The Playgoer: Shaw Festival 06- Day 1

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Friday, October 06, 2006

Shaw Festival 06- Day 1

The autumnal calm befits the placid Niagara-on-the-Lake. It's less crowded now than in summer--and more to the point, cheaper day seats for the plays may be easier to come by.

The Amtrak from Penn Station to Niagara, ON is already a long 9 hours, even when on schedule. Some various track delays plus an interminable customs stop at the border, made it a full 12 hours door-to-door, but still made it just in time for play #1 last night, Shaw's Too True to be Good.

I was looking forward to this one since it's the kind of obscure late-Shaw work that you'll probably only see at the Shaw Fest. The word "curiosity" does not begin to describe this play. It begins with what must be a three-page monologue by a "microbe", commenting on the disease he has given the comatose bedridden young woman center stage. Director Jim Mezon admirably mines as much dark atmosphere as he can out of this opening, beginning with an "Exorcist"-tinged entrance for the patient. The microbe ("The Monster") himself is, sure enough, a disgusting puss-bloated goblinesque green ogre. William Vickers' performance begins to puncture the serious mood with some forced and over-literal sick schtick, hacking up way too many lungs (he's a disease, get it?). But Shaw's weird stage imagery here remains compelling. As the play proceeds--and as we progress further through the thorough program notes during the two intermissions--we see why: this is 1932, and the whole play is a very, very idiosyncratic response to not only the aftermath of WWI but the onset of Depression and Dictatorship.

To be sure, the play delivers plenty of Shavian silliness and quips. But even though Shaw could never escape entirely from the stock types and tropes of the Drawing Room Comedy, watching him try to explode that dramaturgy here onto a more abstract and surreal landscape is fascinating--even if a fascinating trainwreck. You see, while Act I is indeed a domestic setting, the remaining two-thirds take us to the outer reaches of The Empire. Our young heroine has not only conquered her microbes, but been willingly abducted by a pair of free-loving philosophical con artists to the outer beyond. His Majesty's Army shows up, of course, along with an enterprising Private modeled after T.E. Lawrence, of all people. (Lawrence was a close friend of Shaw's, turns out and was still alive at the time of the play. His famous fatal motorcycle accident is eerily, comically prefigured here.) As Shaw himself admits in the play--through the voice of the Microbe--the plot for all intents and purposes is over by Act I, and so the rest is just a chance to "talk about it all." If you hate that about Shaw, you'll hate this play even more.

But once you can get past that, and once you can get into the whole European discourse of what to do about the crisis of the 1930s, this becomes a very rich even if frustrating play. Not the least because it reveals some of Shaw's often overlooked early sympathies for the fascist movements. (You know--Superman, Life Force, and all that.) Being from 1932, what we're getting is a snapshot of that brief moment when to some the question of Hitler and Mussolini felt like an unknown. Shaw hence spends a lot of time bewailing (through his various mouthpiece excuses for characters, of course) the loss of God and loss of meaning. Though an atheist, he reveals how much a 19th century man he was when it came to boundless faith in progress. He was smart enough, though, to see all that unraveling. The play's final moments (yet another three-page monologue) he hands over to the con man who was once a minister. "I must preach and preach and preach," he says. "Even if I have nothing to say." It's a moving moment when you consider Shaw staring into the postwar void.

While it's a valuable play for study, it seems impossible to stage totally effectively today. To me its main interest would be the dark echoes of its period, but director Mezon and his team keep it all quaintly Shavian and cartoonish. That's one response to the unreality of it all, I suppose. But one problem in serving it up to the audience as a silly romp is that it's just not that funny. The audience seemed grateful for the occasional classic witticism, but that only heightened the dread at the extensive philosophizing that was to come. I would have preferred the acting took a less breezy, "Shavian" tone and dared to play this totally deadpan, for the crisis of conscience that it is.

The Shaw Festival is not exactly the place to see 21st Century Shaw. But this is one play that would really need a total re-imagining to work on stage today. For instance, the strong presence in the text of conflicts of Empire, orientalism, and race here go unnoticed, it seems. Not to mention, the disguise of the young heroine for most of the play as a veiled harem denizen. Other, more daring, more socially conscious directors could have a field day with that. (And Shaw would want us to be socially conscious, right?) Also, a more abstract, less localized set could also open things up. It's a play about a moral wasteland, after all--something the flimsy fake rocks in this production's Act III didn't quite conjure. Like Wilder's Skin of Our Teeth, this is a text dabbling with the most alienating aspects of Modernism, but still through the lens of an optimistic fuddydud. This production definitely pointed more to the latter than to the former.

Still, kudos to the Shaw Fest for tackling it at all--every word, mind you--and for the impressively accomplished performances all around. It can't be easy inhabiting this world for all 3 hours, yet no one in the cast of ten ever flagged or gave less than their all to each syllable of this convoluted Shavian forensic exercise. Like with Shakespeare, acting Shaw is indeed a skill in itself, and merits a whole separate class in MFA programs. One of the attractions of the rep company at the Fest is that they've all seemed to train for years at these rhetorical acrobatics.

1 comment:

Myrhaf said...

I think the last speech in "Too True to Be Good" is the greatest speech of 20th century drama. Maybe an idiosyncratic opinion...