The 2006 Shaw Festival, featuring Arms and the Man, High Society, Too True to Be Good, The Crucible, The Magic Fire, Rosmersholm, Love Among the Russians, The Heiress, The Invisible Man, and Design for Living, continues through November 19 at several theaters in Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario, Canada. For schedules and ticket information visit www.shawfest.com, or call 800-511-SHAW.
Selections from the 2006 Shaw Festival
Good ol' George Bernard Shaw: the only person to win both a Nobel Prize and Academy Award. As a Socialist, Bernie Shaw was concerned with class struggle and helped form the Labour Party. In addition to these accomplishments, the guy was a devout vegetarian and champion of animal rights. More than a playwright, he was a political activist and philosopher hoping to raise questions that his audience would debate long after leaving the theatre. No wonder the hamlet of Niagara-On-The-Lake has devoted much of its space and energy to supporting the annual Shaw Festival, running this year through November 19.
Shaw's Arms and the Man seems a simple comedy of romantic circumstance, but he intended it to be satire, the criticism of ignorant people who believe war to be noble. Having received news that her fiancé, the dashing Major SergiusSaranoff, lead a successful Bulgarian charge against the Serbians, RainaPetkoff, daughter of Bulgaria's richest family, is thrilled by her lover's heroism.
As she snuggles into her plush bed, Raina's room is invaded by a fleeing Serbian soldier. Captain Bluntschli is a Swiss mercenary, handsome, filthy, and desperate. Taking pity on the disheveled soldier, Raina nurses him with chocolate before releasing him to safety. This act of charity must remain a guarded secret from both Riana's fiancé and father, Major Paul Petkoff.
When Daddy and lover boy return from battle, Raina has attempted to forget her "Chocolate Cream Soldier" and resigns herself to marrying Sergius. When Raina witnesses Sergius wooing her maid, and the romantic Captain Bluntschli returns to thank Riana, comedy ensues.
When the curtains open, a stunning dollhouse sits on stage, smoke pouring from its chimney and a woman on the balcony. The backdrop captures a moonlit, tree-covered mountain range. This is just the first of many rich and impressive sets deigned by Sue Lepage.
While the cast, led by Diana Donnelly as Raina, is acceptable, the standout is unquestionably Mike Shara as the narcissistic Sergius. Think Dudley Do-Right meets Gaston from Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Nora McLellan and Peter Hutt as Raina's parents are out of place as Bulgarian nobles; they play the parts as if straight from the Bronx. Worse, the play's end is unsatisfying and Shaw's wish to explore the misplaced worship of war heroes is lost.
The second Shaw work at this year's festival is Too True To Be Good. The inversion of this saying supposedly prepares his audience for the unexpected, but this title cannot possibly prepare you for what is about to occur. Wheezing, coughing, and moaning fill the air in the black box theater. A spotlight rises on the Patient, a girl so deathly white she gives Regan from The Exorcist a run for her evil, head-spinning, pea-soup-vomiting money. Chapeaued men in black suits and surgical masks surround her bed, lifting her prostrate and carrying her writhing body. A microbe --- a neon striped swamp thing --- appears in the corner. He is monstrous, measles laden, and pissed. This seems an incredibly abstract start, but the play only grows more complicated.
There's this rich girl, Mopsy, who's sick with the measles. Her mother is incredibly overprotective and mother's attempts to cure her daughter only make Mopsy worse. When Mopsy discovers her nurse to be a burglar, scheming with her clergyman beau Popsy to steal Mopsy's priceless pearl necklace, Mopsy decides to kidnap herself for ransom and escape from her overbearing mommy.
Shaw attempts to explore the trappings of wealth, the struggle for faith, the complications of love, and the exploration of self. At the end of the first act, William Vickers, as The Microbe, explains that the play is over, but that the characters will continue to discuss it at length. And, he ain'tlyin'. By the end of the third act, as Popsy begins his final endless sermon, the realization hits that Shaw has unsuccessfully attempted to squish all of these important themes into one play by writing a plot he hopes will logically connect them.
Towering metal latticework bends and bows like the clocks in Dali's The Persistence of Memory; it's frighteningly reminiscent of the bases of the destroyed TwinTowers. A cloudy night sky backs a miniature, distorted EiffelTower. It is an artist's studio, crowded with easel and canvas, paint brushes, and carelessly discarded clothing. This is where Gilda lives with her lover, Otto. When Otto returns home from a weekend away to find Gilda and their best friend Leo looking confused, upset, and disheveled, the plot of Noel Coward's three-act play Design For Living spins into an equilateral love triangle of epic proportions.
Nicole Underhay embodies the character of Gilda with a charming sensuality that allows us to believe that three men have fallen madly in love with her. Graeme Somerville imbues Otto with a smoldering passion. And David Jansen as Leo rounds out the trio with humor and guile. Together, the threesome is engaging in this sexy performance.
The Invisible Man is H.G. Wells' famous sci-fi tale. One may wonder how The Invisible Man could be performed for a live audience, without the computer effects afforded to filmmakers. The answer is, humorously. In the great reveal, when James Griffin unwraps his bandages to reveal his nonexistent head, he exposes a wire construct in the shape of a skull. There are very funny scenes in which actors swing at the air, stumble over themselves as if being yanked by the collar, and (my personal favorite) a scene in which a policeman is attacked by a stuffed shirt. The audience must suspend their disbelief in order to truly connect to the storyline.
Despite the occasional giggles afforded by the special effects, the story of Griffin's descent into madness as a result of his voyage into invisibility is touching. As played by Peter Krantz, the character is melodramatic, but his final scene --- one in which he appears bloody and exposed --- turns Griffin from villain into martyr.
The absolute standout in the production is Trish Lundstrom as Millie. From her high-pitched, childlike singing to her delivery of the play's final, chilling line, she creates an odd character worthy of inclusion in a Kids in the Hall skit.
Taking on the singing version of Tracy Lord, Katharine Hepburn's character in The Philadelphia Story, Camilla Scott does an excellent Hepburn impression throughout the Cole Porter and Arthur Kopit musical High Society. Locals were excited to tell me that Camilla Scott is a B-list Canadian celebrity who hosted a talk show for CTV. She has a stunning voice that rings true and a confidence that is entirely engaging.
The daughter of a prominent family, socialite Tracy Lord (not Traci Lords, the Melrose Place/porn star) is preparing to marry for the second time. When her ex-husband and a couple of reporters show up the day before the wedding, her plans are thrown into a tailspin.
The spinning sets are grand, the plot intriguing, the costumes worthy of Hollywood's golden age, and the songs catchy. However, it's the performance of Melissa Peters as Dinah Lord that shines. Dinah, Tracy's pre-adolescent and annoyingly intelligent little sister, is along the lines of Harriet the Spy. However Peters, in her tight braids, glasses, and patent leather shoes, is adorable.
Although the plays by Shaw himself are the least of the bunch, several of the plays offered up at his festival are worth the time, money, and drive. Check back in next week for a second Shaw Festival review on plays including The Heiress, The Crucible, and Love Among the Russians.