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The Shaw Fest turns 42 

Under new artistic director Jackie Maxwell, the Shaw Festival opened its 42nd season with what looked like a typical line-up of five plays --- typical, that is, of recent seasons, but hardly traditional.

            Their world-class ensemble again brings dazzling aplomb to a Broadway musical of questionable value. Once more, a resident director re-interprets a classic G. B. Shaw play with enough startling innovation to set orthodox Shavians' teeth on edge. This year, another infrequently performed Shaw play gets a nifty revival, and another Canadian play is presented in keeping with the festival's recently altered mandate --- it was not written during Shaw's lifetime, but is about Shaw's times and contemporaries (though I don't know that Shaw knew about the Lizzie Borden case, or cared). There's also another new version of a modern drama classic in an iffy translation.

            The aviatrix on the program cover for Shaw's Misalliance is upside-down, possibly in reference to the play's zany reversals of expectations. But it's also too accurate a representation of director Neil Munro's deliberate inversion of the playscript.

            I know that Misalliance is talky, unrealistic, and giddily disorganized. But Munro has his actors continually pretend to be reading from playscripts on podiums. The entire set and floor are covered with Shaw's words. All entrances and exits are preceded either by walls that spin around or by impossibly self-opening doors. Instead of writing notes, actors have to spell them out on a kind of Scrabble board, with what look like mah-jongg tiles. And a valuable ceramic piece that gets knocked down and broken is changed into a sculpture of Shaw's head. The mother then kicks the playwright's sculpted face across the floor.

            It's all very playful, but its comment amounts to a declaration of contempt for Shaw's script. At any rate, these distractions and refusals to play the lines as written make it impossible to follow the argument or give a damn about what is going on.

            Peter Hartwell's designs are bare-looking and too unfurnished for a wealthy man's house, but they're mostly done in by the conceit that they be covered with words. A swing is lowered on ropes for conversations in the library. A "portable Turkish bath" (which is in the script) is instead a trapdoor in the floor, but I don't know what a portable Turkish bath is supposed to look like, anyway.

            Seasoned performers do what they can with the production. Michael Ball's dry Lord Summerhays is amusingly unfazed by the goings on. Lorne Kennedy's wealthy underwear manufacturer with "a superabundance of vitality" gets a great deal of comedy from his character's constant enthusiasms --- most of them at cross-purposes. The ultimate bored femme fatale, a Polish acrobat/aviatrix, is hilariously played by Laurie Paton. And tall David Leyshon, peculiarly cast as the little, weak, spoiled son, gets laughs with his squeaky-voiced tantrums, curling his writhing body on the floor.

            Sharon Pollock'sBlood Relations has been a popular Canadian play since 1980, perhaps because of the continuing interest in the story of Lizzie Borden, who "took an axe and gave her papa 40 whacks," etc., in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1892. Pollock's treatment of the infamous tale is unique, in that in her version, The Actress visits Lizzie in 1902, then plays Lizzie when their discussion turns into a reenactment of the events leading up to the murder. Miss Lizzie plays Bridget, the maid, in the 1892 scenes, and therefore remains enigmatic about her guilt or innocence. We see her only as Bridget and as a very composed, resigned woman in 1902. The Actress (the real Lizzie Borden did have a post-trial relationship with the New York actress Nance O'Neil) gets to play the passionate girl driven to murder. I'm not sold on the theatrical wisdom of this device, but it does allow a fragmented view of the woman and of the events.

            In this accomplished revival of Relations, directed by Eda Holmes, William Schmuck's beautiful designs show a household within a building-frame that encloses and partly shelters it. Andrea Lundy's lighting helps maintain the sense that we're getting revealing, real peeks into an unreal, partly hidden event. Laurie Paton is strong and telling as The Actress/Lizzie. Jane Perry has compelling dignity and mystery as changeable Miss Lizzie.

            Nora McLellan makes Lizzie's hated stepmother Abigail a complex woman, none too bright, but sometimes persuasively sympathetic. Lorne Kennedy is memorably forceful and slimy as Abigail's scheming brother. Michael Ball's Andrew Borden is fascinatingly enigmatic himself; sending mixed signals, Lizzie's father does not make his real feelings toward her transparent. Neither does Sharry Flett's portrayal of older sister Emma Borden, though her dialogue seems clear-cut. Anthony Bekenn shifts from playing the married doctor who flirts with Lizzie to Lizzie's eloquent, but stereotyped, defense lawyer.

            I find the play's ending unsatisfying, but it's generally a compelling evening in the theater.

            Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's Twentieth Century is an old-fashioned, very theatrical comedy that is a lot of fun in its own campy way. The great libretto/lyric-writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green (On the Town, Wonderful Town, Bells Are Ringing, Singin' in the Rain) joined composer Cy Coleman (Sweet Charity, City of Angels, Barnum) to turn that delightful comedy into 1978's Tony Award-winning, absolutely terrible musical, On the Twentieth Century. Directed here with irresistible spirit and dash by Patricia Hamilton and choreographer Valerie Moore, plus the fine musical-direction of Paul Sportelli, its Shaw Festival production is its Canadian professional premiere.

            Why has it taken so long to get it onstage professionally in Canada? Because the music is dreary and forgettable and the lyrics almost as bad. Stunningly lit by Harry Frehner and designed with a delightful art-deco curtain and increasingly cutesy sets thereafter (but zippy costumes), this revival is about as good as you're likely to see. The cast sings and plays it deliciously, and the pacing is breakneck enough to almost make you forget how banal the songs are.

