Thursday, 29 September 2016

The Symphony of the World

Gustav Mahler, one of the most popular of all orchestral composers, once said that a symphony should encompass the entire world.  More than any other of his works, the magnificent, epic Symphony # 3 does just that.

I first fell in love with this work as a teenager.  After borrowing Jascha Horenstein's wonderful recording with the London Symphony Orchestra a few times from the library, I went out and bought a copy for myself.  I still treasure the same recording in its CD re-release (among several others).

So any time the Toronto Symphony Orchestra wants to perform it, I will be there, and it will always be a special event for me.  This week actually marks Maestro Peter Oundjian's second go at this huge work during his tenure with the orchestra (the last time was in 2008).

As well as being Mahler's longest symphony, and the longest symphony to be regularly performed (with six movements and lasting 1 hour 40 minutes, give or take a bit), this is also Mahler's most diverse work.  To perform it, conductor and players (and singers, too) have to be ready to push all the elements as far as possible.  This isn't a piece for the faint of heart or the overly-fastidious.  The march tune in F major which dominates the first movement has to be brazen to the point of becoming raucous.  The woodwind interjections in the scherzo need the same kind of blaring tone -- there are passages where Mahler directs that the winds and horns lift their instruments up so that the sound comes out as forcefully as possible.  The alto song has to be deeply solemn, the angel chorus verging on the cute and kitschy.  And the long, slow finale has to exude an air of ultimate love and consolation despite the episodes of anguish and fear that intrude.

Mahler divided the work into two parts, the first comprising the huge (35 minute) first movement, the second part comprising the other five.  Last time around, Oundjian performed the entire work without a break but this week there was an intermission between the two parts.

The massive first movement ("Pan awakens; summer marches in) consists of two main elements: the slow, dirge-like music in D minor dominated by the low brasses (and especially by Gordon Wolfe's magnificent trombone solos) and the upbeat, energetic, almost frenetic march in F major which arises from the higher strings and winds before spreading to inflame the entire orchestra.  The measured pacing of the D minor slow music was especially notable in the dead-quiet gentle rhythms tapped out by the bass drum at the end of each section.  Oundjian shaped the march portions with a careful hand, always keeping a bit of volume in reserve for the very final bars of each section.

The central development section is dominated by the marching rhythm but includes intrusions of the melodic figures from the slower parts.  Orchestra and conductor alike made certain that every element of the music came through clearly in the very complex polyphonic layers of this passage.  Sadly, the offstage snare drum passage was so robust that it might just as well have been played on the stage.  It would have been better if the side stage door had been left closed for this.

In the end, of course, it is the march that has the final word and in the coda it seemed that the tempo did become a little too frenetic, a kind of race to the finish line which was tremendously exciting but didn't hold together one hundred percent.

After the intermission, the delicacy of the second movement ("What the Flowers in the Meadows Tell Me") provided the hugest possible contrast.  This short little minuet is full of gentle little solo bits for the high woodwinds and the violin, and all were beautifully played.  The final notes disappeared into the air as gently as could be.

Then came the scherzo ("What the Animals in the Woods Tell Me").  Opening in the same air of quiet gentleness as the minuet, it quickly becomes much more robust and even threatening in tone.  Oundjian made sure that this movement rolled along with the same moto perpetuo quality as the march in the first part.  Woodwind and brass interjections were tart and explosive, as required.  Then, in the slow contrasting sections, the offstage trumpet solo by Andrew McCandless was impeccable -- and suitably distant, with the doors closed -- as they should have been for the snare drum in Part One.  These offstage layers of sound are critical in Mahler for conveying the sense of distance and space which the composer wanted.  The final coda thundered quickly by.

The fourth movement ("What Mankind Tells Me") has to be played dead slow and dead quiet by the orchestra, like a suspended moment in time.  The mezzo-soprano soloist, Jamie Barton, was simply magnificent in this slow, heartfelt song.  Her tone smooth, unmarred by vibrato, her diction clear, her pitch impeccable, she held the audience rapt with her exemplary performance.

Another huge contrast comes with the light, folk-like entrance of the brief fifth movement ("What the Angels Tell Me").  The orchestra and combined women's voices of the Amadeus Choir, Elmer Iseler Singers, Oriana Choir, and the Toronto Children's Chorus combined in a joyful, bouncy rendition of this happy, angelic hymn.  In the contrasting darker centre section Jamie Barton sang with a more dramatic tone than in the previous movement, underlining the fact that this piece is storytelling in contrast to the previous song's meditation.  The final bars, with the bell-sounds ("Bimm, bamm" with a closed hum on the "mm") got quieter and quieter until the last notes evaporated into the sky.

