All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Period costumes aside, Lisa Peterson’s production of “The Philanderer” for the Shaw Festival gleefully casts off Victorian trappings for the more carefree romantic and sophisticated dash of a contemporary comedy.
Gord Rand, Moya O’Connell, Harveen Sandhu, and others play George Bernard Shaw’s second play with such panache, you are as entranced with their characters’ wit and passion as you are with the pure common sense of the social and philosophical ideas Shaw uses his play to bring to the table.
Stances for personal independence, and the insistence to live as one wants, as opposed to adhering to a manner of which polite society may approve or prescribe, ring through the play and production in an excited, exciting way. Peterson and company have taken Shaw’s rarely done early piece and invested it with immediacy that shows the advent of the individual thinker that will emerge in larger and larger numbers in the coming 20th century.
Shaw’s writing in “The Philanderer” shows a talented, but as yet unformed, playwright who has bold things to say and refreshing characters to present but who has not quite learned to meld his thoughts about society into a dramatic structure that will entertain people as they are exposed to notions about love, marriage, and propriety that no doubt rankled Victorian feathers.
The Shaw Festival crew take all of the stodginess out of the lines. Their “Philanderer” is not a clever polemic or lecture. Nor is it an exchange of beliefs that engage on a purely intellectual plane. It’s a pitched battle of wit , motive, and self-expression that goes beyond the parameters of what constitutes civilized behavior in 1898 and depicts characters who delight in bending mores and breaking rules in the name of doing what one genuinely thinks matches what he or she wants from life. One, the most consistent characters say, should be able to do as one pleases because few personal acts have any effect on society and should, therefore, be none of society’s business, social conventions or not. One who poses or pretends to be modern while employing tactics that show he or she is not ready for a whirlwind future of individuality is lost among others who will follow their hearts in a manner their retrained heads tell them is just fine, naysayers be damned. Women, Shaw says, need to assert themselves most of all.
Most importantly, Peterson’s “The Philanderer” emphasizes clever, self-actuating people, who live what they espouse to believe. Bright and vivid characters, rather than philosophical theses they spout, become the center of her production. All of the characters, whether they represent the new or purport to uphold British social traditions, make a firm impression as personalities and thinkers.
Sure, there may be a hypocrite in the bunch, one that doesn’t quite practice what he or she preaches, or one that pretends to go along with the tenets of Shaw’s fictional Ibsen Club to seem trendy or gain popularity, but he or she just adds to the interest and helps to create the comic conflict in Peterson’s production where all is kept delightfully dramatic, smart, and stylish. Pressing questions arise when the basics of life, e.g. love and committed relationships, aren’t sufficiently covered in philosophy or the quest for modernity.
The 2014 Shaw rendition of “The Philanderer” has an advantage over previous productions. It includes a third act Shaw discarded. This restored set of sequences, picturing the home of a woman who has been married for four years to a man she wed on the rebound and with whom she is not totally compatible, especially in temperament, adds much context and insight to Shaw’s play. It serves as a kind of aftermath that lets you see how some things turn out and gives some hope that the characters we see fairly early on to be soulmates, may come together after all.
Peterson’s productions is effervescent with ideas, opinions, and arguments abounding as romance blatantly blooms, but it gets its ultimate luster from the physical, as well as intellectual, energy of the superb Shaw cast and the lively pace they keep. This is a play in which well-bred giants roar, characters dare to be new and outrageous, and people passionately, and animatedly, express their feelings. Peterson has boldly steered away from the formal, conversational presentation of Shaw to take a more visceral approach that almost reminds you of the contemporary playwright, Charles Mee (with better scene organization and dialogue). This Shaw productions has magnitude and sweep that get your adrenaline and imagination going at once, and the ride is exhilarating.
Peterson’s “Philanderer” opens with a love seen that is simultaneously cool and hot. The atmosphere in the parlor of the stately London townhouse in which Leonard Charteris and Grace Tranfield are mutually engaged in ravishing the other is crisp with adult confidence and sophistication and torrid in passionately depicted flagrante delicto.
Mrs. Tranfield, is a recent divorcee is the current intense romantic interest of Charteris despite the messy detail that he is betrothed to another woman, the fiery Julia Craven, who happens to burst in and begin to hurl vituperative accusations at the amorous pair, just as they are in their calm, contented post-coital cuddle, cigarette suggested. Julia is so effusive and potentially violent, the undauntedly elegant Grace declares unemotionally that Charteris has switched allegiance and is hers now. When tensions really get heady and invective has given way to tears and more conventionally cathartic emotions, an irritated by unperturbed Grace turns haughtily and announces she is retiring for the evening, leaving Charteris to sort out his just-turned-ex. As those two wrangle, Grace’s father, Joseph Culbertson, the owner of the townhouse, enters in the company of Julia’s father, Colonel Daniel Davis, an old but long unseen friend he’s encountered at the opera and brought home for a drink.
