Major Barbara is Worth the Major Commitment
All 103-year-olds should look as good as Major Barbara. There are lots of lines but few wrinkles in George Bernard Shaw's three-act comedy, now running in a production full of smart young actors, and a few wise elders, at Fort Worth's Stage West.
Timely and timeless, the play asks still-relevant questions about the moral burdens of the haves and have-nots, a favorite theme of the Irish playwright best remembered for Pygmalion (the one about guttersnipe Eliza Doolittle and her uppity makeover artist Henry Higgins). In this play, the haves are the hoity-toity Undershafts of Wilton Crescent. They have their millions thanks to father Andrew's arms-making factory. Manufacturing bullets, cannons and a new-for-1905 "aerial battleship," Undershaft has amassed great wealth providing weapons of mass destruction to both sides in every conflict. He makes no moral judgments about who's right or wrong in war, he says, only about how right it is to be rich and wrong it is to be poor.
Shaw once quipped that the lack of money is the root of all evil. That would make a saint of Andrew Undershaft (played at Stage West by longtime company member Jim Covault), although characters in Major Barbara dub him the "Prince of Darkness." Here's a man who's chosen Mammon over God. "My religion? Well, my dear, I'm a millionaire. That's my religion," he says. Only at the end of the third act does Andrew reveal himself as a closet Socialist whose heart bleeds (a few meager drops anyway) for the penniless.
The title character, played by Stage West darling Dana Schultes, is the one bucking for proper sainthood. Hoping to help the have-nots, Barbara has rejected her Undershaft underpinnings by joining the Salvation Army, rising to the rank of major to run a shabby London shelter. With fellow missionaries beating tambourines for tuppence to keep the doors open, Barbara faces a crisis of conscience when old Andrew offers to fill the coffers with what she deems ill-gotten gains from the arms trade. "Does the way of life lie through the factory of death?" she asks.
Well, of course it does. When the Salvation Army accepts not only big daddy's check but matching funds from a whisky distiller, Barbara quits in disgust. She then discovers that her closest ally, adoring boyfriend Adolphus Cusins (Ash Smith), isn't so much dedicated to the cause of saving souls as to trying to get into her pantaloons.
Major Barbara is a witty, provocative but often exasperating three-hour torrent of words. The Undershafts have the irksome task of filling in expository chapters about family lineage and the complicated reasons Andrew must hand his company down only to a "foundling" and not to son Stephen (Stephen Levall). In meandering chats among Lady Britomart Undershaft (the wonderfully sonsy Nancy Sherrard), Stephen, flighty sis Sarah (Allison Pistorius) and her twaddle-headed fiancé Charles Lomax (David Fluitt), we learn that Andrew was an absentee patriarch. Late in life, he is ready to meet his grown children again, a reunion that goes wonky when he mistakes first Charles and then Adolphus for his actual son.
Around and around they go in speech after speech—Shaw must have cornered the turn-of-the-century ink market—as Andrew spews headily amusing insults about the church, the press, the theater, artists in general, the education system and the upper and lower classes. Special barbs are reserved for Parliament. A decade before the "war to end all wars," Shaw's alter ego asserts that the government is operated by and for the profit and power of the English military-industrial complex.
Shaw's plays, by nature of their quaint language and length, always taste a little medicinal—when's the last time you heard someone say "usedn't"? But Stage West's Equity cast, directed by company founder Jerry Russell, makes it all fairly palatable. Their class-specific accents are certainly spot on. The upper-enders effect a posh nasal twang and the bottom-dwellers sound like guttural cousins of Miss Doolittle.
Other details haven't been so carefully attended to. The scenic design by Jason Domm fills the wide stage with mere whiffs of time and place. The Undershafts' pink and maroon parlor looks more like the foyer of a brothel than the well-appointed home of a tycoon. And the minimal transition in location from Salvation Army to munitions factory is so underachieved that it's visually confusing.
There are also problems with the leading lady. Schultes, high cheekbones as pale as peeled pears, is a beautiful actress but she can come across as detached. She also tends to speak in a minor key, which makes her Major Barbara sound robotic.
As Andrew Undershaft, the imposing Covault looks every inch the coldhearted titan, his head smooth and round as a cannonball. But he delivers every line with the same squinty eyes and lemon-sucking pout. That expression grows old before the second intermission.
The standout performances come from actors playing characters at the opposite ends of the social spectrum. Jack Greenman is first the Undershafts' butler and then a bullying woman-beater named Bill Walker, whose soul Barbara tries to claim for the Almighty. The down-and-outers of the second act are some of Shaw's most clichéd citizens, but Greenman makes Walker enough of a doof to save him from villainy.
Ash Smith's Adolphus enters in the first act as an overeducated twit whose only interests are the study of Greek and the pursuit of his own goddess, Barbara. By the third act, however, he's become a wily and ambitious social climber, clever enough to nab the top spot at the Undershaft ammo business. Smith, it must be noted, once demanded that his name never again appear in a review by this critic, but his fine acting at Stage West trumps the request. Take your bow, Mr. X.
If Major Barbara is the prestige play of the week, then Blame It on the Movies is the popcorn feature. Tiny Richardson Theatre Centre, which has about two bags of nickels to spend on its productions, throws together 90 minutes of familiar movie-theme medleys in a show conceived and compiled by Ron Abel, Billy Barnes (who also contributed a few original transition songs) and David Galligan.
The plucky cast—Lise Alexander, Andi Allen, Sherry Etzel, Mike Fulk, Tim Georgeff, Olivia Harris, Jack Perl, Morgan Spolin, Jerome Stein, Ted Strahan, Shay Thompson—give it their all. That isn't quite enough, given that a couple of them can't sing worth a dang. Young Miss Thompson would need a GPS to find the actual melody of "Miss Celie's Blues" from The Color Purple, and two of the men appear to be mouthing the words in group numbers. Except for Andi Allen and Mike Fulk—pros who seem out of their league here—the cast goes weak-kneed on dance steps by Lauren Shaddox that amount to little more than marching around in circles and trying not to trip over each other.
Here's the thing about RTC. It's hard to be tough on them. They're a small community playhouse with a steady, loyal audience of older patrons who live in the surrounding neighborhood and like to bring grandkids to the G-rated shows. They don't try for high art here. They're happy with a level of entertainment that isn't slick or sophisticated. If they sold beer, stale nachos and frozen cheesecake, they could be the northern outpost of the Pocket Sandwich Theatre. RTC does, in fact, offer wine and bags of chips at its lobby concession, and you're welcome to slurp and munch throughout the show.
The current production would be easier to write off completely were it not for Allen, Fulk and the terrific piano playing by accompanist Georgeff. Seated alone on a loft above the stage, Georgeff performs a couple of sweet solos, including "Stardust." An evening of just him playing and singing cabaret-style might not be a bad idea.
Blame It on the Movies, meanwhile, is just a flicker on the horizon.
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