Immediately, Oundjian had the opening notes of the long, slow final movement ("What Love Tells Me") stealing as quietly in upon the strings, before even having the choirs sit down.  This final orchestral song of divine love consists of long chains of melody, with phrase after phrase unfolding in the most organic way for minutes on end.  These long, singing melodic lines are entrusted to the strings, and the TSO players excelled in quiet, smooth, clear-toned playing.  As the movement unfolds, tempo does shift, and other instruments join in, but the strings dominate here as nowhere else in the symphony.  When the music does rise to climaxes of anguish, the tempo quickens, but under Oundjian's guiding hand the acceleration remained entirely natural and unforced.  The last solo passages of the work are the heartfelt consolation of Nora Shulman's flute after the last climax, and then the gentle unfolding of the main theme for the last time by McCandless on trumpet, both played magnificently.  The music then rose slowly to a final grand climax on a long-sustained triumphant major chord.

The Third may be long, but it's quintessential Mahler all the same, and this performance was a magnificent tour through one of music's most remarkable achievements  by all the players, singers, and conductor.  The TSO is repeating the concert tonight and this concert will well repay your time if you can get there!

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Swirls of Strings

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra opened their season four nights back with a one-night-only Gala starring Renee Fleming.  Friday and Saturday, they gave their first concerts of the regular subscription series.  The programme included four works, all of which set the strings swirling.  In three of them the strings had leading roles to play.

The programme opened with Butterfly Wings and Tropical Storms by Canadian composer Randolph Peters.  This work exemplified a recent trend in contemporary composition, a trend which sees many composers abandoning the structural (or de-structural) thinking of the 20th-century avant-garde in favour of such revolutionary qualities as melody, harmony, and rhythm.

This particular piece certainly proved that the possibilities of a more traditional musical language are by no means exhausted.  It began with a duo-cadenza for flutes and these were eventually joined by other woodwinds, and then by the strings, producing a glowing shimmer of sound.  Solemn chords sounding in the deep brasses lent a positively Sibelian tone as each chord was a clear and distinct triad, but not necessarily related to the one before it.  These harmonic shifts eventually worked up to the storm of the title, which was even shorter than the storm in Sibelius' Tapiola but sounded like its first cousin all the same.  A brief coda recalled the shimmers of the opening.

Peters was present to receive the applause of the audience, and so gripping and rewarding was his work that he was called back for a second bow -- a relatively rare event with contemporary music!

The Sibelian resemblance was appropriate, because that composer's Violin Concerto followed next, with Norwegian violinist Henning Kragerrud as soloist.  This piece needs little description, being a well-known repertoire staple.  But I simply have to quote Sir Donald Tovey's delightful description of the final movement's main theme with its cross-rhythmic accompaniment:  "evidently a polonaise for polar bears."  Yes, I know there are no polar bears in Finland!

This concerto, like the composer's symphonies, tends towards a craggy, rough-hewn sound world.  It has a lot to do with Sibelius' insistent use of diatonic harmonies without a firm tonal centre.  In the case of the concerto, it also has a lot to do with the amount of fierce attack versus the relatively modest use of singing lyrical lines in the solo part.

What really struck me about this performance was the achievement of that kind of rugged sound in the first and third movements.  No prettied-up niceties here.  Kragerrud leaned hard on the bow and conductor Peter Oundjian called fierce entries from the orchestra.  Fierce, but not necessarily loud.  In spite of all the heavy-duty attack entries, the orchestra's sound was fully under control so that the soloists was always audible.

The first movement was taken faster than many performances, avoiding any sense of quiet meditation in the opening bars.  While the music became a bit helter-skelter in one or two spots, it was for the most part both exciting and exacting in adhering to the score.

The slow movement, too, passed in a flowing tempo a shade faster than usual so that the music had no opportunity to lose momentum.

In the finale, that intriguing cross-rhythm between drums and low strings in the opening bars was, for once, clearly articulated so that either one could be easily singled out.  The polonaise rhythm of the opening went with quite a swagger, as did the orchestra's fierce cross-rhythmic response in a courante rhythm later.  The final coda, bringing together all the themes of the movement, wound up to an exhilarating conclusion.

