THEATRE

Cynics and sybarites

Attacking a deficit with first-rate drama

John Bemrose June 13 1994
THEATRE

Cynics and sybarites

Attacking a deficit with first-rate drama

John Bemrose June 13 1994

Cynics and sybarites

THEATRE

Attacking a deficit with first-rate drama

For 33 years, the Shaw Festival has been as much a part of summer at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., as the flowering gardens of the quaint old town. But this year, there are signs that the festival—a 90-minute drive south of Toronto—is blossoming less extravagantly than usual. The big tables of free hors d’oeuvre that used to feed opening-night audiences are gone. The annual lunch for critics has become an afternoon tea. The problem is an $840,000 deficit. After a long period of prosperity in the 1980s, the festival has suffered three bad seasons at the box office since 1990. (Ticket sales supply 73 per cent of the Shaw’s $11.5-million budget.) And while this spring’s sales are about eight per cent above 1993 levels, the festival is clearly proceeding with caution.

Nowhere is this more evident than in artistic director Christopher Newton’s choice of plays for the new season, which opened recently with that perennial favorite, George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man. By contrast, Newton dared to open the 1993 festival with a difficult but gripping version of Saint Joan. As well, most of the works being presented later in the summer, from the Victorian melodrama Sherlock Holmes, by William Gillette, to J. B. Priestley’s 1934 tale of a disillusioned actress, Eden End, feature authors

or kinds of drama that have been successful draws in the past.

Yet if caution and thrift are bywords at the festival this year, at least two of the openingweek productions indicate that there has been no retreat from its commitment to firstrate drama. Director Jim Mezon’s version of Arms and the Man injects an edge of realism into what is often presented as a pleasant drawing-room comedy. He stresses the play’s violent context—it is set in Bulgaria during that country’s 1885 war against Serbia—by inserting a chase scene in which the Serbian soldier, Capt. Bluntschli (Simon Bradbury), is first seen scrambling around the stage pursued by searchlights and explosions. By the time he escapes by climbing into the bedroom of Raina Petkoff (Elizabeth Brown), his terror and exhaustion are beyond question.

Bluntschli, of course, is the prime catalyst for change in Arms and the Man. After being saved by Raina from his pursuers, he proceeds to undermine the young woman’s idealism about war and love. Later, the disillusionment spreads to Raina’s fiancé, Major Sergius Saranoff (Andrew Gillies). For any actor playing Bluntschli, the danger is that, as his trenchant common sense levels all before it, he will seem too confident and allknowing. But Bradbury—a standout in an excellent cast—uses the rubbery expressive-

ness of his face and body to give Bluntschli an attractive vulnerability. And he is excruciatingly funny. When Raina orders the exhausted soldier to stay awake, Bradbury’s prolonged but vain attempts to keep upright rank as one of the finest bits of physical comedy ever staged at the festival.

If Arms and the Man, which was first performed in 1894, predicts the end of an old idealistic order, then Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 drama, The Front Page, shows just how far that process had gone three decades later. The play is set in the press room of the Criminal Courts Building in Chicago. There, a handful of reporters wait for news of a prisoner condemned to be hanged the next morning. To kill time, they play cards, pluck a banjo, trade insults. Anyone who thinks that current TV programs such as The Simpsons—where crude putdowns are the rule—represent a disturbing new trend in American life should consult The Front Page. Cynicism is the order of the day. The air is perpetually blue with profanity and verbal attacks—some of them directed against blacks and women.

Yet the play’s hellish vision is constantly being redeemed by its broad humor—and by the struggles of a few characters to rise to something better. As The Front Page opens, reporter Hildy Johnson (Stuart Hughes) is quitting his job—and telling off his boss, Walter Burns (Michael Ball), with a profane eloquence bom of years of resentment. Supported by a brilliant ensemble effort, Hughes is explosive: he paces the newsroom like a caged jaguar, his jaw set, railing against the mediocrity around him. But whether he—or anyone else in the modern world—can escape its clutches remains the central question of the play.

Compared with The Front Page, the vision of 1920s America offered in the Gershwin musical Lady, Be Good! can only be described as childish. The plot concerns fatuous young rich people falling in love, but the score includes some immortal tunes, including the justly named Fascinating Rhythm. The cast sells this enduring bit of fluff with considerable flair. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the festival’s current production of the 1936 Dorothy L. Sayers mystery, Busman’s Honeymoon. Despite fine character work by some of the cast, the production seems hurried and unfocused. And, as the play’s upper-class detective hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, David Schurmann sounds too much like an enthusiastic vacuum-cleaner salesman. Still, with the artistic success of three of the four current offerings, the 1994 Shaw Festival would seem to have increased its chances of wiping out the worrisome deficit.

JOHN BEMROSE