Diabolically good diversions

John Bemrose June 10 1996

Diabolically good diversions

John Bemrose June 10 1996

Diabolically good diversions



In the pleasant streets of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., a two-hour drive from Toronto, actor-spotting is something of a local sport. That bluff-faced fellow riding along on his bicycle is Michael Ball.Two hours later, he will transform himself into the blustering Earl of Caversham in the Shaw Festival’s superb production of Oscar Wilde’s comedy An Ideal Husband. And that woman playing with her preschooler in the shade of a private garden is Sharry Flett, one of the stars of the Agatha Christie mystery The Hollow. Ball, Flett and the rest of the festival’s 69-member ensemble may not be household names in Canada—at least not to the extent that their counterparts are in Britain. But for those lucky enough to watch them over the years, the opening of the festival’s 35th season is a chance to see some favorite actors take on new challenges with the precision and élan that have made them one of the finest repertory companies on the continent.

The festival—which runs until Oct. 27—currently has five productions on the boards, with six more to come later in the summer. Success at the box office is crucial for the 1996 playbill if the festival is to continue its long climb back to financial health. Last year, it set a record for boxoffice receipts, with ticket sales of 290,000 accounting for more than $9 million—about three-quarters of the Shaw’s annual $12-million budget. And although government subsidies have been steadily shrinking (they now make up only about nine per cent of total revenues, down from 12 per cent two years ago, with fund-raising adding another 19 per cent), the festival has been able to reduce its accumulated deficit to $780,000 from $838,000. “The Shaw is not in a crisis at the moment,” says artis-

tic director Christopher Newton. But he foresees a further ero sion of grants—already proportionately much smaller thar those given to comparable theatres in Europe.

Meanwhile, the shows go on. Shaw’s melodrama The Devil’s Disciple, directed by Glynis Leyshon, is a magnificent ensemble effort that captures the drama of revolution-era America. The play focuses on the “devil’s disciple” of the title, a wayward young man called

'Explosions' from an agent provocateur of the stage

Neil Munro is sitting in the garden behind the Festival Theatre, chuckling. It is a smoker’s laugh—a rough, self-enjoying rumble with a touch of the devil in it. Munro, the director of Rashomon at this year’s Shaw Festival, is talking about the wildly varying reactions to Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde: A Love Story, which he directed last year in Winnipeg (it also travelled to Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver). Among the many letters he received was one from a member of Mensa, the high-IQ group. “He said it was intensely thought-provoking, courageous and wonder-

ful,” Munro recalls.

“At the same time, I got this other letter from a woman who called it the biggest piece of crap she’d ever seen. You have to wonder if they’d seen the same play.” Adds Munro, with a mischievous chortle: “I sent them each other’s letters.”

There has always been a provocative side to Munro, who turns 50 in July. This, after all, is the director and playwright who once

dared to rewrite Hamlet, setting it in a bedroom crammed with computer equipment, And even at the rather staid Shaw Festival where Munro has been resident director foi two years, he has been responsible foi some exceptionally challenging theatre. His

Üchard Dudgeon (Gordon Rand), whose puritanical family is coninced that he has made a pact with the Prince of Darkness. But, i fact, his cynical, convention-flouting manner hides a good heart. Wien he is arrested by British troops who believe he is Rev. Anhony Anderson (Peter Hutt), a local rebel leader, Richard saves mderson by refusing to tell the British of their mistake.

The love-triangle that arises among Anderson, his wife, Judith Sarah Orenstein), and Richard is so vividly conveyed that it nakes the afternoon soaps look as innocuous as Sesame Street. lutt portrays Anderson’s troubled decency very convincingly, /hile Orenstein skilfully leads her character from timidity to senuality and courage. But the great discovery of this production is land, a 25-year-old Niagara-on-the-Lake native who is appearing n his first major role at Shaw. Right from the first moment that he tall, dark-haired actor appears, slouching motionless in a loorway, Rand commands the stage, his physical magnetism it from within by a moral intensity that is equally hypnotic.

Among the other shows, lerhaps the finest is An Ideal lusband, directed by Duncan dclntosh and held over from ist year because of its great lopularity with both critics nd audiences. Set in London n 1895, the play focuses on a lolitician, Sir Robert Chiltern Norman Browning), and his levoted wife, Lady Chiltern Brigitte Robinson), whose iappy life threatens to come rashing down when an uncrupulous adventuress, Mrs.

