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[THEATER REVIEW] CANDIDA at Berkshire Theatre Festival

Candida by George Bernard Shaw
Main Stage
Through July 5, 2008

Jayne Atkinson and Michel Gill in Berkshire Theatre Festivalís Main Stage production of Candida. [PHOTO BY KEVIN SPRAGUE/STUDIO TWO/COURTESY BTF]

by Seth Rogovoy

(Stockbridge, Mass., June 21, 2008) -- Berkshire Theatre Festival often does some of the best work in the region's summer stages. Off the top of the head, recent productions of American Buffalo, Amadeus, Equus, The Glass Menagerie, and this summer's opener at the Unicorn Theatre, The Caretaker, stand out as landmarks in summer theater from top to bottom -- though casting to directing, from lighting to set design, from costumes to smart choices of plays.

Which is why the new production of George Bernard Shaw's Candida baffles in so many ways, beginning with the simple choice of the play. I have nothing against tradition -- in fact those who know me know that I am a fearless traditionalist in all the arts, or, at the very least, a "neo-traditionalist," who venerates tradition and insists on art that is aware of the context from which it sprung. All great works of art should embed the history, the DNA, they contain, and part of the test of a new production is how it deals with this, otherwise known as the "anxiety of influence." The Pinter show at the Unicorn was a perfect case in point of this dynamic.

So to revisit a seminal work by a playwright like Shaw has its principled reason, but in BTF's current production it's hard to find. This could be due to a number of factors. It could be the play itself. Maybe the story and its themes are just careworn by now; maybe it's a just a starchy version of so many "romantic comedies" that have been tossed off by Hollywood the last ten, twenty, or forty years.

Maybe the undercurrent of cultural wars being fought beneath the text: religion vs. capitalism, socialism vs. capitalism, religion vs. poetry, marriage vs. romance, etc., were revolutionary at their time, but have now faded into the realm of history instead of drama, much like some of the shocking themes of bigotry on TV's All in the Family render contemporary viewings of that cultural watershed acts of archaelogy.

And what of the value of sheer entertainment? Doesn't the tripartite struggle among Candida's Fabian socialist pastor husband and their poet-protege for her heart made for convincing drama and/or comedy?

Well, not in this production.

The producers have chosen to play this one down the middle of the road (no attempts at tying it into contemporary style or culture; no figurative donning leather jackets and Uzis as was done at Shakespeare & Company's Macbeth of a few years ago, giving that play a jolt still being felt halfway to Baghdad).

No, what we get is a Shavian soap opera, pretty much as written, and with adequate performances, probably about as good as you can get if you're going to adhere to the text. Although one wonders if this could have been played more for the extremes -- for the comedy, perhaps -- what if the dreamy poet in love with Candida, Eugene Marchbanks, played by Finn Wittrock, came across as less sincere and more in love with the idea of Candida rather than the woman herself. What if Michael Gill played Rev. James Morell more as Marchbanks saw him -- as a genuine egotistic blowhard, instead of the relatively sympathetic idealist we see.

Nothing really stands out in this staging -- none of the characterizations, and certainly none of the technical stagecraft we have come to expect from BTF that adds magic and theatricality to its productions: the stage set looks slapped together like something from a high school production; the lighting is utterly functional; the sound and music, what little of which there is, provided no accents or contrasts to suggest mood or irony.

For many, perhaps for most, BTF's Candida will be a wonderfully entertaining night out at the theater.

For the rest of us cranky modernists, we'll just have to wait for Godot.

Seth Rogovoy is Berkshire Living's editor-in-chief and award-winning critic-at-large.

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