[Part 2 of “The 2006 Shaw Festival” picks up with the Round House group’s second performance in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. I finish out the week of festival shows, which included the two Shaws on the bill in 2006, below and in between the performances, I make some comments on the surroundings and my observations about the festival as a whole and Canadian theater. Also in Part 2 are the two performances I’ve already excerpted from the original report and posted on ROT, Noël Coward’s Design for Living (29 March 2012) and Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s The Heiress (24 November 2012). As I said in the introduction to Part 1, which I encourage ROTters to go back and read, I’ve omitted performance reports on all but the Shaw plays here. For an interesting discussion of GBS and his ideas, I strongly recommend reading Kirk Woodward’s “Eric Bentley On Bernard Shaw,” to which this posting was intended to be a companion piece, on 3 December.]
On Wednesday afternoon, 9 August, we saw Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at the Festival Theatre, the first production of the festival where I began to notice the design, a kinetic set that was striking and intriguing. The Round House hosted a “cocktail party” (wine, beer, and soft drinks—and hors-d’oeuvres—but no actual cocktails served) at the hotel that evening (the one at which artistic director Jackie Maxwell and the three company members appeared), so there was no evening performance for us. Our next show was the first matinee I had selected, Coward’s Design for Living, at the Royal George Theatre in town Thursday afternoon.
The Royal George is a converted movie theater that had been built in 1915 as a vaudeville house for entertaining the troops of World War I. It’s a proscenium stage, as you’d guess, and seats about 330 spectators in an orchestra and a balcony, all painted in red and gilt, a little Edwardian gem of an old-fashioned theater. 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’d ever had. (Mom was small, and she always complained that whenever she went to a theater—movie or play—tall people always sat in front of her!)
Between the matinee and the evening show on Thursday, Mother and I had an early dinner—which we did when we had two performances on the same day—at the Angel Inn, reportedly the oldest operating inn in Canada. (It’s pub food—perfect for what we wanted.) The original inn dated back to 1789, but it was burned in December 1813 at the end of the American occupation. (In reprisal, a plaque out front says, some Brits went down to Washington and burned some buildings there. That qualifies as humor in Canada.) It was rebuilt on the original foundations in 1816 (though the kitchen’s newer, I presume—and so’s the food). The plaques outside the front door tell the story of Captain Colin Swayze of the British army, who some say delayed joining the retreat to rendezvous with his sweetheart near the inn. When she was a no-show, Swayze took refuge in the inn’s basement and was killed in the basement by American soldiers searching the property. (Surviving soldiers told a different story: it was common knowledge that a store of Royal Navy rum was kept at the inn, and the captain was denying the Americans any victory party with the British liquor.) Legend has it that even today Captain Swayze’s ghost can be heard walking the inn late at night, and as long as the Union Jack is flown over the inn—as it does today—the ghost will remain harmless. (In the basement, near the restrooms, is a locked storage room labeled “Captain Swayze’s Cellar – No Admittance.” Maybe that’s where the inn keeps its rum!)
After our meal, we walked back to the hotel to wash up and rest and then let the hotel provide us a ride to the theater for the evening show. The hotel had vans to shuttle guests back and forth—a convenience we used on days when we went in and out of town several times in a single day. On Thursday evening, the group saw the Goetzes’ The Heiress, also at the Royal George. (This time we sat down center—and a tall man sat in front of my mother!)
On Friday evening we saw our first Shaw at the Shaw. (Sorry.) Arms and The Man, as I think I mentioned once before, is my favorite Shaw play, and one of my all-time favorite plays altogether. (When I was trying to be an actor—and still 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, it is the practice of the Shaw to have a pre-show introduction by one of the company on the Members Terrace out back. Since we had arrived in time for the chat, we went out to listen, and it’s not 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 guy—one of the directing interns—who delivered the intro, however, told an anecdote a friend told me years ago, about a heckler who booed when GBS appeared at the 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.)
