Shaw Festival 2006
The Magic Fire
Each year, from April through November, the picturesque Ontario village of
Niagara-on-the-Lake hosts three stages of plays and musicals written or
set around the time of George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). In 2006, the Shaw
Festival--dedicated to the memory of a long-dead playwright--is producing
a host of plays on the very subject of memory.
One riveting production commemorates the death centenary of Henrik Ibsen
(1828-1906), a playwright Shaw championed. In Rosmersholm (1886), nearly
everything important has happened by the time the play begins. John
Rosmer, an idealistic, ethereal, neurotic ex-pastor, cannot escape the
memory of his barren wife's mysterious suicide. At first he believes in
his own innocence, as well as the chaste perfection of his relationship
with his late wife's beautiful, manipulative companion Rebecca West. But
in a penetrating portrayal of spiritual malaise--Ibsen's mirror to modern
western culture--the characters gradually reveal themselves, pushing
relentlessly towards a shattering climax. Waneta Storms's West begins
determined and forceful, grows brilliantly hysterical, and ends depressed
and wracked by remorse. Patrick Galligan endows Rosmer with conviction,
rendering otherwise implausible developments stunningly real. Director
Neil Munro also wrote this strikingly contemporary adaptation, albeit with
occasional minor missteps (one supporting character's apparent crush on West proves misleading; another's vulgar language seems out of place). Munro also
erred in using Simon Clemo to prepare an alternating, often obscured video
backdrop instead of Ibsen's original plan for canvas portraits of Rosmer's
ancestors. Instability and modern technology don't fit a play about how
the static past's dead hand stifles the ambitions of the present.
Idealized memories of another dead wife--clever, graceful, and
independently wealthy--embitter the title character's father in The
Heiress (1947). Dr. Austin Sloper can never forgive his only child for
causing his wife's death in childbirth. When, days after they meet,
charming, handsome, and penniless Morris declares the awkward, timid,
plain Catherine "everything I have ever yearned for in a woman," Sloper suspects a fortune-hunter and determines to prevent their marriage.
Henry James's Washington Square (1881) portrays a young woman's defiance
of her overprotective, abusive father, and her path to self-empowerment in
sexist, commerce-driven, mid-19th-century New York. Ruth and Augustus
Goetz turned James's novel into a heartbreaking study of revenge. At the
Shaw Festival, designer Christina Poddubiuk has provided a tasteful,
prosperous Regency drawing room and convincing sound effects, and director
Joseph Ziegler has elicited solid performances in minor roles. But the
production suffers from inadequacies at its core. Michael Ball's doctor
accesses his character's passion and humor, but not enough of his
bitterness, anger, or self-assurance. Mike Shara makes a steady, smooth,
handsome enough Morris. But Tara Rosling so overplays Catherine's anxious
diffidence that she seems freakish and affected. Although Rosling
eventually does credibly portray an insecure woman in love--especially in
the agonizing, bipolar scene on which the plot pivots--by then the production has failed to persuade us that anyone could ever have taken Morris's claim of love seriously.
Memories of a tempestuous first marriage drive this season's only Festival
musical. High Society (1997) portrays a wealthy family's comic
preparations for the wedding of their elegant, demanding, tart-tongued
daughter (Camilla Scott) to a staid, successful, up-by-his-bootstraps
businessman (David Leyshon). But Tracy Lord can neither forget nor ignore
her playful, polished, ubiquitous ex-husband Dexter (Dan Chameroy); and
after a bottle of bubbly even cavorts with a tabloid reporter who's
infiltrated her wedding (Jay Turvey).
Arthur Kopit adapted High Society from Cole Porter's 1956 movie musical
and from the film's own source, Philip Barry's 1939 play The Philadelphia
Story (itself a smash 1940 film). With a frothy script and access to the
entire Porter songbook, Kopit has seamlessly woven a reworked score into
an enchanting fairy tale of love lost and regained. Vibrant, fluid sets
whir on and off with dizzying speed, framing costumes ranging from
deliberately anachronistic to luminously stylish (all thanks to Festival
design director William Schmuck). John MacInnis contributes thrilling
choreography backed by a band, under Festival Music Director Paul
Sportelli, that (in Sportelli's orchestral adaptation) fills the theater
more than in last season's Gypsy. Each lead has a strong, vital singing
voice, but Scott's sexy, sardonic Tracy sometimes overpowers Chameroy's
occasionally goofy Dexter. We find ourselves rooting for Leyshon's
likable businessman. He may be stuck-up, but he's also eminently
For all its virtues, this remains second-rate Porter, with mostly
uninspired lyrics (even after Susan Birkenhead's tweaking) and few songs
one leaves the theater humming (one influential title: Who Wants to
be a Millionaire?). And although the story has an undercurrent of
pain and vulnerability, director Kelly Robinson has fashioned such a jolly
production that, when the melancholy breaks through (in, for instance,
Dexter's lament, Just One of Those Things), it jars.
A pampered young woman's memory of her private-bedroom, first-act
encounter with a desperate but alluring enemy soldier hovers over Arms and
the Man (1894). Here Bernard Shaw tried to depict the triumph of
hardnosed realism over idealized romance, which he called a "heresy
to be swept off from art and life." He ended up writing a romantic
satirical melodrama full of sexual energy, a farcical yet optimistic romp
that became his first box-office success.
