THEATRE

A tribute to decadent eccentricity

Mark Czarnecki June 6 1983
THEATRE

A tribute to decadent eccentricity

Mark Czarnecki June 6 1983

A tribute to decadent eccentricity

THEATRE

Mark Czarnecki

Flying high on the return engagement of last year’s magnificent Cyrano de Bergerac, the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., continues to transform decadent eccentricity into gilt-edged success. This is the year of the tableau at Shaw: without dialogue, two of the three new productions, Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra and Sir Edward German’s operetta Tom Jones, could hang in an art gallery. And because the acting in those plays and in Ben Travers’ far ce, Rookery Nook, remains first-rate, a good box office seems guaranteed.

Director Derek Goldby has tinkered but not tampered with Cyrano', less sentimental and faster paced, the lush spectacle is crowned by Heath Lamberts’ masterpiece of comic and emotional timing in the title role. Winning a standing ovation every night, Cyrano has in fact stamped Lamberts as the festival’s feature attraction. In Rookery Nook he teams up again with Goldby to transform that piece of nonsense about a newlywed struggling to explain away a pyjama-clad girl in his bedroom into an encyclopedia of comic invention. But even Lamberts could not have rescued Rookery Nook from musty oblivion without superb playing from Nicola Cavendish as a twisted gossip, Jim Mezon as a calculating cad and, especially, Irene Hogan as an overstuffed workingclass bluestocking.

Farce has spread from the Festival Theatre to the tiny Royal George. There, director Christopher Newton and his assistant, Sky Gilbert, have renovated Tom Jones with original material from Henry Fielding’s novel and additional songs culled from German’s other stage works. Like all adaptations of the novel, their version becomes tangled in the web of its complex plot. The cast, strong in voice and comic conviction, serves up satisfying bite-size vignettes spiced with Fielding’s familiar country grotesques.

But the play’s passionate heart—the love between Tom (Bruce Clayton) and Sophia (prettily sung by Valerie Galvin)—is largely missing. Although Clayton conveys innocent spunk while delivering the libretto and sings melodiously, he is unable to unite his talents. The tedious masked-ball sequence, which dominates the second act, only underscores the success of those early satirical cameos. Everything else fades into the mist over Squire Western’s marshes.

Peter Wingate’s unassuming sets for Tom Jones reflect the high design standards at Shaw. But the most visually arresting designs at the festival so far this year are Cameron Porteous’ sets for Caesar and Cleopatra. At times his vast expanses of Egyptian frescoes overwhelm the play. But the fault is more the playwright’s than the designer’s. Shaw, not noted for creating powerful visual effects, clearly wrote the play with the eye in mind. He balances Egypt’s voluptuous art against Roman simplicity. Still, that cultural conflict exists only as a backdrop for his belief that individual morality will decide the future of man.

That is the essence of the debates between Caesar (Douglas Rain), who hàs

just arrived in the newly acquired province of Egypt, and Cleopatra (Marti Maraden), the 16-year-old would-be queen. Rain valiantly resists Shaw’s theorizing tendencies, slowly unfurling Caesar’s lotus-like wisdom with compelling and ironic wit. Cleopatra’s vaunted seductiveness has not yet been roused by Mark Antony: Newton’s version renders her even more asexual, leaving Maraden with little more than girlishness and spiteful ambition.

However, Ftatateeta (Diane Douglass), the demonic servant whom Cleopatra orders to murder a plotter against her throne, atones for the resulting emotional vacuum. The combination of Douglass’ intense performance and the posed staging of the actors inside a pic-

ture frame while the sky darkens from blue to bloody is a brilliantly executed theatrical sequence. But Newton then fails to pluck the strange ironies latent in the final act when Caesar and Cleopatra giggle over Ftatateeta’s name. Caesar leaves for Rome, unsuccessful in his attempt to educate Egypt’s queen, and Newton accepts Shaw’s frivolity without pointing further morals.

The commitment to provocative design in Caesar and Cleopatra reflects an emphasis on visual elements throughout this year’s festival. Offstage, the diffuse, sensual paintings of the Victorian artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema have been reproduced on posters and programs. Resurrecting a forgotten artist to unify a festival borders on the precious. But Newton is adept at convincing his conservative audience to explore new territory with him, an adventure vitally necessary to the survival of theatre.

