by Lynn on September 5, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Until Oct. 8.

Written by Bernard Shaw

Adapted by Diana Donnelly

Directed by Diana Donnelly

Set by Gillian Gallow

Costumes by Rachel Forbes

Lighting by Michelle Ramsay

Sound by Ryan deSouza

Cast: David Adams

Jason Cadieux

Sharry Flett

Katherine Gauthier

Alexis Gordon

Nathanael Judah

Claire Jullien

Allan Louis

Michael Man

Johnathan Sousa

Sanjay Talwar

A bold, even daring interpretation of Shaw’s play, reflecting our quickly changing times dealing with medical issues that affect us all. At times the design—both set and costumes– muddy the interpretation.

Background. Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma premiered in 1906 at the Royal Court Theatre in London, England. Director Diana Donnelly has updated the play to reflect our world of 2022. She has cut a character, amalgamated dialogue of another and changed the gender of the character of Sir Patrick Cullen who is now Dr. Patricia Cullen. She has also changed Dr. Colenso Ridgeon from just having been knighted to having received the Nobel Prize, because she has moved the play out of England to the ‘here and now.’ (Being knighted and getting the Nobel Prize have both occasionally come with their own questionable baggage).  The language has also been updated. With all the changes, Diana Donnelly is firm that she has served the spirit of Shaw in his play.

The Story. If you were a doctor with a new cure for a disease but were only able to take on a limited number of patients on whom to give the cure, how would you decide what patient to select for the cure?  Would you choose a gifted artist who, alas, is a lying, cheating, womanizer, or would you choose a poor hard-working doctor who caters to the downtrodden, but is unremarkable except for his devotion to his patients? Such a dilemma is facing Dr. Colenzo Ridgeon when Jennifer Dubedat comes to plead the case of her ill husband, artist, Louis Dubedat. Dr. Ridgeon is struck by Mrs. Dubedat’s conviction and her husband’s talent. To make matters more complicated Ridgeon has fallen in love with Mrs. Dubedat. Dr. Ridgeon meets Louis Dubedat. Ridgeon finds Dubedat to be arrogant, pompous, a cheater and a thief. His art work is impressive but Dubedat is horrible. What does Dr. Ridgeon do?

The Production. Director Diana Donnelly has adapted the play to include modern references and place the play in the “here and now.” She has made Dr. Colenzo Ridgeon’s (Sanjay Talwar) honour the Nobel Prize and not a knighthood in order to shift the play away from England and make it more universal. Sanjay Talwar plays Dr. Ridgeon with a lovely sense of himself, but is not arrogant about it. Talwar gives a lovely performance.  

Designer Gillian Gallow has created a sleek setting to suggest the modernity of the vision. Act I takes place in Dr. Colenso Ridgeon’s condo (and not his consulting room as per Shaw’s stage directions). There is a long, bluish backdrop window? Screen? Spare furnishings that don’t look too comfortable or conducive to welcoming company.

Dubedat’s studio in Act III in the program is listed as “The Dubedat’s studio/loft. Now that can’t be right because the studio here is down a flight of rickety stairs, past two small windows high on a wall, to the basement and the actual area for painting is away from any useful light around a corner and over there. There seems to be a bedroom or some kind of room off from this. So the Dubedat’s live in a basement? Louis Dubedat (Johnathan Sousa) paints in a basement with little light? I don’t think so. A bit of an eyebrow knitter there. A working (?) toilet is under the stairs. The walls are full of lashings of paint, unreadable printing on the walls—the light is terrible, on purpose—(Michelle Ramsay does the lighting). There is a throne-like-chair up in an alcove presumably where Louis paints. Gillian Gallow is a wonderful designer. This design of the studio makes no sense.

Rachel Forbes costumes are at times arresting and other times, odd. Dr. Colenzo Ridgeon is conservatively dressed in shirt, jacket and pants and smart shoes. Sanjay Talwar as Dr. Colenzo Ridgeon is both humbled with his new honour—all sorts of friends come to congratulate him—and a bit harried. His housekeeper Emmy (Claire Jullien) wants him to see a woman about her sick husband and Ridgeon refuses.

Emmy is a long-time employee. She has worked for Ridgeon for years and treats him like a young son to be bossed. But the costumes for the character confuse the issue. Claire Jullien as Emmy notes the character is old, but she’s dressed in jeans, a work shirt and high-top sneakers. The dress and the dialogue don’t go together. Claire Jullien plays her like an irreverent teen. Whether it’s a director’s decision or an actor’s choice, it’s interesting but ultimately doesn’t work to clarify the point.

As Dr. Patricia Cullen, Sharry Flett is sleek, stylish, and always watchable. I loved that director Diana Donnelly felt that in the “here and now” one of the doctors should be a woman and that she chose that Dr. Cullen should be changed from being a male character to a woman. Dr. Cullen is the smartest, most intelligent most knowing character in the play. She knows ‘bs’ when she hears it, and Sharry Flett never leaves in doubt how Dr. Patricia Cullen feels about anything.

As the other characters arrive and spout about their ‘discoveries’ there is Dr. Cullen watchful and slightly critical at the stupidity and blinkered ideas of her colleagues. Sharry Flett is always understated, never obvious or overplayed, but always compelling. Dr. Cullen had seen it all before, knows her history and how these ‘discoveries’ were always coming back to embarrass the newest ‘discoverer’, who obviously didn’t know their medical history or what came before them.

I found the juxtaposition of Dr. Cullen’s frequent references to how old she was and the way that Rachel Forbes costumed the character to be interesting, but at odds—modern skinny pants, trendy shoes, an elegant top and fashionable hair cut with the natural hair colour of the actor. It was as if the character’s fashion sense and Shaw’s words some how had a slight disconnect. 

Dr. Cutler Walpole (Allan Louis) enters next. He is supremely confident about his abilities—he believes if anyone is sick it’s because of blood-poisoning and the nuciform sac should be removed at once. No matter the symptoms, for Dr. Walpole the cause is always blood-poisoning and the solution is to remove that (non-existent) nuciform sac.

Rachel Forbes dresses Allan Louis in a vibrant red suit, shirt, and tie and equally striking shoes. The suit says “Look at me!” It accentuates the arrogance of this blinkered doctor. Dr. Ralph Bloomfield Bonnington (David Adams) arrives next to congratulate Ridgeon and to expound on his theories. In this case Dr. Bloomfield Bonnington believes that the cure for all disease is to stimulate the phagocytes and they will do the rest. In this case Rachel Forbes dresses Dr. Bloomfield Bonnington in a light blue suit that has a wild pattern of what looks like clouds or something as attention grabbing but just as improbable. In both cases, the costumes indicate in neon that these two doctors are blowhards and dangerous. Ok, but I thought that was laying it on with a trowel. Surely the audience can figure out these doctors without the neon focus? Nice acting from both Allan Louis and David Adams.

Matters ratchet up when Jennifer Dubedat (Alexis Gordon) arrives to plead her husband, Louis’, case to be saved by Dr. Ridgeon. Alexis Gordon as Jennifer Dubedat is impassioned, determined and singled-minded when trying to convince Dr. Ridgeon to save her husband Louis Dubedat. She extols his virtues, his keen intelligence and his brilliant artistry. By the end of her pleading Ridgeon, Walpole and Bloomfield Bonnington are affected. Even Dr. Cullen is touched. Ridgeon has ulterior motives regarding Dubedat—he’s smitten by Jennifer and if Dubedat dies, Ridgeon can move in. He thinks.

When we meet Louis Dubedat (Johnathan Sousa) one does one’s own assessing of the importance of art, the creation of beauty and living a good, helpful if unremarkable life, and what is more important.

Louis Dubedat is a self-absorbed, narcissistic scoundrel. He is a womanizer—there is a wronged-wife who appears unbeknownst to Jennifer. Louis and his wife are invited to a dinner party hosted by the doctors, and valuables begin to go missing and Louis is the culprit.

Johnathan Sousa plays Louis Dubedat like a preening, impish spoiled teenager. He knows how to work a crowd, charm people and not show he cares what people think in the least. He creates art and that is the most important thing to him. His facility with arguing and proving his point is both impressive and frustrating—he will never ever admit that he might be wrong or a louse.

In her effort to make the play more modern and timely, Diana Donnelly gives Louis Dubedat a showy scene in which Sousa riffs on the contradictions that are Shaw. He is a feminist, a vegetarian and an anti-vaxxer! The verve in which Sousa gives this speech is impressive, but truth to tell, I think it really goes off topic—interesting thoughts though.  

Comment. Diana Donnelly has made the segue from terrific actor to compelling, fascinating director. In the productions I have seen her direct, she has a clear vision of the heart of the plays she works on. Her sense of imagination is vivid and how to tell the story in an inventive way is impressive. Her ideas for The Doctor’s Dilemma are bold, arresting, indicate a keen intelligence and a solid confidence. I do agree gladly with some of her decisions and disagree with some of her conclusions and the presentation, but her work is always so full of imagination and brains, and that includes this production too. The fun is listening to Shaw’s bristling play and in seeing what works and what doesn’t in Diana Donnelly’s production and why.

The Shaw Festival Presents:

Plays until: Oct. 8, 2022

Running time: 3 hours (1 intermission)

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