Sunday, May 11, 2014

(N0.263) The Shaw Festival: Berlin decadence & an old chestnut


"Berlin decadence and an old chestnut:
the Shaw Festival kicks off its 2014 season
with 3 plays 
[plus a Stratford Festival postscript]"

by Alastair Rickard


During our recent visit to the Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake, our first this season, Pat and I saw three plays. One is very good, one is an old chestnut still beloved by some and the third is a Broadway musical revival.

Shaw artistic director Jackie Maxwell has made a special effort to find and present plays from the era of George Bernard Shaw that have been forgotten or largely ignored. Such plays are sometimes worth a revisit, some are not.

The result of this year's 'archeological' effort is a delightful production of St.John Hankin's 1906 play "The Charity That Began At Home", wonderfully directed by the Shaw Festival's former artistic director Christopher Newton.

Hankin was an early 20th century English playwright who his friend George Bernard Shaw memorialized as "a most gifted writer of the high comedy of the kind that is a stirring and important criticism of life." Hankin drowned himself in 1909, just three years after the play was first successfully staged in London. The play was not staged anywhere between 1917 and 2002.

As a comic writer Hankin was witty and some of the lines he gave his characters in this play stand comparison with those of Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward.

"The Charity That Began At Home" takes place in the early 1900s at the country house of Lady Dension. There are a variety of odd guests staying with her and her daughter Margery. All have been invited precisely because they are the sort of irritating people who would not ordinarily be invited for such a stay.

The play is amusing and the cast is a strong one and uniformly superb. Fiona Reid as Lady Denison is brilliant. I cannot recall enjoying the performance of an actress playing such a character as much since we watched Maggie Smith as Lady Bracknell in Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest".

"The Charity That Began At Home" is a delghtful surprise and well worth a visit. It is at the Court House Theatre until Oct. 11.

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The Shaw Festival describes itself as "a theatre company inspired by the work of Bernard Shaw. We produce plays from and about his era and plays that share Shaw's provocative exploration of society and celebration of humanity".

Shaw was long-lived (he died in 1950 at age 94) and his works were and still are staples of many schools' English literature curricula. He still enjoys what I think is an inflated reputation as a "serious" playwright perhaps because both his supporters and theatre critics tend to ignore his latter day posturing as an apologist for both Stalin and Hitler in favour of Shaw as the free-thinking Fabian socialist.

It is natural that the eponymous Shaw Festival includes in each season's roster of productions a couple of Shaw's plays. This year they are "Arms And The man' and "The Philanderer", two of the Festival's ten productions this season.

"Arms And The Man" is another of G.B.S.'s high-minded efforts, this one (according to Morris Panych, the director of this year's Festival production) "reaching into ... a kind of early surrealism". Perhaps that's why Panych decided "to explore the idea of kitsch, of over-the-top romanticism".  And Panych certainly has done so in this production.

Incidentally the Globe and Mail's drama critic for the past few years, J. Kelly Nestruk, wrote a piece in the Globe (May 3, 2014) about the extended public pissing match he has had with Panych ever since he gave one of Panych's directorial efforts less than an enthusiastic review.

The production we attended of this G.B.S. chestnut has enough "over-the-top" stage business and performances to rival a Marx Brothers movie. However, it will please most in its audiences as indeed it did when we  saw it.

Pat enjoyed this production more than I did even though Peter Krantz, one of my favourite Canadian stage actors, plays the role of Nicola and does so with his customary skill. His performance a couple of years ago as Elwood P. Dowd in the Shaw Festival's"Harvey" was superb.

"Arms And The Man" continues through Oct. 18 at the Royal George Theatre.

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Both the Shaw Festival and the Stratford Festival in Stratford Ontario [the Shakespearean designation has been de-emphasized] have come to depend on revenue generation each season from the staging of one or more audience-drawing revivals of hit Broadway musicals. This year the Shaw is promoting "Cabaret", a play first presented in New York nearly 50 years ago and revived frequently in various places since.

The play is set in 'decadent' Berlin during the declining years of the Weimar Republic, the post-WWI period of government in Germany (1919-33) and the rise of Hitler. "Cabaret" is being presented at the largest and best of the Shaw Festival's four venues, the Festival Theatre.

It is a Broadway musical which originated with the writing of English author Christopher Isherwood who went to Berlin in the late 1920s, like his friend the poet W.H.Auden, in order to practise freely his gay lifestyle. After the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933 they proceeded to shut down the various manifestations of Berlin 'decadence' including the night clubs as well as assorted non-traditional lifestyles.

"Cabaret's" messages about the Nazis, the forthcoming war and the Holocaust made more of an impact when the play first appeared on Broadway nearly a half century ago (1966) than they do today when so much more has become known both about the depth and range of the decadence to be found in Berlin before 1933 and the changes to life in Berlin before WWII for -- among others -- Jews, homosexuals, Social Democrats and Communists.

The play has been successfully revived several times in New York. The Shaw Festival is presenting the 1998 stage version and is directed by Peter Hinton. There are aspects of it that appear to me a bit anachronistic but then the original musical hardly reflected either Isherwood's actual lifestyle in Berlin of the 1920s and 1930s or his writing about it.

All of the scenes in the Shaw's "Cabaret" take place on a large revolving staircase. To me this set looks like a giant black children's playground gym. It's all terribly precious and creative. Periodic revolutions of the central revolving stage accomodate the plays' 18 musical numbers.

The presentation we saw was received enthusiastically by most in the full house including greeting its conclusion with a partial standing ovation. Pat enjoyed the musical more than I did including its staging and design. Her assessment of this Shaw production of "Cabaret": good but not wonderful with the singing well performed.

"Cabaret" is at the Festival Theatre until Oct. 26.

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As a postscript to this column about three of this season's Shaw Festival productions:

we recently attended the Stratford  production of "King Lear" with Colm Feore as Lear. It was this production's first performance before an audience and Feore's energy over three hours was impressive as was his performance.

Pat rated the production at 8 1/2 out of 10. My rating was lower but then I confess that I have reached a point in my theatre-going life when Shakespeare's plays -- even the vaunted "King Lear" -- are a good deal less interesting to me than they once were.

"King Lear" is at Stratford's Festival Theatre through Oct. 10.

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For details and tickets involving this season's productions at Shaw and Stratford, go to

www.Shawfest.com

www.Statfordfestival.ca


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