Canada’s Shaw Festival Offers Possible Avenue For South Florida Theaters To Explore

The cast of You Never Can Tell at the Shaw Festival / Photo by Emily Cooper

The cast of You Never Can Tell at the Shaw Festival / Photo by Emily Cooper

By Bill Hirschman

The secret is jazz.

After seeing seven shows in a week this summer, the overarching lesson that the venerable Shaw festival in Canada has to teach South Florida theaters is jazz.

Even while reviving century-old warhorses that make up much of the Festival’s original mission, freshness and vitality engage the audience because the Festival creates theatrical jazz – something even the best South Florida troupes rarely indulge in.

Specifically, this repertory company’s 10 plays rotating April through October use the script as a starting point for inventive and illuminating riffs, like a song stylist reinterpreting a decades-old standard, in this case through the prism of a director’s unique vision.

The original theme is not lost or nor the artistic integrity of the source material violated. But the arrangement, the phrasing make listeners revaluate, reconnect and discover new colors in a tune they know well.

For instance, the Festival’s “headliner” this summer is a lush production of Pygmalion, one of the best known and beloved of George Bernard Shaw’s works.

This edition directed by Peter Hinton is reset in 2015 London. Higgins still is a raffishly handsome if tweedy academic in his late 30s. But he records Liza’s voice at Covent Garden on an Ipad and rides a bicycle even though he has enough money to live in a sleekly-appointed electronics-infested townhouse. Liza is still a street peddler of blooms, but she is a second- or third-generation Anglo-Indian with as much pride in being English as any Cockney busker. Mrs. Higgins runs a cutting-edge fashion house. Pickering is returning from Afghanistan rather than India.

Jeff Meadows as Colonel Pickering, Harveen Sandhu as Eliza Doolittle and Patrick McManus as Henry Higgins in Pygmalion.

Jeff Meadows as Colonel Pickering, Harveen Sandhu as Eliza Doolittle and Patrick McManus as Henry Higgins in Pygmalion.

At first blush, that envelope might seem a gimmick; Hinton rewrote only a handful of lines, such as updating the cost of an item. But in fact, it underscores silently, if not subtly, the continuing relevance of Shaw’s 1912 critique of the class system as a ridiculously spurious way to assess people’s worth – doubled down today via economic disparity if not bloodlines and breeding. In fact, videos projected on the curtain during scene changes display a BBC report documenting how such disparities have created additional hidebound classes in British society in the 21st Century.

But if anyone in South Florida was to mount Pygmalion at all, few would try this revisionist approach.

For many, but not all local companies, the goal is to recreate with considerable craft as artistically excellent a faithful rendition of the song as possible. They throw in a fillip here or a filigree there. Certainly, every production is refracted to some extent through the uniqueness of an artist’s specific abilities and experience.

But with notable exceptions (we’ll note a few) it’s rare someone reinvents or deconstructs a work. That’s not to downplay or devalue the high quality of what is executed on local stages. But the Shaw Festival’s work on century-old texts and newly-commissioned works invigorates and challenges audiences in ways Florida audiences rarely get to enjoy.

Much of Florida’s conservative approach to making theater is unconscious; it’s inbred by decades of catering to aging audiences who wanted to see revivals that echo what they saw in their youth. It took the rise of troupes like the avant-garde Mad Cat Theatre Company to shake things up and, thereby, start attracting the younger audiences who will ensure a future for the art form in the region.

Sometimes local attempts to experiment will artistically work, sometimes not. Worse, sometimes audiences are not receptive, even antagonistic to these forays. The Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s Hello Dolly! in 2012 had not a shred of Carol Channing or Gower Champion in sight. But audiences responded well to director Marcia Milgrom Dodge and star Vicki Lewis returning to the heart of the piece: a middle-aged widow jumpstarting her life again. Conversely, critics and audiences were divided over the Miami Theater Center’s modern dress reboot of Hedda Gabler and its idiosyncratic revival of The Seven-Year Itch last season.

