Shaw in review

A provocative outlier, the big musical, and more

O'FLAHERTY V.C. Photo by Emily Cooper; THE BARONESS AND THE PIG and THE ORCHARD photo by David Cooper; GRAND HOTEL photo by David Cooper; OF MARRIAGE AND MEN by Emily Cooper


O’Flaherty V. C.

By Bernard Shaw
Director: Kimberly Rampersad
Starring: Patrick McManus, Tara Rosling, Ben Sanders, and Gabriella Sundar Singh


The lunchtime shows at the Shaw Festival are nearly always lesser known works by big names. As such, I go in expecting to fill in some gaps in my Shaw or Tennessee Williams education, and take the shows for their figurative worth as appetizers. That said, O’Flaherty V. C. is one of the tastiest I’ve seen.


The set-up is simple: an Irish soldier returns from World War I after being awarded the Victoria Cross. He’s home to recruit more soldiers, and, in conversation with a local general, we learn he has fought with the British—something his Irish Nationalist mother doesn’t know. With this set-up, Shaw prods at uncomfortable questions about why we fight and the notions of blind patriotism in the face of reason. Indeed, O’Flaherty—who is based on a real person—clearly establishes the theme when he says, “You’ll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race.”


As provocative as Shaw’s antiwar sentiments and class observations are (indeed, his views put him in disfavor at the time, and this play’s premiere was shuttered prematurely), Shaw does make room for his usual dour observations on marriage and women, the latter bordering too much on misogyny for my tastes—particularly the catfight ending (not kidding). If you can overlook that, what makes this play rise above the usual lunchtime fare is how quickly it manages to move along despite being endowed with Shaw’s trademark verbosity. Ben Sanders masterfully parses that wealth of words to land the jokes, make the almost accidental observations, and be completely engaging. Shaw’s intent and purpose comes through, and, while I usually leave a Shaw play wanting less, this one actually had me wanting more.


O’Flaherty V. C. runs through October 6 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake.




The Baroness and the Pig

By Michael McKenzie
Director: Selma Dimitrijevic
Starring: Yanna McIntosh and Julia Course


The Shaw Festival tends to put newer, more experimental, less mainstream fare in the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, and, as that’s where my theatrical interest skews, I most anticipate productions in that space. At the most recent press openings, there were two—The Baroness and the Pig and The Orchard (After Chekhov).


The Baroness and the Pig, a cousin to Shaw’s Pygmalion, is the story of a baroness (a commanding Yanna McIntosh) who decides to “help” a young girl literally raised in a pigsty to become a respectable maid. This necessitates some Nell-like scenes, when the pig-girl—now named Emily—learns some rudimentary verbal skills, but their cringe factor is offset by Julia Course’s easy physicality, which serves her well in this unconventional role.


Under the Baroness’s strict tutelage, Emily makes strides. It’s frustrating that her learning has no logical progression and seems to serve plot and laugh-grabs more than character. One minute, Emily gets laughs from her Amelia Bedelia-style literal interpretations; the next, she’s conveniently understanding a complex Shakespeare plot; and the next, she fails to understand the simplest vocabulary. These inconsistencies make for some frustrated viewing.


The other disconcerting thing is that Emily—though she expresses longing, or at least nostalgia, for her rural roots—never expresses a desire to escape, never rebels against what amounts to slavery and, at times, ill treatment. It can be argued that the play was intentionally written to showcase only the Baroness’s position of power and privilege, but it does leave the play without any driving conflict, just an unfolding.


As the play progresses, themes unfold as well: classism, nature/nurture, savagery vs. civility, the contributions of art to humanity. (For American viewers, comparisons to slavery are unavoidable, and muddy the waters when it comes to clarifying the playwright’s intents.) I loved playwright Michael McKenzie’s emphasis on art being the thing that separates humans from animals; there are several moments where he underscores this, and it’s even used to great effect in the play’s final moment. But more, I found the performance’s most gorgeous moments to be the nonverbal ones that allowed both actresses and director Selma Dimitrijevic to shine; these moments are where I felt I understood the play, or at least this interpretation of it.


