The Playgoer: Shaw Festival 06: Day 3

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Shaw Festival 06: Day 3

I rounded out my tour at the Shaw Festival not with more GBS but with two literary adaptations and a musical reading. Again, the broad mission of the Festival--"plays by Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, and...plays about the period of Shaw’s [immense] lifetime" covers a lot of ground.

The reading was of the 1954 curiosity The Golden Apple by Jerome Moross and John La Touche. It's a retelling of the Iliad and Odyssey legends transposed to small town America c.1900. (So, "Troy" meets "Our Town.") What's interesting is how it's actually really about The War--not the Spanish-American of the play's setting, but the Good War itself that the play's audience just lived through. The storyline of Odysseus and his all-American soldier boys going off to foreign cities (in this case, the town next door) where they're exposed to the temptations of looser values, clearly comments on the recent adventures of the GI. Penelope, of course, stands in for the women keeping the home fires burning....The most delightfully topical moment in the piece, though, comes with the gleefully out-of-place song "The Scientist", mocking the end of innocence of a rural era about to be overtaken by 20th century technology, and the troubles that may ensue. In the context of the setting, the cautions seem quaint. But when the refrain comes--the toe-tapping chorus "We're doomed, doomed, doomed/ Oh we're doomed, doomed, doomed"--you can imagine what's meant. It's an H-Bomb Rag.

La Touche is one of musical theatre's most beloved neglected lyricists, and this is a major work of his. While the score is meant to be completely sung-through, the Shaw crew had to admit in their program notes that they just didn't have time to learn all the music, and so spoke many of the lyrics as verse couplets. Not what was intended, of course, but it did highlight what a strange and ambitious project this was--a completely through-composed folk opera merging classical mythology with Americana. It originated Off Broadway, actually, one of the early sparks of the whole downtown movement. The Shaw reading approached it rather conventionally in style, but by presenting it with care and integrity, shed light on yet another worthy corner of the repertory.

The two adaptations offered an instructive contrast. One was the already very well established The Heiress, the 1947 Broadway hit by the husband-wife team of Ruth and Augustus Goetz based on Henry James' Washington Square. The other was a premiere stage adaptation of The Invisible Man by Anglo-Canadian playwright Michael O'Brien. The latter made total sense for the Shaw Fest, given the close relationship between Shaw and H.G. Wells (fellow Fabians). But this script, sorry to say, seems an object lesson in where literary adaptation can go wrong. With all the wandering episodic sprawl of a screenplay but little of the thrills a movie thriller can offer, it was thoroughly untheatrical. The production by Neil Munro (a Shaw associate who did the fine Rosmersholm this season) magnified these weaknesses by crowding the stage with way too many characters cramped into tiny "rooms" in an awkward and dimly lit two-level set for much of the show. The whole project suffered from being both over-literal and "faithful" in this regard and also needlessly meddling, with O'Brien's "improvements" to the plot, adding--imagine!--a love story and weak psychologizing of the hero, via flashback, to humanize Wells' more enigmatic genius. (In short--the guy never got over being jilted by a girl in med school in favor of his more boringly successful friend. Hence he turns invisible and seeks world domination, right?)

These half-hearted attempts at seriousness are a shame, since the best reason to do The Invisible Man at all would be to have fun with it. Allen Cole's almost tongue-in-cheek melodrama-suspense music has the right idea. And, with the help of consulting magicians, a few good "invisible" tricks are pulled off. A few. The assignment would seem to require much more imaginative showmanship and dazzle today. (If I wanted to make some real money off this idea I would hire Simon McBurney or Robert Lepage, and take it to Vegas.) But even so, the limitation with this material ends up being quite literally "now you see him, now you don't." O'Brien and Munro seemed to settle on making it into some adventure-romance, but the play was weighted down with too much plotting and stage traffic for us to enjoy the ride.

The Heiress comes from that older school of dramaturgy which taught us you can take virtually any plot in the world and cram it into one living room and no more than ten characters. (Look at the old Baldertson-Dean Dracula sometime. It's what the Bela Lugosi movie is based on.) But for this material, it works amazingly, amazingly well. So much so, I'm sure many people just assume this is the play James originally wrote! I've never read Washington Square, so for all I know it's a book that lends itself particularly well to this treatment, being a domestic story built around a father-daughter relationship. But I'm sure James takes the story to all those far afield offstage places mentioned (Europe, California) and throws in countless walk-on personages. So wise and subtle choices were clearly made by the Goetzes, as well as, reportedly, their original director/producer, the savvy showman Jed Harris. What I admire about the script today is what an aggressive adaptation it must be, taking James' expansive prose by the horns and making a real piece of theatre of it.