For an encore, Kragerrud played something very unusual: one of his own compositions!  Variation Suite is a duo for violin and cello, which he played with the TSO's principal cellist, Joseph Johnson, to loud audience acclaim.  The theme sounds rather like a Norwegian folk tune in style, but the variations are another matter altogether.  One very quick one is either full of added beats or else written in something like 11/8 time -- it flew by too quickly for me to count beats!  Another is slow and lyrical, a third a kind of waltz.  The whole imaginative work lasts about 5 minutes.  It made me very eager to experience more of Kragerrud's composition output -- some of the online reviews he's received sound very intriguing indeed.

After the intermission, for me, a relative letdown -- although I hasten to add that this has nothing to do with the orchestra's performance!  I've never been able to warm up to Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2, and this week was no exception.  It's a huge sprawling work (60 minutes) which, especially in the first and last movements, comes across to me as feeling like too little butter scraped over too much bread.

I can think of several possible reasons.  Perhaps Rachminoff missed the stimulus of writing for the piano, his own instrument.  Maybe he felt no affinity for the cut and thrust of symphonic argument, and was just writing a symphony because he felt he ought to.  Perhaps he was padding up his work because he felt that with Mahler as an example, a symphony had to last an hour or more.  Consider that the finished work is 50% longer in playing time than his largest piano concerto, the Third.

There is just one movement that gives signs of coherent structure, and that is the second-movement scherzo.  The main scherzo theme brackets one of those lush, romantic melodies that were Rachmaninoff's great specialty.  Then comes an alternate scherzo, just as fierce, as an alternative to a trio, followed by a repeat of the original scherzo-melody-scherzo complex.  The themes are clear-cut as a bell, underscored by insistent galloping rhythms, and the whole movement is the only one that truly catches fire instead of sitting there smouldering but never really getting going.

(The relative lack of structure is made all the more obvious by comparison with Mahler's enormous Third Symphony which is being played this week.  Its first movement spans 35 whole minutes by itself, but in something very close to a clear and recognizable sonata-form structure with first and second theme groups, development, and recapitulation and coda fused into one.  Quite plainly, Mahler had the symphonic tradition in his bloodstream, in a way that Rachmaninoff and many other Russian composers couldn't quite match.)

Throughout the Rachmaninoff work, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra clearly had the measure of the music.  Sounds were plushy or edgy, as required, and the beauty of the horn choir in particular was notable.  Also notable was the rich sound of the strings, who have more work to do in this symphony than in many other repertoire staples, since they are responsible for presenting so many of the themes.

Oundjian's view of the work was precise and beautiful in many ways, with the soaring lyrical passages in particular flowing smoothly and not getting bogged down in schmaltz.  And that powerful scherzo was as energetic and fiery a performance as anyone could ask.  If I'm ever going to sit through this symphony again, I want it to sound like this.

But if it were up to me, I would just play the scherzo -- and then repeat it!

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Shaw Festival 2016 # 4: Our Play

There have been many fine plays written by many fine writers in the United States during the last century.  Many of these plays are justly considered classics of the English-speaking world theatre.  

Among all the other products of this rich theatrical age, Thornton Wilder's Our Town holds a very special place.  Although written consistently in the simplest and most uninvolving of theatrical styles, it still holds the stage because the characters and situations are straightforward, clear, and most of all, honest and believable.  Almost anyone can go to a performance of Our Town and see aspects of themselves, their families, and their friends in the people appearing on the stage.

The other especially appealing feature of Our Town is that it tells about the core aspects of life to which we can all relate: birth and death, love and marriage, everyday chores and special occasions.

It's no wonder, then, that Our Town continues to be performed in schools, colleges, community and professional theatres.  It's the sort of play that will always be sui generis because if anyone else tried to write a similar play in a similar style, they would end up writing Our Town, Mark II.  The play also stubbornly resists classification by theatrical genre.  It is, simply and beautifully, itself.

Wilder designedly planned Our Town as a play which would consistently and thoroughly break down the imaginary fourth wall between actors and audience.  He required a bare stage, minimal furniture, and called for most actions to be mimed without props.  His main character is the Stage Manager, who speaks for the most part directly to the audience, narrating the story and filling in for them the gaps which the onstage action doesn't show.  Wilder also asked for the play to be performed "without sentimentality or ponderousness--simply, dryly, and sincerely."

The Shaw Festival's production respects these requirements for the most part.  When it goes beyond them, it does so in a way that yet respects the play and the author's intention. 

A simple white cyclorama backdrop allows for subtle shades of light to define different times of day and night.  A large circular moon is lowered in front of the cyclorama for two different segments of the play, distinguished by different lighting effects.  Plain furniture, chairs and tables, are moved around and sometimes on and off by the company.  Costumes are period appropriate but simple.

