Sunday, August 4, 2013

(No.243) "The Shaw Festival, drama critics & stoat pate"

"The Shaw festival, drama critics and stoat liver pate:
two more plays in the 2013 Shaw season"

by Alastair Rickard

I have written other columns for about drama critics and not only how their views of a play can differ but why, seeing the same play they have reviewed, I am led to wonder if indeed they attended the same play I did.

The nature of criticism in the arts is often idiosyncratic and partial with critics' praise often tending to be given disproportionately to the trendy or the unusual or the precious.

Nor is the absence of what many see as critical common sense confined to stage plays.

I think of much of what today passes for art criticism which elevates the silly and the untalented -- for example, the American Agnes Martin's 1981 'white painting' (untitled) -- to the status of serious art using pretentious and precious language like "making white seem as if it floats off the page".

Or by characterizing -- 25 years on -- as "the one truly vital voice of the 80s" the musical meanderings in 1980s Manchester of The Smiths (including co-founder Steven Patrick Morrissey), pretending that The Smiths' rock music wasn't largely noise masquerading as the 'meaningful' social preoccupation of what is today a fairly minor pop music cult.

"Lady Windermere's Fan", one of the plays Pat and I saw during our first visit to this season's Shaw Festival was I concluded (RickardsRead, No.237), a production that "works reasonably well except for a bit too much effort for my taste to appear trendy and precious in staging, design and music" but it is "worth seeing."

In the reviews of the play I read subsequent to our seeing the play the drama critics of the major Toronto dailies -- far from differing in their reception of this play -- embraced it enthusiastically.

Such comprehensive praise underlines yet again the fact that professional arts criticsm is often like food tasting: the 'expert' can tell his audience that stoat liver pate tastes ever so grand but how it actually
strikes one's palate may be quite another matter.

In our second visit to this season's Shaw Festival Pat and I saw "Guys And Dolls" and "Enchanted April", both presented in the main Festival Theatre.

"Guys and Dolls"  is the umpteenth revival of yet another in a very long line of Broadway hit musicals, a type of production which has become a crowd-drawing staple on which both the Shaw and Stratford Festivals have come to rely for financial sustenance.

Frank Loesser's 1950 hit has racked up more mileage than a still-operating 1957 Chevy in Havana. While such musical revivals staged anywhere are not high on my list of favourites, the Shaw version is more than a respectable production. Pat thought it was well done for its type. The audience of which we were members loved the production and most gave it a standing ovation.

We also saw "Enchanted April", the 2000 adaptation as a play by American Matthew Barber of the 1922 novel by Australian-born Elizabeth von Arnim. The plot in a nutshell: four Englishwomen in drab post-First World War London club together to rent an Italian seaside villa for a month -- without husbands.  As sitcom promos used to say -- complications ensue.

The Globe and Mail's Kelly Nestruk thinks the Shaw production of "Enchanted April"  is an "altogether charming incarnation ... pulled off with undeniable polish".  In contrast the Toronto drama critic with whom I most often agree was rather less than impressed. Robert Cushman of the National Post concluded his review with some wondering: "what this second-rate confection is doing on the main stage of one of our two premier theatre festivals, I cannot say. It doesn't even have the excuse of being a musical."

Pat thought "Enchanted April" one of the two better productions we saw at Shaw this season. The other was "Lady Windermere's Fan" which she rated behind "Enchanted April".

My assessment of "April" landed somewhere between the opinions of Nestruk and Pat on the one hand and that of Cushman on the other. I thought the play, while nothing very substantial, pleasantly entertaining in a modest way.


"Guys And Dolls" is at the Festival Theatre in Niagara-On-The-Lake  through Oct.12, 2013.

"Enchanted April", also at the Festival Theatre, runs through Oct.26,2013.

For details visit




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