Arts Review, The Arts

REVIEW: Three to See at the Shaw Festival

REVIEW: Three to See at the Shaw Festival featured image

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The Sea, Juno and the Paycock and The Philanderer exemplify the style, charm and range of approaches at Niagara’s Shaw theatre festival.

One of the joys of a festival like Shaw is the opportunity to relish the diversity of dramatic voices and concerns being expressed in productions written by such eminent playwrights as the darkly comic Brit Edward Bond, Ireland’s revolutionary conscience Sean O’Casey and Shaw himself. That eclecticism wouldn’t be worth much if the acting and direction and sets weren’t of the highest level but this is the Shaw and, of course, that professionalism is always the case. But the fun of a weekend at Shaw this summer is that so many of the plays are such successes—and yet, in the case of the three being reviewed here, each—The Sea, Juno and the Paycock and The Philanderer–is quite unique.

the sea castThe Sea
Edward Bond, playwright
Eda Holmes, director
Starring: Fiona Reid (Louise Rafi), Peter Millard (Evens), Patrick Galligan (Hatch), Wade Bogert-O’Brien (Willy Carson), Patty Jamieson (Jessica Tilehouse), Julia Course (Rose Jones)

The Sea is by far the most contemporary of these three productions. Edward Bond burst into the first rank of British playwrights in the mid ‘60s, just after the “angry young men” dramatic talents of the ‘50s had overturned the stiff well-made play of earlier years. The Sea is an extraordinary piece consisting of a series of sketches–some comic, some tragic, some class-oriented and some fantastical—that eventually coalesces into a philosophical romantic drama.

the sea fiona reid
Set in Edwardian England, Bond’s play takes us through the mysterious death by drowning of one young man and the reactions to it in a classic small village effectively run by an aristocratic lady, Mrs. Rafi. Though she is upset over the boy’s death, the despotic Rafi finds time to rehearse a play Orpheus and Eurydice that is to be performed by the local gentry—and, naturally, starring herself. It’s a brilliantly comic scene only bettered by the botched funeral of the dead lad, which includes a couple of wonderfully awful renditions of Anglican hymns, an anarchic oration and a stunning scattering of ashes. As Mrs. Rafi, Fiona Reid is stunningly effective; this is a true tour-de-force.

the sea patrick galligan
Rather like the sea, Bond splashes his scenes against the rocks of a plot, offering vivid moments of character and narrative—only to pull away from any sort of straightforward development until matters finally cohere near the play’s emotional denouement. A startling accompaniment to Mrs. Rafi in emotional range is the draper Hatch, eventually driven mad by his upper-class client. Also appearing in the more conventional part of the play are the gradually romantic duo of Rose and Willy, brought together by the death of their best friend.

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These diverse elements are masterfully held together by director Eda Holmes, who gives the production a moody atmosphere and elicits a fine range of performances, led by Fiona Reid but also including Patrick Galligan’s Hatch and Peter Millard as the surprisingly philosophical Evens.

Shaw_Juno_WebGallery10Juno and the Paycock
Sean O’Casey, playwright
Jackie Maxwell, director
Starring: Jim Mezon (Captain Jack Boyle), Mary Haney (Juno Boyle), Charlie Gallant (Johnny Boyle), Marla McLean (Mary Boyle), Benedict Campbell (Jaxer Daly), Gord Rand (Charles Bentham), Corrine Koslo (Mrs. Maisie Madigan),  Jennifer Phipps (Mrs. Tancred)

Juno and the Paycock is a stunningly realised production of Sean O’Casey’s acclaimed rebellious tale by Shaw artistic director Jackie Maxwell. Controversial from its initial production, the play is set in 1922 shortly after the establishment of the Irish Free State and the resurgence of the IRA as a guerilla military force working to take over the full island for Ireland.

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The Boyle family has been involved the struggles of the previous decade. Johnny has lost his arm to the cause, though it becomes evident that he has betrayed a local IRA fighter in recent times. Johnny’s father Captain Jack Boyle is a drunk, who can no longer work, but that doesn’t stop him from waxing poetic about his seafaring past or attempting to rule the familial roost. Quietly running things is his wife Juno, who is ably supported by daughter Mary.

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Ready to capsize at a moment’s notice, the poisoned chalice of what appears to be great luck visits the Boyles. Bentham, an English solicitor, lets them know that they’re due to receive a grand inheritance. Captain Jack borrows against it to stock the apartment with sturdy furniture and a new gramophone while Mary falls in love with Bentham.

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The audience knows that the Boyles are in for a terrible comeuppance but it’s the language of O’Casey and a brilliant ensemble performance led by Mary Haney as Juno and Jim Mezon as Jack that elevates the play to the level of tragedy. If a soliloquy by Juno in the play’s penultimate scene doesn’t move you, nothing will. And the final, chaotic drunken conclusion is so mordant and modern, it appears to have been written for a play written decades after O’Casey classic creation.

Shaw_The_Philanderer_WebGallery2The Philanderer
George Bernard Shaw, playwright
Lisa Peterson, director
Gord Rand (Leonard Charteris), Moya O’Connell (Julia Craven), Marla McLean (Grace Tranfield), Michael Ball (Joseph Cuthbertson), Ric Reid (Col. Daniel Craven), Harveen Sandhu (Sylvia Craven)

Finally, there’s GBS—and, after all, isn’t the festival named after George Bernard Shaw?

The Philanderer is Shaw’s second play and his roots as a critic and essayist are evident throughout. The smart set in the late 19th century was besotted by the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Many loved his plays A Doll’s House, Ghosts, Enemy of the People, Hedda Gabler and others, which questioned the role of women in society and critiqued other Western conventions. Part of The Philanderer takes place in a fictional London-based Ibsen club consisting of “womanly men” and “manly women.” Shaw’s thoughts on Ibsen are voiced by the titular character Leonard Charteris, who doesn’t believe in marriage and questions the hypocrisy of London society.

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Act one, by far the strongest in the play, recounts an anecdote quite similar to one that actually took place in Shaw’s life. Charteris is caught having just made love to Grace Tranfield by his fiancée Julia Craven. Refusing to accept the guilt that Julia tries to place on him, Charteris is still caught by a societal convention: he has to get his fiancée out of the apartment of his other lover or suffer the consequences.

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The Philanderer restores (though not for the first time) Shaw’s abandoned third act, which features a spectacular denunciation of 19th century divorce laws–which continued into mid-20th century Great Britain. Like much of early Shaw, it’s replete with comedy and ideas.

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The best part of this production is the chemistry between Gord Rand’s philandering Charteris and his lovely compatriots Maria McLean’s Grace Tranfield and Moya O’Connell’s Julia Craven. They’re so good that they have transformed this “play unpleasant’ into something resembling a “play pleasant.” And that makes The Philanderer into a truly memorable production.

Reviewed by Marc Glassman.
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