Shaw Festival's 2004 season got off to an early and rollicking start with three effervescent comedies. Two more plays conclude the opening "week" at the end of May. Seven more productions will follow and play into December.
These first three set the bar high. First, Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell directs G. B. Shaw's classic Pygmalion in a knockout revival. Returning to the original text and avoiding past adaptations of the film and musical versions' romantic, sentimental ending, Maxwell allows the play's battle of the sexes to reach Shaw's intended equal stasis. An indomitable Eliza wins Higgins' admiration, comes to friendly terms with him, but walks out on him to marry her adoring Freddie.
The final confrontation between the two principals therefore crackles with wit and contradictory ideas and does not seem a silly contest with a foregone conclusion. Instead, it makes the delighted audience follow from one argument to another, turning our heads back and forth like spectators at a tennis match.
Tara Rosling is a charming Eliza, handling the transformations from crude flower girl to elegant lady with verbal skill and generally persuasive physicality. Her very feminine understatement nicely sets off Jim Mezon's broad, stentorian Professor Higgins, who seems less appealing. But he is both amusingly immature in his tantrums and formidable in his assertions and criticisms.
Simon Bradbury is genuinely funny as the fiercely independent-minded dustman, Alfred Doolittle, playing him as a scrappy bantam eccentric whose every syllable is impossible to ignore. Lorne Kennedy's Colonel Pickering and Patricia Hamilton's Mrs. Higgins offer expectedly fine support. But though popular, larger-than-life character-actress Nora McLellan unsurprisingly dominates her scenes as the housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, she does so with a surprisingly dignified, controlled delivery, strong and wonderfully judged.
Although some characters speak Shaw's stage directions aloud, Maxwell allows her beautifully blocked, handsome production to work without imposed directorial flourishes. Sue LePage's beautiful, rich designs include intricately realistic details in suggestive outlines. Marc Desormeaux's sound designs are also dramatically helpful while his original music is attractively atmospheric. And I seem to always find Kevin Lamotte's lighting a pleasure.
No less sparkling is former Artistic Director Christopher Newton's revival of Oscar Wilde's witfest, The Importance of Being Earnest. With probably the wittiest dialogue of any play in English, Earnest is almost a wind-up toy, sure to amuse once it gets started, if the lines are simply clearly delivered. On the other hand, it is so artificial, stylized, and --- perilously --- familiar that it requires a brilliantly polished ensemble production in matched unison style.
You can relax and just enjoy this production. Newton's staging, timing, and comic inventions are impeccable, and his great-looking cast --- while not setting any new standards --- is a pleasure. Judith Bowden's stylized designs are smart looking and provide splendid acting areas and sometimes funny costumes. Little roles are burnished with overqualified casting, like masterful Robert Benson as Lane, Algernon's butler.
David Leyshon is typically handsome, languid, and entirely self-absorbed as the popinjay Algernon. Evan Buliung is more natural, masculine, and hearty than the typical Jack Worthing, and perhaps therefore more unexpectedly funny. Similarly, Diana Donnelly seems unusually mature, sensual, and glamorous as Jack's innocent 18 year-old ward, "Little Cecily," so her decidedly coltish young girl wins chuckles.
And Brigitte Robinson seems an oddly girlish old governess for Cecily, which brightens her giggle-making flirtation with Bernard Behrens' pricelessly fussy old Reverend Chasuble. Fiona Byrne's Gwendolen is a beautiful, perfectly calibrated portrait of an impossibly spoiled belle.
This comedy is often dominated by Gwendolen's mother, Lady Bracknell. Usually played as a harridan, "a monster without being a myth," as Jack complains, Bracknell has some of the most dazzling put-downs in English. But though Goldie Semple plays her as formidable, she is also prettier and more quietly ladylike than any other Bracknell I've seen. This is a dragon with glamor, and thus funny, but in an unsettling way. It's pleasing to see a first-class Importance of Being Earnest that alters expectations while satisfying them.
Don't worry about ideas or intellectual stimulation from Three Men on a Horse, John Cecil Holm's ridiculous comedy made into a classic silly crowd-pleaser by the master of fast-moving Broadway comedies, George Abbott. It is mostly gags built upon gags.
If there is a worthwhile bit of physical schtick that has been omitted from this production, director Jim Mezon would be sad to hear of it. But I doubt that there's anything much good that he hasn't thrown in. Matching goofy sight gags to the play's outlandish plot and characters, Mezon offers constant physical comedy without any point other than to amuse.
Even the curtain and scene changes are funny. Cameron Porteous's delicious designs evoke Depression-era New York City, but are more specifically created for clever comment and to facilitate the slapstick. Louise Guinand's lighting is also attuned to Mezon's jokey staging. In fact, Al Kozlik delights the audience in little supporting roles, not because he has anything much to say, but because his pantomime gags are a hoot.
For what it's worth, the plot involves Erwin, a meek, put-upon writer of greeting-card verses, whose wife buys clothes he can't afford and fills his days with whines and ruses. His brother-in-law bullies him. His boss works him too hard, for lousy pay.
But Erwin escapes into a fantasy game guessing which horses will win at the local track. And he's always right. Of course, he runs into manipulative thugs who do nothing but bet on horses. They get him drunk and try to keep him as their personal ticket to riches. So his wife, boss, and even brother-in-law miss him, and the plot gets no more inventive or surprising.
But you'll laugh throughout the play. Catherine McGregor as Erwin's wife, Douglas E. Hughes as his stupid brother-in-law, Peter Millard as the bartender, and Anthony Bekenn as Erwin's apoplectic boss are all very adept and amusing. Kevin Bundy brings an old-fashioned nerdy comic star-turn to the hapless Erwin, as well as some hilarious spasms when possessed by the creative poetic urge.
The "three men" are Charlie, Frankie, and Patsy. Charlie is a Damon Runyon-type lowlife who might aspire to be a gangster if he had the energy. Peter Hutt fleshes him out to be a memorable laugh-getter. Frankie is a dense, young errand boy, played with lanky, awkward likability by Jeff Lillico. And Patsy is one of those "Little Caesar" types who somehow bosses everyone around like a mean toy Manchester terrier intimidating big retrievers. Simon Bradbury runs with the role, almost stealing the play.
Glynis Ranney, unrecognizable in a blonde wig as Mabel, Patsy's girlfriend, adopts a squeaky, Adelaide from Guys and Dolls voice and performs a hysterically funny dance number, showing what she once did in "The Follies." In a play full of nothing but clowning, hers is the most sidesplitting performance. Predictably, director Mezon doesn't give up even at the curtain calls, which are all jokes.
Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario: Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, at the Festival Theatre through November 27; Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest,at the Royal George Theatre through December 4; George Abbott and John Cecil Holm's Three Men on a Horse,at the Festival Theatrethrough October 29. Tix: $20 to $77 Canadian ($14.41 to $55.48 US dollars). 800-511-7429, www.shawfest.com.