They’re brushing up their American accents in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Actors will still need incisive British accents at the Shaw Festival for productions of argument-laden George Bernard Shaw plays like The Doctor’s Dilemma and Irish accents for his only play set in Ireland, the featherweight John Bull’s Other Island. Plummy upper-class British accents are always in demand for chic comedies like Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. But it’s New York City accents, drawing from all five boroughs and many layers of Manhattan society, that inhabit two of the most compelling productions this season: Clare Boothe Luce’s coruscating bitchfest The Women and a neglected 1943 hit by a master composer for the musical theater, Kurt Weill’s One Touch of Venus.
Checking out Chekhov: Mark Uhre, Julie Martell and Craig Pike in a new version of The Cherry Orchard. DAVID COOPER PHOTO
Like all arts enterprises, the Shaw Festival cannot continue to thrive and grow by doing the same old thing over and over. Even though that gentlest of satires, Mary Chase’s Harvey, will ruffle no feathers, the hyper-edgy British playwright Caryl Churchill, a Shavian of our time, intends to afflict the comfortable. Her Serious Money employs “strong language” to explore the predatory stock market of the 1980s. And Canadian playwright Linda Griffiths’ provocatively titled Age of Arousal sports some in-your-face feminism about women entering the workforce in the 1880s. The program advises “strong sexual content,” and a poster of leading lady Nicola Correia-Damude, seated au naturel behind a well-placed typewriter, represents the season. You see it, hung discreetly in shops around town.
Canonical playwrights, other than Shaw, still find places at the festival. Anton Chekhov’s family drama-comedy The Cherry Orchard appears in a resonant new translation by Irish playwright Tom Murphy. And the one-act Half an Hour by J.M. Barrie continues as a piquant diversion in the lunchtime slot.
One Touch of Venus
When Irish-born festival artistic director Jackie Maxwell was competing for her current position nine years ago, she came up with a crisp and compelling mounting of William Inge’s underrated Picnic. It was a signal of things to come. The U.S.-Canadian border, even though it now requires a passport or enhanced driver’s license to cross, is not a steep cultural divide, like the border with Mexico. But American artistic properties, especially when they’re dismissed as mere entertainments, gain stature by appearing side-by-side with the likes of Shaw, Chekhov and Barrie. That’s what happened last summer with Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday, a more politicized Pygmalion, the top hit last summer. With this in mind, let’s examine a trio of shows receiving season-long mountings this year: One Touch of Venus, The Women and The Cherry Orchard.
Classy in Canada: The Shaw Festival’s Royal George Theatre, one of three main venue for the repertory productions. ANDREE LANTHIER PHOTO
Considering that it ran on Broadway for 567 performances, made a star of Mary Martin (second choice for the lead), and boasts the enduring standard “Speak Low,” one has to wonder why One Touch of Venus (through Oct. 10) is so rarely revived. There appear to be four reasons. One is that the 1948 movie with Ava Gardner destroyed the property, turning Venus from an ancient work of art to a department-store mannequin. That’s bad advertising. Second, it had been too risque for high school and community groups. Marlene Dietrich, the original lead, walked because she thought it was “too sexy and profane” (!). Third, it calls for a huge cast. Most importantly, though, Venus is too difficult for any but a professional company to attempt.
Two big dance numbers by Agnes de Mille (a few months after Oklahoma!) anticipate both what Jerome Robbins was doing in West Side Story and, secondly, a little piece of Sweeney Todd before audiences could deal with Grand Guignol. Song lyrics by the one-time New Yorker poet Ogden Nash ripple with tongue-twisters, internal rhymes and double entendres. For complexity and wit Nash exceeds both Stephen Sondheim and W.S. Gilbert, but is more demanding of the performer than either of them.
Composer Kurt Weill was a decade and a half out from his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht (Three-Penny Opera) but still only 43, and struggling to turn himself into an American. Several numbers are evocations/tributes to those who came before him, like “How Much I Love You” for Irving Berlin or “West Wind” for Richard Rodgers, all well-handled by music director Ryan deSouza. Weill and his collaborators knew “Speak Low” was his strongest composition, and it was later embraced by Billie Holiday, Barbra Streisand and numerous jazz ensembles. What Weill always knew was collaboration, how to provide harmonics that enhanced and expressed the vision of writers, whether it be Brecht or Manhattan librettist S.J. Perelman, who also wrote several Marx Brothers vehicles.
Thus far it may sound as though One Touch of Venus is only an attraction for the musical theater buffs who revel in all the subtext and in-jokes. That may have been the perception of Maxwell and Shaw Fest management when they put Venus in the 328-seat Royal George Theatre instead of a larger venue. But on the surface the show is prime commercial entertainment, like a rollicking George S. Kaufman farce, at times silly but with knowing gags on fine art, including a slam on Maxfield Parrish, now featured at the Everson Museum of Art. As for the naughtiness, well, times have changed. Here’s a Perelman line where an underling taunts the sexually timid male lead, Rodney Hatch (Kyle Blair): “Your trouble’s in the cellar! Your Bemis is clogged, brother.” Or as Nash has Venus warble, “Love is not the dying moan of distant violin; it’s the triumphant twang of a bedspring.”
