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David Adams as Dr. Ralph Bloomfield Bonington, Sharry Flett as Dr. Patricia Cullen, Johnathan Sousa as Louis Dubedat, Allan Louis as Dr. Cutler Walpole, Sanjay Talwar as Dr. Colenso Ridgeon in The Doctor’s Dilemma at the Shaw Festival.David Cooper/Handout

  • Title: The Doctor’s Dilemma
  • Written by: Bernard Shaw
  • Director: Diana Donnelly
  • Actors: Alexis Gordon, Sanjay Talwar, David Adams, Allan Louis, Sharry Flett
  • Company: The Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Festival Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: Continues to Oct. 8
  • COVID-19 measures: No mask or vaccine requirements.

Critic’s Pick

The Shaw Festival’s dilemma, in the midst of this pesky pandemic, has been what exactly to do about its namesake playwright’s rascally anti-vaccination views.

Given contemporary cultural trends, you might expect the destination repertory theatre company to, at least, avoid Bernard Shaw’s plays in which he channels those sentiments, if not, perhaps, go so far as to rebrand or topple the statue of the Irishman found on the main drag in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Instead, artistic director Tim Carroll has decided to lean in to Shaw’s problematic plays – programming a couple that actually centre around general skepticism toward medical science.

The result has been a most enraging and exciting summer season – one that has given Shaw his fangs back and encouraged an audience to engage more actively and critically with his half-thoughtful, half-trolling theatrical output (as one always, ideally, should).

First came a strong studio production of the oddball 1932 comedy (featuring a talking microbe) Too True to Be Good, and now the festival has given The Doctor’s Dilemma pride of place on the main stage in a confident and irreverent (and, judging by my e-mail inbox, divisive) new production that seems set in the near future and is directed by Diana Donnelly.

To say Shaw takes a conspiracy theorist’s approach to the medical profession in The Doctor’s Dilemma is only paraphrasing the play itself, which features a parade of entertainingly dotty doctors who make lots of money from loony theories as they prioritize profit over public health.

“We’re not a profession: We’re a conspiracy,” admits Colenso Ridgeon (Sanjay Talwar), the doctor referred to in the title. To which his colleague Patricia Cullen (Sharry Flett) replies, acidly: “All professions are a conspiracy against ordinary people.” (Fair enough.)

The dilemma within Shaw’s play, which he confusingly labelled “a tragedy,” is that Ridgeon has developed a groundbreaking new treatment for tuberculosis (drug-resistant tuberculosis in this update) that he is testing in a limited trial that can only include 10 participants.

When an adamant young woman named Jennifer Dubedat (Alexis Gordon) shows up at Ridgeon’s office, imploring him to give one of those slots to her ill artist husband Louis (Johnathan Sousa), the doctor must decide whether to condemn another patient to death in order to save him.

Ridgeon’s own complicated, messy human feelings complicate the choice. His belief that Louis is a genius must be weighed against his belief that the artist is also a terrible person. Then there’s the matter of his own growing infatuation with Jennifer, which makes him wonder if the ideal medical outcome might not be for her to be widowed and then remarried to, say, an older, more respectable doctor.

The situation is highly contrived – and, as well-acted as the central triangle of characters are by Talwar, Gordon and Sousa, it’s hard to fully emotional invest in their story, especially as it takes a tonal shift toward melodrama. But, that said, the underlying question of how to choose who lives and who dies in a medical system is far from lacking in topicality.

What makes Shaw’s play enjoyable to watch as you ponder its ideas and contradictions is the comedy of the other doctors. David Adams is the standout here as cocksure doctor Ralph Bloomfield Bonington, who believes that “drugs are a delusion” and that the answer to everything is to “stimulate the phagocytes.” He is one of the biggest blowhards in Shaw’s oeuvre, which is really saying something, and Adams is hilariously hard-headed in the part. (Donnelly, amusingly, upstages the character from time to time in his more rambly moments.)

Allan Louis’s preening surgeon Cutler Walpole, whose prescribed treatment for every patient with every problem is the same (removal of the “nuciform sac”) comes a close second in entertainment value, while Jason Cadieux makes a memorably neurotic impression as a doctor dedicated to the poor.

Many attempts to update Shaw’s plays in Niagara-on-the-Lake in the past, through playwright rewrites by or cosmetic changes by directors and designer, have failed to fully satisfy; Donnelly’s looser, playful director-driven approach to meddling and modernizing organically in rehearsal (rather than commissioning an adaptation) is more successful. It helps that this particular play was never really was set in a “real” world. (There’s no such thing as a nuciform sac.)

The design is well incorporated into Donnelly’s vision of the play – from Gillian Gallow’s striking, otherworldly set at the start of the show, to Rachel Forbes’s fabulously funny costumes, to Ryan deSouza’s sound design that allows for mischievous use (and non-use) of hand-held microphones.

Taking her cues from Shaw’s own puncturing of the fourth wall, Donnelly lets the argumentative moments of the play spill over the lip of the stage and tries to make debate erupt in the audience.

The cheeky elements are in keeping with the play. Louis Dubedat declares himself not just a believer in Michelangelo, Velasquez and Rembrandt (in the play’s most famous speech) – but at one point declares himself, too, a disciple of Shaw, provoking the disgust of Bloomfield Bonington.

“When a man pretends to discuss science, morals and religion, and then avows himself a follower of a notorious and avowed anti-vaccinationist, there is nothing more to be said,” the doctor says, aghast.

Then he turns, in an aside: “Not that I believe in vaccination in the popular sense … but there are things that place a man socially; and anti-vaccination is one of them.”

Outrageous – and a part of the script left unchanged. Bernard Shaw, that imp, must be grinning in his grave.

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