Once again we returned to Stratford this summer, a place we have visited many times before going back several decades, and one that never disappoints, as it’s nearby, offering a variety of culinary delights along with a wide range of theater, which was our primary intention, extending our trip this year to the Shaw Festival in nearby Niagara-on-the-Lake, often mentioned as the prettiest town in Ontario, featuring plays by George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, while also adding plays with a modernist sensibility. The selection this year was outstanding, where we were quite surprised that the Shaw Fest is in every way as distinctly unique as Stratford, especially the quality of the programming and the artists themselves, though the town itself is much more commercial, including a main street with a plethora of small boutiques, café’s, bars, restaurants, ice cream shops and upscale hotels where the street traffic can be overwhelming. Perhaps the biggest difference is the theaters themselves, where both have a large Festival Theater that is modernized and accessible to everyone, with a giant expanse of a lawn outside, but the smaller theaters at the Shaw Fest are so antiquated that they may not be for everyone, as the seat space is more scrunched together, where one is not handicap accessible, requiring steep stairs to access restrooms that are so constricted you can barely breathe. The Shaw Fest lends itself to an old world style of theater viewing, including cramped seats in often historic settings, where with all their success through the years it’s simply unfathomable why they have not upgraded the theaters. While Stratford’s smaller theaters are hardly modern, they are all quite comfortable in comparison. Word is the two old theaters at the Shaw Fest are due for an upgrade at a new location, but it is not expected to be completed for another ten years. So get used to the discomfort.
But on this trip the play is the thing, where each afternoon we’d walk to one of four theaters, leaving evenings free for a leisurely dinner. Each town has at least one sensational restaurant that is world class, where it would easily fit in with the finest dining establishments in New York or Paris, but just happens to be situated in the quaint charm of the slower paced, small town allure in Ontario, where with 30,000 residents Stratford doubles the population of Niagara-on-the-Lake, which is less than 20 miles from the ever spectacular Niagara Falls. It’s notable that at least a few of the featured actors appear in productions at both venues, while some even make appearances in Chicago theater as well, most notably Ben Carlson who has appeared as Hamlet (receiving the Jeff Award as Best Actor) and Brutus in Julius Caesar in recent years at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, a company where Stratford’s lauded musical director Gary Griffin has become the associate artistic director. Stratford, a Canadian town with the same name as Shakespeare’s birthplace, became home of the annual Shakespeare Festival in the summer of 1953, originating with a performance by Sir Alec Guinness in Richard III which was staged in constructed tents set up along the banks of the Avon River running through town. The Festival Theater is designed to resemble the look of the tents used to stage all the earliest productions. By now, Shakespeare comprises about a third of the plays presented each year, with a focus on musical theater and Greek tragedy while continually adding new voices as well. In a recent venture, the Stratford Festival has begun a project to film their production of all of Shakespeare’s plays. Designed to reach into more households than those who currently attend theatrical productions, film should not be seen as a substitute for live performances, where so much of the visual experience is flattened in celluloid and excluded out of the overall frame, though it does allow a uniform clarity of sound and plenty of close up shots. The real difference is how the actors are perceived, where film allows multiple edits using only the best takes, but compromises the fluidity of movement between characters and their fluctuating relationship to each other and the audience, which may vary from night to night depending on the variable moods of different audiences. But it is theater that masters the awesome power of simple communication, with booming sound to barely inflected voices, where the result can often be devastating. It’s this unpredictability that theater thrives on, where each performance contains its own mystery, with its stunned gasps or uncontrolled laughter where in-house energy can sometimes feed a performance, even in their lingering silences.
Interestingly, all the plays seen at Stratford have also been made into films. Refusing to save the best for last, the opening production of Carousel was one of the best experiences of the entire trip, as this familiar Rodgers and Hammerstein territory of lush romanticism becomes experimental and innovative in one of the more downbeat musicals, opening on Broadway during the war on April 19, 1945 literally days before Hitler committed suicide, that becomes enthralling by the end, adding a surrealistic touch that resembles Michael Powell’s STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN (1946), where part of the journey takes place in that in-between area between death and the afterlife, adding a perspective unlike any other. Hard to find a better Billy Bigelow than John Raitt, who was such an operatic singer, but this production stars a somewhat rebellious and macho looking Jonathan Winsby, coming off a 2012 Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar. While the play offers a bit of social realism depicted interestingly enough through musical theater, it’s not nearly as dark as the 1909 Hungarian play it was modeled after, the much bleaker Liliom filmed by Fritz Lang in 1934, where the hard times in an impoverished fishing village are reflected in criminal behavior and the ugly revelations of domestic abuse, made even worse when the recipient of the marital blows is black actress Alexis Gordon, whose innate sweetness and ability to forgive provides the play’s real hope. While Winsby may lack the crude menace of a lowlife carnival barker, their duet version of “If I Loved You” couldn’t have been more convincing. In musical theater, all a girl has to do is look at someone and next thing you know they’re married. The supreme moment of the play is a lengthy ballet sequence choreographed by Agnes de Mille that was excluded from the 1956 film, yet it heightens the expressionism of the epilogue finale in magnificent ways, adding waves of underlying suggestion and interior emotional complexity through the interpretive power of dance, allowing a deeply flawed man to eventually seek divine redemption for his otherwise wasted earthly life.
