Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Shaw Entertainments: The Ladykillers and Getting Married

Chick Reid and Damien Atkins in The Ladykillers at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. (Photo: David Cooper)

Performed by overlapping ensembles, The Ladykillers and Getting Married, comedies of very different stripes, are the most sheerly enjoyable shows I saw at the Shaw Festival this season. The Ladykillers is Graham Linehan’s 2011 stage version of the screenplay William Rose wrote for the beloved Ealing comedy from 1955, starring Alec Guinness – fitted out with hilarious fake incisors that made him look like a cadaverous shark – as the brains of a gang of robbers who work out of his rented room in an innocent silver-haired widow’s house fronting a railroad track. (The Coen Brothers remade it in 2004, with Tom Hanks in the Guinness part.) Getting Married is a George Bernard Shaw comedy of manners that’s little known, at least outside Niagara-on-the-Lake, where the festival has performed it on four previous occasions.

Alexander Mackendrick’s movie The Ladykillers is a delicious black comedy. Linehan has increased the farce quotient, and Tim Carroll’s production at the Shaw clearly seems to have been influenced by Mischief Theatre, the group of fearless London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art grads who were responsible for The Play That Goes Wrong and The Comedy About a Bank Robbery. It’s equal parts caricature and physical comedy, and the cast appears to be having a spree performing it. The premise is that “Professor Marcus” (Damien Atkins) rents a room in North London from Mrs. Wilberforce (Chick Reid), who lives alone with a parrot named General Gordon. (The bird is heard but never seen, though everyone who passes through her kitchen remarks, either explicitly or with a perfectly calibrated double take, on the bird’s unspeakable ugliness.) The professor passes off his oddly matched crew of miscreants as amateur musicians practicing for a concert, playing a classical LP in his room while they plot the robbery of an armored truck. But the fact that Mrs. Wilberforce named her pet parrot for the nineteenth-century English military leader entrusted with putting down the Sudanese rebellion at Khartoum is not just a comment on her Victorianism; it’s also a hint to the unassailable nature of her gung-ho British spirit. Five crooks have no more chance against this sweet old dame than they would against an army of giants wielding cudgels.

The series of responses to the bird form one of several running gags that constitute, in a sense, the skeleton of the piece. Professor Marcus sports a long scarf – sometimes it’s tucked over his left arm like a headwaiter’s napkin – that Mrs. Wilberforce is constantly stepping on, nearly strangling him in the process. One involves a two-sided blackboard that keeps smashing one of the robbers, Harry (Andrew Lawrie, in the role played in the movie by a young Peter Sellers), in the face. Harry is a pill popper; the little red ones – speed – turn him into an obsessive-compulsive cleaner. One-Round (Martin Happer, with his marvelous outsize mug and a bald spot that glimmers like a Christmas tree light) is a twenty-four-carat dope who can’t be trusted not to give away the farm every time he opens his mouth. Judith Bowden’s expressionistic revolving set of Mrs. Wilberforce’s house – which has a Rube Goldberg visual logic that makes you think of some of the houses in Buster Keaton’s classic silent comedies – provides one of the gags, a lopsided picture on the wall that no one can put right. Lighting designer Kevin Lamotte is responsible for another, the blinking and shuddering of the lights every time a train passes by. As all good running gags must, each of these gets a bigger laugh each time it’s repeated.

In the movie, Katie Johnson’s blissed-out obliviousness was the key to her indefatigability. Chick Reid substitutes a placidity that’s just a little quizzical at the edges. The other two crooks are played by Steven Sutcliffe (deadpanning brilliantly as a homicidal Romanian with a horror of old ladies because “you never know what they’re capable of”) and Ric Reid (as the genteel “Major Courtney,” who stutters whenever he mentions the police). All six of these principal performers are superlative, especially young Damien Atkins, a genuine comic treasure in his third Shaw season. And Kristopher Bowman digs every laugh out of the small role of the local constable who treats Mrs. Wilberforce with unfailing politeness while her earnest tales of Nazis and space aliens exasperate him. (The opening scene between them sets up the uproarious twist at the end.)