The story, which borrows from a Victorian novella as well as classical mythology, begins with a haughty, pretentious art professor, Whitelaw Savory (Mark Uhre), who is also a dealer. Turning to the black market (no mention is made that this is during wartime), Savory imports a perfectly preserved statue of Venus, which he stores in his office. There he is visited by his nebbishy barber Rodney (Kyle Blair), who is engaged to the aggressive Gloria Kramer (Julie Martell), who’s usually accompanied by her harridan mother (Gabrielle Jones). In a moment of reverie, Rodney places the engagement ring intended for Gloria on the statue’s finger, and, Shazam! it turns into a gorgeous blonde (Robin Evan Willis), who immediately falls in love with him. As Venus is the goddess of love and a notorious seductress, she also wants to liberate Rodney from his timorousness.
Super snoopers: Cast members of The Women listen to a conversation between Moya O’Connell and Jenny Young. EMILY COOPER PHOTO
As for the rest of the story there is too much to tell, as there may be as many as 25 speaking parts with the imperious Savory, rejected Gloria and her mother, furious Anatolians who want the statue back and private investigators. With them is scene-stealing Deborah Hay as Molly, a manager implausibly in love with Savory. Hay was the star of last year’s Born Yesterday, but has a new accent here. Along the way Perelman and Nash get their licks in about that state across the Hudson, with Gloria and her mother’s song “Way Out West in Jersey,” as well as nascent suburban culture, such as “Venus in Ozone Heights,” a ballet.
The loose-limbed plot allows for extraordinary digressions, such as the narrative ramble about Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, the American doctor of 1910 London who murdered and dismembered his wife so he could bring in his mistress. She, conveniently, wore the same size clothes. The mordant but somehow hilarious dance number, “Doctor Crippen,” choreographed by Michael Lichtefeld, closes out the first act.
Although many Shaw productions have graduated from the school of good taste, director Eda Holmes, costumer Michael Gianfrancesco, set designer Camellia Koo and lighting designing Bonnie Beecher tend more to the Mel Brooks aesthetic: “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!” Nuanced it ain’t. Very brash. Very American. Outrageously entertaining.
American brashness many stories higher in the social skyscraper permeates Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women (through Oct. 9), presented here in a lush but post-modernist recreation of the sleek 1930s at the 869-seat Festival Theatre. With its bitter humor and all-female cast, The Women can fairly be called legendary, one that many theater buffs feel they “know,” which may be why Syracuse Stage produced a staged reading as a fund-raiser three years ago. But most people know it from two film versions: director George Cukor’s 80 percent faithful retelling in 1939 and director Diane English’s lamentable 2008 modernization with Meg Ryan. Despite some revivals, not many audiences have had a chance to relish the verbal darts dipped in vitriol.
Even before the curtain rises, we can tell from the thunderous drumming in Lesley Barber’s original music that there will be nothing genteel or nostalgic in director Alisa Palmer’s restaging. William Schmuck’s production design, uniting sets, costumes and Kevin Lamotte’s skillful lighting create an elegant but surreal 1930s that exaggerate the visual evidence surviving in period movies and magazines. Hats are wilder, hips are slinkier, backs are barer, and colors are so vivid it seems we’ve all imbibed some peyote. Scenes depicting intimate locations, including a tea room, a bridge game, a department store and a beauty parlor, scoot around on tracks surrounding by a darkened stage.
Statue of liberties: Robin Evan Willis and Kyle Blair in One Touch of Venus. DAVID COOPER PHOTO
The central story is transparency itself and a bit short on suspense. Mary Haines (Jenny Young), a society woman of blameless character, learns from a blabbermouth manicurist (Lisa Codrington) that her husband is having an affair with a coarse shopgirl, Crystal (Moya O’Connell). As Nevada was then the only state that made divorce easy, Mary travels to an all-female dude ranch in Reno, prompting designer Schmuck to display his most amusing costumes. In the final scene of the 2½-hour action, Mary learns that Crystal, now married to the lousy husband, is two-timing him. After confronting Crystal with this revelation, the floozie withdraws and Mary gets her husband back.
This might have passed as a happy ending at the premiere, but our visions of the play and the playwright have shifted. Clare Booth Luce went from being an unbelievable golden girl—drop-dead gorgeous, editor of Vanity Fair, and married to the most powerful man in publishing, Henry Luce, founder of the magazines Time and Life—to something considerably less. Not only did her politics veer in the direction of Phyllis Schlafly, but she became an unfaithful wife herself and, according to Alan Brinkley’s biography of her husband, The Publisher (2010), something of a nutcase. Students in university women’s programs now write papers denouncing characters in The Women as shallow and cruel.
