ARMS AND THE MAN & TOO TRUE TO BE GOOD
[Last spring, when I published Kirk Woodward’s “Noel, Noel” on ROT (24 March), I followed it up with an old report I written on the production of Coward’s Design for Living (posted on 29 March), excerpted from a longer article on the Shaw Festival. Now that my friend and frequent contributor to ROT has added an article on George Bernard Shaw (5 September), I thought I’d follow again with two more excepts on the two Shaw plays in that year’s festival from the same report.
[From 7-14 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, Design for Living and Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm to make a total of eight performances.]
The 2006 Shaw Festival included two Shaws, Arms and the Man and Too True To Be Good, which I gather is the practice. Let me make a few general remarks—some, perhaps, only semi-justified generalizations based on minimal evidence. (I'll brave it—so sue me.) First, the quality of the productions was excellent. The acting and directing was top-notch, and the festival appeared to promote ensemble playing over star-turns—and it accomplished this remarkably. Festival artistic director Jackie Maxwell, who addressed the Round House group at a cocktail party, said that she wouldn't do a play like Lear (wrong festival, of course, but what the hey . . .) if she didn't have a Lear available, but I didn't have the impression from this season that they focus on star roles. Of course, they weren't doing Candida or Major Barbara, and maybe that would have left a different impression. She said the same thing, sort of, about directors: if a director she wants to match with a play isn't available, she postpones that show until the director’s free. It's possible also that actors who want to be stars don't make the Shaw a home the way most of the company seems to. It wouldn't be their kind of work environment, I wouldn't imagine. (But I also get the impression, both from ordinary life observation and from some recent reading about Canadian theater, that this is part of the Canadian cultural character.)
It also seemed characteristic, at least of the Shaw, that directors don't put themselves and their artistic personalities forward and stamp the productions. Several of the productions we saw were "adaptations" (not wholesale reworkings, but changes of setting and period)—Rosmersholm was moved to "somewhere in Europe between the wars" (it looked about 1930 to me); Arms and the Man was reset in the "turn of the century"; and the Chekhovs were designated "adaptations" in the program, though I didn't see them so I don't know what changes were made (the pictures all look 19th-century to me). But those were essentially design decisions (and some language in Rosmersholm); in all other respects, the directing was straightforward, though I don't know if that's a provision of the Shaw, or if it's a general characteristic of Canadian directors. I don't say this is a fault—the work was solid all around—but there was nary a hint of idiosyncratic directorial interpretation on any festival stage as far as I could see.
As good as the acting and directing was—and there were no big names in either category that really stood out, though a few were generally familiar (Bernard Behrens, for instance, who did a wonderfully fractious Giles Corey in The Crucible)—the design and tech was truly superb. One of my conceivably unwarranted generalizations is that Canadian theater's major accomplishment is not acting or directing, which is good but not astonishing (secondary generalization: potentially star Canadian actors end up in England or the U.S.), or even writing (name two internationally famous Canadian playwrights—John Herbert is one; who's another?), but in production work. I don't want to give the impression that the sets overwhelmed the acting—that wasn't so—but the design and tech was outstanding in ways the acting and directing wasn't. (I remember going to a show at a nearby school when I was in college—a production of Cocteau's The Wedding Party at the Eiffel Tower—and a friend and I left afterwards saying to each other, “What a wonderful set. Too bad the actors kept getting in front of it.” That isn't the case in Niagara-on-the-Lake.)
On Friday evening, 11 August, we saw our first Shaw at the Shaw. (Sorry.) Arms and the Man, as I may have mentioned before, is my favorite Shaw play, and one of my all-time favorite plays altogether. (When I was still trying to be an actor—and young enough to consider it —I really wanted to play Bluntschli. Just another disappointment in my life.) Though I actually heard someone from our group say she didn't like the show (I didn't ask her why not), I, at least, was not disappointed. (I was surprised to hear several people comment that they didn't know Shaw could be this funny. I have no idea where that came from!)
Before evening performances at the Festival Theatre, the 850-seat proscenium house a few blocks east of “downtown” Niagara-on-the-Lake, it was the practice of the Shaw to have a pre-show introduction by one of the company on the Members Terrace out back. Since we’d arrived in time for the chat, we went out to listen, and it wasn’t anything most of us wouldn't already know—except a little about the director's choices and, in this case, the design inspiration (which I'll hit later). The directing intern who delivered the intro, however, told an anecdote a friend told me 2½ years ago: the one about the heckler who booed when GBS appeared at the 12 April 1894 première of Arms in answer to calls of "Author! Author!" and GBS replied, "My dear sir, I quite agree, but what are we two against so many?" (The heckler later became GBS's American agent.)
Arms (for those not up on their Shaw) is set in Bulgaria during a war. The country’s been invaded and on a dark winter night, Raina Petkoff, a well-born young woman, saves Captain Bluntschli, a Swiss mercenary fighting for the Serbs and more committed to saving his skin than in being a hero, from the pursuing Bulgarians by hiding him in her boudoir. In the spring, when the war is over, Bluntschli returns to call on Major Petkoff, the dimwitted commander of the Bulgarian army, and wins Raina from Sergius, her fool of a fiancé. Bluntschil, who carries chocolate in his cartridge pouch (the play is the basis for the 1908 comic operetta The Chocolate Soldier by Oscar Straus) instead of bullets, is of a practical turn of mind and helps Petkoff out of his difficulties while Sergius consoles himself by marrying Louka, Raina’s maid. A deliberately anti-Romantic comedy, it was an altogether charming production.
I won't repeat what I've already said about the ensemble acting except to note that it applied here as well as in any festival production. Even the presence of Mike Shara, who’d played Morris Townsend, Catherine Sloper's suitor, in The Heiress earlier, didn't mar this aspect of the production. As Sergius, the “hero,” the traits I spotted there were again in evidence in Arms—though less detrimentally due to the character and play. Since none of these characters is American, I had no problem with his (very pronounced) Canadian accent (the cast didn’t do British for this Shaw, any more than they did for Ibsen—or, I presume, Chekhov or the Argentines of Magic Fire, which I didn’t see). Shara’s second problem is his voice. I’m not sure I can describe this adequately, but he has a very strange voice—it almost sounds phony (the way Carol Wayne, the woman who used to appear on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and claimed she couldn’t talk above a baby-doll whisper, seemed fake). He has kind of a high tenor—I guess that’s a lyric tenor—but it doesn’t sound quite natural. It’s a little like he’s doing Dudley Do-right (from the cartoon—I don’t know what Brendan Fraser in the movie sounded like) for real! The best way I can characterize Shara’s voice is to say that it sounded to me like a musical actor delivering lines between songs. (He had no musicals in his credits—and he’d been at the Shaw for 13 seasons.) I don’t know if that communicates. Shara’s “Dudley Do-right” voice, while still inconsistent with the other actors on stage with him, wasn’t quite as out of place here; it worked well enough for Sergius, who’s a kind of dimmer Dudley in a way. If I’d seen this production before I saw Heiress, I might have assumed Shara was doing this voice as a character choice.
In any case, within the ensemble, the two parents really conjured delightful characters—a sort of Shavian Ma and Pa Kettle, without the hillbilly twang. Nora McLellan’s mama reminded me a lot of the comedienne from SCTV, Andrea Martin—as Edith Prickley, perhaps. (I believe Martin’s also Canadian, by coincidence.) She’s bossy, frequently flustered, and in complete control of her husband, the highest-ranking officer in the Bulgarian army (he’s a major!). Peter Hutt’s Major Petkoff was just a little numb in the head. Not outright stupid—that wouldn’t really be funny, I guess—but oblivious. Except when he’s in the field (mostly because she’s not around), he takes his orders from Mrs. Petkoff, even about military matters. But as farcical as the set-up is—and Arms is really a farce (though, apparently, GBS had intended to write a serious anti-war comedy; he resigned himself to having created a successful farce when he couldn’t convince people that wasn’t his intent!)—Petkoff Père and Mère were a truly entertaining couple.
Patrick Galligan’s Captain Bluntschli was solid and commonsensical, which is how I believe Shaw meant him to be—the un-romantic un-hero (not in the sense of the modern “anti-hero,” however), in contrast to the buffoonish Sergius (who becomes a hero in battle not so much by accident as by inanity and dumb luck). What interested me here, though, was the casting—and it was an element of the Shaw in general it seemed. (Again, I’m basing a conclusion on limited evidence.) Galligan isn’t any kind of standard leading man—he’s not especially handsome, he’s short, he’s balding, and he’s prematurely (I assume) gray. 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. The same casting characteristic was evident in Design for Living, too: neither Graeme Somerville (Otto) nor David Jansen (Leo) are matinee idols, yet they were cast as characters who are presented as inescapably attractive to Gilda, a woman who is 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 liked 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—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.
Now, as with most of the festival shows, I have to talk about the set. First, I’ll note that there was a stated artistic reference in this design: the paintings of Gustav Klimt were the inspiration for the costumes (by William Schmuck—unfortunate name) and set (by Sue LePage—and I gather it was her idea). As I mentioned earlier, this is one of the plays adapted for the festival, moved from GBS’s 1885-6 (the Serbo-Bulgarian War, an actual European conflict) to “the turn of the century.” Jackie Maxwell, who directed, did give some sort of explanation for doing this, but I don’t see any need except that she and LePage apparently wanted to use Klimt (who’d been in the news at the time, coincidentally) as an artistic model for the production. Well, I can’t object to that—I did it myself for nearly identical reasons, more for practical convenience than specific artistic references—when I moved Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan from the 1890s to the 1920s. (Instead of Klimt, I got to evoke Mondrian and Modigliani. I like them better anyway.) Mrs. Petkoff, especially, looked as if she might have popped out of one of Klimt’s canvases.
Actually, on a purely realistic—not to be confused with Realistic—basis, Klimt probably isn’t the most apt model for Shaw’s interpretation of Bulgarian aristocracy. He’s way too hip and with-it for a culture in which being able to read is a notable asset and in whose house a library contains only three books! Mrs. Petkoff is thrilled to pieces to have just had an electric call bell installed in that library so she can summon her servants without shouting for them—which is what Major Petkoff thinks is sufficient. Oh, that Shaw! Nevertheless, I can’t complain about a little artistic license. I sort of figure, when you do the same Shaw plays over a span of years, as the festival does—they eliminate some Maxwell called unproduceable (Back to Methuselah, Androcles and the Lion, Great Catherine)—they probably have to shake up the creative juices now and then or get bored repeating themselves. And, as I’ve said in other contexts, it’s not drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.
(That library bit reminds me of an old joke from my home territory. When Spiro Agnew was governor of Maryland, before he was nominated to be Nixon’s V.P., people used to tell this one: Did you hear? There was a terrible fire at the governor’s mansion in Annapolis. The library was destroyed. Both books were burned! And Agnew hadn’t finished coloring in one yet!!)
In any case, the set as a piece of theatrical technique was stunning. At curtain, the stage was a wintry forestscape at night with a tiny house far up center whose doorway was lit with a warm, yellow glow. (With no disrespect to LePage’s design, it sort of reminded me of one of those hyper-sentimental cottage paintings by the late Thomas Kinkade. As art, it’s execrable, but as set design, it’s charming. But wait . . . .) The little house started moving slowly toward the front of the stage; about midway it was joined by a larger set piece and the former little house became the front door of a larger version, with a lighted window in the second story. The new construction moved further downstage and other set pieces, all in a Wedgwood blue, moved in from the wings, plus furniture for a fantasy princess’s bedroom. The former front exterior of the house was now the interior wall of Raina’s bedroom, the former front door now the French doors to the balcony (onto which Bluntschli would soon climb). The whole process was like a little magic show, reminiscent of the old movies, usually by Disney, I think, in which a cartoon hand sketches a black-and-white scene, then a cartoon paintbrush swishes over it and transforms the drawing into color and, immediately, reality. I described the set as “marvelous,” I think—that’s right: it was a little marvel! (The opening sequence wasn’t used again in Arms but each set-change was accomplished by swirling set pieces moving into place in a perfectly effective use of an old-line staging technique.)
I can’t understand why anybody wouldn’t like Arms under any circumstances (barring a really terrible production), but there was absolutely nothing in this staging that I could see that might turn a spectator off. There was a lot of laughter in the audience, so I can only assume that most of them were enjoying Shaw’s humor (whether or not they got his anti-war point). I certainly enjoyed it, even with Shara’s Sergius. (I must say, to Shara’s credit, that director Maxwell had him constantly exercising—doing push-ups, leg-bends, and other calisthenics, including one set with his feet on an ottoman and his hands on the floor, and he executed this behavior commendably. It reminded me of dancers when they’re not working: they never stop moving. Sergius can’t stop flexing and bending! He also does that Capt. Morgan’s Rum thing—from an old TV advertisement: every time he was near a chair, a bench, or something like that, he put his foot up on it and struck a pose—almost always in profile.) It was only his voice (and, when playing an American, his accent) that displeased me. (It’s odd, but Sergius, also a cad, is the farcical version of Morris Townsend, the character Shara played in Heiress. One worked acceptably, the other didn’t.)
By the way, three of the Arms cast were also in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, which we saw the next afternoon at the small Court House Theatre, and it was interesting to see them do such different material so soon after seeing the Shaw comedy: the fallen minister and pillar of rectitude and morality Rosmer was Patrick Galligan (pragmatic and forthright Bluntschli in Arms); Alex Kroll, the unwavering conservative ideologue (that’s sort of redundant, isn’t it—‘unwavering ideologue’?) was Peter Hutt (dimwitted Major Petkoff); and Ulrich Brendel, the philosophical liberal writer, was Peter Millard (the servant Nicola). They were all quite laudable. (I think it must sound repetitive that I keep using ‘excellent’ or some synonym to characterize the acting, but except for a very few—and minor—exceptions, I really think it’s accurate. None of this company may have been stars—whatever that really means—but they were all master actors. It was quite impressive. And I should add that the casting seemed universally astute, too.)
Our final show in Niagara-on-the-Lake was the matinee performance on Sunday, 13 August, of Shaw’s Too True To Be Good, also at the Court House Theatre. I’d never seen or even read this play (and I couldn’t read it before I went to Niagara-on-the-Lake—it’s not in my collected Shaw), so I was surprised to learn that it’s a pretty late play—1932—and what’s more, premièred in the States. (Poland, apparently, staged the second production! The reason was timing, apparently. Shaw wrote the play for the Malvern Festival, which was launched in 1929 and dedicated to the plays of GBS. The problem was that the festival occurred only once a year during the summer so the Theater Guild in the U.S. copped the first production, which was in Boston in February; it came to Broadway on 4 April.) Anyone who knows the play probably knows it’s tied up with, among other topics, T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”). (Lawrence had a relationship with GBS—who seems to have had relationships with almost everyone living at the time. The association was so strong that TEL used T. E. Shaw as one of his aliases and even eventually changed his name legally to Shaw. He used to visit GBS on his motorcycle, the vehicle on which he was eventually killed, three years after Too True premièred.)
