The Russian Play at The Shaw Festival – A Review

A “like-a-joke” is a dismissive term of art in the world of TV sitcoms. It denotes a snippet of dialog that is structured like a joke, that is recognized as a joke, that triggers the laugh track, but that is not actually funny. To my way of thinking Hannah Moscovitch writes like-a-plays. I should temper that nasty crack by admitting that I have only seen two of her plays, The Russian Play and Bunny. Neither seemed to have much of interest to say.

The Russian Play, now playing as a morning one-act in the Royal George Theatre at The Shaw Festival, tells the story of Sonya (Gabriella Sundar Singh), an illiterate peasant girl working as a menial in a Stalin-era flower shop. She falls in love with Piotr (Peter Fernandes), a grave digger, who gets her pregnant and, thoughtfully, gives her an abortion and helps bury the fetus. She discovers that Piotr has a wife in Moscow and to add insult to injury she gets fired for spending so much time with her grave digger. She flees to another city where she becomes the mistress of Kostya (Mike Nadajewski), a kulak, a member of a wealthy peasant class, who has dodged the Stalinist purges of these ”enemies of the people” by cozying up to the secret police. When the affair goes sour, Sonya finds herself in the clutches of the secret police; she is tortured and sent to prison where she reconnects with Piotr who is now kept busy digging graves for the ever growing ranks of state enemies. Piotr tells her that his wife is dead and that she is the only one he loves. She dies in his arms and he buries her. A sad tale, indeed; a peculiarly Russian story as Sonya tells us.

You see Sonya also serves as both narrator and commentator on the action, breaking the fourth wall with some regularity to provide us with regular often amusing bulletins. Another, wordless character, the Violinist (Marie Mahabal) serves as an additional commentator, perhaps meant to symbolize Sonya’s inner self. When Sonya’s heart breaks, the Violinist shakes a box full of fragments of something or other and bangs it on the floor. The cast, for reasons that were unclear to me, speak in thick Russian accents. These devices tend to drain the main action of whatever emotional impact it might otherwise have had.

So what’s the point? That love stinks? Sonya says as much, but the J. Geils Band said it better. That Stalinist Russia was a nightmare? It needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us this. There’s plenty of sound and fury in Moscovitch’s piece and while she is certainly no idiot it winds up signifying very little.

Director Diana Donnelly has given the play a lively production, with a nice design by Gillian Gallow and effective lighting by Michelle Ramsay. Sundar Singh throws herself into the role of Sonya but has trouble navigating the shifts from character to narrator to ironic commentator and back again. She is at her best in the brief moments in which she mimics her cruel boss at the flower shop. Mike Nadajewski turns in his usual assured performance as Kostya but it is too little too late.

The Russian Play was an early effort by Moskovitch, one that established her reputation. It shows promise and I look forward to seeing a later play of hers in which that promise is realized.

The Russian Play runs through October 12, 2019

The Shaw Festival
www.shawfest.com
(800) 511-7429
(905) 468-2172

Sex at The Shaw Festival – A Review

I have wanted to see the 1926 play Sex ever since, as a Mae West-besotted undergraduate, I first became aware of its existence. Mae wrote, produced, directed, and starred in it and went to the slammer because of it. Who wouldn’t want to see it? Thanks to Peter Hinton-Davis and The Shaw Festival my curiosity is finally satisfied.

Sex wasn’t what I expected. Is it ever? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) I mean the play, of course. Rather than a comedy romp like her later films, the play is an old-fashioned melodrama, filled with all the hoary conventions of the genre, and yet it holds up remarkably well. Very well, in fact. So much so that it’s surprising that it is only now getting its Canadian premiere.

The story behind the play is almost as delicious as the play itself. Roundly denounced by critics and assorted bluestockings when it debuted in New York, it ran for almost a year before the forces of decency managed to get it shut down and have the entire cast and production team dragged into court. Surprisingly, they were convicted (although most of the cast were given suspended sentences). Mae went to prison – on what is now Roosevelt Island, not Jefferson Market as the program would have you believe – where she was wined and dined by the warden. She was sentenced to ten days and served eight thanks to good behavior. It was a publicity gold mine. As West herself remarked, “I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”

The play tells the lurid tale of Margy LaMont (Diana Donnelly), a “woman of easy virtue” who is not only inured to the marginal life she leads but who takes a distinct pride in being so good at it. She shares digs in Montreal – Sin City in the Prohibition era – with Rocky Waldron (a perfectly cast Kristopher Bowman), a petty criminal who specializes in seducing wealthy American women who have come north for a walk on the wild side, drugging them, and robbing them blind.

