My Theatre

03 September 2019

2019 at the Shaw Festival

By // Theatre

After I saw Brigadoon, the Shaw Festival’s magical staging of a reimagined classic musical, I right away sat down to write about the experience. At least for me, the night I saw it, the mood I was in, Brigadoon was a fully contained theatrical moment about which I had plenty to say. Another staff writer got the chance to see Rope and The Glass Menagerie so we’ll have individual reviews of those pieces coming soon as well. But as I took in the non-Brigadoon elements of the season, what I found myself compelled to write about wasn’t the productions themselves or any sort of “this one’s good, that one isn’t” show by show breakdown. What I’m finding most fascinating at the Shaw Festival of late is its identity as a “festival”, the way the plays interweave and inform each other, how the established company of players is (or isn’t) utilized and how newcomers fit into the bigger picture.

This was a dark season, death looming over even the comedies and cheating a staple of the romance. It was a challenging season full of intellectually demanding texts and patience-testing runtimes. It was an ambitious season but not a particularly groundbreaking one, somehow both polarizing and inspiring mostly the feeling of it all having been moderately pleasant. It was a throwback in some ways and a herald, both welcome and otherwise, that times are a’changing for the notoriously steady Niagara-on-the-Lake playhouse.

To me the most glaring of trends at the Shaw these days is the gradual casting shift. The festival was never home to a lot of changeover, the programs brimming with lines like “so and so is in her 25th season at the Shaw”. There are obvious drawbacks to this, mostly in that the consistency model doesn’t make enough room for young and diverse talent to get their foot in the door. But, if the artistic director has a great eye for talent, there’s something really special about a consistent stable of actors built up over the years and encouraged to stay.

Every season at the Shaw is a repertory experience with each actor playing multiple roles but, if you’re seeing the same people year after year, that experience is enriched as you watch resumes build in intriguing directions. For some, that’s a development of a casting type, a reaction to the actor’s looks or voice or particular skillset that lands them similar roles over and over again: Ben Sanders as the supercilious aristocrat, Graeme Somerville as the softspoken sage, Marla McLean as the unknowable woman, Claire Jullien as the independent truth-teller unafraid to put Martin Happer’s kind but backwards military man in his place- all of these examples specifically observable in this season’s Shaw comedy Getting Married which directorially relies on the broadest of archetypes and succeeds because the particular actors chosen for each particular role sit so beautifully within those archetypes that they’re able to humanize and elevate them with careful detail. When you have a consistent stable of actors the audience gets to see over and over again, it’s like you’re dealing with a team of specialists, a well-built company containing exactly the right person for any given role. Then, just for the fun of it, throw in a bit of unexpected against-type casting to show off the company’s range, balance a character, or enhance the intensity of a performance (Somerville’s vile Bill Slank in Peter and the Starcatcher was all the more loathsome for being so divorced from his usual persona).

On the flip side, there are performers who reject the notion of a casting type altogether and are able to develop a resume that’s most remarkable for how each role differs from the last. Julia Course is my favourite example of this at the Shaw. Any given Course performance is usually fairly affecting but it’s when you realize that Laura in The Glass Menagerie is the same person you saw play Jimmy Stanton in Sex the night before, that’s when the feat of the thing sinks in. It’s not that these two characters are so different at their core (they are both, in very different ways, vulnerable, insecure youths in the shadow of overwhelming parents) but they are completely unalike in affect, different genders, worlds apart in socio-economic circumstance, geography, and education. When Course first appeared at the Shaw Festival 10 seasons ago, she filled the role of pretty ingénue, a casting type the festival has often struggled filling with interesting voices while their young male and middle-aged casting has been spot-on (you can also blame the limitations of the mandate here). Most young women making their first appearance at the festival end up in such a role (Katherine Gauthier is an interesting example this year, playing the PYT role in Getting Married but also spitting fire in a small role in Sex), but if they stick around, we get to see them do so much more.

