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Rewards and surprises at Shaw


The final three productions of the Shaw Festival's 2002 season are impressive indeed. The world premiere of Simon Bradbury's Chaplin, though, looks more like a brilliant work in progress than the final solution to the problem of Charlie Chaplin's tramp having to deal with Hitler.

            Christopher Newton's choice for his final directing stint before retiring as Artistic Director is Noel Coward's Hay Fever. Both as director and actor, Newton has displayed an elegant bent toward stylish, witty comedy --- especially Coward's. And Hay Fever, requiring delicate interplay between polished mannerism and clowning idiosyncrasy, is exactly Newton's cup of tea. He even manages a suggestion of some substance in this silly farce masquerading as a comedy of manners.

            Hay Fever takes us to the country home of the insufferably liberated, grandstanding Bliss family. The mother, Judith Bliss, is a recently retired grande dame of the theater; she'd like to return to the stage, but plays out scenes of her former triumphs constantly enough to seem not to have left.

            Her husband, David, writes successful novels at home and subjects his family to readings from his manuscripts. Her son, Simon, is an artist who displays his paintings mostly at home to family and guests. Sorel, the daughter, is sometimes an aspiring actress, sometimes an aspirant to "normal" artless life.

            They all rapaciously use attractive acquaintances as sex objects --- though they probably never actually complete a sex act with their playthings.

            We see a cozy weekend at home with the Blisses: Each has invited an attractive guest without telling the others. Their only servant, Judith's former dresser, Clara, has remarked that there's little to eat in the house and too much for her to do; so you can imagine her reaction when she's told that there will be eight for dinner. The guests are amusingly unprepared for the Bliss family hijinks, and have such a miserable time that they predictably sneak out for a finale almost exactly like that of Coward's Private Lives.

            With the aid of Alan Brodie's almost choreographed lighting, William Schmuck's wonderfully revealing set opens doors and windows to keep developing the comedy. A masterful cast of topnotch Shaw Festival actors play the piece for utmost comic effect. And especially Fiona Reid as Judith gives a star-turn performance that's a work of art. Her take on seeing husband David grappling with a woman on the rug below as Judith descends the stairway should be filmed and archived for studies in physical comedy.

Another piece of inspired claptrap, J. M. Barrie's sentimental The Old Lady Shows Her Medals, sounds like perfect lunchtime theater entertainment.

            It's a patriotic character piece about a lonely old woman's pretense that she has a son in the war, which comes to unlikely factual truth when she meets the lonely young soldier whose name she has appropriated as that of her son.

            Directed with extraordinary sensitivity and creative physical expression by Todd Hammond, this lunchtime production boasts perfectly chosen designs by Deeter Schurig, a sterling supporting cast, and two leads who would be very difficult to improve upon. Jennifer Phipps gives her most controlled, authentic performance of a long, distinguished career as the Old Lady, and Pete Treadwell matches her with a heartbreakingly understated, realistic but beautifully theatrically built portrayal of the young Scots soldier.

            I was expecting a satisfyingly weepy good time. What I got was a truly rewarding experience --- a small-scale but overwhelming example of a great world theater company.

Chaplin(The Trial of Charles Spencer Chaplin, Esq.) not only demonstrates Simon Bradbury's talent and interesting ideas as a writer, but also shows us how very well he can move in this bravura one-man show.

            Coached by movement and Chaplin expert Dan Kamin, who trained Robert Downey Jr. to move like Chaplin in the 1992 movie Chaplin, Bradbury gives a virtuoso performance, though he doesn't move as well as Downey.

            Bradbury creates very persuasively distinctive personas for Chaplin's tramp, Chaplin's Hynkel, the dictator based on Hitler, and the distraught Charles Chaplin, who is under political attack and beginning to doubt the continuing viability of his famous tramp character. The film he is making in this drama, The Great Dictator, was, in fact the last Chaplin film using that tramp character.

            But showy though all this theatrical invention is, including multi-media tricks and much funny slapstick, the overall play relies far too much on assumed knowledge of what happened to Chaplin, who his co-workers were, and what goes on in the film, The Great Dictator. It doesn't share enough. The program notes do, but not the play.

            Is Chaplin in his studio rehearsing or creating Hynkel's famous ballet bouncing a giant balloon of the globe? How much of the film is completed at this point? And why all the new music by Paul Sportelli in the manner of Chaplin instead of Chaplin's music?

            The play ends with what seems to be the triumph of Hitler in the guise of Hynkel, unless you know that the tramp character's barber pretends to be the "Great Dictator" and delivers the film's climactic speech.

            And the many politically satirical verbal jokes and puns of the film are just dropped into dialogue, incomprehensibly to anyone not familiar with the film, rather than presented so that the audience can understand and laugh at the satire.

            Ultimately, I thought the script overlong, repetitious, and, in spots, incoherent. It's a fascinating effort, but it needs work.

Shaw Festival: Noel Coward's Hay Fever at the Festival Theatre to November 24; at the Royal George Theatre;J. M. Barrie's The Old Lady Shows Her Medals noonat the Royal George Theatre to September 21; Simon Bradbury's Chaplin at the Court House Theatre to September 22.; 1-800-511-SHAW.