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A boost in standards for Canada's Shaw Festival

Last year saw a grim assortment of opening productions at this festival. This season -- third under the artistic direction of Christopher Newton - the first seven plays include three by George Bernard Shaw (to be discussed in a later article). And although they reveal many failings, as whole they represent a giant step forward from what this critic encountered here last season.

The festival concerns itself with plays by GBS and his contemporaries. In earlier days that spectrum was fairly narrow. Under the Newton regime, the word ''contemporaries'' is given an imaginative elasticity. Philip King's farce ''See How They Run,'' for instance, first saw a stage production in 1945, a scant five years before Shaw's passing, and is hardly a splendid sample of the genre the British have cultivated and nurtured for so many years.

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Simone Benmussa's adaptation of George Moore's ''The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs,'' based on a short story by a contemporary of Shaw's, was first performed at the Theatre d'Orsay by the resident Compagnie Renaud-Barrault. Sigmund Romberg's ''The Desert Song'' was surely one of the big hits of the American musical theater during Shaw's maturity. But Robert David MacDonald's ''Camille'' treats the famous Lady of the Camelias, who saw the light of stage (preceded by a novel) in 1852, some four years before Shaw was born!

Of the quartet in review, the unquestioned delight proved to be Desert Song. The story was never tops on credibility, though it could safely be said that book and lyric writers Otto Harbach, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Frank Mandel captured the romantic flavor of the period.

Mr. Newton, who has directed the show, takes a slightly tongue-in-cheek look at it all. On occasion things lapse into mockery or mere campiness, which is always lamentable. When actors do not believe in what they are doing, audi

ences become uncomfortably giggly and squirmy even at semi-serious moments.

Nonetheless, at its best, which is a good deal of the time, Newton has found a warm touch that undercuts any implicit nastiness this sort of humor can all too easily take on. The direction has sparkle, wit, a good sense of the Americanness of much of the humor, and an appealing style. In designer Mary Kerr , Newton has the best possible colleague - one with a memorable flair for fantasy moods and magic, capturing with picture-book simplicity a vivid theatrical magic. Graeme S. Thomson deserves more than passing mention for his handsome lighting.

It would have been lovely had the principals really been able to sing well, but neither romantic lead - Beth Anne Cole as Margot and Terry Harford as the Red Shadow - could do much justice to the soaring Romberg vocal line, thus the thrill of hearing this quasi-operatic music was denied. In Gerald Isaac and Jo-Anne Kirwan Clark, Mr. Newton had a genuine song-and-dance comedy team that plays it all up to the hilt.

The rest of the cast was solid, and choreographer Robert Ainslie made much of a small stage. At the two pianos, Roger Perkins and Christopher Donison almost made one forget there was not a full orchestra at work.

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''The Desert Song'' is performed at the Royal George Theater. At the equally small, though three-quarter-thrust staged Court House Theater, Albert Nobbs is, alas, time listlessly used. Miss Benmussa's script unfolds the curiously uncompelling tale of a woman who spends her entire life pretending to be a man. In director Newton's staging, there is no viewpoint whatever. Albert inhabits a dry, alien plane of existence wherein the slightest show of anything human is rejected. Since Nora McLellan seems rather sadly overtaxed by a tough role, we can get no handle on this character, her plight, or the purpose of the evening altogether. In fact, the only performance that brings life to the evening is Camille Mitchell's dynamic, abrasive Helen Dawes.

Cameron Porteous's simple, handsome set constricts some of the scenes that do not occur in the lobby and hallway of the hotel set. Throughout the evening, one senses that Mr. Newton does not really believe in anything concerning ''Albert Nobbs''; one can only wonder, from what is seen on stage, what the play is actually doing in the Shaw Festival repertoire.

Mr. Newton clearly finds Camille infinitely more to his liking. Mr. MacDonald tells the tale of the real Camille, Marie Duplessis, while, on either side of the stage, the romantic fictionalizations by Dumas fils and Giuseppe Verdi, the composer, hold forth. It is a study in contrasts, with the sordid, cruel life Marie lived pitted with savage irony against the pining, self-sacrificing nobility of the Dumas and Verdi counterparts. It is a riveting idea, but one that does not entirely come off here. Marie's life is too unrelievedly crass to be theatrically interesting.

At its best, however, Newton makes ''Camille'' vividly theatrical on Mr. Porteous's magnificent French theater-balcony set, and with the stunning Porteous costumes. In Goldie Semple, Mr. Newton has an actress who uncovers her inner feelings in a performance that is haunting, but that also includes some nudity. As Alexandre Dumas, Joseph Ziegler makes an unfortunate foil for Miss Semple - sounding more as if from American farmlands than the French countryside.

The cast is large, a tad uneven, but some are worth at least passing mention: such as David Schurmann, outstanding as Gaston; Irene Hogan, a malevolent Olympe; Herb Foster's delicious impersonation of operatic acting as he lip-syncs Alfredo's music from ''La Traviata.''

British farces can be entertaining, and See How They Run has its share of laughs. But why does the Shaw Festival waste its talent and efforts on such a slender piece - not at all in the tradition of either ''A Flea in Her Ear'' two seasons back or last year's ''Tons of Money'' in either quality of text or level of execution.

Fortunately, Heath Lamberts was on hand to show how British farce should be played. And Mr. Schurmann brought a certain restraint to his assignment, too. The others were mostly heavy-handed, with Miss McLellan tending to beat a moment senseless, rather than gently tapping it.

Director Adrian Brine relies on rudimentary pratfalls, sight gags, and huge asides, to which the cast generally responds with brio. Mr. Lamberts shows us that something infinitely more subtle and delicate is the key. Peter Wingate's set looked handsome, but did not offer a good working space for this slender, insignificant outing.

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