It's difficult to single out certain performers in this show because it is so pre-eminently an ensemble piece.  Few characters, other than the Stage Manager, have any lengthy scenes.  Indeed, the Stage Manager is as apt to interrupt a promising scene, thank the performers, and then fast forward our attention to another key moment.

But there are some truly delightful performances here none the less.  One of the best is Sharry Flett as the garrulous, gossipy Mrs. Soames.  In the wedding scene at the end of Act II, her over-the-chair-back interjections are done with exactly the over-the-top tone that I can associate with an elderly gossip.  It may not be strictly according to the playwright's request, but it's a funny and touching cameo all the same.

The four parents are all good, but it is the two mothers who stick in my mind -- partly by the script pointing your attention towards them, and partly by the subtle but still multi-faceted performances of Catherine McGregor as Mrs. Gibbs and Jenny L. Wright as Mrs. Webb.  Wright was magnificently natural in her slow-motion preparation of breakfast in the return to life scene, while McGregor captured a perfect balance between indifference to the living world and maternal concern for the newcomer in the graveyard.

These two also played a fine partnership in the scene where they are stringing beans.  Not the least part of the effect here was the actors' careful use of every inch of space on the narrow stage of the Royal George Theatre to clearly indicate the locations of the two houses and their respective gardens.

At the heart of the play stand their two elder children, George Gibbs (Charlie Gallant) and Emily Webb (Kate Besworth).  This casting caught my attention because I had seen these two playing two leading child roles last season as well, in Peter and the Starcatcher.  In that show, they (and their fellow actors) didn't really convince me that I was seeing children.  Well, this time out, the two both assumed an entirely believable air as school children, and then kept the transitions completely clear as they grew into teenagers and then adults.

The emotional heart of the piece comes in the third act, with the funeral of Emily after she dies in childbirth with her second child.  One of the most arresting images in this entire production is the rows of chairs representing graves, with the actors seated in them -- facing straight ahead and never turning or moving.  This much, of course, anyone who has seen the play knows will happen.  The extra inspiration here was the cold white-grey moonlight (it is winter) and the gentle dusting of white on the lower ends of the actors' clothing.

Then comes the scene where Emily chooses to go back and witness a day in her life again, despite warnings from the others not to do it.  In another magnificent and subtle touch, the director and designer have the table brought on once more in the Webb house -- but now there are real pots, dishes, utensils.  Although the action continues as if in mime, the presence of these extra articles (actually not wanted by the playwright) underlines gently but clearly the fact the Emily is seeing it all for the first time -- there was so much she didn't see the first time, when she lived it.

Emily's farewell speech seemed a little unnatural to me -- but I suppose it's hard to make it really natural!  Then she returns to her chair (grave), George comes back up to the graveyard by night, and in a moment of terribly real heartbreak flings himself on the ground of her grave.  Gallant's performance in this moment drew sobbing from a few people in the audience.

All of which brings me back to the Stage Manager, the single biggest and most important role in the piece.  This actor has more lines than all the others combined, and has to do so many different linking functions during the show -- as well as playing small roles such as the minister and the soda fountain owner.

Remember what the playwright requested:  "simply, dryly, and sincerely."  With a gentle, coaxing, almost folksy lilt in his voice, Benedict Campbell did exactly that -- never overdone, dramatic, or overly emotional but always engrossing in his storytelling.  It was as near to perfect a realization of the role as I can imagine.

This performance took me further into this play than any other production I've ever seen.  At the end, I came away with a new appreciation for the key message that lies in the very last scene.  It comes in Emily's question: "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?  Every, every minute?"  The answer, given by the Stage Manager, is: "No.  The saints and poets, maybe -- they do some."

Thanks to director Molly Smith and her team of designers, the Shaw Festival has mounted a production of Our Town which more than achieves the most difficult feat of all -- the feat of performing this familiar and deeply-treasured play well.  A remarkable evening of theatre.

Shaw Festival 2016 # 3: In the Money

When I first heard that the Shaw Festival was staging an early comedy by W. S. Gilbert of "____ and Sullivan" fame, I assumed that it would be early in style as well as in skill.  See how wrong you can be?

It was my turn to be surprised when I discovered that Gilbert actually wrote nearly 50 plays, not including the dozen or so operettas with Sullivan as composer.  Engaged is thus part of a much more significant element of the author's total output.

