Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Bernard Shaw

Review | Major Barbara | Written by Bernard Shaw in 1905 | Directed by David Staller | Gingold Theatrical Group / Pearl Theatre Company

 … which side was it you said you’re on? …

The audience — myself included — stood and applauded with pleasure at the end of Major Barbara, but the applause was more for the laughter and sheer theatrical delight that came earlier in the play than for the confusing ending.  First, toward the end, you think you’re missing something and then you realize it’s not quite making sense.  No fault of the performers who were perfect throughout, but Shaw just did not fully resolve this play.  But he gives you much to enjoy and think about.

Barbara Undershaft is an idealistic major in the Salvation Army, committed to saving souls while, on the other hand,  her rich, estranged father, Andrew Undershaft is the world’s largest manufacturer of weapons for real armies to kill people — bigger than the government, he is the government.  Mrs. Undershaft, his wife with whom he’s totally out of touch, is concerned that their two now grown two daughters are about to marry poor men and, since her son’s useless for making money, she invites the great weapons maker over to solicit appropriate fatherly involvement — money.

Andrew Undershaft hasn’t seen his children for so long he can’t tell which is which but he takes a liking to the feisty, idealistic Barbara.  Salvation Army Major that she is, she determines to save his soul.  They strike a deal:  he’ll visit her Salvation Army shelter and in return she’ll visit his munitions establishment.  She’ll convert him, she thinks.  Only that’s not what happens.

Next day he visits and she learns through the events of the day that, even in the lofty enterprise of feeding the hungry while saving their souls, money talks.  In fact, with the shelter faced with the possibility of closing down for lack of resources, it’s  essential, even if the donors are manufacturers of the hard liquor that keeps the down-and-outers at the shelter drunk, or of weapons.  Her Salvation Army fellow workers go with the flow, glad to be able to continue their work of doing good wherever the money comes from.  Barbara’s moral compass, however, doesn’t include compromise of any kind.  She is disillusioned.  She faces despair.

What’s funny about that?

How can the playwright continue the play which has the tenor of a comedy when he has his heroine lose all that means most to her?

At this point, Shaw pulls Barbara, his strong main character, out of the main action.  She merely goes along on the promised family excursion to the weapons factory which, improbably, turns out to be an idyllic workers’ socialist paradise, though one at risk of exploding.

Here, since  Barbara’s abdicated, her intelligent but poor Greek scholar fiancé, Adolphus, takes on the job of arguing with  — to the extent there’s any disagreement — Andrew Undershaft, as Barbara had done earlier:  With specious rationales on all sides, Adolphus is readily persuaded to the point of view of his wealthy father-in-law to be.  For those who share Adolphus’ knowledge of  Greek literature,  it’s as if Antigone stepped away from arguing with Creon and left it up to Ismene.  Why does Shaw let the weapons maker off the hook so easily?   The upshot of the argument is that Adolphus is co-opted, and what looks like cynicism hastily and fuzzily becomes “realism.”  What was that?  How did that happen?  I wasn’t the only person in the audience trying to figure it out.  As Barbara is left to stare wordlessly into space, I wondered if her disillusionment is too tragic for Shaw’s comedy.

The character of Barbara, at the heart of the play, is iconic: she’s strong, willful, intelligent, but with an ideological rigidity that runs smack into reality and lost illusions — and Hannah Cabell captures the determination, vulnerability and charm of the lovely young woman.

Dan Daily plays the weapons manufacturer like a robust, twinkling Santa Claus, as Shaw perversely wrote him — the man who solves problems, brings happiness and makes wishes come true.  Huh?  That’s right, this is not the devious and culpable weapons manufacturer of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons.

The cast is all-over excellent and Shaw’s clever turns and wit sparkle.  The glossy, black set is dazzling:  it doesn’t suggest the venues where the episodes take place — The library of the Undershaft’s home, the Salvation Army shelter, or among the high-explosive sheds of Undershaft’s weapons arsenal — but its stunning irrelevance is in harmony with the absurd humor of improbable events with which Shaw digs himself out of his playwright’s dilemma.

Major Barbara plays at The Pearl Theatre on Manhattan’s west side through December 14, 2014.

Review | Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman | Directed by David Staller | Irish Repertory Theatre / Gingold Theatrical Group

Man and Superman is a totally delightful evening of theater that lifts you from yourself with enjoyment and — thinking about it after — reminds you of what theater is all about.  It couldn’t be better.  It’s a romantic comedy as well as a play of ideas that spins off from the story of Don Juan, particularly the Don Giovanni of Mozart’s opera, though with a bit of Faust, and Milton’s Satan thrown in.  Shaw subtitled it A Comedy and a Philosophy.

