By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
After fifty years, the Shaw Festival seems to be running out of steam; having committed themselves to plays by Shaw or written by others in his lifetime, or set in his lifetime (a lot of leeway there, 1856-1950), the Festival has to repeat and/or reach deep into obscurity. Shaw is a dramatist of specific social issues, as were many of his contemporaries; social issues change, but the plays don’t. Sometimes the relevance to the contemporary world is clear; for example, somebody spray-painted quotations from Shaw onto the pristine sidewalks of Niagara-on-the-Lake. One read: “Do not waste your time on social questions. What is the matter with the poor is poverty—what is the matter with the rich is uselessness.” As I stood copying this into my notebook, a cleanup crew arrived to water-blast it away.
It says something about economic times and theatrical tastes when of the eleven shows in the festival, there are only two by Shaw (Misalliance and The Millionairess) and even more telling is that the highlight of the five productions I saw is the musical RAGTIME. Directed by the Festival’s Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell gives this story about the promise of America, a strong, moving and full-throated production. Ragtime is based on the novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow, with a book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. The lives of three families are entwined: a prosperous white family (Mother is played beautifully by Patty Jamieson), a rags-to-riches immigrant family (Jay Turvey is Tateh), and a black family (Thom Allison’s Coalhouse Walker is the deep and thrilling center of the show). Ragtime both evokes the atmosphere of the early 20th century and gives us contemporary relevance—exactly the combination we hope for.
At the opposite end of the relevance spectrum is A MAN AND SOME WOMEN by Githa Sowerby. This is one of those lost and forgotten plays that the Shaw Festival specializes in finding and remembering, but some plays are not buried treasure, but merely dusty artifacts. Such a one is A Man and Some Women, written in 1913 by a socialist and a feminist at the height of the suffragette movement. Despite a production of immaculate attention to detail—the Shaw Festival can always be counted on to provide superb sets and costumes-- this is merely an assemblage of melodramatic clichés, the stuff of academic papers, not living theatre.
The play’s point is that middle class women, kept uneducated and unskilled, could do nothing but marry. If they didn’t marry, they were dependent on legacies or on brothers. The brother here has been supporting his greedy wife, his ancient mother, his two useless sisters and a grasping mistress for years. He has worked at a job he hates, foregoing his true calling to work on tropical diseases in Brazil. There is much gossiping and carping, endless accusations of wrongdoing, and nasty ingratitude by the carload. The woman who has loved him silently for years is, of course, self-sacrificial in her love and self-supporting by painting flowers—all with a perpetual and slightly smug half smile. Sowerby’s play is merely a study in the bad old days, not only socially but theatrically; this is so artificial as to seem a failed parody
This sense of unintentional parody is true of Terence Rattigan’s FRENCH WITHOUT TEARS as well. Since his centenary last year, everywhere you look there’s another Rattigan revival or spinoff: the new film The Deep Blue Sea being one of the most recent. French Without Tears is a silly play about a bunch of young men sent to the French countryside to learn the language; it is a stupid comedy with fake British accents, and lots of Doncha know, Old Boys. Everybody falls in love with the same gorgeous blonde, and the result—especially as it’s directed and acted—seems more like an embarrassing homoerotic frat party.
PRESENT LAUGHTER by Noel Coward provides lots of high style, vanity and many dressing gowns. This autobiographical comedy is amusing in that Noel Coward way: simultaneously charming and an indictment of charm. Here the artificiality is the point; as Coward commented about acting technique, “Lose yourself and you lose your audience.” No “Method” here, since overacting is the way of life for these characters.
The plot turns on an adored celebrity (Steven Sutcliffe) and the many women and men who fling themselves at him, only to have to hide behind doors when another worshipper arrives. As one character notes, it’s like living in a French farce. The interesting edge, a Coward specialty, is the celebrity’s insight: “I’m always acting, watching myself go by.” This makes the running gag of his always checking his hair in the mirror as he goes to answer the doorbell meaningful as well as funny.
At last we come to George Bernard Shaw. Built into his comedy, MISALLIANCE , about the family of a rich, bourgeois underwear magnate and his daughter who’s engaged to a sniveling aristocratic fop, a “misalliance” between classes, is this line: “Democracy reads well, but it doesn’t play. Like some people’s plays.” And so Shaw reviewed his own Misalliance, a tedious, preachy play about money and the relations between parents and children, leaving me with little to say. His ideas—good, smart ideas—read well, but don’t play, especially in this awkward production where scenes lurch from pronouncement to pronouncement and most of the actors seem miscast.
Even more unplayable, is the director’s idea to update it to 1962 which makes no sense at all, especially since the pivotal event is a plane crashing through the roof; in 1910 this may have been a quaint notion or an outlandish novelty; half a century later, it’s preposterous, and a full century later (i.e.,now) it’s terrifying. The pilot, a young gentleman of extreme poshness and his passenger, a female Polish acrobat, become the catalysts of the plot, although not before an impoverished clerk with a pistol bursts onto the scene. It’s not funny, it’s not sad, it’s not anything other than long.
Fingers crossed that things will pick up: there are still six shows to open during the Festival (which runs until October 28): His Girl Friday, Hedda Gabler, Trouble in Tahiti, Helen’s Necklace, The Millionairess, and the production that seems to have created the most anticipation, Come Back, Little Sheba. More information at www.shawfest.com or call 800-511-SHAW.
If you go, you might be interested in my upcoming article about what, other than theatre, there is to do and see in Niagara-on-the-Lake in the travel section of the Sunday Inquirer.