The attitudes of the young and the old clash a bit here. Julia, as played by the magnificent Moya O’Connell, is somewhat incorrigible and wants to stay and fight to the finish with Grace and Charteris, but she behaves a tad better in the presence of her father, who she believes is in the terminal stages of an illness. Besides, Grace has removed herself, and there’s no adversary to attack. The older gentlemen wonder what’s happened to traditions of courtship and even friendship between genders, although one is inclined to be broader-minded than the other about young people being together unescorted in a home and other matters. Charteris simply wants to get rid of Julia, find a way to say a sweet ‘good night’ to Grace, and escape alone into the streets of Mayfair.
All three young people, and Culbertson, the more advanced of the fathers, are members of the Ibsen Club, a recently established society dedicated to forward thinking, especially in matters between men and women. To be admitted to the Ibsen Club, a woman must not be too womanly, and a man must not be too manly. Gender-based stereotypes and various kinds of emotional outbursts are eschewed. Despite its progressive policies about women, The Ibsen Club maintains traditional rules of the St. james area refuges set apart for members’ retreat from the hectic London day. It expects quiet reading and relaxation in the sitting room, has a bar where people can talk convivially, and has a dining room where members can order meals for themselves and guests.
Culbertson has invited Craven to join him for lunch at the club with Charteris and Craven’s two daughters, Julia and Sylvia, as additional guests. The parties’ assembling renews the discussions from the previous evening but in a more subdued, polite way in which each character has the opportunity to expound of his or her logic.
Julia has to find a method to thwart the rules of the Ibsen Club to uses her feminine wiles, and her determination, to once again be the favorite of Leondard Charteris, who she truly loves in a way that is, to the modern thinker Shaw creates, sentimental, old-fashioned , but real and unable to be expressed if one wants to remain in good standing with the Ibsenites.
Meanwhile, she is a popular woman who receives a lot of attention from men and is particularly admired by a physician that treats her father (expensively but not very adeptly), Percival Paramore.
You see in names like Charteris, Craven, Paramore, and Grace that Shaw continues the British penchant for assigning character names based on personality traits. Charteris does tread new ground as a man who wants the independence to have the company of several charming women serially, or even simultaneously, instead of settling with one (at least until he can decide on the one who might fulfill him)., Julia is craven in terms of her affection for Charteris and the lengths she would go to get back his attention. And pledge to marry.
Her sister, Sylvia, is no less staunch in her ideas about women’s equality and who, if anyone, takes control in a romantic situation. Grace has a knack for being ladylike, commanding, and modern all at once. Paramore is as competitive as Ibsen Club rules will allow in his ardent and arduous pursuit of Julia.
This is George Bernard Shaw in his playwriting infancy, a period in which he needed a strong director to keep his thoughts and stances from becoming too pedantic or preachy.
Peterson and her designers help out GBS grandly. Sue LePage creates an Ibsen Club that suggests tradition while having the architectural features of turn-of-the-last century design. On the back walls are modern-looking busts of Ibsen heroines ranging from Hedda and Nora to Hedwig from “The Wild Duck.” They grace a center bust of Ibsen who can also be found on a glass window.
As costumer, LePage has the members of the Ibsen Club all don round blue-lensed sunglasses in white frames. They make everyone look uniform and as one body in a way. Uncannily, when Moya O’Connell wears these glasses, and her jaw dominates her face, she looks amazingly like Katharine Hepburn, one of whose classic characters, Tracy Lord in “The Philadelphia Story.” O’Connell is playing in another excellent Shaw Festival production this season.
The cleverness of LePage’s work, and the appearance of Ibsen himself, in the form of Guy Bannerman, enhances the élan of Peterson’s production. The setting seems right for the discussions taking place, and all proceeds smartly. The sunglasses are a witty touch, as opposed to a whimsical gimmick, and the acting by the Shaw ensemble can more than carry the day.
Gord Rand is a dynamic Charteris, a man who has trouble staying true to one woman as long as other women, of equal fascination, may be avaiilable for company. Grace’s elegance and Julia’s unbridled passion are uniformly enticiing. And there may be more women who are just as interesting. Charteris has chosen Julia to be his wife, but he is not sure he wants a wife, even if he might consider that Julia, pretty, intelligent, and industrious, would do. Grace, we see, might be a dalliance, but she is more emotionally mature and more comfortably secure than Julia, so love wending her way romantically is affection well-spent.
