Canada's Shaw Festival: variety, promise, and problems

The Shaw Festival has just been "taken over" by a new artistic director, Christopher Newton. With his appointment goes an effort to bring the festival to the theatrical fore after years of remaining a high-quality summer theater devoted primarily to Shaw comedies.

The company is new, and there is as yet no overall style (though Jeffrey Dallas, the lighting designer, is a real stylist).

Variety is being offered which hasn't been seen here before. But if Mr. Newton wants to bring the Shaw Festival into a new era, he must be careful to keep his current conservative audience content while attracting a newer, more vital group. Feydeau's "A Flea in her Ear," and moments of Shaw's "Misalliance" show what the troupe is capable of -- and that is quite a lot.

May they keep on improving and refining so that the delightful Niagara-on-the-Lake can boast a theatrical force to complement (not complete with) Canada's flagship venture at Stratford.

In the opening weeks of this year's festival, audiences could choose between "Flea," "Misalliance," Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," Brecht's "A Respectable Wedding," and a revue of Irving Berlin songs called "Puttin' on the Ritz," as well as Shaw's "The Philanderer" (which I didn't see).

It surely is an interesting mix. Unfortunately not all of it was up to the standards a festival like this should be setting. Apparently Mr. Newton is not keeping tabs on those productions he is not involved in. Meddling by an artistic director in the productions of directors he has brought in is generally not a good idea, but somewhere there has to be a cutoff point. "Cherry Orchard" is a bad production -- no one can bat 1000 -- while "Wedding" is a disgrace to theater, even if only because of 10 seconds of action.

But the Feydeau proved just how good things could be. Director Derek Goldby has plotted it all out like clockwork -- tight, taut, split-second timing, delectably stylish in the French tradition. There were splendid performances from Dana Ivey, Susan Wright, Heath Lamberts, Michael Fawkes, Christopher Newton , Mary Haney, and all the others too numerous to mention. Cameron Porteous's set could have been a bit less dingy for the Chandebise household, but the hotel set was replete with mood, durable doors (each is slammed at least 100 times), trick walls, etc.

His set for "Misalliance" was considerably less appealing. Rather than a rich and regal Victorian conservatory, we get the annex to a classless, rather dour-looking abode, with a few potted plants, and some nondescript furniture that adds nothing.

But perhaps Porteous's set took its cue from Christopher Newton's production. Newton, who had been a sensational Camille in "Flea," is now devoting most of his time to direction. He must have had a clear idea about this play, but he had trouble translating it meaningfully to the stage. It took the entire first act for the cast to find its pace, and then that pace was not entirely sustained for the rest of the show.

Newton sometimes seemed preoccupied with the sexual undercurrents of the play , and while many do exist, the "debate" encompasses much more. But Newton wanted somehow to recreate a verbal frenzy, and in so striving, he lost individual characterization.

But more severe were the problems of casting. This Shaw piece is a marvel of talk, talk, talk and one needs lively, fervent orators as well as good actors to make it all come to life. In Sandy Webster, Newton and the Shaw Festival have the real thing -- a vivid actor who has the full measure of his character's verbiage and stature. He captured the bluster and the import of John Tarleton, the underwear magnate who underwrites free libraries. No one else quite matched him, except for the marvelous Marion Gilsenan as Mrs. Tarleton.

The critical role of Hypatia was rather miscast, for Deborah Kipp made the girl too dour, too spinsterish for one who is full of vitality and fire. Peter Hutt proved a solid Johnny, Andrew Gillies a fervent Gunner, and David Dudimead an interestingly glib, almost cowardian Lord Summerhays. James Rankin strained mercilessly as Bently, Geraint-Wyn Davies was the embodiment of the ideal upper-class British youth, circa 1909 -- a very promising young performer.

Carole Shelley, the Linz Szczepanowska, gave that grand sort of performance that steals the spotlight only when the character is allowed to, and that makes one wish there were more for her to do in an evening! 'Ther Cherry Orchard'

She did not have so congenial a time as Ranyevskaya in "The Cherry Orchard," in many ways the most distressing production of the five seen -- devoid of real viewpoint, of love of Chekhov, of any on the part of director Radu Penciulescu. In a morbid sense he had the ideal translation for his "approach" -- Trevor Griffith's, which robs Chekhov of all his resonances and warmth, and which in the process robs the characters of true depth and passion.

Miss Shelley, as with everyone else in the cast, was left to her own devices. In such a complex role, she resorted most often to a weepy desperation, as Ranevsky (in this flat-footed translation) despairs about leaving her house. That house was quite hard to duscern on Astrid Janson's bizarre and rather ineffectual set. The second act took place on a down quilt, the rest of the scenes -- all surrounded with huge swatches of lace curtains -- were indicated with some furniture and a few swatches of other fabric.

This is a classless Chekhov Penciulescu presents -- where peasant is as bland as noble, and just about as well dressed. In this morass of nondescript nonsense, there were a few standouts -- Irene Hogan's Charlotte Ivanonva, Terence Kelly's Lopakhin, Sandy Webster's Pischik, delivering one of the few genuine moments in the show, Mary Haney's vivacious Dunyasha.

As it is, both struggled against type (more or less effectively, it should be noted). James Mezon's Yasha, like his Tourel in "Flea," showed great promise. Gillie Fenwick, the Firs, had the unfortunate task of having to "close" the show. When Firs finishes his last words, Mr. Fenwick must remain as dignified as possible while one by one, half of the lace curtains cut loose and fall. Then the house lights go up, he stands up, and the bows begin. It is the ultimate pretentious touch to production that should not have been allowed on the stage. 'Respectable Wedding'

Much the same has to be said for "A Respectable Wedding." For though Derek Goldby has done a splendidly stylish "Flea," here he updates Brecht to the '50s, without any attempt to justify the ensuing anachronisms that peep through the time warp.

At the end of this noisy "Polish wedding" brouhaha, where civilities fall apart as completely as the homemade furniture, Mr. Goldby has staged a bit mysogenistic pornography that not only calls into question his professional decency, but also Mr. Newton's power as artistic director of the festival.

In the cast, Geraint'-Wyn Davies revealed again impressive potential. Nora McLellan's Bride was handsomely developed. Set designer Guido Tondio solved the special problems of the Court House Theater well. 'Puttin' on the Ritz'

The festival is also mounting a production of "Puttin' on the Ritz," a revue of Berlin songs which suffers, for this American, from a lack of indigenous charm. The Canadian performers do not have the Broadway style and idiom in their blood. Except for Sheila McCarthy, none have enough personality to sustain such a show. Director Don Shipley has set it all in the suave top hat-and-tails '20s, a period that jars with the rousing, patriotic, tin-pan-alley Berlin. Nor does Shipleu have the ingenuity to sustain the show. But at least Chris Donison at the piano kept style alive and Ken McDonald's set -- while not really right for the show -- was stylish, nonetheless.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.