Thursday, September 3, 2009

Three more reviews from the Shaw Festival

With summer quickly ebbing away, I thought I had best get back on track here and get caught up on some of the shows I've had the pleasure of seeing at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake this summer. This time round, two worth seeing and one you might want to pass on...

A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN by Eugene O'Neill - to October 9th at the Court House Theatre (three out of four stars)
This is a gritty, rather tough production of O'Neill's play, directed by Joseph Ziegler. It's a very long sit, and won't be for everyone; however, that being said, those who do venture into the theatre for this one will be richly rewarded with some very fine performances indeed.

Jenny Young is very tough but also quite good as Josie Hogan, the daughter of Phil Hogan, a hard-working, hard-drinking farmer just barely making ends meet on a farm that yields very little other than grief. As Phil, Jim Mezon is superb; conniving yet thoughtful; very rough yet with a soft spot for his equally rough daughter Josie. They have a special relationship with their landlord, James Tyrone, Jr., who takes a shine to Josie and Phil aims to sort of "help things along" a little bit. James, however, has a drinking problem, and just what is he going to do with that land, anyway? As James, David Jansen appears at times vulnerable and other times quite in control of things.

This is not a happy play, although it does have some lighter moments. But overall, it is a performance you'll have to work at to enjoy; the rewards come from the dialogue between the three main characters and their uniformly strong performances.

IN GOOD KING CHARLES'S GOLDEN DAYS by Bernard Shaw - to October 9th at the Royal George Theatre (two out of four stars)
You always know going in that a Shaw play is going to be wordy with lots of dialogue between the protagonists; usually, though, that wordiness is accompanied by very clever writing and clearly-defined arguments on both sides, leaving the audience with no doubt what is on Shaw's mind. In this late Shaw offering, dating from 1938-39, you get the words, but alas, not much in the way of substance worth remembering. In Good King Charles's Golden Days, subtitled "A True History That Never Happened", Shaw creates an imaginary 'meeting of the minds' as he brings together Isaac Newton, King Charles II, George Fox, Nell Gwynn and James, Duke of York, among others.

You would think those interesting historical figures could make for some real verbal fireworks and sparkling arguments that keep the audience on the edge of their seats. What we get here, unfortunately, is nothing but words, words, words, almost non-stop for the better part of three hours. At the end of it all, you don't really care what the characters think about anything; it's just that dull. Now, at least there are two intermissions to relieve the tedium, but really, that is small comfort with this production.

Oh, the cast is good and give it their best shot, directed with great attention to detail by Eda Holmes, making for a nice job all round in terms of execution, but where does it get you? As King Charles II, Benedict Campbell gives a very assured performance and is really a pleasure to watch. His brother, James, Duke of York, played by Andrew Bunker, is a bit of a hot-head and the total opposite of the King's amiable and more reasoned demeanor. But their one-on-one discussion in the second act brings the play to a screeching halt and seems to go on forever. Other notable performances include Laurie Paton as Queen Catherine of Braganca; Lisa Codrington as the Duchess of Portsmouth; and Ric Reid as George Fox. Of special interest is Mary Haney as Mrs. Basham, who offers a bit of comic relief in a play that dearly needs much more.

The sets and costumes are nice; the performances are strong; but if you want to see just one play at Shaw this season, take a look at the rest of the playbill. This would not be the one and only you'd want to see this season.

TONIGHT AT 8:30: WAYS OF THE HEART by Noel Coward - to October 11th at the Court House Theatre (three out of four stars)
It has been quite a gamble staging all ten of Noel Coward's one-act plays under the collective title "Tonight at 8:30". The three groupings making up a full evening or afternoon performance have been interesting, yet uneven at best. The performances have been strong; there just doesn't appear to be enough meat on the bone for the actors to sink their collective teeth into.
The lunchtime theatre offering of Star Chamber has been the exception, though, as it has proven to be one of the runaway hits of the 2009 season.

The third and final grouping of Coward's plays, opening late in August, have proven to be a little more substantial and interesting than some of the others, presented at the intimate Court House Theatre. Ways of the Heart groups The Astonished Heart, Family Album and Ways and Means together, with an intermission between one and two, and no break at all between two and three.

Blair Williams directs this group and the set is designed by Su LePage. In both cases, clever touches abound, making the three one-act plays sparkle more than just a little. These are still a bit of a stretch as a full evening's or afternoon's entertainment, but there are enough moments to lighten the load and make them worth the sit.

The cast for all three plays are uniformly good, with David Jansen and Claire Jullien stealing the spotlight in the first play The Astonished Heart, as lovers trying to come to terms with their relationship. It is a rather melodramatic piece, and certainly the longest of the three, but worth a look. Just don't be confused by the scene lineup in the programme: it all becomes clear once you see the play.

In Family Album, we see a funny, almost silly look at a family coming to terms with the death of the family patriarch and the ramifications of said death. Not a lot of meat on the bone here, but some good laughs make it bearable. Of particular note is Michael Ball as the butler Burrows, who gets his own brassy entrance and exit music, which lends considerable comic effect to his doddering characterization.

The final play of the trio, Ways and Means, is preceded by one of the truly great set changes you'll ever see, and sets the stage for a fun, almost nonsensical look at two opportunistic souls, played again by Jansen and Jullien, looking for a way to make some quick cash to pay off their considerable debts and set them up for more fun in the future. Both are fun characterizations,with Jullien showing her very sexy side in this play as well as in The Astonished Heart. The ending is not very likely, but then, why worry about it? This one is just played for fun, as it should be.

Overall, you'll enjoy the grouping of three plays in Ways of the Heart; just don't look for a huge amount of substance here, as has been the case with all ten of these Coward trifles.

September 3rd, 2009.

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