SHAW FESTIVAL 2010
THE CHERRY ORCHARD
Under Jason Byrne’s keenly-attuned direction, the lighting of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is not merely a supportive atmospheric element, but a something of a metaphysical echo to the characters, a narrator of their inner lives, a subtle water colour paint whose hues are human hearts. Light is not given but earned at the Ranyevskaya estate where people squint at printed pages by candlelight, converse with facial detail concealed in the dark, and live through endless cycles of day and night. But in darkness that ends and begins they find their moments of hope, they speak in misconnections and unheard mutterings, they whine because they must say something in this cycle, and they find minute consequence that is uniquely their own. Manservant Firs says, “My mistress has returned. I’ve lived to see it. Now I can die.” Life is lived concisely in the dark.
This The Cherry Orchard is challenging because its characters are not allowed to be tragic as some directors would have it, against Chekhov’s intentions. These characters are distinctly ordinary, people one would not notice if they were not put before us and we are made to pay attention. They exist because they open their mouths and, heard or not, they speak, although there is little to distinguish one sound from another. But silence is too quiet a place and no wonder Leonid blurts out, “I talk and I talk.” But words and thoughts drift off, the governess says, “Why I am I do not know” and there’s an almost Zen-like austerity in the sets. This production opens many doors for our introspection and gives us no easy truths. And it gives brief but potent clues to this society’s imminent collapse; it gives social cruelties a human face we can see.
There are fine creations here. Benedict Campbell as Lopakhin is solidly mundane in his own world view; Mark Uhre’s arrogant and ungiving Yasha is scary in determination; Laurie Paton’s Ranyevskaya shows glamour that lingers, as it fades, with vulnerable assurance; Severn Thompson’s Varya is a subtly detailed account of human emotions draining body and spirit; Gord Rand’s student Trofimov conveys both intellectual astuteness and youthful integrity with strong but delicate reserve; and, as Gayev, Jim Mezon embodies with sensitivity the pain of spiritual demise.
In fact, all the notable actors of this cast, underplayed and richly-conceived, give Chekhov’s characters an uncomfortable immediacy as mirrors to the pointlessness that we, in the audience, ourselves live. I’ve heard some say that they were bored with this beautifully honest production, so, for that reason, if you value truth about yourself, don’t miss it.
JOHN BULL’S OTHER ISLAND
This top-notch production, paced with meticulous ease and shaped as a multi-dimensional poem as it is, might be perhaps the most challenging interpretation of Shaw I have seen; it has not only a discerning mind but also a truly passionate poetic spirit coexisting beside it, both rendered masterfully together as a musically veined whole. In this John Bull’s Other Island, director Christopher Newton creates deeply etched characterizations, solid interactions that humanize the tennis match of ideas, lives that actually speak their experience, and atmosphere that beats like a heart. We live with and through the words we hear.
Benedict Campbell’s symphonic variety in voice suggests not only human character but also theatrical character, a man made of projected presence as his essence. His Tom Broadbent is a man of clichés and blundering romantic advances, but out in the world he is the conquering English with capital in his pocket. He sees nothing beyond himself as he divides people into the efficient and the inefficient. As the new financial breed that wantonly destroys tradition and the earth, Campbell nails human limitation.
His comedic goods are rooted in his presentation of dynamic reserve and cluelessness, in his solidly British smugness, while his human dimension emerges in his boyish enthusiasm that breaks through his artificial poise. He is awkward in love and doesn’t look around himself to acknowledge reality. He is unaware of the social stratification of provincial mentality, for one, but his love, Nora, an Irish beauty, is not. Severn Thompson has matured into an actress of a stately and earth-moist core, and when she says she won’t “lower myself to the level of common people” we feel years of Nora’s heels pressed into the earth with prejudice and snobbery.