With the death of her father, Ann Whitefield, an entrancing and feisty young woman, is placed in the hands of two male guardians (even though, in early 20th-century England, she has a mother) Jack, a young, wealthy, and wittily ironic iconoclast and author of The Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion, and the older, stuffy, conventionally minded and reactionary Roebuck Ramsden.

The free thinker Jack and the old guard Ramsden agree on only one thing: that Ann should marry Octavius who adores her.  But she only toys with his infatuation, giving him the affectionate but romantically dismissive nickname, Ricky Ticky Tavy.  We — and the characters — catch on to a love triangle: Octavius loves Ann who loves Jack AND we can tell that Jack loves Ann, too, but he is so leary of being ensnared in marriage that he doesn’t recognize that he loves her … or at least, he’s the last to admit it.

There’s another pair of lovers, Violet, Octavius’ sister, secretly married to Hector, son of an American millionaire.  And there’s Straker, Jack’s car mechanic and chauffeur, representative of the proletariat — who has many of the really great lines, but don’t worry, there are plenty left over for everybody else.  This play is a feast of language.  No wonder Shaw compared himself to Shakespeare.

The whole crew goes driving in two cars, when cars are still a novelty, from England to Spain, all the way South to Granada. There, dislocated from their home base in England, the imagination opens to new vistas.

On the road, Jack and Tanner are held up for their car by the exotic, mysterious brigand, Mendoza: that night, falling asleep in the wilds of Mendoza’s desert, Jack dreams the great and famous scene of “Don Juan in Hell”.  Before our eyes, asleep on the desert floor, Jack rises, dressed in embroidered vest and bandeleras, knee ties and, finally, the plumed hat with the swooping brim of his own distant ancestor, Don Juan.  He’s now in hell, and a Faustian Mendoza, dark and dapper, has become in Jack’s dream the Devil in sleek dinner dress.  The two argue, words flowing bountifully, the great issues of human existence, relationships between men and women, capitalism and the exploitation of labor, human nature and life on earth, and the question of whether it’s better to spend eternity in heaven or in hell.  Like everything in this play drenched with ironic opposites, that’s a surprisingly tricky question.

When Ann, much to her own surprise, arrives in hell, her costume — Gypsy bodice and fluffy white bloomers — is as witty, expressive and eye-filling as Don Juan’s.  Ramsden — now the Statue, Ann’s father Il Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, drops by on a visit from heaven:  “I have my share of vanity,” he says, “for as a young man I was admired by women, and as a statue I’m praised by art critics.”

Which then is, actually, the better place to be?  Heaven seems boring, and Hell has turned out to be a pleasure palace.  No fire and brimstone here, the Devil’s a gentleman for whom “beauty is good to look at … music is good to hear … love is good to feel … and they are all good to think about and talk about.”   But, Don Juan retorts, “Here there is nothing but love and beauty. Ugh!”

Don Juan is a reformer, a prophet burdened by the evils and injustices of the world and seized by a purpose beyond himself — to improve the world.  As a Philosophic man, he seeks heaven where he can contemplate the Life Force and affect things for the better.   How is not clear but one thing’s for sure: “The philosopher is Nature’s pilot,” he says … “ to be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer.”

To which the Devil plays a really top card in the deck — the freedom card:  “I prefer to be my own master and not the tool of any blundering universal force.”

Women seek improvement in their biologically driven way, through propagation that may lead to a superman:  thus they are central to the Life Force and Ann, as things turn out, is no exception.  Watch out, Jack.

It’s hard to remember a play so perfectly cast as this one. The acting is universally superb.  Max Gordon Moore plays Jack with manly strength combined with scampish vigor of a stand-up comic that fully expresses his iconoclastic take on absolutely everything.  Janie Brookshire is tough and charming as the Life Force at work.

Jonathan Hammond is irresistible as the seductive Mendoza, a cynical realist except that romantic love drives this worldly sophisticate to write dreadful poetry.

As Octavius, Will Bradley stops at exactly the right place short of camp in expressing his idealizing romantic love, not man enough for Anne but man enough to carry an eternally broken heart.

Brian Murray fascinates as the rigid but not heartless Ramsden, dense but not a fool;  one believes everything this wonderful actor does and at one and the same time marvels at how he does it.

Laurie Kennedy as Mrs. Whitefield, Paul O’Brien as Malone, Margaret Loesser Robinson as Violet, Brian Sgambati as Straker, and Zachary Spicer as Hector are all amusing, touching, and true to their parts.   That these highly individualized characters work together so well as an ensemble is surely due to the vision of the Director, David Staller.

