The Shaw Festival triumphs with Middletown

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Middletown, Photo: James Cooper

Middletown. Photo:David Cooper.

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. —  We seem to be entering a somewhat skewed universe when we attend the Shaw Festival’s production of American dramatist Will Eno’s Middletown.

For example, what’s with the conflicted town cop, played by Benedict Campbell, brutally throttling a mouthy good-for-nothing, played by Jeff Meadows, and commanding him to acknowledge the wonder and awe of life’s mystery?And might not that that unprepossessing local monument, created for the production by designer Camellia Koo, provoke eerie reminders of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey?

And what about that arresting moment that finds cosmic significance in the placing of one rock over another rock? What of the wife who wants an obstructed-view seat at a live performance in order to get a different perspective into what’s happening?

Those sunglasses worn by Benedict Campbell’s worrisome policeman trigger unsettling images of Alfred Hitchcock at his most ominous. But sunglasses also figure elsewhere in the evening when a chatty landscaper played by Peter Millard buries a pair of them in the hope that they will provide a tantalizing mystery for future generations discovering them in the soil.

This is a play full of odd little connections — and odd little disconnections. “People come, people go,” a character in the 1932 film classic, Grand Hotel, famously observes. “Nothing ever happens.” Here we have the cop saying the same thing: “People come, people go.” Then he adds jarringly: “Crying in both  directions.”

Meg Roe’s delicately crafted production in the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre provides a celebration of outstanding ensemble playing. But she also sees the play as a tone poem full of subtle key changes and modulations as it uses a fictional American community to encapsulate an examination of matters fundamental to all of us — the processes of living and dying and what it means to be human.

Middletown has an obvious appeal for the festival’s new artistic regime — a regime anxious to knock down the fourth wall and involve the audience more directly in what’s happening on stage. So before the show formally starts, we have cast members showing up in the bleachers, chatting with audience members, and other performers on their knees drawing a map of the town on the floor. Whether this aspect of the evening has any real value is debatable. Also debatable is the belief in some theatrical circles that there’s something revolutionary in zealously reminding audience members that they’re attending a play. Brecht was doing it decades ago. So was Thornton Wilder in The Skin Of Our Teeth, a complex social fantasy that the Shaw Festival had the audacity to mount more than 20 years ago.

That being said, there’s no denying the emotional impact of Middletown. It compels, unsettles and triggers both laughter and tears. If there’s a central situation, it has to do with the friendship that develops between Moya O’Connell as a pregnant young wife and Gray Powell as a town loner confused about his purpose in life. O’Connell, an actress capable of making the ordinary seem extraordinary, shines in the role of Mary. And in Gray Powell’s touching portrayal of John, a natural charm vies with  a palpable weariness of the soul.

Will Eno’s 2010 play is having its Canadian professional premiere at the Shaw, and it’s easy to detect  a kinship with Thornton Wilder’s enduring classic, Our Town, which was part of the festival playbill last year. But to suggest, as some do, that the later play provides a tough-minded antidote to the purported cosiness of  Our Town seems facile and naive. The redemptive power of love is certainly present in Wilder’s play but it also contains moments of spiritual desolation far more hard-grained than anything we encounter in Middletown.

So it’s easy to herald the arrival of a quirky, idiosyncratic play like Middletown at the Shaw as something more than it really is — as evidence that an adventurous new regime has taken over and is brushing away the cobwebs from an organization that, as some would argue, has too long clung to the musty old mandate of honouring the plays of Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries. However, it could be also argued that such views constitute a misreading of what its new artistic director, Tim Carroll, wants to accomplish. This season’s programming firmly acknowledges the festival’s core mandate while also taking advantage of the extended one that evolved under previous artistic directors Christopher Newton and Jackie Maxwell, thereby opening the doors to newer material that nonetheless reflects Bernard Shaw’s life-long commitment to provocative, socially conscious theatre.

Indeed, it’s fascinating see how a recent play like Middletown can resonate with the theatre of the past. We learn from the printed program that playwright Eno is fascinated with “the tiny moments that make up our lives — and how we are constantly vulnerable to these tiny moments, which may in fact change the angle of our entire life. . . .” Such concerns also preoccupied novelist and dramatist J.B. Priestley whose famous “time” plays have been featured in several Shaw Festival seasons.

Meanwhile, the current production, with several players taking on more than one role, is a joy. The script allows Benedict Campbell only a few brush strokes in playing the gruff town policeman, but he’s endearingly alive and fallible. Jeff Meadows, known as only as Mechanic in the play, is the guy who rouses the ire of the law, and it’s a subtle characterization that reveals hidden needs and sorrows beneath the loser surface. Peter Millard and Claire Jullien are a hoot as a pair of determinedly jaunty tourists, and Tara Rosling’s bouncy and friendly librarian is every library user’s dream fulfilled. Across the board, this is a gifted and responsive cast.

The imagined world of Middletown could almost belong anywhere and in any time, despite its trappings of modernity. And in this production it’s a very persuasive world. Camellia Koo’s set design may seem frugal — but it’s in response to a script that wants audience members to trust their imaginations. This does not preclude some wondrous moments of total theatre: witness the contributions of lighting designer Kevin Lamotte and Alessandro Juliani, creator of the show’s ethereal music and sound design, to the scene which transports us to the darkness of outer space and an astronaut’s view of what lies below. It’s easy to understand why the playwright provided this moment. Are we really no more than particles in the universe? The imagery is palpable.

 

(Middletown continues to Sept 10. Further information at 1 800 511 7429 or shawfest.com)

 

 


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