by Lynn on July 21, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by W.S. Gilbert
Directed by Morris Panych
Sets by Ken MacDonald
Costumes by Charlotte Dean
Lighting by Alan Brodie
Original music by Ryan deSouza
Cast: Julia Course
Diana Donnelly
Matthew Finlan
Mary Haney
Martin Happer
Claire Jullien
Jeff Meadows
Gray Powell
Ric Reid
Nicole Underhay
Shawn Wright

A seriously funny, intensely silly play done absolutely straight which adds to the hilarity.

The Story. Cheviot Hill, dashing, moneyed and still single at 32, never met a woman with who he didn’t fall in love. Instantly. His train has had some trouble in the village of Gretna, on the border between England and Scotland, and the passengers have to de-train. They are offered help and lodging by some enterprising townsfolk namely Angus Macalister (who deliberately caused the train to derail in order to get the business of the passengers). Angus is in love with Maggie Mcfarlane and she with him. He proposes and she accepts. But then Cheviot sees Maggie and professes his love to her and she is bewitched by him. In the course of the play Cheviot will be besotted by four other women including Maggie’s matter-of-fact-mother, but only fleetingly.

Love might drive the stories but money is at the heart of them. People who don’t have it want it. People who have it want to keep it. Everybody is plotting in the most convoluted of ways to get it from people they think have it. It’s dizzying.

The Production. Director Morris Panych is very serious about comedy as one can see from his many productions for the Shaw Festival and environs. He knows that the key to realizing the comedy is to play the play very seriously and this is certainly true in Engaged (never mind that W.S. Gilbert noted playing the comedy very seriously in his stage directions—it’s just a truism of good comedy).

Set designer Ken MacDonald has created a wild world of blazing colour and gigantic, eye-popping flowers—flowers as background; flowers as embroidery on pillows on couches with flowers in the design of the fabric. As Cheviot Hill’s eye roves and is dazzled by the next woman to come into his view, so MacDonald creates sets that go with that world that attracts our attention but doesn’t detract from the play. Charlotte Dean’s costumes have their own wit but serve the character as well.

The cast is a joy, taking every bit of business that Morris Panych offers them and flying with it. Leading the pack of serious comedic actors is Gray Powell as Cheviot Hill. Powell is such a gifted actor. He imbues his characters with a truth that is unwavering. Cheviot Hill is committed to every woman he falls in love with. It is instantaneous. As played by Gray Powell it is convincing. We never think anything but that he is deeply in love. We know it’s folly. He doesn’t and we just go with him. Cheviot Hill is not thrown by any obstacle in the road to love. He adapts, deflects, ducks and misses anything that will stop him in his quest. Words and excuses fall trippingly from his mouth. He’s a master of glibness. As his hands plough through his hair for more inspiration Powell ramps up his characterization. Masterful.

Julia Course as Maggie Mcfarlane and Martin Happer as Angus Macalister, Maggie’s intended, wring every curlicue from their characters’ respective Scottish accents and make us listen intently. All deadly serious. All hilarious. And there are bagpipes too. Wonderful.

Comment. Gilbert without Sullivan. But you certainly see the wit and whimsy that W.S.Gilbert would instil in his lyrics written to the music of his writing partner Sir Arthur Sullivan for their many Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. But Gilbert on his own skewered many sacred cows: marriage, love, marrying for money; the Scots. He was a biting social critic with a sharp sense of humour.

In Gilbert’s day (more than 100 years ago) Engaged was billed as a ‘burlesque comedy.’ Today it would be considered a farce. Either way it’s fast paced, funnier with each passing complication, and stinging with its focus on the importance of money above all else.

The Shaw Festival Presents:

Opened: June 24, 2016.
Closes: October 23, 2016.
Cast: 11; 6 men, 5 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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