Curtain Call: Stratford and Shaw Festivals 2009

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

This season, the Shaw has been featuring the monumental cycle of 10 one-act plays, "Tonight at 8:30," that Noel Coward wrote and originally starred in with his stage partner Gertrude Lawrence in the mid-1930s. The festival presents the plays in three bundles of three, plus one as its Lunchtime offering. The music-themed trio entitled "Play, Orchestra, Play," which consists of "Red Peppers," "Fumed Oak" and "Shadow Play," continues at the Royal George Theatre through Oct. 31. The Lunchtime play and two remaining triple bills have already ended their runs, but I caught one of these: "Brief Encounters," comprised of "Still Life," "We Were Dancing" and "Hands Across the Sea."

"Still Life" and "We Were Dancing" complement each other perfectly. The former is a deeply serious contemplation of an illicit love affair that begins innocently in the cafe of a train station but intensifies over the course of months. It served as the basis of the classic 1945 David Lean film, "Brief Encounter." Coward gives even secondary characters their own story arcs to suggest the passage of time, but it's the central couple we remember. Patrick Galligan gave the doctor Alec Harvey a gentle demeanor and Deborah Hay portrayed Laura Jesson with an endearing sincerity, each convincing us of their absence of guile and so heightening the sadness. Right below the surface of "Still Life" boils the inequity between the relative freedom of men and the societal restrictions on women.

With its foreshortened timeframe, "We Were Dancing" is a hilarious variation on the same theme of unexpected passion between two people married to others. Rather than ending in the heartbreak of "Still Life," "Dancing" tumbles from a giddy evening of "music and moonlight" to the disillusioned morning after when both have dissipated. In between frolics the outlandish title song and dance. And in one of the chief delights of repertory theatre, Hay and Galligan displayed their antic sides as the sudden lovers.

"Hands Across the Sea" would be a frivolous throwaway except for its skewering of the upper classes for their obliviousness and its clever use of music to both conceal and communicate. When the hosts of an impromptu gathering - Hay and Galligan again - realize that two of their guests are not who they thought they were, they sing their realization and solve the dilemma in the process. It's silly, but it ties up "Brief Encounters" with a neat little bow.

Continuing at the Festival Theatre through Nov. 1 is another play that has lived in memory as a classic film. Garson Kanin's "Born Yesterday" was the original stage version of the 1950 film that made a comic star of Judy Holliday. At the Shaw, Deborah Hay makes Billie Dawn's transformation from dumb as a post to pillar of democracy plausible and puts her own stamp on the part in the process. Tales of idealism standing up to political corruption never lose their currency, and rarely are they as delightfully entertaining as "Born Yesterday." Valuing brains over brawn and self-education over complacent ignorance adds to the mix.

The other two full-length plays I was able to see have since ended their runs. When first produced in its original French in 1984, Michel Tremblay's "Albertine in Five Times" was a Canadian theatrical landmark. Five actresses simultaneously playing the same title character at 10-year intervals from 30 to 70 sounds as though it could be confusing, but in this new translation by Linda Gaboriau, it's not in the least. Albertine quickly earns our sympathy but threatens to lose it in the course of the play. Frankly, she gets annoying after a while. Patricia Hamilton is the most measured and relatively wise Albertine at 70. All the others suffer in various stages of frustration and rage, expressed with varying degrees of shrillness. One gets a sense of how important this play must have been in its time, but it loses impact and gains irritation in the translation.

No such excuse can be made for "A Moon for the Misbegotten," which had its world premiere, strangely enough, at the since-demolished Hartman Theatre here in Columbus on Feb. 20, 1947. "Moon" finds Eugene O'Neill at his most loquacious. While the play is on its comic trajectory during the first two acts, it works pretty well, with Jim Mezon proving himself a fine comic actor as Phil Hogan, father of the much-desired Josie (Jenny Young). But when the play's final two acts make the spiral toward tragedy, it bogs down in O'Neill's insistence on enacting every repetitive point on the downward journey.

The remaining production still on the boards through Nov. 1 at the Royal George Theatre is Stephen Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George." Sondheim and collaborator James Lapine tell the musical story of French pointillist Georges Seurat creating "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." Although I was not able to see this production, Sondheim is always worth seeing if you can.

