AISLE SAY, ONTARIO

 

The Shaw Festival

Niagara-on-the-Lake

 

Juno and the Paycock

by Sean OCasey

Directed by Jackie Maxwell

Designed by Peter Hartwell

Lighting designed by Bonnie Beecher

Original music by Paul Sportelli

Featuring: Mary Haney, Jim Mezon, Benedict Campbell, Maria McLean, Charlie Gallant

Until October 12 at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake

www.shawfest.com

 

The Charity that Began at Home: A Comedy for Philanthropists

by St John Hankin

Directed by Christopher Newton

Designed by William Schmuck

Lighting designed by Louise Guinand

Featuring: Fiona Reid, Laurie Paton, Julia Course, Donna Belleville, Darcy Gerhart, Sharry Flett, Martin Happer, Jim Mezon, Neil Barclay, Andrew Bunker

Until October 11 at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake

www.shawfest.com

 

 

Reviewed by Robin Breon

 

The first time that I saw a production of Juno and the Paycock, Sean OCaseys revolutionary chronicle of the Irish Civil War, was in Toronto in the early 1970s. The great Irish actor, Siobhan McKenna, played the role of Juno, the matriarch of the working class Boyle family who lived in the tenements of Dublin. McKenna was in residence directing a small, local Irish repertory company and the venue was modest - a centre city high school auditorium. The play had a deep and lasting impact on me. Here was a world class actor doing a play written by a passionate son of Ireland that showed the brutal divisions caused by religious bigotry and political extremism and its effect on the poor in the storied city of Shaw, Joyce and Yeats. Forty years on, to quote one of Joxer Dalys colorful metaphors, the world is still in a terrible state o chassis.

 

Jackie Maxwell, in her penultimate season as artistic director of the Shaw Festival, has come forward with a moving rendering of this heartfelt classic, that even Lorraine Hansberry paid homage to in her own American classic, A Raisin in the Sun. Maxwell keeps her actors on point especially in their use of Irish colloquialisms that could easily be lost by way of garbled vernacular in the hands of a less skilled ensemble.

 

Jim Mezon (as Captain Jack Boyle) and Benedict Campbell (Joxer Daly) are perfectly matched as the shirk work head of the Boyle family and his equally phlegmatic accomplice who try to avoid the most commonplace duties of domestic responsibility in favor of skipping out to the local pub. The possibility of an inheritance (that never materializes) only heightens the comedic pathos of these two lethargic inebriates as they steer themselves well clear of every possible employment opportunity that presents itself.

 

Johnny Boyle (Charlie Gallant) is the reluctant revolutionary who came forward to join in the struggle and as a result lost an arm and some of his mind as well. His mental and emotional state is clearly what we would identify today as post traumatic stress syndrome. Marla McLean (as Mary Boyle) is the sweet ingenue who not only finds herself without the benefit of a family inheritance but is left bereft and with child by the inept, class conscious cad Charles Bentham (played by Gord Rand) who erred in drawing up the will that purported to bestow unexpected wealth on the Boyle family.

 

Through it all, Mary Haney as Juno Boyle, attempts, as do all the struggling matriarchs of this cruel world, to search for the spiritual strength to go on (and on) in a world whose cruelties never seem to mitigate. Her indomitable mien is a solace to us all. At the end of the play, speaking to her daughter about her impending pregnancy, she assures Mary that things will work out all right. That they will survive and that the child will be fine and happy, because, although the baby may not have a father it will have two mothers. The frisson on the back of the neck and the catch in the throat is palpable as are the tears in the eyes of the audience as the curtain comes down and the house lights come up.

 

In his program notes to The Charity that Began at Home by St John Hankin, artistic director (emeritus) of the Shaw Festival, Christopher Newton, notes that the underrated playwright, St John Hankin, ranks right up there with George Bernard Shaw, John Galsworthy and Harley Granville Barker, who all had their work produced at the Royal Court Theatre in the early years of the twentieth century. Newton had great success earlier during his tenure as AD at the Shaw Festival when he directed two other Hankin works, The Return of the Prodigal and The Casilis Engagement to great critical acclaim. Indeed, it is only in the latter part of the last century (1990s) that Hankins long neglected plays began to strike a chord in revivals. When the Mint Theatre in New York revived That Charity... in 2002, it had not had a recorded production since 1917.

 

The playwright himself died in 1909, taking his own life at the age of 39.

 

That Charity that Began at Home really does what the television series Downton Abbey ought to do but does not. Rather than romanticizing the quaint notions of the British aristocracy, Hankin skewers the false pretense and haughty, imperial attitudes of the Edwardians more in the manner of Oscar Wilde. Lady Dennison (Fiona Reid) is the very essence of noblesse oblige with a healthy dose of befuddlement which Ms. Reid has shown herself to be the master of over the course of her very distinguished career on the Canadian stage.

 

 

Lady Dennison and her daughter Margery (Julia Course) have come under the influence of Basil Hylton, who we would probably describe today as a new age philosopher (played by Graeham Somerville with just the right amount of understated charisma). Hylton has come up with a new approach to philanthropy. True altruism, he believes is not to invite your friends for a long weekend at the cottage, but rather to invite those guests who no one else would consider inviting because of one personality disorder or another. Thus enter a roster of characters who include (among others) a retired blow-hard general (Jim Meson at his pompous best), a mean spirited schoolmarm who teaches German (Sharry Flett), and the handsome Hugh Verreker (Martin Happer) who is a former soldier with a shady past and who is attracted to young Margery.

 

The sub plot revolves around a sexual tryst between two downstairs employees of Lady Dennison; Soames (Andrew Bunker), the head butler and Anson (Lady Dennisons hapless maid played by Darcy Gerhart). The ensuing contortions of Lady Dennison, with her clueless attempts to reconcile the problem, is at the heart of the comedy and Hankins refusal as a playwright to give us a fully resolved ending is at the core of the drama. A very entertaining, thoughtful and discussion provoking evening of theatre.

 

And finally, word out of Niagara-on-the-Lake has it that the search committee to choose a successor to Jackie Maxwell, whose contract expires at the end of the 2016 season, is now down to two candidates with the idea being that her successor, when chosen, will have a full season to job shadow while preparing to take on the helm at Shaw, a repertory company that employs 64 actors (which extends to 600 full and part time employees at the height of the Festival season) and has an overall operating budget currently sitting at $27.8 million.

 

Maxwell led the Shaw Festival as artistic director for 14 years. Overall she produced informed and entertaining productions with many (like the Hinton plays) successes found by way of archaeological gems, as she likes to put it, that would most likely not have found a main stage production with such prominence elsewhere. She was also the first AD to seriously concentrate on advancing women directors and the first to invite a black director (Philip Aiken) to work at the SF.

 

Stay tuned for the big announcement.

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