It’s the play’s weighty issues—which come through clearly, sometimes so clear as to be clunky—that provide its value. The Baroness and the Pig is not without flaws (including a denouement that overrides its apparent theme by putting an unseen man at the center of it) but is still engaging. It will generate conversation long after one leaves the play, provided one stays for the entire thing.  Because, indeed, at this showing, not only did people leave at intermission, but one patron was overheard to say, “I have no idea where this is going.” He stayed to find out, and I hope he left satisfied with this provocative play outside the usual Shaw milieu, and spent hours discussing it with his companions on a patio on Queen Street.


The Baroness and the Pig runs through October 6 at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake.




The Orchard (After Chekhov)

By Sarena Parmar
Director: Ravi Jain
Cast: David Adams, Shawn Ahmed, Neil Barclay, Rong Fu, Krystal Kiran, Jani Lauzon, Andrew Lawrie, Jeff Meadows, Sarena Parmar, Pamela Sinha, Sanjay Talwar, Kelly Wong


In this world premiere of Shaw company member Sarena Parmar’s freshman play, Chekhov’s “orchard” has been transplanted to Canada’s Okanagan Valley in 1975. There, a Punjabi-Canadian family called the Basrans, who are based autobiographically on Parmar’s own family, are faced with the impending loss of their land legacy.  Parmar’s ease with the vocabulary, aesthetics, and vagaries of that life are evident, and provide some of the more authentic moments in the play.


Chekhov has provided Parmar with a solid structure on which to impose her characters, and, even in a script that hews closely to the original, it’s hard not to see how events have different effects on people of color in 1975 Canada as opposed to downtrodden Russian aristocrats. In this way, the adaptation succeeds, not only making the play more Canadian but more resonant in both today’s climate and to Shaw artistic director Tim Carroll’s efforts to bring more diverse stories to Shaw stages, while still honoring the Shaw mission.


The Orchard (After Chekhov) runs through September 1 at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake.




Grand Hotel

By Luther Davis, music and lyrics by Robert Wright, George Forrest, Maury Yeston
Director: Eda Holmes
Starring: Deborah Hay, Michael Therriault, Steven Sutfliffe, Vanessa Sears, James Daly, Jay Turvey


Gorgeous production values can only do so much to elevate lackluster material, a lesson one might have reasonably expected the Shaw powers-that-be to learn from Alice in Wonderland two seasons ago. It’s astonishing that the Grand Hotel movie and musical picked up an Oscar and Tony respectively; I can only conclude that the show just hasn’t aged well, rode one of those commercial waves that can never really be explained, or had performances imbued with emotion that transcended a thin book.


Based on Vicki Baum’s 1929 novel, Menschen im Hotel (People at a Hotel), then the Oscar-winning 1932 movie (Greta Garbo’s “I want to be alone” vehicle), the 1958 At the Grand musical didn’t fare well and never made it to New York. Inexplicably, the creative team decided to revive it three decades later, bringing in both Tommy Tune and Maury Yeston to shore up the product. The result ran three years and was a commercial hit, but never a critical one. New York Times’ Frank Rich said, “Grand Hotel never delivers [the] conventional elements one might want in a musical—attractive songs, characters to care about, an exciting cast,” and implies that beyond the gorgeous production values and nonstop movement—the Shaw production does deliver on these holdovers from the original Tune theatrics—the show is forgettable. Nearly thirty years later, it’s hard not to agree.  


The show’s premise is common enough: lives randomly intersect and, in these brief encounters, can change forever. Through a heroin fog—or dream—a veteran war doctor mordantly and with great portent observes a charming in-debt baron desperate to pay off a loan shark, but not at the price of morality. An aging ballerina tries to make peace with the end of her career. A dying man desires to spend his final days in luxury and finds a reason to live. A would-be Hollywood starlet breaks free of #metoo men. Amid the backdrop of pre-stock market crash, pre-Nazi Germany, and in the opulent Grand Hotel, such a set-up has promise, but the stories are so underdeveloped and hokily put together, and the music and lyrics so disparate and randomly inserted, that the show never gains cohesion let alone momentum. For example, when a token bellboy’s wife gives birth offstage, he gets an entire song about the joys of fatherhood—why do we care? It’s sentimentality without substance, which seems to sum up the entire show. As a cycle of life narrative, last season’s Middletown was far superior in every way.