Of course, it's just one particular kind of piece of theatre--a naturalistic Well Made Play. But here, too, form fits content like a lace glove. The 1850 bourgeois setting is of the very age of Scribe, Dumas and early realism. Moreover, the Goetzes recognized that in the silently suffering Catherine and her stern father lay two great meaty roles. So their script effectively clears the brush of novelistic texture to let actors fully inhabit those roles, and present them unmediated to the audience. This is an actors' play, an idea the Shaw cast does fine justice, too. Tara Rosling--speaking in a suppressed high voice, her every gesture hesitant--gives what at first seems a mannered performance, especially in a small house like the festival's 300-seat Royal George. But her commitment to it grew on me, in an almost (bear with me) Brechtian way of showing me the character. And Catherine's predicament as an exceptionally shy, cloistered, lonely, and emotionally abused woman certainly calls for something other than the "girl next door."

The standout performance, though, was Michael Ball as the father. Again, a juicy part, to be sure, the unfeeling Dickensian bourgeois father from hell. But in a welcome contrast from the lordly British actors who haunt the role (Basil Rathbone on Broadway, Ralph Richardson in the movie), Ball presents a surprisingly unimposing figure and thin voice. His Dr. Sloper is a stout little man whose coldness toward his daughter clearly comes from awkwardness and lazy emotional detachment, not evil. Here's a man who's too busy with his ambitious medical practice and his indulgence in cigars to notice his daughter's plight. Hardly a humorless schoolmaster, you could even see him enjoying some laughs with other rich doctors at the club. He's even a bit nerdy, having loved only one woman in his life and lost her to childbirth. (Hence more reason to resent Catherine.) Even his accent gave him away as an unextraordinary man. In place of the Shakespearean tones of a Richardson, for instance (or even Philip Bosco in the recent B'way revival), you hear a flat Canadian tone--which oddly enough struck me as more "authentically" 1850 New York than contemporary BBC English. His home in Washington Square may be the sign of true wealth, but everything about the doctor's bearing gives him away as just another bourgeois. Which is central to the play, since his cruelty to his daughter stems from an overprotectiveness of his property--both of the material wealth and Catherine herself.

All this I'm saying only based on Ball's performance, mind you. But such was the richness of his performance, quiet and undemonstrative as it was, that I read into it a whole novel. The tragically fraught dynamic thus created between this taciturn man and his inwardly expressive daughter became the drama. The highly specific character choices made this familiar and famous story far from a cliche or a chestnut.

(The Heiress may prove that the Well Made Play still packs a punch. But it was still tempting for me to imagine in the days afterward what an alternative Washington Square adaptation might look like. What, for instance, would it look like if subjected to the kind of "literariness" practiced by Brecht? It's actually just the kind story Brecht would have relished--sexuality as financial negotiation, people as property. He would probably keep uprooting us out of Washington Square--to the Klondikes where the suitor loses all his money in speculation and gambling; to the Paris medical conference the father travels to to attend to the real needs of the medical profession... Once you glimpse such possibilities, and how good they could be, you realize the living room is never the only way to go. But the fact that The Heiress so effectively convinces you it is, is a testament to the craftsmanship.)

(For yet more variations on literary adaptation, see Isaac's recent tributes to Elevator Repair Service's quite anti-dramatic interpretation of The Great Gatsby.)

The Shaw, In Summation...

I came away from Niagara once again convinced of the payoff of a large repertory system, and mournful that we don't really have one. When you have three stages and can do three plays on each, each with three month runs, the options of your artistic programs just increase exponentially. Sure, the Shaw did the patched together stage version of High Society in order to sell Cole Porter. But, hey, I just ignored it and went to Rosmersholm. For the actors, though, it must be kind of cool to do both!

It's also hard not to be impressed with the overall strength of the acting company. Few standout, "star" performances. Perhaps not even much great acting going on. But it is a deep bench they have. I find in a typical New York production, it's not surprising to find wildly uneven acting onstage. (Great star, embarrassing extras--or vice versa!) The cohesiveness and consistency of a rep company really helps plays like Too True To Be Good, where it's the author who's the star.

Part of the company's strength must come from the sheer drilling and challenge of doing many difficult plays season after season. And for three-month runs. Of course, that's not a run of 8-show weeks. But when you think about it: maybe plays were not meant to be performed eight times a week. It's only capitalism that has made it the norm.

Finally, I'd like to say the large Shaw staff and personnel are invariably courteous and helpful, and make for a very hospitable environment. Niagara-on-the-Lake is quite an expensive little town. But if you should chose to shell out the bucks (at only a $1/$1.25 exchange rate) you'll be well treated. Otherwise, it's only an hour's drive from Buffalo!

And finally, finally, a special commendation for the Shaw's extensive program notes for every production, clearly a commitment from the top. They are both accessible and serious, aiming at a high level of understanding, often pairing a scholar's essay with more quickly digestible director's notes and production history. The fact that not one of the major NYC institutions has comparable dramaturgy in their programs is scandalous. But that's for another post...

In case you're interested in advance planning, the Shaw 2007 season is already announced.

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