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Canada Goes Wilde

The Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario and the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake offer works by Oscar Wilde and much, much more. Michael A. Morrison reports.

By Toronto
Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde
"Oscar Wilde," wrote the eminent American drama critic William Winter in 1905, "was a person of slender talent and no lasting importance, and, considering the baleful associations that hang about his name, it would be progressing in the right direction to allow his works and all memory of him to pass at once into oblivion that surely awaits him."

Winter's dire pronouncement notwithstanding (he was by then the grumpy old man of the American stage, and had similarly nasty things to say about Ibsen), Wilde's reputation as a brilliant playwright and wit has flourished in the years since his death in Paris on November 30, 1900--particularly after society loosened up enough to look past those "baleful associations." To commemorate the centennial of Wilde's death, two of Canada's renowned theater festivals--the Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festival and Niagara-on-the-Lake's Shaw Festival--have mounted provocative productions of two of his major plays.

The centerpiece of Stratford's Wilde celebration is the first major North American production of the original four-act version of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Claire Jullien and Michelle Girouxin The Importance of Being Earnest
Claire Jullien and Michelle Giroux
in The Importance of Being Earnest
Before putting the play into production, George Alexander, who directed and starred in the 1895 premiere, insisted that Wilde make significant cuts to the manuscript; Wilde reluctantly deleted an entire scene featuring a London attorney named Gribsby, who arrives to arrest Algy for his debts, along with much additional dialogue. (In a Wildean twist, the manuscript was rediscovered in an attic in New Jersey in 1953.)

As it turns out, Alexander knew what he was doing: Wilde's original, like F. Scott Fitzgerald's pre-Maxwell Perkins version of The Great Gatsby, emerges as little more than a curiosity. The four-act Earnest, adroitly performed by a capable ensemble under the direction of Richard Monette, has its moments, but the "new" dialogue and situations tend to stretch the material thin. For Wilde aficionados, the production is worth a visit--it isn't often that one gets to see the Ur-version of one of the theater's enduring classics--but, on the whole, the restored material is a testimonial to the role a gifted director played in shaping a comic masterpiece.

Wilde also features prominently, if somewhat indirectly, in another of the festival's offerings: an elegant concert version of Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience. First produced in 1881, Patience satirizes the then-popular aesthetic movement, of which Wilde was an acknowledged leader. Gilbert discreetly declined to identify Reginald Bunthorne, the comic opus's "fleshly poet," with any particular figure; but Richard D'Oyly Carte, the team's astute producer, sponsored Wilde's 1882 North American lecture tour on the theory (correct, as it turned out) that he would boost the box office for Patience productions abroad. As Bunthorne, Bruce Dow evokes Nathan Lane at his most hilarious, and the performances in general are quite good. A mini-festival of special Wilde-related lectures and readings runs through the end of August. And Maxim Mazumdar's Oscar Remembered, a one-man show featuring Michael Therriault as Lord Alfred Douglas, opens on September 15.

Of course, there's plenty of Shakespeare for Bardophiles to savor. One of the hits of this year's festival is Paul Gross's Hamlet. Gross, a handsome television actor best known to Canadian audiences for his portrayal of an intrepid Mountie in the long-running series Due South, seemed an unlikely candidate for one of the theater's most challenging roles: He had minimal Shakespearean experience and hadn't been on stage in twelve years. (Canada, of course, is no stranger to plucky casting of Hamlet; remember, it was the Canadians who gave Keanu Reeves his shot at the melancholy Dane.) Though hardly a great interpreter, Gross brings humor, sensitivity and admirable clarity to the part in a stylish, post-Napoleonic dress production that's worth seeing.

Other Shakespearean attractions include a Titus Andronicus set in Mussolini's Italy and a spirited production of As You Like It. The repertory also features Uta Hagen in Collected Stories and Brian Bedford in Tartuffe, as well as Robinson Jeffers' Medea, The Three Musketeers, The Diary of Anne Frank, Fiddler on the Roof, and Elizabeth Rex, a new play by Canadian author Timothy Findley in which the author imagines an encounter between Shakespeare and Elizabeth I the night before the Earl of Essex, Elizabeth's erstwhile favorite, is executed for treason. The season runs through early November.

********************

A few hours away, the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, just north of Niagara Falls, has mounted an equally rewarding season. Like its cousin to the north, the festival, which produces works by Shaw and plays written or set during his lifetime, offers a broad repertory in three theaters.

The Shaw Festival's contribution to the Wilde centennial festivities is a haunting production of A Woman of No

Mary Haney in A Woman of No Importance
Mary Haney in A Woman of No Importance
Importance. First produced in 1893, the play is a four-act society melodrama tempered with quicksilver wit. Whereas Earnest emerges as a more sophisticated and linguistically dexterous version of classic English farce, Woman owes a debt to the post-Ibsen British social drama of Pinero and Henry Arthur Jones. Set amidst a gathering of vapid yet witty aristocrats at an English country house, the play centers around the all-too-real scandal of a woman with a past: 20 years earlier, Mrs. Arbuthnot had given birth to an illegitimate son fathered by the future Lord Illingworth, an urbane and unprincipled dandy who now wants to reclaim the child he'd abandoned. Mary Haney, one of Canada's finest actresses, gives an affecting performance as the wronged Mrs. A. and Jim Mezon is subtly sinister as Lord Illingworth in a scintillating production of Wilde's rarely revived, vastly underrated play.

In the main theater, the festival offers a near-perfect staging of Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma. One of the surprises of this production is that Shaw, at times overly didactic, evokes as many laugh-out-loud moments as one is likely to find in any of Wilde's comedies. Shaw's 1906 comedy-drama features at its heart a brilliant, tubercular young artist and his wife; their interactions with an eminent immunologist and his medical colleagues are both funny and poignant. That the play seems as fresh as it was nearly a century ago is as much a tribute to Christopher Newton's direction and a first-rate cast as it is to Shaw's powers of invention. Other attractions at this year's festival include Shaw's The Apple Cart, Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker, and the Bock-Harnick-Masteroff musical She Loves Me. The season runs through November 11.

First-time visitors to either or both or these festivals are likely to come away enthused with the high quality of the acting and the productions. Both festivals are located in picturesque small towns that offer ample opportunities for shopping and dining.

[ED. NOTE: Michael A. Morrison is the author of John Barrymore, Shakespearean Actor, Cambridge University Press.]


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