With Washington Stage Guild’s gusty production of Back to Methuselah, less is more, and, also, more is more.
Less is more: The set is appealingly minimal, the blocking clear and simple, the plot both minimal and simple. All the better to leave plenty of room for more ideas and personalities. More is more: Every time those personalities reveal a new idea, it is like being brought around a corner and seeing a hallway full of unexpected doors, or perhaps a sudden opening onto a garden of many paths. The more places the characters take you, the more places there are to go.
And it should not be surprising that the play’s fascinating topics are nowhere near exhausted by night’s end, as this is only part one of three planned productions, the succeeding two to take place next year and the year after that. Back to Methuselah is an epic-length play by George Bernard Shaw – not a writer given to brevity normally – so long and unwieldy, in fact, that Washington Stage Guild estimates that this three-year production is only the third or fourth full production of the play since it was written, in 1920.
The complete work consists of a cycle of five plays that are at least an hour long each, moving forward in time from the Garden of Eden (placed at 4004 B.C.) until the year 31,920 A.D. The Stage Guild presents “In the Beginning” and “The Gospel of the Family Barnabas” together as part one; the next two plays will come in 2015, and the longer final piece in time for the company’s 30th anniversary in 2016.
Company artistic director Bill Largess calls this “one of the most extraordinary dramatic works ever written,” and extra-ordinary is surely the right word. The story, such as it is, is the story of an idea, or a whole tribe of ideas, throughout the entire history of humankind. The individual characters – including Adam, Eve, the Serpent, and Cain in “In the Beginning” and a parson, a biologist, a theologian, and two parodies of British Prime Ministers in “Gospel” – have strong points of view, but next to nothing in the way of traditional dramatic arcs. No one falls in love or completes a journey to find theirself. Their personal stakes are nothing more than their commitments to their ideas (although the historical stakes, it turns out, are sky-high). All the real drama there is comes from them tackling the matters at hand from every possible angle Shaw could dream of.
The first matter Shaw tackles is a charming one – what happened when Adam (Brit Herring) and Eve (Lynn Steinmetz) discovered death? Standing over a fawn that fell and broke its neck, the wholly innocent first couple begin to argue over whether it would be good or bad for one of them to fall and die before the other. This first movement of the play is entertaining, with Adam and Eve infectiously excited by every new idea; Herring and Steinmetz’s emphatic performances convey the unrestrained intellect of two people who have no concept of naivete, let alone shame. Shaw’s imagination constantly uncovers “of-course-that-makes-sense!” moments in the familiar Eden tale, such as the idea that the Serpent (Laura Giannerelli, deftly sidestepping cheesy animal portrayal tropes) would naturally have worshipped and adored Adam and Eve, and been their friend, not some evil bringer of temptation and doom.
The ideas unfold outward once Cain (Conrad Feininger) has murdered Abel, encompassing not just the already-established angles on mortality and fear, the equivalence between imagination and procreation, and the emotional etymology of words – but also the upsides and downsides of toil compared to laziness, fighting as sport and pleasure, war as either giving or taking meaning from life, and so on. The play sags some without the thrill of discovery the Eden section has, but Feininger’s full-throated warrior performance provides needed energy.
BACK TO METHUSELAH, PART 1
Closes March 16, 2014
Washington Stage Guild
900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $50
Thursdays through Sundays
In “The Gospel of the Family Barnabas,” two siblings (Giannarelli and Michael Avolio) attempt to put a radical idea forth to a pair of politicians (self-aggrandizing ‘man of the people’ Feininger and self-satisfied aristocrat Vincent Clark, all-too-familiar types in Washington). Their idea seems to be Shaw’s own thesis, as it were: that all our human troubles, the “world without conscience” we live in, are due to us simply not living long enough to become mature human beings. And, moreover, that we could only overcome that problem if we… but I won’t spoil the proposed solution, if only because it sounds much less silly (and pseudo-scientific) when given full development within the story.
Although, frankly, Back to Methuselah is a pretty silly play. Shaw’s famous satirical wit is on full display, particularly when it comes to the politicians, but there’s something else at play here – helped along by the deeply engaged yet unfussy performances of the entire cast – that suggests the silliness of these proceedings is quite welcome. The deft hand of director Largess undoubtedly is responsible for the contradictory tightrope act, for this is simultaneously one of the silliest and most deeply serious shows you may ever see.
It’s probably not for everyone. The experience is sort of like being drowned in well-written essays. Every representative of every side of every argument has a response, on every single line, worth considering for five minutes on its own – by which time there’s been twenty new arguments. The best advice, if you go, is to let it all wash over you for two and a half hours – and then take the rest of the year to mull it over, just in time for Part two.
Back to Methuselah, Part 1 by George Bernard Shaw . Directed by Bill Largess . Featuring Michael Avolio, Vincent Clark, Conrad Feininger, Laura Giannarelli, Brit Herring, Nora Palka, and Lynn Steinmetz . Produced by Washington Stage Guild . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.