By George Bernard Shaw
Produced by Washington Stage Guild
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Kathleen Akerly in Dark Lady of the Sonnets (Photo: C.Stanley Photography)
Three one-acts by George Bernard Shaw in one evening? What’s impressive is the way the Washington Stage Guild’s adroit actors deliver these plays in two and a half hours. Shaw’s Shorts: The Man of Destiny (1896), O’Flaherty, V.C. (1915) and The Dark Lady of the Sonnets (1910), give you anti-war themes and hope for mankind in an evening of fun at the expense of anything sacred.
Commendably performed under the direction of John MacDonald, The Man of Destiny, A Trifle has just enough Shavian wit to shine above the drawback of its ambiguous ending. Performed on a stage with a minimalist set, it gives the actors a chance to switch roles as easily as they change costumes and prove their versatility.
Michael Glenn (Napoleon) Jeff Baker (Guissepe) Man of Destiny (Photo: C. Stanley Photography
Napoleon, as a fledging general, is brought to life with sly smile and brooding contempt by Michael Glenn. The underdog, Giuseppe, played by Jeff Baker, an Italian innkeeper, spars with Napoleon in a nifty battle of one-liners that sting with topical relevance: “You great generals have plenty of cheap blood: you think nothing of spilling it,” says Giuseppe. But Napoleon tops his servant by boasting of the glories of self-sacrifice. At the Battle of Lodi (1796), Napoleon’s army was out-numbered two-to-one when he charged the river’s bridge and broke protocol to man the cannons himself at the turning point. His personal courage and the cannons routed the Austrian troops and earned him the nickname “The Little Corporal.”
But Napoleon’s heroic posturing as a Caesar gets shot down by the bumbling, blustery respect he gets from his Lieutenant, who declares that the true conqueror was his horse, whose instinct forded the stream and led the cavalry across the river at just the right moment. Actor Chris Davenport, whose high-energy output is perfect for a Shavian character, takes to the stage as the Lieutenant like an electric charge. This cavalry officer wants to be court-martialed after being swindled out of his horse and the Paris dispatches by an Austrian spy.
So guess who the spy is. Upstairs there’s a mysterious Lady, played with tongue-in-cheek spontaneity by Kathleen Akerley. It’s never made clear who or what this Lady is, except that she claims to have a brother, a soldier. It’s doubly clear she’s capable of guile and disguise. As shabbily dressed as a camp follower but with drawing room manners, Akerley proves herself a worthy foil. (This was the vehicle Shaw wrote for superstar-of-his-day, Ellen Terry.)
Shaw’s begrudging esteem for Napoleon, the iconoclast idealist who’s got no respect for the gentlemen’s rules of engagement, comes through. But the dialogue rambles and seems unfocused, until Shaw uses Napoleon to vent his Irish spleen against British tyranny in a long speech near the end. Some lines hit like a bullet, such as his reference to an Englishman, who makes it “his moral and religious duty to conquer those who possess the thing he wants.”
That Shaw detests the British for their colonialism is more targeted in the topsy-turvy, anti-war piece, O’Flaherty, V.C.(for Victoria’s Cross, Britain’s highest award for battle bravery). Surprisingly, this rarely performed WWI recruitment skit comes across as Shaw gaining control over his craft. Its satire hits the mark in well-constructed scenes that twist with dramatic reversals. So do the characters portrayed by the actors.
A totally different Michael Glenn becomes Private O’Flaherty, when he puts on an Irish brogue and sheds his Napoleonic wig to reveal a crew cut. Although O’Flaherty has won Britain’s highest award for battle bravery, this young Irish lad has lied to his mother, telling her he fought against, not for, the Brits. He feels no bond to king and country after his bondage under British landlords in Ireland. His final soliloquizing—“What a discontented sort of an animal a man is,…” comes out as an eloquent outburst from Hamlet, and exposes the hidden poetry in Shaw’s language.
Michael Glenn and Jeff Baker – O’Flaherty V.C. (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)
Lynn Steinmetz, another familiar WSG player, brings something true and real to the hypocritical, strutting-in-her-finery Mrs. O’Flaherty, who gets the sharp end of lampooning. Her doting mother mask drops when she’s alone with her son. This Irish mother can’t understand why her son isn’t fighting in the German army to clear Ireland of the Brits. At the same time, she seems to care a lot more for his pension than his life. The players add a wonderfully clever bit of stage business that supports the continuity of the theme of all for greed, not for love of glory. When O’Flaherty and the servant, Teresa Driscoll, played by Kathleen Akerley, exchange a gold chain in a mouth-to-mouth kiss, that chain becomes a link to the free-for-all brawl near the end, the hilarious climax that works like a fugue.
The last one-act, The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, is like whipped cream—a piece of fluff, good slapstick for Shakespearean buffs, written in 1910 as a fundraiser for a National Theater. Shaw through Shakespeare speaks out as a Utopian dreamer who longs for a theater that is a temple for the reform of Mankind. Actor Chris Davenport reincarnates as Shakespeare, who seeks public endowment from Queen Elizabeth for a theater. Lynn Steinmetz morphs into the Virgin Queen, the object of Shakespeare’s frantic scribbling. And Kathleen Akerley transforms into The Dark Lady from the sonnets who intervenes in a jealous rage.
Shaw in these three one-acts seems to find an incongruity in making sense out of the senselessness of warfare, whether it’s in the trenches or in domestic relations. It all adds up to an intellectually bracing evening, for Shaw’s insights into the decline of civilized behavior seem as relevant to today as ever.
(Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, with two intermissions.) Shaw’s Shorts by George Bernard Shaw continues through April 1, 2007, Thurs. 7:30 p.m. $35.00; Fri. & Sat. 8 p.m. $40.00; Sat. & Sun. Mats. 2:30 p.m. $35.00, at Washington Stage Guild, 1901 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC. Info and reservations, call 240-582-0050 or go to www.stageguild.org