The detailed programme notes provided by the Shaw highlight the indebtedness of the operettas to such earlier pieces as the highly successful Engaged -- and the equal similarity of the much later classic The Importance of Being Earnest.  Well, proving such connections is a delightful impossibility, so I'll just leave it to stand that the similarities undoubtedly exist, and look at this performance instead.

But there are a couple of observations to be made about the script first.  Like all Gilbertian satirical nonsense, this play takes place in a totally imaginary world which resembles the real world in only external details.  Within that imaginary world, the most ridiculous behaviour becomes not only expected but respected.  Also, the nonsense is at all times congruent with its own outrageous rules of behaviour and action.  

Thus, it should come as no surprise that everyone's suitability for marriage in this play is determined by their wealth, or that the one person in the play with substantial means is also blessed -- or cursed -- with the unstoppable urge to propose to every woman he meets.  (Oddly enough, he never seems to face a breach-of-promise lawsuit, the dreaded legal entanglement so often used by P. G. Wodehouse in his comic novels.)  Nor is it a mere coincidence that the play begins in Gretna, the village ambiguously located on the border between England and Scotland, where eloping couples contracted marriages under Scottish law by simply declaring each other to be husband and wife, in front of witnesses.

For a nutty, off the wall piece like this one, the designer-director team of Ken MacDonald and Morris Panych is just the ticket.  MacDonald has made a positive virtue out of the cramped stage of the Royal George Theatre by designing sets of gigantic cartoonish cut-outs coloured in bright pastels: monstrous thistles in Act I and impressionistic flowers in Acts II and III.  

The first obstacle many in the audience encountered was in trying to understand the broad Lowland peasant accents of the first characters to appear: Maggie Mcfarlane (Julia Course), her mother (Mary Haney), and her would-be fiance Angus Macalister (Martin Happer).  An accent like this is not often to be heard in the North American theatrical world, and these three all did it full justice.  Even as one who has travelled frequently in Scotland, it took me a couple of minutes to adjust!

The first outsiders to appear after Angus forces a train to stop are Belvawney (Jeff Meadows) and his fiancee Belinda Treherne (Nicole Underhay).  Belinda in particular comes across just like the heroines of half of the Savoy operas: self-centred, self-consciously sweet, and a melodramatist who never uses two words when twenty will do.  She is the first in the play, but hardly the last, to declare that, despite her romantic attraction to Belvawney, money will decide whether she will marry or not.  After marvelling at her skill in some of the heaviest dramatic roles of the repertoire, what a delight to see Nicole Underhay undertaking such giddily comical material (and she does it very well, no surprise there).

The central figure in the ensuing lunacy now appears: Cheviot Hill (Gray Powell).  Cheviot loses no time in proposing to Maggie, and to Belinda, and the fun is well and truly under way.  Powell has a whole range of daft actions that he undertakes each time his memorized proposal speech begins to make its way out into the world again.  He brushes the hair back from his forehead, plants one foot out in front with bent knee, and begins lifting that foot up and putting it down again like an impatient race horse.  By the third or fourth time you see this routine it's impossible for the audience to stave off the giggles.

One other key figure who appears in the second act is Minnie Symperson (Diana Donnelly), yet another woman who becomes the object of Cheviot's attentions.  Donnelly's gentle, sweet young lady is a perfect foil to the more vehement Belinda, who proves to be an old friend -- naturally.

The story that proceeds to unfold is as complicated and twisted as only a Gilbert could make it.  It includes multiple proposals, the complications brought on by a Scottish marriage which Cheviot didn't realize he was making, the appearance of the three Scots as house servants in London, the whole question of whether Belvawney or Minnie's father will get the one hundred pounds a month, and the issue of who will get beaten up by the fierce Major McGillicuddy.

It's very much to the credit of Panych and his actors that all these incredible and impossible contortions in the plot came across so clearly and seem so believable and even normal.  Just as laudable is the comic timing in such scenes as the abortive wedding, where Belinda liberally helps herself to the cakes set out for the feast, or the ridiculous scenes where Belvawney turns his evil eye on Cheviot to make him behave himself.

Engaged may be a ridiculous comedy, but it's also a revealing satire on a social yardstick far too often wielded in our world today -- money.  In that sense, it's certainly never likely to become dated or seem untimely when revived.  And this Shaw Festival production is both skilfully performed and hilariously amusing.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Shaw Festival 2016 # 2: Who's Right?

