Theater Commentary: Impressions of Canada’s Shaw Festival 2023, Part Two
By Bill Marx
Canada is far enough from New York and Broadway to ignore their siren drumbeats.
The Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge. Directed by Jackie Maxwell. At the Shaw Festival, Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada, through October 7.
The Amen Corner by James Baldwin. Directed by Kimberley Rampersad. At the Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada, through October 8.
Mother, Daughter written and directed by Selma Dimitrijevic and The Game of Love and Chance by Pierre de Marivaux. Directed by Tim Carroll. Improvised by the Shaw Festival Ensemble. Both productions at the Spiegeltent, Mother, Daughter through October 7, The Game of Love and Chance through October 8.
Butterfly Conservatory at Niagara Parks, Canada.
These are impressions, rather than reviews, of what I saw at the Shaw Festival last month, along with a nearby epiphanic theatrical experience, so I am going to organize the piece thematically, by way of a remark that has been rattling around in my head over the past several months. In a 1967 interview for The Paris Review, Vladimir Nabokov commented that his “characters are galley slaves.” Regarding Nabokov, this sentiment is arguable, given the liberating zest of his fiction (Humbert Humbert sweating away at the oars?). But it is relevant given that, at the moment, Boston theater is spinning its wheels in some well-worn grooves And the Shaw Festival suggests one way out.
In American theater, fear drives the enemies of imaginative freedom: of economic cutbacks, of cultural marginalization, of the dominance of streaming, of demographic meltdown, of challenging liberal pieties. And that embrace of automatism includes the critical community, at least around New England. Pulitzer prize-winning critic Jerry Saltz recently claimed that around 90 percent of visual arts criticism is nothing but marketing. I would say when it comes to theater criticism it might be as high as 95 percent. Everyone — reviewers, regional companies, etc. — is circling the wagons, making themselves dizzy trying to do and say the right things as they go around and around, inevitably covering less and less ground. As I have written before, when the going gets tough, the tough get marketing as they row with all their might to the commercial tom-toms of Broadway.
In contrast to our forced march, the Shaw Festival offered moments of theatrical spontaneity, or at least surprise, as it reaches into the past and the future. Sometimes the satisfaction came from getting confirmation of something that you have always believed, but were afraid might no longer be true. J.M. Synge’s rarely produced Playboy of the Western World has been classified as a masterpiece. But is the play, 120 years after it premiered, a musty antique? Well, the tragicomedy is as magnificent as ever, its playful mix of satire and lyricism thriving in a vibrant production, updated to the ’50s (there’s a radio), that takes the minimal approach that so gamely invigorated the Shaw Fest’s The Apple Cart — a stripped-down set and a spotlight on the performers, all of whom were dandy, particularly Qasim Khan as the eponymous playboy. This is a man who makes “good” on an Oedipal lie — that he bashed in his tyrannical father’s head — a claim that makes him a hero in a rural Irish village.
As for Synge’s genius, his takedown of rural Irish backwardness offers fleshed out characters rather than galley slaves, as they often can be in the work of the talented Martin McDonagh, who covers some of the same territory in his plays and screenplays. The elder writer had the capacity to enter into the suffering of others — an understanding, accented by kindness — that adds depth to his vision of narrow-gauge existences. The playwright even brings the tyrannical father back into the action — he just won’t stay dead — and tosses him scraps of dignity. McDonagh often supplies galley slaves (albeit lively ones) indentured to a bleak cynicism that the writer intimates may be tragic. Director Jackie Maxwell and company rejoice in the twists and turns of Synge’s mix of sympathy for the benighted and condemnation of intolerance. As for violence, even the cut-and-slash McDonagh hasn’t given us a character who expired after eating a time piece: “I knew a party was kicked in the head by a red mare, and he went killing horses a great while, till he eat the insides of a clock and died after.”
As for James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, I had never seen the drama before and had high expectations, in part because it was written around the same time as one of his more successful novels, Baldwin’s first, Go Tell It on the Mountain. Still, despite the writer’s admiration for the nuances of Henry James, the play is determinedly melodramatic, Baldwin’s characters underlining what the playwright is preaching — that Christianity’s holier-than-thou moralism undercuts humanity’s call to love each other. (As in Synge, the social pecking order leaves little room for kindness.) The domesticity of the script reflects the square-jawed dramaturgy of Clifford Odets: Baldwin’s figures tend to announce who they are and what they have learned, from the young artist struggling to break free of his family, to his mother, a strict pastor who has not informed the flock of her past, until her husband, a dying jazz musician, shows up. On top of that, the hypocrisy of the congregation’s “true believers” is blared out, a bit too often.