The ebullient Festival production largely satisfies. Sue LePage's
opulent, overstuffed, Victorian nouveau-riche sets nicely frame lovely
luminous columnar dresses from Festival design director William Schmuck.
Director Jackie Maxwell (the Festival's artistic director) keeps the
action brisk, accessible, and funny, if occasionally bordering on
slapstick. As the erstwhile enemy, a career soldier whose cartridge case
holds chocolates instead of ammunition, Patrick Galligan embodies the
benevolent outsider, eminently practical yet incurably romantic. But as
the young woman whose bedroom he invades, and as her self-important
fiancé, Diana Donnelly and Mike Shara never quite progress from what
Galligan's careerist calls "the noble attitude and the thrilling
voice" to cynical self-awareness. Shaw himself found Shara's
character "movingly human," and had him bemoan that
"everything I think is mocked by everything I do." Yet Shara's
braggart stays focused on profile, and remains a stock figure from
commedia del l'arte.
World War I haunts this season's other play by the Festival's namesake.
In Bernard Shaw's Too True to Be Good (1932), a guilt-wracked ex-airman
turned part-time preacher (Blair Williams), his girlfriend disguised as a
nurse (Kelli Fox), try to rob a wealthy, unhappily spoiled invalid (Nicole
Underhay). Instead, they persuade The Patient--more robust than she
initially appears--to fake her own abduction to a remote colonial outpost.
Shaw's intensely political comedy pokes fun at doctors, lawyers, priests,
and soldiers, indeed at professionals and hierarchies of all kinds.
Memories of the century's first Great War mix with prophecies of the next,
in which (one character warns) cities will be "burned with fire from
But despite its timeless themes, Too True sometimes seems labored and
obscure. The Patient complains that "men are not real, they're all
talk, talk, talk!" One could make the same complaint about this
play. And although director Jim Mezon elicits fine performances from his
cast, he has an unfortunate tendency towards clutter. Still, don't take
a one-act hint from the delightful William Vickers, outlandishly attired
as a disease microbe, that "The exit doors are all in order."
You'd miss later, priceless interchanges between Benedict Campbell's
hilariously by-the-book colonel and Andrew Bunker as a take-charge private
based on Shaw's friend T.E. Lawrence. Designer Kelly Wolf has provided
not only picture-perfect period costumes, but an array of engaging sounds,
from the sickroom's gasping and wheezing to Bunker's exaggeratedly grating
Noël Coward's Design for Living (1933) must have struck its early
audiences as radically provocative. It still seems so today. Gilda loves
Otto. Gilda also loves Leo. Otto and Leo both love Gilda--and each
other. Gilda leaves Otto for Leo. Then she leaves Leo and marries the
steady and stable Ernest, a straight man in more ways than one. But when
Otto and Leo return from an extended cruise to claim Gilda--together--Gilda at first calls them "ghosts," then breaks the truth to her husband: she has never forgotten her love for them.
A sophisticated sex comedy about free love among what Coward called
"glib, over-articulate and amoral creatures," Design for Living is hilarious and at times oddly touching, with a profoundly political undercurrent about the unreliability of rigid romantic categories. Seductive, sexy, and smooth, Nicole Underhay seems born to play Gilda. Graeme Somerville's Otto and David Jansen's Leo progress from delicious
drunk scene to settled romantic couple full of adoring glances. Designer Ken MacDonald has provided three plush art-deco apartments, each with a nautical flavor (Coward wrote the play on a freighter), nicely matching Charlotte Dean's fashionable period suits and occasionally spectacular nightclothes. Director Morris Panych has inspired convincing chemistry among his three leads, and the play's nearly three hours whiz by.
The Magic Fire (1997) tells the story of Lise Berg, onstage both as a seven-year-old (Lila Bata-Walsh) and as an adult narrator trying to make sense of her childhood (Tara Rosling). Lillian Groag's complex, moving, sharply comic tale takes its title from Richard Wagner's Die Walküre, in which a Norse god protects his daughter with a ring of fire as she sleeps. That fire here symbolizes the protection--with art, opera, literature, and love--that Lise's family provides her in the Argentina of Juan and Eva
Perón. Exiles from a fascist Europe, the boisterous, passionate Berg-Guarneri clan fears the neo-fascist Peróns. While Groag's play delights and amuses, it never lets us forget the political storm forming above the family's lifeboat.
Groag has filled Lise's extended family with a slew of indelible characters. Best at the Festival include Rick Reid as Lise's quiet, gentle father; Sharry Flett, confident and sure of herself as Lise's beautiful mother; and Goldie Semple, principled and resolute as Lise's actress aunt, blacklisted for refusing to join the Peronists. Donna Belleville brings just the right nuttiness to Lise's delicate, vague great-aunt Paula, nicknamed The March Hare. Director Jackie Maxwell deftly handles the interplay between the adult Lise and her memories, separating both Lises from pivotal scenes she only learned about, second-hand, as an adult.
The Magic Fire deals with big issues: art, politics, family, courage, exile. But finally the play is about memory, our own and what we inherit from others. As the adult Lise says, "Perhaps nothing remembered is really true." In the end, memory itself is the "magic fire" that shields us. We can't change the past. But we can look back and laugh, and mourn, and understand.