Shaw’s play is set against the background of the 1885-86 Serbo-Bulgarian War (an actual European conflict)—though Maxwell’s staging moved it up pictorially a couple of decades. The heroine’s Raina Petkoff, a young Bulgarian woman engaged to one of the heroes of the war, Major Sergius Seranoff, whom she idolizes. One night, Captain Bluntschli, a Swiss mercenary fighting with the Serbian army, bursts into her bedroom, fleeing Bulgarian bullets. He begs her to hide him and though Raina, the daughter of Bulgaria’s highest-ranking officer, Major Paul Petkoff, and his wife, Catherine, deems him a coward, she complies, especially when he tells her that he doesn’t carry ammunition in his pouch, but chocolate creams instead. Raina is child-like, a romantic teen princess, enamored of heroism, gallantry, the “higher love,” and what she sees as the splendid nobleness of war. Bluntschli, however, opens her eyes to the reality of life and she comes to realize the hollowness of her romantic notions and the values upheld by Sergius. Raina discovers the true nobility of the “chocolate-cream soldier” through whom all her romantic dreams give way to true romance.
Always an audience favorite, Arms 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 all the festival productions. Even the presence of Mike Shara, whom I hadn’t liked as Morris Townsend in The Heiress, as Sergius, the “hero,” didn’t mar this aspect of the production, though he demonstrated once again his peculiar and annoying vocal pattern. Since none of these characters is American, I had no problem with his Canadian accent (the cast didn’t do British for this Shaw, anymore than they did for Ibsen—or, I presume, Chekhov or the Argentines of Magic Fire). 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. 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-hero (not in the sense of the modern “anti-hero,” however—more like James Garner as Maverick in the old TV series, or maybe even his Jim Rockford), in contrast to the dimwitted 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’s an element of the Shaw in general it seems. (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, 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, I have to talk about the set. First, I’ll note that there was a stated artistic reference in this design: the Art Nouveau paintings of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) 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 1885-86 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 as an artistic model for the production. (Some of the costumes, especially those for Mrs. Petfoff, were also reminiscent of the designs of Léon Bakst, 1866-1924, for the Ballets Russes.) 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 Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan from 18-whatever 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 wasn’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. P. 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 P. 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 calls 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 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 storey. 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 is accomplished by swirling set pieces moving onto 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 might turn a spectator off. There was a lot of laughter in the audience, so I could only assume that most of them were enjoying Shaw’s humor (whether or not they got his anti-war point). I certainly did, 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 feel 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 couldn’t stop flexing and bending! He also did 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.)
On Saturday afternoon, Mom and I had our second non-group matinee, Rosmersholm at the 327-seat Court House Theatre. Our usual procedure was to take it easy in the morning, having breakfast toward the end of the serving period, sitting by the pool reading, then walking into town around 12:30 (matinees were all at 2 p.m.)—it’s a 15-minute walk from the Pillar and Post to the center of NOTL—maybe treating ourselves to an ice cream or a cold drink, and getting to the theater around 1:30. On the afternoon of the 12th, because Queen Street was turned over to the Peach Festival, we walked a couple of blocks up and back, seeing what was on offer in some of the booths. Instead of a lemonade or iced tea, we bought cups of peach soup, a kind of thin puree, which was a very nice refresher. After the Saturday matinee, Mother and I did our usual early meal at another restaurant (the Shaw Cafe—I’ll let you guess why it’s so named!) and walked back to the hotel. We took the hotel shuttle to the Royal George for the evening performance of the stage adaptation of H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man commissioned by the Shaw.
