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Shavian Cream

A hyperkinetic Pygmalion and a virtuoso performance in Man and Superman rise to the top at another memorable Shaw Festival.

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Nicole Underhay as Mary in Githa Sowerby's Rutherford and Son.  

I strongly suspect—in fact, firmly believe—that the Shaw Festival at Canada’s Niagara-on-the-Lake is the best repertory theater on the entire continent, with standards that consistently aim high and generally generously deliver. Playing in three houses in a charmingly soigné, flower-drenched town, the Shaw began, in 1962, with G.B.S. plays, subsequently adding plays by Shaw’s contemporaries, and finally expanding to newer plays and musicals. The current season, from early April to early December, offers a repertory of eight full-length plays, two musicals, and two one-acters in the lunchtime series. In three and a half days, I was able to catch eight productions.

Githa Sowerby (1876–1970), a little-known playwright and children’s-book author, wrote Rutherford and Son in 1911. A glass manufacturer’s daughter, she tells the story of the widowed John Rutherford, an autocratic Yorkshire glass manufacturer who runs business and family with parallel paternalistic despotism. Unable to move with the times, he finds his hold on factory and family slipping away from him. Son Richard has escaped into the pitifully parochial ministry; John Jr., a bit of an idler, has let his office-worker wife, Mary, support him in London, but has, with her and their baby boy, moved back into the gloomy paternal house on the moors. Here, too, are the hidebound and carping Aunt Ann and the embittered spinster daughter, Janet, who acts as sullen housekeeper. John Jr.’s only friend is Martin, his father’s faithful foreman, with whom he has evolved a procedure that would save his father much money, but which he will only sell, not give, to Dad. Meanwhile, the frustrated Janet has seduced the conscience-stricken Martin; John Sr. won’t even talk to the ex–working girl Mary, and . . . well, you get the Ibsenesque situation and drama that rages in a dour generation-crossed living room.

Sowerby has written with a fierce honesty and lurking feminism, in straightforward dialogue that can rise to lopsided tenderness or impotent fury, and has surprises coming from all over, yet remains totally believable. The Shaw’s new artistic director, Jackie Maxwell, has directed effectively, albeit with uncalled-for Pinteresque pauses that seem forced here. But the acting is uniformly fine, with Kelli Fox as the tormented Janet, Nicole Underhay as the plucky Mary, and Michael Ball as the paternal tyrant particularly impressive.

Maxwell has also directed Pygmalion, in which the bald-headed, athletic Jim Mezon plays an unconventional Henry Higgins: rather clownish, with spectacular tantrums wherein he performs bits of acrobatic comedy, not at all Shavian, but fun in their way. Tara Rosling’s Eliza starts out a tentative Cockney but grows in assurance, and manages a hilarious visit to Mrs. Higgins and a touching final standoff. Maxwell cleverly has characters speak some of Shaw’s stage directions and perform the bathroom scene in amusing shadow play. She gets delightfully simple yet suggestive scenery from Sue LePage, and some wonderfully trenchant performances from young Nora McLellan as the tart, middle-aged housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, and from the understated Patricia Hamilton as a worldly-wise Mrs. Higgins. Too bad only that phonetics here recede behind kinetics.

That athletic gift of Jim Mezon’s does come in handy, though, in his direction of the old John Cecil Holm–George Abbott farce Three Men on a Horse into something fresher than its frequent exposure would seem to allow. It is the story of Erwin Trowbridge, small-town working stiff (he writes greeting-card doggerel) with the mysterious gift of impeccably predicting horse races just for fun from the newspapers without ever going to the racetrack, let alone betting. Henpecked by a whiny wife, bullied by her greedy rowhouse-builder brother, he falls into the big-city clutches of three small-time, unsuccessful gamblers. To play Erwin’s hunches, they hold him captive in a hotel room, away from his exploitative boss, panicky wife, and nastily suspicious brother-in-law.

I have never seen farce more keenly orchestrated and sanguinely enacted, the blatantly laughable always tinged with the bitingly caricatural, the fantastic, and the outrageous, without the slightest loss in basic humanity. The cast is a large, impeccable ensemble working elegant wonders in inelegance—perfect accents, costumes, period sense—and the scene in which Erwin is trapped by the clothes hanging in an open cupboard is sheer comic genius. Even good Kevin Bundy’s matinee-idol looks are aptly downplayed by his Erwin, and Peter Hutt as one of the thugs, Douglas E. Hughes as the creepy in-law, and Glynis Ranney as a dumb-blonde moll manage to be outstanding even among brilliant equals.