One of the other real surprises was an intriguing adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, which was also released as a Hollywood film in 1959, though adapted here by Wendy Kesselman. While it was hard to imagine the theatrical possibilities of a life in hiding, Jewish families avoiding detection by the Nazi’s during the war, this performance actually does what theater aspires to do, which is bring a piece of literature to life. Initially the performance begins with a few extemporaneous remarks from all 17 members of the cast standing in front of the audience, some recalling their initial memory with the book, or a story revealing a personal connection to the character they are playing, but each was highly individualistic and pertinent to the play, often through unorthodox means, using laughter and tears to draw the audience into severe subject matter. The set design was simplistic, basically a moveable wall consisting of wooden slabs that could change shape, opening into hidden compartments that were exposed to the audience. The characters moved on and off the stage as if moving through rooms, where the play consists of brief vignettes taken from the descriptions written in Anne Frank’s diary, where it’s as much about all the others as it is about Anne herself. In this way their lives unfold before our eyes, where each of the characters becomes more and more familiar as scenes play out and conversations take place, where there’s a surprising amount of detailed description provided. Sara Farb plays Anne Frank from 13 to 15, a young actress whose grandmother survived the Stutthof concentration camp, where initially she’s seen as a bit too childishly enthusiastic, but what’s clear is how we in the audience already know so much more about her circumstances than she does, another oddly affecting method to approach the subject. One by one throughout the performance all 17 actors at some point step out of character and move to the front of the stage and simply read a passage from the book, with a final epilogue offered by Anne’s father explaining why the diary so abruptly comes to an end. Afterwards, nothing remains of any of them except the book, which reveals all. It’s a stunning example of minimalist theater, where the devastation of the Holocaust is all the more powerful when presented in such an intensely personal way.
Equally superb is a somewhat feminist take on The Sound of Music, the last of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, directed by a choreographer turned director, Donna Feore (whose husband is actor Colm Feore), who has choreographed over 20 productions at Stratford, including one of the best, My Fair Lady, directed by the aforementioned Gary Griffin, seen during one of the earlier visits. Following on the heels of two other highly successful Stratford musicals, Fiddler on the Roof and Crazy for You, Feore has created another artistic triumph. While this 50-year anniversary tribute is a launch into sunny nostalgia, a 1959, 5-time Tony award winning Broadway hit turned into an even larger 1965 Hollywood movie that won 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Musical Score, becoming (after adjustment for inflation) the 5th highest grossing film of all time, a film firmly etched into our collective childhood subconscious where it’s impossible not to associate it with the unforgettable songs that we’ll simply never forget. Easily dismissed as overly sentimental and lacking historical accuracy, who could ever forget the happy singing and dancing of “The Lonely Goatherd” by the charming von Trapp children traipsing around the hills of Austria with unbridled freedom during the backdrop of Hitler’s sudden rise to power, led by their novitiate nun turned into an ever optimistic governess named Maria whose proud motherly instincts continually watch over them while also warming the audience’s hearts every step of the way? One of the most popular films of all time, setting the standard for years and decades to come, what could anyone add to the original? Well, it’s not Julie Andrews, but American actress Stephanie Rothenberg as Maria has as sunny and as winning a disposition as could be imagined, whether in the Abbey addressing her Mother Superior, both breaking out into “My Favorite Things,” or teaching the emotionally starved children “Do-Re-Mi” with such infectious delight. While Stratford super-actor Ben Carlson is hardly Christopher Plummer, and he can barely sing, but he’s a familiar face that revels in the role of the politically disdainful and emotionally distant Captain von Trapp, whose honest and more openly transparent transformation is quietly moving. Always showing a bit of shrewd cunning, Maria joyously demonstrates there’s no obstacle a woman can’t overcome by charming and outsmarting seven children, dispensing a female rival along the way (both demonstrating a great deal of civility), to winning the heart of Captain von Trapp, and even tricking the Nazis who have annexed Austria. One of the unsung beauties of the play is an insightful 50’s connection of how children are raised and how fascism takes root that is surprisingly ahead of its time. Showing firm resolution throughout, many of the lesser female characters rise to supreme heights, like the harrowing Act I curtain closing Mother Superior rendition of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” where there’s not a dry eye left in the house, or Liesl (Alexandra Herzog), the oldest of the von Trapp children, whose naïve innocence about “men” in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” quickly hits her stride, seen in her sexually confident dancing, eventually demonstrating a strength at the end that literally saves the day.
The rest of the Stratford plays were less successful, though one was easily the strangest and most bizarre of the bunch, Possible Worlds, winner of the Governor General's Literary Award for Drama in 1992, a futuristic sci-fi play (90-minutes with no intermission) written almost 30 years ago by Canadian playwright and mathematician John Mighton, the founder of JUMP (Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies), a charitable organization that works to educate students in mathematics, and one of the consultants on the script of Gus van Sant’s GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997). With a Ph.D. in mathematics and a Masters in philosophy, it’s only natural this should veer into a strange, emotionally distant story exploring the possibilities and probabilities of an alternate dimension. Released in a 2000 film version starring Tilda Swinton, directed by Québec director Robert Lepage who is himself a fellow experimental artist and playwright, the film is not on the radar of most viewers, where according to Magali Simard when it was screened at the Toronto Film Festival, "Robert Lepage: Possible Worlds", Lepage is more known for bringing his multimedia aesthetic to the opera world, “where his work with the Metropolitan Opera—most notably Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust and Wagner’s Ring cycle—has resulted in some of the most jaw-droppingly elaborate operas ever mounted.” A clue that something is up is walking into the theater, where the conventional stage is a shallow pool of water just a few inches deep, where a man emerges naked in the opening, like a waking dream, awkwardly struggling to put on wet clothes that he wears throughout, where the pool of water becomes a metaphor for amniotic fluid or continual rebirth, as the actors slosh around throughout the play struggling to make sense of their own human consciousness while the real world around them is mired in an unsettling police investigation of a seemingly uncatchable killer on the loose that steals brains, bathing it all in a noirish romance angle. George and Joyce are a couple in their 30’s that find themselves reliving their lives in multiple recurring parallel universes, like wandering time travelers, where it’s possible one could live more than one life at a time, but nothing in any world is ever resolved, as Joyce is an elusive femme fatale that he follows through “possible worlds,” where they begin to realize similarities exist within the differing dimensions, like differences or memories that they carry with them, but they are often fleeting and disappear before they can comprehend, leaving them feeling imprisoned within themselves by the unknowable mysteries of existence, unable to find a way out, where undying love may be the only constant. Often dense and hard to follow, using cryptic language that can be absurdly humorous, accompanied by an eerie electronic sound design, the inner complexities of the play remain an existential mystery throughout, only to be attributed in the end to the wanderings of a fertile imagination, or quoting Napoleon, “Imagination rules the world.”
