Do we really need the British monarchy? As if on cue, The Washington Stage Guild’s The Apple Cart: A Political Extravaganza, one of George Bernard Shaw’s most challenging political satires, opened on the weekend of the wedding of William and Catherine, a prince and a commoner. The twinkly-eyed playwright would have loved the fortuitous timing.
In the Undercroft Theatre, reassuring strains of “God Save the King” filter in from above. At first it’s a shock to see a human brain suspended in a flask of fluid labeled “Live Brain” and mounted on a pedestal. That is—until the flask lights up and speaks as the character renamed Pamphilius 3000 (voice-over by actor Marcus Darnley), one of the king’s secretaries, who is joined by his colleague Sempronius (Phil Dickerson), who recognizes we need pageantry and “big public ceremonies” for unity. The specimen, a delicious sight gag, gradually takes on significance. The disembodied king’s secretary, like a spy on the sidelines, eavesdrops on conversations. Any unreality is justified. The time period is The Future.
Written in 1928, after winning the Nobel for Literature in 1925 (for Saint Joan, among umpteen other works), Shaw threw out all drama rules to upset the idiomatic apple cart to find out: What works best—democracy or dynastic monarchy? Set in the late 1920’s, the British Empire is unraveling at the seams. It’s a time of labor unrest and crony capitalism. Loosely constructed with a difficult-to-follow, labyrinthian, verbose plot, The Apple Cart can turn into a boring harangue of too many windbags talking, which may explain why this play is rarely done.
But director Bill Largess, who adds the surreal bit of the talking Brain, amps up our attention by combining, thus reducing, the number of characters, and brilliantly succeeds in tightening Shaw’s “Extravaganza” into a well-paced, slow building, lucid symphony of speechifying. The comic tension rises through seamless set changes and tantalizing twists to stirring climaxes. Supported by a tour-de-force ensemble of ten actors who capture Shaw’s brio, the results are a witty polemic, dissecting the meddling of government bureaucrats. Thanks to Largess, Shaw, the ingenius soothsayer, shows us that the future indeed has arrived on Capitol Hill.
The contradiction between constitutional monarchy and democracy has led to gridlock. The first act of The Apple Cart sets up the “crisis,” a power struggle between a democratic Cabinet, led by Proteus, the Prime Minister (Conrad Feininger), against King Magnus (Brit Herring), who talks about using the “royal veto” that can block bills from becoming laws. (A British monarch still retains this de facto power even though unused since 1708.) So Proteus asks the maverick king to sign an “ultimatum” requiring the monarch to be nothing more than a figurehead puppet. “If two men ride the same horse, one must ride behind,” pontificates Proteus, in a breathless moment. So which man must ride behind? The King behind the Prime Minister, or the Prime Minister the King?
Of course, King Magnus would like to say ‘Off with their heads,’ but he remembers the arbitrary King Charles I who shut down Parliament and lost his head on the executioner’s block in 1649. Thus historical memory makes the “Live Brain” on a minimalist set a fantastic symbol. (Scenic Designer Carl F. Gudenius). Magnus’ one-liner, for example, induces a chuckle in that it can be seen to indirectly relate to the capsule with the floating brain: “Many men would hardly miss their heads, there is so little in them.”
Overall, Shaw’s political characters are iconoclasts as unpredictably eccentric as ever. Through the commanding presence of Conrad Feininger, the popularly elected Prime Minister, Proteus, is a stormy but vulnerable tyrant who throws temper tantrums, spouts off like a teapot, and weeps when he doesn’t get his way. Proteus, who at one point sits center stage in the gold-leafed, throne-like chair, is determined to block the King’s speeches to the Press and wield authority.
Vincent Clark is an effective backup, as he develops the bombastic, Strong Man, Boanerges, a name meaning “Sons of Thunder” in Greek, into an unlikable foil who deflates, but serves as the President of the Board of Trade representing the labor union bosses, detested by Shaw.
In the Cabinet meeting scene, Laura Giannarelli acts as a fulcrum projecting an earth-motherly calm as Lysistrata, the Powermistress, who exposes how Breakages, Ltd, a “Shawism” for oversized corporations, collaborates with the government and smothers creativity and inventions.
Then Elizabeth Stripe has her turn demonstrating how Amanda, the Postmistress General, sort of a Tina Fey-like impersonator, can mimic influence peddlers and shame them out of her department. At key points, some of the best acting comes from the Cabinet ministers’ reactions.
But it is Brit Herring as Magnus who gets the tongue-in-cheek irony right-on and focuses the tangled word play. Throughout, Herring projects a laid-back, calculating King Magnus, who grows in stature and sounds more like a puppet master, always in control, rather than a manipulated marionette, or the figurehead who rides behind the Prime Minister. In his famous Act I speech to the Cabinet as to why the nation needs a king, Herring sets the tone as the friendly aristocrat, who projects balanced cool in contrast to the tirades of the Prime Minister, who has to go through the “drudgery” of electioneering to please the “voting mob.” “I stand for the future and the past,….I stand for the great abstractions: for conscience and virtue; for the eternal against the expedient; for the evolutionary appetite against the day’s gluttony; for intellectual integrity, for humanity, for the rescue of industry from commercialism and of science from professionalism,…..”
Yet it’s hard to take seriously this monologue from Shaw, who, with his Irish background, is not a monarchist. As proof, the rest of the play debunks the loftiness. In a riotous send-up of high drawing room comedy, The Interlude that follows depicts a rambunctuous, topsy-turvy, sexy duel between Magnus and his mistress. An elegantly statuesque and steamy Peggy Yates savors every word as Orinthia mocks Magnus’ regal aloofness. At one point, the King unexpectedly holds her feet, as Yates drapes herself upside down across a divan. Dressed in a diaphranous negligee, Orinthia is a male-charmer, as wily as Cleopatra, who is contemptuous of female bureaucrats and the queen. “Heaven is offering you a rose and you cling to a cabbage.”
The final act builds into a stunning climactic cultural confrontation. Yates, who amazes with her quick costume changes to triple play three roles, embodies prim, Victorian stability as Queen Jemima, although the wide-brimmed white hat, flat as a pancake, could be more of a fanciful “fascinator,” (remember them from the topical royal wedding? ). The King and Queen are greeted by Vanhattan, The American Ambassador, energetically played by Michael Avolio, who shatters protocol as a forceful handshaker and clumsy oaf.
In the satisfying finale, what is uncanny is how Shaw just keeps tipping over the apple cart. He foresees how America will exchange international roles and outdo England in empire-building. Ultimately, Shaw shuns the pomp and folly of royalty and recognizes that genius comes from commoners.
Forget Glenn Beck’s attacks on Shaw as “evil.” (mentioned in the program). Shaw’s political self-avowed beliefs in socialism do not overpower this play. In the playwright’s Preface to The Apple Cart, Shaw sounds off on a surprisingly modern libertarian theme: “What we want to know is how little government we can get along with without being murdered in our beds.”
Ultimately, The Apple Cart as staged by Washington Stage Guild spills out into an intoxicating smorgasbord feast of Shaw’s many conflicting political ideas.
The Apple Cart
By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Bill Largess
Produced by The Washington Stage Guild
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running Time: two hours and 15 minutes, plus a 15 minute intermission.