by George Bernard Shaw
The Shaw Festival
Ben Carlson and Nicole Underhay. Photo by Emily Cooper.
For Western New York theater lovers, is it really summer without a dose of Shaw? For myself, a native Buffalonian, The Shaw Festival provided my annual summer escape from boredom, chores, and ,of course, Buffalo. Where better to start than with George Bernard Shaw's second play, The Philanderer. Shaw had yet to enter his preachy stage, so the play flows nicely off the tongue with a keen wit. Considered one of his most autobiographical plays, it falls into a category Shaw himself named, “unpleasant.” That said, there's nothing of the sort in The Shaw Festival' s buzzy new production.
Shaw sets his play in the corridors of The Ibsen Club, his own way of playing tribute to a playwright he held in high regard. The club is for only manly women and womanly men. Therein lies the fun and the trouble. It's a place where women of “advanced” ideas get to play, eat, drink, dress butch, and philander on their own terms.
The plot is remarkably simple. Leonard Charteris, a man that has made a career of philandering, wants to quit philandering with the contentious Julia Craven (you would too) and switch his affections to the gentle widow Grace Tranfield (you would too again). Craven, a womanly woman who was allowed the club on false premises, will have nothing of the sort. She will fight for her man even if means marrying a drab doctor, the lonely and pathetic Dr. Paramore. In a funny side plot, Craven's father Colonel Daniel Craven, is supposedly dying from some mysterious liver ailment discovered by none other than Dr. Paramore. When a medical journal arrives disproving Paramore's disease his is crestfallen. The fact that the Colenel is now going to live after all give the doctor little solace. Shaw pokes some well deserved fun at the medical establishment here. Shaw also gets a good swipe in at this earlier profession with making our forlorn widow's father, Joseph Cuthbertson, a theater critic.
Ben Carlson as Charteris does his best to raise philandering to a noble profession and nearly succeeds in doing so with his many chams. Deborah Hay is a portrait of the noble widow, neither excessively manly or womanly. Nicole Underhay plays Julia Craven as the persnickety bit bull that she is never missing a moment to annoy or undermine someone with her womanly womanliness. Norman Browning is perfectly stoic as the clueless critic while Peter Hutt as the Colonel captures the fragile disappointment of a man learning he isn't really dying. Nicola Correia-Damude nails the manly woman award as Syliva Craven, Julia's more level-headed sister. Even Michael Strathmore has some comic moments as the page. Alisa Palmer directs the proceedings with a nearly cartoon-like frenzy that keeps the hilarity rolling. I even detect a bit of vaudevillian tone some of the physical comedy.
Judith Bowden's clever set is teaming with busts of Ibsen posing the visual question, “What would Ibsen do?” Who better to look upon our silly antics than the father of modern realism. Makes sense, and so does this vibrant production.