Reviewed by James Karas
The Shaw Festival’s production of The Philanderer has a climactic beginning, a rousing end and, unfortunately, a not a very exciting middle.
Shaw tells us that when the play opens “a lady and a gentleman are making love to one another in the drawing room of a flat.” Put the brakes on your hormones if you are envisioning something wild. This is circa 1893 and the gentleman, the philandering Leonard Charteris, is “dressed in a velvet jacket and cashmere trousers;” the lady, Grace Transfield, is in evening dress and the two are “seated affectionately side by side in one another’s arms” on a sofa. Those are Shaw’s instructions.
Director Lisa Peterson will have none of that. As the lights are about to go on in the Festival Theatre, we hear the lady and the gentlemen moaning passionately with pleasure and probably in the throes of orgasms. The two are wearing very few clothes, they are on the floor and Grace asks Charteris, “are you happy” and he replies “in heaven.” Indeed.
Fast forward to the final scene. Shaw wrote two endings to the play. In the original ending, the marriage of Julia and Dr. Paramore is on the skids after four years and they will seek a divorce in South Dakota. Divorce is not available in England, you see.
He wrote an alternate and more conventional ending where Julia accepts Paramore’s marriage proposal and Grace regrets not being brave enough to kill Charteris. There is no South Dakota and no divorce.
The latter ending has been used in the published editions of the play and in most productions. Peterson has chosen the original conclusion of the play where Julia and Charteris will not marry but they end up in each other’s arms. In this production, they do so with considerable enthusiasm and begin the journey toward where we started with them in the opening scene.
And that is s long way around to stating my reaction to the rest of the play which is largely negative. Much of it is the fault of the play but Peterson failed to find the formula for action and interaction to give life to Shaw’s lines. We got mostly “the seated affectionately side by side on the sofa” level of performance instead of imaginative, lively, dynamic and funny exchanges.
Gord Rand as Charteris, Marla McLean as Grace and Moya O’Connell as Julia can do a much better job than they in fact perform. For example, when Julia crashes into the flat where Grace and Charteris are having their ardent tête-à-tête, there should be howls of laughter. It barely works.
Michael Ball as Joseph Cuthbertson and Ric Reid as Colonel Craven are standard fatherly figures from comedy, sensible, nonsensical and necessary for the plot. Jeff Meadows as Dr. Paramore helps with the sub-plot about a new disease which in the end does not exist.
The sets by Sue LePage are quite unrealistic and impressive. The first scene is set in the flat that looks classy without being Victorian. The library of the Ibsen Club for the second scene has glass walls and is splendid.
The third act in Paramore’s dining room looks like it has the remains of Greek temples but it is impressive none the less.
The Philanderer has many references to Henrik Ibsen not the least of which is the fictitious Ibsen Club where the second act takes place. So far so good but when you list The Spirit of Ibsen in the cast (played by Guy Bannerman) and you have the great playwright sing a song you have lost me.
The Philanderer by Bernard Shaw continues in repertory until October 12, 2014 at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.