Seen at the Shaw Festival:

I recently caught three productions at this very fine theatre, located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. The Shaw Festival’s mandate is, of course, to produce the plays of George Bernard Shaw, but also plays from his lifetime (1856-1950), or plays written about that time period. During my trip, I saw one example from each category.

Most exotic was The Coronation Voyage, by the French-Canadian Michael Marc Bouchard (translated into English by Linda Gaboriau). The action takes place in 1953, on a cruise ship bearing members of the Canadian delegation on their way to the coronation of Elizabeth II. Anyone expecting a quaint historical drama is in for a shock, however; the main character is a gangster, and the plot involves blackmail, pedophilia, alcoholism, gang violence, and the slaughter of Canadian soldiers in a disastrous World War II battle. Indeed, the picture of Quebecois society presented by Bouchard is, in equal parts, sad and seedy; his characters are morally bankrupt, emotionally played out, and thoroughly lost inside the confines of the British Empire. Structurally, the play is more than a little lopsided, with an effective but longish first act giving way to a rather abrupt second, in which some comic scenes are awkwardly juxtaposed with some melodramatic confrontations. But, under the direction of Jackie Maxwell, the festival’s artistic director, there are a number of indelible performances, including Jim Mezon as a gang boss who finds he can’t afford to care about his children, Dylan Trowbridge as a pianist whose career has been destroyed by a shocking act of violence; Peter Krantz as an elegantly corrupt diplomat, and Donna Belleville as a politician’s wife, equally addicting to liquor and truth-telling. Ken MacDonald’s two-level shipboard set is right out of an sleek period travel poster and I wish I was on it right now. William Schmuck’s costumes nicely evoke the play’s time period and also easily delineate the class lines among the characters. I found Alan Brodie’s lighting to be a tad dark, although he achieves some nice nighttime effects in the second act. Whatever its flaws, The Coronation Voyage is an arresting, highly dramatic treatment of a number of very unusual themes.

The Coronation Voyage. Photo: David Cooper.

The Shaw Festival is notable for digging up lost-but-playable scripts from Shaw’s lifetime; surely few of them are as obscure as Diana of Dobson’s. The title character of Cicely Hamilton’s 1908 comedy is a shopgirl who inherits a small legacy and decides to blow it all on one fabulous Continental trip. She ends up in a classy Swiss hotel, posing as a wealthy widow, where she is taken up by a “nice” (read “rich”) set of English travelers. It’s all going swimmingly, except for the designs of Mrs. Cantelupe, a rather determined matron who needs a wife for her handsome but insolvent nephew. What follows is pure sparkling comedy, spiked by a feminist analysis of marital economics that is worthy of Shaw himself. Diana of Dobson’s is eminently playable and should be taken up by theatre companies everywhere. At the Shaw, under Alisa Palmer’s assured direction, Severn Thompson is a stout-hearted Diana (she’d be an interesting Major Barbara) and Goldie Semple is a riot as Mrs. Cantelupe, whose finely calibrated manners barely conceal her iron will. As Victor, the nephew who struggles to live on 600 pounds per annum, Evan Buliung lacks presence in the early scenes, though he does comes into his own near the end, when he tries to reinvent himself as a working man, with little success. Scenic designer Judith Bowden has been charged with providing three separate locations in the Shaw’s three-sided Court House Theatre; the results are a little skimpy and lackluster, although her hotel interior is pleasantly done. Andrea Lundy’s lighting is on the bland side, except for the final scene, set on London street at night, where she works up some nice chiaroscuro effects.. David Boechler’s costumes however are stunning period pieces, right down to the extensively displayed underwear in the first act, as Diana and her colleagues disrobe after work. At any rate, Diana of Dobson’s is a real fund.


Diana of Dobson’s. Photo: David Cooper.

But what would the Shaw Festival be without Shaw? It’s hard to imagine what Victorian audiences made of his first play, Widower’s Houses, for, to my eyes, it’s still pretty shocking stuff. Shaw’s hero, Harry Trench, a young doctor on a limited income, falls for Blanche Sartorius, a London heiress with a faintly mysterious background; not until they are engaged does he discover, to his horror, that her father has amassed a fortune by managing the most fetid of London slums. Worse, Trench discovers that his own family’s money is tied up in the same hellish business. It’s amazing how, in his first effort, Shaw managed such a persuasive blend of drawing room intrigue and social indictment; the result is an acrid comedy of moral manners that seems all too contemporary, especially in the final scene, when all the principal characters come together to defraud the government with a phony urban renewal scheme. Joseph Ziegler’s direction is the least assured of the three productions, however, resulting in a slightly uneven cast. Jim Mezon is fine as the enigmatic slumlord and Dylan Trowbridge is persuasive as young Trench. But Lisa Norton struggles a bit with the role of Blanche; as written, Blanche has a temper and is subject to wild mood swings; Norton’s performance borders on the shrill at times. Also, Patrick Galligan is a tad too emphatic as one of those well-bred idiots found in every Shaw play. Still Christina Poddubiuk’s cunning set design uses a unit framework to create three different locations in the Court House Theatre and her costumes are ripe with gorgeous detail, especially Blanche’s gasp-worthy Act II frock, with its glittering black beading. Alan Brodie’s lighting is notably assured, especially with the stunning gaslight interior of the third act. This is best-designed production I saw; however, the level of work at the Shaw Festival is uncommonly high, and I can’t wait to make a return visit to Niagara-on-the-Lake. --David Barbour

Widower’s Houses. Photo: David Cooper.