Iheveley (Jan Alexandra Smith), threatens to make lublic a dark secret from lobert Chiltern’s past. The ast does an excellent job of yoking that ambiguous terriiry where private and public lorality intersect, raising ome very relevant questions

fhe new Shaw Festival features devilishness and delight

bout how much venality should be tolerated in political office.

One of the most enjoyable performances in the play comes from haw veteran Jennifer Phipps, who often seems twice as real in er roles as the performers around her. She makes a delightfully nobbish Lady Markby, but she is even better as the absent-mindd Lady Angkatell in Christie’s The Hollow, in which she plays the ostess to an uneasy mix of family and friends (including Flett’s ierda Cristow) in her country house. When one of the guests is

shot, virtually everyone present is a plausible culprit. Directed by Paul Lampert, this latest addition to the festival’s murder series was so well received on opening night that, during intermission, audience members got into fervent discussions with complete strangers about who might have done it.

Another success is Newton’s briskly charming production of the 1928 British musical Mr Cinders (with music by Vivian Ellis and Richard Myers, and libretto and lyrics by Clifford Grey and Greatrex Newman). This twist on the Cinderella tale features Richard Binsley as Jim Lancaster, a poor cousin of the rich Lancaster family. Adopted as a household menial, Jim rises by a series of amusingly silly plot devices to win both fortune and love. Binsley exudes an affable gawkiness, while Nora McLellan is a knockout as Lady Lancaster—a mother and wife so hypnotically (and hilariously) wicked that her family falls into a spell whenever she looks at them. The music of Mr Cinders is mostly unmemorable, though one tune, Spread a Little Happiness, is enchanting enough

to have been made into a 1982 hit by Sting.

The only disappointment of the current shows at the Shaw is Rashomon, directed by Neil Munro. This stark tale—written by Americans Fay and Michael Kanin and based on the film by Akira Kurosawa—concerns a Japanese bandit (Jim Mezon) who apparently kills a samurai (Nigel Shawn Williams) and assaults his wife (Laurie Paton). But the survivors and witnesses of the event cannot agree on exactly what happened, and the drama becomes an illustration of the subjectivity of human experience. The central problem is that Rashomon is badly written: the characters are two-dimensional, while the

attempt to end on a hopeful note by introducing an abandoned baby—which one of the characters adopts—is gratuitous. Perhaps sensing the weakness of the material, the actors try too hard. And Leslie Frankish’s set is unintentionally comical: its towering bamboo forest looks like a flea’s-eye view of the hairs on a dog’s back as imagined by The Far Side’s Gary Larson. Still, four wins out of five is a pretty good record—if the Shaw Festival were a baseball team, it would be leading the league. □

993 version of George Bernard Shaw’s 'aint Joan climaxed in an interrogation :ene that still burns in the memory.

But can such a director remain content a festival that offers a large number of nglish drawing-room comedies, mysteries nd old-fashioned musicals? Munro says e is delighted to be at the Shaw, though sounds equally relieved to no longer be nduring the hand-to-mouth existence so ommon in the theatre world. In the 70s nd ’80s, he earned his living mainly as a oronto-based film and TV actor, but )und it increasingly arduous. “I was fed p with my lifestyle," he says. “I was goig to auditions all the time—lining up for 3me American piece of crap I wouldn’t

have watched even if I knew I was in it."

Burned out as an actor, and with not enough freelance directing jobs to sustain him, the 1988 offer of a directorship at Shaw came at just the right time, Munro says. He now lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake with his wife, painter and teacher Carole Lombard. But for every Saint Joan that Munro directs, he has to take on several plays that, whatever their merit as entertainment, are far from classics. “I’ve been caught in a kind of bind, making plays look better than they are,” he says, adding, “it’s an interesting challenge—if the core of the play is interesting enough.”

Rashomon would seem to be such a play. “It has these moments of pseudo-profundi-

ty woven into the dialogue, which are sort of out-of-date now," Munro says. “But it’s fun to manoeuvre and refocus them, so they’re palatable to the ear.” What really excites Munro is the prospect of working on masterpieces by such Shaw staples as British playwright Harley Granville Barker. “When the right actors and the right play come together, the explosion is extraordinary,” he comments. Munro says he loves it when his exhausted actors, leaving at the end of a day’s rehearsal, enthuse: “This is what we got into the theatre for.” He adds with a sardonic chuckle: “Like any great moments, they don't come along a lot.”