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Theater Review: Shaw marks its first half century

Michael Ball, Robin Evan Williams, and Deborah Hay in "Heartbreak House"

David Cooper

In 2011, the Shaw Festival marks its fiftieth anniversary by paying homage to its past while looking to the future. That means more contemporary works by “modern Shavians” along with the Shaw classics. So Candida—which opened the Festival’s first season—shares the bill with the Canadian premiere of the edgy Pulitzer-winning Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks. There’s less of the obscure Edwardian and twentieth century work that characterized the Festival under former artistic director Christopher Newton, and the productions tend toward the respectable rather than the risky, but the Shaw remains one of the finest ensemble companies in North America. What the Shaw does best is produce “theater of ideas”—linguistically rich, thought-provoking plays with the large casts only a repertory company can afford. Even when the productions disappoint, they still fascinate.


Heartbreak House
by Bernard Shaw
Directed by Christopher Newton, Festival Theatre

For a show about broken hearts, Heartbreak House is startlingly funny—and prescient. First published in 1919, Shaw wrote the play in response to World War I, crafting an allegory of a fading England in the last gasp of Empire. The script tells the story of a weekend party at the home of the eccentric, ageing Captain Shotover that culminates in the revelation of each guest’s secret heartbreak. Then, in a surreal third act, the house is bombarded by bombs, uncannily predicting the Blitz of World War II. This is Shaw at his most biting yet poetic, his most caustic and—in the whimsical banter between the iconoclastic houseguests—his most comic.
Christopher Newton directs an eloquent production that bursts with movement. Watch his masterful direction of the heart-to-heart talk between the seemingly timid ingénue Ellie, played with almost grating earnestness by Robin Evan Willis, and her mentor, the beguiling Hesione Hushabye, slinkily played by Deborah Hay. What might otherwise be heavy-handed exposition becomes a swiftly moving scene as Hesione prowls the stage while the distraught Ellie tries to keep up. As is standard here, the acting ensemble is excellent, speaking Shaw’s verbose prose with ease. Benedict Campbell’s blustery, babyish Boss Mangan, a captain of industry whose industry has collapsed, particularly resonates in the post-bailout era, while Michael Ball’s Captain Shotover is a loveable curmudgeon brimming with unexpected enlightenment.
In Act III, Newton transforms the play’s nautical metaphors—which imply the ageing English Empire is a ship adrift at sea—into three-dimensional reality. The drapes fall away and Shotover’s ship-like house, designed with exquisite coziness by Leslie Frankish, is instantly transformed into an actual ship. It’s an inspired choice— yet somehow, it doesn’t pack the wallop it could. Newton’s production is exquisitely rendered, but its measured stateliness undermines its trump card. In the end, this House is more quiet reflection than heartbreak, yet it is still an illuminating look at a rarely performed play.


Drama at Inish—A Comedy
by Lennox Robinson
Directed by Jackie Maxwell, Courthouse Theatre

Drama at Inish is this season’s rediscovered gem, a rarely performed 1933 comedy about the power of theater by an Irish playwright. The sleepy seaside town of Inish is turned upside down when the De La Mare Repertory Company shows up with a repertoire of great but gloomy European drama. Suddenly, everyone sees themselves as tragic heroes, from the ditzy spinster who helps run the local hotel to the stagestruck servants.
Jackie Maxwell directs this charming comedy with an aplomb and restraint that falters only in the final coda, a slow waltz that undercuts the play’s momentum. Wisely, Maxwell lets the ensemble strut their comic stuff without going overboard. Corrine Koslo and Thom Marriott relish their roles as Constance Constantia and Hector De La Mare, the flamboyant stars of the De La Mare Company. They play these consummate showfolk with great theatricality and a surprising empathy for the befuddled ordinary people around them. As Lizzie Twohig, the self-dramatizing maiden aunt, Mary Haney finds unexpected poignancy behind her self-deluded grandeur before coming to appreciate her uneventful life.
If only Robinson had delved more into his wonderful characters. I wished there were more scenes of the delightfully hammy De La Mares onstage tackling Ibsen, Tolstoy, and Strindberg. Nevertheless, Drama at Inish is a delight, a gentle, genteel valentine to theatre.


Candida by Bernard Shaw
Directed by Tadeusz Bradecki, Royal George Theatre.

Shaw included Candida in his volume of Plays Pleasant, but as scholar Dorothy Hadfield points out, “For women still struggling a century later to negotiate a balance between having children and having careers, this play might seem less pleasant than Shaw imagined.” Shaw’s argument that women secretly held the power in Victorian marriage, infantilizing men with their angelic motherhood—doesn’t hold up from the perspective of twenty-first century historians, much less sit easily with today’s audiences. Still, the play has never gone away, perhaps because of its juicy leading roles. Candida, Shaw’s ideal woman, remains beguiling, while the two men who battle for her affections—her charismatic husband Reverend Morell and the gawky young poet Eugene Marchbanks—are also wonderfully showy parts.
Director Tadeusz Bradecki orchestrates a taut, brisk production that neither glosses over Shaw’s preachiness nor condescends to the modern audience. Shaw’s paternalism still shines through, yet there are glimmers of feminism, particularly in Claire Jullien’s formidable reading of the title role. Jullien’s fiercely intelligent Candida is still the Victorian “angel in the house,” but she is no mere ornament, particularly in her indignation at being objectified by the men who love her. Nigel Shawn Williams finds vulnerability beneath Reverend Morell’s charisma, while lanky Wade Bogert-O’Brien milks the physical humor of bumbling poet Marchbanks. What surprised me most was everyone’s humanity, from Williams’ conflicted Reverend to Krista Colosimo’s yearning secretary. Under Bradecki’s direction, the actors brought three-dimensional reality to what otherwise could have been curdled Victorian archetypes. I couldn’t stand Shaw’s moralizing, but I couldn’t help but love his characters.




Heather J. Violanti is the dramaturg for the Mint Theater, an Off-Broadway theater specializing in lost and neglected plays. Watch Buffalospree.com for additional Shaw reviews, and visit Shawfest.com for info and tickets.

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