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SCRUTINY | Shaw Festival Juggles Rotating Casts Across Three Plays

By Paula Citron on August 1, 2023

L-R (clockwise): Martin Happer and Deborah Hay with Rebecca Northan and Kristopher Bowman as Ensemble in The Game of Love and Chance (Shaw Festival, 2023) (Photo: Emily Cooper); Michael Man as A and Julia Course as Z in Village Wooing (Shaw Festival, 2023) (Photo: David Cooper); Ensemble members Jade Repeta and Patty Jamieson in Mother, Daughter (Shaw Festival, 2023) (Photo: Michael Cooper)
L-R (clockwise): Martin Happer and Deborah Hay with Rebecca Northan and Kristopher Bowman as Ensemble in The Game of Love and Chance (Shaw Festival, 2023) (Photo: Emily Cooper); Michael Man as A and Julia Course as Z in Village Wooing (Shaw Festival, 2023) (Photo: David Cooper); Ensemble members Jade Repeta and Patty Jamieson in Mother, Daughter (Shaw Festival, 2023) (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Shaw Festival 2023 (Three Plays with Rotating Casts)/ Village Wooing by G.B. Shaw (Royal George Theatre), Mother, Daughter by Selma Dimitrijevic (Spiegeltent), The Game of Love and Chance by Pierre de Marivaux (Spiegeltent), until Oct. 7/8. Tickets here.

The Shaw Festival has a secret and it is not telling the audience.

Three plays this season have rotating casts, and until you are actually in the theatre, you won’t know who you are going to see. The casting is apparently predetermined — at least the actors know when they are going to appear in two of the plays — Village Wooing and Mother, Daughter — but the cast is never announced to the audience.

In fact, there is no exact explanation in the programs for this experimentation for Village Wooing and Mother, Daughter. Is it to keep the actors fresh? Is it to entice the audience back for another go-round? Is it to make the Shaw Festival look forward-thinking and innovative? Or, did the festival over-hire and there are extra actors? Only artistic director Tim Carroll knows for sure.

Village Wooing and Mother, Daughter do have a connection, however, because Selma Dimitrijevic wrote the latter, and directed both productions. Dimitrijevic does, perhaps, give a hint about her double cast in her program note for Mother, Daughter, citing that the play “is not about men or women, but about people”. As for her treatment of Village Wooing, that is anyone’s guess.

Artistic director Carrol is responsible for directing The Game of Love and Chance. In his case, he does tell us why he has discarded Marivaux’s text and has the play improvised. I quote: “I always wished that (theatre) could be as exciting as football: wouldn’t it be great if the actors knew as little of what was going to happen as footballers in a big game?”

Before we begin discussing the plays, we should mention the Spiegeltent, built in the early 1920s and imported for the season from Belgium. These temporary structures of wood, with elaborately decorated mirror interiors, were designed to be places of fun and frolic, although at the Shaw, the Spiegeltent merely functions as a fourth theatre where two of the plays are performed (Mother, Daughter and The Game of Love and Chance).

Now back to the plays. Each of them has a different way of rotating the casts.

The simplest format is Mother, Daughter (2008). This two-hander has a female cast (Patty Jamieson/Mother and Jade Repeta/Daughter), and a male cast (Shane Carty/Mother and Vinnie Alberto/Daughter). Audiences will get to see either the women or the men — no mix and match here.

Shaw’s Village Wooing (1934) is a more complicated rotation. This lunchtime entertainment is also a two-hander, featuring a woman called Z and a man called A. Shaw did not give these characters names. The festival, however, has cast three Zs (Julia Course, Kiera Sangster and Donna Soares), and three As (David Adams, Kyle Blair and Michael Man). This means there are nine possible casts as every Z gets to play opposite every A, and to make things more interesting, the actors cover a large range in age.

Marivaux’s The Game of Love and Chance (1730) is a crap shoot. Audience members roll dice to determine which actor is playing which part, and then the cast improvises the script. Director Carroll has given plot pointers of what should be covered in each act — bench marks, if you will — or as he says, “All we know is what the characters want, not what words they will use to get it.”

In chatting with actor Kristopher Bowman during intermission, he said that only two actors hadn’t read the play and they are the two most experienced improvisers — himself and Rebecca Northan. The other actors had read the play and are Sochi Fried, Martin Happer, Deborah Hay, Travis Seetoo, Graeme Somerville and Jenny L. Wright. At this point, women are playing male roles, but not the reverse.

So, what is the result? How do these three play manifest themselves on stage?

Mother, Daughter is a circular play with a conversation that goes back to the beginning three times, with each repeat revealing more information about a troubled relationship, while changing some of the basic facts we already heard. Perception varies, so to speak, and confusion reigns. To mirror the play, Dimitrijevic directed the actors to move in circles.

I saw the female cast, and while the acting was very good, the two women did not project, and given the small size of the Spiegeltent, every word should have been heard.

As for the play itself, does Dimitrijevic tell us anything new about familial relationships? Not necessarily, although some of the revelations are certainly interesting enough. At just 45 minutes, however, the repetitive nature of the text gives a draggy quality to the performance, making Mother, Daughter seem much longer than it really is.

Village Wooing is classic Shaw. On one hand, you have a man, a travel writer, attempting to live his antisocial life, and a woman pulsing with élan vital that makes her an unstoppable force of nature. They first meet aboard a ship where A resists her advances, only to have the man accidentally walk into her village shop/post office several years later, which spells his doom.

My Z (Donna Soares) and A (Michael Man) were a matched set, as it were, in terms of age. She throbbed with life, while he gradually got swept up in her maelstrom. There was good energy between them and they negotiated the Shavian language with suitable panache.

My problem with Village Wooing is with what Dimitrijevic did with the other four actors.

With no seeming rhyme or reason, they watch the action from the sides, make shadowy figures behind the set, move items in the shop around in desultory fashion, and roll fruit across the stage.

I didn’t know about the multiple casting when I saw the show, so I was absolutely befuddled as to why there was a four-member ensemble augmenting a two-hander. I found their actions to be quite distracting to the main event. In retrospect, they just should have sat quietly, wearing their costumes, and watching the conversation take place, which would have given a universality to their presence.

Marivaux is to 18th century classical French literature what Molière was to the 17th. The Game of Love and Chance (Le Jeu de l’amour et du hazard) is like a 1930s screwball comedy. Two young people, Silvia and Dorante, who have been contracted in marriage, change places with their servants Lisette and Arlequin to check out their betrothed. Neither is aware of the switch, so mistaken identities abound. Both Dorante and Silvia think they are nobles in love with servants and vice versa.

The Shaw ensemble is filled with clever people who also happen to be very funny. As my companion remarked, the actors seemed to be enjoying the performance even more than the audience. There was certainly a lively buzz in the Spiegeltent, coupled with some sparkling performances and some very funny one-liners.

As I laughed, however, I couldn’t help thinking that Marivaux does not come our way often, and I remembered how excited I was when the play was announced as part of the Shaw season. Did I wish that these talented actors had performed Marivaux as written? I must confess that I did.


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Paula Citron
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