Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Shaw Festival—First Day

Joshua and I had been to The Shaw Festival once before.

Three years ago, when Josh and I had been living in Boston, we traveled to Niagara-On-The-Lake for a long Labor Day Weekend. During that short visit, we caught five Shaw Festival productions. Josh and I had not been particularly impressed with what we saw at The Shaw Festival in 2009.

Last week was the first visit by my parents and my middle brother to Niagara-On-The-Lake.

My parents had always promised themselves that they would attend one of the Canadian summer theater festivals in a year in which all the plays in repertory appealed to them. 2012 was the first such year in which all ten productions of one of the festivals happened to be of interest to my parents—and my parents kept their promise to themselves and took advantage of the situation (and encouraged my brother and Josh and me to join them).

The Shaw Festival, effectively, was this year’s summer vacation for all of us. The vacation was short—we arrived on a Wednesday afternoon, and we departed the following Monday morning—but it served its purpose: getting us away for a few days.

My parents enjoyed themselves immensely. A daily matinee and a daily evening performance, interrupted by a leisurely dinner, were perfect for them. It was both a carefree yet stimulating vacation, precisely the kind of vacation my parents most enjoy.

While we were in Niagara-On-The-Lake, we spent one morning visiting Niagara Falls and another morning exploring Fort George. Otherwise, we spent our mornings ambling about the town, peeking into shops and art galleries and such.

We had a luxurious breakfast at our hotel every morning, a light luncheon every midday, and an excellent dinner every night. Niagara-On-The-Lake bills itself as Canada’s finest dining destination. Whether or not such claim has merit, we had no complaints about our meals, all of which met the highest standard.


On the day of our arrival, we had only one performance scheduled: an evening presentation of Terence Rattigan’s “French Without Tears”.

“French Without Tears” is NEVER performed in North America—this year’s Shaw Festival production is the first major staging of “French Without Tears” in North America since the play’s brief and unsuccessful Broadway debut production in 1937.

Rattigan’s first critical and commercial success, “French Without Tears” made Rattigan’s name in London when it debuted in the West End in 1936. (It also made the young Rex Harrison a star.) The production gained superlative reviews from London critics and enjoyed a long and profitable run. Its success was due to the fact that it was precisely the type of comedy designed to appeal to a middle-class British audience of the 1930s, an audience that wanted to see itself portrayed as fashionable and chic. The play, packed with pretensions of sophistication and wit, presents the story of Englishmen experiencing life on the continent, a theme that was a staple of the British stage from the mid-19th Century through the mid-20th Century.

The plot is simple. A group of young Englishmen move to the French countryside in order to learn the French language under the guidance of a kind but peculiar older gentleman. Their foreign adventure is interrupted with the appearance of a striking young English woman. Each of the young men finds the new visitor captivating. A series of innocent entanglements results, causing much confusion, and things are not sorted out until the end of the play.

I did not find “French Without Tears” to be amusing—or even worthy of revival. In fact, I thought it was a very, very bad play, poorly plotted, ineptly written, full of holes and characterized by endless longueurs.

The production, too, was poor. In fact, it was the poorest of the productions we experienced at The Shaw Festival.

The actors portraying the young men were insufficiently differentiated and had trouble portraying middle-class characters with conviction and ease. The actress playing the seductress was even worse at capturing the correct social milieu—she seemed to have wandered in from a particularly unpleasant episode of “East Enders”—and was completely upstaged by an actress appearing in a “Plain Jane” role, who quickly gained the audience’s sympathy. The miscasting seriously unbalanced the play, if not rendered it nonsense; “French Without Tears” cannot cohere if social caste is not meticulously observed in a production.

Aside from the mature actor portraying the older gentleman (who was superb, and walked away with the show), the production was totally misplayed and misdirected. It was impossible not to notice that audience laughter was forced as well as mistimed; the audience, clearly, had come to enjoy a comedy, and attempted to convince itself that it was having a good time by awkwardly inserting laughter where none had been earned.

Unaccountably, the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal gave The Shaw Festival production of “French Without Tears” a rave review, even suggesting that the production be imported directly to Broadway as soon as The Shaw Festival concluded its season.

If transported to New York, this particular production of “French Without Tears” would be laughed off the Broadway stage. It would be sure to close on opening night—assuming it would even be able to make it through previews, most unlikely in my estimation.

I have concluded that The Wall Street Journal drama critic is totally unreliable. He seems to like—and reward—everything, including the most bone-weary piffle. I admire his ability to enjoy anything and everything, but I am not confident that such a characteristic serves a drama critic—or his audience—well.

Three years ago, my middle brother and Josh and I suffered through a startlingly-awful Boston production of the musical, “Kiss Me, Kate”—and our attendance had been based solely upon the same critic’s recommendation. That afternoon was one of the most gruesome afternoons of our lives.

“French Without Tears” at The Shaw was a total waste of our time. I cannot understand why any critic would praise either play or production.

Happily, nothing we were to see the following four days was anywhere near so bad.

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