NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. – One of the most reliable pleasures of making the 45-minute drive from Buffalo to Niagara-on-the-Lake each spring is to find out what strange new dream Morris Panych and Ken MacDonald have conjured for their nearly perennial Shaw Festival production.
The Toronto-based director-designer team has produced some of the Shaw’s most visually innovative shows through the years, from their breathless adaptation of “Hotel Peccadillo” in 2007 to a totally unhinged take on J.M. Barrie’s “The Admirable Crichton” in which animal puppets spoke Barrie’s stage directions aloud.
This year, the team has taken a crack at George Bernard Shaw with a riotously funny production of his comedy “Arms and the Man,” which has been hacked apart, de-fatted and reassembled into a Saturday morning cartoon set inside a working cuckoo clock.
Does this sound completely insane? It is.
The premise of Shaw’s play, like many of his comedies, is refreshingly bizarre to begin with: A Swiss mercenary (Graeme Somerville) on the run from marauding Bulgarian soldiers climbs into the bedroom of an innocent girl named Raina (Kate Besworth) to escape capture. There, over a box of chocolates and with the sound of gunfire echoing in the streets, they begin a secret love affair. When the soldier returns to drop off the coat he took on the night of his intrusion, he meets Raina’s betrothed (Martin Happer) and her father (Norman Browning) and the farce begins in earnest.
Panych and MacDonald seem to have read through the script, found it patently ridiculous and decided to create a production that would allow its intrinsic absurdity to shine. They achieved this primarily by exaggerating young Raina and her braggadocio Bulgarian fiancé so that they seem more like characters out of a Disney film than a Shaw play.
Besworth’s camped-up portrayal of Raina, full of grandiose theatrical movements and a kind of delivery carried over from a much earlier period, is hilarious. She affects innocence so unconvincingly, and love even less so, that all you can do is laugh. But the real fun comes with the elaborate entrance of Happer, whose Sergius is so self-satisfied, so clueless about the finer points of war and love and so over-the-top, that you almost could swear he was two-dimensional. And as camptastic comedy goes, two-dimensionality is a virtue.
Toss in fine performances from Shaw Fest favorites Browning as Raina’s bumbling father, Laurie Paton as her scheming mother and the perpetually charming Somerville as her even-keeled suitor, and you’ve got yourself one of the most delightful Shaw comedies in recent memory.
MacDonald, meanwhile, has constructed a characteristically whimsical set. It’s an actual cuckoo clock, with working wooden gears and two doors that swing open to reveal the latest character, with obvious implications: Every last one of them, save possibly the Swiss mercenary, is nuts.
It also has one of the most satisfying endings of any Shaw play, executed with stylistic brilliance by Panych’s fine cast and against MacDonald’s inspired set.
Another virtue for anyone hesitant to dive into an 1894 comedy about the Serbo-Bulgarian War: Panych has cut this thing down to a cool hour and 50 minutes including intermission. You can zip up to Niagara-on-the-Lake at 6:30, take in the play, get some gelato at halftime and be back home safe and sound by 11 with a smile on your face. I’d call that a trip worth taking.