Oh dear. In his program note, director Tadeusz Bradecki writes “Shaw the ironist and intellectual provocateur is fully himself in this play. He is at the top of his form—and he knows it.” then determinedly goes about “improving” the script and asking many of his talented charges to play the brilliant satire more for farcical yuks than the droll humour and human-foible insights that make the text such a joy to read.
Having a trio of British soldiers (Ali Momen, Craig Pike and Prince Amponsah, ably herded by Richard Stewart whose engaging delivery is one of the few shining lights) set the scenes with unnecessary back-story and spurious historical meanderings (bringing the 1777 American colonies location up and over to the founding of Niagara-on-the-Lake—wink, wink nudge, nudge; say no more?) serves to expand the stage time of the affable troops but weakens the deliberately economical narrative pace. Telling us that the Handel’s string music was composed by Handel adds needless insult to injury. Closing the show with a surfeit of Yankee jingoism makes the final curtain more a blessing than a deft adieu overshadowing the heroine’s (Fiona Byrne) character-revealing final line.
Even before Shaw cues the dour, desperately devoted Mrs. Dudgeon (Donna Belleville, shedding more alligator than crocodile tears to non-family as she piously grieves for her suddenly departed, estranged husband), Bradecki foreshadows the overarching tenor and tone by bringing literal meaning to “gallows humour.” The opening-night crowd seemed delighted to observe Peter Dudgeon (her husband’s brother) summarily executed by the British in a tableau of redcoat justice. God save the King. The playwright chose a subtler, kinder route from a typical rebuke (“… you unfeeling sinful girl, falling asleep like that, and father hardly cold in his grave.”) to Essie (Lucy Campbell) Peter’s bastard daughter whose unrespectable lineage has forced her into the service of the unloved matriarch.
Having twin Dudgeon deaths within hours of each other necessitates a visit to the scary widow from Reverend Anthony Anderson (Peter Krantz—too earnest to start then too cavalier—although his metaphorical pair of pistols tickled many funny bones—as the born-again rebel), his much-younger wife, Judith (Byrne does her best to balance the extra mayhem) the family (Jonathan Widdifield—replete with loose-fitting stockings—does son Christy up to a T; Anthony Bekenn’s nearly reformed alcoholic brother William is a treat; Guy Bannerman plays brother Titus with welcome understatement and Evan Buliung’s black-son-of-the-tribe, Richard, completes the clan). As the self-described devil’s disciple, Buliung provides many of the show’s finest moments, instilling an ideal ebb and flow with his lines before letting one of Shaw’s zingers fly (“Thou shalt not kill” spoke volumes).
Of course, the main event at the dysfunctional family’s gathering to mourn their loss is the reading of the will. Lorne Kennedy proves yet again his mastery of all things comedic, making an entrance that had the house howling before a word was required to be uttered from Lawyer Hawkins’ lips. Fun as that was, the carnival atmosphere created seemed out of place with all that followed. Far more truly amusing (and more in character) was Kennedy’s search for his glasses.
Physical comedy also drops in as an unwelcome guest in the final act. The arrival at British headquarters by General John Burgoyne (beautifully nuanced speeches from Jim Mezon) sets in motion a quick-moving game of hide-and-seek with the long-serving Major Swindon (Peter Millard in fine form). Once again the yuks are harvested (notably a well-timed sliding door slam) at the expense of what follows. “Martyrdom, sir, is what these people like: it is the only way in which a man can become famous without ability,” says Burgoyne. To be sure, Mezon makes Shaw’s point hit home, but it lacks the intended punch that a more, well, British entry onto Peter Hartwell’s perfectly functional stage would have elicited from the Upper Canadian patrons.
Those seeking entertainment will find much to enjoy; others, hoping to dig deep in the societal failings of the era (blind-eye rule and women’s rights being just two) may wish to broaden their understanding and horizons elsewhere. JWR