All Things Entertaining and Cultural
A young man who is washed to shore on the farthest southeastern corner of England in 1907 finds himself in a parochial world where the town matriarch exercises ironclad influence, a seemingly mild-mannered draper gives in to rabid paranoia about extraterrestrial aliens, and the one sensible man maintains his independence, and sanity, by isolating himself in a seaside shack.
It doesn’t help the young man, Willy Carson, that he was accompanied in his capsized, and wrecked, boat by a popular young man from the town, one who drowned in the tempest Willy survived. He is suspected in quarters of being a murderer or a creature from another galaxy assuming human form. Bond’s audience knows right away Willy is a decent lad who accompanied a friend on a dangerous, and perhaps foolish, journey that would have been safer and less calamitous if accomplished by land. Impatience was the culprit, as Willy’s friend longed to see the woman to whom he was betrothed and considered the sea the shortest, fastest route (as it would be if Niagara-on-the Lake had a ferry shuttling people back and forth to Toronto).
The force of nature contributes not only to the drowning but to a windswept funeral scene that, in Bond’s style, is simultaneously intense and hilarious.
The force of Victorian/early Edwardian social hierarchy may be more formidable, as the wealthiest woman in the town, Mrs. Rafi, takes it as her right to be the judge and jury that controls all and dispenses favor and disdain in ways that directly affect people’s lives and standing in the community.
The force of madness also plays a role, as Hatch, the draper, convinced the intergalactic attack he fears has begun, marshals a group of like-minded young men, and seeks to drives aliens from England’s vulnerable shores.
All three forces must be reckoned with, although it seems Mrs. Rafi, as the recognized leader of the town’s noble class, is the most intimidating. Her mistrust of Willy, humiliation of Hatch, and bullying of the townswomen set much of the pandemonium in “The Sea” in motion. Bond definitely posits that the pettiness and viciousness people inflict on each other is far crueler that any pummeling or pounding by the natural elements.
His point comes across with admirable clarity in Eda Holmes’s well-performed and well-measured production of “The Sea” for the Shaw Festival. Especially when Patty Jamieson, playing Mrs. Rafi’s put-upon companion, Jessica Tilehouse, responds to the funeral fiasco by saying, “After this, I shall regard Gomorrah as a spa resort.”
Jamieson joins leads Fiona Reid, Peter Millard, Wade Bogert-O’Brien, and the frighteningly realistic Patrick Galligan, in maintaining “The Sea’s” dual tones of comedy and foreboding throughout Holmes’s staging. Written in modern form in 1976, “The Sea” moves peripatetically from mood to mood and scene to scene, but Holmes’s company always keeps you locked into the overall doings of a town that shows its seams, and may even come apart at them, based on the catalyst of a stranger arriving, with tragedy to report, within its rarely visited boundaries. Bond is using his period piece to show that little, in terms of human behavior towards one another, changed much in the course of a century and that hierarchy, cowing, and suspicion still exist to dominate life in many communities.
Willy’s journey starts as a lark, a sail from one seaside outpost to another, the purpose being the eagerness of ardent young love. One minute Willy is accompanying a friend on his romantic mission. The next, he is losing that friend in a fierce, unrelenting ocean. His attempts at rescue, or at attracting help, prove to be in vain, and he now must save his own life and, then, face the sad duty of telling his friend’s fiancée, Rose Jones, the terrible news of her betrothed’s fate.
Both Evens, the crusty shore-dweller to keeps to himself, and Hatch, who is in charge of a safety brigade the night of the storm, hear Willy’s pleas for assistance, but both are lax in responding, Evens because he doesn’t have the resources, Hatch because of the demons in his mind.
So Willy does not get a warm or soothing welcome. He comes to shore as an outsider whose adventure has meant the life of a neighbor. Rather than being pitied as a victim of a deluge and one in mourning for a friend, he is regarded as suspicious, as alien to the townspeople he meets as he is, perhaps literally, to Hatch.
Surprisingly, the one who greets him the most congenially is Rose, played with strength and refreshing openness and common sense by Julia Course.
Rose feels the loss of her fiancé deeply, but she has a wise perspective. In addition to embarking on a loving relationship, Rose had looked forward to ridding herself from the thrall of her aunt, Mrs. Rafi. Her time as Mrs. Rafi’s ward has been stifling, and Rose is too perceptive and honest to ignore the misery her aunt causes or the smallness of her surroundings. She is grateful to Willy for eventually having the chance to tell her the story of the wreck in person and recognizes qualities in Willy she admired in the man she must now go on without.
In Bond’s world, Rose is not melodramatic. She is clear-eyed, empathetic, and sympathetic. She will figure out what to do to gain some independence. One sees an attraction between Course’s Rose and Bogert-O’Brien’s Willy. The actors play their mutual scenes with much feeling. Victorian mores dictate they must be formal with each other, so little demonstrative takes place. Underneath the simple picture, in the actors’ eyes and expressions, you see an understanding of like minds that might convey a stronger bond than dissolving into passion would.
