“Man, I’d like to be a microbe.” That was Shaw Festival actor Travis Seetoo’s thought when he first read the play “Too True to Be Good” by George Bernard Shaw, one of the productions in the Shaw Festival’s current 60th season.
The first character that speaks in the play is a talking microbe that’s indignant because it believes it’s been made sick by an ailing patient.
“Like all of Shaw’s plays, this one’s about ideas,” said Seetoo. While the character named Microbe is “a non-human microscopic organism not everyone can see or hear, he is spouting the big Shavian ideas and ideologies that we all know and love,” Seetoo said, using the adjective “Shavian” to refer to Shaw.
Seetoo got the part and, with the rest of the “Too True” company, is navigating the challenges and rewards of performing this three-hour-long comedy, which Shaw wrote when he was in his mid-70s and “wasn’t really bothered,” in director Sanjay Talwar’s words, with linear narrative and other conventions of realist theatre.
“Too True” is one of two plays by Shaw this season, the other being the earlier “The Doctor’s Dilemma,” which director Diana Donnelly described as “a really juicy love story for grown-ups.”
Both plays treat themes of disease and medicine, ultra-topical subject matter as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, audiences return to the theatre and, as Donnelly put it, “have to breathe together in one room” along with the performers. “Suddenly, breathing itself is subversive and joyous,” she said.
All three artists are revelling in the chance to engage with Shaw’s timely ideas this summer and Talwar’s especially deep in that engagement. He’s not only the director of “Too True,” but also plays the title role in “The Doctor’s Dilemma,” that of a physician who has developed a cure for tuberculosis and must decide who’s most worthy of being saved.
The inversion of a familiar phrase in the title of “Too True to be Good” cues one of the play’s key tropes: that what you get might be the reverse of what you expect. This continues in the Microbe’s conviction that it’s the Patient (Donna Soares) who’s infected him and not vice-versa. By the end of the first act, the Patient has befriended a likeable Burglar (Graeme Somerville) and the two head off with the Nurse (Marla McLean) to a faraway outpost of the British Empire where, for two more acts, they debate politics, religion and science.
The ways in which the play is both recognizable and fantastical reflect the times in which Shaw was writing as well as our own, said Talwar.
“The world that Shaw wrote in was between two places. It was coming out of World War I and heading into the Depression,” he said. “Germany was looming and the prospects of another world war were very palpable.”
The context for this production — “coming out of the pandemic but not being out of the pandemic” — and then the added factor of the war in Ukraine made the play feel eerily familiar to Talwar and his company. “The world is not quite what we know it was,” he said.
Seetoo is “having an absolute blast” playing the Microbe, who appears more frequently in this production than in most stagings of “Too True to be Good.” (It’s the fifth time the Shaw Festival has produced the play, most recently in 2006.) “I have all these wonderful, witty interjections and nobody is supposed to see me,” said Seetoo.
Shaw had strong views about vaccination, which has led some in the present day to label him an anti-vaxxer, but Talwar thinks the term flattens Shaw’s perspective. “His objection was that vaccination allows governments to not solve the real problem, which is poverty,” said Talwar. “A vaccination seemed like a Band-Aid solution, a shortcut.”
Even though Shaw’s statements against vaccination became more strident, Seetoo does not see this as a reason to dismiss him: “Shaw had opinions on everything. It’d be crazy if he was right about them all. He lived a long time.”
A more linear play than “Too True,” “The Doctor’s Dilemma” — also in its fifth production at Shaw — engages with a timely ethical problem: who gets saved and who gets left behind in a time of medical crisis?
The doctor in this play is Talwar’s character, Colenso Ridgeon. Having nearly chosen 10 patients to receive his new tuberculosis treatment, he is given pause when he’s approached by a young woman, Jennifer Dubdat (Alexis Gordon), who pleads with him to save her husband (Johnathan Sousa), and by an old medical friend (Jason Cadieux) who also wants the cure.
Donnelly was scheduled to direct the play in the summer of 2020 and observed it become all the more topical in the intervening years. “This question of how we value people’s lives became overt in pandemic times. Who gets the ventilator? Who gets the vaccine?” she said. “Inequitable vaccine distribution revealed the global South not being valued as much as other parts of the world.”
When I spoke to Talwar and Donnelly, “The Doctor’s Dilemma” was still in rehearsal and Talwar said he’d “changed his mind about a dozen times already” about what the correct choice should be for his character as he weighed the intellectual arguments alongside the emotional ones (Ridgeon falls for the character of Jennifer).
To underline the material’s topicality, Donnelly’s production is set in the present day and the disease in question is multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis, which is still incurable and still most prevalent in impoverished areas.
Another switch is that the male character of Sir Patrick Cullen, one of Ridgeon’s colleagues, is here flipped to the female Dr. Patricia Cullen, played by Sharry Flett. Donnelly said Flett “brings such complexity and wisdom, and a sense of someone who has dealt with the boys’ club every day with grace and grit, and has pursued excellence successfully.”
“The Doctor’s Dilemma” is a comic-tragic play, and this mingling of tone and genre reflects the complexity of Shaw’s thinking, said Donnelly.
“He’s like a one-man podcast with 10 heads,” she said. “I love that in this moment of polarity and conformity and extremism of vantage points, you have someone that is always pointing out the grey and always fighting against hypocrisy.”
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