Artistic Director Tim Carroll programmed the 2018 Shaw season with a throughline of war stories, mostly World War I stories. The theme is so pervasive that it seems to divide the season pretty much down the middle, so that’s how I’ve decided to group the plays together for review- War & Peace. Read about life in the trenches HERE and continue on this page for civilian stories.
The Baroness & the Pig
A loose adaptation of Pygmalion written in 1998 by Michael Mackenzie and directed here by Selma Dimitrijevic, this unfortunately titled tragicomedy is short and uncomfortably funny and emotionally tumultuous. Camellia Koo’s stark design is beautiful and weird, Kevin Lamotte’s lighting and John Gzowski’s sound the same. Julia Course gives a wild, physical, joyful performance that grounds an unbelievable character while Yanna McIntosh stuns in her first season at Shaw, playing the baroness with all the regality and chill I expected but a mountain of complex vulnerability I wasn’t prepared for. As the two characters grow closer together, we see the baroness moved by her pig-raised pupil’s trusting simplicity and easy embrace of small wonders. The multitudes happening behind McIntosh’s eyes convey the most complex and dynamic character journey of the season as the pristine baroness remakes Emily in her own image while being remade and burst open herself. A recurring device of flashing photographs remind us of the costs of posturing, the deception behind our curated public displays. Dimitrijevic takes a lot of chances with her staging, letting some moments breathe past the point of comfort and leaving others too unexplored to be satisfyingly clear. It’s a remarkable feat of not letting us have what we think we want that I found deeply moving but made a few other critics madder than I’ve ever seen them. I love art that takes big swings, especially when it’s all in the eye of the beholder whether the result is a foul out or a home run. For me, this is definitively the latter.
It’s refreshing to see a real contemporary play on the Shaw stage, something not only written in the current century but set in it. Sarah Ruhl’s 2014 comedy about actors whose on-stage and off-stage lives become intertwined is quick-witted and fun and just barely squeezes past the mandate police on account of a play-within-the-play that amusingly resembles a few that have featured these very actors on this very stage in the past. I’m not crazy about the final twist that puts a “silly woman, I know what’s best for you” trivial spin on what’s actually a fairly complicated emotional premise (how to navigate faking emotion and working intimately while respecting real relationships and personal boundaries is a really interesting conversation, especially in the era of #MeToo and the rise of intimacy direction, and at a festival where half the company is married to the other half) though charming, grounded leading performances from Fiona Byrne and Martin Happer help raise the script past its disappointing simplicity. Anita Rochon’s direction and Gillian Gallow’s design are unobtrusive and a little dull but Stage Kiss is still an easy likeable hit.
The Hound of the Baskervilles
This Sherlock Holmes adaptation by R. Hamilton Wright and David Pichette features a stellar ensemble, excellent costumes by Dana Osborne and an exceptional marriage of direction (Craig Hall) and projection (Jamie Nesbitt) to capture the story’s large scope onstage. Damien Atkins is a delightful bit of casting for Holmes, mixing self-seriousness and playfulness with a straight back and commanding voice to larger than life effect without tilting the generally naturalistic production out of believability. Kristopher Bowman is another standout as potential victim Hank Baskerville, all golly gee Albertan goodness. A twist involving the always wonderful Natasha Mumba elevates the tired story and two intermissions leave room for lots of cliffhanger lobby speculation. Let’s please stay away from turning this into a whole series but, as a one-off bit of well-cast and well-executed fun, this was a hoot.
The Magician’s Nephew
To call The Magician’s Nephew, or really any Narnia tale, a peacetime narrative is not entirely accurate. CS Lewis’ work was deeply influenced by his time in the first world war and his most famous stories are set during the second, but the war doesn’t really invade this prequel about the creation of Narnia and the establishment of the magic that can transport characters between worlds (magic that will eventually find its way to a certain legendary wardrobe). Adapted by Michel O’Brien and directed by Tim Carroll, the play drags a bit and gets caught up with exposition. The dialogue needs more laughs and the direction needs far more energy. The design (set by Douglas Paraschuk, costumes by Jennifer Goodman, projections by Cameron Davis) lacks spectacle and the good-for-kids/grating-for-adults “dream detectives” frame teases audience engagement but doesn’t follow through. Matt Nethersole caps off his MVP season as flying horse Fledge but his is the only performance that stays with you long enough to leave the lobby (click here to read our reviews of the rest of the season, this is a theme that recurs). I worry with kids programming this middling that we’re going to end up with a generation of kids who think theatre is “boring”. It’s not; let’s show them.
Our review of The Orchard (After Chekhov) can be found HERE.