Comedy rests mostly in the hands of Mrs. Rafi, who like Wilde’s Lady Bracknell or Sheridan’s Mrs, Malaprop, has no intention of being funny nor any idea that she is.
Mrs. Rafi is a gorgon. He has no restraint and little tact. Her position as leader of her town’s society is long established and long accepted. She lords her rank over everyone and everything with reckless abandon, never giving the slightest consideration to another’s opinions or feelings, as if she is not aware another might have any.
You see Mrs. Rafi’s heavy-handedness with her friends, but particularly with Jamieson’s Miss Tilehouse, or just plain Tilehouse, who she brutalizes, knowing the lady is dependent on her for just about everything.
A rehearsal of Greek play, an annual cultural event in which Mrs. Rafi directs her friends, conveys the double standard that dominates Mrs. Rafi’s life. She may sing off-key, mangle lines, or extemporize as she likes, but let one of her cast do it, and she is on them like a tyrant chastising a seditious rebel.
Fiona Reid, like Holmes, carefully treads the line between character and caricature by always maintaining Mrs. Rafi’ imperiousness and letting the comedy come from the blind, unrelenting behavior of the woman she portrays. Rafi is predominant by right and critical of all but herself. If she pronounces or accepts something, it is automatically so. If she is displeased, she will strike with no attempt as understanding.
Mrs. Rafi’s willfulness, and the delightful care in Reid’s performance, takes two hilarious but frightening turns. One comes when we see her in Hatch’s drapery shop insisting on a certain fabric Hatch has anticipated her wanting and ordered at great personal expense. Suddenly, Mrs. Rafi is displeased by a random comment of Hatch’s, not to mention his request for payment, and by not finding some small bit of merchandise she craves at the moment. In a huff, she cancels everything, leaving the draper and all present in an uproar.
Patrick Galligan is marvelous as he hypnotically cuts the fabric into the dimensions Mrs. Rafi would require and feverishly begs her to reconsider her fit of pique and accept, and pay for, the goods he so dutifully procured for her. Galligan gives an amazing portrait of a man driven mad by the threat of ruin and the haughtiness of Mrs. Rafi. The encounter triggers his paranoia and sets more serious mayhem, potentially fatal mayhem, afoot.
The other occasion of Mrs. Rafi’s unmitigated willfulness is the planning and execution of Rose’s drowned fiancé’s funeral.
Curiously, Mrs. Rafi has had a piano permanently placed on a high promontory above the sea. The location is given to winds, but Mrs. Rafi insists, against all opposition, that the funeral be conducted there and the young man’s ashes distributed on that point.
Tumult ensues. The wind whips music all around the promontory, but Mrs. Rafi insists on singing the hymns she deems requisite in a reedy soprano while reproaching and practically excoriating Tilehouse for doing the same. In her quest for attention, she makes almost no note of the disappointed Rose or the unfortunate man who failed to save his friend’s life and barely preserved his own.
In the meantime, Hatch, knowing all of the people who have maligned him, or who he believes are aliens, will be gathered in one place, arrives with henchmen who half look as if they are searching for and ready to destroy Mary Shelley’s creature from “Frankenstein.” Between the wind, the swirling music, Hatch’s parries at Willy, and the slapping at people with umbrellas, the solemnity of the occasion is bathetically bashed to insignificance. Not an semblance of dignity or respect for the dead remain. Even Neil Barclay’s preacher cannot bring order or solace to the proceedings. The forces Bond sets in motion have combined to show the comic, yet portentous, picture of society in flux, one faction at war with another, each inconsiderately flailing away intending to do damage for his or her cause. Holmes and her cast bring Bond’s metaphor home with harrowing clarity and intensity. There really can be no peace or order if a simple funeral for a sadly fallen young man foments this kind of commotion. How then does one address or come to an understanding with true believers who create more serious disharmony and are willing to destroy the world rather than negotiate, let alone compromise or capitulate? How do you create order when there is constant enmity among groups that are supposed to be of the same mind but battle among themselves? No wonder Jessica Tilehouse likens what she sees and experiences to Gomorrah.
The few sensible people present — Willy, Rose, and Evens — will find individual ways to escape the craziness Mrs. Rafi and Hatch foment. Two of them know there’s a larger world where the same problems plague inhabitants but where the firm grip Mrs. Rafi has is ameliorated by a larger population with more than one authority figure. Evens has already retreated to solitude and will return there with his philosophy and ability to shut out the wider community.
Hatch, alas, may be ruined beyond redemption, an d probably has time in prison to look forward to. Mrs. Rafi will not notice anything went awry. She wouldn’t blame herself for the calamity, or even for setting Hatch on his destructive trail. She is that unable to acknowledge disorder in the world she molded.
Some other characters will be affected. Billy Lake does a fine job at playing Carter, the muscle behind Hatch’s threats. When he realizes all that has transpired and sees Hatch so out of control at the funeral, Lake’s Carter takes a turn for the better. Jenny L. Wright, Catherine MacGregor, and Jacqueline Thain played the townswoman who follow and obey Mrs. Rafi at all cost. You can tell their lives won’t change, even though Wright’s and MacGregor’s characters are rudely abused by their doyenne.
