Canada's Shaw Festival -- a question of how GBS should be staged

The Shaw Festival, nestled on the fringes of this picturesque; quiet little town was very much in the news this spring: Artistic director Christopher Newton wanted to drop the epilogue from his production of Bernard Shaw's "St. Joan," and the Shaw estate threatened to rescind the festival's performing rights if it did not go ahead with the epilogue.

It is ironic that the artistic director of a summer festival devoted to Shaw and his theatrical contemporaries should show so little an affinity for them. But that is precisely the problem. What was hinted at in his rather pallid staging of "Missalliance" last season is confirmed and abetted here. Shaw wrote nearly 47 pages of preface to explicate and expound on his intentions. He presents Joan as a farm girl with incredible powers of persuasion who, guided by her voices, passes over church hierarchy and feudal nobility to help the people rout the English and get the Dauphin Charles crowned at Reims.

Shaw focuses on the forces that destroyed her, not so much out of malice but as a reaction to her flouting of the rules of order, tact, and social position that marked the age. Shaw then asks what is that special something that animates the Joans of the world, that keep the memory alive over centuries, that could force the Roman Catholic Church to canonize her after destroying her. And , of course, Shaw notes that the world is neverm ready for the Joans.

Mr. Newton still ends his production before the epilogue. He has inserted a grudging note telling those who choose to stay through another intermission that they see the scene. It is done as a staged reading, all the performers tending to drone rather than act their roles.

Sad to say, nowhere in the production does Mr. Newton give us a sense that he has understood the play. What we have is a stew of traditional (and mostly dull) performances framed in a cliched avant-gardist theatrical staging. IT's not good visually and is unusually gimmicky, to the extent of flagrantly gratuitous male nudity. Cameron Porteous has costumed the French in rags, with the soldiers looking suspiciously peasantish. (Is Newton trying to show us that we can see in "St. Joan" the seeds of the Lech Walesa, head of the Polish workers Union he quotes in the program?).

Then there is a sudden coronation and drab rags give place to parody robes and crowns of folded paper bows and ping-pong ball jewels.

Heath Lambert's pouty, petulant Dauphin is the only standout. David Hemblen's Cauchon gave some idea of what a legitimate production of "St. Joan" might have offered, one in which the play's ideas are heard. 'Tons of Money'

There could be no complaints about the farce "Tons of Money," that features Heath Lamberts. Derek Goldby has done his homework, knows his idiom, and gets some amazingly stylish performances from his cast. Fiona McMurran distills the quintessential flapper servant girl, and the entire cast toes the '20s line with meticulous attention to detail. Goldby's sense of timing is faultless (as it was in last year's "Flea In Her Ear") and he gives Mr. Lamberts all the room he needs to make the show his own.

Heath Lamberts is a law unto himself in these comic pieces. He plays around, but never at the expense of cast or momentum. "Tons of Money" may not be profound theater, but -- as directed by Goldby, designed by Guido Tondino, and lit by Nick Cernovitch -- it is an utter delight.

Erdmann's "The Suicide" is a moderately amusing farce that has received notoriety because it was suppressed in rehearsal by the Stalin regime in 1932. Had it been produced then, it probably would have been forgotten by now. There are fine moments as the story of Semyon, a failure at everything he tries, decides to commit suicide, only to be assailed by countless people who ask him to die for his or her specific cause.

Director Stephen Katz has had designer Porteous set the play at the base of a wonderfully grotesque workers-at-the- side-of-the-fallen-comrade commemorative statue. Electric boxes explode, people pop in and out of doors. Katz does not have the lightness of touch needed to fully pull this production off. But his players do well by him.

Two productions out of three is not a bad average, even if it means that Shaw himself is not remotely getting his due. Coming up, productions of the Shaw Festival namesake's "In Good King Charles's Golden Days" and "Man of Destiny," as well as Derek Goldby's production of Pinero's "The Magistrate," an adaptation of "Camille" that boasts nudity and sexual explicitness, and finally "Rose Marie."

Mr. Newton hopes to change the image of Shaw Festival to something less conservative and more theatrical. But nudity and other gimmicks are not the stuff of inventive theater but rather cliches demeaning to audience and player alike.That sort of "new image" has no part of any quality theater festival.

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.