Saturday, September 12, 2009

Cowardly Theater

Noel Coward at the Shaw Festival
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada
Performances through November 1, 2009

Jullien and Jansen in
Ways of the Heart
(photo: David Cooper)
Byrne in Star Chamber
(photo: Emily Cooper)
You could say that the Shaw Festival (tucked away in Southern Ontario’s bucolic Niagara-on-the-Lake) has turned cowardly this summer, forsaking its namesake for a contemporary of his. The stylish, urbane Noel Coward stars this summer with 10 one-acts, under the rubric Tonight at 8:30, being shown in four parts: three full-length productions of three different plays with the last done as a lunchtime show, the first time any professional company has done them all in repertory. In the meantime, Shaw himself is represented by two comedies: the popular The Devil’s Disciple and the barely-known In Good King Charles’s Golden Days.

I caught four of these Coward miniatures—the lunchtime offering, Star Chamber, and Ways of the Heart, which comprises The Astonished Heart, Family Album, and Ways and Means—and was so entertained that I’m hoping to get back there before the season ends to see the other half-dozen. (All 10 are being presented in three day-long marathons, with September 19 the last date; the various stagings run separately through October.) Star Chamber, an amusing lark about a group of actors who meet to discuss their favorite charity Garrick Haven, a home for aged thespians, introduces dueling performers who fall back on their usual grandstanding ways, which continually upsets their meeting’s formalities. Whether declaiming dramatic monologues, telling jokes or tossing off tunes, they can’t keep their natural inclination to “act” under wraps.

Star Chamber director Kate Lynch terrifically orchestrates the refined lunacy of Coward’s irresistible show-offs, all embodied by superb thespians, especially the bewitching Fiona Byrne.

The three short plays that make up Ways of the Heart display all sides of Coward’s witty examinations of the foibles of men and women. The Astonished Heart is a romantic tragedy about a husband who falls for the obvious charms of his faithful wife’s longtime friend, Family Album is a song-filled bauble about the secrets unearthed after a dastardly father’s funeral, and Ways and Means finds an upscale couple vacationing on the French Riviera trying to reverse their bad luck streak.

Although none of these short plays finds Coward at his elegant best, they are tautly dramatic, lighthearted and breezy in turn, and make for a delightful 2-1/2 hours. Blair Williams perhaps too obviously emphasizes their differences in his direction—the stark tragedy in Heart, the wacky songs in Album, the levity in Ways—but he has several aces up his sleeve in the form of an excellent Shaw ensemble, led by the always-excellent Claire Jullien and David Jansen, who play the leads in all three plays with variety and poise.

If the 10 plays of Tonight at 8:30 aren’t Coward at the top of his form, they more than hold own onstage and should be trotted out more often. Kudos to the Shaw Festival for allowing audiences to become acquainted with them this summer.
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