The Shaw Festival’s sixth production of Misalliance proves once again how timeless the Irish playwright’s ideas on class, infidelity and bullying are as relevant today as they were to the audiences that took in the première in 1910. Have we learned nothing or, in fact, is human nature truly mired in the ruts of greed, dalliance and the quiet joy of humiliation?
Director Eda Holmes has done a most credible job bringing the two families of aristocrats and untitled entrepreneurs onto, above and around Judith Bowen’s ‘60s set (replete with a suspended swing chair that subtly balances the single-prop crash landing that spectacularly kicks off the post-intermission proceedings with enough lift to easily outpace the far more pedantic—necessarily, given Shaw’s penchant to thoroughly lay out his thesis—first half).
First up representing the extraordinarily successful purveyors of underwear (in the tradition of Canada’s Stanfield’s) is the layabout heir, Johnny Tarleton (Jeff Meadows in fine form if—at times—a touch too petulant, causing his social superiority to the houseguests to wither on the characterization vine—belying his early statement: “I like a man who makes up his mind once and for all as to what’s right and what’s wrong and then sticks to it.” Of course, few of Shaw’s characters can survive their own utterances, but Johnny’s snivelling nearly overshadows the real babies in this collection of outlandish adults).
Extra-bookish Tarleton senior is given a note-perfect portrayal thanks to Thom Marriott’s superb tonal ability to brazenly have his way with employees or visitors alike, exude a completely believable air of sexless love for his long-suffering wife (sympathetically rendered by the seemingly ageless Catherine McGregor) and fund a gaggle of public libraries—all with the spoils of selling garments that are the last outpost of decency before animal desire conquers all (“Read D.H. Lawrence”).
The other lady of the Tarleton manor is the semi-engaged, totally bored, nubile-and-she-knows-it young lady, Hypatia (her namesake being a revered Greek mathematician). Krista Colosimo is more than up to the role of an idle rich girl seizing the moment for incalculable adventure while simultaneously settling the score with two other men seeking her charms but who never had a chance at landing the fickle tease (“Read Coward”).
One of her paramours is the “accidental child,” Bentley (a.k.a. Bunny) Summerhays. Ben Sanders aptly employs his slight physique and howling temper tantrum skills to bring the little baby to comic life. The other spurned suitor of she-who-must-be-laid is none other than Bunny’s dad, Lord Summerhays. It is hard to imagine anyone else playing the former ruler of a darkest Africa colony than Peter Krantz. His wide ranging delivery is a model of declamation for actors young or old from the marvellously droll (“Yes. Democracy reads well, but it doesn’t act well, like some people’s plays.”—the first real laugh of opening night) to a universal truth that rings far too loudly in 2012 (“Men are not governed by law or persuasion. When they refuse to be governed by law or persuasion, they have to be governed by force or fraud or both.”) through to a succinct understanding of the familial divide (and Shaw’s theme) (“Parents and children, Tarleton.”). “Read any newspaper.”
What action there is moves into high, frantic gear with the aerial home invasion of three-fathers Joey Percival (Wade Bogert-O’Brien offers just the right mix of reluctant lover and unrepentant faux defender of honour) and daily thrill seeker Lina Szcepanowska (after Krantz, Tara Rosling is the most consistently believable actor of the ensemble).
With the entire world of socialism on his shoulders, Craig Pike completes the troupe as the suddenly named Gunner. Shaw uses his last arrival as the catalyst to conclusively air much dirty laundry (Tarleton’s, of course) on both sides of the highly strung class/parents-children divides (and unlike daredevil Nik Wallenda for his appointment with fate over Niagara Falls, none of these intrepid souls has the benefit of a tether).
At the height of the multiple dénouements, the downed pilot has the line du jour regarding what a crap shoot adult relationships are: “He [a priest and one of Joey’s trio of dads] said Cupid was nothing but the blindfolded child.”
From Shaw’s deadly accurate point of view, the notion of “love is blind” is sometimes reinforced but more frequently trumped by the lust of opportunism (not to mention its frequent bedmates avarice and power) ruling the actions of all of those who believe they are entitled to get away with their deceits. JWR