Graeme Somerville’s Doyle is a man who seems to have come to distasteful realizations about the world and the people in it. Given poetic words and rhythms to speak, by Shaw, Doyle is skeptical, youthful, and fixed in what he thinks -as only a young person with youthful sadness can be. Ric Reid is a dynamic Haffigan, the natural con who drinks full glasses of whiskey like water from the earth. Guy Bannerman is gruff and delightfully leprechaunish, while Mary Haney, with her well-sculpted repertoire of facial expressions and vocal shadings, is richness itself.
The gathering of provincial minds is hilarious and when Shaw introduces concern for pigs and country folk, we feel humanity’s cruelty and its vulnerability at once. Such is Newton’s skill that we feel ourselves not watching but overhearing these folk in their daily lives. Perhaps this is also designer William Schmuck’s doing, since his set defines the whole auditorium and we are thus attached to what transpires on stage.
The poetic soul of the production is the worn and wise Keegan , of Jim Mezon, in whom we have Shaw at his most surprisingly eloquent. Bearded and long-haired Keegan, with a cane and folksy elegance and insight into blarney as a way of life, knows too well the human love of cruelty. Keegen’s juicy cynicism, one that still remains attuned to the mysteries of this world, runs counterpoint to Campbell’s Broadbent “who’ll never know they are laughing at him. He observes that “My way of joking is to tell the truth and that is the funniest joke of all” for Keegan has seen and well understood the world of deceivers and self-deceivers. He is a haunting creation. After curtain, his memory lingers like a ghost.
HALF AN HOUR
Half An Hour is a compact gem by J. M. Barrie that is further polished here into an engaging theatrical experience by a sharply focused cast who suggest much human depth within the play’s textual brevity. Peter Kranz is the frazzled financier who can’t afford scandal but whose wife Lilian married for bucks and is now engaged lustily outside their union. The power struggle within their intimacy -she with an elusive blend of shallowness and meaty passion and dignity and he driven to be more of what he is- is made of sharp edges. Diana Donnelly’s grandly expressive facial expressions add spice to her Ibsen’s Nora-like games of false existence. This is splendid theatrical nugget of human variety and reality, a compressed and efficiently constructed play. Michael Ball dips in as Withers the butler and as a representative of time, while Jennifer Dzialoszynski, as Susie, is a new delightful energy at the festival.
Six of the cast of Harvey, directed by Joseph Ziegler, have in total 144 years on the stages of the Shaw Festival and their finely-honed subtleties in acting give happy pulse to this heart-fuelling production. Mary Haney as horny Veta, with her jerky spasms, turns and drops, waves and bends, growls and trills, is a consistently surprising comedic joy, especially when indignant at being treated as “a woman of the streets.” The open-spirited, wide-eyed and grinning Peter Kranz, as a reality-elsewhere Elwood, gradually makes a solid and undeniable case for a man who is happy with his tall rabbit friend, especially when happiness is hard to find. His tranquil charm is undeniable and who cannot like a man who says, on the phone, “You’ve got the wrong number but hello anyway.”
The prancing Chumney of Norman Browning is paternally and naively confident without foundation, especially (irony) since he’s “the biggest man in his field” and desperate for “one last fling.” Guy Bannerman is an aged-like-wine Judge Gaffney, while Peter Millard and Jennifer Phipps, with 72 Shaw years between them, ace their cameos in concisely evocative performances. Each of the cast is noteworthy, including the slightly charged Donna Belleville, veteran of only 12 Shaw seasons, who blends societal propriety and not-too-suppressed sexuality, the efficient and slightly frenzied Gray Powell as Dr. Sanderson, and Diana Donnelly with headlight eyes as the delicious-babe nurse Kelly.
The fun is in miscommunication and misunderstanding and innuendo, in the ongoing deflation of clueless but arrogant psychiatrists. The fun is that others come to acknowledge Harvey while most also begin to look strange in their own “normal” behavior. The fun is that Veta comes to ask, as we have all along, “And what’s wrong with Harvey?” The message comes, as we wait in suspense as to whether Elwood will be injected and become thus normal, when Millard as the taxi driver notes, “After this he’ll be a perfectly normal human being and you know what bastards they are.” No wonder we cheer for fantasy.
