GUYS AND DOLLS
LADY WINDEMERE'S FAN
The Shaw Festival has had a strong opening this season with at least one break-out must-see-show so far. But first, the musical. The better part of wisdom now has it that the musical canon is firmly ensconced on the mainstage of both the Shaw and the Stratford Festivals in Ontario probably for a long time to come. Indeed, the Shaw had such success with Ragtime last summer that it was able to climb out of its deficit and declare a small surplus at the end of last year’s season.
And Guys and Dolls should do the same for them this year on the Festival Theatre stage. Despite some casting flaws - no real chemistry between the two leads Sky Masterson (Kyle Blair) and Sarah Brown (Jenny L. Wright) - the show bubbles along nonetheless under the expert direction of Tadeusz Bradecki. Bradecki has become one of my favorite directors at Shaw over the years so whenever I see his name next to a production, I’m there. Although not known for musicals, he certainly moves this one along at a brisk pace and delivers the goods (with a few nice embellishments besides) that updates the old chestnut and separates it from its past. I particularly liked the night in Havana scene that just can be so problematic when Sky has to duke it out with the locals in the nightclub. Here he has Sarah joining in the inebriated fray with wholehearted abandon. It takes the edge off and adds humor where there needs to be some.
But the coup de theatre comes in Guys and Dolls, as it always does, in the second act when Nicely-Nicely Johnson sings the rousing, Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat. In 2004 I thought that I had seen the definitive take on this tune at the Stratford Festival when Bruce Dow so memorably delivered us from Satan’s clutches. Let me say here for the record that the bar has been raised once again with Thom Allison’s original take on the old standard that tells me the devil has yet to drag this boat under. It will float through to the end of the Shaw season a winner for sure.
Although Somerset Maugham’s play, Our Betters, is being advertised for those who are in love with the British TV series, Downton Abbey, its really not quite that at all. But interesting nonetheless. The phenomenon of young American women looking for titled British men for the purpose of marriage around the beginning of the 20th century is quite real and the cat/ mouse game that ensued during the courtship process (does Lord so-and-so have as much money as they say?) forms the basis of Maugham’s plot construction. The hypocrisy, the deceit and the ensuing affairs are all quite fun but not quite enough to pull you through the whole evening thinking its been a great play. Could the first act have been edited down a bit, or at the very least had the pacing speeded up? Yes, I think so. Whereas The Circle (another Maugham play done at Shaw a few seasons back) was a play - and another drawing room affair as well - that kept your attention and didn’t reveal it’s secret until the end, Our Betters leaves us waiting so long we don’t really care anymore.
But all is forgiven by the time we get to Peter Hinton’s absolutely superb production of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. With not only a perfect set by Teresa Przybyiski but also perfect scenic effects (with gestures toward the art of John Singer Sargent, James Whistler, Eadweard Muybridge and Audrey Beardsley) to go along with the set. Period costumes by William Schmuck give us the visual embodiments of character and period that are best exemplified when the wag, Mr. Cecil Graham (played by Kyle Blair) appears in the second half of the play easily identifiable as modeled after the playwright himself. The musical mash-up sound design by Richard Feren was nicely curated and conceptually consistent with Wilde as one of the forebears of the modernist project.
Lady Windermere’s Fan brought instant fame to Oscar Wilde at its London premiere in 1892, followed by The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895. Then came his arrest and imprisonment for being a homosexual in 1897 and his final work,The Ballad of Reading Gaol, written one year after that. His death in Paris in 1900 at the age of forty-six, impoverished, concluded a biographical journey that very few of the world’s theatre artists have undertaken.
By the play’s end the playwright has unleashed many of his best satirical barbs and does what any good playwright ought to do, keeps his secret until the very end. But here he tops himself again by having his characters all deciding to keep their individual secrets to themselves! Pure genius.
While on his death bed, Wilde purportedly remarked, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.” The artists at the Shaw Festival have taken these sentiments to heart. An intellectually cogent production, the set, the costumes, the lighting, the music, the direction and the acting - and yes, even the wallpaper - would have pleased Wilde to no end.