So who wins the heaven vs. hell argument between Don Juan and the Devil?  As the Devil says, “… men get tired of everything, of heaven no less than of hell … ”  But you won’t get tired of this play!  Man and Superman takes ones breath away with its succinct and knowing brilliance, and with the magic of that other world that Jack discovers when he dreams his dream.

Man and Superman plays at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through June 17, 2012 EXTENDED through July 1st!

Review | The Philanderer by Bernard Shaw | Directed by Gus Kaikkonen | Pearl Theatre Company

… pre-vintage Shaw …  

Shaw’s early play, The Philanderer of 1893, is a romantic comedy that’s as focused on the ideas of Henrik Ibsen as it is on love, and with good reason:  for Shaw ideas and love were equally suffused with eros.

Shaw saw Ibsen’s A Doll’s House five times around 1893 and this iconic drama was revelatory, bringing him to the possibility of a theater of ideas.  And, with his comic bent, and awareness of the pitfalls of stern moralizing, Shaw sought a humorous way to explore Ibsen’s theme of the independent woman.  This led him in The Philanderer to comic exaggerations which today to me seem dated, though when the play was first produced, they may have seemed fresh and provocative.  As a gauge of that, the Pearl’s program tells us that  “…due to strict censorship … it was not performed on the stage until 1902.”

In a romantic triangle (like one Shaw experienced), Grace Tranfield, a down-to-earth widow and Julia Craven, volatile and erotically assertive, both love Leonard Charteris, an attractive curmudgeon, who’s just broken off from the over-possessive Julia and is now courting Grace.  During some romancing at Grace’s house, Julia bursts in, claiming Leonard really belongs to her.  Shaw, alluding to Ibsen’s “advanced” ideas about independent women, has fun with the jealous Julia – how can a woman who calls herself independent speak of one person “belonging” to another?

Julia keeps up her boisterous scene even when Grace’s proper father, Colonel Craven, arrives, along with his long lost friend who happens to be Julia’s father.  How fascinating that Shaw describes a similar romantic rivalry and late night scene in his diary in early 1893! An exhausted Leonard (just like a “horribly tired and shocked and upset” Shaw) finally gets Julia out of there with a romantic lie, sober Grace having long ago retreated upstairs.

The play continues at to the “Ibsen Club”, where a stern portrait of Ibsen dominates the Library, and where Ibsen’s ideas about independent women are carried to the point of caricature.  Women are allowed in this London club, an innovation, but to be members they must be “unwomanly women.”  Julia’s younger sister, Sylvia, fills the bill in a pants role.  But how Julia can manage to stay in the Club, in spite of her “womanly” amorousness and sexy clothes, is the set-up for some humor.

The conflict between Julia and Grace over Leonard (because it’s wearing thin it seems to me) is joined by stuffy Dr. Percy Paramore’s unrequited love for Julia, who despairs even more when the news comes in that his gruesome scientific experiments are proven to be useless (anticipating Shaw’s later The Doctor’s Dilemma).  As in Moliere’s The Misanthrope , which the sexual dynamics in The Philanderer much resemble, the undercurrent of true sexual attraction between the flirt and the curmudgeon, here Leonard and Julia, retains its ambiguity and the romance is left unresolved.

I’m glad to have had the chance to see The Philanderer and I appreciate the The Pearl for putting in on.  The production is straightforward and so adequate for introducing one to the play, but it’s uninspired.  Of the central threesome, Bradford Cover is strong and charming as the rumpled Leonard.  Karron Graves plays the amorously determined Julia with the vivacity the part calls for though, at the heights of emotion, her voice gives way to a kind of shrieking in her all out performance .  Rachel Botchan could have used some of Graves’ energy — a fine performer in other roles I’ve seen, she played Grace with a dull placidity that makes one wonder what Leonard could possibly see in her.

The Pearl used to be in a proscenium theater but now plays in a theater with seating on three sides, yet continues to stage plays fully to the front as in the old theater:  more flexibility and variety of movement would be interesting, and give better site lines to those seated on the side.

The Philanderer holds fewer streaks of the Shavian wit than one hopes for.  But the fact is, when he does construct one of those marvelous, sly build-ups that land you with pleasurable jolt at a great line, and you find yourself laughing heartily, then the play, Shaw, and everything else, for the moment, seem intensely worthwhile.

The Philanderer  plays at NYC’s City Center Theater in mid-town Manhattan through February 19, 2012.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén