The Fourth of July weekend may not mean much to Canadians, but the Shaw Festival made it a celebration for me. After five previous shows this season at Shaw and twelve at Stratford --- all of surprisingly mixed quality --- it was reassuring to see this great company hit its stride with three winning productions in a row.
The complete surprise is Cicely Hamilton's neglected Diana of Dobson's, which opened in 1908 in London and New York, and is getting its Canadian premiere at the Shaw Festival 95 years later.
In a drab dormitory young female employees of Dobson's Drapery Emporium undress and prepare for bed after long, hard work. They argue, joke, and complain about the dehumanizing treatment and inadequate pay they receive. When a letter arrives for the articulate and angrily depressed Diana Massingberd, she finds that she has inherited 300 pounds from a distant relative. Diana decides to leave the next day to spend it all on a short dream existence, rather than invest it for security to only slightly improve her life. An elderly female supervisor attempts to intimidate Diana, who satisfyingly tells her off.
After a choreographed onstage set-change that justifiably wins applause, we see the vacationing overdressed English high society in an elegant hotel in Pontresina, Switzerland. The hilariously affected Mrs. Cantelupe is talking about a glamorous young widow, Mrs. Massingberd, whom she wants to investigate as a possible marriage prospect for her nephew, Captain Victor Bretherton. Victor is a handsome idler without prospects, whose extravagance cannot be supported by his pension of a mere 600 pounds a year (roughly $50,000 to $60,000 in current US dollars). Victor enters with the mysterious Mrs. Massingberd (Diana, made over in Parisian garb) and a self-made tycoon, Sir Jabez Grinley. Later Mrs. Cantalupe ferrets out the information that Diana has an income of 300 pounds for the month and assumes that figure is monthly (3,600 pounds a year). Ultimately, Diana finds that she has spent her inheritance and must leave. Grinley proposes marriage to her, but she refuses. Victor is pressed by his aunt to propose, but Diana tells him that she is a shop girl without a fortune. He berates her for her dishonesty, and she tells him that he is a useless parasite who could not survive if, like her, he was left to support himself.
In the contrived, but touching, last act, we find Victor looking dirty and unwell on a park bench in London. A constable tells him to move on but recognizes Victor as his old commandant in the Welsh Guards and offers him a handout. With hokey coincidence, Diana shows up, equally run-down, also hungry and looking for a bench to sleep on. She attempted to return to work but became ill and was evicted from her room. Dejected, Victor tells her that his attempt to prove her wrong by supporting himself without his social contacts or income has failed miserably. Of course, they end romantically by swallowing pride and deciding that both can live fairly well on his income.
That plot summary may sound thin, but the play is rich in social satire and early feminist thinking, and its characters are either priceless parodies or charmingly realistic people. Alisa Palmer's direction is subtle and flawless. Judith Bowden's sets and David Boechler's costumes are not only authentic-looking but also coordinated in appearance and understated color with Andrea Lundy's lighting to provide an exquisite overall composition. The ensemble cast is equally fine-tuned.
Standout performances include Severn Thompson, lovely and lovable as Diana, and Goldie Semple, outrageously imposing and delightful as the snobbish, manipulative Mrs. Cantalupe. Peter Hutt manages to insert comedy and hints of character strength in Grinley's ruthless, nouveau-riche lord of sweatshops. Evan Buliung seamlessly develops Victor from an amusingly doltish idler to a genuinely attracted swain, and finally to a reformed young man, vulnerable but dependable. He makes us believe that Victor's basic decency was there all along. You'll like this play.
Sean O'Casey'sThe Plough and the Stars is an established masterpiece of modern drama, though hardly a popular and successful one. Centered on a Dublin tenement, where a colorful group of slum dwellers assemble, the play shows them horribly affected by the Easter Rebellion of 1916, but mostly politically uninvolved in it. The speakers and fighters for Irish independence take poses and spout slogans with some pomposity but little honest feeling. For that matter, O'Casey's strong sense of satirical anger has him portray even The Young Covey comically; Covey repeats socialist propaganda without truly understanding its Marxist phrases. O'Casey was a socialist and had been a leader of the Irish Nationalists, but he came to believe that the internal warring was naive about social consequences and led only to Irish killing Irish. So this controversial play portrays the legendary rebellion in anti-heroic terms.
We see the slum dwellers drunk and selfish, looting rather than rebelling, fighting among themselves more than against the British, and always posturing. But every annoying one of them at some point engages our sympathy and affection. Almost all the characters show some heroic personal behavior in caring for each other. Mostly oppressively realistic, in the vein that O'Casey actually made fun of, The Plough and the Stars is richly inlaid with song and symbolic images, and, of course, O'Casey's gorgeous, lilting language.
