Shaw Festival Review Series: MISALLIANCE
Children's novelist, Hermine Steinberg, reviews the 'debate' play, Misalliance
Walking into the Royal George Theater , a wonderful example of Edwardian architecture, I readied myself in what has been called a Shavian “debate” play. Misalliance was originally produced in 1910 and was very much a product of its time. The Edwardian era was characterized by a rigid class system that was being threatened by political, economic and social changes. Rapid industrialisation created the ‘nouveau riche’; a smug middle class that wanted to achieve the best of both worlds by allying their wealth with the status of upper class aristocrats. Images of the Edwardian period juxtapose a fading golden age when young ingénues enjoyed long summer afternoons playing tennis in the countryside and basking under a sun that never set on the British empire with the loud rumble of a new and opulent era of automobiles, planes and lavish ocean liners. Technological advances, civil rights and independence movements, immigration, Socialism, and the growing threat of rival powers such as Germany and Russia were humming in the background and increasingly disturbing the well ordered society of the “well-bred”. Shaw wrote Misalliance as a satire of the propriety that represented stability to the upper classes and as a public discussion of his many ideas; ideas that excited in him the wonderous and liberating possibilities that this new era could bring.
Shaw’s sense of history was as well honed as was his writing. This intellectual comedy that, at times is lifted to the realm of fantasy by creating highly improbable situations that allow us to see the hypocrisy and absurdity of notions that are often accepted unquestioningly, depends upon artistic direction that appreciates that ideas as does great storytelling or drama depend on perfect timing and execution. A misalliance of time, place, and execution can bring disaster to even the best of ideas. Unfortunately, Director Eda Holmes, in trying to marry the idea of celebrating The Shaw Festival’s 50th birthday with Shaw’s satire of Edwardian society, creates a far less compelling play. Many of the broad themes are similar to those of the early 60s (feminism, labour unrest, class and generational discord ) and are still relevant today. However, their expressions (language, material culture, and lifestyle) are very different and only serve to confuse or dilute the punch of Shaw’s material. In an age of space probes, nuclear testing, The Jetsons, Sex and the Single Girl, and race riots, the sight of a plane or a Turkish bath would certainly not be considered a wonderous site.
The entire story takes place during the course of a single day at the estate of John Tarleton, a self-made millionaire. His rags to riches journey takes him from selling underwear in a small shop to becoming an enlightened “King” of his vast domain or estate in Surrey. He sees himself as a man of ideas, well-read, and philanthropic but restless and eager for new challenges. His daughter, Hypatia, is engaged to Bentley Summerhays, the “over-bred” son of a well respected aristocrat (Lord Summerhays) who made his name as a tough defender of the empire in India and is now retired. While Bentley and his peers represent the idle yet civilized young aristocracy, Hypatia’s brother, Johnny, is the hard working, direct, and brutish example of bourgeoise success. Mrs. Tarleton is the wise woman who seems to understand her family better than they understand themselves. The story is really centered around Hypatia’s growing enuit; her resentment of what she believes to be an oppressive, predictable existence that is eroding her spirit. She dreams of adventure, romance, and rebellion. Shaw’s play is fundamentally, of course, about misalliances and juxtapositions – between classes, parents and children, men and women, and new and old. It not only speaks to the fears and anxieties of a changing society but the ‘ideas’ that may liberate us – by providing us greater awareness or allowing us to rationalize the comfortable protection of the conventions that exist.
The first half of the play is dedicated to introducing relationships, characters and the tensions that exist between individuals and families. Although there is a lot of talk, much of it is witty and includes speeches that Shaw clearly uses to parody himself. The second half introduces more action with outsiders dropping out of the sky to create havoc and opportunity. Joey Percival, an old school chum of Bentley, and a proud and independent Polish acrobat by the name of Lina Szczepanowska become very welcome guests. An intruder who wants to avenge his dead mother by killing John Tarleton and himself arrives just in time to witness Hypatia’s bold seduction of Joey. The rest of the play is spent pealing back the layers of the characters’ lives to expose their many connections. In the end, relationships are realigned and consolidated to represent a shift of power and perspective.
In a play such as Misalliance that is largely based on “words, words, words”, as Hypatia complains, the characters can easily be reduced to caricatures lecturing us about Shaw’s various philosophical ideas. The vitality of the characters must be brought to life by a talented and vibrant group of actors. On the whole, the cast of Misalliance was able to accomplish this feat, with few exceptions. Thom Marriott skillfully brings larger than life John Tarleton springing to the stage. Despite his arrogance and many flaws, he is made likeable and even sympathetic. Catherine McGregor, who plays his wife, perfectly creates the dignified and conventional lady of the house who displays true inner strength and self-awareness. The Lord Summerhays that Peter Krantz recreates is a complex man whose life is increasingly exposed by the events that unfold. At times, he appears to be vulnerable and kind, but at other times he is clearly seen as a corrupt and violent bigot. This could make for a highly fascinating character but somehow Krantz’s version ends up being ineffectual and lack lustre. The three young men that truly bring the stage to life are Wade Bogert-O’Brien as Joey Percival, Craig Pike as Gunner, and Ben Sanders as Bentley. Their performances are dynamic and engaging. Tara Rosling’s performance as the fiercly independent acrobat adventurer is strong. Her presence on stage in the second half of Act 2 is like a surge of electricity, bringing the play back to life just as it seems to be gasping it’s last breath.
I must confess that it may be my preformed expectations of whom and what the characters Hypatia and Johnny are in this play, but in my humble opinion the actors who played these roles were terribly miscast. Johnny Tarleton is suppose to be the same age as Joey and Bentley, and their antithesis as the more brawn than brains volatile son of “The Govenor” (Mr. Tarleton). Jeff Meadows is too old for this part and sometimes appears to be more of a peer and counterpoint to his own father than the young artistocrats with whom he competes for attention and power.
However, the real problem lies with the character of Hypatia around whom the entire play revolves. Hypatia is the younger sister of Johnny and engaged to Bentley; the misalliance most basic to this story. She is bored and feeling restricted by the conventions and expectations of her family, class, and society in general. She is suppose to be the attractive and vivacious protagonist whose outspoken manner and powerful determination drive the action of the play. Hypatia, well played, has the audience routing for her and relating to her frustrations of life. The interesting and disappointing aspect of her character, which is totally created by Shaw, is that despite her strong desire to challenge the status quo and rebel against the norms of her day, she falls into the traditional role of seductress and having her wealthy father use his money to obtain the man she wants. It would have been much more interesting if she left with Lina to find adventure and strike out on her own. But it is Bentley, the wimpy aristocrat who initially drew our contempt is ultimately given that opportunity to transform his life. Hypatia’s role is very challenging exactly for the complexities and contradictions built into the character. Krista Colosimo’s Hypatia is sadly unappealing and unsympathetic for many reasons. First, she does not appear as a young idealistic woman who is truly questioning the status quo but a spoiled, privileged and jaded woman who is more of a cougar chasing a younger, attractive man than a determined young girl choosing her own destiny. From the way she is costumed, to the inflections in her voice, Hypatia is recreated as an abrasive and manipulating woman who does not really seek liberation but domination.
In the end, given the many other wonderful productions to choose from in this season’s Shaw Festival line-up, I would give Misalliance a pass. And it may be that because the Shaw Festival has risen to establish itself as a world class theater company, expectations are high. But on this rainy night, I would have been much happier staying home than visiting the house of Tarleton that Eda Holmes unsuccessfully redesigned.
Hermine Steinberg is a young adult/children’s author and high school teacher living in Toronto and Niagara-on-the-Lake. Her novel, The Co-Walkers: Awakening, is available through Amazon, Chapters Indigo, and Barnes & Noble. Hermine will be at the Niagara Literary Arts Festival at “A Book Affair” Saturday, June 9th (12-5 p.m.) at the Niagara Falls Public Library on Victoria Ave in Niagara Falls and will be reading from her novel on June 10th at 2 p.m. at the Fine Grind Cafe on James St in St. Catharines. For more information, please visit www.cowalkers.com.