Morris Panych’s production of Engaged at the Shaw Festival is unabashed fun from beginning to end. The play was released in 1877 yet the social conventions being satirized are as relevant today as they were over a century ago.
We know W.S. Gilbert by his association with Arthur Sullivan and the comic operas they created. By the time he began composing librettos for Sullivan’s scores, Gilbert was a well-established playwright. His plays leaned to satire. While George Bernard Shaw was still in short pants, Gilbert had several plays in production.
Engaged is a satire of about the ‘rules of engagement’ leading to marriage. The play begins on the grounds of a humble cottage in the Scottish lowlands on the border of England and Scotland. The location sets the curious premise of the play which is that any man and woman who, when in Scotland, proclaim that they are husband and wife are considered to be married. In the case of Engaged, mayhem ensues.
Gilbert pokes fun at fidelity as easily as he derides love as a basis for marriage. He skewers the class structure relentlessly through the interactions of lowland Scots with English townies, and by way of flirtations between a maid and a lord. As for the innumeracy that is supposed to be the fate of the kinder, gentler sex, Gilbert knocks that by having a young female character know more about a failed bank than does her father. The bank in question in this case is named the “Royal Indestructable Bank.” Gilbert took pleasure in roasting many sacred cows.
The actors* have a formidable sense of comic timing. That teamwork is essential to pulling off a madcap production. They perform against a set that is simple yet very effective. Even the ten foot high thistles in the first act are used for their comic value. Some costumes gave me pause. There were curious inclusions that were out of place for the period: the Vonda Dr. Martens on Maggie, the silk trousers on Belinda, the modern jeans on the male servant and on Cheviot. Having said, that Angus’ costume is superb. Note the streaks on his legs in Act 1, consistent I would think with the traditional wearing of a kilt! Do keep an eye on his sporran.
If you go, don’t be put off by the beginning which is a vaudeville-like warm-up act. It’s not part of the play that Gilbert wrote. I concluded that it was inserted as a commentary on Gilbert’s time when acting and playwriting were not respectable endeavours. The play is delightful. On the drive home, we were still laughing at elements that tickled our funny bones.
*The cast of Engaged: Julia Course, Martin Happer, Mary Haney, Jeff Meadows, Nicole Underhay, Shawn Wright, Gray Powell, Ric Reid, Mathew Finlan, Diann Donnelly, Claire Julien
Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humor despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands.