From ancient Egypt to Catherine the Great's Russia to Victorian London --
the opening week of ShawFest covers a lot of ground. Here are the reviews
of Candida, Arms and the Man and Caesar and Cleopatra which are currently running as part of the festival:
Candida (Tara Players)
would hope the city's Irish community theatre company would do
Dublin-born G.B.S. proud... and thanks to a top-notch cast, this Candida does.
Written in 1895,
Candida (the title role is played here with quiet charm by Cheryl
Moore) is a portrait of Shaw's "new woman" - Candida is assertive,
independent, and while every inch the gentlewoman, is also capable of
rolling up her sleeves to run her own household. Of course, this makes
men swoon over her - and trouble brews when the happiness of her
marriage, a partnership of equals with the Reverend James Morrell (Craig
Oliphant), is called into question by the wealthy, moony young poet
Marchbanks (Eric Rae). Along the way, Shaw asks pointed questions about
the role of women in society, and about how we all contribute to the
social good ("We have no more right to consume happiness without
producing it," Morell says like a good Fabian, "than we have to consume
wealth without producing it").
But it's all laced with witty
Shavian wordplay -- perhaps a bit too much over the show's two-hour
running time, which does drag slightly at points. But for the most part,
it's smartly delivered by director Brendan Carruthers' cast (Megan
Andres and Pete Hudson are particularly outstanding in their supporting
roles), and backed by impressive set and costume design.
Arms and the Man (Black Hole Theatre Company)
One of Shaw's self-described "pleasant" plays -- and one of his most famous -- Arms and the Man is a welcome addition to ShawFest, although this U of M production plays it a bit too rigidly to make the most of it.
Stephen Currie as the Man/Bluntschi, Kelly Jenkin as Raina in Black Hole Theatre Company's "Arms and the Man" (Dennis W. Smith)
Shaw takes on the foolishness of class division and war with his story of Bluntschli (a Swiss mercenary who'd rather carry chocolate than bullets in his cartridge pouch) and his comic entanglements with the Petkoffs, a wealthy Bulgarian military family.
There's a wonderful mix of humour and horror in Shaw's play - Bluntschli's description of a cavalry charge that succeeds in spite of its ineptness simultaneously points out its laughable ridiculousness and the ugly reality of war. Under the direction of U of M theatre professor Margaret Groome, a cast of students and alumni find some fine moments of humour (Stephen Currie is a standout as Bluntschli, all military manners and sharp wit; Kelly Jenken also does admirable work as Raina, the ingenue of the Petkoff family, as does Sarah Jane Martin as the sharp-tongued servant Louka). And the production gets attractive and elegant design from Karen Schellenberg. But there's an underlying stiffness here that too often mutes the comedy. It's a play that calls out for sharper performances and more sense of fun -- and this Arms and the Man
is a bit off the mark.Caesar and Cleopatra (Naughty Sailboat and Nomadic Players)
Under the direction of Ray Strachan (recently seen in MTC's Romeo and Juliet
), this young company takes on an challenging task: condensing Shaw's epic story of Julius Caesar and the famous Egyptian queen Cleopatra into a trim 90 minutes in an intimate, black-box space. The results are mixed.
Natashia Durand as Cleopatra in Nomadic Players & Naughty Sailboat's production of "Caesar and Cleopatra" (Nomadic Players)
In detailing the relationship between a mature Caesar (Kevin Anderson, who brings a serene and commanding presence to the role) and a Cleopatra (Natashia Durand) who begins the play as a "silly little girl," Shaw aims to show us the ideal leader in Caesar (never mind that he was a dictator - at least he was an effective one), and also to show us how, as the sun god Ra says to the audience in an opening prologue, "men twenty centuries ago were men such as you... no wiser and no sillier."
A superb supporting cast brings this to life -- besides Anderson's fine turn as Caesar, a group of some of the city's best young actors deliver compelling performances (Tobias Hughes as the fawning Apollodorus, Jeff Strome as solid Roman Rufio, and Brenda McLean as the hissing servant Ftatateeta are standouts). Cleopatra, unfortunately, doesn't fare as well in this adaptation - her transition from frightened girl to regal queen comes too suddenly, and the relationship at the heart of the play seems unclear in this production. Why is Caesar so fascinated by the young Egyptian? It's an essential question this Caesar and Cleopatra
never quite seems to answer, and the play's momentum is sapped in the process, leaving an admirably ambitious production that never quite reaches its potential.