The highlights are the dynamic performances from Michael Therriault (the dying man) and Deborah Hay (the ballerina), who bring as much authenticity to their characters as is possible with the clunky dialogue they’ve been supplied. The rest of the cast doesn’t quite rise to their level and, given the performances we’ve seen from these actors recently—particularly James Daly (the baron) who killed it in Master Harold…and the Boys last season—it’s hard not to look to both the material and Eda Holmes’s direction for these less effective presentations. It’s such an inconsistent show, however, that it’s hard to blame a director for not knowing what to do with it.


And the dancing… the most upbeat number in the show looked like a 1980s aerobics class, while the two lead dancers were never in sync. Let’s not even talk about the dance of death. Pacing is also at issue: Act 1 is a drawn-out mish-mash of exposition, and Act 2 drives to melodramatic conclusions so quickly, the audience is in danger of whiplash. Aside from all the loose ends and head-scratching moments presented onstage in Grand Hotel, the biggest is why the Shaw Festival would choose to resurrect such a dusty relic. That it takes place in Shaw’s era just isn’t enough.


Grand Hotel runs through October 14 at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake.




Of Marriage and Men: a Comedy Double-Bill

By Bernard Shaw
Director: Philip Akin
Starring: David Adams, Shawn Ahmed, Fiona Byrne, Martin Happer, Krystal Kiran, Andrew Lawrie, Kelly Wong


Shaw’s pair of one-acts—How He Lied to Her Husband and The Man of Destiny—packaged as a comedy double-bill called Of Marriage and Men, was extended by a week—before the show even officially opened. One can only assume that Shawgoers are reacting to the words “comedy” and “Shaw” in the same offering, a wise choice from artistic director Tim Carroll as he seeks to fulfill the mandate of the festival in creative ways. The comedic designation is dubious—yes, this is much lighter fare than the usual Shaw—but the light chuckles that came from the audience are nothing compared to the raucous laughter that Stage Kiss is earning as it plays in rep on this same stage.


How He Lied to Her Husband, a thirty-minute play “quickie” in which She is concerned that the love letters written by He have been delivered to Her Husband (these are indeed the characters’ names). It turns out that they have, but when He tries to deny it, Her Husband is less concerned with his wife’s potential infidelity than the idea that He would not find She attractive enough for wooing. In the text, He is eighteen years old, She two decades older; that they are seemingly the same age in this presentation dilutes the premise, i.e., Her Husband should feel more threatened.


Of the two plays, this one seems more firmly rooted in comic intent, but it never really reaches the heights of farce that it could; it seems limited both by the material, the small drawing room set, and the acting choices. In today’s world, this preamble—written by Shaw in four days as a curtain raiser for The Man of Destiny—would be in the form of the popular ten-minute play and would be all the better for the condensation.


An elaborate set-changing that might have been finished by the start of Act 2 instead becomes part of the entertainment. As impressive as Steve Lucas’s set design is, making its transformation part of the show seemed an attempt to inject flair into a modest event.


The Man of Destiny, which also involves some errant letters—including one love letter that implicates Napoleon’s wife in infidelity—was included in Shaw’s Pleasant Plays. While the play does involve a battle of wits between Napoleon and the Strange Woman trying to protect him from the letter’s disclosure, it derives most of its laughs from the character performances, notably Kelly Wong as the title Man of Destiny. The text, without such theatrical acting choices, could easily be read as a serious play, and the middle of it does in fact sag under the weight of Shaw’s didactic philosophy. That said, the play does present an interesting, more serious, counterpart to How He Lied… in exploring reactions to infidelity and societal expectations of its discovery.


At just over two hours, it’s a pleasant evening, a Shaw sampler for the uninitiated and pleasant enough fare for the completist; if not for its length, it would have been at home in Shaw’s lunchtime slot. Of Marriage and Men is an interesting combination title for these two works, both of which are driven by the actions and manipulations of the woman in each story. Shaw, always ahead of his time, no doubt intended this, and it would have been apt to acknowledge this in choosing a thematic banner for this double bill.


Of Marriage and Men runs through September 9 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake.


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