s Simon Stimson, the bibulous organist and social eccentric. The rest of the ensemble is also noteworthy, particularly Jenny L. Wright and Patrick McManus as the Webbs, Catherine McGregor and Patrick Galligan as the Gibbs; and David Schurmann as Professor Willard and Joe Stoddard. Nobody overacts. Though she plays a talkative town gossip, Sharry Flett’s Mrs. Soames doesn’t irritate, and the “kids” are beautifully played for the range of their emotions by charmingly compelling Charlie Gallant, Tess Benger, Robert Markus, and the already mentioned Kate Besworth.

(l to r, back) Sharry Flett as Marina, Peter Millard as Telegin, Marla McLean as Sophia Alexandrovna (Sonya) and Neil Barclay as Ivan Petrovich (Vanya) in Uncle Vanya. Photo by David Cooper.

(l to r, back) Sharry Flett as Marina, Peter Millard as Telegin, Marla McLean as Sophia Alexandrovna (Sonya) and Neil Barclay as Ivan Petrovich (Vanya) in Uncle Vanya. Photo by David Cooper.

The ensemble is competent but with few genuine standouts in Jackie Maxwell’s modernised production of Uncle Vanya. Although I did not take too eagerly to Annie Baker’s adaptation (working with a literal translation by Margarita Shalina), replete with modern colloquialisms (“hang in there,” “I’ve become a creep,” and “asshole” being the most memorable), and found too often that superficial contemporary mannerisms and “actorish” indications substituting for mood, this is an interesting production. Portly Neil Barclay sometimes acts as if Oliver Hardy had somehow infiltrated Chekhovian tragicomedy, and it is often impossible not to be distracted by his sheer extravagant girth, but he does get much of the absurd comedy and rage, while missing the tragicomedy. He also gets the stifled intellectual quality, as well as the flustered, dishevelled aspects in Vanya. He is absurdly comic (which is correct) without really being touching ultimately. Judged by the highest standards–and I have seen the famous Olivier production with Michael Redgrave, Olivier, Joan Plowright, Rosemary Harris, and Sybil Thorndike–this production doesn’t have much palpable idealism or heartache. Everyone in the cast–from Kate Besworth’s servant, Sharry Flett’s Marina (whose vocal tone is lighter than need be), and Peter Millard’s Telegin to David Schurmann’s Serebryakov (more dapper than ailing), Marla McLean’s Sonya (sweetly naïve), Donna Belleville’s pamphlet-obsessed Maria Vasilyevna, and especially Patrick McManus’s vodka-and-pessimism fuelled Dr. Astrov–seems to know what he or she is supposed to be doing in every scene, though I could have done with less of James Daly’s hummed vocals as Yefim while moving scenery–an eccentric way of supplying a musical soundtrack. But the finest and deepest Chekhovian acting requires much more than superficial simplicity and accurate motivation. And in this regard, the production’s apocalyptic finale is small and sentimental, rather than truly moving. The greatest contact with Chekhov in this production comes through Moya O’Connell’s Yelena.

Moya O’Connell as Yelena Andreyevna in Uncle Vanya. Photo by Emily Cooper.

Moya O’Connell as Yelena Andreyevna in Uncle Vanya. Photo by Emily Cooper.

This is unexpected only in one sense for O’Connell is undoubtedly one of this country’s best actresses. I have liked her in everything I have ever seen her do–from Oscar Wilde and Tennessee Williams to Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, and Philip Barry. She is a marvellously instinctive actress who allows her emotions their freedom to enlarge a text without making judgments about the material. When she appears in a scene, she is alive; she doesn’t appear to be solving an acting problem or scoring points for the character she is embodying. She doesn’t give the impression of calculating her effects, or egotistically distracting from the central focus of a scene. When O’Connell’s Yelena sits in a swing during an earnest scene, she doesn’t deliberately call attention to herself, but an audience is automatically drawn to her because there is a tremendous frustration pent up within her, yet yearning for an outlet. The way she turns in the swing, her face half averted, lost in her private thoughts, yet alive to the dialogue of others, she doesn’t permit words or thoughts to be idle. And her scenes with Sonya and Astrov respectively become wonderful crystallizations of a dynamic complexity that lifts their scenes off the page. Had all the others acted on her level, this production would have left a vivid sense of wasted lives. As it is, however, it is interesting, competent, and intelligent but not ultimately tragicomic, and an opening night performance doesn’t normally have the maturity of a performance later in the run.

Tara Rosling as Alice Liddell and Jennifer Phipps as the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland.

Tara Rosling as Alice Liddell and Jennifer Phipps as the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland.

