There’s a funny thing happening at the Shaw Festival—a self-confessed philanderer is diddling two women simultaneously and getting away with it. Worse: capacity houses are lapping up his unconcealed lechery and laughing out loud as, at various times, his conquests are kissed, insulted and cajoled into all manner of trysts, lies and proposals. But what’s the source of this unabashed humour? George Bernard Shaw’s rapier wit or the nervous unease of the assembled cross-section of humanity as the memory of their own indiscretions—past, present or tonight after the show—tickle their funny bones or prick their consciences as the case may be.
Director Alisa Palmer (last seen at the Shaw with a memorable production of Belle Moral: A Natural History, 2005) has drawn a marvelously varied array of timbres and tones from her able cast.
As philosopher/philanderer Leonard Charteris, Ben Carlson spits out his myriad lines in breathtaking, machine-gun rapidity with only a few misfires tarnishing the effect. His first quasi paramour (she’s a widow), Grace Tranfield finds Deborah Hay (also appearing in The Circle) declaiming her sentiments in a cool detached manner that’s the very model of how a “New Woman” (self-reliant, masters of their own affairs in what was previously a man’s world) should. In stark contrast is the broadly melodramatic delivery employed by Nicole Underhay as she brings Julia Craven to a larger-than-life caricature of Grace’s jealous competitor—their cat fights ooze with an intensity and viciousness that, surely, could only happen on the stage.
Grace’s father, Joseph Cuthbertson—a man of the world and theatre critic—is rendered with bombast and bluster by Norman Browning even as he sees his “Old World” torn asunder by the latest ideas from science and social philosophers. Childhood chum, Colonel Daniel Craven has sired two daughters: Julia, the eldest and Sylvia (Nicola Correia-Damude who infuses just the right amount of butch, allowing her role to resonate on another plane for some of the faithful). On Peter Hutt’s watch, the apparently-dying-from-a-just-discovered-liver-disease widower doesn’t hesitate to slip up to a frantic high register and hilariously stretch his vowels as his life jumps from prescribed death to loss of principle (he bristles at the prospect of joining London’s Ibsen club) and—finally—to father-of-the-bride.
The origin of much of the Colonel’s grief can be traced to his physician—Dr. Percy Paramore (Peter Krantz). It’s the ambitious medicine man whose slight research (3 dogs and a monkey—all his conscience would allow to be sacrificed) has led him to conclude that his disease (“Paramore’s”—no greater honour than to have a cause of death bear your name) will, sadly, kill his patient, but add respect and glory to its “clever” discoverer. But, oops, the new issue of the British Journal of Medicine—articles penned by foreigners no less!—shows Paramore to be a quack. Understandably, Colonel Craven is pissed (for over a year) in a faint hope of extending his time on earth, he’s given up booze and meat, reconciled with his enemies—even attended church more frequently.
But what’s the humiliated man of science to do? Easy: propose marriage to his ex-patient’s daughter, Julia. (Does anyone still believe that sitcoms are an invention of TV?) Through all of this, Hutt utilizes his unfailing comedic sense and a drole tone that spans the range from petulant defender of vivisection (Is killing defenceless animals in the laboratory any less cruel than Colonel Craven mowing down naked spear-carrying warriors in Sudan?) to deliriously happy betrothed.
Even the Page (Michael Strathmore) gets into the aural hijinks by wandering the all-are-equal club in search of its uppity members, employing an everyman’s lilt that feminist Grace finds offensive.
A few splashes of Grieg’s Incidental Music to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (notably “Anitra’s Dance” that effortlessly sets the mood for Act II’s Ibsen Club follies) complete the rich array of sound.
Yet not everything rings true. Curiously, Palmer’s insertion of a contrived testicle crunch for Charteris works intellectually as metaphor but seems at odds with the script’s steady flow. Similarly, the take-your-pulse-in-lieu-of-handshake gag between Dr. Paramore and his condemned/reborn patient should have been expunged during the previews. Trust the master: wit always trumps trite stunts.
From a visual perspective, Judith Bowden has designed the three sets (drawing-room, Ibsen Club library, Dr. Paramore’s receiving room) in a skillful fashion that shows each to be unique even as certain elements remain. A drop curtain adds another layer of depth to the stage: unforgettable is the opening “enter kissing” that brilliantly mixes the personal moment with the fatherly inquest to come.
And nothing finer than to have a pair of bronze, silent beauties guarding the lip of the stage while their centuries younger sisters fight like the dickens to be treated like men. JWR