Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Shaw Festival 08

Every year one play emerges as the smash hit of the Shaw Festival and sometimes the author is not the notorious George Bernard Shaw. This season, J. B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls surfaces as the “it” play in the pack of five plays I was able to crash through in two and half days at the famed Niagara-on-the-Lake festival. Imagine a hybrid whodunit ghost story meets twilight zone and you are in the strange neighborhood of this remarkable play.

Written in 1945, but set in 1912, Priestley's play feels remarkably timely. When the so-called Inspector bellows, “We don't live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other,” his rhetoric recalls the populist beliefs of Senators John Edwards and Barack Obama. This advice doesn't come kindly to the self-serving Berling clan, headed up by blowhard Arthur Birling, who believes that it's a look out for yourself and perhaps a family member or two world. He wants no part of social responsibility. When the Inspector calls armed with a tale of a young woman's suicide that had dealings with every single member of the Birling family, their secrets pour out like bitter syrup, one after the other. The Inspector as confessor drives the engine of this play. They reveal more than they are asked to due to the Inspector's unorthodox methods.

As for the ghost story part, pay strict attention to everything that moves, but don't expect any secrets to be revealed here. Let me just say that if you think you are seeing things, you are. Peter Hutt plays the bully patriarch, Arthur Berling, who does his utmost best to try to hold on to the belief he got away with something. Mary Haney's Sybil Birling echoes her husband's thinking, perhaps with a softer edge. Moya O' Connell bestows Sheila Birling with one ounce of family regret, while Andrew Bunker's Eric Birling is a walking guilty verdict. Portraying Sheila's finance, Gerald Croft, Graeme Somerville is cool and aloof. Benedict Campbell's Inspector Goole is unnervingly smooth and unflappable. He goes about his mission with the skill of a polished inquisitor, bringing a measure of constraint while the family's precious bubble of safety bursts around him.

Jim Mezon's direction aims at maximum suspense and anxiety at every turn. Expect to be more than a little riled and at times, puzzled, and even frightened. (The audience did their fair share of gasping the night I attended.) Nothing is spelled out here, the mystery is left wide open, unsolved, and hanging in mid-air. Peter Hartwell's set design is nothing short of brilliant. Hartwell sets this family virtually exposed in a dungeon-like setting, sounding by dark arched doorways that lead to the unknown. The semi-circular container gives this guilty clan no way out. Hanging directly above their unsettling dwelling is a set of austere chains that move when the clanky elevator rides up to the Birling flat. Although the direction is up, it feels more like down, as the family deteriorates under the strain of the Inspector's relentless questioning. Kevin Lamotte's Gothic lighting lends a reverence to the proceedings and Paul Sportelli's original music sets an eerie tone throughout. All in all, The Inspector Calls is one riveting edge of your seat evening of theater.

One of the Shawfest's mission statements includes mining hidden gems. Githa Sowerby's The Stepmother falls squarely into this category. Found in a basement, this play has not seen a stage in 84 years. It's set in the 1920s, but again, the issues of womens' rights at home and in the workplace, feel sharply relevant to the discussion on today's political table. The details may differ, but the fact that woman are not treated equally has recently resurfaced during the democratic primaries in the U.S. As with Priestley's play, Sowerby cuts her characters as clearly good or evil with little in between. Claire Jullien plays Lois Relph, the noble stepmother, who sacrifices her happiness, cares for her two stepdaughters, and supports the family with her dress designing business. Jullien's performance plays up the saintlike qualities while keeping an undercurrent of despair bubbling beneath the surface. Blair Williams plays the devilish husb, Eustace Gaydon, with gleeful delight. Williams succeeds completely turning his villain into a victim, so much so, the audience grew increasingly hostile towards him as the play went on. Gaydon swindles his wife out of her inheritance, and attempts to do the same for her business, and her tender relationship with his two daughters. In the end, sisterhood wins out, as the two stepdaughters rally around their stepmother, forgiving her affair, and finding peace in solidarity. It's a regular frock paradise with William Schmuck at the costume design helm and Camellia Koo's cleverly flexible set provides a minimalist, but smart setting.

Continuing on the greed train is Lillian Hellman's beast of a play, The Little Foxes, and you will never meet such a tribe of beastly people as the Hubbards. This nouveau riche family will take anyone, including a family member, for all that they can, and live to drink over it. Or at least some do. Laurie Paton plays the iconic Regina Giddens role with a stoic and stern demeanor. This woman means business. She's positively wicked as she watches her sick husband crawl up the stairs while she withholds her help and his life-saving heart medicine. It's melodrama on steroids. Sharry Flett plays Birdie Hubbard, the one god egg in the rotten barrel, with a fragile quality, fitting of a true southern aristocratic belle. Peter Krantz and Ric Reid endow Oscar and Benjamin Hubbard with a crude redneck bravado. Alas, this is the birthplace of the good ol' boys network of scoundrels.

For relief from dysfunctional money hungry families, head straight to A Little Night Music. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler, a cast of strong singer/actors, not a microphone in sight, what's not to like? Director Morris Panych takes the intimate road, scaling back the piece into a tight and twinkling container, fitting Night Music's ethereal core. It feels like a boutique musical and works so stunningly well that it's hard to imagine this same show on a big Broadway stage. And what heaven it is to hear voices in their natural state. Goldie Semple is simply luminous as the aging actress, Desiree Armfeldt. Bring a hankie for some potential post Send in the Clowns weeping. Other standouts include Donna Belleville as Madame Armfeldt, Michaela Bekenn as the enchanted Fredrika Armfeldt, and George Masswohl as the endearing Fredrik Egerman. Ken MacDonald's set of movable magical green trees is spare and uncluttered. The nine-piece orchestra, under the direction of Paul Sportelli, allows the full detail of Sondheim's dreamy score to come through.

Last but least, and just as timely, is GBS's Getting Married. Here Shaw examines marriage law with his usual leave nothing safe manner. As marriage laws continue to be discussed and disputed we see Shaw is his usual way ahead of his time self. Married is a chuckle a second that is rich with eccentric characters, zippy dialogue, and Shaw's biting subversive mind deep at work on one potent cultural institution. In fact, capping of a visit to the Shaw Fest with some actual Shaw may be the perfect ending to three days of fine theater.

Images: Benedict Campbell as Inspector Goole in An Inspector Calls. Photo by Emily Cooper.
Blair Williams as Eustace Gaydon, Claire Jullien as Lois Relph and Marla McLean as Monica Gaydon in The Stepmother. Photo by David Cooper.
Goldie Semple as Desirée Armfeldt and George Masswohl as Fredrik Egerman in A Little Night Music. Photo by David Cooper.
Laurie Paton as Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes. Photo by David Cooper.
Members of the cast of Getting Married. Photo by David Cooper.