AN IDEAL HUSBAND
Judith Bowden’s set for An Ideal Husband is angularly elegant and cage-like, appropriate for society folks imprisoned in the rules of a game called society. Kevin Lamotte’s dim lighting adds a sense of worldly gloom to Jackie Maxwell’s precisely realized and stimulating production of Wilde’s play where love can still emerge from an indifferent and dark place and wit reflects life experience as much as quickness of mind. The characters develop in complexity as the play progresses and they are certainly a diverse and compelling lot.
Catherine McGregor’s Lady Gertrude is a woman of oppressive innocence who needs to “worship” the man she loves. But the man she worships has made his fortune and highly principled political career with wealth he initially earned by betraying cabinet secrets. Gertrude’s protected black and white ethical world is thus made of principles she hasn’t earned that, ironically, are founded upon corruption. She doesn’t allow her husband to be human and she is annoyingly precious in principles, but McGregor keeps her genuine and not unsympathetic.
Her husband, Sir Robert, played with vulnerability and some bite by Patrick Galligan, loves his wife desperately and feels he cannot tarnish her idealization of him. His background is humiliating poverty and, because money buys power, he once took the money and now he pays the price. Why? Because the venomous Lady Cheveley, played ably as a social predator edged in acid, by Moya O’Connell, needs a favour . She is uncompromising in destruction, a woman of villainy, sexually versatile as a temptress –and she wants him to compromise his principles if he wants to keep his secret safe.
Wendy Thatcher as Lady Markby gives amusing relief from all the tension as she chats on with little awareness and few concerns in her head. Lady Cheveley says of Markby that she “talks more and says less than anyone I have ever met.” Lorne Kennedy plays the determinedly duty-bound Lord Caversham who is paternally pissed off with his flippant son. Given to silent screen melodramatics, delightfully gruff and testy, he, like Thatcher, put secondary roles front and centre because we realize that each portrayal is a work of deeply rooted conception.
The heartwarming delight of this production is the relationship of Goring and Mabel, one that is made of loving tolerance and unlike the confining union of the Chilterns. They enjoy each other and enjoy themselves because of the other and we enjoy them both. Steven Sutcliffe makes Goring a dandy whose shallowness conceals as much human substance as privileged birth allows. He endures the mundane world of society with a self-aggrandizing oratorical flippancy and perhaps an undercurrent of fatalism. Marla McLean gives Mabel a perky serenity, an implicit feistiness, an ease and maturity of insight, warmth, and a kindness in nature, all of which, since she is so cute as well, make Goring a very lucky guy.
The Women, by Clare Boothe Luce, depicts a world of cattiness, wit, deception, gossip, malignant friendship, insincerity and go-for-the-throat repartee. As directed by Alisa Palmer, it sometimes opts for broad and balcony-visible strokes of characterization by stereotype over fine shadings of human, yet still comic, complexity. While the comic antics certainly entertain, they sacrifice, some human detail whose absence puts no rein on stereotypes taking over.
Certainly I have known women whose blunt and brutal excesses exceed anything on Palmer’s stage. However, I would prefer some of these caricatured ladies to inspire more reflection, more understanding on my part, and not simply distanced guffaws that require no introspection. Still, the audience at both performances I saw was very delighted and very entertained. I don’t know how challenged they were, but there wasn’t a safe romantic notion in the house at final curtain.
The author’s alert and unrelenting social commentary continues to offer many clever surprises over seventy years after the play’s premiere. Meanwhile, Palmer’s production is big but mobile with William Schmuck’s gliding design, disco bright with Kevin Lamotte’s lighting, and propelled with the big city thump of Lesley Barber’s score. The fashions are sometimes too bizarre and loud for even 1930s extremities of style and Deborah Hay’s ridiculous and easily mock-worthy attire is exaggerated and surreal. Some of these women are self-indulgent cat-fighters and, whatever their social aspirations and pretense, there is not much finesse here.