Margy returns one night with her friend and frequent customer, Lieutenant Gregg (André Sills), an English naval officer, only to discover Rocky’s latest victim passed out and near death. They revive her, but when the police arrive she accuses Margy of being the perpetrator and pays off the cop to get her out of her predicament. Margy finds it wise to skip town.

In Trinidad she meets – and enchants – young Jimmy Stanton (Julia Course), the innocent scion of an immensely wealthy Connecticut family. Jimmy proposes marriage. Lieutenant Gregg has also sailed into port and he, too, has a marriage proposal, one tied to a new and respectable life in Australia. Margy chooses Jimmy and returns to his palatial family home to meet his parents. I won’t give away the payoff to the plot, but it’s a doozy.

West’s play is a fascinating companion piece to other, more polite plays of the period that have survived the test of time and are regularly revived. Her portrayal of the underworld, the existence of which polite society of the day refused to recognize, is unvarnished but sympathetic. In this world, sex is currency, power, and social mobility all rolled into one. And women control most of the supply, a supply for which there is an ample demand. In this respect, the play is strikingly up to date and has a great deal to say to the twenty-first century audience.

Hinton-Davis has given the piece a sturdy if perhaps not definitive production in the intimate Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre. As a director, he likes to add … let’s call them grace notes … between scenes. Some work better than others but all slow down the pace. In the current fashion, he gender-swaps a few roles and, in a surprising break with current orthodoxy, he actually lets men play women’s roles. Jonathan Tan makes a perfectly believable, waif-like street-walker, while the excellent Julia Course makes a perfectly unbelievable young man.

One of Hinton-Davis’ best conceits is the music that accompanies the play from well before the opening scene until well after the final curtain. It is eclectic and not always of the period, but it is seldom less than apt. Most of it is recorded but there are live renditions of songs by several cast members, including most memorably Katherine Gautier, Monice Peter, and Allegra Fulton. Kurt Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” song serves as an envoi as the audience leaves the theatre and it is just perfect. Ryan deSouza is the music director.

The cast is universally excellent with outstanding contributions from Ric Reid as both a corrupt Montreal cop and Jimmy’s father; Fiona Byrne as Jimmy’s mother, who has a dark secret; and Allegra Fulton (who is a smashing Amanda in The Glass Menagerie) doing a Carmen Miranda-esque rendition of “Rum and Coca-Cola” in the Trinidad sequence.

In the Mae West role, Diana Donnelly faces the challenge of replacing the irreplaceable. Both she and the director wisely avoid the trap of trying to make her a Mae West impersonator. Her Margy is slender and slutty with a voice that could cut glass. She acquits herself admirably, but I kept wishing the role was filled (if that’s the right word) by someone a bit more zaftig and blowsy with more of the take no prisoners swagger that was Mae West’s trademark.

But why am I looking this gift horse in the mouth? Sex is a theatrical rarity and this revival long overdue. Who knows when you’ll have a chance to see another production? Come up and see it sometime!

Sex runs through October 13, 2019.

The Shaw Festival

www.shawfest.com

(800) 511-7429

(905) 468-2172

The Glass Menagerie at The Shaw Festival – A Review

The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee William’s 1944 memory play (and the one that established him as a major playwright) is receiving a thrilling production at The Shaw Festival. Directed by Hungarian director László Bérczes in the intimate Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, it features four nearly flawless performances that may convince you that this is the best rendition of this classic that you’ve ever seen.

In Depression-era St. Louis, the Wingfield family lives a hard-scrabble life in a cramped apartment. Amanda, a single mother from the deep South, long ago abandoned by a “charming” husband, frets over making ends meet and what will become of her children. Tom, the elder, who narrates the play wants to be a writer, but he works a low-paying job in a warehouse and disappears at night, supposedly to go the movies. Laura, the painfully shy younger daughter, has a deformed leg and a slight limp. She has dropped out of a business school and seldom leaves the flat, except to run errands for her mother. Instead, she plays obsessively with her collection of petite glass animals, the menagerie of the title.

Amanda recalls happier times at her home, Blue Mountain, when she was young and gay and never at a loss for “gentlemen callers.” The main action of the play revolves around her effort to get Tom to invite a coworker to dinner so Laura might find her own gentleman caller. It goes well. Until it doesn’t.

