In late July, “This American Life” host Ira Glass watched a production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” starring John Lithgow in the title role and declared in a pair of tweets that the playwright’s work is “not good,” “not relatable” and “sucks.”
The tiny corner of the Internet that pays attention to these things erupted on cue with a series of recriminations ranging from the sub-sophomoric to the deeply thought-provoking. Missing from much of the commentary, though, was the idea that Shakespeare’s long-outmoded words are more likely to register with a broad modern audience in the hands of gifted directors, designers and actors willing to radically rearrange or recontextualize them. In other words, the fault lies less with Shakespeare than with the creative limits of his contemporary interpreters.
So it is with George Bernard Shaw, a famous critic of Shakespeare whose own work in the wrong hands has the sedative potential of a truckload of Ambien. So it was with some trepidation that I entered the Shaw Festival’s flagship theater to take in a production of the Irish-born playwright’s thorny comedy “The Philanderer.”
Most of that trepidation had melted away by the time the first act was barely underway. Lisa Peterson’s production is a slick, smart and constantly engaging reimagining of this potentially snooze-worthy play about the fleeting nature of happiness in the lives of married and single people alike.
It focuses on a defiantly unattached and constantly carousing young man named Leonard Charteris, a character based partially on the young Shaw. As the play opens, we find Leonard on the floor with Grace Tranfield (Marla McLean), both of them half-clothed and panting. Their post-coital daze is shorty interrupted by the inconvenient appearance of Julia Craven (Moya O’Connell), whose affections for Leonard and envy of Grace are fodder for the play’s central battle.
Toss in the chattering fathers of Craven and Tranfield whose booming authority is constantly undercut by how little they seem to know, and you have the basic structure of a successful comedy. It’s what you hang on that structure that matters, and Peterson’s production, with an extraordinarily vibrant set by Sue LePage, empties out the whole theatrical closet.
The key to this production is simple: excellent acting. As Leonard, Rand is the perfect cad, at first grating on the audience as he does on his various lovers and later wearing down our guard with his charm. This is a man who cares about next to nothing but somehow makes that apathy endearing. As Craven, O’Connell is a tightly wound ball of nerves that come slightly unraveled when she gets anywhere near the ice-cold and collected Tranfield, played with a vicious chill by McLean.
Of course, there’s a great deal of substance behind the outward humor of the play, and it’s clear Shaw was out to critique not only the conservative sexual mores of his time, but also an intellectual establishment that was progressive in theory but rarely in practice. This comes across in the particularly well-painted scenes in the “Ibsen Club,” where the characters gather to snipe at one another in a more refined setting.
Peterson, not content to produce the piece as Shaw intended it, revived and innovatively staged his original third act, a historical correction that lends the play a certain contemporary weight missing from productions that slavishly follow Shaw’s design. As she suggests in her program note, the addition that raises the play’s stakes makes it feel more dangerous and brings it directly into the here and now.
Before, even Peterson, who admitted to not liking the play previously, might have said that Shaw’s work here wasn’t “relatable” for contemporary theatergoers.
Now, as much because of Shaw’s words as her own creative ideas, it’s become one of the festival’s most memorable Shaw productions in years.
What: “The Philanderer”
Where: Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, 10 Queen’s Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
When: Through Oct. 12
Tickets: $35 to $113
Info: (800) 511-7429, www.shawfest.com