Michael Scholar Jr. co-directs the political comedy Born Yesterday, which opens July 13 at the Jericho Arts Centre. (photo from ETC)
Garson Kanin’s comedy Born Yesterday opened on Broadway on Feb. 4, 1946, and was a hit. It has been made into a film (1950), returned to Broadway twice (1989 and 2011) and seen countless productions. About political corruption, it has a timeless quality.
“This play seems to have been written for this exact moment, when populism, corruption and bullying are an omnipresent part of our political and personal lives,” co-director Michael Scholar Jr. told the Independent.
Scholar co-directs the Ensemble Theatre Company (ETC) production with Shelby Bushell. Part of the company’s Annual Summer Repertory Festival, Born Yesterday opens July 13 at the Jericho Arts Centre.
“Kanin wrote the piece while in Europe,” said Scholar. “While he was serving in the army to defeat fascism abroad, he seemed more concerned about those same tendencies within our own democracy back home. This play and one of its central figures, Harry Brock, the bullying millionaire who tries to buy his way into power, are sadly all too familiar 80 years on.”
In Born Yesterday, junkman Harry has come to Washington, D.C., to use his money to influence legislation. Despite his own uncouthness, Harry is concerned that his girlfriend, Billie, a former showgirl, will make him look bad, so he hires a reporter, Paul, to educate her. As her newly released intelligence begins to surface, she could prove Harry’s undoing.
The Independent last spoke with Jewish community member Scholar about The Enemy, another political play, which was at the Firehall Arts Centre late last year.
“Since The Enemy, a lot has changed for me,” he said. “I spent a semester teaching acting and directing at Arizona State University in Phoenix. And now, on my summer break, I’m co-directing Born Yesterday for ETC and, a day after opening, I fly to New York to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Colonial Theatre of Rhode Island, which I get to work on with my 6-year-old daughter, Alice.”
About how he came to co-direct Born Yesterday, Scholar said, “I was talking with artistic director Tariq Leslie while on a movie set here in Vancouver, and we got to talking about how ETC was hitting above its weight class and doing some powerful work in town. He had seen my production of As You Like It at Studio 58 and enjoyed my work. And so a match was made.”
Scholar described having a co-director as “a real blessing.”
“It means that we can tag team on rehearsals, and I actually get to have a day with my family each week,” he said of working with Bushell. “Also, having her perspective in the room has meant that we are covering more ground and that, together, we have fewer blind spots. This play is about a woman who is perceived to be a ditz, but whose sense of civic duty is awoken through education and intellectual stimulation. This play, written in the ’40s by Garson Kanin, is surprisingly relevant to our current political climate, but it also has some potentially problematic elements [so it is] worth having two sets of eyes looking at this material.”
One of those elements is the depiction of women.
“Brock is a bully and, without giving away too much of the plot, he is a violent character towards both men and women in his entourage,” explained Scholar. “The play deals with toxic masculinity, misogyny and stereotypes, but, in its time, it was working to subvert those ideas. So, we’ve reworked parts of the piece to highlight this intention and to not reinforce gender stereotypes, which has been another great reason to have Shelby as a collaborator on this project.”
Ensemble Theatre’s website highlights a quote from the play: “A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.” It notes, “By turns uproarious and sobering, and packed with a cast of vibrant characters throughout, Kanin’s play reminds us that a healthy democracy depends on its inhabitants to stay healthy, and that abuse of power cannot be stemmed without an informed and engaged citizenry.”
Scholar stressed that, despite the weighty issues tackled, the play is primarily a comedy. “It has a fast-pace banter and physical precision that is almost farcical,” he said. “It uses comedy as a way of dealing with challenging ideas, disarming us with laughter so that we can reflect on our situation with not just our heads, but our hearts, too. I’m sure audiences will have much to discuss afterwards, but they will also be entertained while on this poignant journey.”
ETC’s summer festival runs to Aug. 16. In addition to Born Yesterday, it features Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy, which opened July 12, and Tracy Letts’s Superior Donuts, which opens July 19. For tickets, visit ensembletheatrecompany.ca.