The Shaw Festival's current production of Mrs. Warren's Profession is powerful, engrossing, and a first-rate staging of one of Shaw's tautest, toughest plays.

In three of his earliest plays, published under the title of Plays Unpleasant, George Bernard Shaw was preoccupied with the social issues and ills of the day.  In this one respect, his work resembles that of Henrik Ibsen, whose plays Shaw helped to bring to the British stage.  But Shaw's treatment of his subject matter is often much more subtle, more leavened with humour to keep the audience off guard while he feeds them his moral lessons.  It's also striking to note that even now, well over a century after the play was written, the attitudes of Shaw's characters still sometimes can startle his audiences.  In many ways, the man was not only ahead of his time but ahead of ours as well.

Mrs. Warren's Profession, originally staged privately in 1902 (nine years after Shaw wrote it) is a noteworthy exception.  In many ways, it's one of Shaw's most Ibsen-like scripts -- which may help to explain the rarity with which it is staged.  That paucity of stage productions may also turn on the relative lack of humour as compared to, say, The Philanderer.  More than anything else, though, I think that Mrs. Warren's Profession simply cuts too close to the bone in confronting a societal issue which is as much a mess now as in Shaw's day.  Our utter failure to make any progress in dealing with the whole area of prostitution and its causes is something most people would rather not be forced to think about.

That is truly unfortunate, because this play presents a powerful study of several fascinating characters, chief among them Vivie Warren and her mother, the title character.  Mrs. Warren may be the title character, but Vivie is the prime mover of the action of the play -- and it really is her story, not her mother's, which is unfolded to us.  And it is Vivie who emerges as the victor, the only one to get exactly what she wants, out of the battle royal which takes place.

Any attempt to describe the plot of Mrs. Warren's Profession is apt to leave it sounding melodramatic but even a tolerably competent performance shows just how wrong this assumption is, and the point is driven home even more forcibly in Shaw's preface to the published edition of the play.

In the fashionable nineteenth-century melodrama, the "fallen woman" is always a beautiful, emotional creature whose "sin" is redeemed by the man who loves her even after he finds out who or what she is.  Since this is also a social sin of the first order, he can only be redeemed in turn after she dies -- a victim of consumption (La Traviata), swamp fever (Manon Lescaut) or suicide (The Second Mrs. Tanqueray).  Shaw's depiction of the relationships surrounding Mrs. Warren is full of conventional people who keep trying to take the story in that direction -- including Mrs. Warren herself -- but Vivie overpowers them all.

Her weapon, by the way, is the dramatic reversal of conventional expectation.  From first to last, this was one of Shaw's principal dramatic techniques.  In many of his more comedic plays, it becomes simply a clever writer's tool to generate unexpected laughs.  But in Mrs. Warren's Profession, the reversals form the essence of the drama as Vivie Warren shows herself to be the natural antagonist of all the social expectations and character traits represented by all the others.

I think that director Eda Holmes has understood this very well.  Her staging of the piece is designed to draw attention to Vivie in many subtle ways, and to highlight the opposition of Vivie to almost everyone else on the stage.  Pacing was subtly varied, but the forward motion of the play never impaired in the least.

The artistic team has chosen to set the play in contemporary time, in the lounge of the New Lyric Gentlemen's Club in London, which was the site of the first private performance.  It's a cute but slightly cross-purposed conception.  Patrick Clark's beautiful set is a London gentleman's club to the life, and adroitly echoes the architecture of the Royal George Theatre's auditorium, giving the audience an even closer feel of integration into the Club's lounge.  Costumes, then, are much more contemporary in style.  But the set undermines its own cleverness because it looks so old.  It still has the effect, in spite of costumes and modern-style acting, of dragging the play back into the past when it was written.

But no matter: the play crackles throughout with dramatic power and intensity.  Jennifer Dzialoszynski completely owns the stage from first to last as Vivie, and in the end compels all the others to do her will.  I've seen her a couple of times before in comical roles, and she was masterly in those.  The dramatic weight and multiple dimensions of her assumption of Vivie Warren are another matter altogether.  Dzialoszynski's performance rang almost all the changes demanded by the author and brought a complex, many-sided character to perfectly clear life.

Opposed to her we had Nicole Underhay as Mrs. Warren, the professional prostitute and brothel-owner.  From her breezy and casual entrance, to her conventional parental talking-down to her daughter, to the powerhouse scene in which she describes her life and family and her decision to go into her field of work, Underhay too covered all the aspects of a different but equally fascinating character.

