TIME AND THE CONWAYS, by J.B. Priestley, directed by Neil Munro, with Nora McLellan, Peter Krantz, Jenny L. Wright, Jane Perry, Laurie Paton, Simon Bradbury and Jan Alexandra Smith. Presented by the Shaw Festival at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Runs in rep to October 28. $35-$75. 1-800-511-7429. Rating: NNNN
Audiences aren't exactly flocking to Time And The Conways, the time-shifting play by J.B. Priestley that sits in the mystery slot at the Shaw Festival -- it's not a traditional Agatha Christie-style whodunit. But this show, one of the best at Shaw this season, deserves an audience.
The first act is all set-up, as the suburban English Conway family -- mother and six children -- look to an optimistic future just after the first world war. The second act unfolds nearly 20 years later, while the third takes us back to the moment at which the first act closes, sowing the ironies and tragedies that, given the time-tossed nature of the script, we've already witnessed.
It's a show that lets actors strut, and the Shaw ensemble turns it into a rich spectacle, carefully yet delicately distinguishing between young figures with bright hopes and their older counterparts whose lives are irremediably tarnished. Everyone has a moment in the spotlight, notably Jenny L. Wright as the prescient daughter, Simon Bradbury as a businessman suitor and Peter Krantz as one of the family's two sons, ineffectual in action but a poetic philosopher who may point the way to the family's redemption.
Hovering over them all and tying the production together is Nora McLellan as the materfamilias, a disillusioned and sour dictator who made the wrong children her favourites. Under Neil Munro's expert direction, she and the others shape all the menace, hatred and sadness of the second act and make poignant the ironies of the last. JK
Apple Cart teeters
THE APPLE CART, by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Richard Greenblatt, with David Schurmann, Pamela Rabe, Peter Millard, Michael Ball, Camille James, Corrine Koslo and Wendy Thatcher. Presented by the Shaw Festival at the Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Runs in rep to September 23. $25-$75. 1-800-511-7429. Rating: NNN
Subtitled A Political Extravaganza, The Apple Cart explores the problems and pleasures of monarchy and democracy, of who should rule and how. And in typical Shavian fashion, it offers a number of viewpoints without pontificating on any one of them.
Director Richard Greenblatt sets the piece in 2042, when British king Magnus (David Schurmann) faces a constitutional crisis every few months and sidesteps each of them, managing in the process to flummox, flatter and generally manipulate his cabinet when they try to take control of the state. The first act is a series of formal and informal cabinet meetings, and while the Shaw ensemble keeps the figures from being talking heads, the script doesn't let them fully round out the contending powers onstage.
Things pick up dramatically in the second act, when we meet Magnus's conceited mistress Orinthia (Pamela Rabe), a great purring cat, and Queen Jemima (Wendy Thatcher), a soulful, supportive spouse with her own secrets. There's also a farcical turn by Lynne Cormack as the American ambassador, who's intent on taking over England to turn it into a series of theme parks.
The political arguments are well laid out and the wit is barbed. But even with generally good performances, the work isn't engaging. JK
Dumas dumbed down
THE THREE MUSKETEERS, by Alexandre Dumas, adapted by Peter Raby, directed by Richard Monette, with Graham Abbey, Thom Marriott, Andy Velasquez, Benedict Campbell, Kate Trotter, Stephen Russell, Ian Deakin, Claire Jullien and Barbara Fulton. Presented by the Stratford Festival at the Festival Theatre, Stratford. Runs in rep to November 4. $38.50-$67.50. 1-800-567-1600. Rating: NN
The Three Musketeers is being marketed as Stratford's big fun family show, but children and adults will be utterly confused by Richard Monette's production.
Badly adapted from the Alexandre Dumas novel by Peter Raby, the play is filled with sword fights that soon grow tedious, a plot that seems hacked to unrecognizable pieces and so little characterization -- of either the good or the bad guys -- that we don't know who to root for, or why.
That's not to say that there aren't moments of genuine excitement and swashbuckling spectacle. An early scene features rope-swinging and well-staged fight sequences, all underscored by Berthold Carrière's derivative Star Wars-meets-Raiders Of The Lost Ark music.
Most of the actors spend their time bolting up and down the huge Festival Theatre's aisles. Or spend their talents heckling like cartoon villains. Or taking part in sophomoric scenes like the one with an extended fart joke.
Graham Abbey has some winning moments as the musketeer-wannabe D'Artagnan, and Benedict Campbell adds husky-voiced life to the only musketeer who's not reduced to a simple mannerism. GS
TARTUFFE, by Moliere, translated by Richard Wilbur, directed by Richard Monette, with James Blendick, Lucy Peacock, Brian Bedford and Seana McKenna. Presented by the Stratford Festival at the Festival Theatre. Runs in rep to November 3. $38.50-$67.50. 1-800-567-1600. Rating: NN
Broad, big-gestured and smelling faintly of ham and wry, Richard Monette's production of Moliere's Tartuffe delivers predictable laughs and a few pleasant surprises.
The predictable comes from Brian Bedford's title character, a con artist posing as a religious puritan to swindle the wealthy Orgon (James Blendick) and steal his wife and fortune.
Bedford's performance is so studied and self-conscious that every line and gesture spell nudge-nudge wink-wink.
That's too bad, because he creates an imbalance that tilts the production way out of focus.
Things aren't helped by most of the cast's delivery of Richard Wilbur's rhyming translation. Too many performers speak the witty verse more like students reciting poetry than characters delivering lines. As a result, we get lulled into listening to the words, rather than seeing the characters.
The exceptions are Seana McKenna, who creates a note-perfect portrait of the family's wise servant, and Lucy Peacock, who graces the second act with a controlled and dignified -- yet still funny -- performance as Orgon's wife, Elmire.
Patricia Collins, on the other hand, wheezes out her lines as the aging matriarch in such a mannered style that she appears to be convinced she's in a solo show.
Monette's competent direction heats up in the second half, but he -- and the play -- are still at the mercy of his star actor. GS