Visually, I find the production awkward. Cameron Porteous' unrealistic set pieces often confuse me, especially combined with his very realistic costumes. Kevin Lamotte's opaque lighting also seems more likely to hide the significance of what is going on rather than expose it. But Neil Munro's stark direction is potent without giving up a moment of O'Casey's ubiquitous humor. No other modern playwright provides such simultaneous tragedy and comedy without transition and sometimes without obvious connection.
Fiona Byrne gets Nora Clitheroe's unconsciously flirty sexiness and selfish combativeness down pat, along with her energetic nervousness. But I think we're supposed to like and sympathize with Nora more than Byrne lets me. It may be O'Casey: he makes Nora cling to her husband, trying to get him to avoid the war, even when he is being begged to assist a dying comrade right in front of her. Nora ignores her dying supportive friend Bessie's cries for help at the end, but is crazed with grief at that point. Byrne plays it all on one note.
The large cast is otherwise splendid. Benedict Campbell's drunken Fluther evokes constant shifts from amusement to sympathy to disgust. Simon Bradbury is a perfect O'Casey strutting cock. Ben Carlson taunts him perfectly as the never-laboring spokesman for the Labour movement. Wendy Thatcher is brilliant as Mrs. Bessie Burgess, witchlike and hateful and taunting, then bravely supportive and kind, and finally movingly vulnerable and despairing. And Mike Shara makes the sometimes shallow Jack Clitheroe a heroic young man whose frustrations we can't avoid sharing.
Not a fun evening in the theater the way that O'Casey's also tragic and comic Juno and the Paycock can be, The Plough and the Stars is even richer in milieu and history anddoes deliver a powerful emotional punch.
In an elaborate production directed by Shaw Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell, Michel Marc Bouchard's The Coronation Voyageis another impressive Canadian play. Translated by Linda Gaboriau from the French, it is a cynical treatment of a melodramatic plot that has much to tell us about French-Canadian politics and history and has much for its fascinating characters to involve us in.
Handsomely set by Ken MacDonald aboard the grand ocean liner Empress of France, it has opulent period costumes by William Schmuck, all atmospherically lit by Alan Brodie. We see four days of the voyage of a wildly mixed group traveling from Montreal to London for Elizabeth II's coronation in 1953. Minister Gendron resents the British dominance of French Canada. His wife Alice still obsesses over losing two sons in the 1942 Battle of Dieppe whose horrors, she feels, were officially glossed over. Their daughter Marguerite has been chosen to represent Canada by playing a Chopin work originally to have been played by Etienne, a great prodigy whose hands have been crippled (she thinks) by a tragic illness. Etienne's father is traveling incognito but is known to be a mafia chief in exile because he gave evidence to the government. The Diplomat is facilitating The Chief's escape to Europe.
Three "Elizabeths" (of twenty on board, we're told) are in Coronation costume, and their rehearsal for the little pageant they'll present for the Coronation raises questions about the Queen's true appearance. We get a narration from The Biographer, who turns out to be employed to document The Chief's disappearance in a prettied-up memoir. Then we find out that Etienne's hands were crushed by gangsters in punishment for his father's betrayal. And The Biographer keeps altering the narration of what we actually know to be happening. And the Diplomat will provide The Chief with false passports only if he is permitted to seduce The Chief's other, adolescent son. So everything becomes a shifting story about storytelling and "history."
The Abraham's-sacrifice-of-Isaac treatment of the possible seduction of the young boy is perhaps a tad melodramatic: 'fate worse than death' and all that. "Only his soul will be harmed," the Diplomat says. And so is Etienne's abortive romance with the relatively soulless Marguerite who needs to learn about suffering to play Chopin. But the plot elements are nothing if not intriguing, and this solid production is entirely grabbing.
Again, a large ensemble of accomplished actors give the play more than its due. George Dawson as The Biographer, David Schurmann as The Minister, and Peter Krantz as The Diplomat are polished, layered, and commanding. Jim Mezon actually hasn't many lines to dominate his scenes with as The Chief, but he has such presence and physical expressiveness that he is very much in charge when silent and not even facing the audience. Dylan Trowbridge builds the emotional charge of Etienne from wan cynicism to controlled pain to searing, bitter anger. Jeff Lillico not only persuades that he is really no more than 16 as the younger son but his rather intriguing suggestion that the boy is looking forward to his sacrifice builds tension more than the predictable plotting does. And Donna Belleville is magnificent as the minister's wife Alice, out-of-control with frustrated grief. Not one role is simple or one-dimensional in direction or effect in this complex, wonderfully played drama.
Shaw Festival, Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario, Canada: Cicely Hamilton's Diana of Dobson'sat the Court House Theatre to October 4; Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars at the Court House Theatre to October 5;Michel Marc Bouchard's The Coronation Voyageat the Festival Theatre to November 1. Tickets: $20 to $77 Canadian dollars (currently $14.93 to $57.47 US). 800-511-7429, www.shawfest.com.