“Ben Carlson gives a performance to chortlingly remember one’s entire life, however long.”

Man and Superman is a tough play to mount, for its length, its changes of scenery, its elaborate Shavian philosophizings and unremitting cascades of iconoclastic wit. Its hero, John Tanner, a modern Don Juan as ironically conceived by Shaw, is relentlessly responsible for a barrage of heterodox pontifications and mordant epigrams; yet the amazing Ben Carlson rises to the expectations and then some. Long and convoluted speeches are tossed off with machine-gun speed and bull’s-eye precision, with unparalleled elocution and infectious humor, not to mention Carlson’s immaculate timing and endearingly boyish looks. No one in the more than satisfactory cast directed by Neil Munro quite matches Carlson, and the highly stylized, semi-surreal décor by Peter Hartwell may not be to everyone’s taste, but here is a performance to chortlingly remember one’s entire life, however long.

Waiting for the Parade (1977), by John Murrell, a Texan transplant to Western Canada, is a deft boulevard play about five women in Calgary, Alberta, between 1939 and 1945, surviving Canada’s difficult years of World War II. Their fathers, husbands, or sons are directly involved in the war as soldiers or shirkers, jingoists or anarchists, or indeed Nazi sympathizers; the women themselves are indirectly involved as various kinds of war workers, if not shunned for political reasons. They are different in every way, but their mutual friendships, rivalries, and hostilities are fascinatingly dramatized. The five-woman cast—Helen Taylor, Kelli Fox, Donna Belleville, Laurie Paton, and Jenny L. Wright—is letter-perfect both individually and as an ensemble under Linda Moore’s adroit direction. You follow these women’s variously toilsome, winning or losing efforts, their modest gains and losses, with a rapt empathy seldom elicited in world theater.

John Millington Synge’s The Tinker’s Wedding is a dated trifle, and not even the Shaw’s loving care can give it much contemporary interest. I would, however, love to see the Shaw undertake Synge’s underappreciated full-length marvel Deirdre of the Sorrows, unjustly languishing in the shadow of his ever-popular Playboy of the Western World.

The Rodgers & Hart Pal Joey was my one disappointment. One of the supreme American musicals, it was accorded no more than a respectable provincial production, however excellent was Adam Brazier, burning bright in the eponymous lead and outshining a surely dedicated but overmatched supporting cast.

I regret not being allowed a detailed review of Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins, another great musical, still in rehearsal, even though I loved almost everything about it: the ingenious adapting to an uncongenial house, the savvy direction and choreography by Eda Holmes, the inventive design by William Schmuck, and the staunchly acting, singing, and dancing cast. This is a theatrical event in itself worth a visit to the Shaw, what with especially winning performances by Glynis Ranney, Jeff Madden, and Jeff Lillico.

Why, oh, why is there nothing in these United States to rival Canada’s Shaw Festival? Granted, the location is terrific, given a great, sailable lake, a nearby epic waterfall, vineyards inviting to delicious wine tastings, and fine accommodations plus first-class restaurants. Still, it is the talent that dazzles, with all that stunning versatility. Where else could you see a Ben Carlson one day triumphing as a very sophisticated English John Tanner, and the next day acting and singing a flawless hardscrabble Kentucky farmer? Or a Kelli Fox easefully switching from a depressed, unmarriageable Edwardian daughter to a spirited World War II Albertan wife tempted by loneliness into adultery? These actors can switch in a twinkling and do everything; rare is the instance when a Laurie Paton, superb as an Austrian-born and resented woman in wartime Canada, cannot be equally flawless as a spoiled millionairess in John O’Hara’s thirties Chicago. It must have something to do with superior training and discipline, but whatever it is, we here must find ways to acquire it. Praise is also due to the imaginative music, supplied by a variety of composers. Whatever expense and effort it may take you to get to the Shaw Festival, they will be amply rewarded with blessings so numerous you’ll barely be able to count them.


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