Thursday, February 19, 2009

Of Rest and Revivals

Obamamania hits Canada, as the US President and his security detail descend on Ottawa today for his first foreign visit since taking office in January. A shame that Prime Minister Harper has nixed an address to Parliament, but no doubt he fears being upstaged. Kudos to the CBC and news anchor Peter Mansbridge, then, for getting Obama to sit down for a television interview in Washington in advance of his visit earlier this week. At least questions relating to Alberta's oil sands and Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan were put out on the table in an open and frank manner. Which is more than will likely happen at any press conferences or photo ops to emerge from today's whirlwind tour and meetings. However, of note to this blog's abiding interest in issues of performance and place, apparently Obama, upon reaching Parliament Hill this morning, first commented on its Gothic architecture, and the contrast between DC's Neoclassical/Beaux Arts style. Richard wondered aloud just last evening whether Obama would register the difference and make any connections re contrasting national temperaments and histories. Sure enough, he did. Smart man. I hope he's getting some rest.

This past week, we attended two wonderful performance revivals. First up was Turning Point music ensemble's remount of Erik Satie's 1924 Dadaist Gesamskunstwerke, Relâche, which featured original music by the composer, sets and dramaturgy by Francis Picabia, a ballet by choreographer Jean Börlin, and a cinematic entr'acte by filmmaker René Clair (featuring appearances by Satie, Picabia, Duchamps, and Man Ray). The original apparently thrilled and scandalized Parisian audiences in equal measure. This remount was the brainchild of my SFU Contemporary Arts colleague, Owen Underhill, who together with his Artistic Co-Director at Turning Point, Jeremy Berkman, enlisted the talents of local artist Greg Snider (also from SFU), choreographer Simone Orlando, dancers Tiffany Tregarthen, Edmond Kilpatrick, Heather Dotto, Scott Augustine, Josh Beamish, Mackenzie Green-Dusterbeck, and David Raymond, soprano Phoebe MacRae, and actor Patti Allen, to reintroduce Satie's music and Clair's film to a new generation. It was a truly delightful spectacle, a feast for all the senses, and a reminder that, as with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring nine years earlier, the European modernists still have something to teach us about artistic interdisciplinarity and avant-gardism.

Then this past Tuesday it was to the Stanley Theatre to see the Arts Club's revival of Somerset Maugham's 1926 comedy of marital infidelity, The Constant Wife. An updating of William Wycherley via George Bernard Shaw, the play is Maugham's smart and sassy proto-feminist take on love, marriage, and sexual economics. Constance Middleton (Nicole Underhay) appears blissfully devoted to her husband of 15 years, Dr. John Middleton (Ted Cole), and apparently equally ignorant of the fact that he has been carrying on an affair with her best friend, the blonde bubble-headed Marie-Louise Durham (Celine Stubel), for quite some time. This news is presented to us at the top of the play, by Constance's vexed sister Martha (Moya O'Connell), who is determined that Constance should know the truth and divorce John immediately. However, Martha and Constance's dowager mother, Mrs. Culver (Bridget O'Sullivan), is equally determined that Martha keep her mouth shut and not upset the status quo, arguing that men are congenitally unfaithful and that where was the harm in that so long as John continued to provide for Constance the life to which she has become accustomed. Finally, Constance's widowed friend Barbara Fawcett (Katey Wright), a self-employed interior designer with a booming business, has also heard the news of the affair, and has come to offer Constance a job, seeing financial independence as a bulwark against the possible dissolution of her marriage. 

What nobody knows is that Constance is actually aware of John's affair and perfectly content to let it continue without anyone's interference. This becomes clear when Marie Louise's husband, Mortimer (Mark Burgess), enters in Act Two to accuse John of adultery with his wife, having found his cigarette case under her pillow. Constance, however, claims the case to be her own, having long ago confiscated it from her husband and mistakenly left it in the Durhams' bedroom after a day of shopping and trying on clothes with Marie Louise. Mortimer eventually accepts this explanation, but the rest are left to wonder why Constance would lie for her husband, and why she is herself not beside herself with fury knowing she has been betrayed by her best friend.

This, then, is where Maugham elevates his elegant comedy of manners to razor sharp commentary that remains as contemporary today as when it was first staged in the 1920s (with Ethel Barrymore playing the lead). For Constance proceeds to outline a theory of love, affection, and desire that is as inconstant and mutable as marriage's institutional and economic structures are reliably gendered and hierarchized. In short, Constance is herself no longer "in love" with John; but she is fond of him, and very conscious of the fact that he provides a comfortable home and lifestyle for her, and so why should she not fully buy into the pretense of bourgeois respectability that she signed up for in the first place? Maugham is not content to leave things there, and complicates this situation even further by introducing an old suitor of Constance's, Bernard Kersal (Mike Wasko), into this mix. He is still madly in love with her, and she appreciates the attention, and so having decided to take Barbara up on her offer of joining her design firm, in Act Three proceeds to buy her way out of her marriage--at least temporarily--and go on a vacation to Italy with Bernard in order to test her own response to his ardor. She announces her plan to John, who is of course apoplectic with rage, but who nevertheless accedes to her artful and witty quid pro quo logic about sexual economics: having paid her own debt to John for his long-term financial support by returning to him a portion of her own earnings from Barbara's design business, she now feels she can, like him, take out a temporary mortgage on monogamous marriage and enjoy a break with Bernard.

As I said, the play continues to have all sorts of contemporary relevance, not least in the context of same-sex marriage. Indeed, given that Maugham's own serial infidelity toward his wife Syrie (herself a designer, and the model for Constance) mostly took the form of affairs with other men, the layers of meaning are very rich indeed. This production is smart and sexy, crisply directed (by Morris Panych) and acted (Underhay is a real gem), and gorgeously designed (Ken MacDonald's all-white art deco set is the perfect homage to Syrie, who was famous for introducing the look in the 1920s, and Nancy Bryant's costumes cut the perfect silhouette on all the actors, especially the women). The show runs until this Sunday--I urge all in the area to attend.

One final bit of sad news I just learned is that local actor and playwright Lorena Gale has metastatic stomach cancer. There will be a benefit performance in her honour at the Firehall this Monday, February 23rd at 7 pm, featuring staged readings from her plays Je me souviens, Angélique, and The Darwinist. Our thoughts are with you, Lorena.


No comments: