When the festival was founded 48 summers ago, it seemed that Shaw would be the focus just as the Bard is at the older and bigger Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, a three-hour drive to the west. It did not turn out that way. The heavyweight Shaws, like Heartbreak House and Saint Joan, cannot be produced endlessly like Hamlet and King Lear can. At one time the festival was pledged to Shaw and playwrights who shared part of his lifespan, 1856 to 1950, or were appreciably like him, regardless of nationality.
Noel Coward (1899-1973), lighter than Shaw and less preachy, has long been a popular alternative. Under the previous administration of Christopher Newton, about a half-dozen Coward plays were produced; even some obscure ones like The Vortex, This Happy Breed and Easy Virtue were huge hits. The magnificent, epical Cavalcade ran two summers, 1985 and 1986.
Under current artistic director Jackie Maxwell, the guidelines have been stretched a bit. For one thing, she loves Stephen Sondheim, whose career began considerably after 1950. She’s also high on the American theater in general, perhaps because she was born in Northern Ireland, not Canada. Although she had never directed Shaw before being hired, she’s been faithful to the festival’s original mission of not simply keeping Shaw in the repertory but of producing lesser-known plays that devotees will get no other chance to see.
Maxwell also maintains a commitment to Canadian theater. This summer that will mean Michel Tremblay’s Albertine in Five Times, on the life of one woman seen at five different stages of her life. Syracuse Stage audiences remember Quebec playwright Tremblay for Damnee Manon, Sacree Sandra (1980), the most controversial production in the company’s history.
The one-act play, often misunderstood, doesn’t get much respect these days. Among the misconceptions is that it is a trial piece for a beginning playwright or a kind of aggrandized skit. The prolific Coward felt differently. He was in his mid-30s when he wrote these 10 and had been an established success for more than a decade. In his youth, theaters produced “curtain-raisers,” dramatic appetizers to accommodate latecomers; he remembered some of these as being better than the main event.
Economy was an issue. One-acts were cheaper to produce, and Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, his usual co-star, appeared as the leads in all of them. Coward would scramble their order but assemble any three of them under the title Tonight at 8:30 or, for matinees, Today at 2:30, reflecting what were then customary curtain times.
Maxwell places nine of Coward’s one-acts under three titles of her invention, with an implied ranking of their merit. Top place goes to Brief Encounters, running through Oct. 24 in the 856-seat Festival Theater, 10 Queen’s Parade. Her title signals the link between Coward’s Still Life, later expanded into David Lean’s landmark romantic film Brief Encounter (1945).
Some of the delight in an actor’s versatility that Coward intended becomes immediately evident. Gray-haired Patrick Galligan and Deborah Hay, made to look like a faded rose here, portray leads in all three works. In Still Life they are respectable, married middle-aged people who fall in love, in an unanticipated and unconsummated adultery; it starts in a railway waiting room when he removes a cinder from her eye. We Were Dancing is a farcical retelling in a tropical setting. At a country club on the island of Samolo, fashionable Louise (Hay) falls madly in love while dancing with Karl (Galligan), only she can’t remember his name. (Unaccountably, an intermission takes place in the middle of We Were Dancing.)
Finally, Hands Across the Sea is a drawing-room comedy built on the ancient device of mistaken identity. Distracted and disorderly Mayfair hostess Maureen (Hay) and her naval officer husband Peter (Galligan) entertain guests whom they believe to be entirely different people. By slating a performance of Brief Encounters on the same day as the Shaw Fest’s current production of Born Yesterday (see accompanying review), theatergoers will see Galligan and Hay in four different roles.
Still Life, with its heartfelt but chaste adultery in the railway station tearoom, is the draw, even though less than a third of the film contains words and actions from the play. All the action is on a single set, magnificently designed by William Schmuck and lighted by Kevin Lamotte, with the presence of arriving and departing trains behind the grimy windows. Although our attention goes first to the raucous banter of the attendants in the tearoom, Schmuck’s design implies urban loneliness, something like a British Edward Hopper. When Laura (Hay) first enters, almost furtively, we barely notice. As events move along, triggered by Dr. Harvey (Galligan) and his removal of the cinder, the blooming love affair is framed ironically, seemingly of less interest than ticket-taker Albert Godby (Thom Marriott) and his flirtation with hostess Myrtle (Krista Colosimo).
