It has taken 18 years, but the Shaw Festival's board of directors has finally acknowledged, humbly yet hopefully, that the Irish playwright’s works, unlike Shakespeare’s, cannot be the staple of a five-month summer repertory season. Out of 10 major productions scheduled for this year by the Shaw’s new artistic director, Christopher Newton (see box), only two—Misalliance and The Philanderer—are by G.B.S., with his one-act marital quartet, Overruled, slotted in as lunch-hour entertainment. The new policy—a public secret since the opening lineup of Misalliance, Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard and George Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear was announced—roused more than the usual curiosity last week in Newton’s first-night production of Shaw’s polemic against marriage. Cleverly, he has provided something for everybody—Shavian traditionalists will be placated, while those lusting for new blood won’t be disappointed.
Misalliance is pure farce. Underwear magnate John Tarleton has a daughter, Hypatia, who’s bored with the chaste Victorian “lovemaking” of her simpy suitor Bentley (effeminately overplayed by James Rankin). Her wish for some adventure to drop out of the sky is granted when an airplane carrying bluff, handsome Pereivai and Lina, a Polish acrobat, crashes into their greenhouse. By the final curtain Hypatia and Lina have each been propositioned three times and Tarleton’s bastard son has turned up to avenge his forsaken mother’s death by attempting to shoot his philandering father.
The lord of all this misrule is Tarleton, superbly played by Sandy Webster. The epitome of the self-made man and ever ashamed of his amorous peccadillos, Tarleton is both Lear and Fool, mocked by his clever daughter as he vociferously lectures anybody not willing to listen on the virtues of selfreliance. Although Deborah Kipp liltingly conveys Hypatia’s wit and does her best to suggest inner passion, she looks too delicate for the part. Carole Shelley has larded Lina’s Polish accent with several layers of ham but delivers Shaw’s concluding diatribe against marriage with disdainful conviction.
Newton could have left Misalliance frolicking in farce (he confesses to a weakness for the genre),but he has heard more romantic echoes in the text. Unusually for Shaw, romance is here conveyed not just in the witty byplay of female trapping male in the moral coils of the all-devouring Life Force, but through intimations of sensual pleasure as well. Behind Cameron Porteous’ floaty Edwardian conservatory set trail thick strands of greenery leading to an unseen Forest of Arden where Hypatia romps with her new lover, Percival. Yet after the comic trysts that close the play, only Tarleton’s legitimate son, Johnny, is left alone, consoled by his mother as the curtain falls. While Shaw might have snorted at these soft touches verging on the sentimental, there is no question that the risk has been successful.
Where Newton has managed to expand Shaw’s play by truly reviewing it while leaving the original matrix intact, Romanian director Radu Penciulescu has wrapped The Cherry Orchard in a straitjacket of confining ideas and smothered the life within. Chekhov called this work a comedy; what we see is pure morality play. The emancipated serf, Lopakhin (Terence Kelly), having avenged his ancestors by purchasing the estate of the aristocrat Madame Ranevsky (Carole Shelly), is presented, contrary to the text, as a sympathetic businessman who, parenthetically, has no soul. Madame Ranevsky, frittering away her heart and fortune, is stripped of any warmth and dignity Chekhov gave her to stand revealed as a stupid, posturing courtesan. The many-faceted conflict between the two, which should touch all levels, is reduced to a minor milestone on the road to the cemetery of the privileged classes.
Chekhov gave detailed instructions for scenery and decor, likely because he thought they were important, so why the changes? Are drawn-out exits and entrances across a sparsely furnished, over-lit set and molasses-in-January pacing necessary to portray the futility of nostalgia in the face of inevitable change? The cast can’t revive this play crushed under the political and existential morality imposed upon it. The women overplay to hysteria and beyond; all the men, except Heath Lamberts as the aging student Trofimov, plod through their lines as if pushing plows. As Lopakhin’s axes fell the beloved cherry orchard, the lacy banners fall melodramatically to the stage like heavy-handed metaphors. The point here is not that Chekhov must be revered and left untouched; visionary invention can be enriching, but this production leaves both play and audience, like unemancipated serfs, penniless.
There are no pacing problems with English director Derek Goldby’s version of A Flea in Her Ear— no problems at all. Imagine two years of Soap and Hockey Night in Canada, complete with fisticuffs and loudly screamed “He scores!” and you have some idea of what goes on. Goldby has achieved a breakthrough of sorts by driving his cast through this bedroom farce at intergalactic speed until they look like a Vic Tanny’s gym class on amphetamines. Much is gained—the energy zapping across the footlights electrifies the audience into frenzied appreciation of every lecherous moue and pratfall. But something is lost, too, as becomes apparent when a consummate actor like Lamberts, in the exhausting double role of Chandebise/Poche, refreshes both cast and audience by wrestling slowly with a recalcitrant suit jacket. More moments like these and Feydeau’s crackling one-liners, given time to thoroughly tickle the funny bone, might get an even more enthusiastic response.
The cast is excellent and easily meets the challenges of demanding ensembleplaying. Feydeau has distributed more wit to the males than to the females; James Mezon is a suitably oversexed Tournel, Michael Fawkes is a super-macho Histangua and Christopher Newton delivers a cleft-palated and not totally incomprehensible Camille. This play has definitely sent the festival into orbit, and success seems to be in the stars for this season despite the Chekhov, an aberration of judgment unlikely to be repeated. Shaw himself, his relative absence notwithstanding, must once again be savoring his annual tribute.
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