The summer theatre season began officially last week with the opening of five productions at the Shaw Festival. Is there a common thread to them? Were there any surprises? Disappointments? Cause for celebration? Our theatre critic, Lynn Slotkin has seen the shows and is here to tell us about them.
Hello Lynn. Since this is a roundup of the first set of openings, is there a thread that ties them together?
In her program note, Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell says that comedy is the binding thread for her season, and that’s certainly obvious with these five shows: AN IDEAL HUSBAND, THE CHERRY ORCHARD, ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, HARVEY AND THE WOMEN. I would go further because there are various types of comedy at play here.
AN IDEAL HUSBAND is a play of wit and intrigue both political and psychological. THE CHERRY ORCHARD, is a typical example of a Chekhov comedy with serious undertones. HARVEY and the rarely done musical ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, are pure whimsy, with a strong centre. And THE WOMEN, is a biting satire about the ‘weaker’ sex showing how tough and formidable they can be. These plays are comedies of substance — they are certainly not inconsequential or frivolous.
Briefly, what are these plays about?
AN IDEAL HUSBAND (Oscar Wilde) is about an honourable politician who is being blackmailed by a scheming but charming woman.
THE CHERRY ORCHARD, (Chekhov) is about a family in debt and denial who refuse to sell their beloved Cherry Orchard, which would get them out of debt. They are finally forced to sell and they are shocked when they find out who the buyer is.
ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, a musical by Kurt Weil, Ogden Nash and S.J. Perelman, is about a meek barber who brings a statue of Venus to life by putting a ring on her finger. Bits of The Stepford Wives, Desperate Housewives, and the rocky road to love.
HARVEY by Mary Chase, is about a man Elwood P. Dowd, who’s best friend is HARVEY, an imaginary six foot tall rabbit. Elwood drinks, but he is the most well-mannered considerate character in the play. So a comedy to be sure, but with a sobering message.
And finally THE WOMEN by Clare Booth Luce. A happily married woman finds out from her very good “friends” that her husband of 12 years is having an affair. She is urged to divorce him by these very good friends who don’t hesitate to back-bite, front-bite, and in the end, get their comeuppance.
Were there any surprises, disappointments and cause for celebration?
A bit of all three. I was surprised that no play by Shaw was in the first set of openings. This isn’t a criticism. I thought that a daring move by Jackie Maxwell. Something to keep us a bit off balance, and not complacent. We have to wait until July for the next set of openings for Shaw to make his appearance. And while I think the Shaw Festival Company is one of the strongest anywhere, I am always surprised when an actor I respect pulls out the stops and goes one step further. Or an actor I thought was ok gives a performance that is stellar. And that happened often with these openings.
Give us some brief details.
With AN IDEAL HUSBAND, Jackie Maxwell’s staging seemed like both grand opera and melodrama. Judith Bowden’s set was huge and dark for some scenes. I thought that odd considering the play. But I have such respect for their work they did get me to try and figure it out instead of rejecting it outright. That said, I do think the play is served. With Steven Sutcliffe giving an appropriately flamboyant performance of a character who seems silly but is anything but.
With HARVEY, I was hugely impressed with Peter Krantz as Elwood. He made Elwood courtly, gentle but smart. At times I thought I saw that rabbit.
In THE CHERRY ORCHARD, Benedict Campbell gives a fearless heartbreaking performance as the man who buys the cherry orchard.
ONE TOUCH OF VENUS is a surprise because it’s rarely done. It is an off the wall musical that does not conform to any of the rules of musical theatre, and it works. Some of the singing was questionable but performances by Mark Uhre and Deborah Hay are clever and funny and save.
And with THE WOMEN, it’s always a romp seeing so many woman characters behaving so badly, in such a stylish production.
So, some concerns about some productions but on the whole I thought it was a strong opening week at The Shaw Festival.
AN IDEAL HUSBAND, THE CHERRY ORCHARD, ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, HARVEY and THE WOMEN continue at the Shaw Festival until October.