29 March 2012

'Design for Living' (Shaw Festival, 2006)

[Following Kirk Woodward’s interesting discussion of Noel Coward, focusing on Private Lives ("Noel, Noel," 24 March), I thought it would be fun to look back at a recent Coward show I’d seen. Below is a report I wrote on a production of Design for Living, a play Kirk mentions several times in his article. My report is excerpted from a longer article on the Shaw Festival, and I’ve edited it some to make it readable not only on its own but to an audience six years after I wrote it (verb tenses and that sort of thing, you know). I hope ROT’s readers will find this look back at something from my archives at least amusing if not actually informative.

[In August 2006, I took a trip up to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, for the annual Shaw Festival. The Round House Theatre of Bethesda and Silver Spring, Maryland, to which my mother used to subscribe, sponsored the trip bi-annually (in alternate years, they went to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival), and they made all the arrangements from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Niagara-on-the-Lake (about an hour’s drive north of Buffalo, New York) and back. The Round House reserved six shows (
High Society, the 1997 stage adaptation of the 1956 film musicalization of Philip Barry's 1939 Philadelphia Story; Arthur Miller’s The Crucible; Ruth and Augustus Goetz's The Heiress, adapted in 1947 from Henry James's 1881 Washington Square; Shaw’s Arms and the Man; Michael O'Brien’s The Invisible Man, the première of the festival-commissioned 2006 stage adaptation of H. G. Wells's 1897 novel; and Shaw’s Too True To Be Good), but several afternoons and most mornings were free if anyone wanted to add performances. I selected two additional shows to make a total of eight performances out of the season's offering of ten plays.

[I wanted to see
Design for Living, so I booked the Coward and Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. I'd always rather see an Ibsen than some unknown, less-than-intriguing quantity, snobbish as that may seem. Some years ago, one of the theaters off Union Square in New York did a multi-year series of all of Ibsen's plays in chronological order in good-quality showcase-level productions, and I tried to catch any that I'd never seen before. But I’d seen Rosmersholm over five years earlier, so I figured this would be a good chance to see another staging with better production values—and it was. (The plays I omitted were a pair of Chekhov one-acts, The Bear/Brute and The Marriage Proposal, under the umbrella title Love Among the Russians; and a new play, Lillian Groag's 1997 The Magic Fire, set in the immediate post-World War II years in Argentina.)]

I did a private reading (a bunch of actors sitting around in someone's living room) of Noel Coward’s Design for Living many years ago, and I've seen the considerably bowdlerized 1933 flick (Cary Grant, Frederic March, Miriam Hopkins), but I'd never seen the play—and I figured a Coward would be fun, assuming the Shaw Festival cast can pull off his comedy-of-manners style—which they did, wonderfully. One characteristic of the acting at the Shaw, which I think must be a unique attribute of Canadian actors, is that they can shift back and forth pretty successfully and easily—or, at least, convincingly (for the most part)—between American characters and Brits. They did well with both the Barry-Porter-Kopit upper-class Long Islanders of High Society, the 17th-century Massachusetts settlers of Salem in The Crucible, and the 19th-century New Yorkers of The Heiress. Then they also nailed Coward's toffs in Design as well as the denizens of small-town England in The Invisible Man. These were often the same actors crossing over from one show to another and they also handled the shifts from Cowardy and Shavian comedy to the heavy drama of Crucible and Rosmersholm, not to mention the melodrama of Heiress. This isn't something American can't do, of course, but we don't tend to do it very much in our theater since this kind of rep isn't common here—outside of college theaters, I guess.

Our first matinee at the Shaw was Design at the Royal George Theatre in town. The Royal George is a converted movie theater that had been built originally as a vaudeville house for entertaining the troops of World War I. It's a proscenium stage and seats about 330 spectators in an orchestra and a balcony, all painted in red and gilt—a little gem of an old-fashioned theater. (The festival used to stage all its musical shows here until 2006. Why it took them so long to realize that the musicals were certainly the most popular performances and they could sell over twice as many tickets in the big, 856-seat Festival Theatre as in the Royal George, I'll never understand. Also, if they weren't going to do musicals in the Festival Theatre, why put in an orchestra pit when they built it in 1973?) I had booked the seats on line, so I didn't check the lay-out and seat location, and we ended up in the last two seats on the house-left corner of the last row of the balcony; Mother said they were the best seats she's ever had. (Mom's small, and she always complains that whenever she goes to a theater—movie or play—tall people always sit in front of her!) After two American plays at the Shaw, this was our first British entry (despite the fact that Coward wrote it for the Lunts). As I already said, the actors handled the British characters as well as they managed the American ones before—and nicely negotiated Coward's light comedy style as well as any British cast (who are usually past masters at this kind of toss-away dialogue and repartee; Americans can be clumsy at it). All in all, it was a thoroughly delightful performance in all respects. Like Crucible (and, it turned out, all the Shaw presentations), this was an ensemble performance, and the three main actors—Nicole Underhay as Gilda, Graeme Somerville as Otto, and David Jansen (no, not that one—he’s Janssen, and he's dead) as Leo, the role Coward wrote for himself—created a bizarre, but totally believable ménage. (Coward created a bizarre relationship; the actors carried it off believably.) Underhay, by the way (pardon the rhyme), has a wonderfully husky voice, à la Blythe Danner.