Seen at the Movies: After the disgrace of The Postman, Kevin Costner has somewhat redeemed himself with his latest directorial effort Open Range. This retro Western is far from great—it’s cliché-ridden, overlong, and almost stubbornly humorless. Yet it has a pleasing scope, and an outstanding cast goes a long way towards generating interest in the stock characters. Costner and Robert Duvall play “free-grazing” cowboys in the 1880s, when ranchers were putting up fences to curb such activity. One of these, played by with lip-smacking relish by Michael Gambon, is just about as ornery a villain as can be, and after his men shoot the heroes’ two sidekicks, justice must be served. Duvall’s character is crusty, laconic, and given to aphorisms whenever he does speak, while Costner’s is less crusty but ever more laconic, and troubled by his dark past. Annette Bening does an amazing job of pumping life and history into the thin role of a helpful doctor’s sister. Diego Luna, Abraham Benrubi, and the late Michael Jeter fill supporting roles with idiosyncratic style.

Open Range.Photo: Chris Large/Buena Vista Pictures

I may have more tolerance for this sort of thing than a lot of people, but every time I was about to roll my eyes at the chestnuts that popped out of the actors’ mouths, I successfully distracted myself by studying their agreeably lived-in faces, let my attention wander to the beautiful Alberta locations. With such scenery, it seems all DP James Muro had to do was show up and get exposure, but he does a consistently handsome if slick job, and he lights the actors admirably. Gae S. Buckley’s production design is lovingly crafted, from the bare boards and mud that make up the central town location, to Bening’s china tea set. And the masterful period costume designer John Bloomfield lends his hand with the buckskin and calico. The only behind-the-scenes element that comes up lacking, as usual these days, is Michael Kamen’s over-present musical score. If Open Range is a throwback, at least that extends to the care and professionalism with which it was made. And if you’re nodding out during its periods of longueur, you’re likely to wake up for the extended climactic shootout, which is thrillingly staged.

Open Range. Photo: Chris Large/Buena Vista Pictures

Given the heat wave which has been plaguing Europe, Ulrich Seidl’s Austrian film Dog Days is certainly timely. It’s a kaleidoscopic account of several stifling days in the Vienna suburbs, moving among a collection of variously unappealing characters played by a mix of actors and non-professionals. The movie is gripping in a highly unpleasant way—one never knows what violent or ugly sexual proclivity is going to turn up next. DP Wolfgang Thaler’s work is like the anti-Open Range: he photographs the people onscreen so as to reveal and amplify their physical flaws. Some may call it realism, while others will just see cruelty. Anyway, it isn’t slick. --John Calhoun

Seen in Seattle: Something old, something new. Last week there was lots both old and new at the Seattle Opera. The company's former home has been renovated into the newly named Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, after a $127 million rebuild that made the auditorium narrower by 32' and greatly improved the acoustics (thanks to acousticians Jaffe Holden). Schuler & Shook served as the theatre consultants (Todd Hensley, project manager), working closely with the primary tenants, the Seattle Opera and the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Built in 1927, the hall has gone through several renovations, with this one stripping everything back to the shell of the auditorium. The room now seems more intimate and has a bright color palette of reds, greens, and blues that evoke its Pacific Northwest environment.

Parsifal. Photo: Chris Bennion.

The first Seattle Opera production in the new hall is Wagner's Parsifal, in a new and critically-acclaimed production directed by Francois Rochaix, with sets and costumes by Robert Israel, lighting by Michael Chybowski (making his Seattle Opera debut), and sweeping projections by Seattle's own Bob and Colleen Bonniol of Mode Studios. Their images covered the full width of the stage and were projected via a double bank of eight Digital Projection Thunder 10K units provided by Scharff Weisberg and hung on a double row of truss backstage for rear projection as one large seamless image. The hyper-realistic images provided a dramatic backdrop for Israel's more abstract sets that included a surprising raked deck 35' wide that raises like a drawbridge into a vertical position, and a 77' tall tower built in two pieces: the bottom half rises from the trap room while the top piece rolls onto it from offstage. The two pieces create a towering staircase that eventually collapses with great panache back into the trap room.

The color palette for the sets and costumes ranges from beige to darker earth tones, in contrast to the bolder colors of the projected images. Chybowski's lighting seems to have taken full advantage of the new Electronic Theatre Controls lighting system in McCaw Hall, using a very large rig of conventional and automated fixtures. The moving lights, including Martin Mac 2000 units hung both overhead and backstage were rented from Christie Lights, along with large format Chroma Q scrollers used on the Digital Projection projectors. Given that the length of Parsifal is just about five hours, patrons of the opera had ample time to contemplate the new hall, and the verdict is that they like it. Robert Schaub, technical director for the Seattle Opera (and part of the Eddy Award-winning team for their innovative Ring Cycle) worked closely with the consultants throughout the renovation period and says, "On opening night of Parsifal we finally heard the acoustics in a full house. There was an element of excitement in that, and the production received a standing ovation that was several minutes long." This is one opera house that is definitely of the 21st century, yet a perfect home for opera of any era. --Ellen Lampert Greaux