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Jacqueline Thair as Wilson, Flush and Drew Plummer as Flush puppeteer in Flush.

Lauren Garbutt/Shaw Festival

  • Title: Flush
  • Based on the novella by: Virginia Woolf
  • Adapted and directed by: Tim Carroll
  • Actors: Julie Lumsden, Drew Plummer, Jonathan Tan and Jacqueline Thair
  • Company: The Shaw Festival
  • Venue: The Humeniuk Foundation Stage, on the Festival Theatre grounds, to Aug. 5; the Royal George Theatre, from Aug. 6
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to Oct. 2

Theatre is at the mercy of the weather rather than critics at this moment, with indoor institutions trying their hand at mounting productions outdoors.

Flush, Shaw Festival artistic director Tim Carroll’s new adaptation of a Virginia Woolf novella, is particularly tempting the fates – being performed on the grounds of the Festival Theatre with no canopy for the audience and with such a watery title to boot.

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This was the first show I drove to see in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., this season – and the day leading up to its 8 p.m. performance was very suspenseful.

The weather report had thunderstorms at more than 60-per-cent probability at curtain time when I checked my app in the morning. The Shaw Festival publicist and I were in contact off and on all day about whether the Flush would go on, or if its opening night would go down the drain as many of its preview performances already had.

At one point, a backup plan to move the outdoor production to another venue for its opening night was hatched.

It was unnecessary in the end, when the rain held off, but all that preshow drama made Flush itself feel a tad anticlimactic.

Flush: A Biography (1933) is a curiosity among Woolf’s modernist works, which have been fearlessly adapted for the stage with surprising regularity. (Playwright Sarah Ruhl’s recent take on another of her novellas, Orlando, is set to reopen the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s mainstage this fall.)

It concerns the life and times of a cocker spaniel who first belonged to the English Romantic poet Elizabeth Barrett, and then to her and poet Robert Browning, whom Barrett famously eloped and moved to Italy with. The dog plays a role in a number of the couple’s poems, including To Flush, My Dog. (“Like a lady’s ringlets brown, Flow thy silken ears adown ...”)

Carroll’s stage adaptation is a straightforward one – indeed, it’s almost an unadaptation. The conceit is that we are at a lecture given by Woolf herself in which she recites an edited-down text of her book.

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What makes Flush a piece of theatre is that, instead of a power-point presentation to accompany Woolf’s talk, there is a smaller stage set up on the bigger stage where we simultaneously watch Flush’s adventures acted out wordlessly with puppets.

Jacqueline Thair starts behind a microphone seeming to embody Woolf – but the other three cast members (Julie Lumsden, Drew Plummer and Jonathan Tan) later take turns narrating.

After a lengthy preamble about various etymological theories regarding the word “spaniel,” that feels a little too much like a recitation of one of Bernard Shaw’s prefaces, we enter the dog’s life.

Flush is witness to the ailing Barrett’s confinement to a room on Wimpole Street in London and Browning’s secret courtship of her there. The dog then has a misadventure in a nearby London slum as he tries to reckon with his jealousy for Browning – and finally, he follows the couple to la bella vita in Florence, where freedom is to be found outside of the class (and breed) disparity of 19th-century England (and also fleas).

The story of romance between Barrett and Browning has been told many times over the years (including in Florence Gibson MacDonald’s 2010 play How Do I Love Thee?), but you might want to Google the details in advance if you are unfamiliar with them. We strictly get a dog’s-eye perspective here.

The spaniel first appears in puppet form as a two-dimensional puppy, then later in a loveable fleshed-out form operated from above by Plummer.

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Through different panels that rise and fall on a four-paned paper curtain, we spy Barrett from her ringlets down (Lumsden) and Browning (Tan) from neck down in black-and-white costumes.

Later, in Italy, where Flush finds liberation from the literal chains (that is, leashes) of Victorian England, the onstage proscenium is dispatched with – and the narrow view of the action expanded.

The simple but clever scene and costume design is by Hanne Loosen and the charming puppetry is credited to Alexandra Montagnese, co-founder of Montreal’s Jot & Tittle Puppetry Collective.

If Flush feels merely like an amuse-bouche, well that is what it was originally designed for. It was to be the hourlong lunchtime show in the Shaw Festival’s cancelled 2020 season – and you’ll find it mostly in a more suitable matinee slot for the rest of the summer and fall. If Ontario’s reopening continues to go according to plan, Flush will move indoors to the Royal George Theatre as of Aug. 6, where a bit of lighting design might level it up.

One thing I did want to point out is that Woolf is said to have been inspired to write the book Flush after seeing a play called The Barretts of Wimpole Street by Rudolf Besier.

That play premiered in 1930 at the Malvern Festival – which was run by the director Barry Jackson and had as its patron George Bernard Shaw. It was where Shaw premiered many of his works, including The Apple Cart; indeed, it could be said to be the original Shaw Festival.

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In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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