The set design (by Ken MacDonald) was striking (a phenomenon I’d noted across the festival). Charlotte Dean's costumes weren't bad, either—especially Gilda's slinky, white satin evening dress of the last act. Looks like something Lauren Bacall might have worn! Design is a three-acter and each act is set in a different apartment: Otto's garret studio in Paris, Leo's London flat, and Ernest and Gilda's swank apartment in New York. Though the furnishings changed for each set, from shabby, eclectic clutter of the poor painter to the upholstered middle-class solidity of the newly-affluent playwright to the airy, ultra-modern starkness of the wealthy art dealer and his famous decorator wife, the back "wall" of the various apartments was the same. It was an expressionistic sculpture of a black metal lattice, an eccentrically curving backdrop with an equally asymmetrical balcony door: Dr. Seuss on acid. I'm guessing that this was the visual representation of the life-and-living arrangements of the focal trio. (The fact that the backdrop didn't change suggested the visceral connection among the three occupants. They may move up and out individually, but they remain attached.) The third element of the set was the background outside the apartment, the "view" from the balcony. It, too, was wildly curved and misshapen, a cityscape centering on one landmark that identifies each city: Paris's Eiffel Tower, London's Big Ben, and New York's Chrysler Building These were also distorted in a Seussian manner. (Maybe Salvador Dali is a clearer image—though he's certainly too heavy for Coward.)

The furniture, props, and costumes of Design were all perfectly Realistic, as was the acting (in a Cowardy vein, of course) Only the backdrops—a kind of one-dimensional frame, if you will—was otherwise: one significant element was stylistically opposed to the basically Realistic unit. I suppose MacDonald might have been depicting, in sort of a reverse image, the way that Gilda, Otto, and Leo's world seems perfectly normal from the inside—from where they see it—but is crazily skewed as viewed from outside the relationship. It was reversed, since in the set, we seemed to be inside in the "normal" world looking out at the "crazy" one, as if we were living inside the Gilda-Otto-Leo mindset.

The program didn't specify in what years director Morris Panych put Design for the Shaw's production, and the costumes, except for those of act three, weren't particularly period-specific. The furniture of acts one and two could have been from any time "long ago" without indicating any specific decade. But the pieces in act three, in the apartment Gilda’s furnished after she’s become a high-society decorator, should probably be markedly art deco. They were demonstrably "modern"; however, they looked more like ‘50s stuff than ‘30s. Mother insisted that the production isn't even set in the 1930s, but I put this down to either a design error or a deliberate effort by MacDonald to muddle the period. Only because the design work in the production was so striking did this stick out—it wasn't significant to the production in any other way. (There was one actual anachronism in the design, though. Only a New Yorker would probably have noticed it, however. In the last scene, set in New York City at night, the Chrysler Building's spire was lit up. Either MacDonald didn't know, or knew and decided to overlook for the sake of the effect, that the lights in the Chrysler's crown had been installed, but because construction was completed at the start the Depression, they were never illuminated. Over time, the building's management forgot the lights were there until a renovation led to their rediscovery. Only in 1981, for the first time since the building opened in 1930, was the famous art deco spire of the Chrysler Building lit up.)

What interested me most in the this staging, though, was the casting—and it was an element of the Shaw in general it seemed. The fact that I noticed this shouldn't suggest that it affected me in any way—the fact that it didn't is my point. Neither Graeme Somerville nor David Jansen are matinee idols, yet they were cast as characters who are presented as inescapably attractive to Gilda, a woman who’s supposed to be desired by all men who meet her! (The same casting decision didn't seem to hold for the women, by the way—the actresses were all as attractive as their characters. I don't know what that says—maybe the Canadians are as sexist as the rest of us.) I guess I like this apparent practice because I was never a Leading Man myself, and the notion that we ordinary folks can still play those parts pleases me. (I did have an acting teacher who told me I should go out for what he called "the sex-pot roles." Right! Like any director would actually have considered me for them. Although, I did once play Chance Wayne, a role originated by Paul Newman, in Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth—much to my mother's consternation—but those were peculiar circumstances.) By the way, I never heard anyone in the audience remark on this casting.

