Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ibsen and Inge at the Shaw Fest

It turned out that the plays we wanted to see on the day we had to go to the Shaw Festival were Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba; both productions were terrific, although the weight of the combined drama for the day did make us consider whether we might have lightened the atmosphere by seeing an adaptation of the Howard Hawks movie, His Girl Friday, which itself was an adaptation of the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur classic play, The Front Page.

This year's Shaw, which was playing the next day, seemed less world-shaking: The Millionairess and Misalliance. Normally, had they been on the day we were available, I might have opted for at least one, having seen neither previously. But, of what we could choose from, we felt very pleased with the quality of the acting and the continued shine of the two works.

Even in our age of instant obsolescence, Ibsen remains. to use the cliche, relevant.  I felt Hedda was the flip side of Nora in A Doll's House, in that she is a spoiled, arrogant, and yes, somewhat evil, version of the bored Madame Bovary. Yet she never loses our interest because she seems so much more clever than the members of the rather unimpressive society we meet in the town where she is stuck. Only Judge Brack, whose role anticipates Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, is on to her, and yet he too would enjoy the chance for a fling, even at his comparatively advanced age.

Doc and Lola in Sheba are closer to us in time--around 1950 in some Midwestern city. Inge was the voice of the disaffected in the Midwest, just as his contemporaries Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller dealt with the South and the Northeast, respectively. People seethe beneath the veneer of politeness and their pretense of caring for one another. Old grievances fester and emerge with application of stimulants such as alcohol. Sex also rears its head--the complications are intensified by our knowledge that Inge was gay and in the closet and that his depression, also brought on heavily by his repeated failures to replicate the wild success on Broadway of his four best plays, of which this was the first, led to his suicide.

This was our first trip to this festival, situated in the incredibly twee little town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, which is just up the road a piece from the Canadian side of the Falls. The main drag reeks of gran turismo but after a day or so, it becomes pleasant. The floral displays are marvelous and some of the restaurants are excellent. The Canadian chain, Tim Horton's, is far superior to its closest U.S. equivalent, Dunkin Donuts. They had wonderful hot apple cider, for example. This is also a wine region, with wineries lining most of the main routes between the border crossings and the town.

I'm not entirely clear as to how they came to hold an annual celebration of G.B.S. but as a Shavian--in that I've enjoyed seeing his plays over the years, I'm glad they decided to do it.  After all, what they call "the other festival" has no more connection with its honoree than the name of his birthplace. Driving through central and western, heck, all of upstate New York in the summer is always delightful, anyway. We passed through Geneseo for the first time on the way back, where the now highly-regarded state university is heralded as one of the nation's best smaller campuses.

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