Tuesday, June 11, 2013


Pictured: Benedict Campbell

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
10 JUNE 2013
R: 3/5

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — There are, no doubt, any number of reasons to pair the two one-act plays that represent the Shaw Festival’s lunchtime offering this season, not the least of which is the fact that each was authored by a playwright instrumental in the glory days of the seminal Provincetown Theatre. The first, titled TRIFLES — which fittingly shares its name with the double-bill that opened last weekend at the Court House — is authored by Susan Glaspell, an early feminist playwright who authored 11 plays for Provincetown, and the second, A WIFE FOR A LIFE, is an early work from Eugene O’Neill, who churned out 14 plays for the theatre.

Surprisingly, TRIFLES is the better play, despite the fact the O’Neill is today the better known playwright. It’s sort of a prairie gothic murder mystery — imagine Gwen Pharis Ringwood’s Still Stands the House, once studied in Canadian high school, given an obvious feminist twist — that involves a murder investigation by a patronizing county attorney (Jeff Irving) and his assistant (Graeme Somerville), thwarted by the sheriff’s naive wife (Kaylee Harwood) and a canny neighbour woman (Julain Molnar).

There’s interesting work here from all, but the two most impressive performances director Meg Roe draws from her ensemble come from the angular Molnar, creating a character full of grit, and Benedict Campbell, all but disappearing into a small but pivotal role.

Campbell falls back on his celebrated vocal technique in his casting as the veteran prospector in A WIFE FOR A LIFE, however, playing opposite Irving, cast as a younger, more romantic gold-chaser who has, with Campbell, struck it rich. Somerville has a fine cameo as a ne’er-do-well neighbour, burned out by gold fever. But in the final analysis, it bears remembering that this is a play O’Neill attempted to destroy — and with good reason, for it is everything his later plays never were: utterly predictable, unbelievably trite and laughably melodramatic.

Both dramas are set on the same ramshackle set, drawn more, one suspects, from designer Camellia Koo’s fevered imagination than anything ever inhabited by hardscrabble farmers or prospectors. The former would have surely frozen to death here and the latter would have been forced to give up, either after burning their hands to stumps on hot stove lifters, or being laughed out of town for panning gold in the sink of their miner’s shack.

To bridge the two worlds, director Roe enlists the aid of sound designer Alessandro Juliani who, despite fires that roar but don’t crackle, gives us some lovely choral work from the cast — work that underlines the fact that while there may be any number of reasons to harness two old work-horses like these to the same plow, the very fact one of the playwrights wanted the work in question destroyed should have mitigated against attempting to break new ground with such a dull blade.

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