The Philanderer is well-cast and smart

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      By George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Rachel Ditor. Presented by the Arts Club Theatre. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, March 23. Continues until April 17

      Directors will tell you that casting is 90 percent of the job. Director Rachel Ditor gets that 90 percent—plus the other 10—absolutely right in this handsome production of George Bernard Shaw’s The Philanderer.

      In The Philanderer, Shaw toys with the ideas of feminism, especially as they are espoused by his fellow playwright and friend Henrik Ibsen. But this is no museum piece or inside joke; the discussion remains crisply relevant.

      When the curtain rises, a philosopher named Charteris is making giddy love to Grace, a seriously intelligent widow. Small wonder her eyebrow goes up when he says, “I could love anybody—any pretty woman, that is.” We soon find out that Charteris is also being pursued by the high-strung, coquettish Julia, who barges into Grace’s lavish drawing room and declares her intention to stay there until Grace gives up her claim on Charteris.

      All three belong to the Ibsen Club. In plays such as A Doll’s House, Ibsen made the radical point that women aren’t chattel, and one of the rules of the club is that members must treat one another as equals. Except, of course, they’re not. Manipulating Ibsen’s philosophy, Charteris argues against marriage and for “charming friendships”, conveniently ignoring the different economic and sexual status of men and women. It’s easy for him to move on when he gets bored, not so easy for the women.

      Grace’s father is a theatre critic and, in the play’s metatheatrical references, Shaw frames gender as performance. He also comments on how we exploit philosophies to serve our own ends. As Grace’s father puts it: “I made my morals to suit my interest, in the British fashion.”

      Scott Bellis is hilarious in the role of the frustrated Dr. Paramore, who has diagnosed Julia’s father, Craven, with a “new” liver disease and named it after himself. Rather than celebrating Craven’s reprieve when his theory is disproven, Paramore rails against funding restrictions that allowed him to experiment only on three dogs and a monkey. Bellis squeezes the weasly self-interest out of every line.

      David Marr is also exquisitely funny as Craven, especially when that character pops in fury, “Am I to understand, Paramore, that you took it on yourself to pass sentence of death—yes, of Death—on me, on the strength of three dogs and an infernal monkey?”

      Kerry Sandomirsky is all cool intelligence and tender maturity as Grace. Tom Scholte is perfectly, blithely narcissistic as Charteris. And Anna Galvin is wonderfully manipulative and arch as Julia, trilling her Rs and warbling like a young Lady Bracknell.

      Under Ditor’s direction, the cast attacks the material with brisk comic energy. And, impressively, Ditor has successfully collaged two earlier versions of the script into a coherent new whole.

      Alison Green’s set is a candy box of delicious hues and late-19th-century architecture, and Phillip Clarkson’s costumes are exquisitely cut.

      The palette of the overall design is a dream of aqua, teal, and rust. Mature colours for a bracingly grown-up production.