Back-to-back comedies about the institution of marriage comprise the second group of openings at the 2014 Shaw Festival. J.B. Priestley’s When We Are Married received its second Niagara-on-the-Lake airing (Tony van Bridge directed it last in 1990) while Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story had its inaugural Shaw turn at the Festival Theatre.
At one time or another, couples in both plays have their wedding vows shaken to the core.
We’re All Human
Director Joseph Ziegler, blessed with one of the finest ensemble casts anywhere, has cobbled together an engaging take on the dilemma of three couples celebrating their silver anniversary (all married on the same day in the same location and by the same vicar) only to discover from a young, not-ashamed-to-be-lustful organist (Charlie Gallant who most certainly knows that his redeemer liveth!) that they are all living in sin: the happy day, the minister was not empowered to tie anyone’s knot.
Once that plot twist is discovered by all concerned (and threatens to go viral thanks to the eavesdropping cook, Mrs. Northrop—Mary Haney in superb form), the sudden freedom liberates mouths, hearts and pent-up hurts that would be the envy of any marriage counsellor.
The men (Thom Marriott—the ruler of his roost and host, Alderman Joseph Helliwell—readily oils his way through all circumstances like any half-truth politician; playing the hen-pecked Herbert Soppitt, Patrick Galligan’s metamorphosis to He Who Must Be Obeyed is a show-stopping highlight; stinginess personified could likely find no better champion than Patrick McManus as Councillor Albert Parker) seek the refuge of their club to plot strategy.
Left on their own for a bit, the women (Claire Jullien finds the perfect tone of simmering outrage for Maria Helliwell when an unexpected assignation comes to light; Kate Hennig’s Clara Soppitt’s withering truth telling about her “dull”—wink, wink, nudge, nudge—relationship is a marvel of subtext and timing; the transition to power is charmingly served up by Catherine McGregor as Annie Parker) alternate between revelling in their new-found circumstances and trembling at the possibility of losing their model-of-society status.
Tying the smartly staged (the male/female trios moving tutti in collective comeuppance being just one fine example) production together is the original photographer’s return to snap the anniversary picture for the local paper. Guzzling down far more booze than pouring out fixer in the darkroom, Peter Krantz happily staggers through the role of Henry Ormonroyd with a couple of drops too much volume in his largely philosophical declamations. His dear buddy and sometime Alderman temptress, Lotte Grady, is played with conviction and street-smart wisdom by Fiona Byrne.
At times silly—but engagingly frothy as the play is—the audience reaction ranged from hearty guffaws to odd bits of nervous laughter. Who knows how many marriage licences were checked for authenticity after the curtain fell so happily ever after?
Venue trumps intimacy
One of the Shaw Festival’s great strengths is its variety of venues. The soaring fly tower and large stage of the Festival Theatre allow directors and designers the ability to run wild with their imaginations; the no-bad-seat-in-the-house Royal George Theatre is ideal for plays more focussed on the spoken word than the wow factor of sets, costumes and special effects. The Court House Theatre easily provides a you-are-there feel for patrons and the versatility of the Studio Theatre serves a most important purpose as an ideal incubator for new work and emerging practitioners.
Curiously, director Dennis Garnhum’s production of Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story is a sumptuous feast for the eye (it is well-nigh impossible to outdo master designer William Schmuck in either sets or costumes when given full rein in the flagship venue; veteran Kevin Lamotte’s lighting brought everything to glorious life and cue-by-cue focus), if a somewhat meagre meal for the intellect. The lavish country house manages to dwarf the ensemble whose many intimate dialogues and situations, necessarily, have to be declaimed at full bore, robbing some moments of sotto voce nuance that any of the other venues routinely allow.
Thanks to George Cukor’s 1940 classic film, it’s hard not to feel/hear/see the ghosts of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart walking the boards with their present-day “incarnations.” Moya O’Connell is a wonderfully radiant, patiently self-insightful Tracy Lord while Gray Powell brings a suitably, worldly, determined tone to the catalytic role of C.K. Dexter Haven. McManus is ideally cast as Macaulay Connor, knowing most assuredly when to take a dip in the relationship pool but also how to cool his jets of passion when Tracy nearly drowns in the elixir of love.
Serving as comic relief to the unfolding drama of old marriage, sudden dalliance and walking down matrimonial aisle No. 2, Ric Reid’s snappy delivery adds much to the ebb and flow. As the bridegroom in waiting with an ego as big as the wings, Marriott fires on all pompous cylinders.
Both marriage comedies have much to offer and moments of sheer brilliance; patrons would be well advised to slip into the pews and share in the fun at their earliest convenience. JWR