To be fair, certainly resource-wise, the Shaw Festival has no remote analog in Florida other than the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, and no precise equivalent in the United States other than the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. It is unusually well-funded at about 28.6 million Canadian dollars including a helpful but not overwhelming national subsidy; a rotating cast of 65 to 70 performers; twice the investigatory rehearsal periods that Florida companies have; and a massive infrastructure built up over a half-century of 600 designers, costume shop workers, stagehands, administrators etc. at the height of the season.

But its dominant virtue has nothing to do with money. The Festival encourages directors, actors and staff to find new ways to tell familiar stories without violating the sense of the piece. Sometimes it’s as radical as modern playwright Erin Shields’ overhaul and abridgement of Henrik Ibsen’s The Lady From The Sea, retaining all aspects of the original but pruning the text to focus on its central theme of women’s sovereignty. Sometimes it’s as simple as opening J.M. Barrie’s 1921 one-act play The Twelve-Pound Look with the insertion of a butler facing the audience to sing an authentic ditty that perfectly recreates the period’s insufferably arrogant attitude toward women.

Often it’s the striking visual look of a production such as the riotously stylized sets and bizarre costumes for Shaw’s You Never Can Tell. But it’s not stylized for the sake of exercising some outré flair, but choices carefully calibrated to accentuate something, such as the general lunacy of the Shaw play.

We’ll point out some of these enhancements and insights as we report on the plays we saw.

First, a bit of background about the Festival, which we cannot recommend highly enough for theater lovers. (For a more detailed look at the Festival and its hometown of Niagara-on-the Lake, read this companion story.)

In 1962, a sleepy picturesque town where the Niagara River feeds Lake Ontario created a festival dedicated to revivals of the works of the legendary and prolific dramatist-philosopher-social activist and theater critic George Bernard Shaw.

Although Shaw wrote scores of plays, the troupe chafed at the limitations and later extended the mission to embrace works of his contemporaries, a significant move since he lived from 1856 to 1950. Finally, they decided to mount plays of any period, even commission new ones, so long as they reflected Shaw’s progressive belief system.

For instance, Shaw was an early British feminist and this season focuses on women discovering their identity as independent human beings, especially in the context of marriage and other relationships. Threaded through most of the stories is the idea that choices are available and women must have the courage to take advantage of them.

Most recent seasons have contained a disparate array of musicals, comedies and drama including at least two Shaw plays. Plays we did not see this summer were a world premiere of The Divine: A Play For Sarah Bernhardt, Moss Hart’s traditional Light Up The Sky and Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures, a controversial work that has only been seen a handful of times anywhere.

The final quality of the productions varies, although it rarely dips below average. Most are stunning in their cleverness and craft. If you time your visit right in the summer, it’s possible to see seven plays in three or four days — since you can see three plays in one day with some planning.

The Shaw audience is different from Florida’s local patrons and snowbirds looking for “something to do this weekend.” Almost no one comes to the Festival casually or as a spur of the moment lark. It is a destination event in a rural county whose only other draws are the surrounding wineries, tasty restaurants and quaint shops (although Niagara Falls is a half-hour to the south). Like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in isolated Ashland, you come because you love theater.

These are patrons who yearn to see theater and want to be challenged. “The guiding spirit of the program is to put on plays that provoke and demand engagement” from the audience, said artistic director Jackie Maxwell.

You Never Can Tell, by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Jim Mezon

Almost no professional company in Florida mounts Shaw’s works – a gaping abyss in our cultural landscape. The last major Shaw production easily recalled is Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Candida in 2010. Before that?

One reason for that lack, so clearly on display in this production, is that Shaw is as difficult as Shakespeare to do well. Local actors don’t get much practice to do full justice his brand of ultra-cultured verbiage. His impossibly articulate characters utter unbroken torrents of brilliant sparkling epigrams and insightful diatribes imbued with a driving passion. Actors must not only analyze every half-phrase in advance and have the honed skill to communicate their meaning to an audience, they must be able to make convoluted, constipated and stylized speech patterns sound as if they were the most natural cadence – and do it all at breakneck speed. It’s like Tom Stoppard meets Oscar Wilde on speed in Edwardian England.