In general, Bond is showing a world in orchestrated disorder, and Holmes presents it to us entertaining while provoking thought and occasionally making our jaws drop even as we laugh, knowing what we’re really seeing is hopeless. Unless, that is, a comic look at the dilemma stirs us to saner, more corrective action.
Wade Bogert-O’Brien is a sympathetically Willy. He presents immediately as a well-intentioned youth who is shaken by his friend’s demise and by his reception in that friend’s home village.
Bogert-O’Brien gives Willy no gentlemanly airs. He’s a regular bloke, humble and respectful yet aware of the customs and practices that dominate his friend’s town. There’s a sincerity to Bogert-O’Brien’s performance, an honesty that suggests Willy is worldly but has never quite been exposed to the pinched parochialism he faces. Julia Course’s Rose also seems above Mrs. Rafi’s and Hatch’s shenanigans, and you wonder if her attraction to Willy’s friend isn’t a shared need to get out of the place the lived.
Willy’s scenes with Rose show like sensibilities meeting. His scenes with Evens are instructive, especially the last scene of the play, in which Evens presents his view of the world as a fragile place subject to all kinds of natural and human upheavals. That same speech, written 40 years ago for a play set 110 years ago, resonates today.
Fiona Reid, as Mrs. Rafi, brings to mind the words Henry Higgins uses to describe Eliza one she is educated, a “consort battleship.”
Reid is always brusquely bustling her way into a confrontational situation. Her character has no subtlety. She’s the ultimate authority, and that’s that. There’s no call for Mrs. Rafi to be reasonable or to regard others’ opinions or emotions. Her wealth gives her carte blanche power, and she intends to exercise it, no pleases or thank yous necessary, except, perhaps, from others to her.
To Reid’s credit, her performance comes off as predominantly comic. The esteem in which Mrs. Rafi holds herself makes her amusing, even when she is demoralizing someone .
Peter Millard endows Evens with a strong, unimpeachable character, so you comprehend and respect his decision to stay where he prefers to be but to live apart from Rafis and Hatches and Tilehouses if he can.
Though Evens’s peace is often disturbed by people who want advice about seafaring, or even first aid, Millard shows him to be content to be a hermit of sorts in his small, weatherworn shack. He exudes no affability or inclination to be sociable. Millard keeps Evens rough-hewn, if civilized and straightforward when beholden to relate to others.
Evens is the philosopher of Bond’s play, and Millard delivers his last speech about the cosmos and our place in the heavens in a way that makes you listen and realize how much that Evens says encapsulates Bond’s ideas for “The Sea.”
Julia Course is a serious Rosa Jones. Like Bogert-O’Brien’s Willy, Rose has no giddiness about her, no signs of being a romantic ingénue. She would like to escape from her ward’s grasp, but she discusses this in an unsentimental, adult way. Rose’s practicality is part of her charm, and Course plays her to advantage, showing she would be a good reliable partner to any man she chose.
Patty Jamieson is often perturbed as Jessica Tilehouse, who tries to be loyal and supportive to Mrs. Rafi but, as often as not, gets rebuked or insulted for her effort. Jamieson makes some wonderful faces and darts some murderous looks towards Reid’s Mrs. Rafi when the benefactress is not looking. Her indignation at being knocked down during the funeral, is, like much in “The Sea,” comic and pathetic at the same time.
Patrick Galligan is marvelous as Hatch. The actor moves with ease from a merchant’s solicitousness to Mrs. Rafi to a man haunted by his belief that aliens are inhabiting humans’ bodies and taking over the Earth.
The intensity behind Galligan’s madness makes you fear for all that Hatch encounters. By the time Hatch gets to the funeral, he is a man beyond any rational thought or appeal, and you are as sad for his fall from sanity as you are frightened and amused by it. Galligan portrays Hatch as a cultured businessman with a fine product and good instincts. It is a pity to watch him devolve so pathologically into a man whose fears conquer his reason and prompt him to act violently to his impulses.
Billy Lake goes through a neat transition from a man willing to be a thug at Hatch’s bidding to one who comes in time to see how addled his employer is. Ben Sanders and Kelly Wong do well as various servants and henchmen.
Camelia Koo’s set for “The Sea” creates the proper mood whether we are in Mrs. Rafi’s comfortable drawing room, Hatch’s handsome shop, Evens’s lean-to, or the windy site of the funeral.
Michael Gianfresco’s costumes are continually up to the mark, in particular the ample mourning weeds for Mrs. Rafi. Kevin Lamotte’s lighting establishes the atmosphere of the storm and helps to set appropriate moods throughout.
“The Sea” runs through Sunday, October 12 at the Court House Theatre of the Shaw Festival, 26 Queen Street, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Showtimes are staggered as “The Sea” is performed in repertory. Tickets range from $113 to $35 CDN and can be obtained by calling 1-800-511-SHAW (1-800-511-7429) or by visiting www.shawfest.com.