The following two plays were overly predictable in mood and tone, where Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, the tenth production in Stratford history, will not go down as one of the best, despite the stellar cast of Ben Carlson as Petruchio, a noble gentleman from Verona, and Deborah Hay (Carlson’s real-life wife) as Katherina, in a battle of the sexes for who can outshout and dominate the other. While ostensibly a comedy filled with vehement anger, righteous indignation and verbal fireworks, this one barely gets under the surface of misogynistic abuse, but seems to prefer to let hell and all its ugly minions take center stage and have at it, becoming a loud, overblown, and truly ugly version of domestic abuse on display. While the opening is one of the best of the festival, where a man from the audience creates a scene, apparently from a misassigned seat, but carries on in such a rowdy and obnoxious manner that he’s literally thrown onstage, taking his case to the audience, attempting to evoke sympathy for his cause, but all can see he’s really just a drunken blowhard. This turns out to be Ben Carlson in disguise, eventually passing out in a drunken stupor, where he is quickly given a costume change transforming him into an aristocratic lord with servants that bow down before him in loyal allegiance, getting into his head afterwards, eventually becoming a kind of play within the play, allowing the poor sot to believe in his delusions of grandeur, unraveling into a full-blown farce, becoming a costume drama for screaming characters that couldn’t be more detestable, though there are plenty of tricks and disguised changes of identity, attempting to create an invented hell where the original lout sees the error of his ways. The problem here is that the stage is filled with men each more arrogant and self-deluded as the next, where none are worth the paper the play was written on. Rather than revealing the error of their ways, this production actually accentuates male crudeness and self-centeredness in all its malignant forms, where the rampant mistreatment of women becomes a spectator sport of female obedience and humiliation, where by the final subversive turn of events where “real” feelings supposedly intrude, the coarseness of the prolonged spectacle suggests this is no longer even imaginable.
Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex around 430 BC, the second of his Trilogy of Theban plays dealing with Oedipus, where this melodramatic version couldn’t be more tedious and disastrously overwrought. Many mistake Greek tragedy for an opportunity to overact and overdramatize the subject matter, but the truth is the tragic nature of the events themselves are dramatic enough, where the secret is finding a way to best express the play’s inherent message to a new generational audience. This production fails to unlock any doors, but instead goes for the jugular in theatrical exaggeration and excess. More of a myth than a series of real events, it’s curious how the ancient tale was used to form the basis of Freudian psychology, where it was prophesied that Oedipus, who becomes king of Thebes, would kill his father and marry his mother. This scenario plays out in spectacular fashion in Jim Morrison’s legendary vocal rendition of “The End,” a song by The Doors featured so prominently in the visually explosive napalm montage in APOCALYPSE NOW (1979). In this modernized production, Oedipus is ultimately undone by his fanatical quest for the truth, placing himself above the interests of others, even those he loves, creating an emphasis on human failings, suggesting it is the mistakes made of his own choosing and free will, and not some omnipresent winds of Fate, that contribute to his downfall. This stain of societal corruption is further magnified when Oedipus goes into shock at the moment he recognizes the prophecy has been fulfilled, unraveling and piecing together the staged camouflage of his birth that was designed to protect him from ever knowing the truth, where the Greek chorus representing the people of Thebes goes into shock as well, falling to the ground, lying inertly, as if dead, exposed and unprotected, implicating them all while the bearer of bad tidings goes through the pockets of each one. Oedipus lives with his shame by plunging a dagger into both eyes, becoming an outcast, wandering blind and disgraced. While he is broken, he refuses to fall, a courageous trait unique among mythological heroes, where he refuses to sacrifice his own life in tragic ritual and instead lives to redeem himself in a manner befitting of a king in the sequel play, Oedipus at Colonus.
Something should be said for the restaurants in Stratford, many of which are undergoing management changes, as Bijou, one of the best restaurants from years past, is under new ownership, has expanded to include a tapas bar in the front, but both the food selections and wine choices have undergone a decisive setback, which is most disappointing, as this was always a small gem of a restaurant. Also the Church restaurant is no more, as it’s under new ownership and has been renamed the Revival House, and was not open for business during our visit. But flyers around town suggest musical groups are expected to play there. The Old Prune is also under new ownership, an upscale restaurant previously owned by two ladies, now owned by two guys, one who works in the kitchen while the other hosts and is the main server. While the house itself appears to have been expanded and upgraded, allowing guests to dine overlooking the back gardens, it remains small and intimate, with only a few tables in operation. The food choices are more experimental, as they’re trying new dishes, one of which was not very good. Pressed by the owner to tell him our views, we had to admit our disappointment. He quickly made up for it however, charging us for only two courses instead of three. When they were out of the requested wine, he replaced it with an excellent choice that was actually worth significantly more than the original, but charged us the same price. Outside of the one misguided dish, everything else was excellent throughout, including a complimentary rum saturated walnut cake at the end that was delicious. These two guys also own Mercer Hall, which is under new ownership as well, where the menu has also undergone something of a change, where it would have been fine had the prices not been so excessive. The problem with both restaurants is the exorbitant price, which may work in the privacy and exclusivity of the Prune, but definitely missed at Mercer Hall, which is designed as a large banquet room with plenty of open space, where in each case they are still working on their dishes. Don’t overlook Raha’s Fine Indian Cuisine, one of the better choices in town, where we received complimentary white Russian cocktails at the end of the meal. Still, the best restaurant in town remains Rundles, a true fine dining establishment, where the attention to detail in the service provided, which is a meticulous choreography of manner and movement with the precision of a Swiss watch that matches the exquisite quality of the food and wine selection. While it is upscale, with white tablecloths and feather pillows for seats, it is worth every penny, where the staff couldn’t be more politely attentive while also respecting each table’s privacy. It’s a true marvel and one of the best aspects of any Stratford visit, as it always feels like a special occasion.
