Onstage: Sampling at the Shaw

Seeing four offerings at Shaw Festival 2012 is like reading four historical essays, but a lot more fun. Though these plays don’t always share direct thematic links, each invites audiences to examine past and current social mores and conscience—a result surely wrought by a skillful curator’s hand. Any one of this season’s plays will deliver a quality theater experience, but with eleven to choose from, is one really enough? Here’s a sample:

PRESENT LAUGHTER, Noel Coward; directed by David Schurmann

Though Noel Coward wrote Present Laughter in 1939, World War II prevented him from making this semi-autobiographical star turn until 1942. The Coward-based persona is Garry Essendine, a comedically self-obsessed actor played with great egotistical flair by Steven Sutcliffe. On these particular days in Essendine’s life, we see him characteristically fending off the attentions of eager lovers and an obnoxiously enthusiastic (and, in this production, acrobatically adept) playwright. For Essendine, it’s an exhausting—though not-so-secretly welcome—part of his existence.
Coward fans will recognize the playwright’s trademark humor and finale, and his ability to make fun of the very form (the audience roars with recognition when a character observes she “feels as though she’s in a French farce”) he clearly adores, as well as the characters within it—actors, playwrights, fans, and the business itself. Nonetheless, Coward imbues the play with just enough heart that it’s impossible to write it off as mere light comedy.
Watching the sexual shenanigans of the showbiz set was no doubt entertaining in 1942; those stories certainly weren’t being told on radio, and television was in its infancy. But beyond the familiar woes of the attention-starved actor with an identity crisis (which Sutcliffe displays with deft awareness), Coward imparts the idea that sex (no matter whom with) is secondary to loyalty—particularly from those who knew you when. If sex is dismissed as mere entertainment, then what remains are the people you can trust, a forward-thinking idea that makes a play approaching its diamond anniversary remarkably current.


MISALLIANCE, George Bernard Shaw; directed by Eda Holmes
If there were any doubt that George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance shines a light on the complexities of parent/child relationships, the decision here to set this 1909 British play in the early 1960s, in the very era when sociologists coined the term “generation gap,” brings it home. Amid the mod décor, Hypatia Tarleton’s yearning to escape her parents’ boring and restrictive lifestyle rings true; she laments that all they do is “talk, talk, talk,” when she just wants to do, do, do.
Hypatia’s criticism echoes Shaw’s own observation that his plays are often better read than staged. But fans of Shaw—a noted critic, journalist, novelist, and essayist—know he is a master language craftsman, and that his verbal antics (which hold up impeccably after 100-plus years) are nimble enough to engage even as they deliver the social commentary Shaw so eagerly wanted to impart. After all, in 1909, theater was where one went to get ideas, and the provocative subjects are all here, neatly united under the generation gap umbrella: sexual mores, money, marriage, class consciousness, women’s independence.
But even in this play of ideas, Shaw pays tribute to the assumption that every play should contain one impossible thing. In Misalliance, that impossible thing (if you haven’t seen the play, we won’t ruin it for you, but set designer Judith Bowden deserves kudos) changes the direction of the show as much it changes the direction of the characters’ lives. With the very dramatic entry of the fiercely independent and foreign (in every way) Lina Szczepanowska, the Tarleton family’s home and every notion within it are torn apart. In Edwardian England, some of these new ideas were embodied in the suffrage movement; in 1962, similar themes were playing out with full-blown feminism and the start of the sexual revolution. As in Present Laughter, the sexual behavior of men in Misalliance is taken for granted, but in both plays, the plot often hinges on the sexual aggression of women. Setting this play in the 1960s gives today’s audiences a familiar referent.


A MAN AND SOME WOMEN, Githa Sowerby; directed by Alisa Palmer
Written just four years after Misalliance, Githa Sowerby’s A Man and Some Women presents parallel ideas about women’s subjugation to men, but in their original pre-World War I context. As such, the concepts come off less as intellectual fodder for the dinner table and more as the disturbing ideas that one easily envisions galvanizing women’s rights advocates.
After all, Misalliance’s Hypatia is young; it’s hard to imagine that she might someday end up as old and burdensome as Rose and Elizabeth, the spinster sisters of sympathetic Richard Shannon, the “man” referenced in Sowerby’s title. But that was the fate of unmarried women in 1911, unless they—as Richard’s love, Jessica—eschewed men (and by presumable extension, happiness) in favor of the economic freedom that was considered unnatural for nubile women. Sadly, Richard’s wife, Hilda (in a delightfully creepy and comedic portrayal by Jenny L. Wright), demonstrates that even a marriage contract can’t guarantee deliverance from either dependence or unhappiness. As for Richard, meeting the demands of four women reduces his own desire to pursue medicine in Brazil to a mere pipe dream.
Certainly, the subject matter is desperate, but because the actors imbue it with such humanity and humor (appropriate or not, it was often laugh-out-loud funny), it becomes an engaging tour-de-force that delivers an inevitable truth: When women are dependent, it cripples not only them, but the very men they are dependent upon. And with that knowledge, New Woman Jessica presents an alternative that offers hope that everybody can be happier in the future.
It should be noted that after the 1914 Manchester opening of A Man and a Woman, which was cut short by the advent of World War I, the play didn’t receive a second production until 1996. It remains unpublished, and this is its North American debut. That fate would render such a gem obscure for nearly a century is a shame, but to miss this first-rate production might be a bigger one.


RAGTIME, book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; directed by Jackie Maxwell
With the exception of the John Guare adaptation, His Girl Friday, the Tony-award-winning Ragtime—written in 1996—is most recently penned piece in this season’s lineup. But despite its youth, Ragtime’s early twentieth century zeitgeist puts it squarely in the purview of Shaw 2012. As audiences watch African-American antihero Coalhouse Walker, Jr. fight for his rights and his dreams, the winds of social change pervade the play.
Staying true (truer than the 1981 film version anyway) to the source material, the 1975 novel that won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, Ragtime the musical presents a complicated story that rewards careful attention as it weaves together three disparate factions of the era—the privileged Westchester family, an Eastern European immigrant and his daughter, and Coalhouse and his young family—and takes up the post-modern challenge of uniting them thematically, if not physically. Celebrity cameos—Houdini, Emma Goldman, J. P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, Evelyn Nesbitt, and Henry Ford—serve to underscore aspects of story with symbolism and historical significance.
Ragtime is a big show in the grandest musical tradition and, when it hit Broadway in 1998, it garnered thirteen Tony award nominations and took home five trophies, including Best Book and Best Original Score. Here, with every vocal performance, set change, and syncopated beat, this Canadian salute to American history delightfully demonstrates why.  



Donna Hoke is a theater lover and playwright.

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