Theatre

SHAW’S GAMBLE

Intent on re-energizing itself, the festival adds Canuck plays and fresh approaches

JOHN BEMROSE May 24 2004
Theatre

SHAW’S GAMBLE

Intent on re-energizing itself, the festival adds Canuck plays and fresh approaches

JOHN BEMROSE May 24 2004

SHAW’S GAMBLE

Theatre

Intent on re-energizing itself, the festival adds Canuck plays and fresh approaches

JOHN BEMROSE

LAST YEAR Jackie Maxwell’s office overlooked the idyllic streets of Niagara-on-theLake. This year the head of Ontario’s Shaw Festival is working underground. That’s where a move to the festival’s new administrative and rehearsal centre has put her-in a basement-level office with a view of the corridor. Her tasteful new digs are supposed to be an improvement. But the symbolism is hard to ignore. In Maxwell’s inaugural 2003 season, the Shaw wracked up a $ 3-million deficit, putting it into a hole it will take years to climb out of. Now, as the new season opens, the pressure on the artistic director is immense. No one’s blaming her for last season’s debacle—it would have taken superhuman intervention to ward off the multiple plagues of SARS, the Iraq war, the West Nile virus and a major power blackout that knocked down the 2003 attendance by a critical 32,500. But another dip into the red would cast a deep shadow over her tenure at the $24.4-million festival.

The darker side of Pygmalion, starring Mezon and Rosling, comes into focus

Today, Maxwell recalls her year from hell with a visible shudder. “The audience numbers fell so early and so fast that I knew we were in for it.” The setback couldn’t have come at a worse time for an artistic director bent on opening new horizons. Under Maxwell’s immensely successful predecessor, Christopher Newton, the Shaw had a quasi-English feel, thanks to Newton’s penchant for fleshing out the festival’s staple of plays by George Bernard Shaw with lost treasures of British drama. In 2003, Maxwell tried for a more Canadian flavour. She mounted a new translation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters by Toronto writer Susan Coyne as well as The Coronation Voyage, a contemporary play by Quebec dramatist Michel Marc Bouchard.

It’s a mark of how conservative the Shaw Festival is that putting on Canadian plays is considered a risk. “I was prepared for serious brickbats,” Maxwell, 48, says now of The Coronation Voyage. “I thought I’d have letters from a lot of upset people. But the reaction was quite the opposite. There was lots of positive mail. People stopped me in the street and said, ‘Thank you for putting our voice up on that stage.’ ” And even though the play did not do well attendance-wise, Maxwell puts an optimistic spin on its reception. “I think our core audience is far more flexible and open-minded than I had thought.”

‘PEOPLE stopped me in the street,’ recalls the artistic director, ‘and said, “Thank you for putting our voice up on that stage” ’

The question is whether there are enough adventurous theatre-goers to keep Maxwell’s experiments financially viable. She’s gambling there are. This year Maxwell is putting on two Canadian plays with a solid track record of productions behind them, George F. Walker’s 1988 drama, Nothing Sacred, and John Murrell’s 1977 classic, Waiting for the Parade. The Murrell (June 4-Oct. 9) will be launched in the Royal George Theatre, whose small size (328 seats) minimizes the financial risk. The Walker will be staged in the cavernous Festival Theatre (869 seats), where the under-attended Coronation Voyage was also mounted. But Nothing Sacred will start late in the season for a relatively short run (Aug. 14-Oct. 30), which should reduce the damage if it flops. Meanwhile, Maxwell has filled most of the playbill at the Festival Theatre with proven winners, including Bernard Shaw’s 1912 comedy Pygmalion (to Nov. 27) and the 1935 American farce Three Men on a Horse by John Cecil Holm and George Abbott (to Oct. 29).

So far, the new program seems successful. Ticket sales are well ahead of last year’s, though they haven’t returned to pre-SARS levels. Meanwhile, Maxwell goes on proclaiming her new vision. This year, her fullcolour advertising brochure broke with two decades of good taste under Newton. The cover features a picture of actress Lisa Norton with her mouth wide open as if she were snarling at a dentist. Maxwell also talks of a new advertising campaign to lure patrons from nearby Toronto, many of whom have stayed away out of dislike for the festival’s conservatism. Their perspective is out-ofdate, insists Maxwell, who wants to “fracture” old approaches to theatre at the Shaw and make plays “crackle in a different way.”

All this is reminiscent of Newton’s attempts to sex up the festival when he arrived more than 20 years ago. The good burghers of Niagara-on-the-Lake responded to his first rather raw and risky productions by threatening to run him out of town. Newton eventually built a festival where artistic achievement had to cloak itself in a traditional theatricality. If the box office sags under Maxwell, she’ll probably be forced to play a variation of the same old game.

Certainly Maxwell’s own solid production of Shaw’s Pygmalion would not have been out of place during Newton’s tenure. Professor Higgins and his recalcitrant pupil, Eliza Doolittle, are probably more famous now from the classic musical My Fair Lady, which takes its story and much of its dialogue from Shaw’s original. In fact, there were moments in Maxwell’s entertaining version when you expected the characters to burst into song. But the lightheartedness in this show comes with shadows. By refusing to sentimentalize the relationship between Higgins (Jim Mezon) and Eliza (Tara Rosling), Maxwell lays bare disturbing lines of power. Mezon’s potent Higgins is not just a cranky teacher; he is a brutal bully. When we laugh at his cruel jibes at Eliza, we feel ourselves uncomfortably implicated in what amounts to his colonizing of another human being.

Newton makes a welcome return to the festival with his elegant version of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 classic, The Importance of Being Earnest. The production got some bad press thanks to a tepid opening night crowd who missed most of the jokes. As a result, several critics— who depend more on audience reaction than one might think—declared the show wasn’t funny. Yet reportedly, audiences at the production’s 24 preview performances had laughed a great deal. And in fact, this frothy gambit about upper-class English dandies and their loves is for the most part—despite some thrown-away famous lines—seductively amusing. Lady Bracknell, who is usually characterized as a withered crone, is given a delicious new twist by the perennially attractive Goldie Semple, who finds the comic gold in her character’s high wilfulness.

Finally, Three Men on a Horse is directed by Jim Mezon with such witty inventiveness that it’s likely to become the hit of the season. The story concerns a hapless writer of greeting card verses, Erwin Trowbridge (Kevin Bundy), who discovers he can pick the winners of horse races. The fun begins when he becomes the prisoner of several low-life types eager to exploit his talent. In a strong cast, the great discovery is Bundy who, whether chasing a lost hat or navigating the perils of Erwin’s marriage, evokes the kind of helpless laughter that is good for the soul. IK1