Noël Coward’s thinly veiled, but richly textured ménage à trois is playing to near-capacity houses at The Shaw Festival. Nonetheless, during the “show,” the defection of a few shocked patrons to the safer confines of wineries and eateries can be expected after each of the acts reveals the intimate details (prude alert: even a quartet of ass cheeks flashes into view) of two men and a woman in search of themselves.
What fun that the script (largely untampered with, save and except for a dry-sack Spanish dildo and the final business where a cheap funny-hat elicits the roar of laughter that the original’s far more metaphorical stumble over some wrapped-up modern art was meant to ignite) employs (literally) the “gay” word in its happy rather than same-sex connotation with nary a chortle from the throng.
No matter, as Helen (Jessica Lowry) blurts out late in the game, “It’s silly to laugh at things just because you don’t understand them.”
Under director Morris Panych’s sympathetic, if a touch pandering-to-the-bus-tours eye, this production is an intriguing collection of theatrical hits and misses that deserves a viewing no matter which side (er, sides?) of the me-I, sexual liberation camp you call home.
The first hit is a home run: Ken MacDonald’s set is a wonder of camp, functionality and design for viewing. The comic book trellis-walls, with a triple play crooked-martini-glass depiction of the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and Empire State Building framing the trio of locations is worth a standing O in itself. (Charlotte Dean’s slinky/tailored costumes are another marvel and all things visual get a major assist from Alan Brodie’s reinforcing lighting-plot—if only the impressionistic piano-strings scene transitions had their volume set a notch lower …).
Of the lead players, Graeme Somerville’s portrayal of Otto leads the pack. His Act I outburst at the discovery of Gilda’s (Nicole Underhay) roll in the hay with the suddenly enriched playwright Leo (David Jensen) is at once stylish and convincing. The early-going subtext that the two men have shared more than artistic temperament is subtly etched through his glances, body language and tone. Once the, er, bed sheets, have turned and it’s Leo's turn to be outraged, Coward’s saucy and, for its time, sensational script has Otto offer the perfect lead into his revenge romp. The lusty pair use the notion of change for foreplay while sharing salad, ham and creamless rice pudding: “It isn’t only success that does it—it’s time, experience and new circumstances.”
After the inevitable discovery by Leo, and Gilda’s to-hell-with-you-both exit, the pyjama-clad Somerville orchestrates the second act drunk-scene with aplomb. Whatever doubt remains about the affections between the writer and painter vanish as easily as the brandy dregs give way to the sherry. “Love among the artists,” indeed!
Jensen’s Leo is amiable and infused with just the right amount of full-of-himself puffery once his seventh play becomes a hit. Sadly, in the final act reunion (following a two-year hiatus) his transformation to an outrageous Queer of the Night (egged on with gay abandon by Somerville) goes far over the top and leaves the impression that another play has just begun. Panych, it seems, opts to let his charges run with their happily manic delivery rather than imbue their coming-out sequence with discretion and a wink. More’s the pity as that tone drags Gilda squarely into the role of fag-hag rather than the sexual catalyst that steams up nearly every frame of Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (cross-reference below).
Despite a valiant attempt, Underhay can’t quite slip into much less under Gilda’s skin. A broader range and keener sense of timing are required to lift the challenging part from declamation to awakening and insight.
Lorne Kennedy’s Ernest improves with every line. The mature, lover-of-them-all art dealer’s mad scene is powerful and convincing, but the aforementioned prop-switch makes his exit more that of a buffoon rather than the collective object of ridicule. Only the outrageous, misunderstood work of Matisse can bring him any comfort now.
No worries. Long after the curtain has fallen, the memory of Gilda’s maid, Miss Hodge (Jane Johanson—a walk away for this season’s Best Supporting Actor Award) and her moral outrage at the seemingly endless parade of bedfellows confirms the brilliance of the writing and the promise of this production.
Coward lets Otto explain for him: “If you’re a writer it’s your duty to write what you think. If you don’t, you’re … a cheat and a hypocrite.” Can’t argue with that. JWR