NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONT. - One of the highlights of any summer, for a lover of fine theater, is a visit to the Shaw Festival.
Located only about two hours' drive away, the festival operates four theaters, and presents a season of plays which range from frothy, light comedies to profoundly moving tragedies, stopping at every stage between the two.
This year, we got to visit the festival in mid-July, but have had the column so full of events at Chautauqua Institution, that we couldn't get the reviews into print, until August, with the result that I have been besieged with calls, personal contacts and emails, requesting suggestions on what to see.
The life of a crime reporter is examined in “His Girl Friday.” Here Nicole Underhay plays a star reporter ready to give up the job and settle down.
I hope those interested saw the two suggestions offered in a previous column. Finally, we are able to address all six of the productions which we saw, and I hope it stirs up your appetite to see and evaluate them for yourself. The Festival will continue to present performances through Oct. 14, so you have plenty of time to plan an excursion.
There are four theaters, and they operate every day except Monday. Let me tell you about the six plays we saw, and you can consult the festival's web site for information about the remaining five plays. Obviously, some of them will appeal to a given reader more than others, but there is no such thing as a stinker at the Shaw Festival. It's among the finest theater in the world.
In 1975, American novelist E.L. Doctorow published what has come to be his most celebrated creation: "Ragtime." The book, as was the author's wont, combined characters he had imagined, with real historical figures, with the intention of giving the public a sense of how our nation had taken from many different cultures to produce the blend which is America.
In particular, the novelist focused on three groups: the northern European, White culture, which controlled the economy, the African American culture which did much of the physical work of creating the economy and added elements of energy and creativity to the culture, and the immigrants from Eastern Europe, often Jewish, who started with nothing and often developed whole industries, especially the motion picture industry, which spread American culture around the world.
Doctorow punctuated his stories of the coming together of these three groups with real characters such as Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, and many more.
Playwright Terence McNally has adapted the Doctorow novel for the musical stage, and Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens have created a musical score which captures the flavor of the syncopated music of the title. While none of the songs has become a bestselling hit, each of them adds human feeling to the events which happen to the people in the show.
The white family, who are given no individual names, but just called "Mother," "Father," "Grandfather," etc. live in expensive comfort, in New Rochelle, NY. Father has so much money that he no longer needs to work at earning more. Instead, he heads away with Admiral Perry on an attempt to reach the North Pole, and other such adventures. His wife tells him once, "I've never met another person who has been so many place, yet who has learned so little about any of them."
The center of the African-American family is one Coalhouse Walker, who plays ragtime in saloons and other public places. He makes good money, but whenever he tries to enjoy his earnings, lower class whites beat him up, steal his possessions, and make his life miserable. When his woman, Sarah, is killed by guards of the American president, who falsely suspect she is carrying a weapon, Coalhouse turns to violence and crime, to make the mark he isn't allowed to make any other way.
From Eastern Europe comes a penniless artist who is called only Tateh, or Papa. He has lost his entire family in the programs and the poverty of his homeland. He brings with him his only surviving daughter, who has become the focus of his entire life. At first, Tateh scratches out a living by cutting silhouettes from black paper, as an inexpensive portrait to be purchased for a few cents on the beach of Atlantic City, but he quickly learns that making a series of such portraits and flipping the papers with the thumb produces a moving image, and he expands to eventually becoming a major figure in the film industry, like Sam Goldwyn.
Just as music in ragtime takes a base at a constant, walking rhythm and adds a syncopated melody, America has been made from disparate and often antagonistic elements, and the show is a beautiful melding of them. When the three nationalities dance, each in their own style, to produce an eyeful of beauty and power, it makes the heart soar.
Highlights on the cast include Thom Allison as coalhouse Walker, Benedict Campbell as Father, Jay Turvey as Tateh, and Julie Martell as the real life Evelyn Nesbitt who was perhaps our country's first starlet. There is a huge cast, and they are excellent.
Jackie Maxwell directed this all with a masterful grasp on both the uniqueness of each element, and how they must blend to match the writer's intent.