Rand doesn’t play Charteris as a cad or a rank but more like a man of many appetites who finds the world an invigorating place and wants to explore it in its variety instead of limiting himself to one of anything.
He says he loves Grace, but you don’t see the commitment or determination in Rand’s eyes that you see in every expression of Moya O’Connell’s a Julia. That’s because marrying smart, self assured Grace is Charteris’s desire of the moment rather than something that genuinely consumes his heart, soul, and general being.
Rand’s Charteris bestrides the world as if he owned it. He has confidence is his beliefs, he is good company among men, and he is attracted , and attractive, to several remarkable women. Julia is perhaps the most ardent and sincere of his fans, but Grace also appreciates Charteris’s gifts.
As played by Rand, these gifts include an assured nochalance, a ready and supple wit, honesty about what he wants and why, and a roguish air that lets you see why women are attracted to Charteris.
Moya O’Connell’s Julia has more to overcome. Although she in quite independent in thought and deed, Julia is the conventional woman in love. She wants to be her passion leads her, and she wants to be requited where she believes, by virtue of being engaged, she’s already made a conquest.
Julia is looking for a kindred spirit. Some fidelity might be nice as well.
Though the modern woman sought for membership in the Ibsen Club, Julia remains a romantic. She can bandy philosophy and opinions about with the best that challenge her, but she wants commitment in love, and she wants the man who makes such a commitment to keep his word and live according to it.
The lithe and limber O’Connell uses everything from her height and slinky walk, to the emotions Julia’s supposed to hold back as being too womanly, to garner attention and make her point. Her Julia is a battler who shows little regard for decorum yet can be baffled when people don’t take a mannerly approach towards her.
O’Connell is at once comic, strategic, able to express desperation, capable of stating her position or point of view, and intensely genuine in mentioning the hurt she is enduring. She may the “Lucille Ball” character in the cast, employing her best gambit to be noticed and get chosen, but she is also the one who, at some point, makes you care about her character and captures your sympathy from that point forward.
In both “The Philanderer” and “The Philadelphia Story,” O’Connell proves she can play women who have a lot of influence and a lot to say but who are able to settle into a personal understanding about who they are and what they are. Her Julia grows from a character who is as much of a nuisance to you as she is to Charteris and Grace to z clear-headed woman who offers insightful glimpses of one who has to made do with her lot in life and who reins in her romance to address immediate reality.
In a fine season in which Deborah Hay, Fiona Reid, Graeme Somerville, or Mary Haney could lay claim to the Best at the Shaw, Moya O’Connell earns that accolade for creating two women of spirit and intelligence who reveal their complete selves and move from being capable of reprehensible behavior to strong women you admire.
Harveen Sandhu perks up some second act scenes with her openly good-natured portrayal of Sylvia, Julia’s younger sister and one who is more committed to the cause of women’s equality.,
Sylvia wears a suit matches the tailoring of others at the Ibsen Club, tie, trousers, and all. She doesn’t have to act their half-faith in feminist doctrine the way her sister does. Sylvia is a true adherent who will not waver in her beliefs or allow anyone around her to compromise her principles.
Like Julia, Sylvia has allure, and, like Julia, she is approached by many men who have romance in mind. Sandhu is adept at turning her suitors down while having wiles enough to expect the most eligible or potential beaux to return or to inform her she made an impression, as she hoped she might.
Marla McLean, as Grace, reinforces the ardor of the opening love scene. She is a woman who has emotions but who will not brook much drama for the sake of a man or a love affair.
McLean’s Grace is always smart and sure of herself. She accepts the philosophy that draws the cast together, but you can tell Grace will follow Ibsen Club precepts only to the extent or rule or tradition suits her decided plan.
The cool elegance McLean displays creates the perfect contrast to O’Connell’s more outspoken, more take-charge Julia.
Whatever either woman says or does, Charteris still wants to bed Grace while staying friendly with Julie, and Julie would like to continue her matrimonial plans with Charteris, but is willing to look elsewhere for a husband when it seems clear Charteris I not going to accept her hand.
Michael Ball is his usual sensible, jovial figure as Cuthbertson, who can give reasons to be interested in the Ibsen Club while he wonders about its abjuring of club traditions. Ric Reid is properly temperamental as the often put-upon, ofted-lied-to Colonel Craven. Jeff Meadows does afine job as Dr. Percival Paramore.
“The Philanderer” runs through Sunday, October 12 at the Festival Theatre of the Shaw Festival, 10 Queen’s Parade, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Showtimes are staggered because the Shaw Festival performs shows in repertory. Tickets range from $113 to $35 and can be obtaibed by calling 1-800-511-SHAW (-800-511-7429) or by going online to www.shawfest.com.