Reviewed by James Karas
Bernard Shaw wrote Geneva in 1938 and revised it a number of times. You can gauge the popularity and perhaps the quality of the play by the number of times it has been produced by the Festival that is named after him. Once and that was back in 1988.
It seems that Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell has reduced the risk of producing the play for an almost empty theatre by having it adapted by John Murrell to make it simply funnier. The attempt is partially successful and the production directed by Blair Williams garners a few laughs. However, it is not a play that will make you scour theatre schedules so you can see it again.
Set in the 1930s, the play deals with the League of Nation’s Committee for Intellectual Cooperation, which apparently existed. The Committee somehow manages to haul Mussolini, Hitler and Franco before the International Court in The Hague on various charges.
Murrell spruces up Shaw’s script by adding broad humour and including Canadian and American content. Williams gives it a farcical treatment that calls for overblown characters to act overblowingly.
The opening scene is set in the dingy office of the Committee for Intellectual Cooperation in Geneva where Bell Browning whose real name is Liberty Bell Browning (Diana Donnelly) is minding the store and receiving visitors. She is a dumb, spunky and attractive American woman who is also quite funny. She is from Ohio, which is much better than Indiana! She is holding onto her virtue for as long as it is convenient or something like that.
She is visited by Joseph Rubinstein (Charlie Gallant), a German Jew with a handle-bar mustache and an awful accent. He wants to haul Der Fuhrer to the International Court. He is quite funny as he deals with the dunce of a secretary and finds out that the Committee is a bit of a joke.
He is followed by Darcy Middleman (Andrew Bunker), a conservative from Manitoba who wants our Prime Minister dragged before the International Court because he (the PM) wants to visit Germany and listens to the operas of Richard Wagner. Middleman produces some of the standard jokes about Canadians (the cold, where is Canada) and Bunker does a fine job satirizing us.
Claire Jullien gets to be melodramatic as a gun-toting Spanish woman who wants revenge against the people who killed her husband, the former dictator of her country.
Michael Ball is perhaps the funniest in the role of Bishop Isling. He is a perfectly pompous cleric who is subject to fainting when he hears something outrageous and regaining consciousness quickly.
The fun lasts until The Senior Judge (Sanjay Talwar) arrives. The comedy plummets like the stock market on a bad day and never quite regains its liveliness and humour. The British contribution to the fun is supposed to be the Foreign Secretary played by Patrick Galligan. In a room full of outrageous accents and eccentric buffoons, Galligan falls short. The Foreign Secretary should be a Brit from central casting – avuncular, thickly accented and a caricature of the aristocratic Englishman. Galligan is simply miscast for the role. Ball would have been much better.
Mussolini (Neil Barclay) is fat as if a pump had blown him up; Hitler (Ric Reid) is a wiry buffoon and Franco (Lorne Kennedy) comes in last and is not very funny.
All the characters are caricatures and their accents are intentional abominations (the Americans and the Canadians excepted, of course). The broad humour sneaks through but so does some of the ponderous political commentary.
There is an uneasy and uncertain marriage between the farcical and underlying serious social criticism; between sharp satire and broad humour that leaves you unsatisfied.
We may never get a chance to see Geneva and a glance at Shaw’s play will tell you that there are not too many laughs in it. With Murrell’s version we got a few laughs and left with the satisfaction that we almost saw a neglected play by Shaw.
Peace in Our Time: A Comedy by John Murrell, adapted from Bernard Shaw’s Geneva opened on May 19 and will run in repertory until October 12, 2013 at the Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.