Engaged at the Shaw Festival is the perfect light and frothy play. The farcical comedy was written by W. F. Gilbert, one half of Gilbert and Sullivan, the team who wrote operettas such as H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado. I grew up listening to my parents play G&S, on what was then called a hi-fi, but this was my first experience with the Gilbert play that premiered in 1877.
The plot, if you can call it that, is launched when Belvawney (played by Jeff Meadows) proposes to Belinda Treherne (Nicole Underhay). They may or may not be married because at the time they were at a cottage in Gretna right on the border of England and Scotland. If they were standing in the latter country, they are married. Belvawney goes on to propose to another woman and is preparing to marry a third before Act One is done. It’s all rather like one of those French farces featuring many doors that people enter and exit except in this case the doors are marriages. All in the pursuit of money, particularly someone else’s.
The cast is strong, the text is filled with humorous repartee, and the costuming magnificent. One monologue alone, flawlessly delivered by Miss Treherne, is worth the price of admission. Here it is;
“I am rent with conflicting doubts! Perhaps he was already married; in that case, I am a bigamist. Maybe he is dead; in that case, I am a widow. Maybe he is alive; in that case I am a wife. What am I? Am I single? Am I married? Am I a widow? Can I marry? Have I married? May I marry? Who am I? Where am I? What am I? What is my name? What is my condition in life? If I am married, to whom am I married? If I am a widow, how came I to be a widow, and whose widow came I to be? Why am I his widow? What did he die of? Did he leave me anything? If anything, how much, and is it saddled with conditions? Can I marry again without forfeiting it? Have I a mother-in-law? Have I a family of stepchildren, and if so, how many, and what are their ages, sexes, sizes, names and dispositions? These are questions that rack me night and day, and until they are settled, peace and I are not on terms!”
Shaw can be preachy, Chekov too bleak, even Shakespearean plays can be uneven. What we need is more Victorian nonsense.