Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Born Yesterday: a little knowledge, indeed a dangerous thing!

Lorne Kennedy
Born Yesterday - Lorne Kennedy

The crowd spills out of the Festival Theatre after a matinee performance, in good spirits, smiling and joking as they saunter in a beautiful Niagara on the Lake day towards parked cars and renewed hope.

Catharsis, means purification or cleansing in Greek, and is routinely employed in drama such as Shaw's Born Yesterday to evoke strong feelings such as sorrow, pity and laughter. This renews and revitalizes the audience. As Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell, states in the program, "We guarantee that the hours you spend with us will leave you better equipped to deal with the world you will return to, whether with new answers, fresh questions or a simple song in your heart." In Born Yesterday, the magic provides a welcome song in the heart.

Born Yesterday seizes attention from the moment that the curtain opens, spawning an instant ovation for Sue LePage's exquisite set, a gorgeous Washington hotel room, replete with recessed, lit sculptures and a huge window with the Capitol building in full view. The moment that Thom Marriott (Harry Brock) and Deborah Hay ((Billie Dawn) walk on the set, you sense that they completely control the stage, script and one's attention, and for over two hours; they accomplish just that, Garson Kanin 's 1945 play standing the test of time as we well know, steeped in the morass of Schreiber-Mulroney testimony and Dick Cheney's Halliburton , right down to the small fry, Toronto municipal trustees who abuse our trust.

In fact, from Shaw's informative, well-researched program, we learn (from Christopher Bigsby) that "The current edition of the Encyclopedia of Political Corruption in America runs to 738 pages," beginning with Abscam which nailed five Congressmen and a Senator on the take. Most recently, the ex-Governor of Illinois seems to have followed the tradition of three other state governors, all jailed in the past forty years.

Thom Marriott dwarfs other actors with his stature and brawny voice. He is the epitome of a punk endowed with power, aka money, which he throws liberally around to purchase Cuban cigars and people. Patrick Galligan adroitly plays Ed Devery, a brilliant but corrupt lawyer who keeps shame immersed in booze while Lorne Kennedy (Senator Norval Hedges) comes equipped with more subtle, evasive words to hide his duplicity. As he blandly operates, one can almost hear him intone, "I did not have sex with that woman."

The star of the show is Deborah Hay, who often does not have to utter a word, so adept is her formidable body language as she portrays a dumb blonde showgirl who undergoes a Liza Doolittle makeover, thanks to the instruction of Gray Powell (Paul Verrall), a Clark Kent type reporter complete with glasses, employed by the abusive Brock to educate Billie such that she does not resemble the Beverly hillbillies in Washington's elite circles. Of course, Verrall, smitten with Billie, performs his job too well, and Billie slowly emerges like a butterfly, ultimately to undermine Brock who has foolishly made Billie the legal captain of his entire junk empire, highlighting the fact that "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing."

Born Yesterday should be compulsory viewing by every high schooler. Kanin was furious with brazen capitalists who profiteered from war. Brock has neither respect nor allegiance to anyone. He is the quintessential street tough, capable of slapping around Billie to force her to sign legal papers drafted by an obliging Devery. Billie is led to understand that he is a "Fascist" and through her rudimentary employment of a dictionary, often humorously confusing words such as inhibit and inhabit, she finally sees the light and will amend her life, seeking out her honest, poor father for reconciliation.

The danger with Born Yesterday is to accept it merely as a light-hearted comedy for there is grand humour throughout the play. Deborah Hay garners as many laughs from her hilarious body language as she does from a sharp script and her Gin-rummy game with Brock, "a sore loser," is a classic, reminding one of Lucille Ball, at the height of her comedic power, dealing with a perplexed and befuddled Desi Arnaz. Ultimately, Kanin wants to remind us that politicians should not be accepting thick envelopes full of thousand-dollar bills and companies such as Halliburton should not profit from inflated, untendered government war contacts. He seeks to arm fellow citizens with knowledge, the only real power to undo evil, and not an easy task these days when a few media barons, often connected to government, control what we see and hear. Witness the recent 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square which has no official recognition in Chinese Communist history books. Kanin implores us to act, not passively accept such injustice.

Born Yesterday enjoys a great pedigree. From Shaw's program notes, we learn that Judy Holliday had only four days to learn the role, taking over from Jean Arthur who dropped out at the last minute. On opening night, Holliday apparently cried between every scene, but emerged a great success. The first movie production starred Holliday as Billie, Broderick Crawford as Harry and William Holden as Paul, the Henry Higgins who falls in love with his pupil.

As with other companies, one or two plays tend to shine brightest and dominate the playbill. At Shaw this season, run, don't walk to see Born Yesterday. It's a superb treat!

Deborah Hay   Gray Powell   Patrick Galligan   Thom Marriott

Born Yesterday 1950 Trailer

Born Yesterday on Broadway!

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