In countless subway, metro and underground stations worldwide, devotees of public transportation are extolled in many languages to “mind the gap” between the platform and doorways of mass-transit canisters that whisk humanity through dark tunnels along gleaming tracks to their next appointment, meal, entertainment or tryst. One false step—especially for those wearing impractical but destination-smart heels—and a serious accident could result.
If only such warnings could be posted in the hearts and hormones of those who are never satisfied by an outwardly solid relationship so, seemingly unstoppably, seek much younger conquests to affirm their own youth/desirability or much older partners to secure wealth and incessant adulation.
Anyone who’s ever fantasized, sampled, or fallen head-over-heels for another well beyond their generational divide will find much to savour in the Shaw Festival’s production of A Month in the Country.
The play was written by Russian Ivan Turgenev in Paris over a two-year period (1848-1850). Its title struggled from The Student to Two Women to the present name but, due to many concerns of the Russian censors (the institution of marriage doesn’t come off too well; Adultery “R” Us abounds) its première performance wasn’t possible until 1872. Over time, Turgenev’s two-act, action-lite, psychological/emotional depiction of the turmoil one 21-year-old male tutor can have on an upper-class country estate has been hailed as ground-breaking work that found its roots in Gogol (Turgenev was banished to his country estates for writing a complimentary obituary of the acrid satirist) and paved the way for Chekov’s furtherance of putting the human condition ahead of flash and fanfare in drama.
Fast forward to 1992 where Irish playwright Brian Friel had generously translated Turgenev’s love-triangle tale (nearly-thirty mother and her seventeen-year-old ward pine for the newly arrived tutor) with the solo piano music of John Field (1782-1837, widely attributed with the invention of the “Nocturne,” who spent much of his life in St. Petersburg as a celebrated teacher, bon vivant, womanizer and ended up suffering from severe bowel disorders) sprinkled into the proceedings to express in sounds what mere dialogue and far-away looks cannot.
With a large cast (fourteen strong), meeting of the minds (albeit from different points of view Shaw: "A man learns to skate by staggering about making a fool of himself; indeed, he progresses in all things by making a fool of himself."; Turgenev: “The only people who remain understood are either those who do not know what they want or are not worth understanding.”) and a season that’s chock-a-block full of plays about love, it seems only natural that the Canadian première of Friel’s rendition, directed by Tadeusz Bradecki, should take place in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
As the shutters rise (designer Peter Hartwell’s largely earth-tone set with matching costumes uses the simple flip of the slats from drawing-room brown to gazebo sponge-paint green to shift the point of view) the matriarch of the Islayev estate (Patricia Hamilton, too petulant here but a marvel of refined understatement in Act II) is playing cards before dinner. Attempting to win tricks from her are a happily lecherous German tutor, Herr Schaaf (David Schurmann is amiable and quite fun as he butchers the English language and secretly beds one of the servants) and her snuff-addicted companion, Lizaveta Bogdanovna (in this smaller role, Sharry Flett frequently outshines the other women).
Dreamily engaged in crafting a truly timeless watercolour, Natalya (Fiona Byrne) spars with her longtime more-than-just-friend, Michel (David Jansen, still in search of inner heat) even as her ward Vera (Marla McLean) is heard but not seen working through one of Field’s Nocturne’s (the unaccredited recording with its stilted movement, rather than seamless ebb and flow, seems at one with the action if not the composer’s intent). Also offstage is Natalya’s long-suffering husband (he just doesn’t know it), Arkady (Blair Williams), busily at work on the property’s weir (in his mind, the fish waterway most certainly should not be referred to as a “dam”) and an “astonishing” winnowing machine (this metaphor of separating the wheat from the chaff hugely apt for the play and its company).
Suddenly, Aleksey (Martin Happer), boyishly immersed in a game of hide-and-seek with his never-seen charge Kolya, bursts into the parlour. He’s mortified at being caught looking ridiculous in front of his employer and her entourage. It’s a welcome moment as—in the early going—the cast hasn’t found its ensemble legs. The dialogue’s rhythm can’t find the pulse—lines are nearly missed or trampled over. Happer’s brief appearance provides an opportunity to regroup but his over-the-top, bare-leg-in-the-drawing-room embarrassment serves only to foreshadow further unnecessary “easy jokes” to come (the ice-cream-making gag a sad example) than break up the tenor and tone of the first scene. But don’t blame the capable actor: nine times out of ten these bits of business come from the director and the 10th ought to be nipped in the rehearsal bud.
Ric Reid to the rescue. As, quite literally and symbolically, the house physician, the entrance of Doctor Ignaty Ilyich Shpigelsky, lights up both sides of the footlights and shifts the production into high gear. The self-made peasant (the last of fourteen children) tells terrible jokes, is reluctant to cure his patients (there’d be no income) and is not adverse to being a go-between for the rich when they can’t find the words or the courage to express their amorous feelings for each other.
In many ways, this is Turgenev’s most complete character. The wily quack is happy to let himself be ridiculed by those he detests. Pragmatic to a fault, he flits in and out of the lives and affairs of all those around him before finally setting his sights on Lizaveta. His last laugh is to compromise and settle for permanence and fidelity. Reid knows all of this in spades and uses his impeccable timing, dour looks and introspective abilities to live the role and challenge his colleagues to do likewise.
As the conundrums mount, they seem to be fuelled by disparities in age: Natalya is smitten with Aleksey and is prepared to duke it out with her talented ward for a roll in Arkady’s wheat—happy to leave her dotty husband and wimpish lover. She’ll even entertain a proposal (brokered for three horses and a carriage by Dr. Shpigelsky) from her aging neighbour, the rich, virgin (!) Afanasy Ivanovich Bolshintsov (done up to perfection by Michael Ball), to improve her lustful odds. For his part, Aleksey (when pushed by both mother and ward) admits his desire for the finer things in life that will be his should he accept Natalya’s hardly discreet invitation to a private picnic and swim.
Meanwhile, in the pantry, young Katya (Moya O’Connell) is being relentlessly pursued by the more-than-twice-her-age butler, Matvey (Thom Marriott, who also oversees the almost seamless scene changes with peasants Billy Lake and Jesse Martyn). But before you can say “I love you without reservation” Natalya and Michel are discovered in lip lock, which soon leads to all relationships—real or imagined, wanted or not—coming out of the gazebo like the soiled laundry that strangely adorns it earlier.
In the tradition of “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen,” there is soon a raft of sudden departures from the privileged home that echo the Titanic and settle just about nothing.
The final tableau of the deliriously happy Bolshintsov staring up blissfully to heaven, while his angel plays more Field, is only marred by a final, unexpected dissonance from the piano, where a truncated phrase would have put the onus on the audience to ponder the fate and state of love-at-any-cost. JWR