As for the other two in the quartet of early openings, Peter Hinton’s adaptation of Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland is pure visual magic but is feeble in terms of a radical revisioning, whereas Eda Holmes’s modernization of Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession is vulgarized and damaged by sloppy, empty acting. There are various ways of turning Lewis Caroll’s classic fable into something with deep psychological resonances, but, surprisingly, Hinton (who has established a reputation for daring interpretations) relies on technological wizardry of the highest sort rather than on his deeply personal perspectives. So, the wondrous world of dancing lobsters, a talking rabbit (Ben Sanders), a fascinatingly choreographed caterpillar (played by a very flexible quintet headed by Jay Turvey), a gloriously comic diva of a Queen of Hearts (Moya O’Connell) who talks to her own replica image on her skirt, a most memorable Cheshire cat (marvellous Jennifer Phipps), a virtuoso Mad Hatter (Graeme Somerville), and a little girl who shrinks or grows according to what she has eaten or drunk (Tara Rosling) all conjure up vivid highlights, and the 22-member acting ensemble cannot be faulted for any of the portrayals. However, Hinton’s daring seems to be confined to a rather perverse Duchess (Donna Belleville) who sidles up to Alice with something sinisterly sexual in mind, but it does not tackle the dark psyche of Reverend Charles Dodgson (alias Lewis Carroll), the genius mathematician and logician, who had a rather ambiguous attraction to little girls. What is daring about this production is not the wild puns and language games or games with logic that run rampant and that would be baffling to youngsters and adults unfamiliar with the book, or the rather bland music of Allen Cole (with not a single memorable song, and with woefully tepid choreography by Denise Clark), but the huge and expensive risk the show takes with visuals. This is where Hinton’s production shines, revealing a lush surrealistic imagination, and in a fundamental sense there is justification for this approach because Lewis Carroll wasn’t interested in a clean linear narrative.

Leaving behind the faux-Hockney cross-hatched front curtain painting of a 19th century proscenium arch (though the cross-hatching does show up again in the painted backgrounds), the production opens with a lazy golden afternoon when a slightly stuttering Dodgson (Graeme Somerville), with three Liddell girls, is boating on a river, and is asked to relate a story. This is where the Wonderland fable really begins, and Eo Sharpe’s gleaming floor, rippling with watery glints of light, morphs into something else that is parly enchanting, partly threatening. The smooth river becomes the magical looking glass, when, backed by the superbly clever lighting by Kevin Lamotte and ravishing projections of Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson, the peacefully green pastoral setting is agitated by illusions of reality slipping quickly away. The young Alice Liddell becomes the fable’s Alice falling through a rabbit hole, experiencing unsettling changes in visual perspective. But not only does the physical scale change, so does Alice’s voice, dwindling or enlarging in context. Only an unappreciative cynic would complain about such visual magic, and this production is easily the most luxuriant at the Shaw since the 1987 Peter Pan. There are stunning effects that are too numerous to list, but here are some of my favourites: a background of Mother Goose rhymes in hieroglyphics; Alice’s pool of tears turning into an ocean; and a Cheshire Cat that appears and disappears in a creepy glow. Yet, there is too much of a muchness, and Alice may not be the only one who is lulled to sleep by the end.

Jennifer Dzialoszynski as Vivie Warren and Nicole Underhay as Mrs Warren in Mrs Warren's Profession. Photo by David Cooper.

Jennifer Dzialoszynski as Vivie Warren and Nicole Underhay as Mrs Warren in Mrs Warren’s Profession. Photo by David Cooper.

Which brings me to Eda Holmes’s disappointing version of Mrs. Warren’s Profession. Shaw’s Play Unpleasant is deliberately created to expose a moral problem, for as he wrote in its preface: “Only in the Problem Play is there any real drama.” In this case, the issue is young Vivie Warren’s discovery that the money that has sponsored her upbringing and university scholarship was earned by her mother’s “immoral” way of life: prostitution–for which Shaw offers a very rational explanation, charged by his rage against socio-economic indignities. For Shaw it is always an institution rather than an individual who is the guilty party. As Eric Bentley has argued, Mrs. Warren is neither strongly villainous nor weakly virtuous. She is, rather, a distinctive example of Shaw’s New Woman: vital, bold, unorthodox, and a challenge to social or moral edicts of a corrupt, chauvinistic society. Holmes has seized on the smug male chauvinism of Shaw’s era (that has seeped into our present time) to frame her production as a staged reading in a contemporary exclusive, privileged New Lyric Gentlemen’s Club. But a very limited exception has been made: two women have been recruited to play Mrs. Warren and her daughter.

Patrick Clark has designed a very well appointed set, replete with plush leather chairs, crystal decanters, and varnished wood. And the males (in modern costume) indulge in their casual luxuries of bourbon, chitchat, and smart phone “selfies” with over-privileged amorality. Led by Thom Marriott’s Sir George Crofts, they break through the invisible fourth wall, tweeting friends (#oldestprofession), cracking jokes with and even taking a snapshot of the audience. But they also show themselves to be actors who do warm-up stretches and vocal exercises, while one even quietly recites dialogue to himself. It is all very modern and jocular, until Marriott announces the “searing critique of George Bernard Shaw’s work.” There’s even the obligatory (for the festival) a bust of the great playwright on stage, although this gimmick has long become a production cliché. But things go downhill once the play-within-the-play commences. The cast adopts English accents with such determination that they seem to be playing their accents more than the script. There is a great deal of posturing, and speeches are delivered with a disconcerting lack of weight or credibility. They all seem to be reviving a moribund style of Shavian acting that should be left for dead. Even Nicole Underhay (as Mrs. Warren) seems to be infected much of the time by the prevailing artificial manner. But she does act like a neurotic in the Shelagh Delaney mould and she does have her moments in two big scenes opposite Jennifer Dzialoszynki’s petite Vivie, though this Vivie looks uncomfortably mismatched in a physical way opposite Marriott’s towering Crofts. I use the word “towering” purely in the physical sense because there is nothing towering in this production. There’s a great deal of noise that usually bespeaks coarse, empty acting. A pity.

 

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