A play-goer’s notes for the Shaw Festival 2014

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I spent Labor Day weekend at the annual Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, just across the Canadian border in Ontario, with members of a play-reading group organized by my friend Walter Uhrman.   We left Friday and got back Monday.

As with the annual Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, the Shaw Festival consists of a repertory company putting on serious plays, but no longer limited to the plays of George Bernard Shaw and plays of the “Shaw era”.

The whole downtown of Niagara-on-the-Lake is devoted to shops, restaurants and hotels serving tourists, and, for many blocks around, all the homes are bed-and-breakfasts serving tourists.  They are beautiful homes with beautiful gardens, and are no doubt big money-makers for their owners, but the money spent is worth it.

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themountaintop0_ORIGINALThe most memorable play I saw was The Mountaintop, which depicted the last night of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, before he was murdered by a white man.  The title is taken from his last speech, in which he said that he, like Moses, was not privileged to enter into the Promised Land, but saw what it was like from a mountaintop.

He was in Memphis to support a strike of sanitation workers, whose slogan was, “I am a man.”  This is the theme of the play, that Martin Luther King was a man in a double meaning of that word—that he was a man, a person of dignity and worth, entitled to equal rights, but also that he was a man, subject to the human weaknesses to which all men are subject.

The play lasts for an hour and 40 minutes, and the play’s only two actors were on stage all that time—one playing Dr. King, the other playing Camae, an earthy hotel maid.  About 30 or so minutes of the play is devoted to the interplay of King and Camae.  In one part, she gets up on the bed and delivers her own parody civil rights speech.

Then it develops that she knows more about King than a stranger could know.  He suspects her of being an FBI agent, sent to entrap him into actions for which he could be blackmailed or discredited.  But the truth is stranger than that.

Camae is an angel (like Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life”), sent to help prepare him for his coming death.

King doesn’t want to die.  He has plans he wants to accomplish.  In one scene, Camae arranges for him to make a long-distance telephone call to God.

“Hello, God?”
“You sound different from what I expected.”
“You sound like my grandmother.”
“I loved my grandmother.”
“Of course I love You more.”

He tells God how much he loves Him and has tried to do His will.  Then he slips into complaining about how unfair it is that he will not be allowed to complete his work.   Finally he reports with surprise that God hung up on him.

King is shown going through the stages of grief—denial, bargaining, anger, despair and acceptance.  Near the end of the play there is a photo montage showing events related to civil rights decade-by-decade after his death.  Wisely, there is no statement as to whether this represents a Promised Land or not.

The play strikes a difficult balance between comedy, tragedy and preaching, and avoids slipping into either silliness or offensiveness, which would have been easy to do.  This is due not only to the strong script written by Katori Hall, who as a girl lived in Memphis at the time Dr.King was shot.   It is also due to the strong performances by Kevin Hanchard and Alana Hibbert.

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Shaw_The_Philanderer_WebGallery5We saw two plays by George Bernard Shaw, The Philanderer, which I had never heard of before, and his popular Arms and the Man.

The Philanderer was a debunking of conventional ideas of marriage and of masculinity and femininity. The first scene shows the title character’s lovemaking of a new partner interrupted by his old girl friend, Grace, whose life strategy is to leverage the prerogatives of womanly weakness.  She refuses to accept that he is done with her, follows him everywhere and acts the role of the abused woman.

The second scene is in the Ibsen Club, which is for manly women and womanly men.   The philanderer is a member in good standing.  He engineers things so that Grace becomes jealous of one Dr. Parramore’s attraction to another woman, and so that Dr. Parramore is induced to propose marriage to her.

The third scene was toned down when the play was originally produced.  This was one of the first performances of how Shaw originally wrote it.  In it, Dr. Parramore is discussing his unhappy marriage with Grace to the philanderer.   The two of them induce Grace to accept a separation, while Parramore goes off with the woman to whom the Philanderer was making love in the first act.  Grace wants the philanderer to marry her, but he refuses.  Finally she accepts him as a lover.

Arms and the Man is a well-known debunking of the ideal of military heroism, set against the background of the Balkan Wars.  The hero is a Swiss professional mercenary soldier, who is without illusions about the glory of war.

In both performances, the actors exaggerated the comic aspects of the play and added physical comedy, which added a lot to my enjoyment of both plays.

I like Shaw’s plays for the clarity and wit of his dialogue and for the way he allows each character to make a good defense of their point of view.   But I don’t agree or sympathize with Shaw’s overall point of view.

If the difference between right and left is that the one sympathizes with the top dog and the other with the underdog, then Shaw is a right-winger.  His ridicule is directed downward, not upward.   He sympathizes with the machine gunner, and not with the man charging the machine guns.  He is one of those radicals, so prevalent in Silicon Valley today, who wants to revolutionize every aspect of human life except the distribution of economic and political power.

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We saw Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey, which is about a poor Irish family who unexpectedly come into seeming good fortune, then are ruined when it proves an illusion.  The paycock is Captain Doyle, a drunkard who avoids honest work, but is full of the illusions of Irish glory.   Juno is his long-suffering wife, whose sacrifice and hard work keeps the family together.

O’Casey, like Shaw, is a debunker of the ideals of military glory.  The play is set in 1922, when the newly-independent Irish Free State is fighting a civil war with die-hards who refuse to accept the partition of the island.  The Doyle son, who lost his arm fighting for Irish independence, is executed by a die-hard squad for allegedly betraying the cause; a neighbor son is killed by government forces.  O’Casey obviously doesn’t think either side is worth fighting for.   The difference between him and Shaw is his pity for those caught up in these illusions.

There is a philanderer in the play who seduces the Doyle daughter, then disappears when the daughter becomes pregnant.  As in the real world, philandering has consequences.

All the male characters in O’Casey’s plays (the ones I’ve read) are weak and worthless, and the female characters are strong and noble.  This is an observation, not a complaint.  Certainly there are many plays in which the reverse is true. One good thing about O’Casey, and Shaw as well, is that they have many good roles for women.

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We saw a reading of a comic play called Detroit, which presumably will be staged next year.  In the reading, the actors stood at lecterns and read their parts.  It was like listening to a radio broadcast, and had the advantage of enabling the audience to concentrate on the dialogue.  The four characters consisted of two eccentric married couples from different backgrounds who are new next-door neighbors in suburbia.  The play is how they try to get acquainted, survive various comic disasters and learn the true meaning of neighborliness.  I liked it okay, but not as well as the other plays.

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This is my second year of going to the Shaw Festival with Walter Uhrman’s group.  I enjoyed myself a lot, and probably will go every year they go from now on.  Seeing members of a repertory company playing one part in one play in the day, and another part in a completely different play in the evening, made me appreciate the professionalism that goes into the craft of acting.

The Shaw Festival is made possible by grants from the Canadian and Ontario governments.  It is money well spent.  My only criticism would be that the Festival spends a great deal of money on elaborate stage sets, which don’t necessarily add much (and can detract) from the performance.  If it were up to me, I’d use more of the subsidies to augment actors’ salaries or lower ticket prices.

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