Thursday, June 10, 2010


by James Karas

This year’s Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake offers ten productions including a lunchtime performance of a play by J.M. Barrie whose title, Half an Hour, discloses its length.

The Festival’s patron playwright, Bernard Shaw, is again a minority shareholder with only two plays but he does get 50% more than anyone else. The Irish do get three plays, same as the Americans, while the English get two and the Russians and Canadians merit one each.

I saw three productions last week and will review them in order of preference.


Mary Chase’s Harvey is one of those plays that if you see it once you never forget it. In fact even people who have never seen it may know about that play with the six-foot invisible rabbit. Yes, that’s the one and the Shaw Festival has given it a first rate production full of charm and laughter in an almost fairy tale atmosphere.

Elwood P. Dowd (Peter Krantz) is a bachelor who lives somewhere in America and represents utter decency and love of humanity. He tried being smart, he tells us, for about forty years and did not like it. He switched to being nice and has found happiness. Happiness comes with visits to almost every bar in town accompanied by his friend Harvey who happens to be a six-foot plus rabbit. Like all rabbits of that description, Harvey is invisible to the normal eye but his presence is quite palpable to Elwood and, as the evening progresses, perhaps, to some other people.

Elwood’s socially ambitious sister Veta (Mary Haney) finds Elwood and Harvey a bit of an embarrassment and would like to commit the former to a psychiatric facility. She takes him to young Dr. Sanderson (Gray Powell) and old Dr. Chumley (Norman Browning) but Elwood so charms Nurse Kelly (Diana Donnelly) that Veta is committed instead of Elwood.

This calls for a lawsuit and Judge Omar Gaffney (Guy Bannerman) is summoned. The result, aside from hilarity, is a touching parable about human decency, good manners, indeed chivalry, and virtues that are almost never honoured.

Director Joseph Ziegler succeeds in bringing out the humour and humanity of the play in full measure. For Peter Krantz the role of Elwood P. Dowd must be a godsend and a career-defining performance for he excels in it. He brings out both the naiveté and intelligence of Elwood who knows a few things about life despite the apparent impression of almost no-screws left emanating from his relationship with Harvey.

Mary Haney is excellent as his uptight sister assisted in equal measure by Zarrin Darnell-Martin as her daughter Myrtle Mae. Veteran Norman Brown produces much laughter as the arrogant psychiatrist Chumley who is brought down a few pegs by drink and Elwood’s ‘reality’.

Diana Donnelly’s Nurse Kelly is attractive and humane when Dr. Sanderson is dumb and professional and both do excellent work.

The play has two sets, the paneled library of the Dowd mansion and the cold reception room of the psychiatric facility. Aside from well-designed sets by Sue LePage, the crew does heroic and extremely efficient work in changing scenes without intermission.

The Shaw scores a home run and Harvey is, as they say, a must-see.


The production of a musical is de rigueur at the Shaw but great credit is due to Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell for choosing works of substantial quality that have been almost forgotten. This year’s selection is One Touch of Venus by Kurt Weill, Ogden Nash and S.J. Perelman. It was a big hit when it opened on Broadway in 1943 but it has been revived only sporadically ever since.

Weill (music), Nash (lyrics) and Nash and Perelman (book) make an all-star team for writing a musical. The result may not have been stellar but it is a work with wit, humour and some superb music. If some of the wit is out of the reach of today’s audience it is not the fault of the writers. Times and context change.

One Touch of Venus is a fairy tale about a statue of the goddess of love coming to life in New York and falling in love with a hapless barber named Rodney Hatch (Kyle Blair).

Venus (Robin Evan Willis) disposes of Rodney’s screeching fiancée Gloria (Julie Martell) - sic transit Gloria – and the two lovers survive some scrapes including a stint in jail. But the two finally come through and are finally free to live happily ever after in a suburb of New York!

The production, in the small but elegant Royal George Theatre, (capacity 328), has the equivalent feel of watching the race scene from Ben-Hur on a 19” TV after seeing it on the big screen. You get the benefit of being close to the stage but that does not make up for the lack of a large stage for a large Broadway musical.