This company of women offers many enjoyable performances. Jenny L. Wright as Edith with morning sickness, declares “I have to unswallow” and while nursing her fourth baby remarks that she hates “that milky smell” as she drops a cigarette ash on the infant’s face. Deborah Hay, whose broad physical comedy is a hilarious reincarnation of Lucille Ball, is an aggressively meddling, and conspicuously insincere Sylvia. Moya O’Connell as the other woman, Crystal, is assertively glamorous, cool, and nasty when she needs to be. Wendy Thatcher condenses the foibles of the shallow Countess into a nutshell, but her acting smarts in nuance are reined in for some reason.
Kelly Fox a la Dorothy Parker handles pungent asides like “I’m a virgin, a frozen asset.” She as writer is the author of “All the Dead Ladies” and provides a bemused Greek chorus of sorts as commentary. Beryl Bain is quietly charming and instinctively classy as Peggy. Sharry Flett’s Mrs. Moorhead provides insightful wisdom and noble practicality that seem indeed the result of life in the trenches of marriage. The many minor roles are concisely etched by Helen Taylor who is bluntly unsettling in her description of childbirth in wretched poverty, Patty Jamieson as a country gal who talks off-handedly of wife-beating, Jacqueline Thair who is snooty-snippy as Miss Watts, and the rest of a very flexible cast.
As Mary Haines, whose hubby has wandered, Jenny Young speaks with a sophisticated nasal resonance in her voice as she floats, quite believably aching, through the emotional hell of betrayal. She has coasted in false security and “love” has now come to mean “fond of” and she is surprised. Her Mary is poised, dignified, beautiful and hurt, violated as much by gossip as a deceiving husband, and still veneered with dignity. Though she often wins our hearts, she remains remote and ambiguously classy and enigmatic.
In the end, we wonder how much a woman can do, how much she must do, how much she can afford to do, to keep a man. But once too often in this production, this very smart and very relevant play goes silly and some ironies have too heavy a feel. The characterizations are meaty enough to carry the incisive lines as blunt ladies, unobserved, would speak them, but the simplification of human nature through obvious laughs is a problem that at times undermines this show. As we laugh some might feel that the audience, the cast and the director are not going for all the challenges available here.
THE DOCTOR’S DILEMMA
Early in The Doctor’s Dilemma we have medical types in energetic and competitive speculation about their respective takes on science and its efficacy. They reveal much arrogance, irresponsibility, narrow-mindedness, and smug self-reverence that, in turn, inspires little faith in doctors. Each has a tunnel-visioned and theoretical schtick, such as blood-poisoning, and is buoyed by accidental success on occasion, ergo arrogance. The issue soon at hand is whom to save when on one side stands an irresponsible artist who only takes and on the other an altruistic and self-denying doctor who only gives.
The artist has a wife who will “give anything to save him” and Patrick Galligan’s Sir Colenso Ridgeon, newly knighted, is turned on by her as are his medical cohorts. Several, except Michael Ball’s older and wiser Sir Patrick, go bumbling and dotty over Krista Colosimo’s voluptuous Jennifer. The artist is a fascinating hustler who borrows as if by instinct and feels no responsibility to repay. He thus confounds the doctors in their “inartistic profession” and they are forced to question what morality is, how much it can bend, and how one can be moral. The much-desired Jennifer justifies hubby’s every deed and tolerates no criticism of him. She idealizes him and will later pen a book about him titled “The Story of a King of Men.”
Director Morris Panych here offers a thought-provoking production of non-stop entertainment that begins with the Rolling Stones’ Under My Thumb played pizzicato. Each performance that follows is notable for the restraint upon the inherent lunacy within these people and therefore is a comic joy. The humour creeps up and some in the audience gradually crack with laughter and Thom Marriot as the dense and eloquent Sir Ralph is especially to blame. Catherine McGregor does Emmy with a Scottish edge in her voice and manner that snips at everyone. Patrick Gallagan’s Colenso seems confused and vulnerable as, at the age of forty, he subtly loses his common sense over Jennifer’s charms because, partly, he is ready to fall. Each actor in fact is a richly individualized contribution to a splendid ensemble performance.