Paul Sportelli conducted a first rate orchestra, Valerie Moore Choreographed the often stunning dancing, Sue LePage designed the fast-changing set, and the entire production is one of the finest I have ever seen.
HIS GIRL FRIDAY
For a work with less sentiment and more incisive criticism of our culture, contemporary playwright John Guare has taken the play "The Front Page," by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and combined it with the Columbia Pictures feature "His Girl Friday," which was made to star Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, as an adaptation of the Hecht/MacArthur play.
The point is an examination of how newspapers, in competition for readers and more devoted to profit than truth, will twist and even murder the truth to produce a story you'll pay money to learn.
The characters in the original play were almost all men, but the movies turned the star reporter into a woman, in order to make romantic sparks with the gritty editor. The entire play takes place in the newsroom of an Illinois prison, where reporters have gathered to cover the hanging of a man who has been convicted of shooting a policeman.
Hot shot girl reporter Hildy Johnson has just returned from a trip to Nevada, to divorce her editor, Walter Burns. Burns still loves the girl, but he also realizes that without her stylish writings, people will purchase their coverage of the hanging from other newspapers. He sets out to win her back, for both personal and professional reasons.
The plot quickly uncovers that the intended victim is innocent of the crime, and that the reporters don't care as long as they get the best-selling story. The governor doesn't care, because the public hates the accused and his ethnicity, and he wants to win the election, more than do what's right. The play is full of action, and the always brilliant technical crew of Shaw productions shoot the room up, right in front of your eyes, and maintain the thrills and reversals of the rocket-fast plot.
Top acting honors go to Nicole Underhay as Hildy, the tough-talking girl reporter, to Benedict Campbell as the editor who wants her back, to Krista Colosimo as the friend of the accused who is willing to do anything to save his life, and to Kevin Hanchard, Jeff Meadows, Neil Barclay, Devin McGarry, and Guy Bannerman as the reporters who listen in on each other's phone conversations, while each takes the previous lie and adds an additional layer of untruth, to make their version even juicier.
Jim Mezon directed with a perfect layout of the timing of the play. Peter Hartwell and Kevin Lamotte created the design and the lighting which has been discussed so enthusiastically.
I can't imagine anyone wouldn't like it.
TROUBLE IN TAHITI
Composer Leonard Bernstein is famous for blurring the lives between opera and musical theater, and between ballet and jazz dance.
One of his earlier creations is the one-act opera "Trouble in Tahiti," which explores the lives of a young, upper middle class couple who have achieved the American dream, and yet who both are miserable, feel trapped, and who both dream of escape to gentler places and more exciting times.
Elodie Gillett and Mark Uhre are the central couple, and both sing well and act very well, making us alternately care about and resent the behavior of those people who have so much and who don't want it. He skips their son's school show because he can't bear not to win an office handball tournament. She goes to movies and imagines the dashing hero will carry her away from pots and pans and suburban life in general.
The production is directed by Jay Turvey. Members of the public who aren't educated in classical music will not find this show as accessible as Bernstein's better-known works such as "West Side Story," and "Wonderful Town." The jazzy score is entertaining, and the fact that this is this year's version of the Lunchtime, one-act feature, means that it passes in well less than an hour.
Suffice it to say, this a good staging of "Trouble in Tahiti." The only question is if you'd enjoy seeing such a thing.
FRENCH WITHOUT TEARS
Terence Rattigan's "French Without Tears" is more of a character study than a play. It is set in the south of France, at the villa of a wealthy Frenchman who earns his living by providing upper class room, board and language instruction for wealthy young Englishmen who hope to make a career in the foreign service, where they will need to be fluent.
One of the rich boys has a beautiful, blonde sister with him, who delights in winning and throwing away the love and devotion of the other young men, each in his turn. The playwright is clearly delighted by the fact that these men are so well educated and have so much material wealth and personal influence, and yet they have been protected from any human interaction, and make fools of themselves, trying to be adult, when they are emotionally, just children.