The one weak link in the show for me was the very last scene in which Vivie dismisses first Frank, and then her mother.  Shaw's text suggests to me a woman whose mind is completely made up, who eschews emotion, and lets her mother's impassioned pleas beat upon her like waves against a cliff.  If Vivie is to crack at all, it should be only momentary -- and I felt that Dzialoszynski came far too close to the emotional edge, breaking down into tears and losing her self-control for more than a few moments.  But after she recovered herself it was Underhay who fell apart completely at the seams in the end.  And that is as the playwright tells us it should be.

Thom Marriott created a truly imposing, suavely threatening Sir George Crofts (Mrs. Warren's business partner).  The scene in which he outlined marriage as a business proposal to Vivie fairly made my flesh creep.  It was then equally fascinating to watch him be baffled by Vivie's adroit thrusts in debate, terrified by Frank's sudden appearance with the gun, and then how quickly he recovered all his smoothness and false civility when he revealed Vivie's possible status as Frank's half sister before walking easily out of the garden.

Gray Powell did all he could with the ungrateful role of Praed, the innocent in a nest of knowing manipulators.  His exposition of the role of art and beauty in life was as believable as it could be made, for this is the one character created by Shaw as a voice of a socially conventional set of attitudes.

Shawn Wright as the Reverend Samuel Gardner presented us with a performance of doubts hidden inside a shell of bitter rectitude, and his morning-after scene was a nice little light-comic interlude.

As his son, Frank, Wade Bogert-O'Brien did once again what he does best.  Shaw here presented his take on the conventional, brainless, ne'er-do-well young British man about town.  While Frank begins by looking and sounding just like so many of the species who littered the society of the period, he goes a good deal further.  And this is where Bogert-O'Brien's performance really began to take off and fly on its own steam: in the garden scene when he appears with the gun to challenge Crofts.  Of course, he is just as quickly upstaged by Vivie's seizure of the gun a moment after Crofts leaves, but the new tone he sets here carries on through the rest of the play.  It's a good indication that this actor has a lot more in him than the vacuous types he too often seems condemned to play at Shaw.

On that note, I have to say that the Shaw Festival is in danger of becoming a victim of its own success.  There's a large audience of faithful yearly attendees, and they dearly love to see all their favourite actors year after year.  But I think this theatre ensemble is in danger of becoming too comfortable in its own skin, and will turn into a living monument to itself.  A good indication of that  risk is the situation of Wade Bogert-O'Brien and several others like him in the company.

This is a problem which bedevils all large theatrical institutions from time to time.  It has certainly happened at several eras in the past with Stratford, and is also a major issue with Soulpepper in Toronto right now.  It would be a very good thing to inject new blood into the Shaw company, put new faces on the stages, bring in new directors who will in turn suggest truly new approaches.  The last step is already in the works under incoming artistic director Tim Carroll, and I certainly hope that a shake-up and revitalizing of the acting company will follow.

At the moment, though, what matters is that we have here a taut, incisive, splendidly powerful performance of Mrs. Warren's Profession which is definitely a must-see production.

Shaw Festival 2016 # 1: Who's Important?

This year, the Shaw Festival completes its multi-season presentation of three of the four main plays by Oscar Wilde with the second of the sequence, A Woman of No Importance.  

This is a one of Wilde's earlier efforts for the theatre, and has never achieved the raging success of his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest.  It seems plain to me that Wilde was still honing the craft of the playwright, and was having some trouble deciding just what sort of play he wished to write.  Was it to be biting social satire, serious social criticism, trembling melodrama, or a combination of all three?  All three types are certainly represented in the play as it stands.  As well, he still had not acquired the skill in selecting, polishing, and above all rejecting his first thoughts that did so much to shape Earnest into a nearly-perfect jewel of the theatrical repertoire.

Eda Holmes has directed a fine production which makes the best of the contradictory pulls in Wilde's verbose script -- but alas, the contradictions cannot entirely be reconciled.

One of the biggest drawbacks for a modern audience is that Wilde has followed the convention of the day in filling his play with a number of superfluous and often largely interchangeable aristocratic characters.  The main action grinds to an absolute halt in the early going while these carefree aristocrats exchange barbed witticisms about other aristocrats ad infinitum.  There are some good laughs during these scenes -- they contain many of the anticipations of Earnest in the writing -- but confusion about where the play is going cannot be avoided.

In the end, only four of the characters really partake in the main plot: young Gerald Arbuthnot; his mother, Rachel Arbuthnot; the young American socialite, Hester Worsley; and the consummate man-about-town, Lord Illingworth.  But it takes a long time during the first act and half of the second act before this distinction begins to become clear to the audience.  By the fourth act, the aristocrats have virtually disappeared.