It's also worth thinking ahead toward a possible visit to the Shaw next season. Performances begin in April 2010, and there will be 10 plays from which to choose, two of them by Bernard Shaw himself. In this time when health care reform occupies many of our minds, Shaw's "The Doctor's Dilemma" looks at a particular instance of medical rationing. "John Bull's Other Island" considers the always contentious relationship between England and Ireland in a comical way that only Shaw was able to carry off.

A respected politician whose past indiscretions catch up with him - How timely can you get? - is the focus of Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband." Long before there was Desperate Housewives, there was Clare Boothe Luce's catty satire, "The Women." Our own housing crisis may give fresh meaning to Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," not that Chekhov needs the help. Adapting "Orchard" from the original Russian is contemporary Irish playwright Tom Murphy. Canadian playwright Linda Griffiths takes a look at women's liberation in 1880s London in her "Age of Arousal." "Harvey" may be best known in its film incarnation with James Stewart, but the Shaw Festival affords audiences the opportunity to see Mary Chase's original Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name.

Composer Kurt Weill, poet and punster Ogden Nash, and Marx Brothers collaborator S.J. Perelman walk into a bar ... and the result is the musical "One Touch of Venus." In it, a sculpture of said goddess magically comes to life, falls in love with a barber, and pursues him through Manhattan. "Venus" is the source of one of Weill's loveliest songs, "Speak Low."

The Shaw's 2010 Lunchtime short will show us a J.M. Barrie quite different than the one we know from "Peter Pan." When the careful plans of a woman to leave her husband derail, she scrambles to reassemble her life in "Half an Hour." Finally, in its new and intimate Studio Theatre, the Shaw Festival presents Caryl Churchill's 1987 satire of the London Stock Exchange, "Serious Money." Considering how serious money has been lately, this comes none too soon.

Special offers are still available for remaining 2009 performances and will abound for next season. For more Shaw Festival information, check out its website,

Sorry to report that this year I was not able to get to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, but that shouldn't stop you if you have the chance in the next few weeks. Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" plays through Oct. 30, and both "Macbeth" and "Julius Caesar" continue through Oct. 31. Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" (with the inimitable Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell) will inspire laughter until Oct. 30. The great Colm Feore inhabits the title role of Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac" through November 1.

Stratford's two 2009 musicals have had their runs extended. And like the Shaw's 2009 musical, both share the stamp of Stephen Sondheim. "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," with book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, will continue to crack wise through Nov. 7. Leonard Bernstein's Shakespeare-inspired "West Side Story" (with Sondheim's lyrics and Arthur Laurents' book) breaks hearts through Nov. 8.

For Stratford, too, it's not too early to start planning for a 2010 season visit. Among the Shakespeare offerings will be "As You Like It," "The Winter's Tale," "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," and Christopher Plummer as Prospero in "The Tempest." For one of its musicals, Stratford is brushing up its Shakespeare with "Kiss Me, Kate" by Cole Porter (inspired by "The Taming of the Shrew," of course).

If you were planning on growing up in the next year or so, put it off, because to complement the Shaw's "Half an Hour," Stratford will be presenting J.M. Barrie's "Peter Pan." Don't cry for Stratford when they stage the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical "Evita." The beloved musical "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" will be presented on Stratford's extreme thrust Tom Patterson stage. And Stratford's own intimate Studio Theatre will host "King of Thieves," a new play by George F. Walker, with songs and music by John Roby, based roughly on John Gay's "Beggar's Opera."

On the non-musical and non-Shakespearean side, Stratford will offer Christopher Hampton's "Dangerous Liaisons," Canadian playwright Michel Tremblay's "For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again," and the solo show "Do Not Go Gentle" by Leon Pownall, with Geraint Wyn Davies as poet Dylan Thomas.

For more Stratford Shakespeare Festival information, check out its Web site at If you can get away in the next few weeks, either Stratford or the Shaw would make for a perfect mini-vacation. Because they lie about two hours apart in southern Ontario, an extended visit to both is possible, either now or during the 2010 season. North American theater rarely gets much better.