Linehan’s adaptation reaches its zenith when the five non-musicians are trapped by the immovable Mrs. Wilberforce to perform a concert for her club. (Ingeniously, he brings down the first-act curtain just before the concert begins and opens the second act as it reaches an end.) Act two is something of a scramble; the unraveling of the robbery scheme isn’t half as much fun as everything that leads up to it. But Carroll and his actors never break stride, and they accumulate so much good will in the first act that you’re more than willing to forgive the flaws in the second.

The cast of Getting Married at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. (Photo: Emily Cooper)

Getting Married has a worse second-act problem. Shaw wrote a marvelous first act that operates like a prodigious W.S. Gilbert lyric, piling on more wit and ridiculousness than you think the flimsy plot can bear without ever sinking it or knocking it over, but he didn’t really have a second act. The last time the festival produced the play, in 2009, under Joseph Ziegler’s direction, act two seemed interminable and wound up wrecking all the fun act one had supplied. This time the director, Tanja Jacobs, has made judicious cuts to the second act, and though they don’t exactly solve the structural issues they do prevent the air from hissing out of the play’s tires. And the cast couldn’t be much more deft or entertaining. Graeme Somerville plays Alfred Bridgenorth, the bishop whose daughter Edith (Katherine Gauthier) and prospective son-in-law, Cecil Sykes (Cameron Grant), decide individually and for separate reasons on the verge of their wedding that they can’t through with it. This crisis prompts a debate among the older generation over whether or not everyone should get married and, if yes, what a revised marriage contract might look like. The participants include Alfred’s two brothers, Boxer (Happer), a rather dimwitted general, and Reginald (Sutcliffe), who has crashed the wedding after having been distinctly not invited because he ostensibly beat up his wife Leo (Monice Peter) and ran off with another woman. (The truth is considerably more complicated and considerably sweeter. Also involved are Leo, who arrives with her current beau, St. John Hotchkiss (Ben Sanders); Alfred’s wife Alice (Chick Reid); and her sister Lesbia (Claire Jullien), who has been turning down Boxer’s proposals of marriage for a decade. In attendance as well, and offering their points of view, are William Collins (Atkins), the greengrocer in charge of the wedding breakfast and a newly elected alderman, and Alfred’s chaplain, Reverend Oliver Cromwell Soames, who is, as his name tells us, a Puritan – though a Shavian Puritan is, like all his other characters, full of surprises.

The performer who made me laugh loudest was Happer as the befuddled fuddy-duddy Boxer, whose refrain is “I’m only a silly soldier man” and who can’t help tripping over the furniture. The second funniest is Sanders as a self-professed snob who violates his own principles when, after intermission, he finds himself falling head over heels for a commoner. (Amusingly, that’s the role Happer played in the 2008 production.) Both characters are glorious extremes, gifts for talented comic actors. The only actor who seems out of his depth is Grant: he struggles with the language. And the only one who can’t get a hold on her character is Marla McLean, who shows up in act two – in red, munching candy – as Collins’s sister-in-law, “Mrs. George,” the Mayoress of the town. But is there a way to make this role work? It feels like a desperate attempt on Shaw’s part to come up with something that might justify the second act; Laurie Paton couldn’t pull it off eleven years ago either.

But as in The Ladykillers, the good time the audience has throughout act one drifts easily into act two, despite the tattered script. Jacobs has set the play in 1951, for reasons she lays out in a director’s note in the program that I’m afraid I couldn’t follow. They have something to do with the changes in England after the Second World War, but I don’t see what they have to do with the ideas in Shaw’s play. And for some reason no one uses a British accent, which seems to contradict her rationale. Still, the period gives the designer, Shannon Lea Doyle, a lot to work with, and the way she uses color to link characters – as well as her decision to go with solid colors (for the most part) in the first act and bring in patterns in the second – is charming. So is the show.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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