My all-time favourite young woman at the Shaw was Jennifer Dzialoszynski who left the company at the beginning of the personnel shift right after playing her first starring role in Mrs. Warren’s Profession. Though Dzialoszynski is the sort of performer who stands out with even the smallest of roles, it was a shame to lose her at the particular moment when the canon’s meatier material was right in front of her. Most notably- Saint Joan, a role the young-looking and combat-trained Dzialoszynski was born to play and which came up in the 2017 season just as she was on her way out and the new artistic director was bringing in his friends with bigger names (41-year-old Sara Topham played Joan; I had feelings about it). It’s worth noting that Dzialoszynski’s husband Wade Bogert-O’Brien, another personal favourite whose work highlighted the first decade of my reviewing career at the Shaw, was also among the superb Shaw staples to leave recently, along with the delightful Nicole Underhay and consummate leading lady Moya O’Connell.

Which brings me to my principal gripe with Shaw casting in the Tim Carroll (“TC”) era, a lecture those close to me have heard many times and I doubt I will ever stop giving. The company’s new artistic director has his people- which is fine, I guess, everybody has their people- and there is certainly an argument to be made for bringing in fresh blood to work alongside a company of set players who’ve been treading these particular boards for a few seasons already. But TC’s people are not fresh blood. He’s mostly just pulling in Stratford talent- all of it white, none of it young. I’m sure you could make an argument for established names and commercial appeal but it’s not an argument I’m interested in nor is it an argument I’m necessarily buying based on the unimpressive size of the houses I witnessed over the weekend watching star-studded shows in the small studio theatre.

When asked the impossible question of who is my favourite actor, I often answer Tom Rooney, and pulling him in to play Cyrano directed by his most fruitful collaborator Chris Abraham does admittedly seem like a coup. It feels odd to complain about the privilege of seeing one of the best actors in Canada the world play one of the best roles ever written but I’m going to nonetheless. The fact that I, and so many others, name Rooney when asked to pick favourites isn’t just a testament to his skill, consistency, and versatility but to the fact that we’ve been able to see him play an incredible range of great roles that show those qualities off. I don’t mean to argue that any middle-aged white male with a steady gig at one of the country’s two major festivals hasn’t gotten their shot but there isn’t that much of a gulf between what Rooney can do (again, my literal favourite actor in the world when forced to choose) and what Somerville could bring to the same role.

Sometimes it feels as though TC never bothers to look at what he has before looking for something else. Previous artistic director Jackie Maxwell used her tenure to build up a Shaw roster so strong that I could name you 30 company members off the top of my head I would be happy to watch play the leading role in anything. Of course there aren’t enough leading roles for that but there certainly aren’t if you give every leading role to someone you poached from another company for no reason other than you’ve worked with them before.

I was hard on Maxwell when she was at the Shaw, harder than I should have been. I blamed her for the limitations of a mandate she was toiling to expand and didn’t appreciate her recruiting prowess until she was gone and the actors I’d loved since I began reviewing the Shaw in 2011 began to leave the company. Just the other day, yet another one of my favourites told me they didn’t plan to come back next season and the “end of an era” of it all felt crushing. I don’t pretend that I’m the most mature when it comes to accepting change with open arms but I like to think that I could get on board if the change felt progressive, like moving forward, but the people the Shaw has said goodbye to have been its young talents and its powerful women while the new talent coming on board isn’t new at all, it’s just transplanted.

The powerful women element is the other, non-casting, piece of the Maxwell puzzle that I took for granted. Having never really been to the Shaw during Christopher Newton’s tenure, I didn’t process when it was right in front of me how impressive a feat Maxwell’s feminist leadership was. I was moving through my Shaw experience thinking it was normal that each season feature so many excellent roles for women and so many female directors. In retrospect, something like being able to fully cast Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (which features challenging roles for at least seven women) entirely with in-house leading ladies was a pretty remarkable situation for a company to be in, even in 2015. When I interviewed former Shaw actress Moya O’Connell in 2017, she pointed out “I get a very perverse pleasure in the fact that in the 905, the very rich white conservative area which is Niagara-on-the-Lake, there is a theatre festival based around a socialist pacifist vegetarian barnstormer run by an outspoken feminist”. I’d never really thought about it before that interview but O’Connell’s words were incredibly true. Though what she inherited was a company known for its dustiness and ageing subscriber base, Jackie Maxwell, just by being her, was able to lead from the front and pull said subscriber base in the right direction without necessarily even tipping them off that they were moving at all.