While Still Life is indeed a miniature masterpiece, a boost to Coward’s renewed reputation 36 years after his death, it takes an entirely different tone from the movie, even though Coward produced the film and supervised the expansion of his mini-drama. Most of the elements in Lean’s film are simply not there: no attempt to tell the story from Laura’s viewpoint, no close-ups of Laura’s expressive face, no clandestine meetings away from the tearoom, and no lush Rachmaninoff “Second Piano Concerto,” later popularized as “Blue Moon and Empty Arms.”
Maxwell presents three more Coward works under the umbrella title Play, Orchestra, Play (now in previews; running July 11 to Oct. 31), at the 328-seat Royal George Theater, 85 Queen St. The best-known work in this bunch will be Fumed Oak, a dark comedy about a milquetoast salesman who revolts against his wife, mother-in-law and adenoidal daughter. Rounding out this trio are Red Peppers and Shadow Play.
The third Coward collection, titled Ways of the Heart (Aug. 1-Oct. 11, with previews beginning July 21), runs at the 328-seat Court House Theater (26 Queen St.). With the theater-in-the-round set of the Court House, this subset, which features Coward’s Ways and Means, Family Album and The Astonished Heart, will have the most modest sets. Lastly, the little-seen Star Chamber (July 11-Oct. 11, with previews beginning June 25) concerns dueling wits and the nature of theater itself; the show will run as a lunchtime feature at the Royal George. Fans can see all 10 during several three-day spans, Aug. 21 to 23, Sept. 4 to 6, Sept. 11 to 13, or Sept. 25 to 27.
Splendid as the Coward one-acts are, Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday is getting all the buzz in coffee shops and bed-and-breakfasts. Despite its Americanness, Born Yesterday gives much evidence of Shaw’s influence in the Pygmalion-like story of bimbo Billie Dawn (Deborah Hay with a Bronx accent) becoming emboldened by education and liberal values to overthrow her bullying sugar daddy, Harry Brock (Thom Marriott).
Politically, Born Yesterday would fit nicely on the MSNBC lineup and can be more didactic than Shaw himself. Playwright Kanin’s mouthpiece is earnest Paul Verrall (Gray Powell), an underpaid scribe for the New Republic, who gets Billie to read Tom Paine and Jane Addams as well as to become aware of the evils of fat-cat lobbying.
Much as Born Yesterday might push your buttons in the battle between good and evil, director Gina Wilkinson guarantees rock-em, sock-em entertainment where cheers follow in rapid succession from tears and guffaws. This is an A-plus production in the Festival Theater, where the packed house applauds Sue LePage’s 1940s-elegant set at the rise of curtain.
Thom Marriott might owe a bit too much to Broderick Crawford’s brusqueness in the movie, but he can be scary, even to the balcony. Similarly, we hear a lot of the late Judy Holliday in Hay’s Billie, but on a day when we have also seen her as three Britishers of different classes, that nasal whine is captivating. Patrick Galligan appears in the prominent supporting role of Ed Devery, the compromised flunky who has sold his soul to Harry and knows it.
Sunday in the Park with George
This summer’s big musical is also American, Stephen Sondheim’s finely wrought Sunday in the Park With George (through Nov. 1 at the Royal George). The “George” of the title is the exacting, post-impressionist Georges Seurat, and the first act is about the painting of his pointillist masterpiece, “La Grande Jatte” in 1884 to 1886. Stephen Sutcliffe and Julie Martell, gifted with the kind of cool passionate voices demanded by the score, appear as the painter and his muse, named a bit cutely as Dot. In the second act all the characters of the first act appear at a showing of the painting in a New York City gallery 100 years later, also at the time of Sondheim’s premiere.
Generally, the musicals are huge draws and staged in the Festival Theater, but Maxwell recognizes that Sunday’s complexity and archness have a niche rather than a mass appeal. The decision to put Sunday in the 328-seat Royal George does not diminish its status among the summer’s offerings, especially with stage director Alisa Palmer and musical director Paul Sportelli, two of the Shaw Fest’s top people, running the show.
