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Theatre Reviews Review: Shaw Festival’s Wilde Tales will leave you seeing stars

Wilde Tales.

David Cooper/Globe and Mail Update

4 out of 4 stars

Title
Wilde Tales
Genre
Play
Directed by
Christine Brubaker
Actors
Sanjay Talwar
Venue
Shaw Festival
City
Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON
Runs Until
Saturday, October 07, 2017

When it comes to Irish playwrights, I would happily trade a dozen of Bernard Shaw's plays for just one more script by Oscar Wilde.

I doubt many theatregoers would disagree. It's quantity of work rather than enduring quality that makes a Wilde Festival less possible than a Shaw Festival – the love and respect afforded to the witty fellow who wrote The Importance of Being Earnest having only grown in recent decades as the stock of Pygmalion's wordy playwright has been in free-fall.

And so, a million thanks to playwright Kate Hennig (The Last Wife) for so cleverly intertwining four stories that Oscar Wilde wrote into a fine new play called Wilde Tales for the Shaw Festival.

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Penned for his own children, Wilde published them for all children in 1888 – but adults will also also find Hennig's clever adaptation of them well worth their while and the drive to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

She begins with The Remarkable Rocket – a tale that seems tailor-made for the present and our concerns about over-coddled children.

The firework of the title (played with buffoonish braggadocio by Sanjay Talwar) has grown up to believe that he's incredibly special – and indeed, when we first meet him, he believes that the king's son is getting married in honour of his being set off rather than the opposite.

But while his pyrotechnic pals – a squeaky-voiced little Squib; a wise Roman Candle; and a cynical Catherine Wheel who keeps declaring "romance is dead" – all explode on cue to varying effect, the Remarkable Rocket does not go off, having become too damp through the tears he has shed upon contemplating his own importance.

The Remarkable Rocket's journey toward understanding his more humble place in the world is woven around and through the three other stories. The Happy Prince concerns a statue (Marion Day) who enlists a swallow (Kelly Wong) to help spread his wealth to the less fortunate of the city he overlooks, while The Nightingale and the Rose tells of another bird (Emily Lukasik) who sacrifices herself in order to help a bush bloom and produce a rose for a young man to give to a young woman he loves.

Finally, The Selfish Giant tells of a Goliath (Wong, marvellously moving) who chases children out of his garden, but eventually realizes he's chasing away happiness as well in keeping his trees and flowers all to himself.

All of these Wilde plays ends with a death – some of which are for righteous causes and others for nothing at all. They are kindhearted, but complex in meaning, especially in sequence – and Hennig has carefully combed through Wilde's other work for adults to find aphorisms that can function as ambiguous morals for them.

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From Lady Windermere's Fan, Hennig borrows Lord Darlington's well-known quip about people who "know the price of everything and the value of nothing" – a line that pertains equally to the mayor who finds the generous statue "shabby" once his jewels have been given away to the poor, and to the woman who wants to be courted with rubies rather than a rose.

The Remarkable Rocket discovers that "to look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing" (a line from Wilde's anti-realism polemic, Decay of Living), while the Selfish Giant learns that "a good friend is a new world" (an apercu to one of Wilde's letters).

Director Christine Brubaker has brought Hennig's script to life with heart and humour and perfect little puppets. In the spirit of Shaw Festival's new artistic director Tim Carroll's philosophy of "two-way theatre" (and in its most effective realization to-date), she has also invited children to arrive an hour early for a preshow to be a part of the show. The flowers the kids at the opening performance had made and held up added flavour to Jennifer Goodman's sweet and deceptively simple design, while a little girl who kept holding up a sign that said "What a sensational stick!" at the imploration of the Remarkable Rocket – but did so upside down – provided the kind of pleasure to an audience that no scripted moment could.

From her cast, Brubaker elicits performances that are neither hammy, nor condescending – common theatre for young audience issues.

Both the Stratford and the Shaw Festivals have been reaching out to the family market in recent years and only found intermittent success. It's clear from the smashing one here that extravagant design or high-tech gizmos are definitely not what appeals to kids – for whom, like adults, live theatre is no doubt an escape or at least an alternative to a screen-oriented world. Compare and contrast the dull animatronic parrot in Stratford's Treasure Island to the puppet here (Mike Petersen is the puppet consultant) that kept making me, at least, weep.

The only thing that doesn't quite land are the songs John Gzowski has composed to lines by Wilde. The words don't land right on the music – and, in the case of a song comprised of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, are sung by a character too innocent to understand its meaning.

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A small quibble; I loved the show and so did a young girl who I asked to rate the show out of four. She said five – which I, alas, cannot award. But while some of us in the audience have restrictions on our star ratings, all of us were seeing stars.

Wilde Tales (shawfest.com) continues to October 7

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