Shaw Festival 2015: Beards, Beach Balls, and Emancipated Women
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Shaw Festival 2015: Beards, Beach Balls, and Emancipated Women

Niagara's annual theatre fête kicks off with complementary—but unequal—productions of Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea and Shaw's You Never Can Tell.

Moya O’Connell as Ellida Wangel and Ric Reid as Dr  Wangel in Erin Shields's new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea  Photo by David Cooper

Moya O’Connell as Ellida Wangel and Ric Reid as Dr. Wangel in Erin Shields’s new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea. Photo by David Cooper.

The Lady from the Sea
Court House Theatre (26 Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake)
Runs to Sept. 13
$35 – $116 (plus fees)
stars 3andahalf9

You Never Can Tell
Royal George Theatre (85 Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake)
Runs to Oct. 25
$35 – $116 (plus fees)
2 5stars

What would the great Irish playwright Bernard Shaw think of Ontario’s Shaw Festival in 2015? As one of the world’s most famous vegetarians, no doubt he would despair that Niagara-on-the-Lake, the historical town best known today for hosting a major theatre festival in his name, still doesn’t have a dedicated vegetarian restaurant. On the other hand, he might be flattered to see how many young men on the streets of this tourist mecca have adopted his signature fulsome beard. That is, until he discovered it wasn’t a tribute to him, but the latest hipster affectation.

At any rate, Shaw would definitely be tickled pink to see himself, complete with beard, beach ball, and Victorian bathing costume, making a cameo appearance in the festival’s new production of his 1897 seaside comedy, You Never Can Tell.

What he’d think of the rest of the show is another matter. The festival’s promotional copy describes this as “one of Shaw’s most light-hearted plays,” but director Jim Mezon seems to have confused that with light-headed. His staging, which opened the summertime festival last Thursday at the Royal George Theatre, is often determinedly silly at the expense of any kind of rewarding intellectual or emotional payoff. And Shaw, though long-winded and, in some respects, outdated, still has worthwhile things to say here about marriage, parenting, and coming to terms with the past.

So does Shaw’s literary hero, Henrik Ibsen, in his 1889 drama The Lady from the Sea, a complementary work which is better served by the festival. The first thing that strikes you about this new adaptation, ensconced in the intimate Court House Theatre, is that Erin Shields has reduced Ibsen’s five-act play to one 90-minute act. The second is the startling prologue, in which actress Moya O’Connell reclines nude and mermaid-like on an enormous rock.

Could it be that playwright Shields (If We Were Birds) and director Meg Roe are about to give us another radical makeover of Ibsen, à la Tarragon Theatre’s An Enemy of the People? No, as it turns out: this is a fairly conventional treatment, but one that benefits from a leaner text and boasts, in O’Connell, a finely tuned lead performance.

O’Connell portrays Ellida, the play’s eponymous lady, a Norwegian lighthouse-keeper’s daughter who left the seaside to marry the older, widowed Dr. Wangel (Ric Reid) and live with his two teenage girls in a mountain town. But their marriage has been marked by tragedy—the death of an infant son—and Ellida’s growing restlessness. She longs, not just for the sea, but for the rogue sailor (Mark Uhre) she was once engaged to and still loves.

The play turns on Ellida’s choice between her devoted husband and this romantic seafarer, and Dr. Wangel’s need to let her make that choice freely. The message—if you love someone, set her free—may now be the corny stuff of greeting cards and Sting songs, but it still resonates in the context of a Victorian marriage. So, too, does the difficult decision of Bolette (Jacqueline Thair), the doctor’s oldest daughter, who is faced with marrying a man she doesn’t love—her former tutor, Arnholm (Andrew Bunker)—in order to further her education.

O’Connell and Thair do a superb job of making us feel their characters’ agonies and uncertainties. Reid shows the good doctor to be tender but flawed and possibly an incipient alcoholic. Uhre’s sailor, however, lacks the dark, dangerous charm that would make him such a powerful object of attraction. We get no sense of what Ellida sees in him.

But the remainder of the cast is strong. Kyle Blair provides both high-spirited comic relief and a touch of poignancy as Lyngstrand, the eager but sickly would-be sculptor who is not as deluded as he appears to be. Neil Barclay brings a genial beam of sunshine to his scenes as the local jack-of-all-trades Ballested. And in Hilde, the doctor’s heartless younger daughter, fresh-faced Darcy Gerhart gives a nice foreshadowing of her character’s subsequent appearance as the destroyer in Ibsen’s The Master Builder.

Roe, a formidable actress herself, has been building an impressive directing career on the West Coast—notably with Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach—and her staging here is economical but effective. This is just her second Shaw show, after 2013’s well-received lunchtime offering, Trifles, and she’s a welcome addition to the festival’s ranks.

Stephen Jackman Torkoff and Jennifer Dzialoszynski play the mischief loving Clandon twins in Bernard Shaw's seaside comedy You Never Can Tell  Photo by Emily Cooper

Stephen Jackman-Torkoff and Jennifer Dzialoszynski play the mischief-loving Clandon twins in Bernard Shaw’s seaside comedy You Never Can Tell. Photo by Emily Cooper.

Shaw followed Ibsen in championing the emancipated woman, and her marital choices also figure, more humorously, in You Never Can Tell. Mrs. Clandon (Tara Rosling), a single mother and feminist author who has raised her children abroad, has brought them back to an English coastal resort, where they inadvertently meet the estranged father they’ve never known. At the same time, the oldest daughter, Gloria (Julia Course), raised by her mother to be an independent woman, finds herself in a “duel of sex” with Valentine (Gray Powell), the resort’s dashing young dentist, a cynic who struggles comically against his infatuation with her.

There ensues both a legal battle, in which the irascible father (a fiery-faced Patrick McManus) tries to reclaim his kids, and a madcap courtship between the tempestuous Valentine and the coolly unromantic Gloria. Joining in the fray are Gloria’s siblings, the mischievous twins Dolly (Jennifer Dzialoszynski) and Philip (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff), and a couple of lawyers (Peter Krantz and Jeff Meadows, the latter rocking eyebrows worthy of Groucho Marx). Observing wryly from the sidelines is the wise and witty hotel waiter William (Peter Millard, gracefully unflappable in the play’s traditional scene-stealing role).

Mezon’s direction suggests he doesn’t trust Shaw’s script to be amusing on its own. He has to throw in all kinds of whimsical touches, from a giant floating fish and a barrage of beach balls to Millard’s William performing “Rule Britannia” on the kazoo. He also gives free rein to Dzialoszynski and Jackman-Torkoff to overdo their overgrown brat routine—Jackman-Torkoff is so giddy you’d swear he’d been huffing the dentist’s nitrous oxide.

Gray and Course prove a less efficacious chemical compound. His Valentine is a dizzying tornado of conflicted thoughts and feelings, but her wan, bespectacled Gloria isn’t just the calm in the eye of his storm, she’s a dead spot. McManus, Krantz, and Meadows don’t offer much more than funny cartoon performances; Rosling, however, gives us pause as the passionate reformer Mrs. Clandon, in the scene where she reflects on never having known romantic love. It’s typical of Shaw that, while we pity her, we also find her dismissal of romance admirable. For the playwright, love, even if it proves ultimately irresistible, is a force to push back against, to question and to challenge.

In such moments we’re reminded how, even at his most light-hearted, Shaw is fundamentally serious. He’s the vegetarian who gives us meaty ideas to chew on. You Never Can Tell may be blithe and breezy, but beneath the sun-dappled surface of this seaside frolic are depths that Mezon’s production fails to plumb.