As the 25-year-old memory of seeing the original production on Broadway is fresh in this reviewer’s mind, I’m prepared to declare the Niagara version posher and more arresting. Reflecting Seurat’s painstaking work, painted scrims designed by Judith Bowden on sliding tracks, first sketched in black and white and increasingly taking on color, slide back and forth across the stage. Thus as Sutcliffe’s Seurat sings and interacts with Dot and other characters, his vision emerges before us.
While Sondheim is unquestionably the American master of the musical theater for the last generation, only a few of his shows, including Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Into the Woods and, of course, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, continue to be performed regularly. Sunday in the Park With George is not in that select company. That means you may never have another chance to see a Sunday that looks and sounds as good as this one.
In Good King Charles’s Golden Days
Speaking of niche markets, George Bernard Shaw’s In Good King Charles’s Golden Days (through Oct. 9 at the Royal George) is a benefit for the Shaw Fest stalwarts who gladly travel thousands of miles to see rarities of the master. Shaw was 83 in 1939 when Charles premiered, and from his final 12 years, it is the only work performed at all—which means not often. This is only the third mounting in the Shaw Fest’s history. Shaw had intended it to be a movie, after the success of the filming of Pygmalion (1938), because he thought the necessary costumes would be too expensive for any stage company. But no one ever wanted to film a plotless, 2½-hour talkathon.
Director Eda Holmes’ perceptive notes compare Charles with Steve Allen’s long-ago PBS program Meeting of Minds, in which historical personages were summoned to say what they might have to other personages, if asked. Shaw has an illustrious list: King Charles II (Benedict Campbell) himself, the “merry monarch,” Sir Isaac Newton (Graeme Somerville), George Fox (Ric Reid) the religious reformer, and although we almost lose him, painter Godfrey Kneller (Ken James Stewart). As if this were not enough, the author adds two wise servants, three mistresses and the king’s imposing, Portuguese-born wife Catherine (Laurie Paton), who dominates the last act.
Camellia Koo’s sets and Michael Gianfrancesco’s costumes are superior to what Shaw saw in his lifetime. Still, Charles would be more compelling if the charming talk included a few more of the zingers he wrote as a young man, or if his meaning were not so close to the surface.
For those in the mood for more Shavian wit, The Devil’s Disciple runs through Oct. 11 at the Festival Theater. Set in Saratoga at the time of the American Revolution, it has always been an audience pleaser. Also playing in Niagara is Eugene O’Neill’s Moon for the Misbegotten (through Oct. 9 at the Court House); in an uncredited sequel to Long Day’s Journey Into Night, James Tyrone (Andrew Bunker) learns bittersweet truths from earthy Josie Hogan (Moya O’Connell). Benedict Campbell will also appear in John Osborne’s The Entertainer (Aug. 15-Sept. 20, with previews starting July 31). Written for Laurence Olivier, this allegory of Britain after the loss of the empire will be in the intimate Studio Theater (10 Queen’s Parade), a new 176-seat venue located in the Festival Theater’s complex. And the aforementioned Michel Tremblay work Albertine in Five Times (July 10-Oct. 10) will be presented at the Court House.
For live theater, the Shaw Festival is still the best company we have within a three-hour drive of Syracuse. The recession appears not to have curtailed production values, as those for Brief Encounters and Sunday in the Park With George are more lavish than one finds in New York City and London. The recent bequest of $2.5 million from the late Mona Campbell assures that the Shaw Festival’s endowment remains robust. But a downturn in the flow of U.S. culture pilgrims from the new requirement of a passport (or enhanced driver’s license) to cross the border means that seats might be wrangled for top shows like Born Yesterday. Tables are often available at the best restaurants, even on Friday and Saturday nights.
The Shaw Festival’s productions are performed in repertory, Tuesdays through Sundays, 2 and 8 p.m., with performances of Star Chamber at 11:30 a.m. Admission is $49 to $110 (Canadian), with discounts for seniors, families, students and groups; tickets for Star Chamber are $30. For more information, call (800) 511-SHAW or visit www.shawfest.com.