Royal George Theater
Court House Theater
George Bernard Shaw statue
Niagara-on-the-Lake is only a few hours from Stratford, though it picks up traffic the closer one gets to Toronto, especially in the industry heavy town of Hamilton, a site used so effectively by Olivier Assayas in Clean (2004). The town itself is situated on the banks of Lake Huron just where the Niagara River begins its journey that leads to The Falls. While hard to believe, the other side of the river is the United States, where at least at the outset it seems one could so easily swim across. There are bike paths that follow the river all the way to The Falls, with a few fruit stands along the way in what is undeveloped land, where the natural greenery of the trees and small wooded picnic areas have been preserved. On the other side of the street is a neverending expanse of Niagara wine vineyards that seem to go on for miles. It’s only as one approaches The Falls that private residences can be seen hugging the shoreline. While it is true that millions of people literally swarm to The Falls by the busloads, creating a sea of humanity that usually includes a half dozen different languages being heard at any one time, yet the experience is like no other. You don’t need to spend a lot of time there, but you need to experience just what an extraordinary natural wonder it is, as The Falls seem to come out of nowhere, all of a sudden plunging 150 feet + over a steep cliff, creating a perpetual mist that continually sprays bystanders, offering a cool salve that covers the body on an otherwise scorchingly hot sunny day. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, as we didn’t experience The Falls until “after” we spent a week at Niagara-on-the-Lake, a pristine community of parks, open gardens, brightly colored flora, and hanging flower beds all adding to the small town décor, where historic inns and hotels mix with restaurants, boutiques and café’s, with horse-drawn carriages offering another glimpse of the scenic town that feels tailor made for leisurely strolls. The one truly remarkable restaurant experience is Treadwell’s Farm to Table Cuisine, located right in the heart of town and also in the middle of 124 on Queen Hotel and Spa, one of the best recommended places to stay. Again the restaurant is pricey, but the courses are exquisite. It can get noisy in there, as the kitchen is open-air situated behind a counter bar, much like sushi restaurants, where you can watch them work and also hear them continually shouting out the orders. They also have outdoor patio seating, but in the sweltering heat of summer, the air-conditioning is appreciated. For some reason, a local guy about my age approached us in the restaurant, indicating he has been living in Niagara-on-the-Lake for 17 years, was married to a Danish woman, claiming we were easily the most interesting people there, and wanted to know our story. In the past I might have invented something exotic to match his expectations, but we went with we’re much more ordinary than it seems, adding just a brief glimpse from the past that he appreciated.
In the center of town is an old courthouse that contains historic archival photographs on the wall, also a preserved jail cell to house condemned prisoners, including what was an execution chamber. Today the building from 1840 has been restored into the Court House Theater, complete with winding stairs, an elevator (which didn’t work for most of the 2014 season), and emergency defibrillator kits stored in enclosed glass casings on the walls, like fire alarms, to be used in dire emergencies. This is where the Shaw Festival began in 1962 when Ontario lawyer and playwright Brian Doherty staged a summertime “Salute to Shaw,” which was such a success with audiences they built the larger Festival Theater in 1973, which also houses the smaller Studio Theater. In 1980, they restored the Royal George Theater, which was initially built as a vaudeville house to entertain the troops during World War I. Quite surprisingly, the quality of programming at the Shaw Fest actually exceeded that of Stratford, at least for this year, where the plays were more innovative and provocative, while the performers were superb throughout. The sets are more minimalist and the staging less complicated, but the plays were far more satisfying. Based on unfortunate timing, we were unable to get tickets for Tony Kushner’s new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, which only suggests there is even a greater reservoir of talent on display. Opening with Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea, premiering in 1889, it runs 90-minutes with no intermission, where the lone stage prop is a huge rock in the center of the stage, with a giant photograph of the sea on the back wall, where a drenched naked woman opens the play lying alone on the rock surrounded by darkness, offering the central metaphor of a mythical mermaid who belongs to the sea. Something of a symbolic play, it is based on a Norwegian folktale set to song, were a male merman calls out for a woman on the shore to leave her children behind and come live with him in the sea. The story concerns that same mermaid transformed into human form, becoming Ellida (Maya O’Connell), the grown daughter of a lighthouse-keeper who grew up where the fjord meets the open sea. All her life, she swims every day in the sea, where there seems to be a mythical connection. Her more politely reserved husband is Doctor Wangel (Ric Reid), who has two attractive daughters from a previous marriage, Bolette (Jacquelyn Thair) and Hilde (Darcy Gerhart), who remain cool to their stepmother. There is a mysterious strain on the marriage caused by the loss of a son that died as a baby, where Ellida feels imprisoned by the suffocating constraints of marriage. Fearing for her mental health, Wangel has called upon Professor Arnholm (Andrew Bunker), Bolette’s former instructor and school headmaster, hoping this exposure to a man of some intellect will awaken Ellida from her doldrums. But we learn there is more, a mysterious man from her past that she once loved passionately, a sailor known only as the Stranger (Mark Uhre), who is equally drawn to the sea, where she is torn between the life she has and the one she secretly wishes for. The high point of the play was listening to Hilde, a completely modern woman (in the early Kate Winslet mold) with outspoken views, whose directness and unfiltered candor provides much of the play’s humor, and even though she is a minor character, she comes away with having stolen the show, as if the example of her unbridled freedom is somehow a model for the future.
An interesting note ― on one of the early afternoons while walking to the theater, we happened to see Hilde, still wearing the same hairstyle, wearing boots and leather shorts hopping on her bike on the way to her next performance, as she apparently was living next door to the place where we stayed. We also saw her returning on her bike several evenings after a performance, so she became part of our experience.