Designer William Schmuck's set is a work of art, setting the stage perfectly. Robin Evan Willis leaves no doubt that she could turn young, male heads and get them stumbling over themselves and one another, and enjoy the experience. Michael Ball makes much of the stereotypical Frenchman who adores his own language and holds contempt for people of any nation who can't master the style of being French, yet who doesn't mind making some cash from their efforts.
By the end of the play, nothing has really happened to these characters. They've had some quarrels, gone to a costume party, and made some plans which have come to nothing.
I think it was my least favorite of the six plays I saw, but it was beautiful and fun.
A MAN AND SOME WOMEN
The Festival has only recently discovered the plays of Githa Sowerby, who wrote plays which explored the expectations of Victorian society for men and women, and who pointed out the cruel harm, behind what everyone assumed was only natural and right.
In "A Man and Some Women," she assaults the idea that women should stay at home and be taught nothing about how to make a budget, how to earn money to support themselves, or anything else which might allow them to be in charge of their own fate. She proves that these values are a crushing burden to the men who have to make all the decisions for these helpless women, as much as they are for the entrapped women themselves.
Graeme Somerville plays Richard Shannon. Richard is a wealthy businessman who dreams of going away to the jungles of Brazil and to work on the creation of a serum to overcome the tropical diseases which impoverish a large portion of the world's population.
Instead, he goes off to his office and does business he doesn't respect or enjoy, to support his wife and his two sisters, who gossip and plot and plan menus, but who have no real purpose in life beyond to complain about what he can't or doesn't do for them. Richard has a young woman who he truly loves, and who supports his desire to make a mark on the world, but he finds it impossible to just abandon his sisters and wife to starve, with no hope of supporting themselves.
Kate Henning is especially good as Rose, the sister who has established herself as the arbiter of who owes what to whom. Her self-righteous pronouncements were beautifully done.
The play is a bit melodramatic and unnatural, but it packs a powerful wallop. Alisa Palmer directed, and Leslie Frankish designed the stifling Victorian set.
This is a good play, well presented, but you must want to think about a play in order to enjoy it. There are no car chases in this one.
George Bernard Shaw loved it when the wealthy and the working person came to verbal blows. He loved to have one of them win an argument, then to turn everything around and have his original victory tossed out by superior logic from the other side.
Shaw also loved spunky females who made nonsense of the physical strength of men and dominated them by force of personality.
Sometimes, the degree to which Shaw delights in his own wordy triumph can become tiresome. One of his most enjoyable creations was "The Millionairess."
Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga is the title character. We first meet her in her attorney's office where she is considering divorcing her husband, Alastair.
Epifania is the daughter of an industrialist who, to her disgust, has only left her 70 million pounds. She married Alastair mostly because he wasn't particularly interested in her money, and because he was a boxer who looked awfully good without his shirt.
Epifania is a success, because she cannot imagine failure. She has never known failure or lack of anything, so she bulls her way ahead with every plan which enters her head and when the people with whom she is doing business, pause to consider what might happen if something doesn't work, she pushes ahead of them and reaches her goal.
Nicole Underhay plays the title character with a tidal wave of energy. Designer Cameron Porteous has established a color to represent the mood of each of the acts, decorating everything on the stage with that color, including dressing Epifania in a solid, form-hugging, beautiful dress, hat and accessories, in that color. The woman wears yellow-green for bombastic scenes, rich, royal blue for romantic hideaways, shining gold for financial triumphs, etc. And, Ms. Underhay is like a visual charge of dynamite in each of them.
Martin Happer is very funny as her big lunk of a husband, and Steven Sutcliffe was part of the most brilliantly designed beating up of a hapless person, performed upon him by Ms. Underhay, that I think I have ever seen. Epifania has spent some of her money of wrestling lessons, it seems.
Shaw's preaching can get a bit old, but you won't see a better production of this play, anywhere. It's funny and moves quickly.
Blair Williams directed.