Saturday, August 25, 2012

Theater Review: Shaw Festival 2012

French without Tears
Written by Terence Rattigan

Present Laughter
Written by Noel Coward

Written by Bernard Shaw

Performances through October 28, 2012
Niagara on the Lake, Canada

At Canada’s eminent Shaw Festival, works by three great 20th century British playwrights are being performed. Bernard Shaw, the festival’s namesake, has two plays onstage. I missed The Millionairess but saw Misalliance, along with one of the inimitable Noel Coward’s signature works, Present Laughter, and Terence Rattigan’s biting satire French Without Tears.

French without Tears (photo: David Cooper)
In French Without Tears—which ran for 1000-plus performances during its 1936 London premiere run—Rattigan hilariously targets young British men and women who go to France to learn the language. Instead of simply shooting fish in a barrel, however, Rattigan illuminates these people’s complexities: despite their foibles, they grow believably before our eyes.

In Kate Lynch’s breezy staging, Rattigan’s humor, humility and humanity come through, and the talented cast of ten provides equal amounts laughs and heartache, with the raised eyebrow that was Rattigan at his most formidable.

Present Laughter (photo: David Cooper)
Noel Coward wrote Present Laughter as a thinly veiled fictionalization of his own crazy celebrity life—matinee idol Garry Essendine is hounded by various men and women while being protected by his ex-wife as he tries to sort out his professional and personal difficulties before embarking on an African safari. Coward’s congenial wit can turn savage at times, but his characters all receive affectionate kicks in the pants, even alter ego Garry, skillfully played by Steven Sutcliffe with the right balance of bitchiness and pathos.

On William Schmuck’s wonderfully detailed set of Garry’s elegant home, director David Schurmann puts his talented cast through its paces admirably: next to Sutcliffe, best is Claire Jullien as Garry’s ex Liz, so sympathetic and levelheaded you wonder why he ever let her go.

Misalliance (photo: David Cooper)
A play about marriage, Misalliance also has as convoluted a plot as Shaw ever wrote. One afternoon on a wealthy family’s country estate, a Polish daredevil crashes her plane on the property, causing the men to make several marriage proposals to the various women gathered there. Considering the subject matter, moving time and place from 1909 to 1962 makes little sense except that it’s the year the Shaw Festival began.

Otherwise, Eda Holmes directs with brio on Judith Bowden’s evocative set, and Shaw’s pointed brickbats about socialism, poverty and relationships never pall. Holmes’ ensemble is superb separately and together, with Tara Rosling’s alluring pilot with the “unpronounceable” name, Lina Szczepanowska, and Catherine MacGregor’s tart Mrs. Tarleton standing out. As always at the Shaw Festival, the acting is as superlative as the writing.

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