Anyone who’s seen My Fair Lady knows that it is based upon Shaw’s play Pygmalion, which was first released as a scathing satire of the rigid British class system before the start of World War I in 1913, where Shaw’s anti-war pamphlets and speeches at the time made him a very unpopular public figure, so when pushed to the edge, this playwright digs a little deeper, where the original version is much more biting and hard edged, refusing to compromise for audience approval. Accordingly, the play contains one of the more despicable characters in Professor Henry Higgins, whose loathsome views of course represent the voice of the playwright himself, a man of intelligence and great wit, but also a cantankerous contrarian and an avowed socialist, though in this play he writes some of the best dialogue of his career. Shaw is currently the only artist to have ever won both the Nobel Prize in Literature (1925) and an Academy Award (1938), winning Best Adapted Screenplay for the film Pygmalion, inspired by a Greek myth where Pygmalion falls in love with one of his sculptures which then suddenly comes to life. Higgins (Patrick McManus) is a noted linguistics professor known for tracing the origin of various dialects, routinely recording various speech patterns as he walks the streets of London and then analyzing them afterwards. Purely by chance, he grows curious at hearing the vulgar Cockney slang coming out of the mouth of a flower girl on the street, Eliza Doolittle (Harveen Sandhu), on the spot challenging his honorable friend Colonel Pickering (whose existence in the play seems entirely based upon the need for a representative of the refined upper class) to a bet that he can transform her into a woman who can pass for a duchess in three months’ time by teaching her impeccable speech. While his ego is at the heart of the matter, so is his male arrogance, pretentiously viewing himself in such lofty company while criticizing others for the least human error. A man who thinks he’s always right is more than contemptible, he’s a bully, which defines the essence of his teaching methods, continually finding fault with his pupil. Despite the domineering and abusive manner of his behavior, Eliza learns to master the language, as she sees it as a way out of working on the streets. Higgins, however, doesn’t care about that, as all he’s concerned with is winning the bet. While the play eloquently weaves its way through various class elements using sharp observational wit and humor, creating an underlying layer of scorn and derision expressed while using perfect speech, where the true heart of the matter is obfuscated by a veneer of politeness. Lost in all of this are the true feelings of Eliza, who’s a bit lost and disoriented in this new territory. While Donna Belleville as Higgins’ mother is superb as someone who’s learned to ignore her son’s irritating deficiencies by constantly reminding him of them, she also comes off as a breath of fresh air and common sense. While some of it resorts to comic farce, it all plays out against the grain, where there’s no “Get Me To the Church On Time” in this version. While the play has been modified to suit present day London, Shaw himself made similar alterations, where the story was always intended to live in the present, using iPads and Skype and even updated BBC news broadcasts commenting upon the shifting economic disparities, becoming an incendiary indictment of economic inequality, targeting the 1 percent who represent Higgins’ universe, whose privilege allows him to continually disregard others with such disdainful ease, leaving him full of his pride, but alone at the end, blind to essential matters of the heart.
Sweet Charity was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse in the Broadway premiere in 1966 and was largely seen as a vehicle for the unparalleled skills of his wife, Gwen Verdon, filled with a series of production numbers and a few jokes strung along by Neil Simon, where it was nominated for 9 Tony Awards, winning Best Choreography. That tells us essentially what we need to know, as no one can match the dancing skills of either one of the original artists. Inspired by Federico Fellini’s NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (1957), a heartbreaking film that was itself a showcase for the waiflike skills of his wife Giulietta Masina, following a series of misadventures of an unsinkable Roman prostitute with a heart of gold. This version transports that character into a pay-for-hire Times Square dance hall girl, which is a polite way of describing the sexual favors she performs for a living. While it’s a thin shell of a story, this one is all about the radiance and bright personality of Charity Hope Valentine (Julie Martell), who is a force of nature, an eternal optimist who always has time for the little guy, the kind of people most normally pass right by on the street barely even noticing their presence. A friend to everyone, yet also without a friend in the world, she is not the brightest character, but her infectious enthusiasm for life is indisputable. While her journey along the way may be filled with adversity, where she’s sort of a Don Quixote character forever searching for her lost dreams, her upbeat mood plunges to the depths of beautiful, sad, and hopeless, only to become inspiring by the end. Always sweet and touching, with a Brooklyn accent, Martell can sell the role, but she’s not much of a dancer. Neither is anyone else in this somewhat watered down production, but there is the pizazz of “Hey Big Spender” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now.” While there is the obligatory tribute to drugs and cult worship, all meant to resemble the 60’s counterculture of Hair, and even a dance number called “The Rich Man’s Frug,” the best performance in the show is Charity’s unexpected romp with Italian movie star Vittorio Vidal (Mark Uhre, the Stranger from The Lady from the Sea), where she’s invited up to his penthouse apartment for champagne and all the trimmings, remembering a line from one of his movies, “without love, life has no purpose,” which becomes the mantra throughout her journey, but at least for a moment she’s treated like a lady, which must seem like a dream, as by the end of the night she’s locked in his bathroom when his real girlfriend returns. It’s all a bit goofy, continually blaming the “fickle finger of fate” for all the problems and strange situations she gets herself into. When she finally discovers sad sack Oscar Lindquist (Kyle Blair) while being stuck on an elevator, he’s somebody that’s even more screwed up than she is, where you’d have to be a hopeless romantic to see any future there. There’s a clever use of video projections during the scene changes, where a map of the New York City subway system tells us what the next stop will be along the way. The secret of Charity’s ditzy performance is remaining grounded in reality, where she always seems to be having fun on stage and brings the audience along for the ride.