Still, there’s plenty of dramatic juice, including some pointed humor, in Baldwin’s vivid portrait of the penny-scraping religious world he grew up in and rejected. And the evangelical theatrics are put across wonderfully by the Shaw Fest’s skilled cast and costume designers, highlighted by some well-sung gospel tunes. The two-tiered set (church service above, living quarters below) memorably layers Baldwin’s ironic distribution of high- and low-mindedness, a disbursement of above and below that culminates in the passionate wallop of the ending.
A pair of plays performed at the Shaw’s Spiegeltent are also about escaping ruts. Mother, Daughter examines how personal lines of communication can snag into inane knots that — with slight, maddening alterations — are ritually tied, retied, and tied again. Dramatist Selma Dimitrijevic’s affecting script explores how a mother-daughter relationship seems to go nowhere, at least linguistically — until an opportunity for a revelatory disclosure arrives. The play is agreeably short; a revolving cast of males and females play the central couple. I saw Vinnie Alberto and Shane Carty in the roles and their portrait of delicately combative feminine interaction never lapsed into caricature. It was a perceptively gentle exploration that also reflected the Shaw Fest’s interest in upending expectations.
Spontaneity is the steamrolling (sometimes-off-the-road) force behind the staging of The Game of Love and Chance. The plot of Pierre de Marivaux’s 18th-century romantic farce is intact, but audience members toss dice to determine which roles the Shaw Fest performers will play. After that, all the dialogue is improvised, with spectators asked for suggestions regarding character names, the resolution of the action, etc. Some terrifically funny scenes came along in the version I saw — Deborah Hay and Travis Seetoo made for the oddest of hilariously odd couples — but there were too many longueurs, scenes that tick-tocked by as the actors riffed haplessly and often laughlessly. Of course, failure is built into the make-it-up-as-you-go-along concept — I have every confidence that on some nights this “game” is very much afoot.
Canada is far enough from New York and Broadway to ignore their siren drumbeats. Boston theater is not so lucky. But, besides saluting the Shaw Fest, I need to pay grateful homage to the most ecstatic experience I had when I was away. It was one of those unexpected encounters that reminded me of just how exhilarating good theater can be — when it is free in spirit and thought and imagination and invites audiences into a collective experience, preferably inspirational or provocative. One of the largest glass-enclosed butterfly conservatories in North America is located near Niagara-on-the-Lake. You are invited to take a self-guided tour through a humid, plant-filled area, walking through snaky paths swirling with 2,000 vibrantly colored butterflies. These gorgeous perpetual motion machines — capering en masse without rhyme or reason — swoop and flutter, sail and dive-bomb. The ever-darting dramatis personae changes, unpredictably, from moment to moment. The butterflies nest for a few fleeting moments on heads and arms, then fly off to rest on leaves or nosh on platforms filled with tidbits of food. It is a world ever-active and alive — spontaneity personified.
The joy of the diverse strollers taking in the show was palpable. Smiles everywhere, on young and old, eyes opened wide in delight. As we watched and marveled, some people had no choice but to become part of the spectacle. The lightweight flying contraptions landed wherever they wished — on heads or arms, on feet or fingers. iPhones were everywhere and people would stop to take a photo of a gorgeous insect perching on somebody’s forehead. You had to be quick — who knew how long the butterfly would stay still. Lepidopterist Nabokov could be a grouch, but I can’t help but believe he would have approved.
I will not belabor the resonances, but must point out that, like all theater performances, this production was fleeting, featuring creatures whose lives are also fleeting. Its value is rooted in a celebration of the lived moment — a capering existential frisson. There are galley slaves in today’s world who do not have the freedom to experience this joyfulness. At the moment, I am reading Iranian dissident writer Shahrnush Paripur’s novel Touba and the Meaning of Night. Her protagonist laments that she lives in a repressive society that does not give women a chance “to look for a while at a butterfly, or gaze at the beautiful wings of a cricket.” Will hordes of butterflies be around for anyone’s admiration in the future? Our inadequate response to the mounting climate crisis does not instill confidence. As William Blake presciently noted: “Kill not the Moth nor Butterfly/For the Last Judgment draweth nigh.”
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.