You get a lot of music from a 10-piece orchestra but it is a compromise. How much better would it sound with 28 instruments in a large theatre!

As for the performers, Robin Evan Willis has a gorgeous body that even Venus would have approved of – the Venus de Milo and the slim-hipped, all-too-angelic rendition of Botticelli. If Willis’s face does not quite satisfy one’s image of Venus, it is probably because no woman can. Unfortunately, her vocal ability does not match the curves of her body. She needs to soar at times but, alas, she cannot and all you get is volume instead of high notes.

Kyle Blair does a good comic job as the henpecked barber who has landed a goddess but his voice falls short of expectations. When he attempts to ascend the musical scale, he comes perilously close to releasing a flat screech.

The idea of an incarnated Venus is so delicious it energizes the imagination like a fairy tale remembered from childhood. If the production does not satisfy all our theatrical appetites the way nectar and ambrosia sated the gods, we do not leave the theatre hungry.

No doubt one can visualize a better production of One Touch of Venus just as one can imagine a better Venus but the one is more difficult to achieve than the other. In the meantime, imagination in full throttle, you can start your search in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Give it a triple.


The Festival opened with Oscar Wilde’s 1895 comedy An Ideal Husband. If you remove the wit, the epigrams and the balanced sentences from the play, you will end up with a melodrama that no Artistic Director would touch with a ten-foot instrument. In the hands of Wilde, however, melodrama became scintillating comedy.

I wish I could say that director Jackie Maxwell and Designer Judith Bowden have put together a production that does justice to the play and to the audience.

Sir Robert Chiltern (Patrick Galligan) is happily married, has a big house, is wealthy and is Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs. He is a man of rectitude, ability, honour and … well, he is too good to be true. His wife, Lady Chiltern (Catherine McGregor), another upstanding person, simply adores him.

His nemesis quickly appears in the person Mrs. Chevely (Moya O’Connell) who wants to blackmail him. She knows that Sir Robert made his fortune by using insider information and therefore is a fraud. She has a letter to prove it.

How does one stop Mrs. Chevely from wreaking havoc in this man’s life and what will his wife say if she finds out. That is a toughie but the Chiltern’s good friend and man-about-town Lord Goring (Steven Sutcliffe) may find a solution. Where did Mrs. Chevely get that nice brooch that she was wearing last night?

For much of the first two acts, the audience sat in almost funeral silence. They emitted a bit of laughter here and there but not much. During the last two acts there was some more laughter but Wilde’s play was getting a very poor return on its excellent lines.

What went right? Catherine McGregor, dressed beautifully (as were most of the women) managed to exude the upper-crust English hauteur. Moya O’Connell’s Mrs. Chevely was from the same class but a nasty blackmailer and abuser. Well done. Anthony Bekenn managed to get most of the laughs as the imperturbable servant Phipps.

What went wrong? Just about everything else. The play opens in a gorgeous two-story room full of people, in the Chiltern residence. Here we have a dimly lit room, almost all black and seriously in need of a decorator with a modicum of good taste. It is a depressing and simply awful set. Lord Goring’s apartment looks like a warehouse that is about to be converted into lofts and his smoking room looks like a storage area. Again, simply awful.

The play requires the crisp, upper-crust English accent that makes the wit and epigrams sound as if they were cut from glass. Can Canadian actors do such an accent? If they can they are few and far between and there was little evidence of that in this production. Patrick Galligan can play many roles but he does not convince us that he is made of fine-grained prime ministerial timber. Steven Sutcliffe comes closer as Lord Goring but he is a long way from the accent of the nobility. And what was that ridiculous vest with an apron doing on him? He is supposed to be stylish not a dork.

This Ideal Husband needs to lighten up. First, literally by turning up the lights and giving the set a good paint job with light-coloured tints. Then get the actors to pick up the pace, brush up on those accents and generate some energy and some laughter before the season is quite over.

Give it a base hit.


An Ideal Husband will run until October 31, 2010 at the Festival Theatre. One Touch of Venus and Harvey will run until October 10 and 31, 2010 respectively at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. 1 800-511-SHAW

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