You Never Can Tell is another Shaw play from 1897, where this is the 7th production at the Shaw Fest, turning into a candy-colored comical farce that is set at an English seaside resort, becoming a belated but amusing battle of the sexes. Before the curtain is even raised, there’s a video projection of home movie scenes of children playing on the beach and a silly shipwreck, followed by the Union Jack flag, while the effusively polite, elderly waiter named Walter (Peter Millard, in his 29th season at the Shaw Fest), a character from the play yet to come, plays the tune of “Rule Britannia” on the kazoo that eventually fizzles out from lack of effort, becoming a Monty Python tribute to the mother country. Walter, in turn, becomes a Prospero like character that seems to be pulling the invisible strings of this play, setting it all in motion, as if he has divine powers over all, but prefers to hide behind the polished and refined manner of a lowly waiter who makes his living by serving others. In the opening scene, we’re in a small-town dentist’s office having a tooth pulled in what appears to be an old-fashioned dentist’s chair that might have been used by W.C. Fields in the days of antiquity. In this manner we’re introduced to an impoverished young dentist named Valentine (Gray Powell) and his overly chatty young teenage patient Dolly (Jennifer Dzialoszynski), whose conversation bounces off the wall as she seems to be inquisitive about everything. When her twin brother Philip (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff) and elder sister Gloria (Julia Course) come to pick her up, Valentine’s head is turned by Gloria, a bookish, overly intellectual feminist who hasn’t time for such foolishness, which is instead provided by the impetuous antics of the comically unidentical twins (one black and one white, one tall and the other short), who always appear brightly dressed and over-caffeinated, as if hyped up on life. Their absurd, overly friendly behavior can be delightfully charming if seen as characters down the rabbit hole in Alice and Wonderland, but in everyday life they are a handful. The twins immediately invite the good dentist over for lunch, along with the next patient waiting to be seen, the grumpy landlord named Mr. Crampton (Patrick McManus from Pygmalion), who’s irritable about not receiving his rent from Valentine. This rapid-fire dialogue predates the screwball comedy of the 1930’s, and whether it is the boldly colored sets or the costumes, everything is so over the top. When we meet their mother, Mrs. Lanfrey Clandon (Tara Rosling), as stylish as she is aloof, a noted feminist and thoroughly modern woman who has written enlightened books on parenting, we learn they have just returned home to England after spending eighteen years in Portugal. Strangely, the children have never been told about their father all this time, but now that they have returned, they grow wildly curious about him. Where it all leads is to the classic luncheon sequence, served impeccably by Walter, who has a tendency to wrap up thoughts with the comment, “You never can tell,” where the children soon learn Mr. Crampton is their father―easily mistaken, the names Crampton and Clandon―where the play chronicles the aftermath of their accidental family reunion. Told in a frenzied pace, it’s all a comedy of errors, where thoughts and feelings are as misplaced as yesterday’s news or unwanted gossip, and moments of real emotion are lost in a sea change of mood shifts or witty banter. Nothing is as it seems, so you have to see things through to the end, becoming a treatise on fickle minds and fear of commitment, deftly exploring the thin line between love and hate.
Sometimes plays can be a revelation. Consider one’s introduction to British feminist playwright Caryl Churchill, who has written nearly 50 plays to date, and as one is flipping through the program notes for her off-Broadway Obie award winning 1982 play Top Girls, while blaring in the background is music of girl bands from the 80’s, it’s impossible not to notice the superlatives used to describe this playwright and her play: “the best British play ever from a woman dramatist” or “the best play of the past 20 years.” Wow. How did we miss this? While it is reportedly a seminal work of the 80’s, it was released at a time when plays by women were still a rarity, though it was nearly her 25th play. Ostensibly a play about women and success, and the price paid for that success, the author claims she was inspired by conversations with American feminists, as it comments on the contrast between American feminism, which celebrates individualistic women who acquire power and wealth, and British socialist feminism, which involves collective group gain. The play premiered at a time when Margaret Thatcher was at the peak of her popularity, having just won the Falklands war, women’s shoulder pads were just becoming popular, and Madonna, the Material Girl, was stringing together the first of many hits. First produced at London’s Royal Court Theatre in August 1982, it lays claim to being “one of the finest postwar British plays, using a postmodern approach to structure, chronology, and, most obviously, language, including dialogue that interrupts and overlaps, it is certainly one of the most influential.” While patrons are still mulling around and finding their seats, with the music still blaring, characters start arriving onstage, all executive-style women preparing their wardrobes, hair, and make-up seated in front of individual desks with well-lit fold-up mirrors. While they occasionally make eye contact with each other, or dance rhythmically to the music, it’s a silent choreography for the preparation for success. What follows is a celebratory dinner party, as Marlene (Fiona Byrne) has just been promoted to managing director of the Top Girls employment agency, where her invited guests are famous women from history and myth, like if you could choose 5 guests to meet throughout history, fictional or real, who would they be? Wildly inventive, using a novel approach to casting, where sixteen characters are played by seven actresses, and violating the natural order of time throughout, the opening scene unravels in a surrealistic dreamlike sequence where the first to arrive is Victorian world traveler Isabella Bird (Catherine McGregor), failing to mention she is the author of several renowned traveling books, where her adventures took her to all corners of the world. Dull Gret (Laurie Paton), also known as Mad Meg, is a figure from a 16th century Pieter Breughel painting entitled Dulle Griet, seen wearing an apron but armed with helmet, sword, and armor as she leads a mob of peasant women into Hell, routing devils along the way. Saying little, she has a tendency to steal food and silverware, stuffing them into her bag. Pope Joan (Claire Jullien) reigned for a few years during the 9th century, though this is a matter of scholarly dispute and may be more mythical than real, describing her childhood as dressing as a boy so she could continue to study, living the rest of her life as a man, where she claims she was eventually elected Pope. She became pregnant and was later stoned to death. Patient Griselda (Tara Rosling) comes from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in a chapter entitled “The Clerk’s Tale.” Though she is a poor peasant girl, she is chosen to be the wife of the Marquis on the condition that she will always obey him. After several years of marriage, she gives birth to a baby girl, but after a few weeks the Marquis insists that she give her up, so she does. Four years later she gives birth to a son, but after two years the Marquis again forces her to give the child away. Twelve years later the Marquis instructs her to go home, which she obeys. Sometime later the Marquis comes to her father’s home and orders preparations for their wedding. Upon her arrival, she sees a young girl and boy, and is reunited with her children, where all of her suffering was a trial to test her obedience to the Marquis. The last guest to arrive is Lady Nijo (Julia Course), a 13th century Japanese courtesan turned Buddhist nun, who was once concubine to the Emperor, spending years of her life traveling and writing her memoirs, The Confessions of Lady Nijo. Marlene is proud to include herself among the group for “the way we changed our lives and our extraordinary achievements.” Serving as their hostess, Marlene greets the dignitaries, introduces them to the others, and makes some attempt to draw them into the conversation. As these are not well known figures, it is unlikely the audience is familiar with their stories, and when they speak at dinner, growing increasingly drunk, they reveal their stories in fragments while having a tendency to interrupt and speak over one another, making it hard to comprehend. While they are served by a passively silent waitress (Tess Benger), we discover all are remarkable women, yet somehow their sense of self-importance was a singular journey, where none of them could imagine what it’s like to be anyone else in the room, most notably the waitress (seen smoking in the background), as none of them have any idea what it means to be part of a female community, the example being this all-female production. What’s most curious is that each has suffered in similar ways, which Churchill amplifies by drawing parallels into this modern day story, where we eventually discover Marlene has more in common with them than we could have realized. While considered “one of the most famous scenes in modern drama,” it is described by Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of Oxford Stage Company, as “a dazzling intellectual fantasia, a technically brilliant circus act that flings around heavyweight intellectual conceit as if it were light as air.”