Thanks to Williams’ lilting prose and keen command of character, the play still packs an emotional wallop in our more cynical time, despite Tom’s warning that the play will be “sentimental.”

Bérczes’ fellow Hungarian Balázs Cziegler has done wonders with the narrow confines of the Studio’s in-the-round playing space by making it even narrower, and creating a claustrophobic warren of small rooms, highlighting the pressure of the tight quarters in which the Wingfields exist so uncomfortably.

Amanda Wingfield is a role usually associated with great ladies of the theatre and Allegra Fulton, making her Shaw debut, can feel right at home with the stars who have preceded her. Her Amanda never lapses into a caricature of the faded southern belle, an ever-present temptation with this role. Nor does she make the mistake of turning Amanda into a crazy person. While her Amanda is certainly over-dramatic and even self-delusional at times, Fulton never lets us forget that here is a strong woman doing her level best to keep her family afloat in trying times with ever diminishing prospects.

André Sills, who was a towering Coriolanus last season at the Stratford Festival, brings out the seething anger, born of frustration, that eats away at Tom, while Julia Course makes a touching Laura. Finally, Jonathan Tan hits just the right note as Jim, the gentleman caller, who all too briefly offers a ray of hope for Laura.

I had my quibbles. André Sills is such a force of nature and his outbursts of anger so genuinely terrifying that his performance, as finely observed as it is, occasionally tends to distort the shape of play. Hanne Loosen has made some odd choices of costume. I found it impossible to believe that Amanda would let Laura dress as shabbily as Loosen has and Tom’s never-changing outfit seemed far too modern. On the other hand, the embarrassingly dated dress that Amanda wears to greet Laura’s gentleman caller is perfect. The program credits two voice and dialect coaches yet, while Amanda was believable as a transplant from the deep South, Tom and Laura’s very different accents had little to do with St. Louis.

The Glass Menagerie continues through October 12, 2019

The Shaw Festival
www.shawfest.com
(800) 511-7429
(905) 468-2172

The Shaw Festival 2019, Part I

shaw festival 2019
The first four plays to open in Shaw’s 2019 season

The first four plays of The Shaw Festival’s 2019 season have opened and they’re a mixed bag. Here they are in descending order of my personal preference.

Rope

At the risk of the proverbial apples to oranges comparisons, perhaps the best of the bunch is Rope, a 1929 British melodrama by Patrick Hamilton, which is remembered today largely because of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film adaptation. Produced with admirable fidelity to the period, it is perfectly at home in the cozy Royal George theatre.

Rope is an almost unbelievably dated and creaky vehicle, one of many that once filled stages in the English-speaking world, but a game cast under the taut direction of director Jani Lauzon avoids all the pitfalls and delivers an enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

The scene is a Mayfair flat occupied by two Oxford undergraduates who have just murdered the son of one of their professors and stashed his corpse in a chest in their living room. Now they are about to host a dinner party whose guests include their victim’s father.

Why? Oh, the usual Nietzschean enthusiasm that infects privileged college students. (See also Crime and Punishment, and Leopold and Loeb.) In 1929, the material was no doubt considered ever so transgressive, before the term was invented. Then it was put across with large slatherings of melodramatic excess as evidenced by the photographs from the original production in the Shaw program.

Lauzon allows none of that and the performances, while heightened just enough to let us know that we should not take all this too, too seriously, never lapse into caricature.

Kelly Wong and Travis Seetoo are excellent as the perps, but the show belongs to Michael Therriault as one of the boys’ former teachers, whose whimsical façade masks a keen analytical mind. Therriault is a gifted performer who frequently suffers the misfortune of being miscast at Shaw. It’s nice to see him in a role that he can fully inhabit.

The Horse and His Boy

Like the Stratford Festival, Shaw likes to include at least one show each season that will appeal to children. These aren’t throwaway productions either, but often lavish extravaganzas that have no doubt been responsible for creating more than a few life-long theatre-going habits.

At Shaw, under artistic director Tim Carroll’s leadership, this mission to “hook’em while they’re young” has recently taken the form of adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels. This season’s The Horse and His Boy (following last year’s The Magician’s Nephew) is the latest installment and it’s an utter delight.

