From the first moments of the Shaw Festival’s production of Edward Bond’s bleak but hilarious 1973 play “The Sea,” you can tell this is not going to be your typical Shaw Fest comedy of manners.
A woman enters the stage holding a metal thunder sheet advertising the “The East Anglia Amateur Theatrical Society,” occasionally shaking it in a disaffected way so that it makes a loud noise. Meanwhile, a man operates an antiquated wind machine, spinning its crank with increasing speed and eventually colliding with the sign-wielding woman before they both retreat behind two pieces of billowing gray fabric.
OK, director Eda Holmes. You have our attention.
What follows this surrealistic prologue is one of the most surprising fusions of comedy and tragedy to have played on a Shaw Festival stage in some time.
Bond’s play is set in a small seaside town on the east coast of England, just after one of the townspeople has drowned in a shipwreck on his way to reunite with his fiancée. On the one hand, it follows the existential struggle of the late man’s friend Willy (Wade Bogert-O’Brien), who survived the accident only to face a world he suspects is devoid of all meaning. One the other, it traces the hilarious efforts of Louise Rafi (Fiona Reid), the town’s self-appointed moral leader, to give purpose and structure to the lives of its wayward citizens.
Along the way, we meet the crazed shopkeeper Hatch (Patrick Galligan, in one of his better performances), who has convinced himself and a trio of impressionable young men that aliens caused the accident. And we encounter the old man Evens, who lives and drinks in a hut by the sea and turns out to be an insightful philosopher with answers for the wayward Willy.
Intrinsic to the play, as Chris Megson wrote in his excellent program note, is Bond’s critique of capitalism as a force that drives people like Hatch – whose business is failing thanks in part to Ms. Rafi’s absurd demands – inexorably toward xenophobia, paranoia, violence and madness. He includes Hatch as a kind of walking warning about the potentially corrosive effects of placing money above art, beauty or even love. Not that those like Ms. Rafi or Willy, who seem to have different priorities, are any better off.
One of the great joys of this production is in watching the incomparable Reid sink her teeth into Ms. Rafi, as juicy a comic character as anything out of Wilde or Noel Coward. (Judi Dench played the role in the 1991 revival of the play at London’s National Theatre.) If you think Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess from “Downton Abbey” is the imperious Edwardian matriarch par excellence, you are sadly mistaken. Reid’s Ms. Rafi tosses out an endless fusillade of searing little insults – “You always were overimaginative, for a draper,” she tells Hatch – ordering the townspeople about, directing and starring in an amateur re-enactment of the Greek myth of Orpheus or tossing a dead man’s ashes around a windswept seaside cliff.
It’s all so bizarre and so funny you can’t look away.
For this particularly bleak brand of existentialist drama to sit side-by-side with such finely calibrated mannerist comedy is unusual but often thrilling. A tragicomedy by the likes Sean Casey, where the humor is largely contained to one section and the tragedy to the other, is one thing. But by placing haunting reflections on the experience of life in a dead-end seaside town in such proximity to slapstick comedy, Bond seems to be making a statement on the power of theater as an antidote to the void, or at least a distraction from it.
This play draws its power equally from Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett, two Irish playwrights whose styles could not have been more different but whose work draws from the same peculiarly Irish well of dread. With this play and Holmes’ sensitive and haunting production, we can experience simultaneously woeful dread and wonderful absurdity of life.
That’s a rare accomplishment for any work of art, and makes “The Sea” worth diving into.
What: “The Sea”
When: Through Oct. 12
Where: Court House Theatre, 26 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
Tickets: $35 to $113
Info: (800) 511-7429, www.shawfest.com