Artistic directors of repertory theatres plan in many different ways. Like fine-dining chefs, they painstakingly select a variety of works from the literary market then attempt to engage the ideal actors and designers to bring their vision to life. First comes the “dream team” then, faced with humungous egos, over-stretched budgets and scheduling conflicts, the leadership gradually cobbles together a season of plays that simultaneously fulfills the stated mandate and has at least the potential to fill the house for every performance. The ideal result—on paper—should demonstrate that every production in the line-up is both attractive in its own right as well as a logical and necessary component of the whole. Over time, artistic directors are more judged by their seasons than individual triumphs.
On the other side of the lights, the audience seldom subscribes to every item offered on the menu. Mini-packs and multi-performance discounts have just as much pull in seat selections as the actual fare. Local patrons slip south for the winter; tourists, necessarily, can only fit in so many events during their excursions to far-off venues.
Which brings us to the critics. These professional attendees have the greatest odds of “seeing” the entire roundup and are faced with a constant conundrum: Do we review each production from the largely singular point of view of the crowd around us or do we set our sights on the value of each presentation to the collective goal?
Mid-way through the roll-out of the Shaw Festival’s 2006 season, Love Among the Russians (Morwyn Brebner’s fresh adaptations of Anton Chekhov’s The Bear and The Proposal) is the perfect foil to the generally staid work thus far. The incongruous hilarity of the original is frequently overshadowed by way-over-the-top broad, physical humour that brilliantly entertains newcomers even as the veterans squirm in their seats.
Directed with zest by Eda Holmes, this sixty-minute foray into the perils of love, spiced with copious amounts of pratfalls, puns and principled predicaments is the funniest farce to date and a must-see for those able to leave their pretensions at the door.
Both plays are well served by the specially created song, “Don’t Fall in Love” (music by Paul Sportelli and Jay Turvey to Brebner’s whacky lyrics: “Love is a flower, but in it hides a beetle”). Every inch of the Court House Theatre is used to introduce the sextet of characters (played by four actors, see budget, above) who fearlessly deliver the generation-now dialogue “improvements” (“glitterati” and “take it outside” to name but two) even as they are draped in late nineteenth century costumes and supported (well, mostly—the decaying chair gag in The Bear is a hoot) by period furniture.
William Vickers is steady and stoic as Luka, egging his mourning mistress (Diana Donnelly) to open the windows and rejoin the world. It falls to a creditor, Grigory Stepanovich Smirnov (Blair Williams, zanily madcap as he tries to collect the cash for his oats but ends up feeling them) to rock the widow’s solitude with demands for payment that are nearly settled by a duel. The mayhem is infectious—marred only by scraps of dialogue (“little skirt” is actually a full-length gown; “played my feelings like a fine wine,” er, violin?) that are at odds with the action.
The transition from the first “one-acter” to the next is worth the price of admission alone. Guitar and tambourine are no longer hoisted in anger but joined by an ever-so-appropriate squeeze box in an encore of the “love motif.” The fleet-footed cast has soon rearranged William Schmuck’s easily functional set while kicking up their heels and warning of the perils of the heart.
Act II and Finale
In The Proposal, Martin Happer more than makes up for his pitch-puzzled singing voice by providing many moments of body contortion that drive the comedic pace faster than his colleagues can match. As neighbouring landowner and would-be suitor, Ivan Vasylievich Lomov, Happer throws his thin frame and boyish face into full-length twitches and a deft rendition of a hunting dog’s under-bite that instantly have the onlookers howling with glee.
“My heart is swelling up” works on every possible plane as the object of his affections, Natalya Stepanovna (Donnelly again—a tad too petulant, but the perfect foil to her palpitating admirer), “can’t not get married,” preferring to bicker rather than beguile.
As her long-suffering father, Stepan Stepanovich Chubukov, Vickers pushes too hard, slipping into buffoonery (aided and abetted by the script with its soon-tiresome “blah, blah, blah” and fox vs. sheep joke) that brings back memories of The Three Stooges where Charlie Chaplin would be more appropriate.
No worries! By the time the combative wooers are at each other’s throats over whose dog needs an orthodontist, the audience is rolling in the aisles in sympathy and replays of their own ridiculous arguments—the first sign that love has struck again! JWR