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by Michael Portantiere

Shaw on This Shining Night

  • Tara Rosling in SAINT JOAN, photo by David Cooper


    Was Joan of Arc a heroic visionary worthy of sainthood, or a religious zealot whose belief that she was in communication with God marked her as insane? Certainly, anyone living in America today has good reason to be wary of a leader who claims the benefit of divine counsel; but Joan seems to have had a lot more smarts and personality that GWB, not to mention the fact that she was apparently much cuter.

    A world-class performance in the title role is essential to any production of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan (1923), which is generally agreed to be the best dramatic treatment of the short, fascinating life of the Maid of Orleans. The excellent staging on view at the Shaw Festival in the picturesque Canadian town Niagara-on-the-Lake boasts just such a performance by Tara Rosling (pictured), now in her fourth season with the festival. Rosling is a Joan whose tireless efforts to help her countrymen liberate their lands from the English and to insure the French Dauphin's succession to the throne make her a wonderfully compelling figure despite her extreme self-righteousness.

    This superb actress is ably supported by a company whose standouts include Ben Carlson as the shrewd Bishop of Beauvais, Harry Judge as the immature Dauphin, and Andrew Bunker as Brother Martin, who tries harder than anyone else to save Joan from being burned at the stake as a heretic. (As Shaw wrote in Man and Superman, "Every genuine religious person is a heretic and therefore a revolutionary.") Except for the fact that Sue LaPage's costumes rather distractingly mix the styles of the 15th century with those of the World War I era to make an obvious point, the production is exemplary. Jackie Maxwell's direction is so well-focused and well-paced that the running time of the play seems much shorter than the actual two hours and 40 minutes.

    Even better is the Shaw's production of Somerset Maugham's The Circle, a play that didn't make much of an impression on me when I saw it on Broadway in 1989 with Rex Harrison, Glynis Johns, and Stewart Granger starring. As expertly directed by Neil Munro for the Shaw, with Michael Ball (no, not that Michael Ball!), David Jansen (no, not David Janssen!), Wendy Thatcher, and Moya O'Connell reveling in the roles of Lord Porteous, Lady Kitty, and Mrs. and Mrs. Arnold Champion-Cheney, this timeless comedy/drama about two generations of women who leave their husbands for other men is a joy from start to finish. Gray Powell is suitably charismatic as Mrs. C-C's suitor, Edward Luton (a.k.a. Teddie), and even the casting of the butler (Al Kozlik) and the footman (Ken James Stewart) is spot-on.

    Christina Poddubiuk's set for the Cheneys' drawing room is so detailed and so gorgeously appointed that it was a shock, later that same day, to to see it had been completely struck for the evening's performance of Tennessee Williams Summer and Smoke in the same theater, the Royal George. This is one of those productions in which first-rate acting triumphs over shaky direction (by Neil Munro, far less sure of his footing here than with the Maugham piece) and ineffective set design (by Peter Hartwell). Nicole Underhay is well night perfect as the fluttery spinster Alma Winemiller, and so is Jeff Meadows as her love object, Dr. John Buchanan, Jr. But why is the all-important angel statue placed way upstage? What are those odd set pieces that resemble sections of a gazebo lined up in rows? And what exactly is the point of having the entire cast on stage for the all-important final scene, seated immobile as if this were the graveyard in Our Town? Beats me!

    The only outright clinker of the four Shaw Festival shows I caught during my two glorious days in Niagara-on-the Lake was the musical Mack and Mabel, with a fabulous score by Jerry Herman ("I Won't Send Roses," "Wherever He Ain't," "Time Heals Everything," etc.) and a frustrating, schematic book by Michael Stewart, revised but not improved after his death by his sister, Francine Pascal. This show about silent movie genius Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand, his favorite actress and on-again, off-again lover, flopped "Big Time" -- to quote another of the song titles -- on Broadway in 1974 despite the presence of Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters in the title roles. (By the way, if you're wondering why the festival chose to present M&M, it might have something to do with the fact that Sennett was Canadian. Who knew?)

    The musical's innate flaws are exacerbated due to poor direction by the normally reliable Molly Smith (artistic director of Arena Stage in D.C.) and lackluster choreography by the normally unreliable Baayork Lee (who, at this stage of her career, doesn't seem to be really good at anything other than recreating Michael Bennett's original choreography for A Chorus Line). Throw in the painfully overacted Mack of Benedict Campbell and the whole thing might have been a washout if not for the charming, golden-voiced Glynnis Ranney as Mabel and the winning Jeff Madden as Frank.

    Gabrielle Jones as Lottie, Neil Barclay as Fatty Arbuckle, et al. try their damnedest but are done in by Smith's and Lee's lack of affinity for the style of the show and, more specifically, by their failure at the admittedly difficult task of making silent movie comedy work on stage. Paul Sportelli -- who wrote some stirring music for the Shaw's Saint Joan -- does an excellent job as musical director, and the sets and costumes of William Schmuck (!!) are fine, but the production does not make a strong case for this problematic piece.

    Published on Monday, September 10, 2007

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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