As a depressed Toronto teenager growing up in the 1950s, Heath Lamberts read Cyrano de Bergerac and thought, “Hey! This is about me.” Taunted for his own substantial nose and unanimously rejected by girls, he dreamed of playing Edmond Rostand’s hero. When he realized that ambition last year at the Shaw Festival, the role finally won him the accolades accorded an actor of international stature. Southam News critic Jamie Portman wrote, “Heath Lamberts is one actor who should be declared a national treasure without delay.”

That teenage fantasy was only one of many that Lamberts spun to escape an unhappy home life. In a frank CBC television program, Portrait of a Mask, broadcast in 1976, Lamberts said, “It’s very painful to know you’re not loved by your father.” His feelings of alienation were so strong that he decided to change his name from James Langcaster. In a strange rechristening ritual when he was 20, he climbed into a trunk and emerged as Heath Lamberts, which his studies in numerology told him was far more auspicious. Another obsessive fantasy at the time was that he would one day be famous. “I thought everything I did would go into a biography— it was all role-playing,” he said in Portrait. “I even wrote letters on that basis.”

Born in 1941, Lamberts started his career as a boy soprano with the now defunct Opera Festival Company of Toronto. He attended the National Theatre School—and with Martha Henry was in its first graduating class in 1963. Lamberts gradually became one of Canada’s most prominent actors through leading roles at Shaw, Stratford and on CBC TV. Versatility has always been his trademark—from Peter Pan to Hamm

in Beckett’s Endgame—but his comic genius has drawn the most attention. His face is liquid plastic in search of a mould; his beagle eyes and jowls simultaneously register pathos and heroism, and his nose begs for doors to run into. In his one-man show, Gunga Heath, a mostly sold-out success at Shaw two years ago, Lamberts raced through a dozen roles and disguises, each more inventive and hilarious than the last. Not surprisingly, the festival has made an

annual institution of knock-’em-down farces to showcase Lamberts’ unique flair for drawing laughs with a twinkle of his eye.

British director Derek Goldby, the latest in a line of father figures for •Lamberts, has orchestrated those farces for the past three years. The “theatrical daddies,” as Lamberts once called them, have all struggled to shape his protean creativity. “He has a childlike quality which is the hallmark of a great clown,” says John Hirsch, artistic director of the Stratford Festival, who taught him at theatre school and has worked with him frequently for almost 20 years. “There’s a sadness and insecurity about him that is part

of a clown’s psyche, too.”

While praising Goldby’s genius for farce, Lamberts admires his director mostly for publicly chastizing his immature behavior in rehearsal. “I was always blaming other people, other places,” says Lamberts. “But I can’t lash out anymore. I have put away childish things and am more aware of the responsibilities in my life.”

Part of that responsibility has emerged since his marriage last year to Carole Macomber, a freelance stage manager. As a lifelong student of oriental religions, he has also learned selfdiscipline; onstage he exercises immense concentration. “It’s all a great cosmic dance,” says Lamberts. “The trick is to hear everything—the actors, the sniffs of the audience, the music of the text—and not get hysterical about it. Just enjoy the dance.”

His performance in the role of Cyrano has demonstrated conclusively what Lamberts himself has known all along—that he is fully capable of playing serious dramatic roles. But producers in Canada have greeted Lamberts’ belated coronation with total silence. After Cyrano closed its first run last October, Lamberts received no job offers in theatre, film or television even though he has experience in all three fields, including a long-forgotten 1972 film with Blythe Danner and Alan Alda entitled To Kill a Clown. Lamberts firmly believes that Canadian talent should remain in Canada and he has never actively sought work outside the country. Instead, he spent the winter season directing a play for the theatre arts department at Niagara College of Applied Arts and Technology in Welland, Ont. Still, Lamberts is philosophical about the lack of momentum that followed Cyrano: “I am actually doing what is right and proper for me at this time—I am taking care of spiritual needs,” he says.

The lifelike theatrical masks that Lamberts dons and doffs onstage conceal a still, Buddhist core, and his offstage manner telegraphs considerable stormy weather within. Although he aspires to calm behavior—what he calls “not getting my shorts in a twist”—his compulsive smoking and grand gestures undercut that goal. But Lamberts’ engaging combination of artful posing and disingenuous confession never quite dispels niggling doubts that his true nature remains elusive. That confident sleight of hand is fundamental to his art, and Lamberts has never doubted his ability to execute it. Filling out a fact sheet for an actors’ directory when he was 25, Heath Lamberts bilingually listed his only special qualification as “Quite brilliant!” Immodesty aside, Heath Lamberts is an acceptable critic too.