Battle of wits
At or soon after the start of the 20th century, the almost mythical George Bernard Shaw became a vegetarian; a socialist who believed property ownership amounted to public theft; a fervent (and minority) defender of Oscar Wilde during that playwright's gory public dismantling; and a champion of working women who not only sent money to unknown single mothers who wrote to him with poverty woes, but doled out relationship advice to them when asked. (He despised the Victorian marriage system.)
Pretty subversive stuff for Edwardian England. By 1925, the year Shaw won the Nobel Prize, he had developed a wacky PR identity he called GBS to soothe controversy over his opinions. Historians insisted he looked more like a buffoon at the end of his life, having been photographed at birthday and lawn parties wearing his twinkling Santa Claus face and stomping his long legs and walking stick merrily. But for most of his career, it was an impressive shell game for a man with genuinely dangerous ideas. People tend to recall him not as a troublemaker, but in the same way they remember that photo of Albert Einstein, an intellectual contemporary and fellow spotlight hog, sticking out his tongue at the photographer.
If Shaw were writing today, he would likely be picked out of the sky for flying so high using just the left wing. The enforcers of political incorrectness would have glanced at his vision of a classless society, his endorsement of programs to ameliorate the conditions of the poor, and his fiery skepticism of organized religion, cried "P.C.! P.C.!" and cocked their weapons. For a good decade now, there have been nonstop, amoeba-brained reactionary attacks on passionate opinions if they so much as nod toward liberalism. But the adhesive side of the label "politically correct" has grown so dusty and hairy from overuse, it'll no longer stick every time it's slapped on. A century ago, the truly complex leftist polemics in the best of George Bernard Shaw's plays wouldn't hold that sticker at all. This will be driven smartly home to anyone who catches Major Barbara, the current production at Theatre Three.
The last couple of decades have seen only three scripts from the gigantic Shavian canon -- Candida, Arms and the Man, and Heartbreak House -- revived with any frequency. Audience sympathies for domestic comedy, wartime lunacy, and apocalyptic seafaring dilemmas are more easily stirred than are those for the central conflict of Major Barbara, in which audiences are presented the shocking nihilism of a wartime profiteer and the naive spirituality of his bleeding-heart daughter. When I say the playwright's politics are "truly complex," I don't mean they are opaque or sagging with theory -- his characters' beliefs are easy to understand, they're just difficult to reconcile within each character, among the people onstage, and alongside the author's explicit biases. Major Barbara epitomizes this, which is what makes the play simultaneously exciting and difficult to grasp for many contemporary theatergoers. That's not Shaw's fault. With the worst tendencies of contemporary podium-pounders like Tony Kushner and August Wilson programming us to either point fingers or completely reject their theses, a thinker like Shaw -- a man who isn't afraid to document the common sense in certain cruelties and the boneheadedness of some good liberal intentions even as he espouses a progressive, humanitarian viewpoint -- catches us off guard.
"My dear," says Lady Brit (Cecilia Flores) to daughter Barbara (Amy Shoults), earnest Christian activist for the poor, "you go on as if religion were a pleasant subject to discuss." And so far in this review, I've gone on like sociology and politics make a rip-snorting night of theater. Under the calming direction of Jac Alder, all the philosophizing in Theatre Three's latest is indeed displayed with the pithiness that Shaw insisted was mandatory to make intellectual issues palatable to audiences. Don't expect a cascade of glib Wildean epigrams, though; the people most likely to find Shaw funny are those who get off on the good-natured potential of debate, the exchange of ideas for the betterment of society rather than as an attempt to destroy the opponent with dogma, detail, and indignation. There is very little common ground between Barbara, a young woman who has dedicated her life to London's poor through saving souls at her local Salvation Army soup kitchen, and estranged papa Andrew (Kyle McClaran), an arms manufacturer of imposing voice and girth who, when asked about his own spiritual leanings, replies, "I am a millionaire. That is my religion." Andrew is drawn back into his family when his wife, Lady Brit, becomes concerned that Barbara, who has fallen in love with a bright but poor Greek scholar named Adolphus (Mark Shum), will not have enough money to lead a decent life after nuptials. Barbara, of course, despises her father's trade, and Andrew, in turn, believes that "poverty is the worst sin" and that his progeny is only contributing to it through Christian charity, as opposed to leading a better life through the stable employment he can offer at the munitions factory. In a teeth-gritting mutual stab at understanding, each visits the other's day job. Surprising concessions and transformations happen among Andrew, Barbara, Adolphus, and Lady Brit, leading the audience member to ponder exactly who inside this motley crew is closest to his or her heart -- not to mention closest to Shaw's.
One would assume, for instance, that Andrew the Warmongering Capitalist would rise up as the black-booted villain in the piece, but we understand that Shaw agrees poverty is a terrible sin and that being taught to earn a living wage is a more practical rescue for the desperate and destitute than Christian redemption. At the same time, the playwright hands Andrew enough rope to hang himself on the lofty platform of his own materialistic arrogance -- do world governments truly work because of this man's weaponry, or is he just a greedy slave to their bloodthirstiness? Andrew's blustery diatribes, while initially convincing because of their fatalism, eventually suggest the latter.
Major Barbara closes with a "happy" reconciliation that may truly make you scratch your head, if you thought the playwright was going to tell you, preschool teacher-style, which peg fits into which hole. Shaw has something to say about confusing good intentions and idealistic compromises. There is a misstep here and there in the performances of Theatre Three's production -- Amy Shoults as Barbara goes through the first act with an off-putting sunniness that feels like the easiest approach to this compulsive Samaritan (a tone of grim moralizing might work better, since characters with no sense of humor about themselves can create the best comedy), and Lem White is eventually consumed by his own jaw stretches while attempting a Cockney accent as a violent Salvation Army patron. Still, the ticketbuyer is not shortchanged any of Shaw's wit or his finespun arguments that weave in and out of one another in such surprising places. This show's best features are displayed by the actors in the two meatiest roles -- the commanding Kyle McClaran as Andrew and the irresistibly provincial Cecilia Flores as Lady Brit. Together, they deliver those lengthy Shavian sentences like dinnertime tricksters, yanking the cloth off the dining room table with glee but keeping the shiny silverware dialogue perfectly in place.
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