Anyway, Too True is a delightfully perverse little play—up to a point. With no plot to speak of, the play’s constructed of impossible situations, lengthy conversations full of clever Shavian dialogue and witty epigrams. A rich young convalescent catches a pair of burglars in her bedroom, but instead of calling the police she decides to run off with them after stealing her own jewels, and live off the proceeds of her own burglary. As her over-protective mother chases after them, the three embark on a permanent beach holiday, a life of fabulous wealth and total freedom. As its title reverses a common cliché, the play reverses many common values and accepted behaviors as the 76-year-old Shaw takes on fad diets, the medical profession, the military, war, religion, and sex. The Lawrence character (Pvt. Napoleon Alexander Trotsky Meek, played nicely by Andrew Bunker) is great fun—more or less running everything in his isolated army unit to the complete consternation of his colonel. Once again, the festival cast pulled off the silliness, the Britishness (this play, unlike Arms, depicts inescapably British types Shaw is satirizing), and the individual characters with smoothness and adroitness. The program essay cited Shaw’s preface as describing Too True as “funny in the beginning, serio-comic in the middle and ‘a torrent of sermons’ at the close.” That ending concludes with a very long monologue by “The Burglar” (a former priest whose father is an avowed atheist) which just goes on and on, delivering Shaw’s philosophical points in the most undramatic and untheatrical way conceivable, despite actor Blair Williams’s valiant efforts to enliven it. The program also included an excerpt from Shaw’s note from the Malvern Festival program, and he wrote: “When people have laughed for an hour, they want to be serio-comically entertained for the next hour; and when that is over they are so tired of not being wholly serious that they can bear nothing but a torrent of sermons.” Where’d he get such an idea? I couldn’t disagree more, I’m afraid. (This could very likely make someone conclude that Shaw isn’t funny!) I’ve learned that Shaw is very hard to cut, but I’d have been very tempted to try in this case. It really ruins the production; however important Shaw’s points are, I, at least, stopped hearing them after a minute or two. What a come-down! (And an unfortunate way to end our theater experience in Niagara-on-the-Lake.)
In tribute to Shaw, director Jim Mezon, and actor Benedict Campbell—whom we’d previously seen as John Proctor in The Crucible—though I expected a total Colonel Blimp caricature, gave us a Colonel Tallboys who was only a partial Colonel Blimp. He kept surprising me, as did all the characters. This is the big plus of the show—not only the situation, but the characters themselves subvert your expectations. GBS didn’t name many of them—”The Patient” (played by Nicole Underhay, Gilda in Design), “The Nurse” (Kelli Fox, earlier Elizabeth Proctor), and the aforementioned “Burglar,” for instance—so they appear to be types or allegories; but they quickly go off their tracks. (The fellow who gave the intro to Arms in that pre-show chat said that GBS had originally wanted to call those characters by labels like “The Soldier” and “The Daughter.” That was when he still thought he was writing a serious anti-war comedy.) The Too True production design, a Cubist landscape of blond wooden planks (except the opening scene, which was an ostensibly Realistic sick room in a London townhouse—it was sort of like Kansas in black-and-white and Oz in color!), turned the whole experience into a kind of off-kilter dreamscape. If only it hadn’t been for that interminable oration!
[The question above about Canadian playwrights is kind of a cheat: John Herbert (1926-2001) isn’t as well known as his play, which became an international success in 1967—Fortune and Men’s Eyes. It's probably a mark of something about Canadian culture that the play’s not only unrecognized by most people as a Canadian creation, but that its world première was in New York City because no theater in Canada would produce it until 1969.
[The Shaw Festival was started in 1962 by Brian Doherty, a lawyer and theater-lover in Niagara-on-the-Lake, as a “Salute to Shaw.” The first performances were staged by amateurs in a disused courthouse that became the site of the black-box Court House Theatre. The festival soon attracted critical and financial attention and became a companion to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, two-and-a-half hours west, which was inaugurated 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. Like most 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 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, so an actor might have to change theaters as well as roles during the day. 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. It’s an easy walking town—and relatively flat) 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 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 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 the 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).]