C.S. Lewis is famous as a Christian apologist and the Narnia tales preach the Christian message in the guise of children’s fantasy. I confess that I found the mythology of this adaptation a little fuzzy to follow, but then I find Christian mythology itself rather befuddling. What requires no explication are the themes and tropes that have characterized this sort of story since Homer first started improvising. And here they are well served by all concerned.

Anna Chatterton, whose play “Within The Glass” is destined to become a modern Canadian classic, has provided a sprightly adaptation with the by now de rigueur nods to current feminist orthodoxy. Christine Brubaker’s brisk direction keeps the action moving and uses every inch of Jennifer Goodman’s imaginative sets and costumes and the Festival Theatre’s large stage. It also helps that the juvenile leads, Madelyn Kriese and Matt Nethersole are altogether delightful.

In drama schools, young actors often have exercises in which they pretend to be wild animals; most of them are all too eager to put such childish things behind them as they seek their fortunes on the wicked stage. So it’s a pleasure to see talented performers, some of them well into middle age, unselfconsciously return to their roots.

Brigadoon

The big, blowout musical of the season is getting a lavish production on the Festival stage thanks to Pam Johnson’s set, Kevin Lamotte’s lighting, and Corwin Ferguson’s ingenious projections. If you have fond memories of Brigadoon and its music, you won’t be disappointed.

Matt Nethersole as Charlie and Travis Seetoo as Harry Beaton reveal themselves to be accomplished dancers and Alexis Gordon, late of the Stratford Festival, brings her lyrical soprano voice to the role of Fiona.

The two Americans who stumble on this highland Shangri-la are both excellent. George Krissa as Tommy Albright will be unrecognizable to those who saw him as Rocky in last season’s Rocky Horror Show at Stratford, and Mike Nadajewski, another Stratford stalwart, is terrific as his sidekick; he’s rapidly becoming Canada’s answer to Alan Alda.

Lest you think that you will be seeing a faithful revival of the 1947 original, allow me to disabuse you of that notion. It seems that no company can touch a “classic” these days without mucking about with it in some way. Here the changes (the “revised book” is credited to Brian Hill) make no big difference. Mr. Lundie becomes Mistress Lundie; no one will complain about that except perhaps for the male company member who will grumble over his beer, “I shoulda been playing that part!” More consequentially, to my way of thinking, the witches who served the fairy-tale nature of the story so well have been replaced by genocidal British troops.

As I say, no lasting harm is caused by these changes but still, shouldn’t a preeminent “classical” repertory company have more reverence for the original text?

Getting Married

If you are looking for a good reason for mucking about with the original text of a classic, you’ll find it in George Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married, which graces the Royal George. For starters you could cut out half an hour.

The play is (rightly) considered minor Shaw and is seldom produced, although this is the Shaw Festival’s fifth try. What is that old saying about doing the same thing over and over expecting different results? Now that the “original mandate” has been thrown out the window there seems to be little cause for reviving plays best forgotten.

The play is a potpourri of pithy points on the subject of marriage and divorce and is about as effective as that last bit of alliteration. Shaw seems to have started with a laundry list of ideas and then couldn’t bring himself to throw any of them out.

Tanja Jacobs’ rudderless direction doesn’t help. Seasoned Shavian performers are left hanging as the arguments run into and over each other and the tone shifts bewilderingly. Mrs. Collins’ scene in Act II, although nicely played by the always alluring Marla McLean, seemed like something from another play.

The production did such a poor job of holding my attention that I found myself pondering the use of regional accents at Shaw. Most of the Shaw plays I can remember seeing here (there may be exceptions) use standard Canadian accents, as does The Horse and His Boy, but Rope employs plummy Oxbridge accents and Brigadoon uses various simulations of Scottish brogues. I wonder how these decisions get made.

All in all, this first round of plays provided a rewarding weekend of cramming in four shows. The Grill on King once again fed us well and the bar at the Prince of Wales Hotel provides just the right atmosphere for those long post-theatre discussions.

The Shaw Festival
Tickets from $33 to $190
(800) 511-7429
www.shawfest.com

Grill on King
233 King Street, just off Queen.
(905) 468-7222
www.grillonking.ca

Prince of Wales Hotel
6 Picton St, corner of King
(905) 468-3246
www.vintage-hotels.com/princeofwales/

Shaw Festival 2014

peach_celebrationThe picture-postcard-perfect town of Niagara-on-the-Lake was abuzz with shoppers and theatergoers when we arrived on a resplendent summer day. You could be very happy just strolling the streets of this upscale village, admiring homes straight out of a glossy magazine, or shopping in the chic boutiques, or dining in the many fine restaurants, or visiting the shore of Lake Ontario. But most people had come for the theater, as had we.

