NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. — The Shaw Festival may well be giving us the most glorious experience of a Canadian theatrical summer.
It’s subjecting its audiences to nearly four hours of riveting theatre with The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism And Socialism With A Key To The Scriptures. And yes, the very title of Tony Kushner’s play is a mouthful in itself, with its references to both a celebrated piece of polemic by festival namesake Bernard Shaw and the beliefs of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy.
However, as anyone who has already experienced marathon encounters with the much longer Angels in America knows, Tony Kushner has a remarkable capacity for keeping an audience involved, both emotionally and intellectually, in what’s happening on stage.
The caveat of course is that such material receives a production capable of responding to its needs. And that brings us to what’s occurring in the Shaw’s intimate Studio Theatre this summer. Not to mince matters, this is one of the festival’s truly great achievements in its more than half century of history.
Director Eda Holmes presides over this triumph, fully aware that this is a play bristling with ideas and intellectual fervour, but also one that is borne along on a succession of powerhouse dramatic scenes. And the show’s production values are further enhanced by Peter Hartwell’s designs, Kevin Lamotte’s lighting and Paul Sportelli’s ruefully evocative music.
But Holmes also needs a cast capable of achieving the fusion of thought, character and situation that comprises this play. This she gets from the members of the festival’s justly esteemed acting company. They’re often dealing with tricky material here — a suicidal family patriarch; a middle-aged homosexual who jeopardizes a long-established relationship by a compulsion to seek out male hookers; a lesbian couple about to have a child, courtesy of a sibling’s sperm. Tony Kushner is a playwright with a compulsion to walk the tightrope, but he also needs actors capable of taking his his often audacious and potentially wayward material and ensuring that its seemingly warring elements achieve the synthesis existing in his own creative mind.
The play, at its most immediate level, is an often outrageous portrait of a wildly dysfunctional family. But as this production makes clear, it’s also a caring one, even when emotions erupt into cacophony with family members screaming and arguing with each other in a virtual babel of noise. The way The Intelligent Homosexual Guide must sound is part of the texture of a play that, in a musical sense, proceeds in movements and modulations. And Holmes understands that even its most overwrought moments demand attentiveness to an intricate verbal counterpoint.
The play’s necessary strength — the essential conduit to airing its social and political preoccupations — lies in the fact that it’s a deeply felt character piece. And the spectacular performance of Jim Mezon, long a sterling company member, is pivotal to this. He’s the aging Gus Marcantonio, family patriarch, former longshoreman and proud union organizer. He thinks he has Alzheimer’s, and he’s assembled his family to announce his intention to commit suicide.
But Gus’s motives are more complicated than they appear on the surface, and Mezon is brilliant at conveying a profound sorrow and hopelessness — afflictions that may have nothing to do with a deteriorating mental state. The Marxism that has driven his life has failed him. Those seeming victories on the picket lines have been fractured by compromise and a system intent on betraying Gus and the working class to which he has devoted his life.
So Mezon’s lacerating performance keeps us ever aware of the thread of melancholy running through a play whose Socialist underpinnings are proudly displayed. The Homosexual’s Guide is an act of lamentation for those who dreamed brave dreams and failed to make them come true. It’s about the death of the type of idealism and social and political activism that drove people like Gus and about the triumph of neo-liberalism. Above all, therefore, the Gus given us in Mezon’s performance is a man in mourning.
Furthermore, the play’s concerns are scarcely dated — not when one of the big American books this year is Steve Fraser’s The Age Of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power.
Personal relationships must still seek nurture in such a climate, and it is here that we experience Kushner’s wider concern over the need for personal fulfilment and the tragedy of lives without purpose. “Only connect,” E. M. Forster once wrote, and Kushner takes this maxim to heart. He’s superb at giving us messy, fallible lives without writing them off completely: human resilience remains a possibility in his universe.
So where does one begin with performances that are universally wonderful? Perhaps with Fiona Reid, understated and astonishing as Gus’s careworn sister Clio, an ex-nun turned Maoist activist. Or perhaps Kelli Fox making a striking return to the Shaw company in the role of Gus’s daughter, Empty, a labour lawyer, facing her own emotional crises over the female partner who is awaiting childbirth after being impregnated by the donated sperm of Empty’s own brother. Or maybe Steven Sutcliffe in a sad and wrenching performance as Empty’s homosexual sibling, Pill, a man who is jeopardizing a loving quarter-century relationship because of his penchant for buying sex from male hustlers.
These three portrayals, along with Mezon’s monumental work as Gus, would be sufficient to make this production worth watching. But there’s more to celebrate: an excellent Ben Sanders, displaying an unsettling emotional detachment as Eli, the hooker who has enraptured Pill; an admirable Andre Sills, blending both anger and fortitude as Pill’s endangered partner: a volatile Gray Powell, splendid as Vito, the straight sibling, seething with resentment over what he sees as his marginalized place in the family circle; Diana Donnelly, deliriously funny in a monologue as Empty’s flaky and very pregnant partner; Jasmine Chen injecting a measure of stability as Vito’s wife; Julia Martell, all suppressed emotion in her stark cameo as a woman advising Gus on how to kill himself: Thom Marriott, manoeuvring his way adroitly through the role of Empty’s estranged but conflicted husband.
The quality of the ensemble acting here is staggering. So is the compulsion that this production exerts on the audience for hour after hour after hour. Bernard Shaw would have understood the moral passion that drives this play. A must-see experience.
(The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide runs to Oct. 10. Ticket information at 1800 511 SHAW or shawfest.com)