I was thinking about this dynamic while taking in my final Shaw production of 2019, Victory by Howard Barker, as Deborah Hay strutted about the stage repeating, for no apparent reason, the word “cunt” until she was blue in the face. Playing an assortment of little roles, Hay is actually quite excellent in Victory, particularly effective in a particularly grotesque scene involving a skull that’s impossible to imagine any actress being asked to play during the Maxwell tenure. The scene in question plays out in a separate location from the theatre, a basement room the audience has been led to just for this one fifteen-minute bit of business. The field trip makes the play longer and less accessible while accomplishing absolutely nothing, as though TC wanted to make it even clearer that Victory was meant to annoy us (lest that come off as unfairly snippy, let me clarify that alienating its audience is one of the play’s most obvious aims). There is nothing quite so annoying as a play that’s desperate to be considered shocking but also manages to be outlandishly dull and, on both those counts, Victory succeeds atrociously. There’s something in the wonderful Gray Powell’s performance style that occasionally makes him look terrifically bored. There were multiple moments in Victory when I questioned whether that was acting, or maybe I was just projecting. Victory is, however, the rare production when I was grateful for TC’s star system hiring practices because Martha Burns is captivating in a way only she could be in the impossible role of tragic widow Bradshaw.

Don’t get me wrong, TC’s tenure has resulted in some really excellent art since he arrived at the Shaw in 2017- Saint Joan was one piece of casting away from transcendence; Middletown was really something special. This year doesn’t have any productions I think I’ll still be talking about in a year let alone 4 (what up, perfect 2015 Shaw season!) but it stands out for almost the opposite achievement- there isn’t a single bad production in the lot this year.

I hated Victory and think its inclusion in the season is a pretty glaring red flag with regards to TC’s progressive bonafides (which, let’s just get this on the table, is non-negotiable if you’re going to be running a major institution in Canada in 2019, especially one that receives government funding), but it’s well executed for what it is. I also didn’t love Man & Superman, the overlong epic in the festival theatre with its nearly 2 hours of intermissions and pretentious optional third act comprised entirely of actors standing still and monologuing. It’s telling that the most human moment of the whole production was when Gray Powell stumbled over a line (by my count he’d already said about 6 billion by the time he got one wrong). But it wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t my cup of tea, and also needs to be knocked off its pedestal and edited down (as, if we’re being honest, do most major works in the English canon). Rope also left something to be desired (the lack of meaningful character development meant the stakes never got higher than anyone’s knees) but Michael Therriault is a hoot in the best written role and I’m always happy to see Kelly Wong get a substantial role even if he’s directed in a way that seems to scream “This guy! He did the murder!”. 

But there’s actual good news, I promise.

My favourite play of the season was undoubtedly Ladykillers, directed simply by the artistic director with a few really fun and clever visuals and just the right amount of farcical physicality (I hate a broad farce and this one didn’t ignore that aspect of the play but also didn’t push too hard into the silliness, a great balance). The ensemble was the perfect blend of established festival talent (Martin Happer gets all the biggest laughs as a perfect dimwit henchman, foiled wonderfully by a goofy Ric Reid and the lovely Steven Sutcliffe playing wry and honestly scary) with prestigious new recruits (Stratford’s Chick Reid is splendid as the clueless little old lady around whom the madness swirls). Of all TC’s recruits, the very best is Damien Atkins, not because he’s so particularly perfect for this one role (which he is- dashing in his three-piece suit and fabulously floppy scarf, hilariously prissy but with a dry wit and making pitch perfect use of his incomparable spoken vocal range) but because he’s a great fit for the company and its mandate. An actor of Atkins’ reputation may choose not to spend year after year in the tiny town of Niagara-on-the-Lake but, should he choose to, there are endless parts in the “Shaw and his contemporaries” canon that will suit him to a T. Whether he personally ends up sticking around or not, the hiring of Atkins feels like team-building in a way that promisingly runs counter to the rest of the personnel changes that have gone down in the last few years.

The musical is where most of the new young blood has been coming onto the festival scene in the last few years with the cast often doubling in the kids show because the Shaw only does one musical a year. Jacqueline Thair, George Krissa and Kristi Frank are great in Horse and his Boy, which received a strong adaptation by Anna Chatterton but magic-less direction by Christine Brubaker, and it was great to see a production really highlight Matt Nethersole, the dynamic triple threat who might be the festival’s most exciting find in years.

A small but unignorable influx of Soulpepper talent is also observable among the new recruits this year. The brilliant Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster is fun in a decent supporting role in Man & Superman but doesn’t get nearly enough to do across the whole season (she’s also in Cyrano), the hyper-theatrical demands of the Shaw forcing her out of the understated style in which she most thrives. Peter Fernandes, on the other hand, gets an excellent spotlight in the hilarious and heartwrenching lunchtime production of Hannah Moscovitch’s Russian Play where he’s tasked with a swoony romantic lead, which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him play before (Gabriella Sundar Singh is also great in the leading role, I hope to see a lot more of her moving forward). But the best fit among the Soulpepper transplants is the aforementioned Kat Gauthier who seems completely at home in the Shavian style as the outspoken ingénue in Getting Married and thrives under the edgy direction of Peter Hinton-Davis in Sex, a strong production of a script I didn’t like much. Mae West’s moody dramedy is the best received production of the season but the story left me cold despite strong performances across the board. Jonathan Tan is especially moving as a young woman who slips through society’s cracks in Hinton-Davis’ beautifully gender fluid production.

Tan for my money is the season’s MVP, stealing Sex from its much-lauded stars and also delivering my favourite performance of the year in The Glass Menagerie, another highlight production. Surrounded by solid performances from the dependable likes of André Sills and Julia Course, it was Tan who made me appreciate Tennessee Williams’ much-produced quiet tragedy in a new way. There’s a bit of a bland stereotype to how Jim O’Connor is usually cast, directors focusing on the fact that was he a highschool goldenboy more than on the way in which he was a highschool goldenboy. Rather than a faded footballer type, director László Bérczes relies on Tan’s generous smile and easy charm to communicate that Jim was the kind of popular boy who was popular not just because he was good at everything but because everyone genuinely liked him, a boy confidently popular enough to befriend an unpopular girl like Laura. And when Jonathan Tan sings a line or two in memory of the time Jim starred in The Pirates of Penzance, you believe he could have starred in The Pirates of Penzance (note: would like to see Jonathan Tan as the lead of a mainstage musical please). He’s incredibly disarming and genuinely caring, his self-satisfaction and Amanda-esque desperation just subtle enough to ignore if you want to ignore it as badly as he does. He fills Balázs Cziegler’s evocatively dreary set with light and hope then innocently deflates that feeling. I’ve never thought much of Jim, the more central characters tending to steal most Menageries, but Jonathan Tan just changed my mind and, when all is said and done, that’s probably what I’ll remember most about 2019 at the Shaw Festival.

I doubt I’ll ever really be happy with Tim Carroll as the Shaw artistic director. But that’s sort of my MO, there’s pretty much no powerful person in Canadian performing arts whom I won’t criticize when they’re in the position to dictate who gets paid to tell what stories. But when they’re gone and the next person comes in, I often look back and can see what they were trying to do, even if they didn’t always do it quite right. I like TC’s ambition, his insistence on brushing off the dust, that he’s not afraid of shocking his subscribers. I wish he was more conscious of which voices he’s elevating, more aware of the talent he’s overlooking, and that he had better taste in musicals (Brigadoon turned out pretty lovely but would it kill him to pick something from this century?). But there were no bad productions at the Shaw Festival in 2019, not a single one, and that’s worth celebrating if not with a rousing standing ovation at least with the polite applause of a retiree who just sat through a Howard Barker play.

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