            The playscript is, after all, a romp, and these are very adroit players. Gary Krawford hasn't the hammy glamour that John Barrymore, Jose Ferrer, or Orson Welles (on TV) brought to the play-version, but he's funny and sings the role of scheming director/producer Oscar Jaffee very well. Patty Jamieson is priceless singing and playing the role of Lily Garland, the diva with whom Oscar needs to reunite. Despite her gorgeous singing voice, for comic effect, Jamieson can get a nasal, high-pitched speaking voice that sounds like an idiotic child.

            Evan Buliung makes Lily's Hollywood leading man, Bruce Granit, an idol in his own mind. He strikes self-enamored poses that are funny enough to be actually endearing. Brigitte Robinson is impishly silly as crazy heiress Letitia Peabody Primrose. And Patrick R. Brown and William Vickers, as Oscar's longtime henchmen, lead the splendid singing ensemble in support of this winningly performed, bad musical.

            There are serious dramaturgical lapses in Shaw's first play, Widowers' Houses, but it's full of interesting ideas and plays well in Joseph Ziegler's open and honest direction. With Christina Poddubiuk's slyly adaptable sets and subtly revealing costumes, and Alan Brodie's dark, suggestive lighting, this revival is good-looking and engrossing. Playing on the idea of slum-rentals, Widowers' Houses presents rewardingly actable forebears of classic Shavian characters in his later works.

            Peter Millard has a picnic with the transition from low-born servant to nouveau riche con man made by the character with the half-baked name of Lickcheese. He's the sort we'll see in full bloom as Alfred Doolittle in Pygmalion. The eloquent Sartorius, who turns morality upside-down by explaining the moral necessity for substandard housing, is a clear precursor of Major Barbara's Undershaft, who defends the morality of war and explosives, and a precursor of the Devil in Don Juan in Hell.

            Stentorian Jim Mezon is a predictably commanding Sartorius. Lisa Norton is perfect as his spoiled, mean-spirited daughter. Dylan Trowbridge plays the initially upright, moral Dr. Trench with suitably empathetic vulnerability. But on opening night, it seemed to take most of the play for Patrick Galligan to get over his apparent nervousness and settle into the role of Mr. William de Burgh Cokane, the stupid, social-climbing Cockney gentleman.

            It may be Susan Coyne's new translation of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters that made it seem wrongheaded to me, and to drag through the final act. But I'm afraid that Jackie Maxwell's direction has to take some blame. As usual, her staging has an evident rhythm and sense of composition that are impressive and artful. Much of the movement in the last scene is choreographed to create a very musical sense of atmosphere. But it seems that the characters this production is least interested in are the central, titular three sisters.

            Admittedly, pretty Tara Rosling seems lightweight and ordinary for the role of Masha. But Masha is usually seen as womanly, very intelligent, and controlled. This Masha seems to be a hysteric: She overreacts to visitors with extreme nastiness; and when her lover leaves her at the end, far from the sad resignation I'm used to seeing, this Masha crouches and bangs her head on the ground, screaming in despair. At least she has real focus then: Masha spends most of Act II in shadow, upstage, where we cannot observe her reactions to what is going on.

            By contrast, the subordinate role of Natasha, the weak brother's vulgar wife, is highlighted in a potent performance by Fiona Byrne, who also seems to be lit more brightly throughout. She is surprisingly loud and attention-getting in her scenes as a nervous fiancée who is insecure about her behavior. And she shouts her antagonism at the appropriately soft and sensitive oldest sister, Olga, the spinster schoolmistress. If Natasha isn't the star of this play, no one told Ms. Byrne that she isn't.

            I liked Kelli Fox's subdued Olga. She plays with dignity and persuasive integrity. But Caroline Cave, as Irina, continues to seem beautiful and low-level convincing, without having the inner-illumination required of a major ingénue role, especially one of Chekhov's radiant ingénues. Peter Krantz's mean, eccentric Solyony is more dominant and involving than is usual for this role. So is Jeff Meadows' Baron.

            I can't fault actors for being good enough to make more of their roles than usual, but I wonder about the balance in direction. Kevin Bundy's Vershinin, Masha's lover, is strong and attractive. Ben Carlson almost makes me like the spineless, selfish brother, Andrei. Most of the ensemble are skilled and effective. But the usually superb David Schurmann is downright hammy as Dr. Chebutykin in overwrought scenes that I have to blame on direction.

            The concept is clearly dark tragedy with odd snippets of broad comedy. Sue LePage has created such opulent sets and costumes at Shaw and Stratford that I have to assume these richly designed, but dark and dreary, ones are Maxwell's idea. The house is so plain and unadorned that one interprets all that longing to return to Moscow as, at least in part, a desire for some color, comfort, and ornament. And Kevin Lamotte's lighting is seldom so dark and dim. It's a polished Three Sisters, but not a pleasure to watch.

The Shaw Festival takes place at Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario, Canada. G.B. Shaw's Misalliance plays at the Festival Theatre through November 2; Sharon Pollock's Blood Relations plays at the Royal George Theatre through November 30;Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Cy Coleman's On the Twentieth Century plays at the Royal George Theatre through November 2; G.B. Shaw's Widowers' Houses plays at the Court House Theatre through October 4; Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters plays at theFestival Theatre through August 2. Tix: $42-$77 Canadian dollars (currently $30.50-$55.92 US). For info and tix, call 800-511-7429 or visit www.shawfest.com.

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