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 Great Catherine, Annajanska, Queen Of My Heart and Village Wooing which are currently running as part of the festival:
Great Catherine and Annajanska, The Bolshevik Empress (Shoestring Players)
If Caesar and Cleopatra shows us Shaw's vision of an ideal leader, this double bill of short plays from community theatre troupe Shoestring Players shows his vision of leadership at its worst.
Great Catherine follows a dignified British officer into the chaotic court of Catherine the Great of Russia, while Annajanska... pokes fun at the inanities of the Russian Revolution (a general, for example, asks his subordinate if his report has been sent to the government - the deadpan reply is "That depends, sir. Which government did you want it sent to?")
Both play as farces, and while there are greater lessons to pull from each on class and politics, Shoestring plays them for laughs here, and largely succeeds. There are fine performances in both plays. Rhonda Kennedy Rogers as Catherine and Joe Stratton as Patiomkin, her advisor, both get to ham it up with big, bold accents; and as Captain Edstaston and his fiancee Claire, Bernard Boland and Carol Stephens have fun playing the "stiff upper lip" of the visiting Brits. Meanwhile, Jennifer Gottwald steals the show with the title role in Annajanska... with a commanding performance and spot-on comic timing.
The only significant knock against the production are the far-too-long scene changes in Great Catherine, which work against the comedic momentum the actors have worked so hard to build up. The sprightly-paced (and brief) Annajanska... makes up for some of that, though, and these short plays make for a fun ShawFest outing.
Queen of My Heart (Theatre On TAP)
While other plays show us Shaw as literary genius, Talia Pura's new play Queen Of My Heart
Talia Pura as Stella and Brian Richardson as Shaw in "Queen of My Heart" (Theatre on TAP)
offers an appealing look at Shaw as a man.
After pursuing her for the lead in his 1913 play Pygmalion
, Shaw fell in love with the actor Stella Beatrice Campbell. Although she went on to marry another man (and Shaw was already married), they carried on an impassioned correspondence for decades.
Pura (who stars as Stella, opposite Brian Richardson as Shaw) uses those letters as her source material, often cleverly weaving them into dialogue between the pair. It's a treat to watch these two fine actors work off of each other. Richardson makes Shaw likable in spite of his sharp tongue and considerable opinion of himself, while Pura creates a sympathetic Campbell (although here, as in some other ShawFest shows, a wandering accent sometimes gets the better of her).
There are lots of laughs, as Shaw was as witty in writing letters as plays (although Stella may get the best one-liner of the play, when she writes to the verbose Shaw, "When you were quite a little boy, somebody ought to have said 'Hush!' just once.")
But while it offers an intriguing glimpse into Shaw's personal world, the "found dialogue" approach of relying on letters means one of the bigger questions of the relationship remains only partially answered - why was Shaw so taken with Campbell? "You are the dreams of my childhood, all romance and anticipation," Shaw writes to Stella - but that's as clear an answer as we ever get over the play's hour (too long by a bit - a 45-minute runtime might suit the material better).
Still, it's a welcome look at the human side of a genius.Village Wooing (zone41 theatre)
Tracy Penner as Z and Graham Ashmore as A in zone41 theatre's "Village Wooing" (Mairen Kops)
Eric Lesage's art installation Re:Definition
makes an appealing, and appropriate, backdrop for this delightfully funny and smart romantic comedy. The installation is composed of panels woven with strips cut from a 1956 Webster's Dictionary - and Shaw's play is a complex weaving of words itself.
The compact 55-minute "comedietta" follows a couple simply known as A (Graham Ashmore) and Z (Tracy Penner) from their first encounter through a developing relationship. They seems an unlikely pair - A is an educated misanthrope, Z is a talkative shopgirl. Yet even in their first meeting aboard a luxury cruise, they have something in common - both are outsiders in first class (A pays his way by writing travel guides, Z has paid hers by winning a contest).
The "unlikely pair fall in love" concept has certainly been done to death since Shaw wrote Village Wooing
in 1933 (and it wasn't a new idea even then). But Shaw being Shaw, even a romantic comedy is enhanced with commentary on class politics, the institution of marriage, and the nature of love ("If I fell in love with a man, I could never marry him," Z tells A. "He could make me so miserable. But there was something about you...").
Ashmore and Penner deliver subtle and beautifully funny performances. Director Krista Jackson provides deft touches like turning set and costume changes into brief, charming musical numbers.Village Wooing
will win your heart - but book a ticket ahead. Each performance seats only 20, and opening weekend shows sold out.
Joff Schmidt, CBC Theatre Reviewer