What a peculiar yet spectacular tour de force the Shaw Festival has on its hands with Thursday evening's opening in the Festival Theatre of John Balderston's fantasy "Berkeley Square."
It will continue in repertory through October 14.
London, October 23, 1784 -- affluent young American Peter Standish, a cousin of the Berkeley Square Pettigrew family, financially pinched, is about to arrive for a visit. It is vaguely prearranged that he will contribute 15,000 pounds to the family coffers and will marry daughter Kate. Standish arrives unseen, mysteriously lets himself into the house, and is about to make his entrance.
London, October 23, 1928 -- A direct descendent and look-alike, also named Peter Standish, has inherited the Berkeley Square home. He is poring over and memorizing the diary of his ancestor. His obsession with family history alienates his fiancee.
London, 1784 again -- Peter Standish finally makes his entrance to the Pettigrew parlor. But it's the 1928 Standish in 1784 attire, with full knowledge of family facts outlined in the diary and of world history up to 1928.
Curtain! End of Act 1.
Nothing really extraordinary in the scenario up to this point. A small time warp. But playwright Balderston and director Neil Munro aren't about to let Shaw audiences just sit back and exercise their fantasies. There's wrenching drama in the offing.
The major derailment occurs when Standish, who knew full well that his forebear married Kate and had three children, finds he cannot abide her or any of the rest of the clan. Under the brocade and silk finery they are crude, lascivious, mercenary and perfidious -- all except younger sister Helen with whom Standish senses an instant connection of the strongest sort.
History and the heart are on a collision course. And when the impact occurs the wreckage is immense, both emotional and physical.
Balderston's text is much more clever and intricately constructed than is at first apparent. As Standish gradually drops more and more verbal clues that are out of sync with 1784, he is upbraided by an irate Duchess: "You seem to regard this country as a museum, and have been talking of me entirely in the past tense!"
Is he crazy? In league with the Devil?
For Munro's part, he doesn't miss a trick in tying the past to the present. The prelude to each of the three acts finds a solo microphone in front of the curtain and a recording of a different pop singer crooning a verse from "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square." Don't snicker. It's hauntingly effective.
His use of Cameron Porteous' set, a magnificent Georgian drawing room, and the lighting of Sholem Dolgoy to create chillingly half-lit and freeze-frame highlighted openings and closings for the three acts was also masterful.
Munro continually uses anachronistic music to enhance the stretched time frame -- the Kronos String Quartet, a gentle jazz waltz, Wagner's "Im Treibhaus" as symbolic of the tragic and impossible love relationship between Standish and Helen.
At every opportunity Munro underlines and emphasizes the sleazy, filthy, violent nature of 18th century England which lies barely camouflaged under the thin veneer of aristocracy in the Pettigrew's stately home.
And in the brief final scene of the play, a sort of epilogue in the debris of the trashed drawing room, the script calls for three candles as the only light. But Munro instead gives each of the four characters on the dark stage a flashlight whose beams are choreographed to flick randomly in all directions, punctuating the futile conversation, probing for who-knows-what into an unknown future.
The cast is excellent. As Standish, Peter Hutt drives home the obsession with his ancestors' history with uncanny single mindedness. His cataclysmic love scene with Helen, played equally well by Mary Haney, has an intensity of conviction which almost overturns history.
Dan Lett is properly despicable as the lecherous wastrel, Tom Pettigrew, while Susan Wright and Sharry Flett are his mother and sister Kate, all fine high-brow low-lifers. George Dawson is wonderfully unctuous and slimy as Tom's sycophant friend Mr. Throstle and Herb Foster one of the few notes of stability in the minor role of the American Ambassador.
"Berkeley Square" hasn't had a good professional production in 50 years, according to artistic director Christopher Newton. The reason may be that it needs an excellent production just to get by. Anything less would be dismal. Munro has given it a sensationally good production. As far as I'm concerned, it's his show and he should have been up there taking a bow along with the cast.