The Playgoer: Shaw Festival Journal III

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Monday, August 22, 2005

Shaw Festival Journal III

More dispatches from Niagara-on-the-Lake...

(click on titles for full production info)

Journey’s End
This is the real “find” of the Festival this summer. Word has been circulating about the resurgence of this 1928 World War I drama since a successful London revival a couple of years ago. (Still, no New York appearance in sight, but hopefully this super production will give some people ideas.) Written by a young British vet, R.C. Sherriff (who had been toiling away in an insurance office since the armistice), the play was an immediate sensation on both sides of the Atlantic, and indeed around the world. (It has, apparently, remained active in British Rep companies, but disappeared from the greater English -speaking canon.) While on first glance it might seem today just another tired “Breakfast Club” set-up (a bunch of disparate types locked up in a room together), the sensitivity to character and the meticulous unvarnished details of life in the trenches transcend any genre trappings.

Whatever the play’s inherent virtues, the Shaw’s production mines them for all they’re worth and, in its understated devotion, makes Sheriff’s script feel utterly contemporary. There is nothing quaint or stuffy about Christopher Newton’s production at all—just genuine claustrophobia. Exploiting the 150-seat intimacy of the Festival’s Court House theatre (the smallest of the three venues), Cameron Porteous’s colorless, unadorned set of sandbags, cots, and dirt immediately places us in this pit-stop off of “no man’s land”, somewhere, we are told, in the middle of the British line in March of 1918. This one-time Broadway and West End hit has been reconceived as a chamber play of battlefield ennui. We witness the petty-officers of this small company negotiate the cramped, dark space in their heavy woolen uniforms, under the glow of the odd lantern, trying to carve out some semblance of normalcy amidst the fluctuations between boredom and homicidal madness going on above. They cling, most especially, to a makeshift dining table—in reality, just some crates topped with a faded red-and-white checkered cloth—where they relish their biscuits and their tea, even if it stinks of the onions cooked in the same pot. Among the most affecting details of behavior is the way their talk of the horrors of war (that is, when they’re not pointedly avoiding it) is constantly punctuated with such commonplace domestic interruptions as “some jam with that?” or “more coffee?”

Journey’s End is a relatively quiet play and, despite the inevitable climactic battle scene, relies less on sensationalism than on the intricacies of grace under pressure. It is a “backstage drama” to the more epic proceedings on the battlefield above, and Newton’s production is subdued naturalism at its best. His ensemble all-male cast just eases into these roles, bringing to life the public-school camaraderie of Sherriff’s officers. (The battle lines of the class system feature just as prominently in the play, of course. When one of the new officers abandons the table to go eat with “the men” it is not met with approval.) Evan Buliung shines in the choice role of commanding officer Stanhope (a part originated by a young Olivier back in ’28), whose increasing mental instability forms the engine of what refreshingly little there is of a “plot” to the play. You can just see Buliung as the young rugby star Stanhope is reputed to have been in school; but now he’s a jock who is past it, prematurely aged by the strain of supervising men who may be abler and better soldiers than he in a war no one understands. Trained as a barrister or bureaucrat, he is out of his league and knows it, yet tries to do right while fighting his demons.

Journey’s End plays until October 8. If you’re looking for just one reason to pay a visit up north, this is it. A small Off-Broadway company (Atlantic? Second Stage?) should really look into importing this production whole, right away.

The Autumn Garden
Will it ever be possible for Lillian Hellman to get a hearing as a playwright again? Since her reputation has been destroyed by biographers and right-wingers, no one in the American theatre seems to take an interest anymore. The Little Foxes, I suppose, will live on. The Children’s Hour will continue to be either embraced as an early call for homosexual tolerance or derided as a patronizing attempt thereunto. But for all her assumed flaws, surely there must be room to re-explore this very serious female political playwright possessed of such interesting biography and influences. The Autumn Garden (1951) at first appears to be Williams-esque also-ran, with its sultry Louisiana setting and overt sexual desperation. But when we realize Hellman knew this territory from her own youth and had been writing about sexual transgression since the 30s, we might sit up and take notice. The play is indeed—as publicity materials describe it—“Chekhovian” in its ensemble dynamics and snail’s-pace narrative. But that only helps describe the form. In content it is uniquely American and uniquely of that postwar moment when Americans who once looked abroad to Europe and elsewhere in the dreams of their youth, had to turn around and face the home situation in their disillusioned middle age. Accordingly, this is at times a sour and even morose play, but almost fascinating to watch for its emotional nakedness.

And it is a dream project for a classic “rep” company like the Shaw—juicy roles for all ages where everyone gets to shine. Shine they do, all in that restrained Shaw Festival way, of course, but the dividends pay off in their sensitive attention to text over the bigger emotional sensations. The gentle portrait of disaffected cynicism served up by Jim Mezon’s Ned, for instance, is both ingratiating and pitiful, pointing toward the emotional complexity Hellman surprisingly offers here. And, as the presiding landlady of the play’s summer house, Sharry Flett (another one of those Festival veterans) is a radiant center, a bottled-up and humbled Blanche DuBois. Director Martha Henry seems to tease out of the cast all the right notes in this delicate balance of odd characters; this is clearly a difficult text, so it’s a testament to her that it plays so smoothly. And how the designers William Schmuck and Louise Guinand evoke in the tiny Court House space the textures of postwar New Orleans is a quiet marvel.

Perhaps the saddest response this melancholy play provokes here is the realization that no American company (let alone in New York) would dare attempt such a problematic little script—at least without a glaringly miscast star who would throw off the ensemble balance. But taking another look at such neglected works by substantial writers is what makes a rep company so necessary. Without it, you have no theatrical tradition. And it was humbling to exit the theatre feeling I had taken a lesson from the Canadians on a little corner of our own heritage.

Something on the Side
One especially fun feature at the Shaw these days is the addition of a “lunchtime matinee” play, a one-act performed at 11:30am of usually lighter fare. This year’s is a Feydeau adaptation by director Neil Munro. (The original, C’est une femme du monde, was an 1890 collaboration between Feydeau and Maurice Desvallieres.) Great idea. But I have to say this was the one real disappointment of the Festival for me. Put simply, Munro’s production and conceiving of the whole piece violated three basic rules of French farce: 1) it’s not about sex, but rather the hypocrisy of the square bougeoisie; 2) all the characters must take everything deathly seriously; and 3) the action should only gradually descend into chaos, not start out at sixes and sevens. Instead, Munro over-choreographs his actors from the word go, milking and mugging every line—in short, having too much fun, when Feydeau intended nothing less than torment for his characters. Between the exaggerated physical comedy and an added coda (a shamelessly crowd pleasing tango number) Munro manages to both coarsen and sentimentalize his source. (Feydeau seems to have intended the curtain to come down on a picture of his two would-be philanderers humiliated into dining only with each other. No downbeat endings, though, for this lunchtime matinee, and its audience-vacationers!)

Having said all that, the idea of a beautifully produced one-act for just 22 Canadian Dollars, just between breakfast and lunch is inspired, and hopefully Feydeau won’t have to be sacrificed to it next year.

In our next installment: thoughts on the Shaw Festival as a model for a National Theatre...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You may be interested to know that a small professional theater company outside Washington DC, The American Century Theater, dedicated to lost or ignored plays of the 20th century is now performing The Autumn Garden.

Love your blog.