Well, so what. We go to the theater mostly to have a good time, not for consciousness-raising, and in this Luce knew how to deliver in spades. Also diamonds, clubs and hearts. Her characters are no worse but much more entertaining than those in Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, another play offering imprudent advice on how to lead your life. Is the stylishly dressed Sylvia Fowler (Deborah Hay, with yet another New York accent) really a snake in disguise? Rosalind Russell redeemed Sylvia in the 1939 movie, one of 50 reasons why what you see in Niagara is so much superior to Hollywood.
The Women famously features an all-female cast, here drawing on some of the Shaw Festival’s most admired players, including Kelli Fox, Beryl Bain, Jenny L. Wright and Nicola Correia-Damude (she of the nude poster), most of them cast against type. Then again, actress Hay is so protean she doesn’t have a type. Having the most fun is veteran Wendy Thatcher, who has played haughty Victorian and Edwardian grande dames a thousand times; here she creates the much-married, American-accented Countess de Lage, forever baying about the ineffability of “L’Amour! L’Amour!”
The Cherry Orchard
Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (through Oct. 2) may be hailed by aficionados as one of the 10 greatest stage works of all time, but many popular audiences fear it, especially if it is playing in a time slot opposite Mary Chase’s Harvey, as it often does here. They fret that the alleged “comedy” is going over their heads, and that they can’t discern all the currents in the subtext.
In an apparent attempt to address these concerns, Maxwell has imported a new “version” (not translation) by Irish playwright Tom Murphy that appeared at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 2004, and along with it Irish director Jason Byrne. The dialogue is contemporary and colloquial—even coarse, although not especially Hibernicized, except for perhaps “in hospital” without the article. Actors speak with a heightened North American accent, as if the estate were in Ontario or New York state. What Murphy and Byrne accomplish, without betraying any of Chekhov’s subtlety, is a performance that can engage, even enthrall, a reluctant spouse coerced to sample some high culture.
For those of us already won over by Chekhov, the Murphy Cherry Orchard is a feast. With some of the Shaw Festival’s best in the leads—Laurie Paton as Lyubov, heiress of the doomed estate; Jim Mezon as Leonid, her ineffectual brother; and Benedict Campbell as the boorish upstart Lopakhin—we know going in this is the surest bet of the season.
Director Byrne, although new to the festival, turns out to be adroit in exploiting the cramped space of the in-the-round, 327-seat Court House Theatre. He allows us to discover through little signs that all characters in the waning decades before the Bolshevik Revolution are not what they seem at first appearance. Consider the contrast his direction provides between the assertive Varya (Severn Thompson), Lyubov’s adoptive daughter who runs the estate in the mother’s absence, and the lovely but immature blood daughter Anya (Robin Evan Willis). For a while we confuse who’s whom, but that’s the point: The stronger outsiders are going to rule.
Lyubov, or Madame Ranyevskaya, has been a fool for love, first marrying beneath her station and then squandering her riches on a feckless lover who cares more about himself than her. Actress Laurie Paton’s nervous titter in the first act reminds us she understands her plight but is hiding it. Jim Mezon’s Leonid is less obviously fatuous than he is often played, but the first act “Ode to the Bookcase” convinces us why he will be of little help to Lyubov as well as justifying Chekhov’s assertion that The Cherry Orchard is a comedy. Lopakhin, of course, is often comic with the characteristic Chekhovian pathos, unaware that we are not laughing with him. Benedict Campbell’s most dazzling scene has a self-congratulatory Lopakhin in a farcical dance because he thinks he’s saved the family’s fortunes.
The Syracuse New Times has been covering the Shaw Festival for more than 30 years, so it is happy news indeed to report that standards are at their peak, equal to the best ever. And these three productions, while vastly different from one another, are all winners.
Aside from The Women, the Festival Theatre (10 Queen’s Parade) is also presenting Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (through Oct. 31) and Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma (through Oct. 30). The Court House Theatre (26 Queen St.) hosts The Cherry Orchard as well as Shaw’s 1904 comedy John Bull’s Other Island (through Oct. 9); and Age of Arousal (July 23-Oct. 10). The Royal George Theatre (85 Queen St.) showcases One Touch of Venus plus Harvey (through Oct. 31) and the lunchtime-matinee item of Half an Hour (through Oct. 9). The still-new 200-seat Studio Theatre (10 Queen’s Parade), located in the Festival Theater’s complex, offers the production of Serious Money (July 31-Sept. 12).
The shows will be performed in repertory, Tuesdays through Sundays, 2 and 8 p.m., with performances of Half an Hour at 11:30 a.m. Admission is $30 to $105 (Canadian), with discounts for seniors, families, students and groups; tickets for Serious Money are $49.
The Shaw Festival is in Niagara-on-the-Lake, north of Niagara Falls, Ontario, about a 3½-hour drive from Syracuse. Tight accommodations require advance planning. Call (800) 511-SHAW or visit www.shawfest.com for details.