In the next scene we jump to the present day (early 1980’s) where we see Marlene at work in the ultra-competitive, surprisingly masculine world of the female staff of the agency, where the women of Top Girls must be tough and insensitive in order to compete with men, as the play suggests women lose a piece of their humanity in order to attain power in a male-dominated environment. We witness a steady stream of dissatisfied women who would like to change their lives by changing their jobs, but one by one they are ruthlessly interviewed and their motives questioned, where the power and influence of the women in the agency is not passed on to raise these women up. Instead Marlene demonstrates no concern for the client’s moral integrity, even advising one to compromise her personal preferences for advancement and to lie about the circumstances of her marital status to land a job. In the same act, the audience is introduced to the not too bright Angie (Julia Course in a much younger role), an angry, self-centered 16-year old girl with little ambition and a thoroughly helpless psyche, seen hiding out with a friend avoiding her mother Joyce (a haggard looking Tara Rosling), expressing how much she adores her aunt Marlene, while hating her mother, who she dreams of killing. After a jarring intermission, more interviews at the employment agency cut to the core, as a thoroughly competent middle manager explains she wants to leave her job after 20 years, as her competency level has come to be relied upon and expected while watching a series of younger male colleagues with less abilities get the promotions, an example of every talented woman’s frustration when the corporate culture remains exclusively a boys club, a systemic problem for which Top Girls has no recommendations. Angie shows up unexpectedly at the employment agency, excited and overly enthusiastic, where thoughts of her expressed intentions linger throughout. Clearly an unwelcome surprise, Marlene nevertheless allows her to spend the day in the office, expressing reservations why her mother didn’t call to announce the visit. Marlene, however, goes about her business, but is quickly interrupted by the wife of the male employee who was passed up for promotion in favor of Marlene, explaining how much the job means to her husband while also asking whether she should be doing a “man’s job.” Growing more irritated and insistent, ignoring Marlene’s pleas to leave, she finally screams at her to “piss off,” much to Angie’s delight, impressed with how easily she told that woman off. Caught in a private moment by the other woman from the agency, when asked if she intends to help Angie, Marlene answers definitively that “she hasn’t got what it takes.”
While the first act gains all the notoriety for its daring originality, it’s the final act that is truly exceptional theater, arguably the equal of any 20th century drama. Taking place a year earlier in Joyce’s kitchen, where we still don’t know if Angie ever went through with it. This time it’s Marlene that arrives unexpectedly, as her sister Joyce didn’t have a clue, though Marlene only came because of a letter she received inviting her. This little mishap only sets the stage for a sisterly visit unlike any other we’ve experienced, where these two don’t even like each other. The play’s unusual structure, two major scenes that bookend a series of minor ones, with the final scene jumping back in time, keeps the audience guessing, never knowing what to expect. The fierce individuality on display between the two women is established early on, where the actresses are two of the best seen anywhere. As they drink tea and engage in awkward small talk, Angie is delighted with the visit, looking up to her aunt and thinking she is wonderful, but is eventually sent off to bed, though she keeps an ear to the door. Moving to whisky, the scene builds dramatic resonance as family secrets are revealed, becoming heartbreaking and genuine as Marlene faces off against her sister, where the two attempt to come to terms with that age-old sibling rivalry, why you moved away, and why I stayed. There’s no resolution, of course, but it’s revealed that Marlene escaped this dead-end town the first chance she got, ashamed of her dismal, working class roots, becoming a Thatcherite career woman living in London, while Joyce stayed, leading a modest life as a cleaning woman and single mother with few prospects in life. With brutal honesty, Joyce reveals that Angie is not particularly bright or talented and it is unlikely she will ever make much of herself, thoughts Marlene expressed herself in the previous scene, believing her future was doomed, but as the embodiment of free-market capitalism and Thatcher-era conservatism, she continues to repeat the mantra that anyone can make it if they work hard enough. In a stunning reversal, we learn that Angie is actually Marlene’s daughter who she abandoned at an early age, leaving her in Joyce’s care, possibly causing Joyce to lose the child she was carrying from the stress. With perfect economy, the author demonstrates the daily struggles women face in the working world that might never occur to their male counterparts. From that wildly inventive opening scene, Churchill demonstrates an equal talent for kitchen-sink realism, where Joyce is furious at her sister’s self-righteous indignation, wondering what’s to become of the Angie’s in the world. Byrne is utterly brilliant as Marlene, shifting from self-pitying to self-righteous, likeable to unsympathetic, almost from moment to moment. The final scene is a tour-de-force, ricocheting several centuries worth of frustrations and injustices, whittled down to an intimate moment of loss and regret. Since Churchill wrote her play in 1982, equality has been slow to develop. American women still earn 78 percent of every dollar that men earn for the same jobs, while the psychic toll is often even worse. Regrettably, any thoughts about Churchill’s script seeming dated have simply not materialized. In tone, and in content, the play is remarkable, and truly devastating.