Let me insert a word or two (or 200 . . .) about the Shaw program booklets. I posted a blog article on program notes and such (“To Note Or Not To Note,” 28 August 2009). Well, the Shaw programs were like mini-texts (and I don’t mean that as a bad thing). Each show had a critical and analytical essay by an academic or writer that discussed some aspect of the play—something the Shaw’s taken from British theater practice. There was always a short piece by the director, and sometimes other artists, like the composer for Crucible who explained the inspiration and source of his music or, in The Invisible Man, the playwright. There was also a short bio of the author (and, in adaptations like TIM, Heiress, and High Society, the adaptors as well), and there was a run-down of the play’s production history (including the source material and movies or TV versions/sources). There were also lots of pictures of previous versions, and several of the current production. My issue with the elaborate notes in some of the programs I complained about in my ROT piece was that sometimes the directors used the program to do the work they failed to do on stage. None of these essays or notes did that—they added a dimension to our appreciation of the play without short-cutting the stage work or trying to substitute reading for staging. Now, I did cavil with the essay on TIM because I felt it was overthought for that production, but the general idea was great. It was worth getting to the theater a few minutes early to read the program beforehand.
Our final show in NOTL was the matinee performance on Sunday, the 13th, of Shaw’s Too True To Be Good at the Court House Theatre. I think I said that I’d never seen or read this play (and I didn’t read it before I went to NOTL—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 it occurred only once a year during the summer so the Theater Guild copped the first production, which was in Boston in February.) Anyone who knows the play probably knows it’s tied up with, among other topics, T. E. Lawrence (AKA, “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 TTTBG premièred.)
The plot of Too True To Be Good is too wild to summarize cogently. Its opening scene, for example, is set in a classically beautiful upper-middle-class bedroom where a classically beautiful upper-middle-class young woman (Nicole Underhay) lies bed-ridden. The action starts when a distressed microbe (William Vickers) in human form begins bemoaning his fate. In the next scene, The Patient teams up with The Nurse (Kelli Fox) and The Burglar (Blair Williams) to steal her own necklace and run away so she can hold herself for ransom. That’s only the first two scenes: in many ways, TTTBG is an absurdist play, even though no one had heard of that form in the early 1930s. Eventually, we land at an overseas military base commanded by Colonel Tallboys (Benedict Campbell), who prefers water-coloring to commanding, but actually run sub rosa by Private Napoleon Alexander Trotsky Meek (Andrew Bunker) under the nose of Sergeant Fielding (Graeme Somerville). Other characters in this mix include The Nurse, formerly with the army and now posing as a countess (Fox); The Burglar, an ex-RAF hero turned preacher (Williams); and a church Elder (and The Burglar’s father) who’s an avowed atheist (Norman Browning). Along the improbable way to its even more improbable conclusion, TTTBG pokes fun at doctors, preachers, the military, the aristocracy, and many others of GBS’s favorite targets.
Anyway, TTTBG is a delightfully perverse little play—up to a point. As its title reverses a common cliché, the play reverses many common values and accepted behaviors. The Lawrence character (Private Meek, played nicely by 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 TTTBG 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 which just goes on and on, delivering Shaw’s philosophical points in the most undramatic and untheatrical way conceivable, despite actor Williams’s valiant efforts to enliven it.