That main plot involve the classic device of the concealed identity and the so-called "fallen woman", which brings it into close kinship (thematically) with Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession (also performed this year -- see review # 2), and with Pinero's The Second Mrs. Tanqueray.

But the kinship with Shaw is only thematic, not in the treatment, for it is just in dealing with this main plot that Wilde comes closest to the edge of the melodramatic tearjerker.  Fortunately, he does not fall completely into the trap, and his ending pulls off an almost Shavian pair of reversals which proclaim him, if nothing else, certainly not the absolute slave of theatrical convention.  And it is the women who make these astonishing (for the period) about-face turns, making them in the end the most important people in the play.

The director's notes in the programme explain in some detail why she chose to set the play in 1951 rather than 1889.  My personal feeling is that the difference really isn't worth dwelling upon.  The aristocrats of 1951 were still, in many cases, living in the same stately homes as in 1889 (the mass sell-off to the National Trust having not quite come to a head as of yet).  Not only that, but the clothes they wore -- while hewing to a different stylistic ethic, perhaps -- still evoke a society with piles of money and no concept of value for money.  Both eras are now within the same bracket of past time -- distant enough to seem old, yet recent enough to feel recognizable.

Michael Gianfrancesco's sets and costumes clearly evoke both the distance and the familiarity, with colours keyed to individual characters throughout.  One of the most eye-catching figures, whenever she is on stage, is Mrs. Allonby.  Her evening gown, in striking maroon mingled with darker shades, also has the most daring cut of any of the dresses worn in the play.

She's probably a good place to start on the acting.  Mrs. Allonby is one of two of the aristocratic menage (although not herself an aristocrat) who really claimed my attention, and it wasn't just a matter of costuming.  Her lines in the script suggest a woman who is thoroughly sensual by nature and who treats relations between the sexes as a matter for her own personal amusement rather than any more serious or lasting purpose.  Diana Donnelly did not so much walk as sashay or prowl, she didn't so much stand as pose seductively, and she didn't so much speak words as she drawled out satirical pronouncements laden with hidden little come-hither messages.  

The other was Lady Hunstanton, the hostess of the house where the first three acts take place.  Her most characteristic turn of phrase was the three perfectly-timed little words, "...or is it...?"  Her part is full of little confusions where she manages to reverse whatever she intends to say, and then has to correct it.  Fiona Reid is a master of this kind of verbal comedy, and although her timing of those three key words was always impeccable, it was never quite the same twice running.

Gerald Arbuthnot is a young man of considerable determination and strength of will, characteristics he has inherited from his mother.  Wade Bogert-O'Brien caught both the determination and the petulant stubbornness into which it sometimes falls.  

Martin Happer wore the suave, ironic side of Lord Illingworth like a second skin.  He was less convincing in the last scene where Illingworth tries to appear more genuine and sincere.  Since the ironic tilt of the voice didn't change much, the sum effect was not so much dramatic tension within the character as a kind of subtle telegraphing that the melodrama villain was still twirling his mustache and chortling evilly to himself under the surface.  And perhaps he was.

Julia Course was statuesque and powerful as Hester Worsley.  The scene where she rebukes the aristocratic school for scandal on their shallowness and rudeness is breathtaking.  She comes across as the most morally rigid person present when she demands that the sins of the fathers be visited upon the children.  The process by which she unbends in Act IV was nuanced in voice, gesture, and face, and became totally believable.

As Mrs. Arbuthnot, Gerald's mother, Fiona Byrne commands the stage.  When she appears at Lady Hunstanton's soiree, her black dress makes her stand out in a roomful of aristocratic peacocks.  So does her straightforward voice and carriage.  As the play proceeds and we realize, more and more, that it is her story we are watching, her dominance of the stage increases.  The final scene in which she firmly rejects Lord Illingworth's proposal of marriage is far better written than any melodramatic "happy ending", and Byrne lifted the entire play to another level with her performance in this scene.

Throughout the play, Holmes staged each scene without any apparent difficulty in highlighting whatever the audience most needs to see and hear.  The action flowed naturally from first to last as much as the awkwardnesses of the script would permit.

In sum: A Woman of No Importance is an entertaining, engrossing production of a playscript which certainly has its moments -- but which is really two quite different plays jammed up against each other, and therefore will always present major difficulties to anyone attempting to stage it.