The most anticipated play was an original work by Québec playwright Michel Marc Bouchard, author of the play that Xavier Dolan’s film 2014 Top Ten List #7 Tom at the Farm (Tom à la ferme) was based upon. His new play, The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt, was specially commissioned for the Shaw Festival and we were fortunate to see the premiere performance, with the author himself and the festival director Jackie Maxwell, who directed the play, in the audience. While there were no speeches, it was an intensely powerful work, set in Québec City in 1905 when the most famous actress in the world, Sarah Bernhardt, brought her legendary talents to the French-speaking province for 3 nights of performances. While it is based on historical fact, the director takes liberties on how the subject was presented, becoming an excoriating condemnation of the unchecked, absolute power of the Catholic Church, including a criminal cover up of ongoing sexual abuse by priests, the horrors of non-existent child labor laws, and the power of art to somehow rise above it all. At the time, the Catholic Church was more powerful than the government or the business community, where the conservatism of the church determined what was acceptable conduct for Québec society, consuming more financial and human resources than the provincial government in Québec, with surprisingly more priests per practicing Catholics than in Italy. The church also ran an entire network of health and social services, including hospitals, asylums, orphanages, and various other institutes for the blind, deaf and handicapped. It also controlled the educational system, actually preventing the Québec government from creating a Ministry of Education, even though the majority of the priests were not highly educated but were sons of farmers and came from rural settings. Being a priest was a more prestigious position than doctors, lawyers, politicians or businessmen, receiving twice the salary of the average worker, with some receiving substantially more. For young men coming from low income households, the priesthood was a way for the church to provide for the needed educational path. At the beginning of the 20th century, 55% of college graduates entered the seminary.
During this same time period, Sarah Bernhardt’s worldwide success made her a celebrity, living a flamboyant lifestyle, often surrounded by photographers and reporters, known as “La Divine” or the “8th Wonder of the Word.” She augmented her mythic status by traveling around the world, insuring audiences and critics would never grow tired of her, traveling with an entourage, cavorting with the famous, while taking scandalous photos partially unclothed. Her signature role was dressing in a man’s clothing, both on and off stage. She was a former prostitute that grew enormously wealthy, carried on wild affairs that she flaunted in public, where her celebrity persona built a world of admirers. She challenged herself publically as well as onstage, literally inhabiting the roles, and was ahead of her time in believing actors must internalize their characters, while refusing to let the public define her view of herself or limit a woman’s capabilities. Often playing strong-willed mistresses of powerful men that die tragically in the midst of romantic intrigue, she loved to reenact her famous death scenes, but she was equally famous playing Hamlet, as she was utterly convincing as male characters.
Needless to say, the Catholic Archbishop’s outrage at Bernhardt’s appearance in Québec was on moral grounds, believing the theater was a breeding ground for illicit behavior and immoral conduct, including the questionable lifestyles of famous actresses. Bernhardt paid little heed to such criticism, as her entire life was immersed in the growing popularity of the theater, bettering the working conditions of women and actors while also enhancing the perceptions of the talent and tenacity of women. Critics of the theater were astute in their perceptions of the theater as subversive, but Bernhardt demonstrated that even the most marginalized of women could become Divine.
Basically the message is pure and simple, let the arts breathe.
As ambitious a work as you’re likely to see all year, Bouchard takes a real event in history to shed new light on many of the major themes the author has pursued for his entire career, like the destruction of innocence, the inequalities in Québec’s social and religious systems, and the healing capability of theater in the face of these social ills. Played with utmost conviction by Fiona Reid, Ms. Bernhardt, the extravagant grand dame of the theater, can be heard taking a few shots at Chekhov and Shaw himself with the blustery remark, “Social drama is a new trend that for the time being only attracts the converted, who, nestled in their velvet seats, delight in seeing onstage the injustices they encounter on every street corner,” which may as well be a challenge to every patron sitting in the theater.
Opening on a bare stage with a ladder reaching up to an elevated window, we see a seminary student Michaud (Ben Sanders), who we later learn is the son of a wealthy Canadian official, peer out the window with binoculars at the arrival of Ms. Bernhardt at the train station, filled with an almost childlike exuberance, while he is joined by the arrival of a new and mysterious student named Talbot (Wade Bogert-O’Brien), accompanied by his elderly mother (Mary Haney) and younger brother Leo (Kyle Orzech). While the two students of the Grand Seminary of Québec seem at odds with one another, with Michaud acting out scenes from Bernhardt’s plays while Talbot remains stoically quiet, they are the central characters of the play, as the world is seen through their young and developing eyes, each offering a different perspective. Brother Casgrain (Martin Happer) greets Talbot’s arrival, urging him to take the church’s position in a personal incident while delivering Michaud a letter from the Archbishop to be hand delivered to Ms. Bernhardt banning the actress from performing. Despite his instructions, the wide-eyed Michaud is dying to impress “the Great One” and informs the actress that he has begun writing a play based upon the experiences of his roommate, who apparently beat up a priest and stole the silverware, which led to his transfer. While Talbot is ashamed of his circumstances coming from a poor family, where his promised future comes at the expense of their hard labor, as his mother and brother work in the oppressive conditions of a shoe factory, where two young girls were recently killed in horrendous machine accidents. The play weaves in and out of the various social settings, spending time at the seminary, in the hazardous conditions at the factory, or with Ms. Bernhardt and her entourage, where reporters swarm around her to hear her response to the Archbishop, where in response to the church, patrons have asked for ticket refunds.
Bernhardt’s tempestuous personality is a joy to behold, adding satiric comment with every flirtatious inflection, where every action is done with a theatrical flourish, openly challenging the students of Québec City to embrace change and rise up against the status quo, where the Shaw Fest is used as a platform for open rebellion, for releasing the floodgates, allowing the exchange of ideas to be a free and open choice, quite a contrast to the seething interior struggles of Talbot, whose repressed anger betrays his hidden emotions, culminating in a harrowing scene where he describes the sexual and emotional abuse that he suffered at the hands of an older priest that continued for many years. The ever persistent Brother Casgrain has offered him a parish on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River after graduation if he will inform the police of the church’s whitewashed version of events. Veering into unchartered territory by continually shifting the emphasis of mood, using humor to balance the heavier subjects, it’s a dark and dense play of remarkable power and restraint, blunt while also subtle, allowing the measured quality of the performances to eloquently express the play’s ideas. Overall it’s an interesting high-wire act that the director pulls off balancing all these issues and events, challenging the present with the past, becoming a play of moral outrage and provocation, all told with a deeply felt humanity.