Proof of just how tough? Read the script courtesy of Project Gutenberg (

The daft 1897 comedy about the battle of the sexes and parent-child relationships is set in one of those impossibly tony British seaside resorts. The fulcrum is the elegant “liberated” authoress Mrs. Clandon and her children. Two are the grown twins Phillip and Gloria (one black and one white in this production) who are affected madcaps reminiscent of Paris Hilton’s Long Island crowd of the 1980s. The more prim eldest daughter, Gloria, rejects the advances of the suitor Valentine because she sees herself as a “modern woman” with no need for romance. Meanwhile, all three children press their mother for the identity of their superfluous father whom she divorced years earlier. Likely, it’s one of the eccentric male characters nearby: perhaps the family lawyer or the wealthy curmudgeon.

They all end mixed and matched in a farce of mistaken identities and family secrets, but in which the power of love manages to bring everyone to reconciliation and rationalized happy endings.

Watching actor Gray Powell as the hapless ne’er-do-well hero Valentine trying to explain true love is like watching a nimble acrobat doing triple flips while performing brain surgery. Even as you are hypnotized by what is happening in the play, a small piece stands to the side in awe of the pyrotechnics he is displaying with almost no apparent effort. Or watch Peter Millard inhabit a venerable, hyper-competent avuncular waiter who is the calm sage in the eye of the ever whirling insanity, counseling optimism because “you never can tell.” These performances are the result of years of study and practice in a subset of theater genres.

This is Shaw’s seventh production of the script and Mezon has tried to distinguish it through a Lewis Carroll-Marx Brothers over-the-top approach barely clothed with feigned British reserve. To be honest, a post-lunch torpor makes it a little hard to follow the endlessly corkscrewing speeches and plot reversals. Every milli-second is overstuffed with verbal and visual information. Some people may feel it’s too much an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink mish-mosh that is unrelentingly arch, but it all seems intentionally constructed fun washing over you. You also can dip your concentration into the flowing torrent and be guaranteed of pulling up something to quench your intellectual curiosity.

To amp up the daffiness beyond what is in the script, Leslie Frankish eye-popping sets, Cameron Davis’s projections and Kimberly Purtell’s lighting have created a campy fairyland of drawing rooms, verandas, dining rooms with checkerboard floors and facilely rolling scenery in the jewel box Royal George Theatre, plus outlandish costumes that encompass white-tie-and-tails and hallucinogenic outfits for a masked ball.

Peter and the Starcatcher, by Rick Elice, directed by Jackie Maxwell

This parallel universe origin story of Peter Pan has been produced all over the United States including South Florida following its bow off-Broadway in 2011. Hilarious, silly, magical and surprisingly touching in its finale, it absolutely requires an unleashed storehouse of theatrical ingenuity from everyone connected to the production. So the property is irresistible catnip to an outfit like the Shaw Festival, which revels in such verities. Maxwell is leaving after next season and she has cherry-picked this delightful blank canvas to let loose upon.

Charlie Gallant as Boy with the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher.

Charlie Gallant as Boy with the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher.

We don’t need to recount the plot since most of our readers have seen the show, notably the Arsht/University of Miami production that stretched across a stage like a sprawling octopus. Set in the Shaw’s modest Royal George venue, a claustrophobic vaudeville house, a troupe of 12 chameleonic actors have a blast becoming scores of punny, slapstick characters, transforming from one to another with a whipcrack shift of light.

The play’s focus has always been to a degree on the evolution and self-empowerment of young Molly, the precociously gifted heroine who remains a socially inept know-it-all; Peter spends most of the play as a hapless, nameless orphan in the background. But in keeping with the season’s theme, Maxwell heavily stresses Molly as the centerpiece, in part by hiring the vibrant and lovely 20-something Kate Besworth as the intelligent and competitive 13-year-old. Another festival veteran Martin Happer makes a memorable scenery-chewing villain Black Stache, although no one may ever top local actor Nicholas Richberg in the Arsht production.

