THEATRE

Funny-bone finesse

The Shaw Festival actors excel at comedy

John Bemrose June 10 1991
THEATRE

Funny-bone finesse

The Shaw Festival actors excel at comedy

John Bemrose June 10 1991

Funny-bone finesse

THEATRE

The Shaw Festival actors excel at comedy

At first glance, the play being performed on stage—a 1925 Ben Travers farce called A Cuckoo in the Nest—seemed as dated as flappers and rumble seats. Its jokes were tamely cute. Its dramatic situation—two strangers, one male, the other female, forced to share the same hotel room—was hardly scandalous enough to be funny to contemporary viewers. Yet the audience was howling. Some peculiar sleight of hand had transformed the old-fashioned farce into a lens through which human

frailty was brilliantly and hilariously magnified. Once again, the Shaw Festival, located in Niagara-on-the-Lake in southwestern Ontario, was doing what no other repertory company on the continent accomplishes so consistently: touching that mysterious place in the psyche that sets the diaphragm convulsing and the breath exploding in spasms of pleasure.

The festival’s special talent for comedy shows up in all five new productions that recently opened the 30th-anniversary season (May 22 to Nov. 10)—from The Doctor's Dilemma, an acerbic 1906 medical satire by George Bernard Shaw, to Lulu, an unsettling examination of human passion adapted from two tum-of-the-century Frank Wedekind plays. Yet if the laughs are flowing, the situation behind the scenes is considerably more sobering. Only two weeks before the season opened, fire swept through a festival ware-

house, destroying $1 million worth of rehearsal space and equipment.

The fire came at a hard time for the mostly self-supporting festival (private and government funds cover 25 per cent of its costs), which had already been struggling to roll back a $1-million deficit incurred largely in its disastrous 1989 season, when attendance dipped by seven per cent. Last year, improved box-office receipts resulted in a modest profit of $167,000 on the season—and contributed to a reduction of the deficit to $910,000. Surpris-

ingly, the current recession has had only a minor impact on 1991 ticket sales, which are running only slightly behind last year’s levels although admission prices increased slightly, to a range of $8 to $46.50.

Meanwhile, the festival continues to lavish a substantial portion of its budget, running at $10.6 million this year, on sets and costumes. And the acting company’s morale seems to have weathered the poor financial situation. In recent interviews, several Shaw actors spoke enthusiastically about the art of comedy and the mystery of what makes some actors so funny. “I’m an odd shape: I’m a short young man,” said Simon Bradbury, 30, the brilliant comedian who stars in Cuckoo. “And perhaps I have a certain facility—but it’s nothing without technique.” In Cuckoo, Bradbury revels in physical comedy: he somersaults backwards over chairs, gets entangled with a suitcase and

comes perilously close to falling out of a second-storey window. It is hardly surprising that one of his idols is Charlie Chaplin, but he also studies theories of movement in order to develop flexibility and balance. It sounds complicated, but when it comes to playing a comic character, Bradbury says that he likes to keep his approach simple. “I don’t like to wallow in the mud of psychological motives,” he said. “The less clutter you have in your head, the more crisp and pert your performance.”

While Bradbury hopes to play some noncomic roles in the future, Irene Hogan—also appearing in Cuckoo—has made a career out of portraying oddballs. Frequently adjusting her huge, rose-tinted glasses as she checked her reflection in a window, the middle-aged Hogan told the story of how artistic director Christopher Newton once disappointed her by assigning her a role that she felt had no comic potential. Hogan was so determined to get laughs that she added a mousy brown wig and tiny moustache to an already ludicrous costume. “I brought the house down without doing a thing,” she gleefully recalled.

While Hogan is acutely aware of her comic impact,

Robert Benson says that “only about 10 per cent of me is aware of the audience’s reaction.” The gentle giant of the company at six feet, four inches, the courtly, 56-year-old Benson—one of the standouts in The Doctor’s Dilemma— claims that actors go into a state of altered consciousness when they perform. As proof, he points to his wire-rimmed spectacles. “Without these, I can’t read,” he said, “But if I have to read onstage, without glasses, I can see the print perfectly clearly.”

Another of the festival’s veteran comedians, dour-faced George Dawson, 39, speaks of comedy as a kind of tonic. “Laughter expels old air from the lungs,” he said. “It maintains elasticity in the rib cage. It probably releases no end of incredibly complex, health-giving hormones throughout the brain and body.” But Dawson, another Cuckoo cast member, also issued a warning. “I have trouble with the idea you have to piss yourself laughing all the time, like American television,” he said. “Laughter is wonderful. But it can also be enormously cruel and damaging. Monsters laugh, too. I’m sure Goebbels enjoyed a good chuckle.”

His words could stand as a prologue to Newton’s rivetting production of Lulu, which echoes with the cruel laughter of a predatory society. Set in late-19th-century Europe, the work focuses on a profoundly disturbed young dancer (Helen Taylor). Like a Ping-Pong ball, Lulu is all surface and no core. She lacks a

moral sense, or any empathy with her fellow humans. She even has trouble believing that she exists—unless she is gazing into a mirror or receiving the attention of her many admirers. She goes through four husbands in the first act (all end up dead) and in the process stirs up enough immorality to fuel hell for a century.

If Lulu is the festival’s most disturbing play, the effervescent Cuckoo is the lightest—although the brilliance of the cast’s comic invention ensures that it is far from insubstantial. To watch Bradbury drape himself over a bar in a parody of relaxation, or Barry MacGregor sneak a drink behind the back of the actor playing his domineering wife, is to laugh at the eternal predicament of human beings compelled to pretend they are something they are not. Pretension also propels the longwinded medical debates that are the funniest and most successful scenes in The Doctor’s Dilemma. As a clutch of early-19th-century doctors struggles to save the life of a tubercular artist (Steven Sutcliffe), they propound theories that are obvious nonsense, giving rise to an uneasy question: Is what medical science preaches now any more trustworthy?

The festival’s current offerings also include Noël Coward’s 1939 saga of a middle-class English family between the wars, This Happy Breed. The slow-moving, realistic drama lacks Coward’s usual champagne wit as it follows the Gibbons family of Clapham Common through 20 years of domestic troubles and reconciliations. Yet it generates a certain cozy humor and affection for its characters, particularly the abrasive grandmother, Mrs. Flint, played exquisitely by Jennifer Phipps. On the whole, This Happy Breed is much more satisfying than the festival’s revival of the 1943 musical A Connecticut Yankee, with its score by Richard Rodgers. Despite Karen Skidmore’s barrelhouse singing, it rarely seems more than a dated celebration of U.S. popular culture as the streetwise sailor Martin (Richard McMillan) introduces the knights and ladies of Camelot to the wonders of Yankee slang and the automobile.

Two Shaw comedies, The Millionairess and Press Cuttings, open later in the season, along with Luigi Pirandello’s absurdist play Henry IV and the Henrik Ibsen classic, Hedda Gabler. Ibsen’s tale of a tragically bored young housewife is not laugh material, but given the Shaw Festival company’s unerring instinct for the funny bone, perhaps even the doomed Hedda will be permitted to raise a sympathetic smile.

JOHN BEMROSE in Niagara-on-the-Lake