NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. — Bernard Shaw’s early romantic comedy, You Never Can Tell, may well be his most beguiling play. It is, of course, a characteristically Shavian take on one of his recurring preoccupations — the battle of the sexes — but this time, in a calculated commercial attempt to seduce late Victorian audiences into attending, GBS threw in the type of dramatic conventions prevalent in the West End theatre of the day.
Hence, this Socialist playwright gave us a fashionable seaside resort setting, displays of high fashion, expensive food and drink — and a philosophical waiter. Not the kind of culture Shaw tended to embrace — but if it earned him money, that was all to the good.
The waiter, portrayed with droll authority by Peter Millard, is the first person we see in the Shaw Festival’s new production of this play. He’s on a checkerboard floor that offers designer Leslie Frankish in a black-and-white mood that turns out to be distinctly transitory. It’s Millard’s job at this point in the production to make like Prospero and conjure up visions of rolling waves. And Millard succeeds nicely — with the help of Frankish, Kimberly Purtell (lighting), Cameron David (projections) and John Gzowski (sound). These moments have a lovely texture. Unfortunately Jim Mezon’s production is full of textures, many of them less lovely.
> Indeed, the waiter’s bit of legerdemain is preceded by a bit of back-projection mockery involving the robust refrains of Rule Britannia. It’s reminiscent of inferior Monty Python, of little or no relevance to the play, and our first portent of a director ready to throw everything but the kitchen sink into the evening if there’s a possibility of getting a laugh from even one audience member.
> Meanwhile, once the waiter has summonsed up those aquamarine visions of heaving waters, we’re transported into a dentist’s office dominated by a delightful bit of antiquity in the form of an old-fashioned dentist’s chair. We’re also introduced to Gray Powell, delivering one of the production’s few tolerable performances, in the role of an impoverished young dentist named Valentine. Later on, he’ll fall swooningly in love with a starchy feminist named Gloria Clandon — and this carries the promise of an entertaining Shavian take on matters of pride and prejudice and the conflict between intellect and emotion. This promise will not be fulfilled — not in this production anyway — but for the moment we have Gray Powell’s likeable dentist, reveling in the fact that he’s dealt with his first aching tooth and earned his first few shillings. Unfortunately, our goodwill towards what’s happening on stage is quickly dissipated by Jennifer Dzialoszynski’s portrayal of his patient. She’s playing Dolly Clandon, bouncy younger sister of the haughty Gloria, daughter of noted feminist author Mrs. Lanfrey Clandon, and the twin sister of Philip. Dzialoszynski’s screeching entry into the scene is as welcome as the sound of chalk on a blackboard and as persuasive as Barbie on speed.
> Things don’t improve when her brother Philip — stylishly played by Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, but with the wrong sense of style — prances on stage to join his shrieking sibling in performing a joint demolition job on two of the most enchanting creations in the Shaw canon. How could such talented performers get things so wrong? They are, quite frankly, unbearable. The twins should be irrepressible — they contribute mightily to the sparkle and momentum of You Never Can Tell. But they also must be disarming in their impetuosity and spontaneity and general giddiness. None of these ingredients are present here. The delivery of virtually every speech seems considered rather than artless — and so does the body language.
As with other aspects of this production, there is an excess of business in the staging of the twins’ scenes. And Jim Mezon, a most accomplished man of the theatre, seems oddly at sea in his direction of this play. At one moment, he seems to aiming at hysterical farce. At others, he’s more commendably heeding his own notes in the printed program about the anguish of romantic love and the inherent grace in acts of forgiveness and reconciliation. But only rarely do he and his actors touch of the core of the play in giving us comedy that stimulates the mind while also tickling the funny-bone. Mezon catches that spirit in the play’s classic luncheon party scene that sees the Clandon family reunited with the husband and father from whom they have been estranged these many years — but such moments are scarce in this generally misconceived and strident revival.
Both Mezon and designer Leslie Frankish do latch on to the element of make-believe in the story. Those moments near the end when glowing orange beach balls become shimmering suspended lanterns recall critic Max Beerbohm’s observation that this is a play in which “realism and sheer fantasy are inextricably entangled.”
But too often any semblance of realism perishes in a production so puny in nuance and so overbearing in sheer noise that it shivers the timbers of the Royal George Theatre, an intimate venue that demands a more intimate approach. Indeed, the evening’s tonal excesses even seem to intimidate a normally dependable actress like Tara Rosling who here is unable to convey much of Mrs. Clandon’s formidable feminist presence. Rosling also faces a further challenge — to convince us that she’s old enough to be mother to Julia Course’s Gloria.
Course, defined for much of the evening by costume concepts caricaturing her as the quintessential spinster, does succeed to a degree in acknowledging the play’s intellectual core. Gloria, of course, is a forerunner to the more fully realized character of Anne Whitefield in Shaw’s Man And Superman, and one suspects that Course could be stunning in that role. But here, she seems curiously restrained and locked into a chilly one-note characterization that can be so fearsome and off-putting that the allure she holds for the dentist Valentine seems unfathomable.
Amidst the stylistic mish-mash that constitutes this production, we also have Peter Krantz, roaring and bellowing like an indignant walrus in the role of a beleaguered family lawyer — and, like others in the cast, delivering a caricature rather than a characterization. Jeff Meadows, in the tricky role of Bohun, the mystery man who’s supposed to things out at the end, offers no more than another exercise in shallow bombast.
The actor who seems most secure in inhabiting his character is Patrick McManus, dyspeptically convincing as Fergus, the long-absent husband and father who makes a growling re-entry into the life of his family. But really, like others in the cast, he’s trapped in a shambles of a revival. This is the festival’s seventh production of Shaw’s evergreen comedy. It could well be the worst.
> (You Never Can Tell continues at the Shaw Festival until Oct. 25. Ticket Information at 1800 511 SHAW or shawfest.com)