The Shaw Festival was founded in 1962 with the mission of paying homage to the prolific British playwright George Bernard Shaw. Perhaps one motivation was to provide a counterbalance to the older Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s concentration on “The Bard of Avon,” but that’s mere conjecture on my part. The Festival’s purview was later refined to encompass plays written during Shaw’s long lifetime (1856 to 1950), although lately the bounds have been stretched a bit with the inclusion of popular musicals of more recent vintage as well as some contemporary plays.

The Festival comprises four theaters, from the grand, 856-seat Festival Theatre to the compact, 200-seat Studio Theatre. All are within a short stroll of one another and the plays on offer rotate daily with frequent matinees so that during a short stay a visitor can see a good many plays.

For theater of this caliber, ticket prices are surprisingly moderate and, since prices are in Canadian dollars, American visitors in 2014 will enjoy a discount of about eight percent thanks to a favorable exchange rate.

For the 2014 season, the Festival is mounting ten productions, including two by Shaw, The Philanderer and Arms and The Man. We managed three in two days during a brief layover en route to Stratford.

Cabaret, the Kander and Ebb smash, is getting a solid revival under the direction of Festival veteran Peter Hinton. Deborah Hay is terrific as Sally Bowles and Juan Chioran’s Emcee is very much his own, borrowing nothing from his storied predecessors in the role. Not every element of the production works as well, however, and – let’s face it – the subject matter is downright depressing. So if it’s a lighthearted musical you’re looking for, look elsewhere.

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Another offering on the heavy side is Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, about the trials and tribulations of a family during Ireland’s Civil War – not the one fought against the British but the one the Irish fought against each other after winning a peace that partitioned Ireland. Not everyone thought that was a good idea then; some still don’t think so.

Shaw_Juno_WebGallery3

If you thought the “dysfunctional family” was a recent invention wait until you get a load of the Boyles. Dad (the “paycock” or peacock) is a drunken braggart, son Johnny’s a shattered IRA veteran with PTSD, daughter Mary is looking for love in all the wrong places. Mother, the Juno of the title, is a tower of strength.

It helps to have a grounding in the history of the period and the program notes are a must-read for those who don’t. For those who think the Irish are a hard-drinking but jolly race, this play will be an eye-opener. It’s a glimpse into the darker side of the national character, one that continues to divide families to this day. A laugh riot it ain’t and because of its length it can be heavy going for some; a good number of folks packed it in at the intermission. Those who stick it out, however, will be rewarded with some truly solid acting.

Fortunately, we ended on a happier note with a blissful production of Arms and the Man, one of Shaw’s most popular plays, and deservedly so. This romantic farce requires a sense of high style to work just so and the cast, under the sure hand of Morris Panych, deliver nicely.

Man (and woman) does not live by great art alone, of course, so we were glad to get an usher’s recommendation for Il Gelato di Carlotta, a few doors down from the Royal George Theatre on Queen Street. This is the best gelato I’ve had this side of Rome. It’s on the pricey side, but once you tuck in, I doubt you’ll be complaining.

For dinner, we were lucky to chance upon Grill on King, which has a sidewalk seating area perfect for people watching and spotting the occasional Festival star at a nearby table. They adhere to the locavore aesthetic that seems to be de rigeur at most of Ontario’s better restaurants these days and their Village Salad, a sort of Greek salad minus the lettuce, was impeccably fresh.

I succumb too often to Tagliatelle Carbonara on menus and am usually disappointed. This was the best I’ve had since a memorable meal in Chamonix in the French Alps. My wife’s mahi-mahi was also tasty, with the lightly grilled vegetables giving the fish some strong competition. The lamb shank, meltingly tender, was roundly praised by a fellow diner.

Niagara-on-the-Lake is one of those ever so slightly out of the way destinations that keeps luring us off the Queen Elizabeth Way, the main route from Buffalo to Toronto. I have every expectation that it will do so again.

The Shaw Festival
Tickets from $35 to $113
(800) 511-7429
www.shawfest.com

Il Gelato di Carlotta
59 Queen Street
(905) 468-8999
www.gelatodicarlotta.com

Grill on King
233 King Street, just off Queen.
(905) 468-7222
www.grillonking.ca