The design from the nautical-flavored sets to the mercurial lighting to the pristine sound is a riot of imagination. But it’s what Maxwell, movement director Valerie Moore and the actors do with those tools developed in a pre-rehearsal workshop period. When a mermaid in a magical grotto lectures Peter, she gyrates upside-down hanging from the rafters in a Cirque du Soleil-like suspension. Actors become props themselves and provide the sound effects like a raging storm at sea. The rigging tackle of the theater becomes the rigging of the ship.

The take-aways here may be the value of a lengthy rehearsal period to develop storytelling skills and camaraderie (such as what Miami Theater Center does) and the value of simply letting go in the right production (as Mad Cat has been known to do).

The Twelve-Pound Look, by J.M. Barrie, directed by Lezlie Wade

Casual theatergoers only know of Barrie as the father of Peter Pan. But his playwriting oeuvre included the wicked The Admirable Crichton about a supremely resourceful butler who dominates a makeshift society when his hapless upper crust employers are shipwrecked on a desert isle.

This 1921 title is one of those that your eyes hop over in survey courses or playbill credits. It shouldn’t. This 35-minute one-act comedy is a bitingly funny satire skewering the paternalistic and arrogant attitude that husbands had of women at the time it was written.

The catalyst occurs when the adoring subjugated wife of an upper class twit hires a woman to compose and type responses to congratulatory notes for The Great Man about to be knighted. Unbeknownst to any of the three aforehand, the temp is The Great Man’s first wife who walked out on him years earlier leaving only a note. This first meeting in several years allows each to explore why she left. The husband is such an overbearing Brahmin that we know why almost immediately. So, much of the humor comes from watching him, still blinded by arrogance, flail around trying to comprehend that any woman might want a sense of self-worth independent of her husband rather than be his satellite. What must have seem progressive in post-World War I England — not to mention post-Korean War America – today seems antediluvian. Or is it? We smile smugly, but we know that there are millions of couples out there today with only marginally better arrangements.

Another Festival hallmark is its large repertory company. Virtually everyone plays more than one part in the line-up and part of the fun is to see what a huge range some of these actors can boast. The reserved prim second wife was played by Ms. Besworth, the independent tomboy Molly in Peter and the Starcatcher. Patrick Galligan, who struts about as her boor of a husband here, played Molly’s nurturing aristocratic father the day before. Moya O’Connell is the self-assured survivor who has found her worth by leaving the hothouse of her husband’s stifling world. We will see her later as a much different kind of wife in The Lady From The Sea.

Patrick Galligan as Sir Harry Sims and Moya O'Connell as Kate in The Twelve-Pound Look.

Patrick Galligan as Sir Harry Sims and Moya O’Connell as Kate in The Twelve-Pound Look / Photo by David Cooper

While this theatrical appetizer might seem a trifle compared to the other offerings in the Festival, these actors invest their considerable craft in playing the truth of these characters, never once winking at the audience to show that they know how absurd the husband is or how seemingly subservient the second wife is. This production is treated with all the seriousness and attention to detail as any other of the Festival entries, from the cut-glass accuracy of the performances to the perfect choice of period accoutrements for the single-set drawing room.

Besides, this is a one-act play. A real one-act play. To wit, it has character development, not unrealistic epiphanies; it has a full narrative arc rather than just a premise and a joke. It’s a short story as opposed to a literary sketch. Barrie uses deft strokes and fully-realized characters to create a play that is short in timespan but as meaty as any three-act epic.

Sweet Charity, book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, directed by Morris Panych

In many seasons, the Festival schedules a light piece, often a musical, aimed at the person in the theater party who “likes” theater but prefers something a little less weighty than Ibsen. The better known Stratford Shakespeare Festival about 115 miles to the northwest does the same thing, this summer with Carousel and The Sound of Music.

Thus, we get a well-produced full-fledged production of this pleasant frippery best known as Bob Fosse’s 1966 vehicle for his wife, Gwen Verdon. The plot follows the eternally optimistic dance hall hostess Charity Hope Valentine who is forever seeking true love and getting a pie in the face for her troubles.

Somehow, I’ve missed this in a live performance despite revivals, tours and high school productions. My sole exposure was Fosse’s hapless mess of a film in which Shirley MacLaine cavorted in 1969.

So the surprise at the Shaw Festival was what a whimsically sweet show this can be featuring alternately bouncy and poignant music, insightful lyrics and a surprisingly serviceable book. Charity was transmuted from a prostitute in the source film, Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, to a taxi dancer. But her endearingly woeful character remained intact.

The production indulged two directorial conceits. The first was to design, direct and choreograph it as smoothly cinematic as possible starting with the opening moments. City scenes play behind a translucent scrim. Saul Bass-like animated projections of the title of the show appear on the scrim with a listing of its cast and technical team like the opening credits of a film, ending with the star Julie Martell walking on stage and her name appearing over her head.

Martell has a serviceable voice and a winning winsome persona that makes us root for Charity as she seeks out a healthy relationship. But she’s only an adequate dancer in what Fosse envisioned as a dance-heavy show. It’s up to the chorus line and some featured performers to put the terpsichorean zing in the evening. The choreographer obviously simplifies the numbers where Martell is leading the gang in a dance number.

The second tack is to make every effort to recreate the go-go period from the costumes to the unusually faithful arrangements of Coleman’s score, which was an apotheosis of the period including the ebullient “If My Friends Could See Me Now” and “I’m a Brass Band.” Only the hippie scene rang false with cartoonish costumes and mannerisms (Isn’t it always this way?).

Sweet Charity remains a second-rate musical and not especially worthy of the Festival, but it makes a nice palate cleaner for people driving in from Toronto or Buffalo for the long weekend.

Aside from a lack of substance, the script’s primary shortcoming is that the final scene courageously hews to Fellini’s bittersweet ending – with the accent on the bitter as Charity is dumped once again. But in the musical, it just happens on stage in a sudden tangle. There is no clear clean resolution – good or bad or both – and the musical just sort of limps off into the final blackout. Charity, having learned nothing, sets off again toward her next heartbreak, ostensibly a symbol of human resilience.

Top Girls, by Caryl Churchill, directed by Vikki Anderson

At the other end of the spectrum is the dense, confounding but stimulating examination of what 20th Century women thought they had to do to be successful in the male-dictated world of work and relationships. Anderson’s edition of the cautionary tale specifically targets women sacrificing the synergistic benefits of sisterhood and a considerable chunk of their humanity as well.

Churchill’s 1982 dazzling play can be a bit hard to grasp at times with its surreal first act and its time-bouncing non-linear second act. But it sticks to the insides of the mind like intellectual peanut butter, unexpectedly turning up hours later for another think-through.

The cast of Top Girls

The cast in the first act of of Top Girls / Photo by Davids Cooper

The first act is a dinner party thrown at restaurant by the present-day corporate executive Marlene to celebrate her promotion at an employment agency, present-day being Thatcher’s England. The guests include the mythical 9th Century Joan, who masqueraded as a male to become Pope; Dull Gret, a medieval peasant who led troops into Hell against the Devil; Lady Nijo, a canny 13-century Japanese emperor’s concubine and later a Buddhist nun; the breezy brisk world explorer Isabella Bird of the 1850s, and Patient Griselda, a stupefyingly submissive wife drawn from The Canterbury Tales. But they don’t really bond; director Anderson has them talk over one other as they tell of their success and failures dealing with a misogynistic social order.

The second act is set in the same present but in the real world: Marlene is visiting her domesticated country sister and her feisty troubled daughter. The older women debate why one left for the city and the other stayed behind, illustrating how each chose to give up something crucial in their lives. We also see Marlene’s coworkers at the employment agency coping imperfectly with the climb up toward the thick glass ceiling by being as tough and unfeeling as their male colleagues.

This production was an object lesson in the wisdom of reading the director’s notes in the playbill before the curtain goes up or at least taking note of when and where scenes are set. I did not and it took my wife explaining the play to me on the way back to the hotel for me to appreciate what Churchill had achieved. But posthumously armed with her roadmap, the work all fell into place.

Anderson emphasizes the importance of sisterhood by having the cast appear as the audience finds its seats, her own invention. For 15 minutes, they sit on stage at makeup tables in bathrobes, applying their face paint, donning wigs, convivially schmoozing and helping each other get dress in elaborate costumes. It is a marked contrast to the cold, disconnected behavior we will see for the rest of the evening.

Churchill is an acknowledged master playwright of the second half of the 20th Century, but her work is rarely performed in the United States, even more rarely in regional theaters and perhaps never by a professional company in South Florida. Its complexity and non-linear storytelling would challenge any company and its audience, but Top Girls or Churchill’s Cloud Nine cry out for local production.

The Lady From The Sea, by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Erin Shields, directed by Meg Roe

The most refreshing piece of the Festival may have been this mid-career work from Ibsen that contends that a woman can only enter a lasting fulfilling relationship when she has the freedom to choose her destiny.

Shields’ audacious adaptation pares and shapes the five-act play down to 90 minutes, in part the Festival’s nod to audience’s shrinking attention span. But what is left is a clean distillation that still feels full-bodied. The Festival’s senior communications manager Laura Hughes, an unabashed Ibsen fan, acknowledged that she was surprised how the satisfying the new version is.

Starting with a mysterious nude figure arising from a fjord and sunning herself on a rock (something Ibsen didn’t dare put in his script), the play centers on Ellida, who grew up on the fjord and in this production seems mystically connected to the sea like a marooned mermaid.

She is the second wife to the older kindly Doctor Wangel, who ministers to the small Norwegian town and raising his marriageable daughters Bolette and Hilde. After the death of the couple’s infant, the marriage foundered into an arrangement of convenience and duty for the wife, although Wangel still loves her.

Suddenly, a choice appears. Years before marrying Wangel, Ellida was madly in love and engaged to a rough romantic sailor. But because he might have murdered his captain, he disappeared on a voyage after asking her to wait for him to return. His almost magical spell has owned a piece of heart ever since. Now the sailor has returned to claim her.

Eventually, she must first ask the conventional Wangel to release her so that she may choose, and then empowered with the choice, must make a fateful decision.

The play is staged in the Festival’s oldest venue, a compact thrust stage in a 170-year-old courthouse. Although the space is small, adroit lighting and sound designers create various locations around a large imposing boulder. Any theater company could afford a similar production, yet it took theatrical dexterity and Roe’s fluid staging to create a memorable visuals while plumbing the meaning of the script.

Moya O’Connell as Ellida Wangel and Ric Reid as Dr. Wangel in The Lady from the Sea / Photo by David Cooper

Moya O’Connell as Ellida Wangel and Ric Reid as Dr. Wangel in The Lady from the Sea / Photo by David Cooper

As with all of the works this season, we post-modern audiences can cluck our tongues at the suffocating straitjackets that the heroines are or were struggling with, especially when they are self-imposed or docilely submitted to. But Ellida, as deftly played with haunted nuance and muted sorrow by Moya O’Connell (completely different from the emancipated heroine of The Twelve-Pound Look), is as recognizable as your 21st Century next door neighbor who you wish would escape her life-denying marriage.

Not every play lands as solidly and, in a quick survey of critics’ reaction, not a single production received unanimous raves. What was undeniably exciting to a South Floridian was to see this collection of theatrical minds nudging, pushing, shoving at the boundaries of these works and at what audiences expect. It’s the kind of experience that makes a theater lover hunger for more than just a faithful rendition of an old standard.


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