[Just to provide a brief overview of the Shaw Festival: It was started in 1962 by Brian Doherty, a local lawyer and theater enthusiast, as a "Salute to Shaw." Its first productions, performed by local amateurs, were in a disused courthouse (in 2006, the site of the black box Court House Theatre, one of the festival's three performance venues). It quickly attracted both critical and financial attention and became a companion to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, two-and-a-half hours west, which was launched (with more professional intentions) in 1953. (There is, in fact, a third theater festival in Canada, the Charlottetown Festival on Prince Edward Island, devoted to "new Canadian musicals." I didn't know there were Canadian musicals, much less new ones!) The Shaw is considered one of the two largest repertory companies in North America—the other being, obviously, the Stratford Festival.

[The Shaw runs from April through October and November—some shows opening later and others closing earlier. (I understand from the locals we chatted with in the shops and around town that the weather in Niagara-on-the-Lake is awful in the late fall and winter—cold, rainy, windy, and gray. Except for Christmas, when there's another influx of tourists, it's pretty bleak in the off-season.) Like most traditional theaters, the festival is dark on Mondays, but during the performance week there are at least two shows a day at all three theaters, and often—I'm not sure it's not also every performance day—an 11:30 a.m. "lunchtime" performance. That comes to 36-54 performances a week (I did the math); you can figure out how many shows a season that makes. (There are also script readings, poetry and song presentations, discussions, chats, workshops, lectures, and demonstrations going on many days as well. These folks keep busy.) The festival is a true seasonal rep: no play is performed twice in a row, which means some theaters change productions three times a day. Most actors are in two plays (a few are in only one; no one I could spot was in more than two), and there's no apparent attempt to consider which theater houses which show when it comes to casting. The theaters are strung out along Queen Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake: the little Court House and the Royal George are only a couple of blocks apart in "downtown"; the Festival Theatre is a few blocks east on Queen's Parade, an extension of the main drag. (Nothing in Niagara-on-the-Lake is all that far away from anything else. On afternoons when we didn't see a matinee, Mother and I walked around most of the town and its immediate environs.) The company comprises some 60 actors (directors and designers, as well as other artists such as composers, are hired individually for each show), but all don't appear every season; about 30 or so work each year, and they are on contract for the season. Many actors live in Niagara-on-the-Lake now and consider the Shaw their permanent artistic base, doing other work like films and TV (all those U.S. TV programs that are taped in Toronto and Vancouver are in many of the company's credits) as well as other stage work from time to time, but returning to the Shaw regularly. Some of the actors in 2006 were in their fourth or fifth season in Niagara-on-the-Lake, but others were into double digits. (The other artists also come back year after year, but they aren't part of the permanent company.) Loyalty from both sides—the current artistic director, Jackie Maxwell, was in her fourth season in 2006 and continues to work with artists who started at the Shaw before her arrival—is clearly an attribute of this community. The actors who live in Niagara-on-the-Lake have bought homes and are raising families there.

[The Shaw Festival mandate, as they call it, is to showcase the plays of GBS and his contemporaries. (I don't know if the idea when the festival was originally conceived was to restrict itself to Shaw's plays only, but the inclusion of plays "written in Shaw's lifetime" has been part of the concept for decades, in any case.) Considering that GBS lived almost a century (1856-1950; the festival celebrated his sesquicentennial earlier the year I was there), the definition of "contemporary" leaves a lot of leeway—and covers a lot of territory stylistically! In 2000, the festival expanded its mandate to include plays written about the period of GBS's lifetime, so now they do modern plays set in that almost-century. The 2006 season included two Shaws—which I gather is the practice—plus an Ibsen (1828-1906) and a pair of Chekhovs (1860-1904). Also coming, I suppose, in the category of plays by GBS contemporaries (though at the end of his century) were the Noel Coward (1899-1973) and the Arthur Miller (1915-2005). (I'm guessing that's
Crucible's "in," since it isn't "about" Shaw's lifetime—even McCarthyism really started after GBS's death—and was written three years after GBS died. It's kind of a stretch, I guess—a policy evidently known as "Jackie's elastic mandate.") Two adaptations from novels could go either way—the source material is contemporary to GBS and the setting is, consequently, of that period, too, though the adaptations are much later. The Heiress was adapted from James's 1881 novel in 1947, which would barely qualify as "Shaw's lifetime," but the story is set in 1850. The Invisible Man, from an 1897 novel, qualifies because the modern play is set within GBS's life. The other new play, The Magic Fire, is set in 1950s, barely fitting into GBS's life span. Of the final entry of the 2006 bill, Cole Porter's High Society, the source material, the 1939 Philip Barry play, fits into the Shaw life span, but the qualification is again the setting: 1930's Long Island (the musical having been transferred from Philadelphia's Main Line for reasons comprehensible only in Hollywood).]

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