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Shaw Festival 2011 Roundup

Reports on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Admirable Crichton, and Heartbreak House. logo
Moya O'Connell and Gray Powell
in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
(© Emily Cooper)
Hundreds of thousands of visitors make a pilgrimage to the Shaw Festival in beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake Ontario each year, with most taking in at least one play by the festival's namesake (or, perhaps, in this year's case, Molly Smith's acclaimed revival of My Fair Lady, based on Shaw's Pygmalion). But it may well be the work of another playwright that lingers strongest in the memory for many theatergoers.

That will certainly be true for those who take in Eda Holmes' searing production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Royal George Theatre. This highly physical production captures more precisely than any I've seen the characters' sense of being trapped by their circumstances. Indeed, the members of the Pollock family barely seem held in by the 28,000-acre plantation on which they reside; it would be hardly surprising to see one of them jump of the balcony.

No one is more jittery than Maggie (the stunning Moya O'Connell), who is trying to maintain her balance on that hot tin roof -- desperate to hold on to both her seemingly disgusted husband, Brick (Gray Powell), and her financial security in the wealthy family. Her lengthy first-act speeches are appropriately delivered with almost lightning-fast speed (which, combined with her drawl, does make a few of her words hard to understand), and as she lets forth her fears and plans, it feels as if time is literally about to run out on her.

The appropriately buff Powell -- believable as a former small-time football star -- nicely charts Brick's descent into drunkenness, going from tipsy to intoxicated to falling-down drunk with believability. Yet, while still relatively sober, his Brick proves to be a match for both Maggie and his father, Big Daddy (Jim Mezon), when he needs to be on an equal figurative footing with them.

That's no easy feat when he shares the stage with Mezon, who is incredibly imposing, both physically and verbally. He practically consumes all the air around him, and when he berates his long-suffering, smarter-than-she seems wife, Big Mama (an impressive Corrine Koslo), or briefly laces into his obnoxiously snide daughter-in-law, Mae (a fine Nicole Underhay), it's almost terrifying to watch.

Audiences who have seen only early productions of the play (or the famed film version) may be surprised with the abundance of four-letter words here, as well as the forthright handling of the "friendship" between Brick and his late (and clearly homosexually-inclined) friend Skipper, both of which adds to the verisimilitude of this extraordinary production.

Nicole Underhay, David Schurmann, and Steven Sutcliffe
in The Admirable Crichton
(© David Cooper)
Morris Panych's fanciful production of J.M. Barrie's little-seen comedy of manners, The Admirable Crichton, now at the Shaw's Festival Theatre, may remind some theatergoers of the recent hit Brief Encounter with its interpolations of 1920s songs (here sung, for some reason, by a group of talented performers costumed as animals).

But whether one finds these musical numbers a distraction or a delight, the play's message about the foibles of English society in the World War I era comes through loudly and clearly.

The work begins in the household of the Earl of Loam (a fine David Schurmann), who, once a month, invites his servants to tea and makes them the guests. This nod to "equality" pleases neither the servants -- most notably family butler Crichton (the excellent Steven Sutcliffe) -- nor his snotty family.

Soon enough, everyone's precepts about social position and superiority is not just tested, but thrown topsy-turvy, when the family, Crichton, and fellow servant Tweeny (Marla McLean) are stranded for two years on a desert island after the ship they're vacationing on crashes.

When Crichton becomes the island's natural leader -- to no great surprise -- everyone quickly falls in line, most notably eldest daughter Mary (a first-rate Nicole Underhay). While back in her stately English manor, she seemingly had little but disdain for Crichton, Mary (who now calls herself Polly) becomes his veritable servant -- and eventually his fiancee -- until circumstances once again bring them back to England.

The play's final section, as the family returns home, snobbish nephew Ernest Woolley (Kyle Blair) writes a book taking all the credit for saving the clan, and Mary must decide whether to marry stuffy former fiancé Lord Brocklehurst (Gray Powell), is essentially too predictable. Fortunately, Gabrielle Jones appears as the much-talked-about and decidedly forthright Lady Brocklehurst, and enlivens the proceedings considerably.

The production makes marvelous use of the Festival's vast space, thanks to Ken MacDonald's splendid set design, including its evocative drawings of the Earl's mansion. Charlotte Dean's costumes, though simple, are spot-on, and there's some especially smile-inducing choreography by Valerie Moore as part of the post curtain-call frivolity.
Michael Ball and Robin Evan Willis in Heartbreak House
(© David Cooper)
George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House, now at the Shaw's Festival Theatre, remains one of the great plays of the 20th Century, even if Christopher Newton's too-farcical production obscures many of its virtues.

While the Sussex home of the eccentric Captain Shotover -- cleverly rendered by designer Leslie Frankish -- may well be little more than a ship of fools, Newton too often makes its denizens far more foolish than they need to be, erupting into uncontrollable fits or crying for little reason.

Shotover (an effective if slightly understated Michael Ball) lives with his flamboyant daughter Hesione Hushabye (the superb Deborah Hay, occasionally channeling a touch of Joan Collins in Dynasty), her philandering and childish actor-husband Hector (Blair Williams, surprisingly unmemorable) and faithful servant Nurse Guinness (a pitch-perfect Patricia Hamilton, who garners all of the script's intentional laughs).

Also on hand are Hesione's new friend, the spirited Ellie Dunn (the fine Robin Evan Willis), her pompous fiancée, Boss Mangan (the excellent Benedict Campbell), Ellie's milquetoast father, Mazzini Dunn (a very good Patrick McManus), Hesione's long-estranged sister, Ariadne (Laurie Paton) and her ridiculous brother-in-law Randall Utterwood (Patrick Galligan).

Without question, this group is so consumed by their dalliances, financial fortunes, and tall tales that they fail to realize that the England around them is changing rapidly. Even an air raid towards the play's end -- which ultimately costs two lives -- does little to shake most of them from their self-absorption. Hesione even voices her desire for the same thing to happen the next night -- an utterance Shaw rightly expects us to find appaling.

Still, one should feel some compassion for this motley crew, products of their time who will soon go the way of the dinosaur. But under Newton's direction, there is precious little sympathy for these mini-devils, and the three-plus-hours spent in their company can feel like being trapped for days with unpleasant relatives.

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