The program also included an excerpt from Shaw’s note from the Malvern Festival program in which 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 opined that Shaw is very hard to cut, but I’d have been very tempted to try in this case. It really ruined 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 (also an actor, he was Deputy Governor Danforth in The Crucible), and actor Campbell—whom we’d previously seen as The Crucible’s John Proctor—though I expected a total Colonel Blimp caricature, Colonel Tallboys was only a partial Blimp caricature. 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 (Underhay, who was Gilda in Design), The Nurse (Fox, earlier Elizabeth Proctor in Crucible), 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 TTTBG production design, a Cubist landscape of blond wooden planks (except the opening scene, which was an ostensibly Realistic sick room “in one of the best suburban villas in one of the richest cities in England”—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 Round House troupe had a farewell dinner at Terroir La Cachette, the restaurant at Strewn Winery, one of NOTL’s many wine-makers, Sunday evening, and we left town the next morning by bus for Buffalo and the return flight to Baltimore. While we were away, the Brits uncovered the putative bomb plot against U.S-bound airliners (8/10—as opposed to 9/11), and we’d all been following the changing restrictions on flights in the U.S. (Remember, none of us left anticipating additional security measures, so we were caught betwixt and between.) We were fortunate in a small way that we drove across the border, so we weren’t on an international flight. Nonetheless, we left NOTL about an hour earlier than originally planned to accommodate any additional screening measures in place in Buffalo. As it turned out, there were no problems, and we got back to BWI right on time (though Mother and I found ourselves standing at the wrong baggage carousel for a few minutes because the airport had apparently labeled the wrong one for our flight and then switched, and everyone else seemed to have caught on without telling us!). We called our Ramada as planned, waited for about a half hour for the van to arrive, picked up Mom’s car at the motel and got back to D.C. by about 6-6:30 p.m.—in time to catch up on some of the news we couldn’t get in Canada. (The hotel had cable, and we could get CNN and PBS as well as the local network affiliates in Buffalo, but either we were out of the room at news time or the coverage was stuck on the terror plot as if it were the only news for days. We were especially interested in finding out what had happened in the primaries that took place on 8 August. We got a complimentary Toronto paper in the hotel, but that didn’t cover the U.S. races much, and the Buffalo stations did mention Sen. Joe Lieberman’s loss in Connecticut, but none of the others. By the time I found a New York Times, it was days after the votes.)
As much as I wanted to get home, I stayed in D.C. until Friday, 18 August, so I could take a reasonably convenient bus back. We filled the time by seeing several art exhibits in Washington, and the night before I returned to New York, Mom and I went out for Maryland hard-shell blue crabs at a joint that’s been around since I was a kid. Growing up in D.C. and Maryland, I have always loved this food. Since I’ve lived away from the area, I haven’t had it often—the season not only has to be right (though the restaurant, open year round, told us that they now get crabs from as far away as Louisiana when they aren’t available locally), but the crabs have to be sufficiently large to be worth the effort to pull them apart. (It’s a very labor-intensive meal and my mother was a master at getting every morsel out of one of those babies. I’d have picked three crabs pretty clean while she was just finishing up her first!) I’ve missed this treat for years now. From time to time, I’ve tried restaurants that advertise “real Maryland crabs,” but I’ve always been extremely disappointed. My conclusion is that no one who doesn’t live within shouting distance of the Chesapeake knows a thing about hard-shell blues, no matter what they say (or even where they come from). I’ve found the same to be true of Maryland crab cakes—though that’s something even locals don’t always do well. So this was a very special indulgence for me. It may be the most wonderful messy meal anyone can imagine! And, surprisingly, it wasn’t a case of the reality not measuring up to my memory—it was exactly the same. Isn’t that rare?
[I had a little emotional hardship reediting this piece because my mother, with whom I tried to make one big trip every year, died this past May at the age of 92. She and my father both loved going to the theater—one of their first dates, Dad told me, was to the original Broadway production of Oklahoma!. They came up to New York City from Washington whenever I was in something (even when I told them not to come!) and they also saw all the plays I directed for middle and high schools. (They even saw me perform in an amateur show in Berlin when I was in the army!) Mom kept up subscriptions to several rep companies in the Washington area even after my father’s death, and if I was in town when she had a theater date, I’d often go with her. Not a few times, I went down expressly to see a show at one of the Capital’s theaters that was of special interest—Oklahoma! and Red at Arena; Fool for Love at Round House; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Memphis, and Five By Tenn at the Kennedy Center—and our preferred New Year’s Eve celebration was to see a show and then go home to open a bottle and watch the ball drop on TV. The Shaw was not the first theater festival we attended together (and she and my dad took in a few on their own, including the Stratford Shakespeare Festival); we went to the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, and the Shenandoah Shakespeare in Staunton, Virginia, together. The most difficult part of reediting this article was revising all the statements about my mom from present tense to past.]